Of Wolves, Hunter-Gatherers and Grizzly Bears - Michelle Paver on Skin Taker
It's one thing reading in a book that Stone Age people wore animal skins, but you realize what that means when you're freezing in an Arctic winter and you experience the relief of slipping on a pair of reindeer-fur mittens. My Wolf Brother books are adventures about a boy, a girl and wolf battling to survive in the Stone Age. Torak is an expert tracker, Renn is a terrific shot with a bow and arrow, and Wolf is a wolf: parts of the stories are told from his point of view.
The latest book, Skin Taker, begins in midwinter when a meteorite strikes the Forest, plunging Torak's world into chaos. His people face a stark choice: do they turn on each other, or pull together? In writing these books, I've tried to create an authentic Mesolithic world, and I'm delighted that they've found favour with archaeologists - but my aim isn't to teach. I simply want to write the most exciting stories I possibly can: to make readers feel they're living the adventures with Torak, Renn and Wolf. That's why I go to the lengths I do.
Of course I've researched archaeology, but that only gets you so far. How does a hunter-gatherer think? What does she believe about life and death, and her place in the world? To find out, I've studied more recent cultures such as the Inuit, Indigenous Australians, Native Americans, and many more. Where possible I've visited them and learnt at first hand about their survival skills, medicines and beliefs.
Hunter-gatherers have ingrained respect for the natural world, as they depend on it to survive. This seems to resonate with readers. They love the fact that Torak and Renn build their own shelters and make their own gear. (In Skin Taker I keep them warm in clothes based on those of the Inuit and Sami; not forgetting eye-shields carved from reindeer antler, so they won't get snow-blind.) When they kill an animal, they respect it too much to waste anything. This makes for ingenious use of body parts, and in my time I've eaten all sorts of things. Raw seal liver is surprisingly tasty; raw blubber not so much. I chickened out of sampling an eye.
Over the years, I've also been struck by the huge differences between hunter-gatherer cultures. Take child-rearing. The Inuit prefer not to discipline a naughty child, leaving her to come to her senses on her own. The Chukchi of Siberia traditionally ensured that boys were raised by their uncles rather than their fathers, as uncles punished more harshly, thereby raising tougher men! Such diversity has helped me give each clan in Torak's world its own identity and beliefs. What I love about "field research" is that it always yields surprises, which often give me my best ideas. For Skin Taker's predecessor, Viper's Daughter, I went to Wrangel Island in Siberia, where I found a mammoth tusk jutting from a dry river bed; that inspired an episode when Wolf snacks on a frozen mammoth carcass. For Skin Taker, knowing that caves would be important, I arranged to explore a cave 200 feet underground - little realizing that to reach it I would have crawl on my stomach through a tunnel only slightly bigger than my head. It was horribly claustrophobic, and it gave me the idea of trapping one of my characters in a cave-in.
But the main reason I do research is that I want readers to feel that they're inside the story, and it helps enormously if I've been there too.
For previous books I've swum with wild killer whales and tracked musk-oxen in Greenland. For Viper's Daughter I scrambled into an ice cave under a glacier. It was an otherworldly blue, and I was unpleasantly aware of all that ice above my head. I couldn't have made readers feel they were inside that cave if I hadn't been there myself. For Skin Taker I went to Arctic Norway in midwinter. It was so cold that my breath crackled in my nostrils, and one night I saw a meteorite shoot across the Northern Lights.
As bears are a big part of the story, I went hiking in an Alaskan rainforest, and one day I came on a grizzly's gigantic tracks. I found claw-marks on trees, and followed the bear's trail to its den. It had two side-chambers for the cubs, and since the bear wasn't home, I couldn't resist crawling inside. I knew that grizzly was somewhere about, but I never saw it, and in a way that was more alarming.
It helped me make Skin Taker, unsettlingly real.
At times, Torak's world can be frightening, but his bond with Wolf is like a golden thread running through the stories, reassuring younger readers.To make Wolf authentic I've befriended wolves at a conservation trust in Berkshire. Each wolf has its foibles. One she-wolf likes to run a prickly bramble branch between her jaws after eating, to clean her teeth.
It's worth saying, though, that only a tiny fraction of my research ever finds its way into the books: just the odd line to make things come alive. The rest stays in my files, no matter how fascinating it might be. Like the time I tested a Native American cure for toothache by licking a slug. There was no place for it in Skin Taker, so I left it out. I never forget that each Wolf Brother book is an adventure, not a history lesson. The story is always king!
And in case you're wondering, that cure worked: my mouth went numb.
And the slug survived.