Carol Rifka Brunt talks with Elin Hilderbrand about inspiration and the work that lies ahead of her
Elin Hildebrand lives on Nantucket with her husband and their three young children. She grew up in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, and traveled extensively before settling on Nantucket, which has been the setting for her eight previous novels. Hilderbrand is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the graduate fiction workshop at the University of Iowa.
Elin Hilderbrand: I am always asked at the start of every interview where I get my inspiration for each novel I write. Tell the Wolves I'm Home is a beautiful, haunting story about a young girl dealing with the death of her uncle from AIDS. What was the seed of thought that got you started?
Carol Rifka Brunt: I've found over the years that if I'm truly immersed in writing fictioneven if it's a story that isn't working at allthe subconscious starts to offer up its secrets. I was working on some short stories when the image of a dying uncle (I had no idea it was AIDS at the time) painting a final portrait of his niece came to me. I could see the apartment; I could sense the reluctance of the niece. I could also sense that there was a much bigger story behind what I understood initially. Usually, if a scene or idea keeps coming back to me over the course of months (or sometimes even years) there's something there. There's something nagging to be worked out. That was very much the case with this idea. I had several unsuccessful shots at writing the scene, until one day June's voice was there and I knew I had my way in: I'd hit on the heart of the story.
EH: It's not unusual for an author's debut to be a coming-of-age noveland yet it's also hard to make this kind of story fresh and original. Were you conscious of this as you wrote? What is your favorite coming-of-age novel and how did that book influence you?
CRB: I actually didn't think of this as a coming-of-age story for a long time. I saw it more as an unlikely friendship story between June and Toby. Since June is fourteen, and the events of the novel are life-changing, the novel automatically becomes a coming-of-age story. In fact, it seems every novel with a teen narrator is labeled coming-of-age, and I'm not sure if I fully agree with that. It has the effect of ghettoizing all teen-narrated stories. If the same events happened to a slightly older narrator, the book would just be called fiction. I actually had to go back and make the coming-of-age element more apparent because it really wasn't a big part of my way of thinking about this novel.
June's voice was there right from the start, so I always knew it would be narrated by a teen. To use a teen as the lens to see AIDS in the eighties wasn't something I'd seen before, so I didn't worry so much about freshness or originality. If you always see your characters and their places and concerns as individual and specific, then I think you will always end up with something unique. As soon as you start thinking about the work and characters in terms of labelssuch as "teen" or "coming-of-age"that's when you risk slipping into more stereotypical territory.
After all of that, I have to admit that a lot of my favorite books are coming-of-age stories. I love Skellig by David Almond, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I always say that every book I've ever read influences my writing in one way or another. I really hoped to create a book with emotional resonance, something readers would connect to, and the novels I've mentioned all do that very well. They were a real inspiration in that way.
EH: One of my favorite things about Tell the Wolves I'm Home is the setting in time and placeNew York City and its bedroom communities in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Your details are keenly observed. What kind of research did you do?
CRB: The one thing I didn't want to do was write an autobiographical first novel. Let alone an autobiographical coming-of-age novel. Such a cliché! And yet, as I started writing, the gravitational pull of my own place, my own time, seemed to become irresistible. I started with an idea that was entirely not autobiographical and inch by inch it dragged me back to Westchester in the eightiesthe place I grew up, the place I lived when I was June's age. So, to answer your question, I didn't do very much research at all into time and place. Writing can sometimes work like a time machine. You think you don't remember the fine details of a place from your past, but as you write the most surprising things come out. Things like a Fred Flintstone grape jelly jar drinking glass or Bonne Bell lip gloss. Things you never knew you still stored in your brain.
Once I understood that AIDS was the illness Finn had, New York in the eighties felt like the best place I could set it. Once I came to terms with writing about a place I knew, it became such a liberating thing. I was able to really inhabit the setting in a way that allowed it to be a seamless part of the whole story.
EH: One of the most interesting relationships in this novel is the one between June and her sister Greta. The sister relationship is nearly always an emotional tangocomplicated and lovely. Can you talk a little bit about how this relationship developed for you over the course of writing the book?
CRB: I'm very much an organic writer in that I don't know a lot about how the story will develop until I get there. Greta started off as the cruel older sister. I really enjoyed writing her mean, quippy dialogue, but I didn't know if or how she would redeem herself over the course of the book. Getting Greta's storyline right was actually one of the most difficult aspects of writing this novel. She's self-destructive, mean, andalthough talented and successful in so many waysclearly struggling with herself. I always knew I wanted to avoid a big "Ta-da!" moment where Greta revealed some external reason for being such a tortured soul. I didn't think this novel could take an announcement of pregnancy or an affair with a teacher (quite a few readers have said they wondered about Greta and her drama teacher) or any other "big issue" kind of rationale for her behavior. There was no way there could be enough room in this book to do anything like that with the depth and justice it would deserve, and it would have swung the story too far away from the one I wanted to tell. What I did remember so clearly from when I was a teen was how the smallest of problems could seem hugely magnified. So, rather than one big reason for her behavior, I wanted Greta to suffer from a slow mounting of smaller situations. More erosion than explosion.
Although Greta always knows more than June, I think June is the wiser one. She despises Greta at times, but underneath it we still see how much she cares for her. At times it's frustrating to see. I think as a reader you want to tell her to give up on Greta, but she can never quite do it.
EH: I love how June's parents are reminiscent of the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoonsthey are a bit like wonky voices heard from offscreen for most of the book. June and Greta are left to largely raise themselves. And yet, at the end of the novel, we learn more about how June's mother was emotionally tied to her brother. She struggles with accepting Finn's homosexuality, lifestyle, and love for Toby. What was it like to write from the point of view of a character who is initially so intolerant?
CRB: I've had feedback from readers who have said that they really disliked Danni. That they thought she was responsible for all the hurt in the story. I never felt that way about her. I loved all of the characters in Tell the Wolves. Danni's jealousy never felt anything but human to me, something that anyone could feel. This may not come across fully in the novel, but I never thought Danni really had a problem with Finn's homosexuality. In my mind, she used that as a way to hurt him, to redress the sense of abandonment she felt when Finn left her behind all those years ago. By forcing him to exclude Toby from his relationship with Greta and June (on the pretense of not wanting to expose her daughters to that kind of "lifestyle") she's able to wield a small amount of power over him. To me, it always felt like a sad and desperate thing to do, rather than a fully cruel thing. "You can't have everything," she says in the book, and she wants to make that true for Finn, the way she felt he had made it true for her. Unfortunately for Toby, he ends up as a pawn in all of this. He's the one who ends up hurt the most by her actions.
EH: Your use of Finn's painting, and the ways the girls amend, are nothing short of brilliant. What is your background in art? How did you get the idea to use the painting as a form of dialogue between people who couldn't speak to one another honestly face-to-face?
CRB: I always wish I had a better answer to questions like this, but, again, the whole idea of the painting being visited by the two girls was such an organic thing. As a writer, you're always asking, "What if?" I knew as soon as Greta was handed the other key to the safety deposit box and dismissively said she'd never visit that she wasn't telling the truth. What if they're both going down to see the painting? What if they're both trying to leave their mark there? The idea of using the portrait as a way for the girls to "speak" to each other sprung from those initial thoughts. The portrait almost functions like a continuing version of Finna beautiful and beloved thing that both pulls the sisters together and tears them apart.
I also wanted to give the book a slightly magical feel. The portrait and its vault, like the basement space in Finn's apartment building, and the woods at night, all have a little bit of that sense. They are places and objects that are real in the story but function a little bit outside the world of true realism.
As for my background in art, I can't really claim much beyond spectator status. I took as much art as I could in high school, but I can't say I was very good. The idea of negative space is something I remember from my high school art teacher, actually. While writing Tell the Wolves I'm Home, I made several trips to the National Portrait Gallery in London just to look and get a sense of where the power comes from in the best portraits.
EH: Who are your favorite authors? What are your reading habits?
CRB: I seem to have about seven or eight books on the go at any one time. Of those, I might finish two or three. Favorites are always shifting and changing, but over the last few years it seems that a lot of my favorite books have been nonfiction. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters, to name a few.
EH: Tell the Wolves I'm Home is a triumph. I love being excited by an author's debut work, because most times the writing only gets deeper and richer. Are you working on something new?
CRB: Thank you very much. Tell the Wolves started out as a very short story. As soon as I finished I knew there was a lot more to tell. Right now I'm working on a number of short pieces, one of which feels like it's headed in the same direction. It seems I need to trick my brain into writing a novel. I wish I were the type of writer who could come up with a solid outline and write from there, but it seems I'm the sort who needs to make many, many false starts before finding the real story. It's a pretty slow process, but along the way there are so many unbelievably satisfying "Aha!" moments: wonderful little epiphanies when a character's motivation becomes achingly clear, when a line of dialogue becomes suddenly loaded with meaning, when my conscious mind realizes what my unconscious was doing all alongthat I'm not sure I'd really want to do it any other way.
Unless otherwise stated, this interview was conducted at the time the book was first published, and is reproduced with permission of the publisher. This interview may not be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the copyright holder.
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