Charlotte McConaghy, an Australian writer living in Sydney, is the author of Migrations and Once There Were Wolves. Here, she chats with EcoLit Books about her new novel about the reintroduction of wolves to the Scottish Highlands.
Q: As with the birds in Migrations, your characters in Once There Were Wolves have a deep knowledge of the animals they study and follow. What background and/or research did you draw upon to write these characters and animals so authentically?
A: I don’t have a science background myself, so for each project it’s a matter of doing a deep dive into the research before I feel equipped to begin the writing process. For Wolves, I read at great length about the biologists who took on the enormously difficult task of reintroducing wolves to Yellowstone. From their accounts of those trials I learned so much about the process and the animals themselves, and took so much inspiration from the conservationists doing such important work around the world. Their stories really brought to wolves to life for me, and made me aware that each of them has their own personality, their own mysteries to fall in love with.
Q: Inti has a rare affliction called “mirror-touch synesthesia” — what inspired this as you developed Inti as a character?
A: I have a much milder form of synesthesia myself, which means my memory only works by linking words, numbers, or sounds to color, shape, and texture. So I was already aware of having a slightly different way of thinking when I first learned about mirror-touch. It’s such an extraordinary condition, I couldn’t stop thinking about it, and about how it creates the most extreme form of empathy a human can experience. Physically feeling what someone else feels… I can imagine it would be a profound intimacy and a terrible burden both. And I think this is really what Wolves is about — empathy and its absence — so to have Inti challenged by her own complex relationship to empathy seemed like the perfect way to explore that thematic within the book.
Q: The human characters and their relationships in the novel are as complex as those of the wolves — did you create the human and wolf characters with any parallels in mind?
A: I don’t think I intentionally set out to parallel them, but I tend to instinctively look for echoes and links within a story, and so it felt natural to give the wolves lives that Inti could directly relate to, could feel particularly moved by, such as a wolf protecting her sister’s pack, or the mother raising her cubs alone.
Q: In addition to showing all the nuances of wild wolves as they make their way in a new environment, you’ve also effectively shown the locals’ opposition to them in an authentic and realistic way. What research or background helped you portray this point of view?
A: This was probably my biggest challenge, as it’s a point of view I didn’t fundamentally share. I’m obviously a huge supporter of rewilding and conservation efforts, and I genuinely love wolves as I love all animals, but I didn’t want to write a book that felt like a lecture; I think my intention when writing about nature and climate change is to encourage the spirit of coming together, rather than division. So I needed to understand the opposition to my own way of thinking. Firstly I spoke to the farmers I know personally — both friends and family; my father is a sheep and cattle farmer in Australia — to get their opinions on hypothetical predators being introduced near their land, and what their fears and concerns might be. Then I did a lot of reading on specific rewilding projects and the incredible opposition they faced from the locals. I found interviews with farmers in the Scottish Highlands about their opinions on wolves potentially being brought back, and that gave me important insight into my own characters. I think what was most helpful, however, was discovering stories of conservationists who’d found ways to work with farmers instead of against them, both able to understand each other’s point of view and working towards the rejuvenation of land that would benefit all.
Q: While many aspects of novel — among them endangered animals, human and animal abuse — are dark, the story also carries tremendous hope. How do you weigh and balance this as you write? Do you have the audience in mind, or is it more about your own world view?
A: There are very dark moments in this novel, and I think that’s because I wrote it from an initial place of rage. Everywhere I looked I could see humans causing harm to both the natural world and to each other, and I didn’t understand it, and I’d had enough. But a book cannot be one thing. It has to be a movement, a transformation. So the story became about a woman who’d lost her ability to trust, to see the best in people, a woman defined by her rage, who would need to be challenged by nature and by those she loved to heal. To move beyond that rage. To find a way into something gentler. As she rewilded the landscape, she had to be open to rewilding herself. And so this became my path, too. A way of writing out of despair, away from anger and into hope. I never want to leave readers feeling worse about the world than when they start a book, so I will always find my way to hope, and that’s very important to me, otherwise I don’t think there’d be much point in writing at all. So I think it’s a bit of both — it’s my own world view and it’s for the audience, too.
Q: Like Migrations, Once There Were Wolves challenges us as readers to protect what we’re in danger of losing. Has your writing always had a focus on animals and the natural world?
A: No, this is a more recent exploration for me (recent being the last seven or so years). I grew up wanting to write as escapism, as fantasy, as a way to have adventures without having to leave the safety of my bedroom. It wasn’t until Migrations that I started to feel very connected to and inspired by the natural world around me — and that’s something I don’t think will change. I feel an urgency to, as you say, protect what we’re in danger of losing, and the idea of that can sometimes be overwhelming; it’s hard to know what to do, what one person possibly can do in the face of such a huge problem. The only thing I know how to do is write, and I hope that in doing so I can connect with readers who feel as passionately as I do.