Wolves, Wimbledon, And Wildness
Philip Womack interviewed Michelle for Books for Keeps.
Michelle Paver’s much-loved, million-selling series, Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, enchanted readers in 2004 with Wolf Brother, ending with the sixth volume, Ghost Hunter, in 2009. Set 6,000 years ago, in the Stone Age, the sequence follows the adventures of the boy Torak and his wolf companion.
Now, Paver returns to the dangerous, animistic world of the hunter-gatherers with Viper’s Daughter. Torak’s friend Renn comes to the fore, as she deals with the legacy of her witch mother. Gripping, vivid, and beautifully researched, it both stands alone and acts as an enticing portal to a whole universe. I met Paver in the Ivy Club in London; we sit on comfortable, slightly too low chairs over a cup of coffee, to discuss the new book. Well-dressed, immaculate, she talks with poised and generous charm. Over half an hour or so, we discuss wolves, Wimbledon, and wildness.
PW: A lot of recent children’s fiction is constrained and interior. How do you feel about wildness in the genre?
MP: I write what I would have liked to have read, as a ten year old. The natural world just always massively appealed to me. I gravitated towards books with lots of animals: the Willard Price books, going around (not very PC these days) catching animals for zoos. Very well informed, he did his research.
I’m not writing with a message, either. I used to run a mile from books with messages in them. Nevertheless, I think what appeals to me is the wild life, which is amazing since I live in Wimbledon. But there we go. It hasn’t escaped my notice that we live in very uncertain times, and I feel sorry for children these days, glued to their phones.
MP: I’m not very good at imagining places, and that’s not false modesty. I’ve just last week come back from a research trip to North Norway, because the book I’m writing [the sequel to Viper’s Daughter] is set in the polar night. I’ve been in Svalbard, but I just wanted to remind myself what it was like. All the different ways in which ice moves. You can’t really get it from the internet. It’s the topography. I couldn’t have made up the ice cave at the end of Viper’s Daughter. I’m seeing it through the eyes of Stone Age people, so the ice is alive. It’s not very difficult to imagine a glacier being alive when you’ve got it above you and it’s moving. You can hear it. It creates that sense of danger plus the sound of the water. And the blue air, the blue light and the water vapour. It was extraordinary.
The aim is always to make it a really exciting story, and to be exciting, you’ve got to make the reader feel they’re there.
PW: Do you find that it affects your way of thinking, that Far North?
MP: I think, yes, I think partly it’s the extremes. In the summer you’ve got this endless light, which just messes with your head. I’ve just come back from when it gets dark at three, it’s a long, weird twilight. Going back to childhood – Jack London, The Call of the Wild, White Fang, were some of my favourite books. He wrote a wonderful story called To Build a Fire, this man is trying to build a fire but his hands are so cold and he can’t. And that came to me when I was writing Wolf Brother – you’ve got to keep your hands warm! Hence the emphasis on mittens and reindeer hide and sealhide and things like that.
PW: I love Torak’s eelskin shoes.
MP: Yes, which prove useless!
PW: There is a sense of what it was like to be human at the edge oftime.
MP: What I’m constantly trying to bring myself into, is the mindset of: everything is alive. Animism, really – rocks, plants, rivers, everything has a soul. The Sámi put it beautifully: everything can hear and think, but not everything can talk. Which I find quite spooky. You’re sitting having your lunch by a rock and it’s watching you. And I have to constantly tell myself to personify. The sea isn’t just the sea, it’s the sea mother, who’s breathing in and out, causing the tides.
PW: There is a complex relationship between Renn and her mother. She’s drawn towards her, but trying to shield herself from the wickedness too.
MP: I was never going to write a sequel at all, and then fans kept asking. I started thinking about where I’ve left the characters. Renn and her mother was clearly an issue. What I always like to do – and that’s what gets me excited – is to describe something in Stone Age terms that makes psychological sense. Over six, now seven books, I really do know Renn quite well, and that was really fun.
PW: The friendship between Torak and his wolf is very special.
MP: Originally, Wolf thought Torak was just a kind of wolf, but a tail-less one. In Torak’s time, there was respect between hunter gatherers and wolves; they called them the ghost hunters, because they come and go like ghosts. For Torak, because he meets Wolf as a cub, at a crucial time when he’s just lost his father, it’s a much deeper relationship. There’s a lot of darkness in the series, and there’s going to be more; but the wolf/Torak relationship is the golden thread. And I think you need that.
PW: I think the best children’s fiction is aware of that darkness, and death, because it’s mapping a space where the child is learning about adult things but in a way that’s not frightening.
MP: …that’s not overwhelmingly bleak. I don’t want them to feel worse about life when they finish the book. There has to be an element of justice. I get a lot of readers saying, ‘I’ve read this book 18 times’. They’ve gone through tough times. It’s a refuge. It’s partly the Wolf / Torak bond, partly the simplicity. Total immersion in a different world. And conversely it’s about introducing them to difficult things in a way that’s safe. You need the darkness to see the stars.
Philip Womack is an author and critic. His books include The Double Axe and the Darkening Path trilogy. His new novel The Arrow of Apollo is publishing with Unbound.
Viper’s Daughter is published by Zephyr, 978-1789540550, £12.99 hbk.