History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

Teenager’s Choices Echo Throughout Her Life

An exclusive Authorlink interview

By Diane Slocum

April, 2017

History of Wolves
By Emily Fridlund
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In Emily Fridlund’s History of Wolves, a teenage girl raised on a failed commune in the north woods of Minnesota feels like she doesn’t fit in at home or at school. She forms attachments to others who are in their own way left out – a teacher, a girl in her class, and most deeply, a four-year-old boy and his mother who live across the lake. Linda sees some things unusual in little Paul, but at her age, they don’t quite come together. 



“When I wrote the short story that later became the first chapter of History of Wolves, I was in a writing workshop.”

AUTHORLINK: What was your first idea for the story? Did you start with Linda? Paul? Mr. Grierson? Wolves? The Commune?

FRIDLUND: I started with Linda, or at least her voice. When I wrote the short story that later became the first chapter of History of Wolves, I was in a writing workshop. We were assigned two novels to read—J. M. Coetzee’s Disgrace and Francine Prose’s Blue Angel—about an older male professor and his attraction to a younger female student. As potent and interesting as those two books are, I found myself growing impatient with the familiar trope. I wanted to write that story from a female perspective, in the voice of someone who has not been transformed into a sexual object. What came to mind was the image of a lonely teenager, someone overlooked and unseen, approaching and taking the hand of her collapsed teacher. Years ago, when I was a young adjunct writing teacher, I had witnessed the heart attack of a colleague while he was teaching a class. The terrible helplessness and strangely visceral repugnance of everyone in the room that day stayed with me. I wanted to think more about the quiet boldness required to take a dying man’s hand, along with the longing for human interaction that might inspire such a gesture. So much of Linda’s whole story was there for me, then, when I wrote that early scene showing Mr. Adler’s death. Much later in the book, when given a chance to make a difference in Paul’s dying days, Linda does not reach out when she could, and that failure haunts her. So, while the book begins with Mr. Adler’s collapse, it really begins with how his death is connected and contrasted in Linda’s mind to Paul’s.      

AUTHORLINK: How did all these different aspects come to you and how did you put them together?

FRIDLUND: Another writer I was reading a lot of while writing History of Wolves was Virginia Woolf. There is a curious, astonishing moment in Mrs. Dalloway when at the height of Clarissa Dalloway’s party—and just after she has heard of the suicide of the shell-shocked soldier, Septimus Smith—she parts her curtains and looks out the window. “Oh, but how surprising!” Woolf writes, “in the room opposite the old lady stared right at her!” And then in quick succession, Woolf draws together three characters with no obvious narrative connection, that is, Clarissa Dalloway in her party dress, the soldier who has recently leapt to his death, and the old lady preparing for sleep: “The clock began striking. The young man had killed himself; but [Clarissa] did not pity him; with the clock striking the hour, one, two, three, she did not pity him, with all this going on. There! the old lady had put out her light!”  

“When I was writing Wolves, I became preoccupied with the way that events that occur in the same period of time might be meaningful to a character—or a reader.”

What is so extraordinary about this moment is that, while no causal logic appears to join the night’s events, Woolf nevertheless brings her novel to its highest pitch around experiences linked by their shared interval in time, and she does so without jettisoning the temporal sequence that drives both clock and sentence. When I was writing Wolves, I became preoccupied with the way that events that occur in the same period of time might be meaningful to a character—or a reader—even when they are not connected through cause and effect. People are meaning-makers, I think, and often experiences in one part of our lives resonate in complicated and powerful ways with experiences in another part. I was thinking about this when I was writing about Linda’s relationship to Mr. Grierson and Lily, and her very different relationship to the Gardner family. Linda feels connected to Mr. Grierson at first because he, like her, is an outsider of sorts; later she identifies with what she perceives as his unfairly self-punishing guilt. Her sense of the unfairness of his situation bleeds into how she responds to and understands the possible unfairness of her own situation, one in which, like him, she cannot decide just how much blame lies in herself. Lines of feeling get crossed. Their plots coincide but do not entirely intersect. This book’s somewhat unconventional coordination of its narrative threads came, in part, from my sense that people often try to read their lives through such associations and correlations.

AUTHORLINK: How did you decide what to say about Linda’s adult life and when to put them into the story?

FRIDLUND: This happened quite organically. At some point, I decided that Linda would be 15 years old, and therefore separated by 11 years of age from her babying sitting charge, Paul (who is four) and his mother, Patra (who is 26). Originally, I chose this age for her because I wanted Linda to be able to slip as easily from teenager to child as she slid from teenager to adult, to show the shape-shifting way that adolescents can be both incredibly immature and mature in turns! But when Linda realizes that the Gardner father, Leo, is 37, she becomes fascinated by the pattern. She wants very badly for the number of years that separates them all—11—to suggest some meaning beyond mere coincidence, to be a sign pointing at her own essential involvement in this family. Once this became clear to me, I knew that that the ages of 26 and 37 would be significant to Linda when she arrives at those ages herself, and because of this, those ages might provide windows through which a reader might catch little glimpses into Linda’s life when she is older. Of course, this is a book about retrospect—or looking back—as much as it is about growing up, and it made sense to me that Linda would look back at, and from, those ages that first resonated with her when she was 15. So, we see Linda trying to make a life for herself away from Loose River when she is 26. And it eventually comes out that she is telling her story when she is back in Loose River and taking care of her mother at the age of 37.     

AUTHORLINK: Patra uses the latter half of her name so she and her husband won’t be known as Leo and Cleo, which actually turns out to be quite a memorable detail. Madeline shortens her name pretty much the same way. How do you decide on the names for your characters?

FRIDLUND: For me, the narrator of Wolves was essentially nameless through the whole writing process. Because I was writing in the first person, I never thought of the narrator as “Linda” or anything else, because she doesn’t think of herself that way. To me, names are almost entirely arbitrary and interesting insofar as they hint at the ways we are known to, and know ourselves with, others. Patra, whose full name is Cleopatra, was originally called Cleo. But she changed her name when she was married to avoid the rhyme with her husband’s name, Leo, a detail that reflects a much larger pattern of transforming herself to fit in with her husband’s life. Patra is what she is, to a large extent, because of how she is known—and has allowed herself to be known—with him. The narrator’s various names suggest how she understands herself as well. She feels a kinship to her teacher Mr. Grierson, who calls her a private nickname, Mattie, and by contrast she feels estranged from her mother, who did not vote in the commune for the narrator’s given name, Madeline. Whether she is known as Mattie (as she is to Mr. Grierson), Madeline (as she is at home) or Linda (as she is in school), reflects not how she thinks about herself so much as how she understands and interprets the ways others see her.

Sometimes, it is a bit of a private game I play with readers. What do they call the book’s narrator when they talk about her? It tells me at least a little about how readers see her.

“Something people often ask me is: Are there wolves in this novel? And I have to answer, with a certain apologetic ruefulness, no. “

AUTHORLINK: How did you decide on the book’s title?

FRIDLUND: Something people often ask me is: Are there wolves in this novel? And I have to answer, with a certain apologetic ruefulness, no. Fair warning: If you’re looking for actual wolves, this is probably not the book for you. That first question is often followed up with: What, then, do the wolves in the title represent? I hope that there might be many possible meanings for the wolves in this book, but I also know that wolves get transformed so quickly into metaphors in our culture (for abstractions like loneliness or ferocity). Because of this, I tend to point back to the opening chapter as a starting point when asked about the title. Linda chooses to do a presentation on wolves for an extracurricular competition called History Odyssey, while the other students pick more conventional topics like sunken ships and wars. The judges and her teacher are bewildered and condescending about her choice; in her presentation Linda quotes from the writer Barry Lopez, saying, “An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason.” This idea is especially compelling to a lonely teenager who also happens to be a girl, that is, someone who doesn’t easily see herself in most of the traditional histories that she has been taught. Linda is drawn instead to the notion that power might be context-based, unstable, and ever-shifting. And there are in fact moments of power transfer and ambiguity throughout the novel—when predators transform temporarily into prey, when parents act like children and children like adults, and when apparent victims are capable of being aggressors.  

AUTHORLINK: What research did you do for the story?

FRIDLUND: I read several moving and informative books about Christian Science, the most extensive being Caroline Fraser’s cultural and religious history God’s Perfect Child: Living and Dying in the Christian Science Church. I also read some marvelous nature writers from northern Minnesota, including the inimitable Sigurd Olsen and Helen Hoover. In addition, around the time I was beginning to expand my short story into a novel, I traveled to a part of the north country in Minnesota that I considered somewhat similar to the place where Wolves is set, the region west of Duluth and north of Brainerd. But mostly—and essentially—the novel is made up of some unknowable combination of memory and imagination. Though I grew up in the suburbs, my parents were big believers in getting me and my siblings out into the woods whenever possible, so we spent weekends hiking and canoeing in local parks, and many summers exploring northern Minnesota (especially the North Shore of Lake Superior). Likewise, I spent several intense and intimate years with Christian Scientists when I was a teenager and young adult. I drew from these first-hand experiences to invent the characters and places that would ultimately allow me to think through the things that fascinated and consumed me as I wrote: the weirdly unstable nature of perception, the tyranny of well-meaning belief, and the heavy, heavy weight of guilt. 

“. . . writing stories was also how I found my way into publishing this book. I had been publishing my stories for many years in smaller literary magazines . . .”

AUTHORLINK: How did what you’ve written before lead you to this novel and help you both in writing and publishing it?

FRIDLUND: I had been writing short stories for a long time before I wrote this novel. One of the lessons stories teach you is the art of condensation, which is intimately related to the art of the sentence. Because stories are short, you can think about each sentence as you write: you can weigh what each one articulates against what it hides, its sounds against its silences. So, for better or worse, this first novel of mine was written through the unit of the sentence—as opposed to, for example, the unit of the scene or of the chapter. I was always listening for where each sentence would lead me, and letting those nudgings determine the book’s direction. It could be said, too, that writing stories was also how I found my way into publishing this book. I had been publishing my stories for many years in smaller literary magazines, and the first book I submitted to my agent was a version of the story collection that is now coming out with Sarabande in the fall of 2017.

AUTHORLINK: What are you working on next?

FRIDLUND: Most recently, I’ve been editing my story collection Catapult, which will be published this fall. I have also been ruminating over and collecting jottings for a new novel for more than a year now, and I’m starting to feel ready to dive into that project. I think it will have something to do with infertility and time and parenthood and maybe climate change. I think it probably won’t operate entirely within the realm of realism—though I’ll know more about what this new book will look like when I start writing!

About the Author:

Emily Fridlund holds a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from the University of Southern California. Catapult was a finalist for the Noemi Book Award for Fiction, the Tartis First Fiction Award and the Mary McCarthy Prize. The opening chapter of Wolves won the 2013 McGinnis-Ritchie Award for Fiction. Fridlund lives in the Finger Lakes region of New York.

See more information at: http://www.groveatlantic.com/#page=isbn9780802125873%20

Diane Slocum
Regular Contributor:
Diane Slocum

Diane Slocum has been a newspaper reporter and editor and authored an historical book. As a freelance writer, she contributes regularly to magazines and newspapers. She writes features on authors and a column for writers and readers in Lifestyle magazine. She is assigned to write interviews of first-time novelists and bestselling authors for Authorlink.