Kellie Doherty interviews Dan Bigley and Debra McKinney: Beyond the Bear

Dan Bigley is a bear-attack survivor, but much more
than that, he’s a loving husband, a warm father, and a dedicated social worker.
Though mauled in 2003, he learned to not only live, but to thrive and love
again. Deb McKinney is a freelance writer who fled
Montana for Alaska. Beyond the
Bear, a tale of sorrow, loss, transformation, and overcoming, brought these two
strangers together. It is a memoir to the memory of the mauling and a unique
narration of those it affected, a story not only of Dan but of a community.

Why did you move to Alaska?
Dan: Alaska has been one of those places that has always captured
my curiosity in the Last Frontier sort of way. It’s nature’s last stand. Ever
since I was a young kid, I’ve always been fascinated with Alaska, its scenery and wildness. I first came up to Alaska
in 2001 as part of an independent study on the cultural history of Alaska
through Prescott College and just knew that seeing it in the fall I really
wanted to see it in all the seasons. It felt like home. I graduated from
college that December, and in June 2002, I moved up to make it home.
Deb: Alaska was never on my to-do list. I ended up here because
the phone rang one night at my place in Missoula, and instead of one of my housemates, I got to it
first. The woman on the other end was trying
to track down a friend of mine who’d been hired by her company to stake mining
claims in Alaska. He wasn’t around, and somehow she and I stayed on
the phone and started chatting and laughing and generally hitting it off. By
the time we hung up, she’d offered me a job. I’d just started a new job as a
waitress at the Old Spaghetti Factory. I had a degree in journalism. So my
first day of that job was also my last. I
spent that spring and summer hopping out of helicopters alone in the middle of
nowhere, surveying a grid and staking claims for a minerals exploration
company. After three summers of surveying and cooking in various camps, from
the Interior to the Alaska
, I decided it was
time to check out winter. I got a job at the Anchorage Daily News, and planned to stay two winters max. That was
in 1984.

Is writing your day job, Deb?
Deb: Writing is my day
and my night job.
How long have you been writing?
Deb: I started as a
high school sophomore, writing for my school newspaper and have been at it ever
since, all because of a dynamic journalism teacher named John Forssen. At the
time, I was unhappy about my family splitting up and was kind of lost. Mr.
Forssen saw something in me and nurtured it along. I know I wouldn’t be where I
am today without that man. That’s the power of a gifted teacher. I got the
chance to tell him this before he died. And when he did, I flew down from Alaska to attend his memorial service in Montana, that’s how much he meant to me. I have vivid
memories of him standing in front of our high school journalism class pounding
his fist on his desk and shouting “Accuracy! Accuracy! Accuracy!” He was a
grizzled, tough old marshmallow. I have to toss in the name of my high school
here because it’s the best name ever. Hellgate High. Tell me that’s not
What originally got you into the craft?
Deb: I was born into a
newspaper family in Hillsboro, Oregon. My great-grandmother, Emma C. McKinney, bought into
the Hillsboro Argus in 1904 as a
young, single mother who’d lost her husband to tuberculosis. Five years later,
she became the sole owner, publisher and editor. She was quite the force. The
National Newspaper Association’s highest award for women in community
journalism is named in her honor. She worked into her 90s. By then, my
grandfather, Verne, was at the helm, then my father, Walter McKinney. All three
of them are in the Oregon Newspaper Hall of Fame. So I was the fourth
generation — no pressure or anything. But then I ran away to Alaska.
Why writing and not drawing or art or sculpture?
Deb: Unlike drawing or
sculpture, writing allows you to change your mind without leaving a trace. It
can be tweaked and fiddled with over and over, at least until your editor
starts making death threats. I’m kind of known for worrying my stories to
death. My writing coach at Poynter Institute, the late Foster Davis, once told
me, “You need an editor who knows when to pull you off the carcass.”
Dan, why did you decide to use writing
(or storytelling) as an outlet?
Dan: In
my field – mental health – there’s a concept called the Sleeper Effect, and
basically what that refers to is that if you hear something enough times you
believe it’s true regardless of the reliability of the source. That happened
for me in the aftermath of the bear. It seemed like everyone who I told the
story to would respond with ‘you should write a book’ and so in 2005 I just
woke up with the notion that ‘hey, I’m going to write a book.’ I was a writer,
in school and reflective journaling and poetry, but at the time I was also getting
ready for grad school and getting ready to be a father. I wasn’t going to have
a lot of time. I talked to my dad and he purchased a few books on How To Write
a Book. I read them and that’s really how I got started.
Why did you decide to co-author Beyond
the Bear?
Dan: I
made the decision of getting a co-author both because of her experience in
writing and also her knowledge of the craft, as well as time.
Deb: Writing a book was never on my to-do list, but I always figured if
the right story came along I’d consider it. Then I met Dan Bigley. His story is
so deeply moving, and his ability to tell it so well was a writer’s dream. It’s
been a great collaboration. We put what each of us had to offer into a blender
and out came this book.

How did you two meet?
I was with the Anchorage Daily News
when Dan’s mauling first made headlines. It was so disturbing. Two months after
the bear, Dan left the state for specialized surgery and to attend a school for
the blind. Before he left, he sent an open letter that was published on the
front page of the ADN. Well, what do you know? I just happen to have it right
here: “If it were not for the wonderful treatment
provided by Dr. Kallman and Dr. Ellerbe’s office and the amazing care of
Providence hospital, I would not have survived. The members of this community
really came together in my family’s time of need to extend their thoughts,
services, financial aid, and most of all their prayers. I have been healing
quickly and I attribute this to those Alaskans who have extended themselves and
their thoughts to my recovery. I thank you more than words can express. Keep on
fishing, and I’ll see you out there next summer.”
How do you forget
someone like that? Five years later, when I learned that Dan was back in town,
I did a where-is-he-now profile for ADN. He talked of his dream of a book. We
teamed up and here we are.

Well, originally I started looking around and found a Fairbanks author. We started discussing how it was going to
work when out of nowhere I got a call from Deb McKinney. She was interested in
writing a story on a five-years later ‘where are you now’ type of thing. The
story came out; I was impressed so I called her up and asked if she was
How did the process work for you two?
Dan: It
was a great collaboration to start with, and I think I can speak for both of us
when I say we each really did bring something extremely valuable to the table.
I brought a great story. Obviously what she brought to the table is that she’s
just an incredible writer, and part of the value in that was the ability to
shape how the different parts of the story were going to tie in together. The
other thing that she brought to the table which really enriched the book was
her rich history in journalism. We interviewed over fifty people for the book,
over countless hours, so she was really able to take the perspectives of the
doctors, the family members and friends, and rescuers, and tie up loose ends to
really make what the story was in the book.
How was the publishing experience?
Dan: It
was very crazy, to be honest. It wasn’t necessarily what I would call the best
experience. We had two different publishers with two different book deals.
Basically what happened is we were picked up by one of the big ones and we felt
in the beginning that they believed in the story like we did and how it was
more than a bear book, that it was an inspirational story and a love story. I’m
not sure when that started to change but it did, and we no longer shared the
same vision of what the book was. We decided not to submit our final manuscript
and they were kind enough to give us back our rights. Fortunately we were very
lucky and Globe Pequot Press loved the story. We’ve had a much better
experience working with them.
Dan, did you ever get storyteller’s
block? Deb, what do you do when you get writer’s block?
Dan: Not
really, since it’s a true story, my life story, and so it’s sort of like the
story told itself. We just had to recall what’s happened. There was so much to
tell, the hardest part was to decide what had to go. I think, by far, that was
the more challenging part.
Deb: Writer’s block is
my evil twin. When I seize up, which is often, I go on a house-cleaning frenzy.
Nothing like dancing around the living room with a feather duster, with Frank
Zappa’s “Guitar” blasting from the speakers to loosen things up in your head.
Other times, in Anne Lamott fashion, I just start writing crappy stuff, then
come back later and de-crap it.
Why did you decide to switch POVs so
often, transitioning from first-person to an almost omniscient narration?
Dan: We
started the prologue in 3rd person then transitioned to 1st
person through the rest of the book, but there were parts of the story when I
was unconscious or in a medically induced coma or other things were happening
that weren’t right in front of me but needed to be included into the story –
like the scene when Brian heard the news and made the journey up to Alaska – so
in order to really bring some of that to the table we did have to switch into
that more narrative voice, still 1st person but more me reflecting
back on what we had gathered in the aftermath. I’m very pleased about how it
worked out.
Deb: How do you keep the first-person going when the narrator is in a
coma for a couple of chapters, then loopy on pain meds for another chapter or
two? The answer was to watch others react to what happened to him. His brother,
his friends, his brand-new girlfriend, Amber.

Do you think all of these different POVs
strength your story?
Absolutely! I think in so many ways that was what made the story so rich. It
wasn’t just my story, there was a medical story, a whole story from Amber’s
perspective, what my family went through trying to internalize the news of a) I
might not live and b) I would be blind if I did live. So absolutely those
elements made the story a lot more real.
Deb: I absolutely think they strengthen Dan’s story. What happened to
Dan profoundly impacted many people, loved ones and strangers. No one got off

You included a lot of his personal life
(as well as others) into this work. How long did it take you to compile all of
the information?
Deb: We started talking book after I profiled Dan for the Anchorage Daily News in 2008. The book
was his idea, and it took me a long time to get on board. By the time I left
the paper in 2010, I was committed. We traveled to California together, which is where he did the majority of his
healing, to interview his parents, brother, friends, therapists and staff at
what’s now the Hatlan Center for the Blind. We got a proposal together, and got
our agent that spring. We spent more than six months stockpiling more
interviews with everyone from the surgeon who saved Dan’s life, to the only
other person in North America to be completely blinded by a bear and live to tell
about it. Next came a complete revamping of the proposal, then writing an
additional sample chapter and creating a marketing section with some meat on
its bones. After that came many more interviews with many more people who
helped fill in the blanks in Dan’s memory and that stretch of time he was out
of it. Just translating his medical records, which are a couple of phonebooks
thick, into common language was a project. And then people kept surfacing: “Hey, are you Dan Bigley?” “I am. Who’s that?” “I’m Wes
Masters. I was with you in the ambulance that night.”
This is a
long-winded way of saying that compiling all these details took forever.

My final question: Did writing/crafting this book help
move past the bear attack?

Deb: When I sent him the first six chapters, the chapters leading up to
and including the mauling and immediate aftermath, I hit the “send” button
without thinking about what it would be like for him to read them. (He reads
via talking computer software.) I’d been working with the material for so long
I’d become numb to it, but it hit him like a bus. He was flattened and did a
lot of crying that day. I felt so awful. But he considered that a good thing, a
necessary thing. I think that speaks to how powerful his story is and how brave
he is to tell it.

Dan: There’s something to be said for talking about
our traumas as trauma survivors that helps us process it in some way. But it
wasn’t the countless revisions of chapters that helped me process the bear
mauling. I would say more of what’s been helpful for me in the writing process
was to really put the story together and to create a full narrative that is
more than just the attack, and to be able to see the beauty of its various
parts. It’s more than just the bear mauling and the loss of my eyes. There is
the beautiful story of how the community really came together to support me.
There’s this beautiful story of how I put my life back together, and not only
live but to thrive and to have dreams and to actualize those dreams. The fact
that I can look at the story now and see how Amber was such a presence and
still is in my life – how can I not feel lucky looking at the story through
those lenses, to now have a beautiful family with two kids and a job that I
love doing. There’s a lot there to feel uplifted and inspired by. To create a
narrative for myself that’s so positive has been really healing and certainly a
part of how I moved beyond the bear.
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