Once There Were Wolves is Charlotte McConaghy’s second adult novel set in the Scottish Highlands. Inti Flynn arrives in Scotland with her twin sister, Aggie, to lead a team of biologists with reintroducing fourteen grey wolves into the remote Highlands. Since they’ve left Alaska neither of the Flynn sisters have been the same. But soon Inti is pulled in by the town and the people in it. However, a farmer is found dead, and Inti knows where the town will lay blame: on the wolves. If the wolves didn’t make the kill, then who did?
On my part of the blog tour, here is the Q&A with Charlotte McConaghy.
Question: Your new novel follows a young woman, Inti Flynn, tasked with reintroducing several wolf packs into the Scottish Highlands. Through the course of the book, the reader really gets a sense of each wolf’s personality, and they feel like such distinct characters, but they are distinguished from one another by numbers rather than names. Why did you decide not to name them? How did their individual traits take shape?
Answer: A lot of my research for this novel was reading first-hand accounts from the wolf scientists who worked on past reintroduction projects, such as the Yellowstone wolf project, and I was struck firstly by how incredibly distinct the personalities of the wolves were, and then by the fact that the scientists on the project very rarely gave them names, instead using numbers as a means of identifying them. Although I never found out why this was, it seemed to me that it might be a way for those working with the wolves to protect themselves a little against the inevitability of the wolves’ deaths. This became an important part of Inti’s character – her need to try to remain separate from the wolves emotionally, knowing that growing too close would be a danger she couldn’t afford. But soon the individual traits of the wolves would become impossible for her to ignore and the idea of not connecting with them futile. Their personalities took shape, for me, as I grew to know them and love them; I wanted to make them characters in their own right, distinct and unique.
Question: Inti, our heroine, has a rare condition called mirror-touch synesthesia that causes her to physically feel the hurt she sees others, humans and animals alike, experience. Was this the first part of Inti’s character that came to you while you were writing?
Answer: It might not have been the very first, but it was close. I’d wanted to write a character with this condition for a long time, ever since I heard about it on the Invisibilia podcast and been blown away by the strangeness and the vulnerability of how it works. I also knew from the beginning that this was going to be a book about empathy, so pretty quickly it made sense to me to have a protagonist who was uniquely placed to experience both the danger and vulnerability, alongside the importance and joy of empathy.
Question: Not everyone in the community is as empathetic toward the wolves as Inti. In fact, many of the farmers are resistant to their presence. How did you get into a headspace to imagine this kind of opposition?
Answer: The idea of killing wolves to me is anathema. Utterly incomprehensible. I just love them. But I knew I couldn’t approach this story in terms of good or bad. My dad is a cattle and sheep farmer so I spoke to him about how he’d feel if I said there were suddenly going to be wolves in the bush around his land. Understandably, he wasn’t impressed. The thought of yet another threat being introduced to his livelihood, which he works incredibly hard for under huge financial pressure was exhausting to him. So I wanted to approach the complexity of this issue with sensitivity for both sides of the argument; I wanted the book to have an ultimate sense of coming together rather than division, which meant it was important that both sides feel nuanced, true and understandable.
Question: The wolves aren’t the only monsters in this story. Without giving too much away, can you talk a little about what the wolves reveal about our own human nature?
Answer: I think we need the monsters to be wolves so that we don’t become the monsters ourselves. But it was important to me to shift the narrative that wolves are big and bad and things to be feared. What became staggeringly clear is that they’re shy, family-oriented creatures, capable of immense loyalty and generosity. Wolves have harmed very few people throughout history. It’s humans who harm humans. And I don’t think this is part of our intrinsic natures; I think it’s what happens when we move too far from wildness, which to me speaks more to the parts of us capable of nurturing, and of tenderness. In harmony with our surrounds. Living lightly upon this earth and kindly toward each other. The sort of behavior we see in wolves.
Question: Your first adult novel, Migrations, is also very much about the natural world and how our choices as humans impact the animals we share this planet with. What draws you to center your novels on this kind of wildness?
Answer: I guess I always try to write about the things that frighten me, and the things I love. I love animals, and I’m really, deeply frightened of the thought of a world without them. The loss of that takes my breath away. They have just as much right to be here as we do, and I hate seeing how they’re treated both directly and indirectly. I’m thrilled at the thought that we could be more like them than we realize, and that knowing this might help us to frame how we should treasure them. They’re crucial to our survival and the planet’s. Which I think means that our return to wildness, and our efforts to rewild this world, are the only way forward.
Question: What’s up next for you?
Answer: I’m currently working on my next novel, which is set on a tiny sub-Antarctic island and will explore the idea of raising children in a dying world, and what our responsibilities around that are. It is also both a mystery and a love story, of course, because those are the most fun to write!
Hope you enjoy this Q&A, and I definitely would recommend Once There Were Wolves (and Migrations) to anyone!
Happy Reading Darling!