Spirit of the Wolves

Inspiration

I got the idea for The Wolf Chronicles one day in May of 2001, when I was sitting around recovering from a really nasty pulled muscle in my neck—one of those ones where you can barely turn your head. Since I couldn’t type, couldn’t read, couldn’t do much besides sit in the chair, I actually had the time and mental space to think about stuff. And I started thinking about dogs, and how remarkable it is that we are so drawn to them, and they to us, and then started wondering how that came to be. It’s such a visceral feeling that I was sure it had to go far, far back into our history and theirs. How did a wild wolf evolve into this creature that is so much a part of our lives? Then, I heard someone say “I’m going to write a book about how the wolf became the dog, from the wolf’s point of view.” I looked around to find out who had spoken, and when it was clear that no one else was in the apartment, I figured I could claim the idea as my own.

I knew right away that the story would be told by a young wolf who had to make a great choice and a great sacrifice, and that this wolf would have the potential to change the world. I knew she would befriend a human, and that she would get in a lot of trouble for that. I knew there was a young male wolf who was her best friend and who might someday become more. That was about all I knew.

The young wolf’s voice was very insistent, and though I had no idea how I was going to write a whole novel, and had no time to write a novel, I started typing. I got out of my chair, sore neck and all, and began writing in Kaala’s voice. She hasn’t stopped talking to me since.

Then, after I began writing Promise of the Wolves, I began to wonder why Kaala’s voice was so strong, and how come her character was so fully formed when I started writing. That was when I realized that I’d actually written a page of the book ten years before, when I was just starting to try to write. At the time, I was stuck writing first pages of things that I couldn’t finish. I had written a page of a story about a doglike creature standing on a hilltop, about to make a great sacrifice. But I didn’t know where to take it, and I abandoned the story—or so I thought. Kaala stayed there, waiting patiently for ten years and biding her time, waiting for me to be ready for her.

That’s the long version. The short version is that wolves can’t type very well (they keep hitting the space bar when they don’t mean to) so they needed someone to tell their story. I was available.

Who domesticated whom?

The Wolf Chronicles are based in part on the controversial and contested theories of wolf-human and dog-human coevolution, the idea that is was wolves, and later dogs, that helped humans evolve the way we did. Some proponents of the theory believe that this is as simple as giving us more time to settle down and begin farming by helping us hunt. A few believe it goes much further—that wolves helped us become the dominant species on the planet by teaching us (by example) to hunt cooperatively, have centralized meeting places, and form complex societies. Even that our relationship with dogs may have changed our brains. Here is a little bit about how I found out about this idea, and how it helped inspire parts of The Wolf Chronicles.

I’ve always been fascinated by human evolution and by the many unanswered questions in our development. Why did Homo erectus, who had used the same tools for hundreds of thousands of years, suddenly find new tools and better ways to live, and eventually master fire? Why did we Homo sapiens suddenly have a great leap forward around 35-40,000 years ago that allowed us to create more effective tools, build better places to live, hunt more effectively than ever before, and possibly to drive the Neanderthals to extinction? Why, around 14,000 years ago, did we begin to farm and to settle down in one place? What happened? Why us? Many times in our evolution, a mental or cultural leap happened when there was no obvious corresponding physical change.

I’ve also always been intrigued by our relationship with dogs. There is no other creature that we think of as so much a part of ourselves, and that we treat so much as members of our family. People run into burning buildings and swim into deadly surf to save their dogs, and dogs help people recover from illnesses, aid people with disabilities, and treat our children as if they are their own pups. We have an instinctive and unshakable attraction to dogs, and they bring out in us our best selves, our best qualities of love and caring. Wolves—often either revered as mysterious symbols of nature lost, or reviled as the incarnation of evil—inspire equally fierce emotions. What is it about these animals that affects us so deeply?

When I started writing Promise of the Wolves, I began to wonder if perhaps each of these questions might answer the other. I’d heard somewhere that the domestication of the dog may have given humans the leisure to start farming, so I began doing some reading. I came across Stephen Budiansky’s wonderful book The Truth About Dogs, where I first read about the ideas of wolf-human and dog-human coevolution. At about the same time, I read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire, which—among other things—posits that plants domesticated us every bit as much as we domesticated them. I did a lot more reading, and soon the theory of co-evolution became the centerpiece of The Wolf Chronicles series.

With a fiction writer’s prerogative of taking great leaps of logic and faith, I decided to play with the idea that it was the wolves that made many of the unexplained advances in human development happen. What would have happened, I wondered, if wolves met a group of Homo erectus who were struggling during bad times, and if these wolves helped the Homo erectus, giving them the advantages that led them to create new tools and eventually master fire? What if wolves met up with some homo sapiens in Europe and gave them the knowledge to out-compete the Neanderthals? What if a young wolf found herself unexpectedly involved with humans 14,000 years ago and unwittingly helped them on the road to agriculture—and from there to cities, space travel, and world wars? And what if the descendants of wolves—our dogs—had to pick up where the wolves left off, to make sure we used this knowledge well?

That became Kaala’s task, and the story of the wolves.