INTERVIEW: Emily Fridlund, Author of ‘History of Wolves’

History of Wolves
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Author Emily Fridlund’s debut novel History of Wolves is a dark examination of life, death, and the trials of adolescence in the frigid woods of northern Minnesota. It was met with critical acclaim when it was released. Its first chapter won the McGinnis-Ritchie award, and T. C. Boyle called it, “As exquisite a first novel as I’ve ever encountered.” She was recently kind enough to discuss her captivating novel with me. Her collection of short stories, Catapult, comes out in October.

I found it very intriguing that you chose an old hippie commune as the home for your protagonist. It seemed to suggest a place of lost ideals and abandoned principles. Could you tell us why you decided to use that setting?
I have always been interested in the incredibly high ideals held not only by self-proclaimed hippies, but by the baby boomers more generally. Part of this fascination comes from the stories I grew up hearing from my own parents, who—like so many of their time—marched for Civil Rights and protested the Vietnam War and experimented with rethinking traditional institutions like childrearing and education.

My parents actually met in what they called a commune, but might also be described as a big ramshackle house of single people in St. Paul. Their short-lived urban experiment has little in common with the back-to-the-land-style commune I invented for Wolves except for, perhaps, the larger legacy it left: hugely idealistic goals mediated by time and history and the complexity of human relationships. Though Linda’s parents are on the younger side of the hippie generation, it was important to the structure of the book that Linda has been raised in the lonely aftermath of those ideals’ dissolution. Her parents love her, I believe. But their hands-off care involves a kind of benign neglect that amplifies Linda’s adolescent sense of isolation. Their parenting style allows her the independence that makes her in some ways more capable and mature than her years might suggest.

At the same time, because of their aloofness and distance, she has few of the practical and social resources she needs, and this makes her, in other ways, much more vulnerable than most 15-year-olds. Linda’s relationship with her mother is especially complicated: Linda can’t help but be a reminder to her mother of the commune’s failures, and her mother’s own. The problem, of course, is that Linda can never make up for (or forgive her mother for) failures she doesn’t fully understand because she was merely born into them.

The narrator in History of Wolves goes by several names. While her real name is Madeline, she mostly goes by Linda, though Mr. Gierson calls her Mattie, and at one moment she even thinks of herself as Mattie when she first meets Patra and Paul. She is also called governess, freak and commie. What made you decide to do this and what are the literary implications?
This book is written in the first person, so the narrator has always been essentially nameless to me. Even now I find it strange to talk and write about “Linda,” the name the narrator is called most often. She has never really been Linda to me in my mind.

As a writer, I think of names as arbitrary and interesting insofar as they reflect how a character is known by other characters, and also how a character knows him- or herself in the context of others. Because of this, it simply made sense to me that the narrator of Wolves would be known, and understand herself differently, in different social contexts. She identifies with and feels an affinity for Mr. Grierson, who calls her by a private nickname, Mattie, and by the same token, she feels alienated from her mother, who claims she did not vote in the commune for the narrator’s given name, Madeline. “Governess” is the intimate, playful title that Patra gives her, and because of that it is an especially cherished name. Later, when Patra calls her “babysitter” at the trial, it feels to the narrator like a betrayal. I wanted to use all these potential names for the narrator to suggest something about her difficulty in being known, and especially of being known as one thing. Identity, for this lonely teenage kid, can feel chimerical.

It can be interesting to me to see what readers call her, too. For the vast majority, she is Linda. But I admit to feeling a special bond with those who call her Mattie, the name the narrator herself most identifies with. It tells me a little about how readers understand her.

I found a parallel in the parents of Linda and Paul, in that they both seemed to show a type of idealistic neglect in their parenting. For Linda, it is her parents’ belief in personal freedom. For Paul, it is his parents’ belief in Christian Science. Could you expand on this and are there other similarities between the hippies and the Christian Scientists?
I’m so glad you see this parallel! Yes, I do think that both Linda and Paul suffer from idealistic neglect. Linda spends a lot of time wondering if she could have done more for Paul, but I wanted the reader to understand, even if Linda does not, the deeply-rooted reasons that hold her back, that make her a victim of her own parents, in a way. Her parents, like Paul’s, fail to really see her deep vulnerabilities—her loneliness, her hunger, her aching for attachments. In many ways, they have not provided the emotional and physical care she so desperately needs.

It is in trying to fill some of those gaps that Linda allows herself to be taken in for a time by the Gardners’ way of life, to deceive herself and neglect Paul’s needs in an effort to fill her own. This correlation between the Linda’s parents and Paul’s allowed me expose some of Linda’s motivations and limitations. It also allowed me to expand the scope of the book and offer something more than an exposé of Christian Science, which was never really my goal. Rather, I wanted to think about the ways that well-intentioned belief, in all its varied forms, can do harm. Late in the book, the adult narrator says that the story she is trying to tell is one about “the origin of human evil.” I think there might be several ways to interpret this line, but at least one way to think about it is that evil doesn’t come from the devil, or from some innate corrupting force, but often from our terrible, self-justifying drive to tell stories that ignore the needs of others. That is something we’re all capable of, not just hippies and not just Christian Scientists.

In History of Wolves you mention The Turn of the Screw and talk of telling a story with a certain “Victorian ghost-story earnestness.” Also, the overall pervasive mood of unease and uncertainty gave the novel a very Gothic feel. Do you consider your novel a type of modern Gothic and what other literary influences were at work in the story?
Just before I began writing Wolves, I read fairly deeply into the Gothic tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Later, as I wrote the first couple of chapters of Wolves, I could feel the subtle influence of those books, particularly the old great governess stories like Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre and Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw. At some point I realized that Wolves was itself a contemporary governess tale, and so I wanted to pay direct homage to those books: Patra comes out and calls Linda “governess” early in the novel. In part, I was interested in the peculiarly peripheral-yet-essential role the governess plays in those old Gothic stories—the way she sees and does not see, knows and does not know, at the same time. More broadly, the Gothic provided me with a model for thinking about the unspoken as a powerful engine of storytelling. What can’t (or won’t) be said lends a kind of electric charge to all that is in fact articulated. That pervasive mood of unease that you mention starts to permeate everything, including descriptions of woods and chores and meals—even a game of Candy Land. I would be honored to think of Wolves as working within the tradition of the Gothic.

Another writer I was reading relentlessly as I worked on Wolves was Virginia Woolf. I became preoccupied for a time with the way Woolf brings together causally unrelated events—in books like Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Years—and, so while I was composing Wolves, I ended up writing a critical dissertation on what I was calling “narrative simultaneity.” This is a somewhat nerdy subject, I admit!

Still, I can’t help but think that some of this reading seeped into my writing of Wolves as well, especially in the way I related the plots involving Linda’s relationship to Mr. Grierson and her very different relationship to the Gardners. If the Gothic structure is all about knocking down dominoes one by one—or leading the reader forward with the unspoken, the secret—narrative simultaneity acts as a kind of opposite force, asking the reader to think in terms of associations and resonances (the way memory works, or poetry) rather than a brick-by-brick line of revelation. It involves thinking in layers rather than sequences. Charlotte Brontë and Virginia Woolf may not be the likeliest of literary partners (Woolf was very clear about not being Brontë’s greatest fan), but they have both been incredibly influential to me.

Linda struck me as a feral character. She loves wolves and her intimacy with the forest gave her the feel of a wild creature at times. I found it both amusing and poignant when Linda tells the judge of the History Odyssey tournament that, “Wolves have nothing at all to do with humans actually. If they can help it, they avoid them.” I also thought it very striking when she later gives her boyfriend Rom a dog collar and leash to put on her. It seemed to me as if she was seeking to be tamed, reverting to the “doggy friendliness” of the stuffed wolf at the Nature Center. Could you tell us about the symbolic use of wolves in your novel and how they relate to Linda and her character arc?
Feral is a perfect word for Linda. She is fierce and a little wild and very hungry. She chooses wolves for her History Odyssey project, in part, because they have little or nothing to do with humankind and its history—as she says. I’m so glad you find that moment when she responds to the judge poignant. It’s a moment when Linda turns the judge’s anthropocentric presumptions momentarily upside down, calls them into question. I’ve always thought there is an almost misanthropic quality that overlaps with certain feminist impulses, if only because so many of our human interactions have been shaped by systems of inequality, like patriarchy and racism. What do humans have to offer teenage girls, after all? Why wouldn’t such girls look to other creatures with a certain longing, in search of other ways of being, other social systems, and other forms of strength? In her presentation, Linda quotes the naturalist Barry Lopez, saying, “An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason.” The notion that power might not be fixed is one that is absolutely intoxicating to an overlooked teenage girl.

Your reading of the scene with Rom and the dog collar is also fascinating. I do think there is a piece of Linda that craves domestication, in a sense. She is so drawn to the quietly domestic world of the Gardner family, a world shaped by the rhythms of meal-making and tidying and caregiving. It is an “indoors” life rather than an “outdoors” one. Though rougher around the edges, Rom offers her a similar kind of life when Linda is an adult: a more traditional relationship, one with salads. And yet, at the same time, I don’t see the “pets” in this book as very easily distinguishable from the wild animals. Lily is called a pet several times, but she turns out to be far more dangerous than she initially seems. Patra, too, even when down on her knees before Leo in the hotel, is capable of influencing her husband, especially sexually. So when Linda wears the collar with Rom, she is—even while taking on a “tamed” role—intentionally refusing some part of the domestic dream that Rom reveals in his hope for an actual pet dog for them to care for together. In this way, her performance of submission with the collar and leash is almost indistinguishable from aggression, at least in my mind.

There are lots of little moments, like this one, when wild creatures and pets—or predators and prey—switch places or nearly merge together. If nothing else, I hoped that the book’s title would draw attention to some of these ambiguous and slippery shifts of power. I can’t help but think of the moment, late in the book, when Linda takes Paul to see her beloved taxidermy wolf at the Nature Center. Paul isn’t feeling well, and in an effort to buoy him up, she promises him a real wolf. But, upon seeing the creature, Paul says, rightly, “That’s not real.” However compelling the idea of the wolf is to Linda, the stuffed creature is, of course, unable to help Paul in any way. Here the wolf is stupidly inanimate, utterly ineffectual. I often thought of History of Wolves as a series of stories, at times even fairy tales, that people tell themselves to justify and understand their lives—and in those stories the wolves may be wild or domesticated, alpha or stuffed, depending on who tells the tale and when.

Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with me. I found your answers as intriguing and fascinating as the book. I look forward to reading more from you in the future.