Wolfbane: An Interview with Michelle Paver
It’s wonderful to ‘meet’ you! Thank you so much for taking the time to chat to us.
* What was it that initially inspired you to write the WOLF BROTHER books?
The idea came to me in bits and pieces, over several years. While I was University (reading Biochemistry), I spent my spare time trying to write stories, and I had an idea for a story about a boy, a wolf, and a large bear. I set it in Viking Age Norway, and although I wrote the whole thing, it wasn't good enough to get published, so I shelved it. I didn't realize it at the time, but that idea actually had its roots back when I was about ten years old, and mad keen on wolves and the Stone Age. After leaving University, I forgot about it completely. Many years later, when I'd become a lawyer and was on holiday, hiking in the mountains of southern California, I had a very frightening encounter with a black bear. Confronting her made me feel as if I'd been back in the Stone Age. A few years after that, when I'd left the law and become a writer, I happened to come across my old story about the boy and the wolf. Suddenly I knew that I should set it in the Stone Age - and WOLF BROTHER was born.
* Did you know how far the series would extend, and have a clear picture of the trajectory of the whole story from the outset, or did it grow with the writing of each book?
Both! Shortly after I'd had the idea for WOLF BROTHER, I realized that Torak's story doesn't end with that first book, and in the space of one rather memorable week, I mapped out the entire six-book sequence of CHRONICLES OF ANCIENT DARKNESS. So from the outset I knew where Torak, Renn and Wolf would go in each book, the challenges they would face, and the discoveries they would make about their respective back-stories. However, a plan is NOT a blueprint, and each story developed in unexpected ways while I was writing it and getting to know the characters. For instance, in the second book, SPIRIT WALKER, I'd planned for Renn to appear only at the beginning and end of the story; but when I started writing, I realized that she was far too assertive a girl to stay meekly with her clan while Torak was in trouble. This meant a wholesale revision of my plan - and a much better book.
* How important was it for you to make the story, the characters and the setting as true to life 6,000 years ago as possible: making it real, rather than fantasy?
That was my aim from the outset, hence all the research I did into Mesolithic archaeology and the customs and beliefs of people who still live in traditional ways, such as the Sami of Lapland, the Inuit, and the Ainu of Japan. Also, I wanted to make any "magic" in the books, such as Torak's "spirit walking", as psychologically realistic as possible, so I researched Siberian shamanism. Why did I want the stories to be so authentic? I think it's simply because I would have loved such books when I was ten years old.
* How did you navigate the research process? Did your research continue after the first book?
My aim for each book is to make the reader feel that they're living the adventure alongside Torak, Renn and Wolf. To achieve that, I try as much as possible to experience whatever my characters are going to in the story. Thus for WOLF BROTHER that involved riding 300 miles through the Finnish forest, sleeping on reindeer skins, and meeting the Sami, who live off reindeer. And of course I made friends with wolves, at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, so that I could make Wolf as authentic as possible, rather than a Stone-Age Lassie. For the second book, SPIRIT WALKER, I went to Greenland and visited the Inuit; and I swam with wild killer whales off the coast of Arctic Norway. For Book 3, SOUL EATER, I studied polar bears in Arctic Canada. And so on. For the most recent three books, VIPER'S DAUGHTER, SKIN TAKER and WOLFBANE, I've crawled into a grizzly bear den, explored a giant ice cave under a glacier, and travelled to Wrangel Island in Siberia, the last known home of the woolly mammoth. Of course, I only put a fraction of my research into the books: just enough to make it interesting, but I hope never so much as to slow down the story. The story is always king.
* The world you have transported us to could not be further removed from our own - and yet it is just as full of adventure and troubles. Do you want your books to be escapism for the reader?
I'm constantly amazed that 21st-century digital natives, brought up in a digital world, are so drawn to Torak's world - but then, it's world a without screens, or pollution, or school! So yes, in that sense, these stories are escapism. And yet to be real escapism, the reader must absolutely root for the characters, which means that Torak and Renn experience the same emotions that children (and adults) do today: friendship, betrayal, love, fear, anger. Sometimes these stories can get quite dark, and they certainly deal with difficult emotions - not least, Torak's loss of his father in WOLF BROTHER. However, Wolf is there to reassure. I see the bond between Torak and Wolf as a golden thread running through the darkness. It's a bond to which readers of all ages respond.
* The series has been coming together over a number of years now. How - if at all - have you kept your original readers with you? Do you know if they have continued to read as they have got older?
WOLF BROTHER was first published in 2004, and yet I know that many readers have repeatedly re-read the series as they've grown up, and been delighted to find the more recent three sequels I've written. I also know from their many letters and emails that for many of them, the WOLF BROTHER series introduced them to a love of reading. Recently I did a Zoom event with a school, run by a young teacher who had loved WOLF BROTHER as a child, and is now enjoying teaching the book to her class. That was pretty special.
* How has it felt knowing that WOLFBANE would be the last story for Torak, Renn and Wolf? Do characters begin to feel like family when you have lived with them for so long?
Finishing WOLFBANE gave me a huge sense of achievement, because I knew that I'd kept this last story to the same standard as its predecessors. For me that's all important. I used to hate it as a child when a series tailed off; I felt it was a betrayal of the characters. As for Torak and Renn, it simply feels as if they're children who have now gone out into the world, and won't be coming back - but in a good way. I think I've given them a fitting send-off.
* Have you ever considered how your stories would look if they were adapted for film or television? Is this something that you would want to see happen?
It would be great if an adaptation were done really authentically, and there are lots of amazing film-makers out there, some of whom are keen to try. So yes, I would love to see it done, but mostly because readers keep telling me that they would love to see it - and please can they audition for Torak or Renn!
* Do you hope that the children (and adults!) who read your books will take away important messages about the natural world?
I never write with a message, as I think that's a pretty sure way of killing a story stone dead. It's completely up to readers to take what they like from my books. If they enjoy them as simple adventures, that's great. If they like the evocation of the natural world, and the closeness of Torak and his people to that world, that's great too. And of course, the ways of hunter-gatherers are much more sustainable than ours, which I think adds to the enjoyment, and perhaps nostalgia, which some readers feel when immersing themselves in Torak's world.
* What have the stories taught you? Not just in terms of historical resesarch, but also about the world, friendships and family?
Whatever I've learnt about friendships and family is in the books, and I don't think I can paraphrase. But I do think I've learnt that there is no end to the imagination and inventiveness of hunter-gatherers worldwide. When I started these books, I did a bit of reading about the Inuit and the Sami (the latter are strictly speaking pastoralists, but still live in traditional ways, so I include them here). I thought that would be enough, but with each new story I've found inspiration from the beliefs and customs of many other peoples: the First Nations of the Pacific Northwest; Indigenous Australians; certain Native American tribes, and the Chukchi of Siberia, to name just a few. All of them are so different from each other. I love that.
* With the WOLF BROTHER series it would not have been possible to draw on your experiences... but do you ever bring them into your writing? Or is your writing very much a separate entity from you as a person?
For me, writing is always personal, so I have absolutely drawn on my own experiences in writing these stories. I've confronted an angry bear, I've swum with killer whales, I've experienced the wonder of the Northern Lights, I've made friends with wolves... And I've drawn on my own emotions too. I don't think any writer can do otherwise. Thus Torak's loss of his father is drawn very specifically from how I felt when I was at my father's bedside as he was dying. But of course I've used my imagination too. For instance, Torak's bond with Wolf is pure wish-fulfilment: it's what I desperately wanted when I was a wolf-mad ten-year-old.
* WOLFBANE represents the end of something that has been with us for a long time. Will you now take a break from writing, or are there new projects in the pipeline?
Like many people, I find myself feeling rather tired after two years of the pandemic; and in my case, caring for a ninety-one-year old mother has taken its toll. When it comes to writing, I'm pacing myself, but of course I would love it if the right idea came along. That has always happened in the past. Here's hoping it will again.
Louise Ellis-Barrett and Jess Zahra
Wolfbane by Michelle Paver is published by Zephyr on 26 April at £12.99 in hardback and is available as an eBook.