What was the inspiration for Tell the Wolves I’m Home? I know you worked on the novel over the course of several years. Did the characters, plot or setting come first?
Before that I just had an idea of an uncle painting a final portrait of his niece. I was working on a few short stories at the time and this scenario just came to me one day. I didn’t know what he was dying of or what the relationship between the two was like. I just knew that he was making the painting as a last ditch attempt at leaving something in the world, forging a final relationship that would outlast him. Once I had June’s voice I could start to feel my way into the story.
Much later—like maybe two years into the process—I realized that part of the inspiration for the AIDS aspect of the story very likely came from an experience surrounding my eighth grade English teacher. He was an exchange teacher from England, very well-liked. He left to return to London at the end of the year and a few months later we heard that he’d died. He was only in his 30s, so this was really shocking. Not long after that we heard that he’d had AIDS. With all the confusion and fear around AIDS at that time, this seemed almost unreal. It was the first time AIDS had entered our lives and it made a big impression. It feels strange that I didn’t see the connection between that teacher and this story. My physical descriptions of Toby in Tell the Wolves could just as easily be descriptions of that teacher. So similar. And yet I didn’t even notice.
You are skilled at describing the depths of grief. How do you make emotions feel so real on the page? Is this something that you had to work on, or was it simply innate?
I think writing in first person is a big help with really getting into the emotions of your characters. Writing first person is almost like being an actor. You’re directly voicing somebody else. I think I was often feeling what June was feeling when I was writing.
Also, like so much in novel writing, emotion is tied in closely with other elements. Robert Olen Butler, in his book From Where You Dream, talks about the importance of the sense of yearning in a work. Once you have an understanding of what your character yearns for, her deepest longing (and this might be something she’s not even aware she wants) I think you immediately set up a situation where anything affecting that has a certain power. From page one the reader can see how much June loves her Uncle Finn. She loses him quite early in the book, but he’s still there on every page. You feel her winning him and losing him again and again over the course of the book. I think that the evocation of emotion isn’t about the poignant events, but about that character with that particular yearning encountering those events. The job of the writer is to frontload the situation.
One final thing about this: I figured out at some point in the writing that the emotional arc of the story and even of each scene was as important, if not more important, than the arc of the plot. The event happens and then the emotional response to that is where the story really lies. The whole story is in the reaction. If you short change the reader of the character’s full reaction to an event you lose the emotional pull of the story.
Your main character, June, is 14 when the novel begins. Can you describe your life at that age? Did anything significant happen to you then that led you to write June as a teenager (rather than an adult or child)?
You know, I really tried to avoid falling into the ‘autobiographical first novel’ trap. I would have loved for this story not to have been set in Westchester in the late 80s where I grew up, but that setting just worked so well for the story. I seem to have a very clear memory of my 14-year-old mindset. Maybe too clear! I gave June a lot of the geeky preoccupations I had at her age —a romantic notion of the Middle Ages, a collection of Choose Your Own Adventure books, a love of escapist period movies—and also maybe the sense of trying to figure out my place in the world. Like June, I remember a strong sense of viewing things from the outside, of not really being part of things that were going on around me, of feeling like a watcher rather than a participant.
Having said all that, the story itself isn’t autobiographical at all. There was no charismatic uncle in the city and the relationship between June and Greta is very different from my relationship with my own sister. Even June’s parents are nothing like my own.
For June, the Middle Ages are her happy place—where she imagines herself to live when she wants comfort. Do you have a time period (or place) that gives you the same kind of solace
I think looking to another place or time to give you happiness is really the wrong way to go about it. I think it’s something that’s appealing when the here and now isn’t a particularly fulfilling place or when you can’t really see where you fit in the world. In Tell the Wolves there’s June with her feeling that she would be more at home in an earlier time and the quite nerdy Ben who is immersed in Dungeons and Dragons. Both of those pursuits seem to speak to a desire to reinvent oneself as more important or more powerful somehow. So, to answer the question, at this point in my life I don’t really look to escape as a way to feel comfortable. I try to live my real life in a way that gives me the things I need.
On the other hand, maybe writing is the most escapist pursuit of all. Hour after hour spent dreaming up other places and lives. Maybe that’s my way of removing myself.
Did you have to do any research in preparing to write this novel?
I did quite a bit of reading around AIDS—the timeline for availability of blood tests and AZT and the attitudes and atmosphere of the time—but I also relied a lot on my own memories of the late 80s. Since the book is narrated by a 14-year-old, I had the luxury of not including things she wouldn’t have known.
I had a look at Ryan White’s autobiography, which contained a few helpful nuggets. I also looked around for essays written at the time and came across John Weir’s piece ‘AIDS Stories’ which appeared in Harpers close to the time the book is set. Weir writes about running a writing workshop for men with/dying from AIDS. That essay really gave me a window on the feeling of helplessness that many people must have felt around that time.
As a writer, do you have a personal mission statement or purpose?
I’ve been reading a lot of truly excellent narrative non-fiction over the last few years. While writing Wolves I found myself wondering what the novel could bring to the table that non-fiction couldn’t. I’ll admit that it was a hard question to answer. The non-fiction I’d been reading—and none of it was memoir, but rather general narrative non-fiction—was gripping and filled with compelling characters, plus it had the added bonus of revealing something of the real world. So if there were all these amazing true stories, what was the point of writing about invented characters and situations?
After much thought, I concluded that the gift of the novel lies in the emotional connection it can provide. A novel has the ability to put the reader right inside a character, to let the reader understand the way another person thinks and feels. So, that’s my mission as a novelist—To use the novel to emotionally connect with readers. If I want to make an intellectual argument or explore an issue or examine something political, I’d do it through non-fiction. Story and connection are the only goals I have for novel writing.
What was your reaction when you found out your first novel would be published?
Stunned? Elated? I was actually on a writers retreat in a big old country house in rural England with a group of people I’d never met when it all started happening. My agent had submitted the novel on a Friday and by the Monday we had a couple editors interested. That they’d read so fast was a surprise in itself. Over the course of the week more editors were expressing interest. At that point I was in a pretty solid state of disbelief. My book about a friendship between a teenager and a man dying of AIDS was getting attention from multiple editors at big houses? Not what I was expecting at all. Internet was patchy at this retreat, but we managed to schedule transatlantic phone calls with the interested editors. I sequestered the library and spoke to editor after editor about the book. That alone was an amazing experience. Just hearing editorial ideas, having people who seemed passionate about my work, was wonderful.
An auction was scheduled and I actually left the retreat for a day so I could deal with whatever was about to happen. I was home alone when I heard that we had sold to Dial Press (Random House) and I remember just jumping up and down in my kitchen like a maniac. After three and a half years of writing and revising, five months of submitting to agents with a collection of about 50 agent rejections over that time, I just couldn’t quite believe it was all really happening.
What’s next for you?
I’m working on several short stories and the beginnings of a new novel at the moment. I would love to talk about the new novel idea, but I have an irrational fear of jinxing it if I reveal anything too soon. Plus, I have only a small amount of faith that I’ll be able to pull off what I’d like to do.