Riffle Backstory: Q&A with SPIRIT OF THE WOLVES author Dorothy Hearst
The final book in Dorothy Hearst's The Wolf Chronicles is out today, and to celebrate we've got a Q&A with the author. See what she has to say about writing a trilogy, surprising characters, and the history behind man's best friend
Describe your writing process—are you an outliner, or a pantser?
Both! I start off with a concept that fascinates me or a character who won’t leave me alone. Then I write until some sort of structure starts to suggest itself. Next, I outline on giant pieces of paper using flowcharts, diagrams, index cards, and colored pens. I need to do this on paper, rather than on the computer, because the physical action of writing everything down and moving it around stimulates the creative part of my brain. I create an outline based on all the charts and diagrams. Then I go back to writing until the outline stops working, then I go back to the outline, and so on. For The Wolf Chronicles, I went back and forth between outlining and writing through the entire process of writing the trilogy.
Spirit of the Wolves is the conclusion of The Wolf Chronicles trilogy. How did you go about planning the entire trilogy, and did the story evolve as you wrote each book?
I didn’t actually plan it to be a trilogy at first. When I began Promise of the Wolves, I thought it would be one book. When I got to about page 200, I realized that I would need more than one volume to tell the wolves’ story. So it became two books. A month or so later, I went to the International Wolf Conference, and I learned how wolves were at the center of a fierce political battle, and that the wolf was emblematic of very different viewpoints about our role in the natural world. At that point, the thematic basis of the story deepened, and it became a trilogy. I wanted to tell the story not just of one young wolf finding her way in the world, but also the story of our own role as animals in the natural world and the importance of seeing nature as part of Self rather than Other. So the story definitely evolved. I kept the basics more or less the same, but added layers.
During your writing, was there a particular scene or character that surprised you or turned out different than you expected it to?
The character of Tlitoo the raven was a complete surprise. He’s a major force in the story, and I didn’t plan him. In the course of my research, I’d learned that ravens sometimes lead wolves both to dead animals (the ravens can’t get into the carcasses themselves, and so get the wolves to do so) and to live prey. I also learned that wolves and ravens sometimes play together. I wanted to write a scene with ravens in it to add authenticity to the wolves. They were supposed to be background, but they had other ideas. First, the ravens completely took over the scene I was writing about them, and made their very strong personalities known. Then, I saw that there was a little raven watching Kaala. This was Tlitoo. He lured her away from her pack and into trouble. From then on, he was one of Kaala’s best friends, and a vital part of the story. I can’t imagine the books without him.
Is there a character in the novel that you think you’d get along with better than all the others, or would want to hang out with?
I would love to hang out with Yllin, a young wolf who’s one of Kaala’s mentors in the first two books. Kaala is a lot like me, very serious and methodical, and she often over-thinks things. Yllin always knows exactly what she wants and has no qualms about getting it. She’s what I wish I was.
What’s the strangest thing you’ve learned while researching The Wolf Chronicles?
More incredibly cool than strange: the artists who created ancient cave paintings understood and used perspective. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the cave paintings at Font de Gaume in France. At first, the cave was dimly lit by electric lights. We saw what appeared to be an unfinished painting of a bison. It looked like part of its midsection was missing. Then the guide turned out the lights and lit a cigarette lighter so that we were seeing the painting by the light of a flame. And the bison was suddenly three-dimensional. The “missing” part looked, in the flame-light, like depth. I’m still astounded.
What authors inspire you?
So many. I was inspired to write science fiction and fantasy because of books like A Wrinkle in Time by Madeleine L’Engle and Theodore Sturgeon’s More Than Human because, as a kid, I was blown away by the idea that you could take what was known and what was not known, and write stories in between the two. Watership Down and Anne McCaffrey’s Pern books were inspirations for the wolves’ lives and culture. Zilpha Keatley Snyder was a big inspiration because I loved her thoughtful, independent, but realistic girls. Lately, when I’m looking for writerly inspiration, I read Octavia Butler, Suzanne Collins, Neil Gaiman, Mary Mackey, and Ursula Le Guin, among many others.
People would be surprised to know that…
Canines and humans have been together for much longer than people used to think, and it’s likely that wolves and humans co-evolved. It used to be thought that wolves entered our lives as dogs about 14,000 years ago, when we were becoming farmers rather than hunter gatherers. That’s because the oldest dog skeletons we’d found were about that old. But genetic evidence revealed that the wolves that became dogs and the wolves that stayed wolves split off at least 40,000 years ago, and maybe as long as 150,000 years ago. Then, in 2011, archaeologists found a dog skull in Siberia that’s about 33,000 years old. It’s likely that wolves and/or dogs have been with us from before we began farming and settling in one place. So dogs and wolves have been influencing us, for a very, very long time.
What is that one book that has been on your "to-read" list for a long time but you still haven't gotten around to reading?
I have an overflowing to-read shelf for fiction and an overflowing to-read shelf for nonfiction. I think the one that’s been there longest is The Empathic Civilization by Jeremy Rifkin because it’s really, really, big. But I’ll read it. Really.
What’s your favorite method of procrastination?
I have friends who procrastinate by cleaning. If only that were true for me. I re-read my favorite books, especially the ones I loved as a kid. There is something about slipping into a familiar story that I find extremely comforting, restful, and rejuvenating. I’ve also developed an online acrostic habit. Yes, I cheat. And there’s nothing wrong with a Battlestar Galactica marathon now and again.
What books do you still enjoy rereading/would you recommend to your readers?
It would fill up the Internets to list them all. Here are a few of my favorite re-reads at the moment: -To Kill a Mockingbird (at least once a year) -To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. I can’t believe she wrote a time travel novel that’s also a comedy of manners. -Grass by Sheri Tepper -Diamond Age by Neal Stephenson -The Year the Horses Came by Mary Mackey -Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. Well, everything by Octavia Butler
And here are some of the books I had the most fun reading while researching. They’re all great books even if you aren’t obsessed with wolves and dogs: -Of Wolves and Men by Barry Lopez -Animals in Translation by Temple Grandin -The Truth About Dogs by Stephen Budiansky -The Hidden Life of Dogs by Elizabeth Marshall Thomas
Spirit of the Wolves: A Novel (Wolf Chronicles)
Promise of the Wolves: A Novel (The Wolf Chronicles Book 1)
Secrets of the Wolves: A Novel (The Wolf Chronicles Book 2)
A Wrinkle in Time (Time Quintet)
More Than Human
Watership Down: A Novel (Puffin Books Book 1)
The Dragonriders of Pern: Dragonflight, Dragonquest, and The White Dragon (Pern: The Dragonriders of Pern)
The Egypt Game
Mockingjay (The Hunger Games)
Neverwhere: A Novel
The Horses at the Gate
The Left Hand of Darkness
The Empathic Civilization: The Race to Global Consciousness in a World in Crisis
Battlestar Galactica Vault: The Complete History of the Series, 1978-2012
To Kill a Mockingbird, 50th Anniversary Edition
To Say Nothing of the Dog
The Diamond Age (Bantam Spectra Book)
The Year The Horses Came (Earthsong Series Book 1)