Today at Crunchings & Munchings I am joined by the lovely Carol Rifka Brunt, whose debut novel, Tell the Wolves I’m Home, knocked my socks off and then stole my heart! See my gushing review HERE. Born in Queens and raised in Pleasantville, New York, Carol now lives in Devon, England. She has been kind enough to answer my burning questions about Tell the Wolves I’m Home (and a few other things to boot). Carol, welcome!
First up, some questions about Tell the Wolves I’m Home.
Rebecca: Tell the Wolves I’m Home isn’t necessarily a young adult novel but it could be read as one. Were there books that were particularly important or influential to you as a teenager?
Carol Rifka Brunt: I was such a big reader as a teenager. I frequented not just the library in my own town, but also the ones in neighboring towns. I loved The Neverending Story by Michael Ende, A Wrinkle in Time and A Wind in the Door by Madeleine L’Engle. I remember not liking the third one as much because Meg and Calvin were too old by then. I was also (and still am!) a Judy Blume fan. Oh and Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh. It’s amazing to see the explosion of YA books now. We’re really living in such a rich time for children’s and young adult fiction. I envy kids and teens having so much choice.
R: One of the central struggles of Wolves seems to be June’s attempt to figure out which specific pieces of someone’s habits, tastes, and desires, make up the essence of who they are. I really identified with this approach to thinking about taste, and it seems quite apt in a kid like June whose tastes are so personal. Could you talk a little bit about why taste is so important to identity and relationships in Wolves?
CRB: I think, in a way, June is looking for the true person underneath tastes and habits. She starts out thinking she knows her Uncle Finn really well, that his habits and tastes are who he is, but gradually she realizes that those are external things. That we pick up out tastes from other people we know and (sometimes) love. Maybe there is no ‘true’ person to any of us, maybe our tastes and desires are who we are. I’m not sure June ever figures out the answer to this, but I think she does eventually see the beauty in the way our habits can live on, be carried along, in other people once we’re gone.
R: Since June’s and Toby’s relationship rotates around the missing center for both of them—Finn—it seems like it would be so easy to make Finn be a perfect, magical character whom they each idolize. Instead, you make him flawed and complicated. Toby and June, similarly, are deeply complicated characters who aren’t always elegant or likeable. Can you tell us a bit about how you built these rich characters?
CRB: I actually think Finn does come off as pretty magical and charismatic. In a way, he has to be very likeable to make the story work. Also, we’re seeing him through June’s eyes. He was always wonderful to June, so, naturally, she would see him as pretty close to perfect. As a reader, I think we can see more than June sees. His flaws are gradually revealed.
I don’t know that I consciously built any of the characters. June’s voice was there from the start and she revealed herself to me as I wrote. I hate to be flaky or mysterious about the process, but I really don’t know how the characters arrived on the page. I never do character profiles or anything like that. Sometimes I write a few pages in first person from other characters—I did this for Greta and Toby—to hear how they’d speak and to get their voice into my head, but beyond that it feels very intuitive. It’s only in the second and third drafts that I really start to think hard about each character’s motivations. Once I know that, I’m able to go back and make sure everything they say and do makes sense in that context.
R: You’ve mentioned the importance of the setting of 1980s New York to Wolves in other interviews. Why was this setting so important to the story? Did you consider any others over the course of the writing process?
CRB: Once I understood that Finn had AIDs, the 80s seemed the natural setting for the novel. When I think of all the dystopian fiction around at the moment, I’m always reminded how AIDS in the 80s had some of that feel. An unknown virus. Thousands dying. No cure. New York and San Francisco were the epicentres of the disease. Since I knew New York, I chose to set it there. Reluctantly.
I say reluctantly because I didn’t want to write anything remotely autobiographical, but I have to admit, once I settled into it, using a familiar setting made life a lot easier. I could really see so many of the places. Strangely, none of the book places really correspond to my real places. The woods of the book aren’t any specific woods I know, the school from the book looks different in my mind from my own school, I didn’t imagine their home town as my own, their house isn’t like mine. The locations are all composites.
I also wanted to play with the barrier between suburb and city. They’re so close, but when you’re from the suburbs, the city doesn’t feel like your place at all. You’re always a visitor, never a native.
R: Man, oh, man, first loves are notoriously intense and painful! June’s complex feelings for Finn are made all the more so because he is her uncle. Do you see Wolves as a first love story? What kinds of response have you gotten to the book’s treatment of June’s feelings for Finn?
CRB: Yes, I do see it as a first love story for June. Going back to question 2, I think I was interested in the idea of love that isn’t based around the external. I was thinking about the idea of love that comes from seeing the real person buried deep inside social contexts in which we live our lives. I wondered how we’re wired to be ‘in love’ with only certain people. A straight woman might adore everything about another woman, but still, something in her makeup would never allow her to feel romantic love for that woman. This feels like such a mystery to me, the way attraction is so beyond our control. Obviously, there’s genetic basis for it all, but in real life it still feels profoundly perplexing to me. I guess some people would call June’s feelings for Finn a crush, but to her it feels like real (and very embarrassing) love. I’m not sure even at my age I fully understand the difference between those two things.
I haven’t had anyone approach me to complain about June’s feelings or to say they found it an offensive thing to write about. I’m sure there are people who would feel that way and maybe if the book starts to get a broader audience, I’ll get some of that. I think a writer’s job is to tell an honest story. I’m sure June isn’t the only person in the world who has ever fallen in love with somebody completely inappropriate. I see this as such an innocent, honest and tender book. I think perhaps I should be the one to be offended if people want to twist it into something ugly.
R: On the first page of the novel, June says, “I’m fifteen now, but I was still fourteen that afternoon” (3). Could you talk a little about your decision to tell this story in the near past, as opposed to in the present tense or when June is an adult looking back?
CRB: I was actually asked by my editor to consider doing just that—have a prologue and epilogue with the adult June looking back. Although it instinctually felt all wrong to me, I gave it a try. I think it’s so important for writers to be open to suggestions, not to get too precious about their work. An editor has a bird’s eye view of your work, something you’ll never have, so it’s always worth exploring any suggestions. The thing is, I think the story is very pure the way it’s told. It’s innocent. June is guileless and open. She can’t hide her feelings. I think that’s where the beauty comes from. If you start to step back from that you lose her voice and you start to get a whole different perspective on the events. I wanted to create something that had an element of rawness and immediacy with Wolves and I think that’s only possible by telling the story from a perspective close to the end of the events.
And now, a few questions and speculations about you, June, and cheese!
R: June’s obsessions (and I don’t mean that word negatively at all) with certain places, music, etc. were really important to her character. You’ve mentioned in interviews that June is not an autobiographical character, but I think most of us have similarly June-like obsessions. Did you have any obsessions as a teenager? How about now?
CRB: The story isn’t autobiographical at all, but I have to admit that June’s obsessions are pretty autobiographical. I gave her a lot of my geeky teenage obsessions. I used to love Choose Your Own Adventure books, medieval fairs, The Cloisters, Mozart’s Requiem and the idea of being able to travel back in time. Like June, I always felt a bit out of step with the rest of the kids my age. I shared her fairly foolish notion that if I were in another time, somehow I would fit in better.
I think a lot of writers feel a bit like watchers, people on the fringe of things. I still feel that, but I think it’s no longer a painful thing the way it can be for a teenager. It’s just part of who I am. If I’m writing, that’s usually my obsession.
R: So, if June is fourteen in 1987, then she’d be in college in the early and mid-90s. Given her taste for all things medieval and requiem-esque, what do you imagine June would think of the grunge scene?
CRB: Well, since I gave June my geeky teenage things, I guess she could also share my musical tastes in college! I liked the Pixies, Soundgarden, Nirvana, Camper Van Beethoven, Mudhoney, Belly and the Breeders. I also listened to a ton of Tom Waits and Velvet Underground in those days. I think she would have liked the grunge idea. Less artifice and more substance than a lot of 80s music.
R: I have a theory that everyone has at least one hidden talent, no matter how random or seemingly useless. Will you tell us yours?
CRB: If I had one, maybe I wouldn’t be a writer. Whatever it is would certainly be easier. I do love baking and I used to make quilts. I wouldn’t say there was a lot of talent involved in my case. Oh, I do have a bit of a latent travel agent lurking inside me. I’m very good at planning excellent trips on a budget.
R: What is your favorite food or drink to make while writing?
CRB: I’ve mostly managed to abandon this unhealthy snack, but while I was writing the novel I was very fond of mini-poppadums with a little bowl of mango chutney to dip them in and a nice glass of diet Coke with lemon.
R: And, finally: cheese is very important to Tessa and me, so we’ve got to know: what is your favorite cheese?
CRB: Just one! Oh no. I definitely share your passion for cheese. I’d have to go for brie. I live in the southwest of England and there’s a brie they make fairly locally, in St. Endellion, Cornwall, that I adore. I like it melted on some good toast with slivered almonds broiled over the top. Mmmmmm.
So, there you have it, folks: one more cheese stop to add to my world-wide tour (Tessa, I’m looking at you!). Scads of thanks to Carol Rifka Brunt for chatting with us today, and I hope you all scamper right out and read Tell the Wolves I’m Home, my (totally informal because no one asks me these things) nomination for book of the year.