Interview: Steven Rinella, Author
In American Buffalo: In Search of a Lost Icon,, outdoorsman and writer Steven Rinella chronicles his own hunt for a wild buffalo in the Alaskan wilderness. Mixed in with his own adventure is a recounting of the buffalo’s history and its unique place in American culture.
The book received acclaim from a number of critics. Most notably, the legendary Jim Harrison blurbed that, “American Buffalo is a boldly original and ultimately refreshing book. It is also fearsome and occasionally frightening, and one wonders if the author is quite mad. There are insights into nature and American history here that will be totally unfamiliar to the reader.”
Rinella is a correspondent for Outside magazine and his work has also appeared in the New Yorker, Men’s Journal, the New York Times, and other publications. He splits time between his home in New York City and Alaska.
In this interview, Rinella talked about hunting buffalo, strange buffalo facts, pitching story ideas to magazines, and his favorite game recipes.
Slushpile: When you learned that you had won a lottery to hunt wild buffalo in Alaska, what was your very first thought?
Rinella: My initial feeling was one of elation. The state only gives out between zero and twenty-four permits a year for the Copper River buffalo herd, and there are usually over a thousand applicants. So I was excited in the same way that you’d be excited if you won the lotto and picked up a bunch of money. Trailing that initial euphoria, however, was a mild sense of dread. Knowing you have a once in a lifetime opportunity at your fingertips is troubling like that, because, well…if you screw it up you’ll never get a chance to try again. Or at least the odds of trying again are highly improbable. And the area where you’re allowed to hunt is some super rough country. There are no roads, so it’s accessible by river only. And it’s colder than hell in the fall and winter, when you’re allowed to go. And there are a lot of grizzlies in that area. The problems and challenges just piled up like snow in my mind.
Slushpile: At what point in the lottery application process, or planning your expedition, did you start thinking, “This would make a great book”?
Rinella: That’s a complicated question. I’d been searching for a narrative that would serve a book about buffalo ever since 1999, when I found a buffalo skull that dated to the mid-seventeenth century in southwest Montana. When I drew the permit, I was certainly aware that this might just be the story I was looking for, but it was impossible to determine how it would play out. That is, whether the hunt would be interesting and illuminating, and whether it could serve as a frame on which I could build a book-length narrative. Shortly after the hunt I wrote a 3,500 word article for Outside magazine about my adventure. I was motivated to do this because the hunt was expensive and I wanted to pass along some of that money for reimbursement. Then, as soon as I finished the article, I began doing more serious primary research with my eye toward a book. I then sold the book idea to my publisher before the article even appeared. (The magazine held it for close to a year.) In hindsight, I should have never written that article. For all practical purposes, it made my book ineligible for a first-serial sale to a magazine. Editors felt that it had already been done, even though the article wasn’t even remotely similar to the book. That’s a little cautionary tale about letting quick gains get in the way of long-term gains.
Slushpile: After stumbling across a partial buffalo skull in the late nineties, you became interested in the history of the animal and its place in our cultural identity. In the book, you describe playing a parlor game about weird buffalo facts. What’s the most attention-grabbing detail about the buffalo?
Rinella: Where do I begin? All these strange little facts and oddities wash over me when I think about it. For instance, a buffalo calf has almost 3,000 hair fibers per square centimeter of skin. Humans have about 175, on average. Researchers haven’t been able to find the maximum level of cold that a buffalo can handle. At minus 40, a buffalo is still relaxing. They don’t even start to shiver at that point. The metabolic rate of your average dairy cow, however, goes up at positive 14. And buffalo can run about 35 miles per hour. Some horses can hit faster speeds, but a buffalo can outrun a horse by hours and hours. If need be, they can run for a whole day. In Yellowstone National Park, buffalo kill and maim way more humans than bears. If you try to avoid a buffalo attack by running away, you’re almost certain to end up with a puncture wound in the cheek of your ass. But they are not invincible. In the eighteenth century, an explorer in Canada counted 7,360 dead buffalo that drifted past him on the Qu’Appelle River. They drowned while trying to cross a swollen river. So, in short, I learned a few hundred things like that. Or more like a few thousand.
Slushpile: There are two “types” of chapters in American Buffalo. The chapters that involve your hunt in Alaska are told in the present tense. The chapters that delve more into the history of the buffalo and your own efforts to research the animal are told in the past tense. Why did you choose this strategy?
Rinella: I might not have a great answer for that. The hunting chapters just felt very immediate to me and seemed to have a vitality that was best served by present tense. The other chapters are often laden quite heavily in history, biology, and anthropology, and those did not seem well served by present tense. It would seem a little weird to write history in present tense, you know? Also, I wanted to set those hunting chapters apart in an added way, to avoid confusion. I figured that the reader would see that tense shift to the present and think to himself, “okay, we’re up in Alaska, and we’re hunting.”
Slushpile: During your time in the Alaskan wilderness, were you writing? Did you take notes on your surrounding and experiences? How much recording did you do at the time and how much did you simply rely on your memory during the writing process?
Rinella: I take a lot of notes in the field. I like those plastic bound water-proof notebooks with the waterproof paper. They’re called “Rite in the Rain.” The only problem is you’ve got to use a pencil, and the coating on the paper makes the pencil graphite hard to erase. I was turned on to those by field biologists and archaeologists.
Slushpile: Given that you’re an established writer, I’m assuming American Buffalo was sold based on a proposal or did you write the entire book and then sell it?
Rinella: I’ve sold three books now. My first, The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine, was sold by my agent at auction based on a proposal including an introduction, a sample chapter, and a basic outline. My second book, the buffalo book, was preempted by my current publisher based on a three-page treatment. My new book, which I haven’t written yet, was sold based on a verbal discussion with my publisher.
Slushpile: Many new nonfiction writers struggle with the proposal regarding an event that has not yet taken place. Publishers want to know all the specific details, but there’s always a chance something may not work out as planned. How did you handle the fact that you might not get a buffalo on your hunt, and in fact, there was a chance you might not even see one of the animals.
Rinella: While I wasn’t under a book contract while I was hunting for buffalo, I was under contract to write a story for Outside magazine. As the days went on, and I came to doubt that I would be successful in the hunt, I started to seriously question the wisdom of agreeing to the story. I’d lay in my sleeping bag at night figuring out angles for a story in which nothing happened. At the same time, though, the contract pushed me to stay out there and keep hunting. It helped get me out of my tent in the cold, cold morning. I’m a very motivated hunter anyway, because I hunt for all of my own meat, but that little extra push was certainly a factor.
To address your question more theoretically, I’d say this is generally a serious issue for non-fiction writers. It’s hard to sell an editor on a bunch of great adventures that you haven’t had yet. I’ve been through this conundrum many times in magazine work, with varying results. One time I tried to convince my editor to let me do a long story about fishing for squid with Asian immigrants in downtown Seattle. She wouldn’t give me the assignment because there was no guarantee about what would happen. She kept asking, “what if you don’t catch anything?” So I went anyway and paid my own way. I had some great experiences and the story worked out well. Outside published it, and it even ended up in the anthology Best American Travel Writing. But the magazine never did pay my expenses, so they got a screaming deal on that one.
Slushpile: During your hunt, you’re constantly on guard for bears in the Alaskan wilderness. After you’ve killed a buffalo and you’re butchering it to use all the meat, you had to be covered in blood. How scary was the presence of the bears during this time?
Rinella: I’ve been in similar situations quite a few times in Montana and Alaska, and it certainly gets your attention. I really love being around grizzlies, but I’m very aware of my fear of them. It’s not altogether a rational fear – after all, only a couple people get killed by bears every year in North America – but it’s more vivid and frightful than death by such things as hypothermia. I do have this fantasy where I get mauled by a bear but it doesn’t kill me or seriously maim me. I just want a big set of scratch marks across my chest or back. That way I could go to parties and lift my shirt and say, “check this shit out!” That’d be pretty fun. I’d also write an essay about how I got mauled by a bear. I bet I could sell that in a hurry.
Slushpile: American Buffalo details a lot about how the animal can be used for food. And in The Scavenger’s Guide to Haute Cuisine you procured all the ingredients necessary to make a 45-course banquet. What’s your favorite dish prepared using game?
Rinella: There are so many things I like, and they’re so different, it’s hard to pick a favorite. I make a lot of sausages and cured meats, and I cook a lot of strange stuff such as squirrel hasenpfeffer and marrow bones. I also eat a lot of burgers and steaks and normal stuff like that. But if I had to pick one type of wild game preparation for the rest of my life, it would be this: take a 7” or 8” section of loin (moose, buffalo, deer, elk, antelope, caribou, bear, you name it) and season it with coarse salt and crushed black pepper. Put on more pepper than you’d think you’d need. Then brown it on all sides in a combination of olive oil and butter over a burner set on high heat; get the surfaces nice and crispy. Then pop the loin, pan and all, into an oven at about 375 degrees. Cook it until the inside of the loin is 150-degrees. It’s simple, and it really showcases the meat. I could eat that every day.
Slushpile: What challenges did you have in writing about hunting, nature, and the buffalo in a way that would appeal to a wider audience consisting of more “general” readers?
Rinella: I tried to be aware of a larger audience, one that extends beyond hunters and nature buffs. If you look at the second chapter of American Buffalo, you’ll see that I try to make a big case that this topic is something that touches all of us as Americans. I get into rock music, popular history, quirky social facts, Indian massacres, you name it. At the same time, I didn’t want to go so far astray that I lost that core audience of hunters and nature buffs who might not be too patient with literary or poetic-minded ramblings. That is, I didn’t want to lose my core in the name of a few fringe readers. So while I tried to find a sort of balance, that balance is certainly tipped toward the outdoors. There’s another thing I thought about, too. Mark Twain wrote so much great material about the Mississippi River. He made it something that everyone could care about, even people who’ve never even seen it. He did this by giving us that river in all of its confused, violent, gracious beauty. I’m not trying to compare myself to Twain, but I wanted to do a similar thing with the buffalo. I wanted to make everyone love the animal.
Slushpile: What part of American Buffalo was the most challenging to write? How did you overcome that challenge?
Rinella: The most challenging part of American Buffalo was finding a balance between the history and the action of the story. I intended them to be equal, with maybe a touch more history. That didn’t work, because it started to get bogged down and boring. I resolved it by cutting out tons of historical material. I chopped out 100 pages. And I ended with a narrative that’s heavy toward adventure, which I think is good.
Slushpile: The book has a really cool design, with a photo of a buffalo and an American flag. Did you have any input on the design process? What were your experiences with book design and formatting of the book?
Rinella: I had very little to do with the cover. My experience has been that publishers trust the writer to do the writing, but they have little faith in the writer’s design skills. Luckily, though, my publisher kept me in the loop and sent me several versions of the cover to comment on. If I had really hated something, I’m sure they would have listened. But I loved the cover.
The inside of the book was a completely different story, because I personally selected the photos that are included throughout the body of the book. My publisher vetoed a few, but otherwise gave me full reign to choose the number and content of photos. And she allowed me to help design the map in the beginning of the book. Well, I didn’t actually “design” the map, but I decided what should be included on it. Then an artist took over and crafted the actual image from my notes and sketches.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without writing tip you would offer to aspiring authors?
Rinella: I think an aspiring writer has to decide, early on, whether or not writing is the most important thing in his or her life. If not, you should be glad. It’s easier to just forget about writing and do something different. Something with better odds of success. But if writing is the most important thing, you’ve got to remind yourself of that fact every day. Don’t let anything else interrupt your plan. If you give an ounce of room in your mind to the notion of quitting, quitting will quickly become the one viable option. Of course, there’s more to it than just inspirational thinking.
I think that too many aspiring authors, particularly non-fiction student-level writers, select prospective book topics that don’t really hold up. Their ideas are often too thin. Just because you spent a month hitchhiking doesn’t mean the world needs a book about it. Try to find something that goes beyond yourself, something that will catch the attention of people who don’t care about you or even know about you.
Slushpile: What is your single-best, most-important, can’t-live-without publishing tip you would offer to aspiring authors struggling to break into print?
Rinella: That’s easy. Study the magazines and journals that you want to get into. Try to understand their aesthetic, and their requirements of content and length. It’s insulting to an editor to read submissions that are five-times longer than anything they can run, or that are too similar in content to a recently published piece. If you give an editor a sense that your material is tailor made for them (or at least informed by their needs) you’ll be a lot closer to breaking in. And, for god’s sake, keep trying.
For more information about Steven Rinella’s work, please be sure to check out his