The nonfiction editors, Rappahannock Review: What is the significance of quoting Hope Mirrlees in your piece? What effect did you want it to have?
William Braun: The passage I quote embodies the difficulty of Paris. Mirlees veers between extreme objectivity and extreme subjectivity as she describes riding the Paris metro: as I believe some critic or other observed, the literal titles of advertising posters (“LION NOIR”) cut to private associations (“Black figured vases in Etruscan tombs”) abruptly. In both cases, you, the reader, are confronted by a consciousness that resists interpretation. You need to perform complicated guesswork based on fragmentary evidence to get even a basic sense of her character. I use that as a metaphor for the difficulty of understanding another person, even a person you think you know intimately.
RR: In your piece, the narrator expresses regret for not knowing about a loved one’s trauma. What was the driving force for writing this particular narrative?
WB: As the partner of someone who suffered from a mental illness, I found that my literary models tended to fall into a binary. On the one hand, there were white knights like Mr. Dalloway; on the other, ignoramuses and oppressors like Leonce Pontellier and John from The Yellow Wallpaper. I felt I belonged to a messy place between: at times, clueless, gendered, and resentful (hence the regret), and at others, recognizing that and trying to change. So retrospectively I think I wrote the piece to understand myself, though at the time that desire manifested itself as the pressure to write.
RR: “Bear Country” does not have a linear narrative and relies on flashback. How did you plan out the structure of this piece? What influenced your decision to not follow a more “conventional” form?
WB: The first draft of this essay was actually a prose poem, part of a sequence inspired by a line from Charles Baudelaire’s introduction to Paris Spleen, where he talks about wanting to create a kind of modern poetry that follows “the twists and turns that consciousness takes” (trans. Raymond MacKenzie). So the piece follows more of a meditative poetic structure than narrative one, driven forward by the development of thought, not action. Discovering this form was freeing; I felt I could finally write in a way that felt true to how I experienced the world, which wasn’t the same for poetry or traditional narrative.
RR: Your work involves heavy themes, such as post-traumatic stress and implied sexual assault. Writing about such topics can be challenging in the nonfiction plane. What advice do you have for writers who aren’t certain about pursuing nonfiction for this reason?
WB: I think the writing itself is mainly challenging emotionally—forcing yourself to relive things you’d rather not. But that be can cathartic. The truly challenging part for me is deciding whether or not I want to send out what I’ve written: What will people think? Am I revealing too much? Will what I’ve written hurt anyone? Is this my story to tell?
The advice I give myself is to write honestly and copiously, deferring the decision to send out anything until long after I’ve finished. For example, I waited a year before I sent out “Bear Country.”
RR: The title “Bear Country” is referenced only at the end, but it’s an important metaphor at play in the piece. Can you talk about how you came to the title and its significance?
WB: As I was reading the accounts of people who had been through situations similar to mine, I kept coming across the phrase “walking on eggshells,” used to describe the constant fear of startling or upsetting one’s partner. “Bear country” is a metaphor for that same experience, though I like it better because it suggests the difference of the Other, the respect she deserves, and also her capacity to hurt.
However, it wasn’t until I expanded the piece from a prose poem to an essay that I unearthed that metaphor. Before then, the working title was “Trauma,” and almost anything would have been better than that.
William Braun’s work in Issue 6.1: