What might my gaze reveal? An Interview with Erica Berry
In Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear, debut author Erica Berry traverses vast and varied terrain, just as the famed wolf OR-7 did. In his journey beyond the Wallowa Mountains of Oregon, OR-7 made headlines for crossing state borders, lines that mean everything to humans and nothing to wolves. Berry is similarly comfortable crossing borders, drawing on history, science, journalism, cultural criticism, and folklore to uncover how her own experience is steeped in the stories she’s inherited about fear, womanhood, predator–prey relations, and the body. This memoir traces the fear back to its roots—to the proverbial Big Bad Wolf. But rather than merely unpacking the symbolism of the wolf, Berry engages with the wolf—and with fear—as a physical reality.
Berry is a writer based in her hometown of Portland, Oregon. She has an MFA from the University of Minnesota, where she was a College of Liberal Arts Fellow. Her writing has appeared in The Guardian, The New York Times Magazine, The Yale Review, Outside Magazine, Catapult, The Atlantic, Guernica, and elsewhere. Winner of the Steinberg Essay Prize and the Kurt Brown Prize in Nonfiction, she has received fellowships and funding from the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, Tin House, the Ucross Foundation, the Minnesota State Arts Board, and the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. A former writer in residence with the National Writers Series in Traverse City, Michigan, she currently teaches for Literary Arts’ Writers in the Schools program in Portland.
I had the absolute delight of speaking with Berry over Zoom, where she characterized her research process as being driven by an “omnivorous—wolfish” curiosity. Just as her work was propelled by hunger, so too was my reading of this astute, gorgeous memoir.
The Rumpus: Throughout Wolfish, you position yourself as not a rancher, not a biologist, but just a member of the “curious public.” How did that curiosity shape your research and writing?
Erica Berry: I quote Brooke Jarvis’ wonderful article about disappearing insects for the New York Times Magazine where she shares that the “root of the word ‘amateur’ is, after all, the word ‘lover.’” To me that beginner’s mindset means coming in fresh, humbling yourself to the world. So much of formal education felt to me like trying to become an expert, when in fact one of the best things I’ve learned as a writer is to embrace how “not knowing” becomes its own engine.
A big part of curiosity is giving yourself permission to wonder, and wander. At my worst moments, I feel like a dilettante, but I think I’m just omnivorous—wolfish. A hunger propelled this book, which came from giving myself permission to dive into whatever caught my eye, and ask a lot of questions. I’m most excited on the page when I don’t know the answer.
There’s an “essayistic” journey inherent to this sort of research: Say I’m going to interview a rancher, which will make me visit a particular part of Oregon, where I’ll be pulled into a memory of a school field trip and also something I read about local history. Even if I just say “wolf”—you might simultaneously think of a children’s book you read your niece and also a wolf you saw at a zoo. Our minds are constantly synthesizing, but we often try to sort and separate those associations. I wanted to render the porousness visible on the page. At the same time, I once went to an art museum with a friend who majored in art history, and she told me—as kindly as this can be—that it was a change to walk around with someone like me, because I didn’t have the contextual training to know what I “should” say, so I was just candidly observing. I felt a bit wounded at the time (lol), but I now appreciate the amateur perspective as its own form of witness. Biologists have already written brilliantly about wolves, so approaching this topic, I thought: What might my gaze reveal?
Rumpus: You explore many kinds of love in this book. For example, there’s the rancher who kills collared wolves but also buys up plots of land for preservation. Did you have any unexpected discoveries about love and its complexities?
Berry: I always thought of this book as a reckoning with fear, but at a certain point realized you can’t conjure fear without conjuring love, and vice versa. The parts of me that were most afraid were the parts of me most in love—with a natural world I worried about, and with people I didn’t want to leave behind. I wrote this mostly during my twenties, when I was trying to figure out what gravitational force both love and fear would have in my life. Just like we inherit subliminal narratives about romantic love, so we inherit stories about fear, and about the wolf, and I suppose I wanted to examine and weigh the stories I carried about each.
I grew up with environmental writing that was fairly rhapsodic, and I was, admittedly, taken in by it. My own most euphoric moments tend to be in the natural world, and the things I can feel there—a lack of self-consciousness and a sense of acceptance, purpose, connectedness—are quite similar to what I feel when I’m in love with a person. Not being in my head, not anxiously projecting, just present. There’s probably some infatuation chemical that explains these parallels.
Writing about wolves made me think about what it means to be a body entering the world in interaction with other bodies. So often we think we know what another body is experiencing before us, when we are really just metabolizing a story we’ve been told to expect. In the book I write about the experience of making eye contact with a wolf a few feet away through a fence and understanding that I’m just another human to this animal, that we’re not having a “connection.” It wasn’t a divine moment—for the wolf, it was perhaps mundane—but it felt pivotal to me, because it was the closest I had stood to a wolf with nobody else around. I’m interested in how we absorb these little moments of revelation into the currents of our days.
Part of thinking about how I encounter the wolf is about how I move the scale of my attention to something that’s not a concept but a body. How do I meet a wolf without projecting on it?
Rumpus: One biologist said, “OR-7 wasn’t that special, he was just in a collar.” We’ve talked about turning your attention outward to wolves, but I also wondered how much the act of writing memoir could be an act of metaphorically collaring yourself.
Berry: I love that idea, and think it speaks to the different forms of knowing. Early on my brilliant agent Marya Spence observed that in every chapter I was unspooling learned research about real and symbolic wolves, but that my own embodied experiences—with being afraid, or with occupying a body that others have projected onto—also becomes a tool of authority.
I had never thought of it like that before: As a nonfiction writer trying to interrogate a subject using the best tools available, my own bodily experience is a very useful form of evidence. I love going hiking alone, but that means I’ve definitely thought about how I would feel if I encountered a mountain lion, just like when I walk solo on a street I rehearse how I would respond if I ran into a potentially threatening person. Getting attacked by an animal and a man are different experiences—it’s essential we untangle them—and yet, on a bodily level, both times there is a level of surveillance and anticipation that felt interesting to think about: How do I respond to these feelings? What stories do I tell myself about what will happen on the walk? I sometimes feel like growing up is just learning to reconcile ourselves to the strange reality of hauling around a body.
It’s so true that OR-7 and I are not, in a sense, special. We are just two representatives from different species, and I can get close enough to each to think, “How is this individual’s trajectory affected by external forces?” I was wary at first of putting my own experiences in the book because other people experience far worse forms of patriarchal violence, for example. But at a certain point, it’s like: OR-7 didn’t walk the farthest of any wolf ever. He just walked very far, alone, facing inevitable threats.
I had to silence the voice of the internal critic who says “Why is she so afraid? That situation with the man on the sidewalk wasn’t as bad as it could have been.” It wasn’t until I was teaching high school and had to lead students through a “soft lockdown” that I realized the obvious parallel. Thankfully there didn’t end up being an active shooter, but that afternoon was still unutterably horrifying. Violence enacts a toll even if doesn’t come to a head. We need to put language to that, too.
Rumpus: If you’re a rancher who gets an alert that there’s a wolf nearby, there’s a sense that the wolf is at your door, even if you never actually see the wolf.
Berry: More than once a rancher I interviewed would get word that a wolf was nearby, so they’d call me sounding sort of excited, because they knew I’d be interested. That really goes against the popular narrative of “all ranchers hate wolves.” Instead it was like, “This rare creature came by, and luckily it didn’t hurt any animals I’m responsible for, and I don’t want it to come back, but, hey, it was kind of cool.” Conversations around wolves can be so polarizing, and I wanted to highlight the nuances of feeling.
Rumpus: One of the big binaries that you’re dwelling between is art and science. You draw on everything from so-called hard science to folklore and poetry. How did you find your footing in this very interdisciplinary tapestry that you’ve woven?
Berry: Tapestry is a very kind term given the tangle of yarn that was the Scrivener file for almost a decade. I once watched someone with a metal detector on the beach and thought, That’s exactly my research process. Sometimes I’m looking for a specific ring, but sometimes I’m just looking for anything shiny and cool. I think of this as creative research—it’s generative and associative, less focused on “answering” than inquiring. I love opening doors between disciplines too often siloed. I remember reading that for “Time and Distance Overcome,” Eula Bliss just searched “telephone poles” in the New York Times archive. At some point, her research swerved into a history of telephone poles she hadn’t known about, which opened up the pathway to this brilliant essay. I similarly searched for “wolves” in the New York Times archive at one point, and that was how I found a story I focus on about wolf attacks in 1990s India, which led me to research land policies, colonial legacies of predator control, local folklore, etc. I’m very interested in the reverberations throughout time between folklore and art with science and policy. There’s a feedback loop.
Rumpus: You ground the memoir in your own experience as a white woman and discuss the broader sociopolitical context for your observations about fear.
Berry: So many other people could write different books about fear, parsing how they grow into it and at what cost they carry it. Fear is this social currency—this tool of control—that’s sold to us. Anyone writing about it would come up against the limits of their own lived, embodied experience, but rather than see that as a limitation, I think acknowledging this reality invites the reader to examine their own internal scaffolding. I can’t pretend to be an objective observer of the subject, but I didn’t want to be.
Rumpus: I loved reading about your mother and how she tried to forestall the sense of fear that would inevitably come. You bring in different meanings of the word pack. How has your pack, whatever that means to you, responded to your exploration of fear in this book?
Berry: I’m fascinated by the coding we receive around fear, both in social and familial ecosystems. I never blamed my parents for making me, say, too naively open to the world—or too willing to talk to strangers—but after my mom read it, we had some really interesting conversations about what is inherited both genetically and culturally, be it my tendency toward anxious catastrophizing or my mimicry of my father’s kindness to strangers.
My family has been so generous in understanding that I am going to investigate my own experiences critically, but also with a lot of love. Those two poles can exist together. Just because you are interrogating the stories that kept you safe and the stories that failed you doesn’t mean you are starting from a place of blame. Any family is full of dichotomies—of grief and love and silence and care, of all the things left unsaid. One of the greatest gifts my parents have given me is the freedom to speak openly with them about my internal life, both on and off the page.
Rumpus: I was really surprised by the story about the wolf who went against all socialization and ate coyote pups in what seemed like an act of revenge. We think of animal behavior as biologically wired, but this story shows that they have their agency and individuality as well.
Berry: That story made me so aware of the insufficiency of my human gaze. How badly I wanted to be inside that mother wolf’s head! In many ways this is a book about growing up, and realizing there’s not a static self for either person or animal, and as we come into contact with other beings, we are going to change, to swerve. Just as capturing a wolf on the page is impossible, so too is pinning down the self.
Rumpus: What were your greatest challenges in this project, and what were your greatest joys?
Berry: They’re very twined—it was the feeling of being way out in the deep end. Often, I thought, “This is bananas, what are you doing?” Why was I trying to write a wolf book when there were so many smart wolf books written by people who had studied wolves in the wild for much longer, say? It felt very intimidating to enter this canon, but I also gave myself permission to think, “I’ll do something different: I’ll unpack how I’ve metabolized the wolf.”
The challenge was knowing what to include. There are so many things I learned that I wanted to bring into the conversation. For example, I interviewed a guy whose job for a while—paid for by the government—was scaring wolves away from ranches in the middle of the night. It’s called hazing. He’d drive around looking for radio collar signals, drinking Mountain Dew, setting off noisemakers and fireworks. It felt so resonant that somebody’s job was scaring wolves, and it felt heartbreaking to not include that in some way. Maybe I need an “outtakes” essay for everything I carved away.
Rumpus: How did this project find its final form?
Berry: The book had definite phases. For my undergraduate Environmental Studies thesis, I was studying wolf repopulation in Oregon, doing interviews on the ground, and at the same time I was trying to make sense of my own family spread between rural and urban places, and the ways I felt tugged between them.
When I got to graduate school, I had a couple of experiences with strange men that left me very afraid. At first I thought these were different projects. There was the wolf research, and then there was me trying to figure out how on earth anyone lived with the uncertainty of potential violence entering their life at any moment. I became hyper-vigilant, and I felt very irrational, and annoyed at what felt like an inability to evaluate risk. At some point I realized that conversations around wolves are also about threat-perception, about narratives and expectations around “predator” and “prey.” In many of the wolf interviews I’d done, people conjured an animal that was less biological reality then symbolic projection. It began to feel very obvious that I was interested in the shadow cast by Little Red Riding Hood.
I didn’t just want to say, “Here’s what dominant Western narratives say about the wolf, let’s discard those and focus on the animal.” I wanted to ask: “Well, what does it mean that we’ve carried that symbolism so long?” What stories can we tell a young child about how to keep themself safe if we’re not going to say, “Here’s the big bad wolf; don’t talk to them in the woods?”
I sold the book a few years after grad school, when I had moved back to Oregon. I don’t want to spoil anything, but OR-7’s life had rounded a particular bend, and I was thinking about how the start of his journey a decade earlier had launched my own research. In the years since, we had both settled down with our packs, coming full circle after leaving home. It started feeling like he could be one backbone of the book—it felt important for the reader to have a ladder to step back onto as I show them around this web of research. That’s how I saw OR-7. His life comes in and out of the text. Sometimes you just want to follow the wolf, but I wanted it to feel like how it felt to follow him in real life: he’s this animal full of mystery, not a protagonist. We get a little glimpse, and then he’s gone. We didn’t know when his GPS collar signals would come, or what they’d show. I wanted the book to highlight that slow drip of exposure. I’m living my life and learning about wolves in a library and all the while, oh, here’s this real wolf, but then he’s gone, and I’m back to my own head. Structurally, I was compelled by that inherent frustration.
Rumpus: Do you feel like you’re starting to kind of disentangle yourself from that web of research, or do you think it’s something you’re going to carry with you and bring into whatever is inspiring you at the moment?
Berry: One of my favorite things about writing nonfiction like this is that you become a magnet. People still send me random wolf stories, and I want to keep that traction forever—I can’t imagine ever stopping feeling curious.
I’m still interested in the idea—especially as I consider my own relationship to motherhood—of how we teach and live beside fear, but currently I’m thinking about those feelings in the scope of larger climactic and geologic forces. The last chapter of Wolfish asks what we owe to other bodies around us when we are afraid or afraid for others, and in a sense I see my next project as carrying that idea forward, thinking about love and what it means in a scary world, across time and space and species. I suppose I’m obsessed with how we buffer uncertainty.
Author photo by Andrea Lonas