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Carol Rifka Brunt’s Debut Novel, a Journey Through Grief

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Tell the Wolves I'm Home
Tell the Wolves I'm Home
by Carol Rifka Brun

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An exclusive Authorlink interview with Carol Rifka Brunt
Author of Tell the Wolves I'm Home

By Ellen Birkett Morris

August, 2013

Carol Rifka Brunt’s debut novel Tell the Wolves I’m Home tells the story of June Elbus and her grief at the loss of her Uncle Finn. Her love for Finn serves as a basis for her friendship with his partner Toby and a point of separation with her sister Greta. Readers follow June’s compelling journey as she finds her way through grief and her way to back to her sister. Brunt shares her own journey from avid reader to skilled writer.

". . . it took a while for me to connect my love of reading with the possibility of writing stories."
BRUNT

AUTHORLINK: When did you know you were a writer?

BRUNT: I’ve always been a big reader—a lot of my free time as a kid was spent in libraries—but it took a while for me to connect my love of reading with the possibility of writing stories. I dabbled at poetry and stories, but it wasn’t until I had my first child that I started to take writing as a craft seriously.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a writer.

BRUNT: One of the first things I did when I started writing more seriously was to join a local writing group. I was lucky to be living in Amherst, MA at the time, an area rich in high quality writing groups, and I joined an Amherst Writers and Artists group. Looking back now, I’m amazed at the quality of writing that came out of that group. It was a very inspirational place to be as a new writer. Beyond that, I’m pretty much self-taught. I’ve read pretty much every book on craft out there. I never had the time or money to do an MFA or even to go on some of the more prestigious summer workshops, so I cobbled together my own program—reading, writing a lot and swapping work with other writers for critique.

AUTHORLINK: Where do stories begin for you? character? plot? image? first line?

BRUNT: I’ve had stories start from all of those points, but the ones that end up working, that have enough energy to keep me involved, tend to start with voice. This can even be a single line. In that line is a whole character, a place, a history. I’ve been tricked many times by big ideas. Stories that come as high concepts. I can never make them work, but end up spending a lot of time trying.

"The image kept coming back to me over a year or more . . ."
—BRUNT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

AUTHORLINK: How did you come up with the premise of Tell the Wolves I’m Home?

BRUNT:Tell the Wolves started with the image of a niece having her portrait painted by her dying uncle. That’s all I knew. I was working on another short story and that image came to me out of the blue. So, I can’t say that I came up with the premise. The image kept coming back to me over a year or more and occasionally I’d have a crack at writing it up, but it didn’t quite work. Then one day June’s voice was there and that was the key. From there the story evolved organically.

AUTHORLINK: I read that the book started as a short story. How did it grow and when did you know you had a novel on your hands?

BRUNT: The original short story was about 750 words and contained a shorter version of what is now the first chapter. It never really worked as a story. There was too much, and, at the same time, not enough there. Soon after I wrote the story I won a place on a year-long mentorship program where I was able to turn in 20,000 word chunks of work for feedback. The feedback itself wasn’t overly useful, but having that support in place and those deadlines, made me push ahead and gave me the confidence to experiment with turning it into a novel.

AUTHORLINK: June’s feelings for Finn are very complicated and I’m not sure I’ve read a novel that explores what Toby called an “embarrassing” type of love. How did you get the courage to explore this on the page and how did doing that enrich your story.

BRUNT: In the first draft of the novel, which was about half the length of the published book, that wasn’t an element at all. The story was a lot lighter. It was like one of those indie movies with a cool soundtrack where quirky people become unlikely friends. It was pretty clear that I would have to go back and deepen the story. I started to understand that jealousy was the big theme here. That in one way or another all the characters are jealous of each other and insecure about their place in the lives of the people they love. June’s feelings for Finn became the driver of the whole story. It became the thing that felt the most true in the whole book to me. I think it’s the kind of thing that many many people experience but would never have the courage to talk about.

"Writing Greta’s mean, quippy dialogue was actually a lot of fun. "
BRUNT

AUTHORLINK: You do a great job capturing the depth and complexity of the relationship between the sisters, the ways in which they cherish each other and the jealousies that exist. Tell me about the writing of that part and the choices you made that led to this authenticity.

BRUNT: Writing Greta’s mean, quippy dialogue was actually a lot of fun. I found it harder to develop her larger storyline. I knew her behaviour had to be justified or maybe even explained in some way, but I really didn’t want anything too dramatic or over the top. I knew it would be a delicate balance. In the end I knew that I wanted all of Greta’s pain to somehow root back to June.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss how the painting functions in the story. It seems to offer a way for the sisters to communicate and it links June to Toby.

BRUNT: Again, that all came about organically. I didn’t start out with the idea of the painting functioning in that way, but now it’s one of my favourite things in the novel. The portrait almost functions like a continuing version of Finn, something that connects and divides all the characters.

AUTHORLINK: How long did it take you to write Tell the Wolves I’m Home?

BRUNT: The first draft took a year. From that point it took two more years to get it to the version I sent out to agents.

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your research. What resources did you draw on when developing the novel?

BRUNT: I really did very little research. Because the story is told from June’s POV, I didn’t need to know a lot of sophisticated medical and political information around AIDS. I did want to get the facts and timeline right, but that was pretty basic. I was a teenager in the 80s, so my own memories and perceptions of the time were important. I wanted to make sure that I didn’t muddy that with too much information. I almost tried to forget some of the things I learned.

"The biggest challenge was really just maintaining confidence that this was a story worth telling. "
BRUNT

AUTHORLINK: What challenges did this book pose and how did you overcome them?

BRUNT: The biggest challenge was really just maintaining confidence that this was a story worth telling. I have a feeling that might be the biggest challenge with every book I write.

AUTHORLINK: How did you secure your agent?

BRUNT: I submitted to about 50 agents in both the US and the UK over the course of five months and eventually ended up with three offers. I’d received a lot of requests for the full and a lot of positive comments, but it seemed that agents (not surprisingly!) weren’t confident that they could sell a book about a 14-year old girl and her unlikely friendship with her uncle’s lover. In the end I went with Mollie Glick, who was the agent who wanted the most revisions. I knew I wanted someone who would be hard on me and push me to make my work the best it could be.

AUTHORLINK: What was it like working with your editors Jen Smith and Jenny Geras?

BRUNT: I have to say, I think I’ve had pretty much the dreamiest publication experience imaginable. Both Jen and Jenny are great to work with. We sold the book in the US first, so Jen Smith was the main editor. I’d done a really good edit with Mollie before she submitted to editors, so the book was in very good shape by the time it sold. Jen had a list of things she wanted me to work on, but she always emphasized that it was my book in the end. My decision. The only big point of disagreement was something that came from Jen’s boss at Dial. She wanted me to add in a prologue and some elements within the story that would make it so the book was told by the adult June looking back on 1987. A kind of frame story. I was very much against this idea because June’s voice was so integral to the story and I thought the purity and innocence of that would be lost by adding the frame. I always believe in giving things a try, though, so I experimented with it. In the end, I couldn’t and really didn’t want to make it work. That edit was really more about making sure the book was firmly in the adult category rather than young adult, which wasn’t a good enough reason for me. It was a marketing edit, not something to improve the story. I’m very glad it didn’t happen.

AUTHORLINK: What advice do you have to first time novelists about the craft of writing?

BRUNT: Have a lot of patience. Don’t rush to send out to agents. There are a lot of books out there. Ask yourself what’s different and special about your book. Are you writing something that you haven’t read before? Make sure the answer is ‘yes’ in at least one way. Be hard on yourself. Be your own harshest critic. Listen to feedback and try very very hard not to be defensive.

AUTHORLINK: What advice do you have to first time novelists about breaking into publishing? Should they seek publication in literary journals as a way into the business?

"Put those hours into the work and worry about the rest later. "
BRUNT

BRUNT: I don’t think publishing in most literary journals really helps to get a novel published, but it is a way of knowing that your work is starting to get good enough. There are so many writers submitting to the top journals that I think it might be harder to publish a story in those journals than it is to get a novel accepted. There’s a sort of disconnect between the MFA/lit mag world and the world of commercial publishing. Agents want what they think they can sell. Unless you’re publishing in the New Yorker or having your stories selected for Best American Short Stories, agents aren’t really going to pay much mind to your short story history. If your novel makes them want to turn pages and they think they know an editor who would click with it then you’re in. There’s no secret. Everyone’s road to publication is completely different. I often hear beginning writers say that they’ve heard that they need to be on Twitter or have a blog, etc., but I’d say that social media is very much a secondary thing. Put those hours into the work and worry about the rest later. I have yet to hear about the writer with the stellar novel who has been turned down for lack of tweets.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on currently?

BRUNT: After several false starts I have finally fallen in love with a new novel. I’m too scared of jinxing it to say more than that.

About the Author

Carol Rifka Brunt’s work has been published in literary journals including The North American Review and The Sun. In 2006, she was one of three fiction writers selected for the New Writing Partnership's New Writing Ventures award. In 2007, she was awarded a generous Arts Council grant to write Tell the Wolves I'm Home.

About Regular Contributor
Ellen Birkett Morris
Ellen Birkett Morris is an award-winning writer whose work has appeared in national print and online publications including The New York Times. She also writes for a number of literary, regional, trade, and business publications, and she has contributed to six published nonfiction books in the trade press. Ellen is a regular contributor to Authorlink, assigned to interview various New York Times bestselling authors and first-time novelists.