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Original Essays | August 21, 2014

Richard Bausch: IMG Why Literature Can Save Us

Our title is, of course, a problem. "Why Literature Can Save Us." And of course the problem is one of definition: what those words mean. What is... Continue »
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    Before, During, After

    Richard Bausch 9780307266262

Original Essays | August 18, 2014

Ian Leslie: IMG Empathic Curiosity

Today, we wonder anxiously if digital media is changing our brains. But if there's any time in history when our mental operations changed... Continue »
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Kids' Q&A

Ben Mikaelsen

Describe your latest project.
Ghost of Spirit Bear was a story I knew needed to be told after I finished Touching Spirit Bear. The lessons Cole and Peter learned on the island would only be valid if they survived the test of reality once they returned to the city. I had people who wanted the sequel to be a ditto of Touching Spirit Bear, where Cole and Peter come back to the big city, fail, and then are sent back to the island again. I resisted writing this storyline because in real life, if spending a year on an island, surviving a bear attack, and learning all the lessons Cole learns does not permanently change his heart, then the program of Circle Justice really doesn't work and there really isn't any hope for Cole. For this reason, I made Ghost of Spirit Bear an urban story where the lessons Cole and Peter learned on the island are tested and successful in real life.

In the sequel, Cole and Peter do face new challenges and do learn new lessons that build on their past understandings. It was satisfying for me to work with a story where Cole comes to be a leader and helps with the changing of a school.

  1. Ghost of Spirit Bear
    $16.99 New Hardcover add to wishlist

    Ghost of Spirit Bear

    Ben Mikaelsen
    "Gripping and fast moving, both [Ghost of Spirit Bear and Touching Spirit Bear] will appeal to boys especially and to reluctant readers, and they provide an excellent opportunity to discuss bullying and its consequences as well as anger management." KLIATT
  2. Touching Spirit Bear
    $3.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Touching Spirit Bear

    Ben Mikaelsen
    "Mikaelsen's portrayal of this angry, manipulative, damaged teen is dead on." School Library Journal (starred review)

    "[Cole's story] will fascinate young and old, and have everyone waiting for the sequel." VOYA

  3. Red Midnight
    $3.95 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    Red Midnight

    Ben Mikaelsen
    "[A] terrific survival story." School Library Journal

    "[A] gripping tale of overcoming dangers..." Kirkus Reviews

If you could choose any story to live in, which story would it be? Why?
That is an easy question. The book is my own book Petey. The story is about a very wonderful and intelligent man I met who grew up in an insane asylum, misdiagnosed with "idiot stage" retardation. In fact, he had cerebral palsy (which they didn't know about in the 1920s). Fifty years later, he was released to the outside world, and I had the privilege of meeting him. We became the best of friends, and I ended up actually adopting him as my grandfather for the last 12 years of his life. We actually had a ceremony. I fictionalized that book slightly so I wouldn't be sued, but if you substitute the character Trevor Ladd for myself, the book is 90 percent true. I would love to relive my years with Petey. I still can't read that book without getting all choked up with memories and feelings.

Describe your most memorable teacher.
Because of my early struggles as a student, I struggled greatly in the academic atmosphere at college. For my very first English assignment, I was supposed to write a one-page essay. I put my heart and my soul into that assignment. When I handed the assignment in, it came back with more red marks from the teacher correcting it than black marks from me writing it. It looked like a pizza! I thought I had flunked out of college, but the professor called me down in front of all the other students and told me that I was a wonderful writer. I was speechless, but he told me he had read over 300 essays and mine was the only one that had made him laugh and cry. He was the one who really impressed on me that writing was storytelling. Since that dubious beginning, my mechanical abilities have improved greatly, but I've never forgotten that encouragement from the professor and his lesson that writing is storytelling.

What was your favorite story as a child?
When I moved to the United States for seventh grade, I could barely read a comic book. I read very little. I was near the end of seventh grade before I read my first "real" book. The book was Jonathan Livingston Seagull. I think the reason I liked that book was because it was about a poor seagull that was picked on and learned to fly higher and faster than any other gull in the flock. In Bolivia once, when I was being sent away to boarding school, the pilot of a DC-3 allowed me to sit in his seat and hold the controls. When I was done pretending I was a pilot, the real pilot told me I was a natural. I became obsessed with flying, and soloed my first airplane at sixteen years old. I loved Jonathan Livingston Seagull because it related to my life. After that book, I read The Prophet and fell in love with poetry. Once I realized that books were more than struggling with words, and in fact were wonderful escapes, I was hooked.

What do you do for relaxation?
I have to admit my best way of relaxing is to go alone into my bear, Buffy's, den. I totally leave the planet and am in total bliss for hours at a time when I'm cuddling and interacting with him. Next on my list is when I take my plane up to go flying. When I am alone up in the clouds, doing rolls and loops, that is when I feel like it is just me and the sky. All of the hassles of my writing life seem to become lost at these times.

Why do you write books for kids?
Growing up as a child in Bolivia gave me a perspective not shared by many American children. By the time I was 10 years old I had been through three revolutions, walked to school stepping over dead bodies, seen a man shot to death only feet away from me, and watched my first execution. In retrospect, these events and the crimes committed on the indigenous Mayan population are horrendous. As a child, I never understood the fear in which these gentle people lived their lives, nor did I appreciate the class, race, or gender differences that motivated the oppressive events.

Because our home in Bolivia was up at 14,000 feet on the high plains above La Paz, there were no schools. As such, I wasn't sent to school or homeschooled until fourth grade, at which point I was sent away to boarding school. The school was run by strict English matrons who ruled with iron fists. Minor infractions were punished with a stick. Severe infractions were punished with a leather strap that left your hands in bandages. My own personal infractions never seemed to be minor. Also, a child, such as myself, who couldn't read or write was not dealt with remedially, but rather punitively. If I did the best I could on an assignment but failed, the next day I had to pass or get a strapping. To know that a strapping was coming and I had already tried my hardest was probably the most frightening thing about boarding school. It made me feel that I was dumb and a failure. In fact, I've spent a lifetime catching up in education. When I came to the United States to start seventh grade, I could barely read or write, and it took me many years to realize that nobody is really dumb or has to be a failure.

I think this belief in myself, that has come so hard, is what makes me write for kids. I want them to discover the same self-worth I discovered.

Tell us about your pets.
I have three cats, a dog, and my bear, Buffy. Buffy was used as a research bear when he was young. While I was going to college in northern Minnesota, one of my hobbies was watching and studying bears. Once I moved to Montana, I heard about a 16-week-old cub that was going to be destroyed. His front claws had been removed at a research facility so he could never be released to the wild. Zoos weren't interested in taking him because it is bad publicity to have what they called an "altered" animal. That is when I became involved.

First I acquired the same licensing, federal and state, as a zoo. Then I built a $25,000 facility and began reading everything I could that might help me raise a bear. I found out quickly that many people have written about bears and experienced bears, but not as a parent. There came a time when I had to throw almost everything I had read or been told out the window and just begin raising Buffy like a child. Each day he let me know what he was capable of. He came in the house each day, and for many years he rode everywhere with me in my pickup. Until he reached 200 pounds, he rode on the back of my motorcycle and my snowmobile.

At first I'd been told the cub was a female. Most readers probably don't remember the old television show called Family Affair. There were two kids called Jody and Buffy. Buffy was the girl, and I thought that would make a great name for a little female cub. Anyway, the day the cub showed up as a 20-pound rascal filled with tons of energy, I began playing with her on my lap. As soon as I rolled her (him) upside down, I saw that the "parts" were wrong. Whoops! Anyway, he still looked like a little Buffy, so I let the name remain. Now, as a 750-pound bruin, the name seems a bit silly. But I've grown very used to that name. Psychologically, he truly is "my little Buffy" to this day.

I don't own Buffy any more than a parent owns a child, but he is my child and we have become very close over the years. I realized right away that I did Buffy no favors if I saved his life but failed to give him a quality life to live. It has always been my goal and challenge to make sure that Buffy lives a good life. To that end, I spend many hours with him. He comes out of his pen each day without any leash or collar and hangs out around our home, which is away from town, way up in the Rocky Mountains in Montana. We spend a lot of time together, playing around the cabin or going on long walks in the hills.

I must say, I don't think people should ever raise wild animals. They belong in the wild. I've seen dozens of cases where people thought it would be fun to raise something like a cuddly little bear cub. The trouble is, if you raise a dog wrong, you end up with a 50-pound nuisance. If you raise a bear wrong you have a 700-pound animal that can and will kill you. That said, I must add this thought. Because I've dedicated my life to saving and raising Buffy, there has never been a day when I haven't looked at him with a fresh sense of wonderment — as if I've never seen him before — and thought to myself how I am the luckiest person in the whole world. Buffy's trust isn't something that I could go out and buy for three million dollars. It is something I have had to earn one moment at a time over the last 25 years. I am that one person in the world that he trusts. And he does trust me. He has on several occasions held out his paw (which is the size of a dinner plate) and allowed me to cut open an abscessed toe with a razor blade while he bites on his other paw and growls. Frankly, my sisters don't trust me that much.

Buffy is about 750 pounds. I say "about" because his weight fluctuates a lot. When he is adding weight to get ready for hibernation, he is over 800 pounds. When he comes out of hibernation, he only weighs about 650. When Buffy is all ready to hibernate, he gets what I call his "Jell-O" fat. It is a big thick layer of fat that jiggles like Jell-O. This is the fat that he will use to keep him alive for six months when he quits eating and drinking. When Buffy has his Jell-O fat, I can shake his shoulders and his whole body, all the way back to his rump, wiggles too. I hope I never get that way — I can't hibernate!

Buffy is a very healthy animal, although now he is getting really old, and he is starting to get arthritis just like a person. He eats about five gallons of food each day. An average meal consists of about two gallons of C.O.B. mixture, like you give horses (corn, crushed oats, and barley, mixed with a little molasses). Buffy also gets a couple of eggs and a cup of dog food for protein, as well as a couple of gallons of produce (corn, peaches, grapes, etc.). His favorite food is ripe avocadoes. He also eats a lot while he's hanging out around the cabin or we are on our walks. That is when he eats the same thing wild bears might eat, things like spring grass and berries, and he loves tearing apart old stumps to eat the grubs, worms, and ants.

Bears in the wild seldom live over 10 or 12 years, but bears in the wild have a harsh existence, with fights over territory, injuries that aren't treated, years of poor food supply, and constant parasites. In captivity they can live twice as long without these problems. One challenge in captivity, however, is making sure Buffy gets plenty of exercise and good nutrition; otherwise he would die early from the same things people die from, such as obesity and hardening of the arteries. I helped save one little abused bear from Wyoming called Festus. The Humane Society had taken it away from a family. Festus eventually ended up going to a bear refuge in Idaho. He died a couple of years ago at age 17. Buffy right now at 25 is the equivalent of an 85-year-old person. He still plays and cuddles with me, but not with other people any longer. In the same way an old dog gets protective of its master, Buffy has gotten very protective of me.

Tell us a little about your writing process and how you go about writing a book.
Each book is different, but there are some common elements. I always tell new writers to treat their writing like a jigsaw puzzle and not to worry about where to start. You can't begin to put the puzzle together while the pieces are still in the box. Dump it all out on the page and then begin putting it all together. Although I don't always follow my own advice, I think there is value in that analogy. I don't think I've ever written a book that ended up the way I initially envisioned it. Maybe the third chapter turns out to be the beginning.

I do know I often begin with an action scene to get the reader hooked into the book. I also try to ask myself what my main character wants more than life itself. Then I keep that from him until the end. I also ask myself, "When did the problem begin? At what moment did something happen or go awry that resulted in this story?" I also try to figure out how my character can change throughout my novel. My books tend to be character-driven, so I need to figure out the metamorphosis of the character start to finish. One more thought: I put as much time into plotting the emotion of a story as I do story line. If the story starts to slow, what emotion is lacking?

As for my writing schedule, I tend to be a binge writer. If my writing were eating, I'd be horribly fat. I may go several days without writing and then sit down for a six-hour session where I don't come up for breath and I type 15 pages. I do try to show up at the computer every day. If I can make it that far, I usually become productive. For me, rough drafting is the hardest. That is when the monster is still loose in the woods. After I finish the rough draft, then I have captured that elusive creature and can now give him a bath and start combing his hair and teaching him manners. In short, editing. I love to edit. That is something I can do anywhere at my leisure.

To rough draft, I work directly on the computer. I only rough draft longhand if I'm someplace without my computer, but that is rare. I find my computer is the most efficient. I do enjoy editing longhand. There is something wonderful about sitting beside the fireplace with a pen and a manuscript and a hot chocolate.

I don't have a set time each day I write, or a set process or strategy. I do tend to sit down and edit the previous day's writing to get my head back into the story before rough drafting a new story line. I try to write earlier rather than later in the day because my mind tends to be more pregnant before I clutter it up with other things.

I usually end my writing day when my mind gets fried and I know I'm no longer being productive. If I'm struggling with a thought too much, it's time to quit. I believe strongly in the use of my subconscious. If I'm struggling too hard trying to think of something, it's better to just let it go and later think of my question or issue before going to sleep. I may end up doing this several nights, but eventually my subconscious comes up with what I'm looking for in a wonderful way. I used to fret and struggle with the story line. That was a mistake. Now I back off and let the ideas come. I try to get out of the way and let the story tell itself.

÷ ÷ ÷

Ben Mikaelsen is the winner of the International Reading Association Award and the Western Writers of America Spur Award. His novels have been nominated for and won many reader's choice awards. These novels include Red Midnight, Rescue Josh McGuire, Sparrow Hawk Red, Stranded, Countdown, Petey, and Tree Girl. Ben's articles and photos appear in numerous magazines around the world. Ben lives near Bozeman, Montana, with his 700-pound black bear, Buffy.


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