Secrets of the Wolves Q&A
A CONVERSATION WITH DOROTHY HEARST
What inspired you to write this trilogy?
I’ve always loved dogs, and have long been intrigued by our remarkable relationship with them—by the way that we consider dogs part of our families and they consider us part of their packs, and by the depth of our love for one another. It’s unlike any other cross-species relationship I know of, and it seems to be instinctive, hard-wired. The more I thought about it, the more I came to believe that the connection had to have happened long, long ago in our evolutionary development and had to have been part of our emotional makeup for a very long time. Wolves, on the other hand, are often reviled as the incarnation of evil, as creatures to be destroyed. I wondered how it came to be that a hated and feared creature evolved into a loved and cherished one.
I’ve also always been fascinated by human evolution, and especially by the gaps in our knowledge about it. There are a couple of points in human evolution at which we had a great leap forward culturally with no corresponding physiological change, and I love to theorize about why that might be.
These two things came together when I was spending a lot of time sitting around as I recovered from a sore neck. I read Michael Pollan’s The Botany of Desire in which, among other things, he suggests that plants domesticated us as much as we domesticated them. I wondered if the same might be true for dogs, and if they might be one of the reasons we evolved the way we did. I did a little research and discovered the theory of wolf-human co-evolution, and I was hooked.
This is your second book in the series. Was the process and/or experience of writing Secrets of the Wolves different in any way from its predecessor, The Promise of the Wolves
It was. It was in many ways easier because I was returning to a world I had created and to characters I knew very well. When you create a world, it develops its own logic and its own energy, and characters you create add complexities to their personalities when you’re not paying attention. So there was a great amount of material for me to work with. That was also a challenge because there were so many directions I could have taken Secrets of the Wolves, and so many storylines competing for attention. It took a great deal of planning and trial and error to carve the story I wanted from all of the material I had.
Stories written from the perspective of a wolf aren’t particularly common. What is the best or most liberating part of writing from Kaala’s point of view? What is the most frustrating part? Did you ever consider switching points of view throughout the novel?
Writing from a wolf’s point of view challenged me to look at the world in a different way and, I think, forced me to develop my own voice as a writer. Promise of the Wolves was my first book, and so I was learning how to write a novel as I went along. I think that writing from the perspective of a wolf forced me to stay away from clichés and easy answers and encouraged me to find innovative ways to describe things and events and to make authentic choices about how the story moved forward. And I’ve always loved books that use defamiliarization to add a dimension of wonder to the readers’ experience, and it was fun to be able to do so.
The biggest challenge was getting the level of anthropomorphism right. If I were to be completely accurate in depicting how a wolf perceives the world, the book would have been impenetrable for my (human) readers. But I didn’t want to make the wolves seem like furry people. Striking that balance was the biggest challenge, though it was more fun than frustrating.
I did consider writing much of Secrets of the Wolves from TaLi’s point of view, but decided against it. I wanted to keep the wolf perspective of the world.
When you wrote the first novel, did you have a very specific idea of where you wanted the trilogy to go? Has the story evolved in a way that has surprised you?
Originally, I thought I was just writing one book. When I got to about page 200, I realized that I wasn’t going to be able to finish telling the wolves’ story in one volume. So I thought I would write two books. Then I went to the International Wolf Conference (yep, there was such a thing) and began to learn about all of the modern political implications of wolves and wolf recovery. That was when the story really opened up for me, and I came upon many of the thematic elements of The Wolf Chronicles, and that was when it became a trilogy.
When I first envisioned the trilogy, I thought there would be one book in the past, one book in the present, and one in the future. But Kaala and her friends grabbed hold of me. I decided I wanted to go more deeply into their world, and gave the entire trilogy to them.
Is there a very heavy research process involved as you continue to write Kaala’s story? You spent time observing wolves while writing The Promise of the Wolves; did you do so again? Along with the theory of the co-evolution of wolves and humans, what other scientific and/or historic facts and details have you woven into the story?
One of the greatest pleasures of writing a research-based novel is the unexpected avenues of learning it leads you down. In addition to the research I knew I would do on wolf behavior, ancient culture, and evolution, I did quite a bit of research on different religions, the transition from matriarchal to patriarchal societies, mythology and folklore, the political implications of the perception and management of wolves, and environmental issues. Much of that is woven into The Wolf Chronicles. I have indeed visited wolves again, at the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, where I got to see wolf pups gnawing on a deer leg. Adorable in a nature-red-in-tooth-and-claw kind of way.
Names are very important in the books. For example, a pup that isn’t named cannot belong to a pack. Why did you decide to give names and naming such significance? How did you choose the name for each character? Do all of them have very specific meanings that relate to each character’s personality and/or destiny? Can you share the meaning of a few of your favorites?
In Kaala’s world, acceptance into the pack is everything to a wolf pup, and so I wanted some way to signify that acceptance. Once we give something a name, it becomes part of our world, and so I wanted naming to be important to the wolves. If they name a pup, they have accepted it as a part of the pack and must protect it, so they take naming seriously.
I modeled wolf naming after human naming; some of the wolves have names that have meanings and others are named after relatives and the like. “Kaala” means “daughter of the moon,” and Ázzuen was named after Rissa’s father, who had a warrior spirit. Because I use wolf lore from many different cultures, I didn’t want the wolves’ names to be associated with any particular tradition. So I tried for names that had universal resonance. Ruuqo, Rissa and Ázzuen pretty much just introduced themselves to me. However, I did change the original spellings of their names because I wanted to make sure that readers could distinguish between the different species in the book. So I gave all the wolves double letters in their names and gave all the Greatwolves names ending in dra or dru (as their homage to Indru), and gave all the humans two-part names. I nicked that idea from Anne McCaffrey’s dragon books. The first part of the humans’ names are their personal names, and the second part their tribe names. So the humans of the Lin tribe all have names that end in Lin for the males (HuLin, KanLin) and Li for the females (TaLi, NiaLi, RinaLi) and the humans of the Lan tribe have names that end in Lan for the males (BreLan and MikLan) and La for the females (InaLa), and so forth. That way humans, who can’t use scent marks the way wolves can, are able to tell which tribe another human comes from by his or her name. Kaala’s going to explain this in the third book. TaLi is named in honor of a husky puppy named Talisman, who was very helpful in my research.
The ravens have two names. Their birth name is always deliberately difficult for anyone but a raven to pronounce (Tlitoo, Nlitsa, Jlela). Then they can choose an adult name, or have one chosen for them if appropriate. Tlitoo’s parents are Sleekwing and Rainsong, and Tlitoo gets his adult name inSecrets of the Wolves.
Many authors find that their characters are extensions of themselves, in one way or another. Do you find that to be true? Do you have a favorite character or a character do you identify with most (wolf or human)? Are any of the characters based on people you know?
I was an actor before I was a writer, and some very good acting teachers taught me that you can’t play a character well unless you can find yourself in that character—even if you think that the character is nothing like you and is a terrible person. I find that to be true about writing. There’s a part of me in Ruuqo’s pigheaded stubbornness, in Unnan’s resentment at being left out, and in Milsindra’s willingness to do anything to forward her cause. Because of this, I can write about them sympathetically even when Kaala and I don’t like them and even though they’re antagonists to Kaala. So there is some of me in everyone in the book. That being said, Kaala and Tlitoo are the characters that have the most of me in them. Kaala is the dutiful earnest part of me, and Tlitoo the more devilish part of me that loves to incite chaos. And I’m in TaLi, of course, because I always wanted to talk to the animals. As for whether characters are based on people I know, answering that will only get me in trouble. Let’s just say that they’re composites.
Several beloved characters die in Secrets of the Wolves. Did you always intend for it to be that way? Conversely, were there any characters that weren’t originally meant to be a part of the story who managed to nose their way in?
I always knew that NiaLi would die, because I always wanted to work the Little Red Riding Hood tale into the story. And I knew that I was going to have to get rid of at least one of Kaala’s mentors since I needed her to be forced into adult decisions. So I knew that one of her protectors would be killed with NiaLi. It wasn’t until I was well into writing Secrets of the Wolves that it became clear that it would be Trevegg who would be the wolf slain by Little Red Riding Hood’s woodsman. I had no idea at all that Yllin was going to die and was pretty upset when I realized that I was going to kill her. She’s one of my favorite characters, and I spent a fair amount of time trying to see if I could keep from killing her. But in the end, she had to go.
The character who was the biggest surprise was Tlitoo. When I was writing Promise of the Wolves, I just wanted to add a scene in which the wolves and ravens were interacting because I thought it was a really interesting bit of wolf behavior. I was just going to write a scene with the ravens in it, and that was that. Then there was this little raven watching Kaala, and he seemed to have quite a bit to say. That was Tlitoo. He became one of my favorite characters and an important force in the series. The character who most surprised me in Secrets of the Wolves was Torell. He was just a bad guy inPromise of the Wolves but emerged as a much more sympathetic character in Secrets of the Wolves. His world view was a great contrast to Ruuqo’s and to the way Kaala was raised, and he made her look at her world in a new way.
There is one more book to go to complete Kaala’s tale. Can you share any tidbits of what may be up next for Kaala? After the third book is finished, will you be done with the Wide Valley? If so, where do you think you’ll go next?
The next book is Journey of the Wolves and, as the title suggests, it is a quest. Kaala and her crew will face challenges as they leave the Wide Valley for new lands and as they continue on the journey to discover how humans and wolves can live together. Kaala will need to learn to work with her enemies and lead her friends. It’s also springtime, which means that Kaala will be ready for her first romance. I will also be introducing a new character who didn’t make it into Secrets of the Wolves. One of my favorites, so I’m excited about that. It’s not a wolf, raven, or human. Heh.
I have several more ideas for the Wide Valley, especially since Tlitoo doesn’t get to say as much as he would like with all the wolves around. I’m going to continue to explore our connection to nature in some other ways, as well.
Who are your writing influences?
This answer changes depending on when you ask me, because there are so many, and because different writers are influencing me at different times. Richard Adams’ Watership Down was a huge influence for this trilogy as were all the science fiction and fantasy books I read growing up. I remember, at about age eleven, being absolutely amazed that someone could take what was known and then what was unknown, and make something up to fill in the gaps. It seemed like magic and I wanted to do it, too. Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human were strong early influences in this way.
Octavia Butler and Margaret Atwood have always been two of my heroes for writing strong, intelligent female protagonists and narrators. Mary Doria Russell, Kazuo Ishiguro, and Barbara Kingsolver are amazing, and I read their books over and over again. And I’m always heavily influenced by Shakespeare. I thought at one point about having the Greatwolves speak in iambic pentameter. It didn’t work out, but I use the idea of heightened speech to call out significant moments in the book and use rhythm when it makes sense to do so. Shakespearean language is always flitting through my head.
What are you currently reading?
I have about 60 pages left of The Hummingbird’s Daughter by Luis Alberto Urrea, which is marvelous, and have just started reading The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin. Next up: Richard Louv’s new book, The Nature Principle, Mary Doria Russell’s Doc, Connie Willis’ All Clear, and the wonderful Mary Mackey’s new book of poetry Sugar Zone.