Emily Fridlund's History of Wolves
is one of the most powerful debuts we've read in a long time. T. C. Boyle
raves that it's "as exquisite a first novel as I've ever encountered. Poetic, complex, and utterly, heartbreakingly beautiful," and Aimee Bender
calls it "so delicately calibrated and precisely beautiful that one might not immediately sense the sledgehammer of pain building inside this book. And I mean that in the best way." History of Wolves
is the story of Linda, an isolated teenager raised in a defunct commune in a small northern Minnesota town. As the book begins, one of her teachers is arrested for child pornography, and a new family (Leo, Patra, and their toddler son, Paul), with whom Linda becomes increasingly entangled, moves in across the lake. Fridlund connects and layers these separate elements and relationships into a seamless tragic narrative of unbearable consequences, in gorgeous, exceptional prose. This is an unforgettable novel.
: The first chapter of History of Wolves
won the McGinnis-Ritchie Award. Was that after the whole book was complete, or did it exist as a standalone piece at some point?
: It was absolutely a standalone story first. I wrote it initially for a writing workshop at the University of Southern California when I was working on my PhD there. I finished it, and I really did think I was done. I published it, and I meant to go on and do other things. But when I was thinking about a novel idea and a world that I might want to linger in longer, Linda's voice came back to me.
She was just interesting enough that I felt like it might be worth staying with her a little longer, and her world, even in that short story, felt especially vivid to me. So after a little while I did go back to it and begin to extend it into the other pieces of the novel.
Initially I really did think I was done. I had written stories for a long time. I generally thought of myself as a story writer. I was thinking about novel ideas, but I didn't think of it as a potential beginning until after I wrote it.
: That's interesting because it feels like all the elements of the novel are present in that first chapter — Mr. Grierson and Lily, and Linda's family history, and then her relationship with Paul.
: I should say, the pieces with Patra and Paul and the Gardners — they were not in the initial story. I think it's the first paragraph that opens the book — that moment when Linda, as an adult, is looking back and remembering Paul — that was not a part of the first draft of the story, and there might possibly be one other reference. When I went to lengthen the story and weave several different options together, I did go back and think about how to frame it.
It's a fun place to be as a writer, to play in that gap between knowing and not knowing.
Actually, now that you mention it, I remember initially thinking of that first chapter as maybe more like a prologue, something that would stand apart from the rest of the book. But it seemed to work in terms of creating the voice and establishing the place, which is really important, and also setting up some of the themes that I wanted to get at, related to thinking and action and responsibility and guilt. The voice and place and themes seemed to lead into the second chapter and introducing the Gardners.
: Linda does have such a distinctive voice. She's got these great sharp and dry observations, which almost make her sound like a slightly alien intelligence sometimes.
] That's a great way of putting it. I love it.
: I also think her voice stems so much from the fact of her age, the fact that she's 14 years old, and she is in between so many things.
: I think you're absolutely right. That adolescent voice has always been very interesting to me. It has this potential for being really canny and sharp and thought-provoking. But also, because young people are young, they don't have a lot of experience, and so there can be that potential for innocence or ignorance. I think those qualities are amplified by Linda's unusual background, being raised in this commune in a really isolated place, and being socially outcast, in a way.
Her character is so observant, she takes in the world so meticulously, in part because she's such an outsider. She wants to watch everyone else to get along and to understand what's going on.
In some ways she's taking in more than others and seeing more than others. But there is a limit to that. She also has these incredible blind spots because of her inexperience. That was very interesting for me to think about.
It's a fun place to be as a writer, to play in that gap between knowing and not knowing. Also, recognizing that the reader might know things that she might not, especially as the novel progresses. She's not familiar with the world of the Gardners in a way that a reader might be.
: You mentioned that place is incredibly important in this novel. In terms of the woods and the lake and the isolation, the setting itself is a driving force of the novel, to a degree.
You grew up in Minnesota. How much did you draw from your own experiences for the book?
: I'm a city girl. I grew up in the Twin Cities. I'm from the suburbs, really. We had a little, scrappy bit of woods in our backyard. My parents were big fans of camping and getting us out to the woods.
I grew up with a love of being outside, and being in the woods, and going up north, especially to the north shore of Lake Superior in Minnesota, and camping, and that kind of thing.
So I am definitely not from that part of the world, but that region in northern Minnesota — north of Brainerd, west of Duluth — is a place I visited. Actually, I went back there when I was just beginning to extend the short story into a novel.
But I have to say, it's an invented place as well. Part of what I realized when I was writing that initial story was just how much the voice and the place offered themselves to me together. In part, it seemed like the place of the book was a little bit about getting at how Linda experienced the world, and how she takes in the world.
So part of the isolation she feels, and also the longing and the love of the woods, and her dogs, and all the things she can't really say... In a way, she's quite articulate, but there's also a lot she can't say. As a writer, I was often thinking about how to get at that, what can't be said, through her physical experiences in the woods and being outside and situating her emotional life in her world, in her place. So the place was really important, but I also always thought of it as atmosphere as much as a concrete place.
: That makes a lot of sense. I like that you mentioned the dogs in relation to the place, too. Her dogs are this underlying presence, this other responsibility, and I found it interesting that Linda says that when she dreams about this time in her life, she dreams about the dogs — there's a surreality there but also her love for the dogs comes through, and it relates to a lot of other things in the book.
: I'm glad you said that. That's good to hear. I actually had more dog writing in the book. [Laughter
] It just seemed like a way to get at Linda's passion and love — her capacity for love and also her capacity for guilt without her actually coming out and talking about those more abstract concepts.
Her dogs are important to her. I love dogs, too. Dogs are good. [Laughter
: I have to admit, as someone who has never been to that part of the world, Garrison Keillor
did occasionally enter my mind. [Laughter
] As a part of my conception of northern Minnesota. I thought it was really funny when Linda says that she imagines him as one of her relatives, like a more gregarious, less tough version of her dad, basically.
: Right, for sure. You can't grow up in Minnesota and not feel the overwhelming presence lurking everywhere of Garrison Keillor. I recognize that talking about Minnesota means that, for a lot of people, Garrison Keillor will come to mind.
: The first time I read this book, I had a stronger emotional reaction to it than anything I've read in years. I almost thought I wouldn't be able to do this interview because I couldn't talk about the book without crying. I think a lot of that is my parent-brain — I have a two-year-old son, and so to read about Paul's death was absolutely agonizing — but I think it was more than that, too; it's just an incredibly powerful wallop of a book, with, as Aimee Bender said, this "sledgehammer of pain” inside it. How did writing the book affect you emotionally?
: First, I'm sorry if I put you through anything. But it's meaningful to hear that, that you had a strong emotional response. It's a dark book, for sure.
I will say I don't have children right now. I have almost felt like I wanted to warn mothers in particular that it could be hard to read this book if you have small children. It's never easy to read about the death of a child.
I actually wrote the initial draft quite quickly over the course of a month a few years back. I wasn't thinking a lot about what would happen to the draft, or where it would go, or what I would do with it. I think that a lot of the emotional core of the book got onto the page right away in that initial draft. I wonder now if I would have been able to capture that if I'd written more slowly, which I tend to do, actually. I'm usually a very slow writer. There was something about just writing the vast majority of it quite quickly, and then revising it over the years, and really thinking about the structure, and the themes over the years after that initial draft.
I was often thinking about how to get at that, what can't be said, through her physical experiences in the woods and being outside and situating her emotional life in her world, in her place.
I have to say, there are scenes even now that actually do choke me up a little bit. There's a moment when Patra confronts Linda in the parking lot after the trial, and she is accusing her of thinking in the wrong way, in part, I think, just lashing out in pain herself, in a moment when she is struggling to deal with her own incredible grief.
And it was a betrayal. Linda feels betrayed by Patra, and then Linda goes back into the trial and, in her own way, betrays Patra in return. That moment always was a little hard for me. Was there a moment in particular for you that felt really hard?
: That's a tough one. I think in part it's his last day, and part of it is related to the pacing, which is masterfully done. After a certain point, you know generally what's coming but you're flashing forward in time, and then continuing to go back to get closer and closer to the time of his death — during that day. It's just excruciating. It's knowing that that's coming and that it's preventable, but it's not going to be prevented — it's really emotionally powerful.
: That's interesting. It's something I thought about — where to reveal what. That was a more technical set of questions. But I always knew that I wanted to reveal Paul's death before the end of the first section of the book.
While the whole book jumps around in time, I always thought of the first half as a little bit more closely aligned with Linda as a teenager. This idea that I'm trying to get the reader to empathize and feel what she feels as it's coming, and without knowing exactly what is happening.
Then actually, speaking of Aimee Bender, she was the very first reader of this piece. She once gave me a piece of advice. She said, "If you know something's going to happen, you may as well spend it, or say it, and then see what happens."
I remember coming to some point in the book about halfway through and just deciding to release that information about Paul's death, and then to think about the consequences. That opened up the second half of the book for me, which I always thought of as a little bit more closely aligned with Linda as an adult, and the more retrospective voice, and her thinking about how we do go back as human beings to moments, to relive them and try to understand them in new ways, and how painful that can be in the process.
It's weird, because I wanted to get at that feeling of how when something has already happened, it feels inevitable. But of course, it wasn't for her. It didn't have to be inevitable. This death was totally unnecessary. That was the crux of the feeling I wanted to get at.
: I think you do a fantastic job of that, and the way you describe it there, you were setting yourself up for a difficult task.
Did you know, once you started expanding the story, that you wanted to focus on guilt and responsibility and thinking and acting?
: When I wrote the story, I was thinking about guilt and also complicity in terms of thinking and acting, and specifically in terms of child pornography.
Those ideas resonated with some of the things I was thinking about and larger questions that I had related to ideas of storytelling, and the ways in which people recruit others into the stories that they tell through the self-justifying stories that they want to tell, or need to tell, often at the expense of others, or often ignoring the desperate needs of others.
I was thinking about that in the context of well-meaning belief, and what we do to the people we love. Sometimes all of us. Leo had his belief system. Patra, through the choices she made to be a part of this world. Linda, through her desperate desire to maintain this little measure of happiness she had found with this family.
I probably think in terms of language — especially rhythm, the rhythm of sentences — more than anything else.
They all have something to lose by disturbing the status quo. In the meantime, Paul is the victim of that desire on everyone else's behalf to maintain what little happiness they've found. That was the bigger idea that I was thinking about.
Also, I was thinking about storytelling. When I was weaving in the story of Mr. Grierson and Lily, I was thinking about who controls the stories that create the realities that people come to believe, and how that happens differently in different contexts.
And I was thinking about guilt. I think there's part of Linda that identifies with Mr. Grierson because of her guilt.
: I loved when you describe how Paul takes Linda for granted — that he doesn't know where his body stops and hers begins, in terms of things like him plopping onto her lap, which feels very apt to me, as the parent. But I also thought it was very telling in terms of Linda's blurriness of self, and trying to figure out who she does identify with. Sometimes she identifies with Mr. Grierson, and sometimes with Lily, and sometimes with Patra.
: Absolutely. Again, I think there's an element of that in growing up, of trying to figure out who you are, but it's also the way I think of identity in general, that we identify with different people at different moments.
I always thought of Linda as being situated right in between Paul and Patra in terms of age. At some point, I decided that it would be 11 years between each of them. And there’s this kind of sliding that Linda does. She can be a child sometimes herself and identify more with Paul, and at other times identify more with the adult, Patra, or even with Leo. She has a little bit of a competitiveness with Leo, for sure.
I think all people do that sliding. In different contexts, we play different roles. I was definitely thinking about that in terms of predator and prey, too. Part of the initial idea of the first chapter was to figure out what might be called a sexual predator, and make him momentarily the one who’s being pursued by a teenage girl. In those moments, when Linda reaches out to kiss him on the neck, that kind of playing with those roles was interesting to me.
: Your language in the book throughout is extraordinary. I was having a hard time trying to figure out how to describe it. There's a precision to it. There's a very sharp and exact and specific metaphor. Then there's also a transcendence or a little bit of dreaminess or mystery behind the specifics.
One example that I loved is when Linda was talking about summer. You write:
You know how summer goes. You yearn for it and yearn for it, but there's always something wrong. Everywhere you look, insects thicken the air, birds rifle the trees, enormous, leaves drag the branches down. You want to trammel it, wreck it, smash things down. The afternoons are so fat and long. You want to see if anything you do matters.
How did you think about language in general in this book? That's a big question, I know.
: Let's see if I can answer that. I will say this. I probably think in terms of language — especially rhythm, the rhythm of sentences — more than anything else. That is what is primary and first for me as a writer.
Often, people will ask, "Did you write an outline?" I don't do that because I'm often just following from a sentence, to the next sentence, to the next sentence, which is a difficult way to write. [Laughter
It's hard to explain. That's the thing about rhythm. There’s something about the way that sentences can provide a repetition, or a withholding of information, or a speeding up or a slowing down that is really, really essential to me. Often, I'm just following those rhythms in my ear and finding words to use, if that makes sense. It is very important to me.
I'm so glad you asked about it, because I think a lot about character and themes and plot and feeling, but they're all mediated by the language. I’d get notes from editors, for instance, and I would think, Well, I can't do that because I can't change the sentence. The sentence is fixed.
It's hard to explain, but the language was essential to me, and the sentences in particular, the ways that they work together.
It's hard to tinker. It was hard to go back and do editing, honestly. Maybe all writers feel that way, and it's just one of those things.
: I think that very much comes through in the reading of the book. That's the first reason that I really loved it, was the language. Not that it's a separate thing from the rest of the book, as you were saying, but that caught me early on.
Lastly, I don't want to give away the ending, but I will say that it shows the book through a slightly different lens than you might have been reading it before. I was wondering, how did you think about those last scenes, and how they would affect the overall experience of the book for the reader?
: That's a good question. How do I put this? The plot with Patra and the Gardners plays itself out, in a way. I finished that piece of the book, but it felt to me like there was some energy or some emotion that had not been dealt with yet. The last chapter, in a way, was just a means for me to try to get at that. Some piece of it had to do with anger.
I think one of the difficulties of the book is the way that I put these two different plot lines together, with Mr. Grierson and Lily, and then the Gardner family. It was one of the things I wanted to think about as a writer, the way that two things that happen to us at the same time — two separate parts of our lives — can influence each other, even if they're not causally related, even if the characters from one plot line don't jump over into the other.
Some of that residual pain that Linda is feeling at the end of the book after the Gardner family leaves, that residual anger, she can't do anything with it. It felt like it needed to be applied somewhere. And that's how I thought of the end of the book. She's taking those feelings that she had from one part of her life, and it transforms how she thinks about the other part of her life with Lily and Mr. Grierson.
Also, a lot of the book is playing with the question of, how do you know who's prey, who's the aggressor, who's passive?
It became a moment for me to have Linda actually do something, although almost in a way, it's also non-action. There had to be an outlet for that anger and that grief and that guilt that she felt. It was a way for there to be an outlet for me as a writer, too.
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grew up in Minnesota and currently resides in the Finger Lakes region of New York. Her fiction has appeared in a wide variety of journals. She holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California and currently teaches at Cornell University. Fridlund's collection of stories, Catapult
, was a finalist for the Noemi Book Award for Fiction and the Tartts First Fiction Award. It won the Mary McCarthy Prize and will be published by Sarabande in 2017. The opening chapter of History of Wolves
was published in Southwest Review and won the 2013 McGinnis-Ritchie Award for Fiction.