Emily Fridlund Interview, plus links to author biography, book summaries, excerpts and reviews

Emily Fridlund

Emily Fridlund

An interview with Emily Fridlund

A conversation with Emily Fridlund, author of History of Wolves, in which she describes the genesis of her debut novel set in the beautiful, austere woods of northern Minnesota.

Tell us about the genesis of History of Wolves, which is your first novel.

The first chapter was initially a short story that I wrote for a fiction workshop, in which we read—among other things—two novels about teachers and students: J. M. Coetzee's marvelous Disgrace and Francine Prose's Blue Angel. I remember walking around the lush, manicured campus at the University of Southern California and scribbling a fitful response to what had come to seem to me like an overly examined subject in fiction: that of the experienced male teacher falling for a younger, highly eroticized female student. I began my own story with a middle school history teacher collapsing in front of his class, and a teenage girl reluctantly approaching him, taking his hand. I wanted to think more about this small gesture, the boldness that might inspire it, as well as the longing for human contact. And more broadly, I wanted to tell a story from the perspective a teenage girl who has not been transformed into a sexual object, and yet one who cannot help but understand the way that transformation grants a certain kind coveted visibility, even while it denies other forms of power. Linda—or Mattie or Madeline—was the voice I found that allowed me to think through some of this.

It's worth saying that the initial story I wrote was self-contained, and I really did think of it as finished. I revised it a bit and sent it out into the world to be published. But when I started to think about the things I wanted to say in a novel, I sensed that Linda's voice might be one I could linger in a little longer. She has a sharp and penetrating gaze—and she can be blunt—but there is also so much that she doesn't know that a reader might, and that was something I knew I could use.

What can you tell us about Linda as a narrator? Why did you want to tell the story from her point of view?

Linda's knowledge of the world is limited because of the remoteness of the place in which she grew up as well as her unusual history: she was born into a back-to-the-land-style commune that broke up when she was very young. I wanted to tell the story from Linda's point of view, in part, because her background amplifies what I think is true of any child or teenage perspective: its simultaneous canniness and naiveté. In a way, because Linda is watching so carefully, she sees more than others in the book. She is a pretty good judge of people; she observes their smallest actions and gestures. But she also knows so little about some of the social conventions that are taken for granted in the wider world represented by the middleclass Gardners, the family she babysits for across the lake. As a writer, I was drawn to the way her inexperience allowed me to bring out the little weirdnesses in the ordinary.

Another way of putting this is that the occlusions in Linda's narrative are, at least initially, due to inexperience rather than intentional deception. As the novel progresses, the line between ignorance and self-deception—of not knowing and refusing to know—becomes less and less clear for her. But this is also true of several of the novel's other characters who do not have Linda's excuse of being inexperienced or young.

Your novel is set in the austere, icy woods of northern Minnesota. In what ways do you think the bleak, but sometimes stunningly beautiful setting amplifies the story?

Minnesotans, at least the ones I grew up around, are weather people. Some of the most intimate and passionate conversations I've had with my family over the years have been about weather— especially now that I live far away from the Midwest and don't share weathers with them anymore. It's such a fundamental part of being human, feeling the heat and the cold! So in a way, the sharp focus on place in the book wasn't exactly intentional. For me, the inner and outer worlds have always been inextricably bound and, crucially, the voice and the place of this book offered themselves to me together. When I wrote the story that became the first chapter of Wolves, northern Minnesota (the lakes and the cold) was inseparable from Linda's emotional landscape. Though I grew up in a city myself, I've spent a fair amount of time wandering through woods, and I knew it was a place where I could stage, in weathers and seasons, Linda's cycles of longing, loneliness, anger, and love.

Once Linda begins babysitting for four-year-old Paul, his mother, Patra, affectionately refers to Linda as "governess" and mentions Jane Eyre. Were you influenced by that novel? Or, who are some of your literary influences?

One of my early interests while in school was the gothic novel; I especially loved the great governess stories Jane Eyre and The Turn of the Screw. I was interested in the curiously intimate and peripheral role the governess plays in the family, and also the way Charlotte Brontë—in particular—fearlessly addresses issues of gender, class, selfhood, and power in her bitingly beautiful novel. The modern-day equivalent of the governess is the babysitter, of course, and there seemed to me something in the governess formula that I could both exploit and resist in Wolves. Mine is a love story, like Jane Eyre, but Linda is not loved like Jane, however affectionately Patra addresses her.

Those early interests in gender and power led me eventually to spend a lot of time with Virginia Woolf. I was reading and rereading her novels and diaries the whole time I was composing Wolves, thinking especially about her family novels To the Lighthouse and The Years. I was fascinated by her preoccupation with time and narrative structure. I wanted to think more about time in narrative, so I read and reread F. Scott Fitzgerald, Alice Munro, Alison Bechdel, and Toni Morrison, and I wanted to think more about humans as story-tellers and meaning-makers, so I read and reread Joan Didion, Annie Dillard, and Marilynne Robinson.

In many ways History of Wolves looks at the relationship between thought and action, the gap between what you think and what you do. What interested you about this connection between thought, action, and responsibility?

I've always been interested in the murky, littoral zone between thinking and doing. There are several narrative strands that recur in this book, but the two with the most pull—Mr. Grierson's child pornography trial, and Linda's insinuation into the lives of the family across the lake—circle a lot of the same questions. What are the human consequences of looking, or bearing witness? Or of not acting on a desire, or doing nothing when given the chance? To me, asking the same set of questions in starkly different contexts made for deeper, more complex, and certainly more problematic answers.

What is fascinating to me as a writer is that all these questions about acting and not acting are narrative as well as ethical problems. How do you show a failure to see? How do you make the reader feel the consequences of inaction? Some of the biggest events in this book happen so quietly as to hardly seem to happen at all, and that was intentional. I wanted to get at that muffled sense of violence.

History of Wolves is divided into two sections Science and Health. Can you tell us why?

The titles of the two sections, Science and Health, point back to the first of the book's epigraphs, which is taken from Science and Health with Key to the Scriptures by Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of Christian Science. One of the central themes in the book is religion. The novel considers the stories people tell to make sense of their lives and, perhaps more essentially, to account for and interpret death.

I was also interested in those two words, "science" and "health," because of their broader connotations. At some point in the writing of this book I knew there would be two major sections. The whole narrative is told from the perspective of an adult Linda looking back on her teenage years, but I wanted the first section of the book to align the reader more closely with Linda as a teenager, and the second section to align the reader more closely with the adult telling the story. In a practical sense, that meant that the first section would be more about perception and observation, and the second section would be more about the struggle towards interpretation. The words "science" and "health" resonated with those divisions in my mind. The book begins with Linda taking in phenomena—the movements of the natural world, the actions of the people she sees—but those early chapters don't insist very hard on connecting those events into larger patterns of meaning. The second section shows Linda wrestling to connect the events she witnessed as a teenager, to understand causes and consequences—to diagnose, in a sense—and "health" suggests to me some of the challenges inherent in that attempt.

The title of the book refers to a school project that Linda works on with her History teacher, Mr. Grierson, but is there a deeper importance to wolves in the novel? Why is it that Linda is so drawn to these creatures?

Wolves get so quickly transformed into metaphor, don't they? It is important to me that the title refers first—and fundamentally—to the project Linda works on with her history teacher, Mr. Grierson. When she presents her wolf project, she, in referring to Barry Lopez's Of Wolves and Men, emphasizes the social dynamic that allows certain wolves to dominate others only in specific contexts. Linda is drawn to wolves, in part, because she sees in this social model a way to articulate her own sense that power is relative and ever-shifting; it is not preserved in the seemingly fixed hierarchies described by teacher-student, or parent-child, or male-female relationships. It's interesting to me that Mr. Grierson and the History Odyssey judges laugh at the idea, trivialize Linda—as a teenager, as a female—for finding wolves more relevant to her life than the stories of nation, colonization, and patriarchy that usually make up American history coursework. To me the title is a reminder that we minimize the passions of teenage girls at our risk. They are fiercer than they seem.

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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History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

"Electrifying . . . as beautiful and as icy as the Minnesota woods where it's set."
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