Debut Author Snapshot: Emily Fridlund

December, 2016
Emily Fridlund Set in the Northwoods of Minnesota, History of Wolves is a coming-of-age novel about perception, misguided belief, and guilt. This debut novel focuses on a teenager, Linda, who was born into a back-to-the-land-style commune that broke up when she was a small child.

Linda's insular world opens up when, first, her new middle school teacher recruits her for an after-school program and, later, when she becomes a babysitter for a young family that has moved in across the lake. In both cases she finds herself increasingly drawn into secrets she doesn't fully understand—the effects of which will alter the course of her life as well as the lives of others.

Before History of Wolves, Emily Fridlund's work appeared in a variety of journals. Her collection of stories, Catapult, won the Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and will be published later this year. She currently teaches writing at Cornell University in the Finger Lakes region of New York.


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Goodreads: What was your inspiration for History of Wolves?

Emily Fridlund: 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 Disgrace and Francine Prose's Blue Angel. As fascinating and well written as those novels are, I found myself increasingly impatient at the time with what seemed to me like an overly examined subject in fiction: that of the experienced male teacher falling for the younger, highly eroticized female student.

I began my own story with a lonely teenage girl, Linda, and her strained encounters with a new middle school history teacher. The germ of the idea for Wolves came from my desire to tell a story from the perspective of 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 of coveted, if ambiguous, power.

GR: What do you hope readers take away from reading your book?

EF: What is the relationship of thought to action and of witness to responsibility? That was the question that preoccupied me as I began to consider how and whether to extend that initial short story into a novel.

After Linda's history teacher is accused of sex crimes, Linda insinuates herself into the family that has moved in across the lake. As she spends more and more time with Patra Gardner and her young son, Paul, Linda simultaneously knows and doesn't know—sees and doesn't see—that something might be wrong in the household. Because of this, her point of view became for me a good way to explore the problematic ties between perception, interpretation, and complicity.

As the writing progressed and I wrestled with these ideas, the novel became increasingly about the stories we tell and the way we recruit others to play roles in those stories—along with the inherent violence in that forced involvement. And I wanted to think about who controls the narratives that shape the realities that come to be accepted, whether in romantic and sexual relationships, in families, in religion, or in history.

GR: Tell us how you created your 14-year-old protagonist. What is it about this character that drew you toward her?

EF: One of the things that intrigued me about Linda was the way her voice is both canny and innocent. Because almost no one is watching her, she has been forced to become a keen observer of others in order to get along. At the same time, she is young, she is inexperienced, she is socially isolated. It could be said that Linda's peculiar way of looking at the world is due to her acuity in seeing certain things and near blindness regarding others. She has a sharp and penetrating gaze, but there is also so much that she doesn't know that the reader might. This gap was something that fascinated me as a writer.

Another one of the reasons I was drawn to Linda as a narrator is that she, unlike me, is a person who lives a very physically demanding life. Because she lives in a remote place where she must, to some extent, contribute to her own survival (by chopping wood and fishing and keeping the fire going at night), she is a person who experiences the world through her body. She doesn't take in the world through words and conversation as much as through her senses. That meant that I needed to situate her emotional responses within physical sensations rather than describing them in abstract language. As a result, the concrete world around Linda, her woods and dogs, became a little charged.


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GR: Linda is fascinated by wolves. How does the dynamic of predator and prey change throughout the novel?

EF: In its most basic sense I wanted the title to draw attention to Linda's history project in the first chapter. Linda chooses to do her project for History Odyssey on wolves, a topic that is treated with condescension by both her teacher, Mr. Grierson, and the competition judges, who question what wolves have to do with "human history." To which Linda responds: not much.

For Linda, wolves offer an alternative mode of social organization to those offered her as a teenager and a girl, a mode in which hierarchies of power are less rigidly fixed. "An alpha animal may be alpha only at certain times for a specific reason," she quotes. It is an idea that appeals to her sense of justice. Even Linda, though, must resort to studying a taxidermy wolf at the local nature center, and the idea—and ideal—of the wolf becomes increasingly slippery as the novel progresses. This is a novel about sex crimes, about well-meaning beliefs and an unnecessary death, and I hope the opening chapter raises questions about the ways in which the roles of predator and prey, or aggressor and victim, are constantly shifting depending on (as Linda suggests) the specific times and the specific reasons.

GR: You've chosen to use a first-person narrative for Linda and to tell the story from Linda's point of view at different ages. Why did you believe this was important?

EF: This is a coming-of-age story told in retrospect, and as such, History of Wolves opens itself up to a consideration of how knowledge changes the ways we understand and interpret the things we see. In general the first section of the book is more closely aligned with Linda as a teenager; I hoped readers might first experience her world as she sees it without the benefit of hindsight. The second section pans out a bit more and aligns the reader more frequently with Linda as an adult, someone who has been thinking about the events in her teenage years for some time. The idea behind this structure was that it might allow readers to experience some of the disorientation that comes when hindsight reorders events previously witnessed.

GR: In many of the early reviews, History of Wolves is described as a book about guilt and innocence. Do you agree with that? Why or why not?

EF: I don't think of any of the characters in this book as particularly admirable or as unusually bad. Still, at one point the adult narrator says that the story she is telling is one about the origin of human evil. There are, I hope, lots of ways to interpret this line! But at least one possibility, for me, is that evil doesn't come from the devil or from some innate corrupting force but often from our terrible, self-justifying drive to tell stories that disregard the desperate needs of others.

Read more of our exclusive author interviews on our Voice page.

Comments Showing 1-3 of 3 (3 new)

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message 1: by wilma (new)

wilma I love the beauty of her style.
How coming of age unfolds is written so clearly


Erin *Proud Book Hoarder* Book sounds good


message 3: by Paul (new)

Paul You know what's great? Writing a review and then reading what the author intended, and seeing the story for how much more it encompassed. I am humbled, and that's a good thing.


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