Q&A: Author Deni Béchard on His New Book Empty Hands, Open Arms

Bechard will do a reading at the Harvard Museum of Natural History on October 12. —Lisa Weidenfeld

deni bechard empty hands open arms

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Born in the countryside near Vancouver, Cambridge-based Deni Béchard prepared for a life of travel early, growing up as he did in Canada and Virginia and attending seven different high schools. A journalist, novelist, and occasional memoirist, Béchard may be perma-jetlagged from all the travel he does for work, but during his last swing through town, he was already gearing up for mountaineer training for his next project.

Béchard’s newest book is Empty Hands, Open Arms, due out October 1, about efforts to protect the bonobos living in the jungles of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. He raised funds for the project using Kickstarter.

Béchard will be doing an author reading at the Harvard Museum of Natural History on October 12. Below, he discusses his travels, the new book, and his goal to “make conservation go viral.”

Do you ever get travel burn out?

Oh yeah. More when it’s really rough travel. What I mostly crave is 2 or 3 weeks in one place. Last year, I changed cities a hundred times. This year I’ve been in India, Afghanistan, Denmark, Sweden, Zanzibar, Tanzania, Congo, through Copenhagen to Montreal, did a book tour in Montreal and New Brunswick, New York for a few weeks, Minneapolis for a few weeks…I’m losing everything after Minneapolis. Boston for a few weeks.

What’s the longest you’ve ever stayed anywhere?

I was in Cambridge for three years, but I changed houses pretty often.

That’s very normal for Cambridge.

I think that is pretty normal. And then I spent a lot of summers overseas.

You made several trips to the DRC to research bonobos and the efforts of one particular group, the Bonobo Conservation Initiative, to protect their habitat. How close did you get to the bonobos?

There was one day where there was a tree two or three times the size of the ones here, and there were maybe 12 of them sitting in the tree for like two hours, and we just sat under them while they ate and chatted, moved around, and did their thing, and they couldn’t have cared less.

Was that one of those “I have the best job” days?

Yeah, it was a pretty good day. There were a lot of sweat bees, so my face was completely covered with sweat bees. I think if I had had one of those mosquito screens, I would have thought, “This is the best ever.” Instead, I was thinking, “I’m covered in insects.” But I was still having a good time.

There was one point in the book where you ended up on a terrifying motorcycle ride through the jungle with a man you’d just met. How do you stay calm during something like that?

I kind of make some Plan Bs. I think the most dangerous thing in any of these places is to freeze up totally or to overreact. So I think to myself, if he loses control of the motorcycle and goes off this little cliff here, I’ll jump this way. Maybe that’ll work.

So you’re sort of planning in the moment.

Yeah. I’m really calm. I tried to let my weight sink down, so he wouldn’t fall, so that I was the least troublesome thing that he had to deal with and I just stayed alert so that if we did go over the edge at some point into a hole or something, I had a plan.

You describe a lot of the obstacles BCI faces in its efforts, from funding to bureaucracy issues to rival conservation endeavors. By the end of all your research, did you feel optimistic about what they’re doing?

I was optimistic. I think sometimes you just have to be determined, and they’re determined. They’ll find a way. Regardless of what happens to them, there will be a legacy of good things, whether it’s educating Congolese about conservation or supporting people to establish themselves. I felt like I had seen something really positive that had happened. I think that their relationships with the Congolese are so strong that they’ll find a way to keep going.

Below, watch the book trailer for Empty Hands, Open Arm: