The Next Chapter

Daniel Heath Justice on rethinking stereotypes... about badgers

The fantasy author on how his new book, a cultural history of the badger, doesn't veer that far from his usual genre.
Daniel Heath Justice says badgers get a bad rap, but are irresistible to storytellers because they fit well into the iconic character of the "wise, slightly cantankerous mentor figure." (V. Saran/Reaktion Books)
Listen11:30

Author Daniel Heath Justice usually writes fantasy, but this time around he's taken on a different kind of project — Badger is a natural and cultural history of the badger, part of an international series highlighting different species of animals. 

Justice joined The Next Chapter host Shelagh Rogers at her home in Gabriola Island, B.C., to talk about the new book. This interview originally aired on March 7, 2016.

WHY BADGERS?

I've liked badgers since I was very young, but they really started to fascinate me when I got older. I grew up in a mining community in Colorado — it's an old gold mining town and I'm the third generation on my mom's side to be raised there. Both my parents worked in the mines. It's a beautiful place, and I have deep roots there. The entire subterranean area beneath the community was honeycombed with tunnels, and I've always loved fantasy stories about burrowing hobbits and dwarves — the very fact of being underground sparks the imagination. So those kind of subterranean characters, and then Badger and Mole from The Wind in the Willows, I think they just stuck in my mind. It's a world that's completely hidden from us.

ON BADGER BEAUTY AND BADGER STEREOTYPES

I was at the Oklahoma City Zoo, and there was this enclosure with this little badger. She was out there sunning herself, and I stood there for the longest time, feeling almost giddy. She was so beautiful. But while I was standing there, this little boy ran over to the wall where I was standing and looked down, and then he kind of recoiled and ran back to his dad and said "Badger mean!" And his dad just kind of agreed with him, "Yeah, badger mean." And then they walked on. I was really taken aback by that reaction, because for me this is a beautiful creature that's perfectly evolved for its habitat, and her markings are striking and everything about her is quite pleasing. But all they see is vermin. So it was an interesting moment of cognitive dissonance — we were looking at the same animal, but seeing two very different creatures.

ON DEDICATING THE BOOK TO HIS FATHER

My dad's family is Oklahoma Cherokee, so I go to Oklahoma pretty much every summer. My dad is a hunter and an outdoorsman. He's 86 now, and I've written quite a few books, but this is the one I wanted him to know was for him, because he's the one who taught me to love and be humble in the wild world. I think that of all the books I've written, this is the one he would like the most, and I wanted him to know that this was his book.

Daniel Heath Justice's comments have been edited and condensed.