Michelle Paver: Wolf Woman
Interview: author Michelle Paver, Wimbledon Common to Arctic Wolves
Best-selling author Michelle Paver talks to Jenny Booth about her trips to the Polar Regions to make her stories as immersive as possible…
Michelle Paver brought back some strange souvenirs from her latest trip to the Arctic Circle. Stored away for future use were the tart taste of sea buckthorn berries; the unpleasant softness of chewing cod’s tongues; the greedy enjoyment of a shaggy Icelandic pony cropping seaweed; the slow, gelid changes as the sea freezes over in a harbour; and the long darkness of Arctic winter when the sun only peeps over the horizon.
“I needed the darkness, because the next book is set in the dark time,” explains Paver, whose solitary trips to the Polar Regions are to capture experiences to include in her writing. “Watching the sea freezing over sounds boring, but I was seeing it from the point of view a wolf, trying to get ashore in the dark but unable to see where to put his paws.”
To the excitement of her millions of fans worldwide, after a pause of 11 years, the Wimbledon author is about to publish another of the Stone Age adventure novels that made her name. Viper’s Daughter comes out on April 2, the first in a three book series that continues the stories of clan outcast Torak and his wolf companion.
Back in 2004 Paver entered the same league as JK Rowling with the rumoured £2 million advance paid for Wolf Brother, the first in her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, in which Torak, Wolf and Raven clan girl Renn battle demons and outwit power-hungry mages to protect their pristine world of hunter-gatherers. The stories were written for children but, like Harry Potter, they became crossover successes adored by adults. Sir Ian McKellen was so taken with Wolf Brother that he rang Paver’s agent and volunteered to read the audio book.
Tense, well-written and alive with authentic details, the six book series closed on a high note with the 2009’s award-winning Ghost Hunter, in which the last of the evil Soul Eater mages is defeated. Paver moved on to more success with Gothic novels for adults, such as Thin Air and Wakenhyrst. But Torak, Wolf and Renn refused to go away from her thoughts. With readers on the Wolf Brother fanzine site begging her to bring them back, Paver started to wonder how their story might continue. Inspiration struck on a trip to Norway when, huddled in her chilly hotel room, she saw the Northern Lights appear in the form of a tree branch pointing north. Then the idea came to her for a new and devilish antagonist. The story picks up two summers on, when a shadow falls over the close partnership of Torak and Renn. It’s a gripping tale that will win her new readers.
Paver is famous for her detailed research to give her books authenticity. She has befriended wolves, and had a hair-raising encounter with a mother bear and her cubs. She has trekked the forests of Finland, paddled in skin boats, worn sealskin parkas and learned from the Haida people of British Colombia how they mark paths by scratching the underside of mushrooms.
She has eaten raw reindeer liver and other indigenous delicacies. She has stood in the sleet on beaches covered in polar bear prints, scribbling her observations into a waterproof notebook with an indelible pencil. (She finds cameras useless for capturing experiences.)
Back in her first floor study in her house overlooking Wimbledon Common, she types her notes into her 23-year-old PC, sorting out what details she needs. With no Internet connection, her valuable manuscript is safe from hackers. The latest trip provided extra material for Skin Taker, which will be the second book in the new trilogy. No spoilers, but it seems as though Wolf will have an important story in this one.
“I’ve always loved wolves. When I was ten I wanted a wolf. When I used to take my little Cavalier King Charles for a walk around Cannizaro Park, in my imagination he became a wolf,” Paver remembers. Growing up she had a thirst for adventure, fuelled by an aunt in Rhodesia who sent eccentric presents like a witch doctor’s medicine horn, and regaled her with tales of being chased up a tree by a lion.
She wrote her first story, “Ebany [sic] the Mouse Goddess” – about a heroine who rescues her fellow mice from a village threatened by a glacier – at the age of five, and hasn’t stopped writing since. At school at The Study in Wimbledon, she penned a play about the Stone Age. In a forerunner of Wolf Brother, while studying biochemistry at Oxford she drafted a book about a boy and his wolf in Viking Norway. She got up at dawn to fit in a couple of hours’ writing before work as a corporate litigator in the City.
Practising law was only meant to pay the mortgage so that she could write. But it wasn’t until the death of her father prompted her to take a sabbatical that she gave up the day job to write full-time. Fortunately, three months after she handed in her notice she had her first novel accepted by a publisher.
“The way I write is very immersive. I live on my own, and I live and breathe it,” she says. “When I don’t have a story on the go, it’s just bleak! I don’t write from a position of pain, I’m glad to say, though I do go into painful things. On the first page of Wolf Brother, Torak’s father is dying. Well, I was with my father when he died, and he wasn’t killed by a bear, he died of cancer, but I remember holding his hand, and he gripped mine, and I think I put in Wolf Brother that it was the wrong way round. Fathers gripping the hand like that, it felt wrong for Torak to be reassuring his father. But no, I mostly write because I just have to.”
She has cut her travels right back of late, as the impact of global warming is so plain to her. “I’ve been going to the Arctic for 20 years, and every time it’s worse,” she says. “In Greenland it was quite rainy at times and the Inuit were saying, ‘We never had rain before’. It’s a real problem for the wildlife; musk oxen evolved to be in a very cold, dry environment, so the rain weighs them down, and then it freezes, and it’s heavy. And then there’s the plastic pollution. I can’t ignore it.” February was the first time she has flown in two years.
“It doesn’t get into the stories, and perhaps that’s part of the appeal, because this is a world 6,000 years ago, before it all went wrong,” she says. “There’s no pollution and lots of animals. But I think it does touch a nerve, perhaps even more now, that my hunter-gatherers live in a very sustainable way.”
Wimbledon has never featured directly in her novels, but she borrows details. In Wakenhyrst there is an ancient graveyard whose ground level, like St Mary’s Church, is a metre higher than the road because of centuries of burials. Wimbledon to her is filled with history, with many layers of the past. It’s only a pity that a philistine 19th Century MP had the prehistoric remains on Wimbledon Common dug up, or the connection with Torak and Renn could be right on her doorstep…
Michelle Paver’s book Viper’s Daughter is published by Zephyr 2 April £12.99 on hardback