James A. McLaughlin explores the brutal and beautiful Appalachian terrain with his debut novel, Bearskin, a tale of bear poaching and one man on the run.
Like a 17-year cicada, my novel, Bearskin, spent a long time underground before emerging. I was in my early 30s and just starting at a graduate writing program when I heard about people finding mutilated bear carcasses in the Virginia mountains where I grew up. Poachers were killing black bears out of season and cutting off their paws and gallbladders for sale on the black market. The big money was in exporting the bear parts to East and Southeast Asia, where the native bear species had been hunted to rarity. Back then, the profit margins approached those in the narcotics trade, and organized crime outfits were moving into the bear parts market. All of this struck me as a compelling backdrop for a story, and I decided I would write about a guy who has to confront bear poachers on his property.
Most of the original story depended only on my own memory of the forest where I’d spent a lot of my childhood, but there was still a bit of interesting legwork to be done. I interviewed an undercover game warden who was infiltrating a bear poaching ring. I researched the worldwide black market in wildlife (at the time, it was just behind trafficking of drugs and weapons in terms of total annual dollar value). I learned bear paws are a delicacy in certain cultures, a prized and prestigious dish—the front paws are supposedly more tender than the back paws, but all four get eaten. And bear bile, used for thousands of years in traditional Chinese medicine, contains ursodeoxycholic acid, which helps bears avoid losing muscle when they’re dormant during the winter. The acid has real therapeutic effects in humans—so much so that it was synthesized from cow bile in the 1950s, and you can buy FDA-approved, bear-free medicine with brand names like Actigall, Ursodiol and Urso Forte (“strong bear”).
I finished Bearskin 1.0 while I was in the writing program, but it wasn’t what I’d hoped, and after another year or so of revisions I set it aside. Most of a decade passed while I worked on another novel, stories, essays. My wife and I moved west; I helped start a small business. When a good friend who’d read the first Bearskin suggested I go back to the book and try again, I spent a few weeks stripping it to the essentials, inventing new characters and rewriting the first few chapters. This exercise led to a published novella, agent inquiries and . . . several more years of work extending the novella into a novel.
Writing the second version of Bearskin involved far more research than the first (note: as a cicada nymph nears maturity, it burrows deeper into the soil, searching for larger tree roots to feed on). My new main character was a completely different person, much more interesting and dangerous than the original protagonist. He has a violent history in the cross-border drug trade in southern Arizona, so I spent a lot of time looking into the Mexican cartels and the ways drugs are smuggled north—and how cash and other easy-to-carry valuables are smuggled south. I had an excuse to visit Tucson and explore the Arizona-Mexico border. I learned about local law enforcement, gunfighting and how to disappear and start a new life with a new identity. I had nearly finished the book when it occurred to me that I should update my research on bear poaching.
What I found out was complicated, and it required some tweaks to my plot. While bears in Asia are still under tremendous pressure from poachers, bear poaching for gallbladders and paws has fallen off in the U.S., and the American black bear population in most areas has increased dramatically. The law enforcement efforts I’d witnessed in the late ’90s presumably had an effect, and responsible bear hunters have pushed for more sophisticated management of the species by state agencies. Wildlife and animal rights groups reported some success, at least in the U.S., with convincing traditional medicine practitioners to substitute herbal ingredients for bear bile. And a more troubling development was the growth of “bear farms” in parts of Asia, horribly inhumane institutions that have become a significant source of bear bile in Asian markets.
Given those findings, I had to make some quick revisions to plausibly account for a resurgence of bear poaching in the Virginia mountains circa 2011. And those plot changes in turn opened up an entirely new criminal dimension for my book, and another series of interesting rabbit holes for me to dive into. But the process was dragging on by then, and I finally managed to quit the research and finish the book so it could crawl up out of the earth like one of those cicadas, molt and start making noise.
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Bearskin.
Photo credit Nancy Assaf McLaughlin