With incredible writing and a compelling story, author Charlotte McConaghy shines with her new novel, Once There Were Wolves. Inti Flynn is a member of a team of people trying to slow down climate change by rewinding wolves in the Scottish Plains. The local farmers are not happy because this will be a danger to their livestock, pets and families, so there is pushback, animosity and threats of violence. Aggie, Inti’s twin sister has previously suffered some domestic trauma and has taken the journey with Inti to Scotland to get away from civilization, spend some time alone and to heal. As the beautiful, unnamed wolves are released into the woods over a short period of time, there is drama with the locals, bouts of violence, a missing person and then a body. Going back and forth in time we learn of the sisters’ pasts, their empathy for each other, how they communicate, and how their relationships and experiences have shaped them. We also dive deeper into the lives of the townspeople, the commitment to their livelihood and the secrets that take place behind closed doors while we try and figure out who caused the mysterious death.
McConaughy’s prose allows us to tap into our hearts as well as our heads to understand the conflicts between humans and nature, to feel the rage of violence toward women and the love for animals and the environment, and to observe the connection between sisters and the many ways there are to communicate. This story of survival pulled me in from the first sentence; every written word felt meaningful, each character had a purpose to carry the plot forward, and the nature setting was invigorating and wondrous. My book group read and loved Once There Were Wolves and we were lucky enough to welcome Charlotte McConaghy to our Zoom Book Nation Book Club where we learned more about Charlotte and the writing of this incredible, unique and touching story. I loved this book so much and I highly recommend it – perfect for a group discussion!
Author Q & A
Q: Did you know anything about wolves before you started writing this book? How did you research for this novel and can you tell us more about bringing back the natural landscape with rewilding wolves?
A: I’ve always been a little in love with wolves because I grew up reading myths and fairytales, in which they are often the stars, but as I started researching for this book I was astonished to discover how incredibly complex and individual they are. I read a great deal of personal accounts from the biologists and conservationists who worked on the Yellowstone reintroduction project in the 90s, and learned that wolves have unique personalities and adventure stories of courage and loyalty. I knew I wanted the wolves in my novel to be just as interesting, just as impossible not to love. But not only are they amazing individually, but as a keystone species wolves have amazing power over their environments; they have a trickle-down effect on every other species in their environment, as well as the plant life and water table — which is why we say wolves have the power to grow forests and move rivers. This means they are integral to their landscapes, and when hunted to extinction, the whole environment suffers their loss. Rewilding is about reclaiming a space that humans have altered for the worse, and helping return it to its original state. To do this, wolves are ideal.
Q: In Once There Were Wolves, Inti and the others who are fighting climate change by bringing the wolves back to the highlands are in disagreement with farmers who want to protect their livestock. Your characters are equally passionate on both sides and everyone takes this issue on personally – how do you know about this divide and is there a solution?
A: Apart from the many months of research I did into this issue – I was stunned to learn of the vehement refusal from farmers regarding the Yellowstone project, and how enormous the conflict ended up being – I also have a personal insight into the issue. My father is a cattle and sheep farmer in Australia and so it’s not difficult for me to sympathise with the fear of reintroducing predators that might increase an already immense financial pressure. But I always try to write with the spirit of coming together, rather than causing division or laying blame. I think there is a solution, and it starts with lack of judgement, with communication and learning, and with a great deal of government support for landowners who will no doubt shoulder the burden of our crucial need to rewild.
Q: Feeling empathy toward others is a virtue, but sometimes it may be overwhelming. What inspired you to write about mirror touch synesthesia?
A: I’ve got a mild form of synesthesia myself, my memory connected to colour and shape and texture, so I’ve always been aware of having a slightly different way of experiencing the world. So when I learned about mirror-touch on an episode of the Invisibilia podcast, I was thrilled and knew I needed to write a character with this extraordinary condition. It seemed perfect for a novel about empathy in all its forms.
Q: The sister’s grew up in a divorced family and had vastly different experiences living with each parent. Can you share where that idea to include that as part of their background came from?
A: I guess as a child of divorce myself, with parents who lived a very long way away from each other, it always feels natural to me to write about children of divorce, or children of single parents. It’s not that I see it as some great hardship, it’s just that I’ve not experience what it’s like to be raised in a household with two parents. I also liked, for Inti and Aggie, the idea that their parents represented the two directions they were being pulled in – their father believes in forgiveness above all else, in compassion and empathy, while their mother has a harder opinion of the world, wanting Inti to protect herself against harm by raising a shield against other humans. It seemed clear that two such people, with such vast differences in how they view the world, might have very different lives.
Q: You touch upon domestic violence numerous times and its presence in the sisters lives impacts their behaviors. Can you tell us more about survival instincts and how they play out in your novel? What inspired you to include this level of darkness?
A: This book came from a place of anger in me. I was furious at what I could see happening in the world around me – the harm we are causing to the natural world, in this case it was mass slaughter of beautiful animals, and the harm we do to each other, specifically male violence against women. In Australia a woman is murdered by her romantic partner every week, and the same thing happens all over the world. It is a global emergency, and with such fury in my heart, I couldn’t not write about it. Despite it being difficult and dark and even frightening, I knew I needed to write about what I was passionate about. These wounds effect the sisters dramatically, and shift how they see the world – it becomes a place of danger, and it’s not the wolves who are the monsters.
Q: You include both human and animal pregnancy in the story – what is the significance?
A: I suppose the idea of new life was simply that: a chance for Inti to be reborn. She is so desperately closed off to people, and to her pregnancy, fearing the vulnerability of trust and connection, but the book is about finding the courage to open yourself to these things, and I think we do this in a profound way when we bring children into the world. For animals, it’s the sole purpose of their existence, and for wolves in particular, they are driven by the need to protect and raise family.
Q: You have written about nature and the environment in both of your recent novels – are you involved in any organizations that support preservation?
A: I try to support as many as I can with monthly donations, and I encourage everyone out there to do the same – it really does help!
Q: Migrations has some beautiful characters whose lives can be compared to the tendencies and flight patterns of the birds. In OTWW, the sisters put each other first, and family first seems to be the way of the wolves as well. How did you come up with the idea to show the relationships and commonalities between animals and humans and how you go about developing your ideas into incredibly unique and powerful stories?
A: I always try to make the threads in my novels reflect each other, and it’s important, I think, when you have multiple stories going on in one novel, to make sure the thematic is the same for each of them so the book feels cohesive as a whole. I knew I needed the lives of the wolves to reflect the life of my protagonist; she needed to be able to learn from the wolves in a way that would allow for her own transformation. Family, love, connection, trust – these are all things that Inti has tried to close herself off to, but things that are dominant in a wolf’s life. The end of your question, about developing my ideas into stories, is very hard to put my finger on, as it’s such a long slow process of thinking thinking thinking about my characters and their lives and their stories, it’s inhabiting their minds and their bodies and their physical spaces as much as I can, and then everything simply starts to pull together – although often this doesn’t happen until after I’ve finished a draft, and I slowly figure out what the book is actually about, or trying to say.
Q: How was writing OTWW different from Migrations and how do you ensure that your books will have a fast pace and keep the reader engaged?
A: I think I wrote Migrations from a place of sadness and loneliness, whereas, as I mentioned, Wolves came more from a place of fury, so it was quite thrilling to write about a female character with a lot of rage. That emotion is so important to me when I’m working, it really helps focus the story I’m trying to tell. But it’s also important for my work to be very driven by plot, because I find that otherwise I get lost in the emotion and things start to drag. So I love to create mysteries, to withhold information from the readers, to tease out reveals and hopefully give people a healthy dose of catharsis when everything comes to light. It also just makes sense for me to have plot, because it’s what compels my characters to make choices that reveal new layers of themselves.
Q: I heard you have a movie deal with your previous best seller, Migrations, congratulations! Can you share more info… and If Once There Were Wolves became a movie, who would you want to be in it?
A: Unfortunately I don’t have much information to share, but it has indeed been optioned for a film by SunnyMarch Productions, with Claire Foy attached to star. I would love it if Wolves also became a movie, or a tv series, and we’re in talks about this at the moment, so fingers crossed! After seeing her in A Promising Young Woman, I can imagine Carey Mulligan playing Inti’s sass and attitude really well.
Q: Are you working on anything new yet and can you share?
A: I am working on a new novel set on a sub-Antarctic island, about the things we choose to save in a dying world.
Q: What have you read lately that you recommend?
A: I really enjoyed Laurie Frankel’s novel One, Two, Three and Nina LaCour’s adult debut Yerba Buena.
Q: How can we follow you and all you are doing?
About the Author:
Charlotte McConaghy is an Australian author living in Sydney.
She has a Graduate and Masters Degree in Screenwriting from the Australian Film Television and Radio School, and a number of published SFF works in Australia.
Her internationally best-selling novel MIGRATIONS, a TiME Magazine Best Book of the Year and Amazon.com Best Fiction Book of the Year for 2020, is her first foray into adult literary fiction, published in North America by Flatiron Books, and by Penguin Random House in Australia and the UK. It is being translated into over 20 languages, and adapted to film.
Fueled by her love of nature and her interest in stories of fierce women, McConaghy’s newest novel, ONCE THERE WERE WOLVES, is about a biologist charged with reintroducing wolves to the Scottish Highlands in order to rewild the landscape and bring a forest back to life. Was released in August 2021.
International Bestseller, Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy
Migrations by Charlotte McConaghy