Promise of the Wolves Q&A

Q. Your debut novel is called Promise of the Wolves. How and why did you first become interested in wolves?

A.  I came to wolves through a love of dogs. I can’t see a dog without stopping to pet it, and I can’t believe we’re so lucky as to have them in our lives. And I’ve long been fascinated by the incredible relationship between dogs and people—the way that we consider dogs part of our families and the way they consider us part of their packs. People run into burning buildings to save their dogs, and dogs seem as devoted to us as we are to them. It’s such an intense relationship and seems to be instinctive.

And yet wolves, the animals from which dogs evolved, inspire such mixed emotions. Some people revere them as our lost link to nature. Others see them as the incarnation of evil. Wolves were completely eradicated in the continental US by the 1930s because people hated them so much, and then were reintroduced in the 1990’s because people loved them so much. This tension between wolf lovers and wolf haters continues today. People are incredibly passionate about wolves.

This contrast is what led me to the wolves, and to Kaala’s story.

Q. Incorporated into a compelling novel is a lot of research about wolf behavior and biology. How did you research the book?

A. I started off by reading a lot of books and articles, and watching a lot of documentaries about the biology, behavior, and evolution of wolves and dogs. I also got in touch with the International Wolf Center, which has great wolf info. Then I observed wolves, up close in sanctuaries and from afar in the wild. That led me to a number of very generous researchers who were incredibly willing to share with me their knowledge about wolves and about dogs. Next, I got my hands on a wolf ethogram, which is a detailed record of wolf behavior based on observation of wolves. I was also fortunate that not too long before I started writing Promise of the Wolves, a lot of new research had been done on the evolution of the dog, and I was able to find a lot of good resources online. And, of course, playing with dogs is a vital part of my research.

Q. Did you spend time with wolves?

A. I did! Though I didn’t get to actually meet wolves face to face until the book was completed. My first wolf encounter was at the Cleveland Zoo. I was at a conference for work, and the novel was still in the idea stage. I found out that The Cleveland Zoo has a wolf habitat. So I snuck away from the conference and watched the wolves for ages, and peppered the zoo’s wolf expert with questions. Then, at his recommendation, I went to Yellowstone on a wolf watching trip where I got to observe wolves in the wild. I went to a couple of wolf sanctuaries, and then found my way to Never Cry Wolf Rescue, which finds homes for wolf and wolf hybrids that people have tried and failed to keep as pets, and also takes ambassador wolves to schools and other places to help educate the public about wolves. These guys agreed to pose with me for some photos, so I actually got to pet wolves, and feed them treats. I also got to hang out with a three month old wolf pup, definitely one of the most amazing experiences of my life.

Q. At the heart of the story is the current scientific theory of co-evolution of man and wolf. What does this idea entail?

A. Coevolution, in general, refers to the process by which two (or more) species mutually affect each other’s evolution. Wolf-human/dog-human co-evolution is the controversial and contested theory that wolves, and later dogs, played an important role in human evolution—and visa versa. 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. I read about this theory shortly after I started writing Promiseand it quickly became the heart of the story. I made use of artistic license to take the idea further than any current research supports to place the wolves at key points in human evolution.

Q. Promise of the Wolves is narrated in the first person by a young she-wolf, Kaala. Was it difficult to write in the “voice” of an animal rather than a human?

A. It was strangely easy. Kaala’s voice was very strong right from the start and, once I’d researched wolf behavior and senses, it was very easy to think like a wolf. When I write, I’m really inside the fur of a wolf. I let go of how I would see something or respond to something and try to experience every event in the book as a wolf would experience it. I used to be an actor, and I think that was really helpful as I tried to get inside another creature’s mind. The only problem with this is that I can’t always get out of the wolf’s mind. I eat a lot more meat than I used to, and I have an unfortunate tendency to growl at inappropriate moments.

Q. In the book, you recount the legend of Indru, the first wolf to teach humans the wolf way of the hunt. Did you create this legend or does it have another source?

A. The story of Indru came from my somewhat whimsical take on coevolution. I’d read that Homo erectus (the hominid that eventually evolved into us) existed for many hundreds of thousands of years with the same tools and the same way of life. Then, for no apparent reason, they developed new tools and mastered fire. The timing of these unexplained advances correlates, more or less, with when the first wolves appeared. So I asked, what if the changes happened because these humans-to-be met some wolves who taught them a thing or two? I imagined a wolf and a human meeting at the edge of a great desert, and that’s how the legend of Indru was born. The legend of Lydda and the three-year winter is a play on the Norse myth of Fimbulwinter, in which a wolf will bring about the end of the world by swallowing the sun.

Q. What is the symbiotic relationship between wolves and ravens that you weave into the book?

A. The raven is sometimes known as “the wolf-bird,” because so often where there are wolves, there are ravens. Ravens are one of many creatures that scavenge at wolf kills, but there’s more to it than that. Because ravens can fly, they are better at finding carcasses than wolves are. But they can’t get to the food once they get there, because they can’t open up the carcass. So they’ll make a lot of noise, and then wolves will come and use their sharp teeth and strong jaws to make the food accessible not just to themselves, but also to the ravens. Ravens have also been observed circling a sick elk or moose and calling out, possibly alerting wolves to an easy kill, and they also respond to the howls of wolves preparing to hunt (and, for that matter, to human hunters shooting guns). And wolves and ravens play. A raven will sneak up behind a wolf and yank its tail and the wolf will play back. Both wolves and ravens have the ability to form social attachments and they seem to have evolved over many years to form these attachments with each other, to both species’ benefit.

Q. Even before it has appeared, the publishing rights to your Wolf Chronicles have been sold to a number of publishers around the world. Why do you think a story about wolves is proving to have such universal appeal?

A. I think it’s because wolves and dogs themselves have such universal appeal. People all over the world love dogs intensely, and people all over the world have a fascination with wolves—there are wolf legends in many of the world’s cultures. Wolves are representative of a world most of us have lost touch with—ambassadors from a time when we were part of the natural world, and I think that world of nature calls to us in our apartments and our cities. And our relationship with dogs is about the most universal themes of all—love, trust, and friendship.

Q. There seems to be a subtle environmental message about overpopulation in the book. Are you attempting to make a timely statement?

A. The wolves are definitely out to save the world. We humans are not behaving in a way that is particularly healthy for ourselves as a species. If we don’t change our behavior, and the way we think about ourselves in relation to our world, we’re not going to have a very nice place to call home. Without giving too much away, it’s going to be up to the wolves to help us do this—if we’ll let them.

Q. Who is the ideal reader of Promise of the Wolves?

A. When I was writing Promise of the Wolves, I really wanted it to appeal to both adults and young readers. It was important to me to have the wolves speak to both, and my favorite books are those that reach readers of all ages. Other than that, I think it’s for anyone who wants to spend a little time in another world, or who wants to see their own world in a new way. Or for anyone who’s ever wondered what’s going on between the ears of the wolf in their living room.

Q. Were you inspired by any books or writers that came before you? In what literary tradition would you place Promise of the Wolves?

A. I seem to change my answer anytime anyone asks me this, because there are so many writers who inspired me, and I can never make up my mind which to talk about. My earliest influences were the greats of science fiction. From a pretty early age, I was climbing up the floor-to-ceiling bookshelves in the family library to get to the science fiction books, which were on the top shelf.

I was hugely influenced by Richard Adams’ Watership Down. His rabbits never saw themselves as cute, furry creatures—they had their own lives and concerns and dreams, and I was in awe of how Adams told a complex, multi-layered story from their point of view. Also by Diana Wynne Jones’ Dogsbody, which is about what happens when Sirius, the Dog Star, is trapped on earth in the body of a real dog. Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood have always been two of my heroes for writing strong, intelligent female protagonists and narrators. I would also love to follow in the tradition of authors like Jean Auel and Ann McCaffrey, who have created such realistic and engaging worlds, and of authors like Mary Doria Russell, who uses research and ideas as the basis for wonderful stories. And if I could be Kazuo Ishiguro when I grow up, that would be nice, too.

Q. Promise of the Wolves is the first in a trilogy. Will Kaala be at the center of the next book as well?

A. Absolutely. I’d get bitten, otherwise.