By Leslie Lindsay
Wise, thoughtful, and intimate portrayal of a solitary woman’s relationship with nature, particularly a male fox who sort of befriends her, a lush literary and ecological study.
WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS
ALWAYS WITH A BOOK
Leslie Lindsay & Catherine Raven in Conversation
A naturalist, writer, and professor, Catherine Raven lives ‘off-the-grid’ in Montana. FOX AND I is her debut nature-memoir.
About FOX AND I: An Uncommon Friendship:
Can humans and wild animals become friends? That’s the overarching question in this debut memoir, FOX AND I by Catherine Raven (Spiegel & Grau, July 7 2021) in which a woman biologist–living remotely–becomes acquainted with a fox. Each day, at approximately the same time, outside her cozy cottage in the woods, a fox would appear. She was intrigued and then began reading to him from THE LITTLE PRINCE, and he’d return. There’s more here, too, mostly about Raven’s life as a park ranger, teaching and leading field classes in Yellowstone National Park, and more. It’s about isolation and nature, how the two meld to bring self-awareness.
As for the story, there’s a growth here, some changes that occur, but FOX AND I is a very interior tale following the author’s thoughts, observations, insights–some scientific and others philosophical. Catherine Raven is mostly a very self-sufficient individual because she had to be, leaving an abusing home at the age of fifteen. I learned about foxes–what they hunt and why–also why we as humans have stopped protecting them (people built sturdier houses and left poison in corners, mouse traps behind refrigerators, therefore no longer relying on foxes to eat the moles, voles, and mice).
Other human-animal type insights came to the forefront, too, like: little wild things do not live long stable lives, etc.
The prose is lush and literary, flow-y and delicate, and sort of meanders; it’s about solitude but also about understanding the greater world around us.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Catherine Raven to the author interview series:
Catherine, welcome and congratulations on your debut memoir. With anything we write, there is always something I think that is nagging us—usually an answered question we are seeking some kind of answer to. What was it for you in FOX & I?
Like most people in the western world today, I had preconceived notions about wildlife when I met Fox. I accepted as a fact that certain personality traits were the exclusive domain of humans. I believed that foxes couldn’t have unique personalities.
Or could they? The readers and I address this question throughout the story. What is the nature of Fox’s character? Relying on observations, science, literature, and interactions with my peers, I parsed that question, while discovering another:
why do we separate ourselves so much from the other members of the animal kingdom?
Knowledge, and therefore the answer, derives from many places. As a writer exploring this question, I altered my thinking process, moving from graph paper to lined paper, from data to words. Fox and I gives readers permission to use both reason and intuition as they decide for themselves. I expect readers will extrapolate from Fox to wild animals they have known. Some readers will recall wild animals to whom they have connected. Others will regret the “ones that got away.”
Whatever the case, I hope folks will feel so comfortable with me that they’ll share those stories.
You’re a biologist by training, but your writing is so lush and lyrical. I realize there’s a good deal of writing in academics, but the writing in FOX AND I is not technical; it’s a different skill set. Can you talk about that, please?
Yes, it’s a very different skill set. I did not write the memoir using my technical voice. Two jobs helped develop a memoir voice that was distinct form my teaching voice: guiding and teaching undergraduates. I’ve been guiding and instructing field classes in Yellowstone National Park for twenty years and I work hard to avoid jargon and “science speak.” Instead, I use my natural voice, one that is like the voice in the memoir. When I started the book, I was teaching upper division classes for biology majors. I purposely switched to lower division classes designed for non-majors. I knew this would help with my writing. And truly, I have come to enjoy teaching non-majors a lot more, just as I have come to enjoy writing.
We get a glimpse into your earlier life—leaving home at just fifteen to flee a dysfunctional and abusive situation—but FOX AND I isn’t really about that, or is it? Would you say that this is a study in human and behavior and self-sufficiency?
You’re right, Fox and I isn’t about that. It is, of course, a story about human behavior and self-sufficiency because the girl, the protagonist, needs to learn the limits of self-reliance and the importance of making and keeping a friend. A large part of the narrative involves her discovering the responsibilities and joys of friendship. But, it’s not until she has spent more than a year hiking, playing, or reading with Fox every day that she is able to answer life’s pressing question:
what do I want to be when I grow up?
The answer could only have been derived through her relationship with Fox. She observes him, comes to admire him, and finally mimics him. Like any successful animal, she chooses her optimum habitat and habits, and settles into a stable home.
Let’s not forget that kids can’t possibly be self-sufficient. Nature studies are place-based and even pet-based and these are two variables that are necessarily under parental influence. This matters a lot for kids with animal empathy and those who are destined to become naturalists. Considering all my heroes, including Jane Goodall, Gerry Durrell, Helen Macdonald, Aldo Leopold, Luna Leopold, among many others, I can see that they all had parents who strongly fostered and initiated their outdoor and animal-centric activities. This is why, although Fox and I is a book for adults, I hope librarians will pass it on to school children. Too many children don’t have access to wild lands and nature until they become adults and move away from home.
As a writer who delves into some of my own dark and troubled past—and family—I am always terrified (and intrigued) with how others might view a work in which not everything or everyone is portrayed as ‘rosy.’ What might you advise? Do you know what your family has to say about FOX AND I?
When I think of the phrase “delve into my past,” I see myself standing on a high board, prepared to do a back flip into a swimming pool. But of course, I don’t dive because I’ve too much sense and not enough physical strength. I suppose this is why St. Exupéry’s fictional prince resonates with me. The young boy hasn’t any familial past.
My advice to writers is to tell your own story, not the story of those who have made you miserable. After all, they have taken too much of your health and your time already.
Besides, if you’re hired to a professorship, if you want to teach and mentor students and others someday, you cannot be bitter. Among all emotions, the one I call bitterness is the one I most clearly recognize (I created an objective checklist for it). It is also the emotion I most abhor.
In FOX AND I, you read from THE LITTLE PRINCE, and also draw similarities between the natural world, solitude, and MOBY DICK. What are you reading now?
Fiction: R.L. Maizes: Other People’s Pets
Nonfiction: Helen MacDonald, Vesper Flights
Catherine, thank you for this. What should I have asked, but may have forgotten? Or, maybe there’s something you’d like to ask me?
Millions of workers are drifting, moving between houses, and from homes to vans. They are living out of campgrounds and trying to decide whether and when to move on. They’re thinking about choosing between city life and country life, asking themselves if they want mountains, oceans, or fields. Telecommuting is a new opportunity for lots of people who are now confused about what they want to do with their lives, where their career fits in, and where they should live. These are all the things I thought about when I built my cottage as a way station.
I telecommuted when only weirdos wanted those kinds of jobs. Normal people enjoyed the excitement and camaraderie of a campus. I’ve been teaching college students remotely since the inception of the technology. I hope folks who pick up Fox and I will allow the story to spur them to think carefully about these important habitat decisions and not let a virus dictate permanent lifestyle changes.
For more information, to connect with Catherine Raven, or to purchase a copy of FOX & I, please visit:
- Support your local in-person bookstore or order through Bookshop.org
- This title may also be available through other online sellers.
YOU MIGHT LIKE:
FOX AND I reminded me a bit of Kendra Atleework’s MIRACLE COUNTRY.
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Learn more about Leslie Lindsay|Always with a Book
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ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Catherine Raven is a former national park ranger at Glacier, Mount Rainier, North Cascades, Voyageurs, and Yellowstone National Parks. She earned her Ph.D. in biology from Montana State University, holds degrees in zoology and botany from the University of Montana, and is a member of American Mensa and Sigma Xi. Her natural history essays have appeared in American Scientist, Journal of American Mensa, and Montana Magazine. You can find her in Fox’s valley tugging tumbleweeds from the sloughs.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online.
She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, soon to become an audiobook from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.
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Cover and author image courtesy of Viking/PenguinRandomHouse and used with permission. Artistic images of book cover(s) designed and photographed by L.Lindsay, @leslielindsay1. Join on Instagram