The Beatrice Interview

William Kotzwinkle

"If you take the bear and put him anywhere in our society, he'll do fine."

interviewed by Ron Hogan

When William Kotzwinkle was studying to be an actor, he realized that the lines that he was coming up with in his improv classes were good -- really good. Better than his acting, in fact. So he shifted to writing, first plays and then fiction. His first critical prominence came with The Fan Man; a few years later, the novelization of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial caught on with the public. But Kotzwinkle didn't shift gears and start churning out science-fiction, although many of his novels do have a certain element of fantasy. Take his latest, The Bear Went Over the Mountain, the story of a bear who finds a manuscript in the woods, moves to New York, and becomes a pop-lit celebrity...

RH: This is very loosely based on something that happened to you and your wife years ago, isn't it?

WK: A bear stole my wife's manuscript. It was in a briefcase she hid under a tree far from the house every time we left, so that if the house burned down the manuscript would be safe. This was in the days before websites and computers and all that jazz, so all we had was the original and the carbons, and we put them in the briefcase, went out to go shopping, and when we came back the briefcase was gone. We found it in the woods, scratched up with claw marks and surrounded with bear turds.

RH: Then you shelved that image away in your head for a rather long time.

WK: It takes these things a while to fully form. I was just joking about it to myself -- "What a funny thing, the bear stealing the briefcase" --, and it started writing itself. Put a bear in a pair of pants, backwards, and you're on your way.

RH: It doesn't sound like it was hard for you to get into the bear's frame of mind.

WK: I know bears well because they used to be around the house all the time. They're big, they're dignified, they're genteel, they're smart, they have a sense of humor...all these things. So this bear was always waiting for me, and he's still with me on this tour. I've noticed that every morning, I'm putting honey on my oatmeal...I never used to do that.

RH: You poke fun at a lot of different types of people in this novel, from native Maine "crackers" to book publicists. But it's all done rather goodnaturedly, without any trace of meanness.

WK: I took great pains to achieve that. When I was a kid, I had a number of uncles who used to make fun of my old man, because he was one of those guys that always knew best. They would say, "Jesus Christ, Kotzie!" and mock him ruthlessly, but never cruelly. That example has stayed with me over the years. I think that if comedy is hurtful, it's no longer giving people release. The goal of comedy should be to improve somebody's disposition, cheer them up and make them feel better. Cruelty is just never good; it always hurts.

RH: I liked how the bear never thinks of himself as Hal. He's always "the bear" in his own mind.

WK: Bears don't have the whole ego-name concept. You're Ron, I'm Bill, or so we think. That's just some kind of an adaptation, and the bear always understands that. He's at one with an essence that you and I are separated from at one degree or another. I've started thinking of him as something of a Zen master. He's always showing us his original face, and his statements have the simplicity of Zen koans.

RH: Were there points writing this book where you started laughing?

WK: This is how I judge a book: if I laugh every couple of days when I'm working, then I know I'm in a good place. I laughed every couple of days on this book. I still laugh about it. All I have to do is picture that bear in a suit and a tie with hula dancers on it.

RH: As the bear gets deeper into society, Arthur, the original author of the manuscript, starts becoming more and more like a bear.

WK: It's part of my conflict, because I love the mountains and the forests, just like the bear, and sometimes I think I'd like to be just a wild thing in the forest, to get rid of the whole professional world. I spent two months of the last summer in a tent, meditating every day for five hours, something I'd never done before. It was my way of becoming Arthur, and the changes in perception that he undergoes are a process that I find fascinating.

RH: Do you often go to those kinds of lengths to get into your character's heads?

WK: I don't know if you've ever seen my Trouble in Bugland, which is a sophisticated, adult mystery story but with an all-insect cast of characters. I spent an entire summer on my knees in the backyard watching crickets. I know things about crickets very few people know... Yeah, I'll go to great lengths. The thing is, I'll forget most of it soon after the book is completed. You're from the computer world, you know what that's like. If you stop using a program, after a while you forget most of how to run it.

RH: Yhe bear's an outsider stepping into the human community, an archetype that you also explored your novelization of E.T.

WK: I feel that I'm an outsider, that I've always been one. Maybe you know what that's like, it's painful. E.T. is a very touching figure because he's like Peter Pan, he's a lost boy. In fact, there's a scene in the movie where the mother is reading Peter Pan to the children and E.T. is listening to her unseen. The bear, E.T., and me...I mean, I don't feel like I'm part of this whole crazy scene, but I suppose in some sense I must be.

RH: Did the huge success of E.T. catch you offguard?

WK: Me and everybody else. We all knew it was a good idea, but we didn't know it was going to be a phenomenon. When I was writing it, I felt an unusual energy, an archetypal energy...I wasn't afraid of what to write next after it became so successful. I have a wish list of things I want to write about, and I simply moved on to the next item on that list. But a huge success like that will always stay on in your mind as a signpost. How do you write to reach the most people? What's the simple message that will liberate them from their misery, enlighten them in some way?

I've tried to do that with this book. The bear book is a simple book. I've written much more complicated books than this, but this one is reaching out to a very wide audience. And in a way, taking in people's reactions, I'm also starting to feel that I'm being changed by the bear.

RH: At the end of the book, the bear's fairly well positioned for a sequel. Have you thought about doing it?

WK: I've been thinking about it a lot. When I watched the presidential debates, I thought about what it would be like if the bear ran for president. His answers were short and to the point, things like "I've got mine on right," and "Honey. Sugar." Let his opponent figure it out. So I'm thinking Hal Jam for President, and it's mostly a matter of if I've used up all my bear jokes. I don't think I have. If you take the bear and put him anywhere in our society, he'll do fine.

BEATRICE More Beatrice Interviews
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All materials copyright © 1996 Ron Hogan