An interview with Nels Hanson, author of the magical story “Julia and the Sea Bear,” appearing in Among Animals 2.
Q: What inspired you to write this story?
A: Many years ago, when I was working on our family’s small farm in the San Joaquin Valley of California, my wife and I would save up for a two-day vacation on the Central Coast and rent a room in a little town called Cayucos. Twelve miles north on Highway 1, on the way to Cambria, we’d see a big billboard advertising the Sea Bear Inn. We never stayed there but the idea of a sea bear stuck with me. I imagined a lonely bear living cut off from other bears and people, by high cliffs surrounding his inaccessible beach. Did I identify with the sea bear? I had an image and a feeling but no plot for a story. And yet the picture of the bear going about his life in isolation remained with me, like a dream one keeps remembering.
Q: What was your writing/research process?
A: My wife and I have lived on the Pacific Coast for twenty-four years, and I know the terrain fairly well, the beaches and cliffs reaching from Shell Beach north to Ragged Point, a stretch of perhaps fifty miles. On each drive I’d remember my unwritten story of the sea bear as we passed hard-to-reach portions of the shoreline. Julia was the missing key to finally discovering a form for the sea bear’s story. Our friends’ young daughter was the inspiration – she’s a very bright and creative personality, an only child who spontaneously discovers odd connections and symmetries and identifies closely with all animals – she names all of her stuffed toys, and named two singing frogs in her backyard after my wife and me.
Q: Which writers inspire you the most?
A: Malcolm Lowry, who wrote Under the Volcano, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Jack Kerouac.
Q: What does the sea bear represent? And what does Julia herself represent?
A: The sea bear is, like all of us, somewhat a victim of fate and circumstance who makes the best of the world he’s found himself in. He grows used to his loneliness, but he senses always that something is missing and in his dreams he finds an island and another bear as lonely as himself, his perfect other half who has shared his experience and his longing. Without quite knowing it, perhaps the sea bear is seeking unity, both in his inner and outer world, just as we all are. (Was it Aristophanes in Plato’s Symposium who suggested that at birth we’re each divided down the middle and spend our lives looking for our parted double?) Julia is the innocent sensitive, a natural psychic with loads of empathy. Her ability to merely touch a concrete object and discern its owner’s history and future suggests that she’s able to step aside from her ego to feel and think what other people and animals do. She’s a modern-day shaman who mentally travels with ease across space and time to inhabit the souls of others.
Q: What do you hope readers will take away from your story?
A: I’d like readers to feel that the story is true, or should be or might be true, because the feelings of the sea bear are all of our feelings. I was gratified when two well-educated adults read the story and asked me if the sea bear was real, as if they could drive north along the coast and from the high cliffs view the sea bear. That was the strangest and best response I’ve ever had to any story I’ve written.
Q: Just how fanciful are Julia’s amazing powers?
A: In our “real” world, there are persons who seem to have a sixth sense, and are apparently able to transcend the borders of normal human perceptions. In our daily lives, how large a slice of existing reality do we encounter, and are there many other realms of experience we could potentially explore, as we sometimes do in dreams? Many American Indians believe that we live when we dream and dream when we wake. Was Chuang-Tzu – who 2,400 years ago flew across China and then woke uncertain of his identity – a butterfly or a man, or both?