Thrillable Hours: Bryan Christy, Wildlife Journalist

Bryan Christy and crocodile

Thrillable Hours - Careers for Lawyers Q&AWelcome back to Thrillable Hours, my interview series about alternative careers for lawyers

The next Thrillable Hours interview is with Bryan Christy. I’ve never met him in person, but we corresponded virtually after his fantastic article on the world’s most notorious wildlife smuggler and he agreed to take part in the series shortly thereafter. While formerly a lawyer in Washington, D.C., Bryan is now a full-time writer and most well-known for book ‘The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers’. His honest, insightful Q&A was a pleasure to read – I’m sure you’ll feel the same way.

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Interview with Bryan Christy

Bryan Christy interview

What made you decide to follow a less conventional path than typical law school graduates? Was there a particular moment that catalyzed the decision for you?

I started out planning to be about as conventional as one could be: I was a certified public accountant. I was a lawyer. I intended to practice international law in Washington, DC for a number of years, raise a family, and then either enter politics or pursue my secret hobby, writing. The catalyzing moment for me was the day I learned my father was going to die. In the hospital, I confessed to him I’d gone to law school because I was afraid to tell him I wanted to be a writer. He was shocked, not that I wanted to write, but that I had suppressed a passion to meet what I thought were his expectations. He told me to do what I cared about.

I drove back to Washington, DC and resigned. I was 32 years old. I gave myself a year to write my first novel but that year bled into two, then three, and the years kept falling. I didn’t know how to tell a story. I sold my house, my car. I moved home to my grandmother’s house, which was a small town funeral home. I lived upstairs and kept writing. It took ten years. Eventually, I realized I had to write what I felt, not what I felt would sell. I got a break, then a book deal, and more, and now I’m doing exactly what I care about.

What do you find most fulfilling about your current job as a writer?

I am creating. Much of my work is narrative non-fiction, and I apply all the discipline and rigor I brought to my law firm work to my stories, but at the end of the day the work–from the concept to the finished page–is my own.  I get to work with extraordinary people all around the world, and with some terrific editors, too.

I enjoy meeting so many interesting people, spending time with them, and working hard to see the world from their perspectives and circumstances. I am drawn to people who are passionate. It’s energizing.

Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in leaving private practice but concerned about what is out there?

I grew up in a funeral home. You’ll end up there. We all will. Each of us has a set number of billable hours to spend on this planet. Some people are meant to spend those hours under fluorescent lights, working for multinational corporations, banks and other paper entities. But many are not meant for it. They have something inside them that is unique, even if it is only a sense of possibility.

There’s a saying in rock climbing: “If you step on it, you will see it.”  Moving up a cliff face sometimes you can only see the toe hold right in front of you and because you can’t see where you’ll go after that, you freeze. You might even panic. The amazing thing about rock climbing is that if you step on the only hold you can see, the next hold almost always appears. That’s the way life is. If you’re honest about your choice, and you commit, you’ll see the next step after that. But you can’t get there if you don’t step.

As for money, I was with a Japanese lawyer in Tokyo one night, drinking and talking about the long hours we worked and how most everyone we knew above us in our firms were not people we would want to have this dinner with. (We didn’t think we were better than our bosses; just the opposite, we were worried we would become them.) Eventually we raised a question: “What if instead of how much money we could make in life, we tried to see how little money we could be happy with?” I have never forgotten that. From then on any time I worried about money meant I was losing our challenge.

Bryan Christy the Lizard King

How did your legal education inform the way you see the world today? Do you still identify yourself as a lawyer?

I’m glad I am a lawyer. I’m glad I practiced law and I’m grateful for the training I received in practice (law school was pretty much a waste of time). I’m glad I quit law, too. I almost missed the beauty in the people and wildlife around me. It scares me sometimes what I almost missed.

I used to care a lot about how I identified myself–and being a lawyer meant everything. Now I think in terms of a portfolio of skills and interests. Like a mutual fund. I’ve got some of myself invested in law, but I have a lot of other investments, too.

What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?

They’re right.  Being a lawyer is a job, not an identity. It took me a good long time to learn that.

What do you see for yourself during the next five years?

I’m working on a new book*. ‘The Lizard King’ has been optioned for a film and I’d like to see that happen. Meantime, I’ll keep writing for National Geographic and others, keep looking for deeply human stories.

2021 update: Bryan’s new book is out. Entitled ‘In the Company of Killers’, it’s a thriller featuring an investigative journalist who travels the world targeting wildlife criminals and bringing them to the page. The protagonist, Tom Klay, has a secret deal with the CIA, which provides him the intelligence he needs to make his magazine stories prize-winning. It’s a benign relationship from Klay’s jaded perspective, but now the Agency has a more serious ask to put Klay in South Africa with a past lover as part of an operation to unseat the country’s president. Soon Klay discovers he is part of a much bigger plan, one that’s been operating for years, pitting him against one of the world’s most ruthless men. In this book, which Publishers Weekly has called an “exceptional thriller”, the lines between good and evil blur, and absolutely nothing is as it seems.

Bryan Christy In the Company of Killers New release

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Bryan Christy and a friend

Bryan Christy is the author of  In the Company of Killers (2021) and The Lizard King: The True Crimes and Passions of the World’s Greatest Reptile Smugglers (2008) and a contributing writer for National Geographic. His work has appeared in law journals, Foreign Policy, and Playboy. Before becoming a writer, he worked as a lawyer in Washington, D.C. In researching the Lizard King, he was bitten between the eyes by a blood python, chased by a mother alligator, sprayed by a bird-eating tarantula, and ejaculated on by a Bengal tiger. Follow him on his blog or on Twitter.

32 thoughts on “Thrillable Hours: Bryan Christy, Wildlife Journalist”

  1. Wow. Simply wow. I absolutely love the line about growing up in a funeral home and that we will all end up there. I am going to find his book and order it soon. Thank you so much for featuring him . . . it gives hope to all those other aspiring novelists out there who opted for a legal career as a “safe choice.”

    1. Glad you enjoyed Akila! And I’ll be putting yours up next week. There are also other novelists/writers later in the series. We seem to have a strong law –> writing trend going on…

    2. Thanks, Akila! I’m glad Jodi created this outlet. Looking forward to your interview. I have a saying, Law school is where dreams of writing go to die. I’m glad yours made it through!

  2. Brilliant brilliant brilliant. Thank you for posting. Major respect to Bryan for giving up financial security and the boring confines of officedom to risk it all on what he loves. The world needs more Bryans (and Jodis!) and fewer dullards.

    Also loved the jab at law school.

  3. Great post! There is so much in this post that I can relate to that it’s almost eerie so I just had to comment…especially sitting here Sunday evening dreading the long week ahead of me.

    I’m 32, have been working at a law firm for 7 years now, and recently my dad has had some serious health issues which has really changed my outlook on my future career/life choices.

    I’ve also recently had a series of long dinners with colleagues discussing how the endless grind of long hours has been soul draining and whether or not it’s crazy to want to chuck it all away and go in a different direction.

    I find myself at a crossroads right now and seriously thinking about taking some time off this year to travel and regroup. I don’t know ultimately what I want to do but I realize that taking the first step is enough at this point. The rock climbing metaphor is so timely as well because I just took up the sport…after having a life long fear of heights. But now I enjoy the focus it gives me and the satisfaction of learning something new and conquering a fear.

    “The amazing thing about rock climbing is that if you step on the only hold you can see, the next hold almost always appears. That’s the way life is. If you’re honest about your choice, and you commit, you’ll see the next step after that. But you can’t get there if you don’t step.

    I really hope I can summon the courage to take that first step this year. :)

    1. What Bryan said: trust yourself. You already did in getting over your fear of heights and turning that fear into a new hobby, and something you enjoy. Despite not really knowing what came next, I knew that travel was something I was passionate about. Best of luck and feel free to write with any questions – lots of people out there who can help support you as you figure out next steps.

      1. Thanks Jodi and Bryan! I’m so relieved to know that I’m not alone in feeling this way and for wanting to travel. I hope to finalize my decision within the next few months and am grateful for finding such a supportive community of incredible people.

  4. Wow, brilliant interview. I actually read his NG article a few months back and found it incredibly interesting. I’m always envious of people who leave the safety of a frequent paycheck behind to go and live an adventurous life, which is why I like his rock climbing metaphor so much. Very inspiring.

  5. Absolutely loved the rock climbing metaphor and the money question. Very wise words.

    And @Joe – do it. You won’t regret it. You can always go back to law, or find that taking the step to go on the trip is the push you needed to leave law. I’m two months away from returning and while I still don’t know what I wanted to do, traveling has given me some much needed perspective I simply wasn’t able to get trapped behind my desk and being exhausted all of the time.

    1. Thanks for your encouragement and support Amy! It feels almost impossible to break free from this trap at times but I’m comforted by the fact that others have done it already.

      Love your site btw, a lot of very useful information!

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  7. I can’t relate to being a lawyer but I do love this series. Each person has something they learned from his or her life that they can share with others. I’ve gotten something out of both of these. Doing what you love is great. It means it isn’t a job.

    The other part I like about this is the quote “What if instead of how much money we could make in life, we tried to see how little money we could be happy with?” I try to live that when I travel as well as at home. Quite honestly, I think the simpler life is, the more enjoyable it is. I think spending money can be a huge barrier to really enjoying life.

    1. I agree. It’s a great series idea. I loved Naomi Duguid’s piece. There may be no hope for the lemmings making their way toward law school, but I think all of us on the other side can benefit from hearing each others’ stories…

  8. Jodi thank you *so much* for creating this amazing series. I’ve often wished that someone would talk about the pink elephant in the room (what if you don’t want to do law anymore?). Now that it’s out in the open, I don’t feel like I’m the only one and for that I’m super grateful. Thank you.

    Bryan, thanks for sharing your story. It’s really inspirational and I see a lot of lessons in your story that is applicable to me. Your portfolio theory is exactly how I see myself but often times I find that people are not so receptive to the idea. Perhaps it’s something about being in multiple categories that seems too messy?

    One of my favorite parts:

    “I grew up in a funeral home. You’ll end up there. We all will. Each of us has a set number of billable hours to spend on this planet. Some people are meant to spend those hours under fluorescent lights, working for multinational corporations, banks and other paper entities. But many are not meant for it. They have something inside them that is unique, even if it is only a sense of possibility.”

    Thanks for putting things in perspective. :)

    1. Thanks, Stella. The key for me was reaching the point where I didn’t worry whether other people got it. It was enough that I got it. Besides, if they don’t get it in one of your investment areas, move to where the return is better. :-).

  9. This story is such an eye-opener, especially considering my plans for law school in the near future. I hope I can be as brave as Bryan to pursue exactly what it is I want in life…once I figure out exactly what that is.

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