“I began each day by wrestling a tiger”: an Interview with Steven Church

by Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Filed under: Blog, Interview |

One with the Tiger, Steven Church’s fifth book of nonfiction, is a book-length essay both animal and human, a hybrid text that confronts readers with power and earnestness through subject and craft. Inspired by the story of David Villalobos, a young man who jumped into the tiger pen at the Bronx Zoo, Church takes a leap of his own—to explore animal instinct alongside human wildness, to trace that wavering line between predator and prey, civilized and savage. Weaving reflections on animal violence and human fear with extensive research about everything from Charla Nash to the Werner Herzog documentary, Grizzly Man, the book is Montaignian in approach, taking up the classic essay’s attempt to understand the self by following the mind, form mirroring intellectual endeavor. Church’s essayistic undertaking seeks the same kind of “intense ecstatic experience” as the thrill-seekers he studies, his literary endeavor as thrilling as any trek through the wilderness.

An obsession with animal attacks and the humans who seek encounters with predators drives Church, who is clear about his fascination with apex predators and his own encounters with primal fear, admitting early in the book, “I wanted to understand what ecstasy exists, what promise of spiritual connection imbues such encounters and how it can seduce someone into risking his life.” His obsession, however, is also a preoccupation with the very nature of obsession—Church longs to locate the source of our cultural fascination with wilderness, savagery, and the violence that occurs when animals and humans collide. Church writes, “I guess I’m also trying to understand my own interest and compulsion to come close to this experience, my lifelong desire to inhabit these tales of survival in the face of animal savagery, as well as the larger pop culture embrace of these stories.” This interest in pop culture is what moves Church away from the safety of personal experience, his mind wandering to historical figures like Grizzly Adams, 1970s television, and recent films like The Revenant until he is lost—readers are lost—in the wilderness of meditation.

This passion compels readers through the book’s elaborate architecture—sections featuring interconnected subsections, epigraphs, and footnotes—a circular meditation reminiscent of an animal stalking its prey. Collaging research with experience, Church jumps from news stories to personal reflections, past to present, in an exploration that is aggressive and visceral. At the same time, however, the narrative voice builds intimacy with readers, revealing the story of a failing marriage, the difficulty of being a father, and the author’s own aversion to violence despite the way others perceive his hulking size. Church’s narrative is intentionally jarring, yet always circles back to remind readers that perhaps “we live between the civilized world and violent nature,” thereby asking readers to straddle the line between human and animal, and occupy the overlapping space between peace and violence. Navigating Church’s scaffolding is dizzying, readers tossed between history, memory, and pop culture until we are left breathless from the effort, reading becoming its own kind of ecstasy. In the pages of One with the Tiger, Church creates the liminal space he so desperately seeks—one simultaneously fierce and tender, where readers are left unsure who is villain and who is victim, who is held captive and who is really free.

Early in the book you describe your reasons for writing about the violent encounters between animal predators and humans, and the thin line between animal and human by saying that you "wanted that kind of intense ecstatic experience" that so many who seek out encounters with apex predators are seeking. When did you realize that this fascination, this compulsion, was destined for a book-length essay? When did you realize you wanted to devote energy towards writing such an extended meditation?

At first I thought it might be a collection of essays centered around ideas of savagery, violence, and intimacy, which were all themes that I’d been exploring in my work in various ways. But it was the story of David Villalobos that hooked me. I read the news obsessively every morning, scouring sites for strange headlines, often times disturbing or weird stories. And once I read the story about David Villalobos, I started researching and reading as many other accounts of violent encounters between humans and animals; and then I began thinking about why I was interested in this stuff and how it fit in with other parts of my past, my personality as a kid, and even my current life. Once I started seeing the connections, the patterns, I had a sense it was going to be something bigger, perhaps similar to my memoir, The Day After The Day After, which also uses a lot of pop culture and operates, for me at least, like a book-length essay as much as it does a memoir. Parts of OWTT can perhaps stand alone as independent meditations, but I suppose my hope is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s a book that is as much about why I/we are compelled by stories of violent encounters between humans and animals as it is a book about such encounters—maybe moreso since, as a work of essayistic nonfiction, it’s necessarily about how I/we think about things.

In the book you describe essaying as a form of risk-taking much like the violent encounters you describe. Why do you think this genre allows writers and readers the same sort rush? What about the essay, either in purpose or form, satisfies the human craving for intense experience, or what you call the "savage and sublime"?

I like to believe that nonfiction writing is the riskiest kind of writing to do, if only because there are limitless possibilities and few rules other than “do it well.” Or at least that’s how I see it. With all the various sub-genres, each with its own forms and expectations, nonfiction feels maddeningly and beautifully diverse. But even if you’re a genre fundamentalist and you believe that what defines nonfiction writing or essays is a nearly religious adherence to verifiable facts, then you’re still acknowledging the risk of writing about the “real” world. People use words like “betrayal,” when talking about violations of the fundamentalist rules. That’s heavy stuff. But maybe the most intense part of reading and writing nonfiction is the obligation to create a shared space of thought, where a reader can participate in a recreation of an author’s thinking about an idea or a series of ideas. What makes it a rush is the thrill of seeing a unique mind at work. But it’s also a conversation, an exchange, and it can be uncomfortable at times, particularly when the book asks the reader to follow my thinking and imagining into situations of savagery and violence. I guess I want to take the readers up to the precarious edge and ask them to consider, as I am, why we like standing there.

Your use of form in this book has a clear linear progression—driven by your interest in David Villalobos’s encounter with a Bronx Zoo Bengal tiger after jumping off a monorail into the tiger’s cage and your own trip to the Bronx Zoo—but you also rely heavily on collage, circular meditation, and the traditional meandering of the essay. Can you speak more about your use of form in this work? How do you see it operating in terms of craft, but also thematically?

I find now that my process of writing books has a kind of predictable movement. Usually I start out with a two or three root essays—in this case, “Fight, Bull,” and “Speaking of Ears and Savagery,” the Mike Tyson chapter, plus some re-tellings of Villalobos’s story as well as others, and I start looking for patterns of theme or subject. As with most things I write, these pieces are usually digressive, associative, and essayistic. I start to pull the essays apart, move pieces around, and work on creating echoes between chapters, looking for possibilities for narrative arc. Sometimes it takes a long time and doesn’t work and I end up with a collection of essays that resist being pulled apart (like my last book, Ultrasonic). In this case, I felt like the process was working to some degree and I was writing a somewhat unified collection of essays . . . even if it was maybe a collection of messays in danger of breaking apart. It was a trip to New York to visit the Bronx zoo and to sort of retrace Villalobos’s journey that really brought the whole thing together and gave it both a frame and a present action narrative thread that I could string through the whole book. It became a kind of skeleton on which I could hang a lot of other stuff; and it’s that trip/thread that makes me think of it as a book-length essay. 

Your essay, "Fight, Bull," appeared in the Winter 2012 issue of Prairie Schooner and plays a significant role in the book. Tell us about your process in moving between essay and book-length exploration. Did you write the essay with the intent of including it in a book? Did you know that it was part of a more in-depth exploration of "intimacy and savagery" and "in-between wonder and horror"?

I rarely write an essay with the intent of it becoming a book or part of a book. That usually comes later, after I realize that things I’ve been working on are all part of a similar thought project. My interests and obsessions often coalesce around a few ideas, and this book was certainly one where I was interested in the lines between human and animal, savagery and intimacy, and the stories we tell ourselves about crossing these lines. An essay like, “Fight, Bull,” is, for me, risky because I’m intentionally conflating the words of Bernie Goetz with an incident that happened to a friend, and not letting the reader in on it for a while. I wanted it to be a little uncomfortable for the reader, and creating discomfort isn’t always the best strategy for an essay. But I guess I’ve always been interested in “in-between” states of existence, the liminal spaces of our lives where our understanding of self is tested, those states of principled confusion from which knowledge arises. And specifically with this book and other projects, I’ve been interested in how we can bury the “I” pronoun more and rely on the author’s “eye” in nonfiction writing. I love reading good narrative journalism, and I’m trying to sort of perform like a journalist here at times, even if it’s in service of essayistic goals.

You credit various pop culture figures throughout the book—Grizzly Adams, The Incredible Hulk, Ferdinand the Bull, Mike Tyson—with fueling our cultural interest in the line between civilized and savage, hunter and hunted. How do these figures operate in your larger exploration and as elements of craft to anchor the book?

I don’t know if pop culture fueled our interest or just tapped into a kind of collective compulsion toward the savage and the sublime. Is pop culture a reflection of us, or we a reflection of it? One of the things I like in writing about pop culture is the challenge to take something apparently base, flawed, superficial, or simplistic and complicate it, to show how the stories, even in a ridiculous TV show like Manimal, are archetypal and mythic, or how they tap into a shared psychological space. Part of what I’m trying to do in the book is to show how these stories of people like David Villalobos or Mike Tyson aren’t as aberrant and crazy as the news stories—and our cultural reaction to them—make them out to be. These stories repeat themselves because they are normal, because they expose some really interesting ideas about what it means to be human or about spirituality and identity. 

Finally, a book focused on thrill-seeking, testing human limitation, and straddling the line between civilization and the wild seems like it would require specific writing conditions that allow the freedom of meditation but also the restraint necessary to hone in on craft. What were your day-to-day strategies for writing this book? How did you get yourself in the “ecstatic” space necessary for the kind of work you’re doing here?

Well, I began each day by wrestling a tiger that we kept in the backyard . . . seriously, though, it’s kind of a dark book at times. And it was a beast that I had to fight. I spent a good six weeks one summer a couple of years ago writing a 9,000 word chapter that I thought the book needed, a chapter about the city where I live, Fresno, California, a place I both love and hate, a place both savage and sublime. But the writing was laborious, painful, and boring. I was pounding away, trying to give the book an essay I thought it needed. And then, in the midst of all this drudgery, I woke up in the middle of the night and realized I needed to cut all 9000 words and write, instead, about the crappy 70’s and 80’s TV shows that spoke directly to the ideas I was exploring in the book. Honestly, it was just fun to write about Manimal and Beastmaster and other stuff while also writing some stuff that asked me to reimagine and revisit the psychological space, for example, of a mother who watches her child get mauled to death by a pack of wild dogs. This was one of the harder things for me in the book—that effort to reimagine and recreate some very graphically violent scenes and encounters; but I really wanted to put the reader into that odd mediated state of witness. I wanted to (as I said earlier) bury the “I” as an arbiter of experience and put the reader into the subjective space of these stories a bit more; but in order to do that, I had to put myself into that space as well, and it’s not always easy to inhabit.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she teaches and works as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor. She is the author of three poetry chapbooks, Regenerate: Poems from Mad Women (Dancing Girl Press 2017), Leaving Tracks: A Prairie Guide (Finishing Line Press 2016), and The Astronaut Checks His Watch (Finishing Line Press 2014). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Crab Orchard ReviewDIAGRAM, Fugue, The Los Angeles Review, Natural Bridge, Nimrod, North Dakota Quarterly, Passages North, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, The Rumpus, Southeast Review, Terrain, Zone 3 and others.