Writers often get asked why they wrote what they wrote, a question that invites a certain lack of sincerity. Answers tend to be pious and altruistic, tailored to please the audience. They’ll say they wanted to set the record straight on something, or to tell a story that “needed” to be told, or to speak truth to power. While all of these things can certainly be true, and undoubtedly serve as factors in the creation of many great books, there’s usually an underlying story that’s even more illuminating than the scripted reply.
As for me and my new book, Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter, that underlying story has to do with my own failure to complete another book that consumed well over a year of my life. That book was about the Nez Perce War, a subject that many readers in the Pacific Northwest should be familiar with. It was fought during the summer and fall of 1877, when contingents of the Nez Perce tribe fled their Northwest homelands in Oregon, Washington, and Idaho in an effort to escape reservation confinement. The Indians, including hundreds of women and children and thousands of horses, covered some 1,300 miles across hostile territory in Idaho and Montana while evading and/or defeating forces of the U.S. Army led by battle-seasoned veterans of the Civil War.
My plan in writing that book was to travel that same route with a backpack and an inflatable kayak. Along the way, I would study the land and the people that were impacted by those long-ago events. Then I would write about it all: the war, the aftermath, the feeling of months spent moving across the land and sleeping under stars. But as I traveled that route, sometimes walking many miles per day, I was constantly plagued by a nagging suspicion that I was trespassing into a story where I didn’t belong. No matter how much I walked or read, I could never achieve the liberated feeling that comes with mastering one’s subject.
The trouble was that I had no skin in the game—nothing that made the Nez Perce War personal beyond my interest in it. I was not a descendant of the participants on either side, Indian or white; I was not a native resident of the landscape; I was not armed with a secret trove of previously unknown facts and interviews. I was aware of nothing that made the story of immediate significance to my own life or the lives of others. After a few hundred miles of walking and kayaking, I came to the crushing realization that I’d mistaken my own love for reading about the Nez Perce War for an interest in writing about it.
The feeling was awful, and I’ll admit that I spun into something of a professional depression. But, over time, something very positive began to emerge from the experience. I began to map out a writing project that would help me turn a failure into a success. Rather than lamenting the mistake of choosing a subject that was beyond my range and expertise, I started to think about what my response to that should be. The answer, I soon realized, was to craft a narrative around a subject that was intrinsically my own, something that no one knew better than me.
Ultimately the search was short, the subject obvious: hunting. After all, I have spent my entire life engaged in this discipline, either doing it or thinking about it or writing about it or trying to make a living from it. During that time I have developed countless experiences and insights that have occurred to no one else.
What’s more, the subject had everything that was so persistently lacking from my previous idea. The debate about hunting in America still rages today, and the themes and controversies are constantly evolving. The decisions that we make today, both in how we perceive hunting and how we engage in hunting, will have profound impacts on the future of the American wilderness and the American character. The resulting book, Meat Eater: Adventures from the Life of an American Hunter, flowed out of me with tremendous ease. I am proud to have written it, and I can hand it to someone with no excuses or apologies. It deals with a living subject, something that beguiles some and inspires others. Conceiving the book required me to follow several hundred miles of an ancient trail in pursuit of ghosts, but ultimately that’s a small price to pay.
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Steven Rinella is the author of The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine and American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon, which was the winner of the Sigurd Olson Nature Writing Award and a 2009 Pacific Northwest Booksellers Book Award. He is the host of the television show MeatEater on the Sportsman Channel, and was the host of the Travel Channel’s The Wild Within, which was nominated for a James Beard Award. He has a MFA in creative writing from the University of Montana and his writing has appeared in such publications as Outside, Field and Stream, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Vogue, Men’s Journal, Glamour and Salon. Born and raised in Michigan, he currently lives in Brooklyn, New York.