Stories We Tell When We Won’t See What’s in Front of Us: Q&A with Emily Fridlund

(photo by Doug Knutson)
(photo by Doug Knutson)

Dark, haunting, and arresting, History of Wolves (279 pages; Grove/Atlantic) announces Emily Fridlund as a literary voice to watch. The book’s story opens as an isolated, woodland community in northern Minnesota confronts a scandal involving a predatory high school teacher. The sullen and introspective narrator, fourteen-year-old Linda, watches the tumult unfold from a distance, as she does most things in life.

That is, until the self-sufficient ninth-grader gets drawn into the lives of the young Gardner family who move in across the lake. Linda takes to the Gardners’ precocious four-year-old, Paul, but begins to notice peculiarities about the child, like the strange Scripture-like verses he seems to quote and his frequent bouts of fatigue. Though History of Wolves builds to a tragic series of events, the novel never trades in empty shock; part of its strength is in the way Fridlund adroitly explores the ways in which we reckon with tragedy—as individuals, as family units, as communities.

This auspicious first novel probes the terrible limits of faith, the responsibilities of motherhood, and the secrets beneath the surface of small towns. “I was intrigued, I was repulsed,” remarks one of the characters, and the reader is likely to relate. Fridlund understands the precariousness of youth, how “coming of age” is seldom about reaching a new plateau of maturity but more often like what Linda experiences standing under a scalding hot shower: “some feeling of woe, some feeling of desolation I hadn’t known I’d felt. A capsized feeling, a sense of the next thing already coming.”

Fridlund talked to ZYZZYVA about History of Wolves and some of her influences as a writer, as well as her story “Lock Jaw,” which appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 101.

ZYZZYVA: One of the aspects of a novel that draws me in, perhaps before anything else, is its milieu. The setting here feels so tied to the book’s events, with details about the oppressiveness of winter and the isolation of this wooded community creating the kind of environment where Paul’s story could so easily happen. Like with Linda’s dogs and their chains, I think their mere presence adds a certain texture to the novel, in a similar way the scandal with Linda’s teacher, Mr. Grierson, compliments the main story of the Gardner family. How much of the novel began with, say, the character of Linda or Paul versus the woods themselves? 

Emily Fridlund: I’m so glad to hear that you were pulled in by the milieu. The woods and Linda, setting and narrator, were always inextricably linked in my mind. I began with Linda’s voice, and the first scene I wrote was the one in which she approaches Mr. Adler, after he collapses in front of his class, and tentatively takes his hand. I was intrigued by the boldness of such a gesture, and also by the longing for human contact that might inspire it. As I tried to understand both these qualities in this peculiar teenage girl, it began to make sense to me that she would be a person forced into independence at a very young age, a kid schooled by woods and lakes—and that this very same background would also make her wretchedly solitary.

Setting is one of those craft elements in fiction that can be so easily written off. I teach writing, and I always find it hard to communicate the narrative force available in thinking of setting as more than backdrop. For me, place conveys everything essential: atmosphere and tone and texture and mood. The crush of seasons, the gifts and austerities of the woods, the beauty and brutality of lake country—all this makes Linda who she is, and all this affects how the characters in this book act and interact with each other. I had fun making a little map of the lakes and roads that surround Loose River, but it was important to me to draw a fairly tight circle around Linda’s world in order that the punctures to its borders (Mr. Grierson, the Gardners) would mean something fairly extraordinary to her. So she measures things in miles by foot or lakes by paddle, and the world for most of her life consists of woods, old highways, one small town and one bigger one, a handful of shops and churches, school. It is a community in which a lot is assumed and little is asked. The very same isolation that provokes Linda to reach out and insinuate herself into the Gardner family also protects the Gardners from public censure for a long time.

I especially appreciate what you say about Linda’s dogs! I actually had a lot more writing about dogs in the book, originally. Linda loves them but also ignores them when she starts spending so much time with the Gardners, a pattern repeated, I think, by many characters in this book: benign (and not-so-benign) neglect. As the layers of this story began building up, I became increasingly interested in the way experiences in one part of Linda’s life—such as her dogs, or her fascination with Lily and Mr. Grierson, or even her commune past—might affect how a reader understands and interprets what happens in the other parts of her life. I tend to believe that we read through complimentary patterns and contrasts as much as we do through cause and effect, or the domino-collapse of one thing leading to another. More and more as I wrote, I was thinking about how the different plotlines in the book might make use of this.

Z: You accomplish several feats in History of Wolves, but one of them occurs on the first page. The reader is told from the beginning that a tragedy has taken place, and we have a sense of the details of that tragedy—and yet, Linda’s voice casts such a spell that when the events actually occur over a hundred pages later, I felt utterly blindsided. Could you talk about that creative decision as a writer? It seems to me a sign of respect for your characters, for Paul’s terrible situation, that you’re so forthright about what happens to him from the beginning. There’s no “grave secret” to unravel because it’s all there from page one.  

History of WolvesEF: Yes, my point never was to shock the reader. It is my sense that we often only come to understand the importance of the most profound events in our lives in retrospect. I was trying to figure out a way to tell a story that shows how that happens. There can sometimes be such a muffled sense to crisis as it unfolds in real time. So often tragedy happens without the fanfare we’ve come to expect from traditional storytelling, and that’s one of the worst things about it! I think of that Auden poem about Icarus’ fall, “Musée des Beaux Arts,” how “everything turns away / Quite leisurely from the disaster.” In this novel, Patra cleans the litter box while her son dies. Leo makes pancakes and Linda plays Candy Land. To a large extent, the horror of the book’s crisis, for me, is that it isn’t treated like a crisis at all. In this way, the ethical failures of the book’s characters became for me a narrative challenge. Whenever I wrote about Paul’s death, I felt that I needed to quiet down the prose as much as possible, avoid all the bells and whistles. His death felt like it deserved the most straightforward, hushed, unadorned sentences.

Because of this, in part, I wanted to get the fact of Paul’s death out of the way at the start. And then, near the end of the first section of the book, “Science,” I decided to reveal how he dies as well in order to pry open the distance between the way Linda experiences his death as it unfolds and the way she later comes to understand it with hindsight. The adult narrator says, “But I remember it all, even now, as if two mutually exclusive things happened”—the first-hand experience and the later interpretation of events—and then she goes on to say, “Though they end the same way, these are not the same story.” These two very different stories about Paul’s death are both equally available to the reader in the second half of the book, and because the explanations are no longer hidden, other possibilities for the narrative open up. The novel spends more time with Linda as an adult and also returns more frequently to her childhood. Increasingly, other kinds of questions come into play, epistemological as well as dramatic ones. What are the causes and consequences of a child dying like this? How can it be accounted for, and who is responsible?

Z: Your story “Lock Jaw” appeared in ZYZZYVA way back in the fall of 2014. It’s a haunting piece that deals with some of the same thematic material as your novel, including the limits of faith and a parent’s ability—or lack thereof—to protect their children. I also see an echo of the tender yet destructive Mastiff from that story in the large dogs Linda cares for. Was there anything in “Lock Jaw” that helped lead to the development of the novel, or is it more of a case that these are the issues that continue to fascinate you as an artist? 

EF: I was so honored to publish “Lock Jaw” in ZYZZYVA a few years back. I wrote that story before I wrote History of Wolves, but not long before. One doesn’t come from the other, but they do operate, I think, in the same field of preoccupations. The powers—and limitations—of belief systems are at the heart of the story and the novel. Craig, the narrator of “Lock Jaw,” and Linda both fail to see on some level the damage they are doing in maintaining the status quo. Both fail to acknowledge their complicity in perpetuating the sicknesses of the family units they are a part of. Linda’s initial ignorance about the Gardners’ way of life slides gradually into self-deception. Her inability to see becomes increasingly indistinguishable from her refusal to see, and by the end, she merely wants to maintain the little bubble of happiness she has found for as long as possible. In the case of “Lock Jaw,” Craig’s refusal to acknowledge the damage his drinking has done to his family leads him to identify with and shield Renee, the Mastiff who has mauled his own son. He wants so badly to believe the story that Renee is a protector—and not a source of danger in his own home—because he wants to believe that about himself. Like Linda, he tells himself what he needs to in order to sustain the family’s fragile equilibrium and his own precarious place in it.

I can’t help but think about something the adult narrator of Wolves says near the end of the book: she says the story she is trying to tell is one about the origin of human evil. I’ve always hoped there might be many ways to think about this line. At least one of the ways to understand it though, for me, is that evil doesn’t originate from the devil, or from some innate corrupting force, but often from well-intentioned beliefs that ignore the desperate needs of others. Both “Lock Jaw” and Wolves touch on this slippery and everyday form of evil.

Z: At times, the characters make allusions to the many pieces of classic literature that revolve around governesses, including one of my favorite works of fiction, Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. On some level, History of Wolves reads as a contemporary update on that governess genre, yet it also subverts the expectations of that genre. How much of those governess novels were on your mind as you were writing the book?

EF: The Turn of the Screw is one of my all-time favorites, too. The governess genre was very much on my mind when I was writing History of Wolves. For a few years before I began writing it, I read fairly deeply into the Gothic tradition of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. At some point within the first few chapters of Wolves, I began to sense the influence of that reading, and I decided to address it directly. Near the beginning of the book, Patra mentions The Turn of the Screw as well as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre when she playfully calls Linda “governess.” I was fascinated by the central-yet-peripheral role the governess plays in those nineteenth-century novels, the way her liminal status as an educated working woman in a wealthy household allowed writers like Brontë to comment on issues of class and gender. I was also intrigued by the way the governesses in these books are offered privileged vantage points from which to report on the intimacies and secrets kept by families, and at the same time, they are often shielded from such secrets because of their outsider roles. In a book like The Turn of the Screw, this leads to a kind of seeing and not seeing, guessing and second-guessing, that raises beguiling questions about what is true and what is real. To the extent that Wolves also plays with these ideas in Linda’s role as a babysitter, I am deeply indebted to the Gothic and to the governess genre in particular.

That being said, I appreciate your comment about subverting the genre as well. A book like Jane Eyre ends with Jane’s hard-won reward: eventual marriage to her employer, Rochester. I always thought of History of Wolves as a love story, too, but the love in this book does not lead Linda to reform or save Patra (or Paul, for that matter)—only deeper and deeper into complicity. And even that complicity offers her no meaningful reward. Patra may feel affection for Linda, but no real sympathy for or loyalty to her. She turns on Linda in the end, lashing out in the courthouse parking lot in her terrible grief. To some extent, I wanted to play against the romantic ending offered in Jane Eyre, and even the wonderfully vertiginous and epiphanic moments offered at the end of The Turn of the Screw. Instead, the ending of my book is stitched together with many little epiphanies, most of which are subsequently undermined, and no final confirmation of love’s redemptive powers. Love is just as often corrupting in this book as it is redeeming.

Z: When I was roughly Linda’s age, I found myself drawn to novels written by adults, for adult readers, but written from the perspective of teenage characters. I’ve found those kinds of novels increasingly rare these days, most likely due to the massive popularity of the Young Adult genre, but History of Wolves seems like an example of one. While Linda may be relaying the story from the vantage point of adulthood, many of the events of the story occur when she was a teenager and convey the emotional truth of that age. Being in such a period of transition, it seems as though Linda can see things that other characters can’t. In fact, there seems to be a correlation between the children and the adults in their need to believe in the unseen, whether it’s Paul’s fantasies of Europa or the Gardners’ faith in Christian Science. As Linda says, “By their nature, it came to me, children were freaks. They believed impossible things to suit themselves, thought their fantasies were the center of the world.” What made it important to situate so much of the novel during those earlier years of Linda’s life?

EF: There are so many great coming-of-age novels written for adults that can also be read by teenagers, aren’t there? The Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mockingbird come to mind, to name just two of the most extraordinary. Adult novels that can be loved by teenagers do seem to me to be a slightly different thing than young adult novels that can be enjoyed by adults, though I love reading young adult novels, too, and it’s hard to put a finger on the precise differences—perhaps it has something to do with a novel’s tonal pitch, the way its sentences unwrap content. Anyhow, when people ask me if History of Wolves is a book for teenagers, I hesitate. I visited my old high school and passed out copies, but part of me feels that this is not a book that should be given by adults to younger teenagers (it contains sexual and parental abuse, as well as other explicit material), but rather a book that could be discovered and read by some teenagers on their own who are interested in and ready for it. It feels like a book that should be snuck from a shelf, maybe, rather than given as a gift.

And yes, Linda’s age for the vast majority of the novel—14 then 15 years old—determines a great deal about what she can see and say. I have always been interested in the adolescent perspective because of its indeterminant quality: not quite kid, not quite adult. It was important to me that Linda’s age for most of the novel’s main events, 15, was exactly halfway between Paul’s (four) and Patra’s (twenty-six). There is a shape-shifting quality to her voice and her role in the book, a constant sliding from childishness to maturity and back. She is incredibly observant and canny about some things, and, I think you’re right, she often has the capacity to see what other characters in the novel miss. Because of this, she occasionally cuts people, like Mr. Grierson and Leo Gardner, down to size with a particularly apt phrase or observation. At the same time, her inexperience and isolation make her blind to—or at least limited in her ability to interpret—certain realities that might otherwise seem obvious. As a writer, I found this to be such a rich vein to mine in a character, the gap between knowing and not knowing.

It’s also interesting to think about how being between childhood and adulthood makes it possible for Linda to sense some of the similarities between the two, the way children and adults alike tell themselves comforting stories, and also the way they often don’t even know that they’re telling stories when they are. In this way, religion and pretend have a lot in common. Children see themselves as the center of all their stories, as do adults, and perhaps Linda—who is not fully one or the other—catches glimpses of this pattern, especially as someone who struggles to see herself as the center of anything.

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