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Michelle Paver due at Heffers Cambridge as ‘Wolfbane’ concludes Stone Age odyssey

The publicity tour for Wolfbane, the ninth and final book in Michelle Paver’s stunning Wolf Brother (Chronicles of Ancient Darkness) collection, will see the author visit Heffers Bookshop on Trinity Street on the evening of May 6.

Michelle Paver went to the Carpathian Mountains with a guide to learn more about wolves
Michelle Paver went to the Carpathian Mountains with a guide to learn more about wolves

The series, a historical fantasy set 6,000 years ago chronicling the adventures of Torak, an adolescent boy, and his friends Renn and Wolf, began in 2004, and has since sold three million copies in 35 countries (30 languages!). The first six books were published 2004-2009, and Wolfbane is the final instalment of a trio that began in 2020 – and the story really has reached its end point, explained Michelle Paver on the phone from her home near Wimbledon Common.

“I was planning the three books as a sequence,” she says with a subtle degree of finality. “I’m a planner – I like to know I’ve got a stonking good finale, and who dies along the way…”

Michelle’s planning goes far beyond the story arc. She prepares like a method actor – think Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant and then some – for the writing process. Riding 300 miles in north Finland, sleeping in reindeer skins, swimming with killer whales, tracking musk-oxen and eating elk heart is all part of the deal.

Her immersive experiences in indigenous culture, animal behaviours, and forest cultures and beliefs for books set in pre-agricultural Stone Age Europe suggest a mind – if not a soul – preternaturally connected to realms many people have little or no obvious access to. How did that happen to a Wimbledon-raised, Oxford-educated woman who studied biochemistry and was a lawyer until her mid-30s?

The author visits a blue ice cave as part of her research for ‘Wolfbane’
The author visits a blue ice cave as part of her research for ‘Wolfbane’

There are clues, of course there are. Michelle Paver was born in Nyasaland – Malawi in today’s currency. So does she have any memories of her African heritage?

“Oh, you have done your homework,” she says in a softly-spoken voice bereft of any geographical clues. “I was two and a half when we moved back to England. I only have one memory – we had an Alsatian dog, very large and wolflike, called Sheba. So a bit like Wolf Brother.”

I mention I have a friend, also born in Nyasaland, who went back for a visit and has now resettled there.

“Oh!” says Michelle. “I’ve never been back but it is a beautiful country. I grew up hearing all the stories. On our landing was a map and pictures of all the animals. My father was South African and his sister remained in Nyasaland in a part which became Rhodesia, and she married a game ranger and sent us all these wonderful presents. One was a shrivelled skin of a baby crocodile which I dried and stuffed with cotton wool. Another was a witch doctor’s – you’d call it a shaman’s today – medicine horn, a cow horn, which I used as a model for Torak’s medicine horn in the books.”

These revelations about African culture melded into Wolf Brother are, permit me to say, already a scoop. However, Michelle notes, the research for the more recent trio of books was more modest – by her standards.

“I thought ‘I can’t keep jetting all over the place because of global warming’, so I kept it to two locations,” she explains.

Michelle Paver outside a grizzly bear den
Michelle Paver outside a grizzly bear den

“One was Wrangel Island in the far east of Siberia. To reach that you fly, then take an ice breaker. The Chukchi people live there – it’s one of the last homes of the woolly mammoth, so that was quite far-flung.

“The second was a multi-purpose trip to British Columbia and Alaska, the coastal region” – because while planning the new books “I thought I needed an ice cave”. As you do.

“A lot of that went into Wolfbane, things like crawling into a grizzly bear’s den and getting pelts, and I crawled under a glacier.”

To engage with Michelle Paver’s adventures – the real and the imagined – is to enter another world. With all these initiations and experiences of other realms, it makes you wonder if she’s some sort of shaman herself. So is she a seer?

Michelle’s response is so swift it’s almost as if she’d anticipated the question.

“My background is in science,” she replies levelly. “My degree was in biochemistry and, though I am fascinated by and write about ghosts and spirits and the belief systems of hunter-gatherers, I’m not someone who actually believes in that, in the sense of believing it to be true.

Sir Ian McKellen has read the Wolf Brother series since the first book was published in 2004
Sir Ian McKellen has read the Wolf Brother series since the first book was published in 2004

“Of course, I don’t know for a fact that ghosts don’t exist, nobody does, so I have to keep an open mind, but in terms of a gut feeling I don’t have a belief that trees have a spirit… What I’m fascinated by and what I write about is the potential and the capability of the human mind, which is limitless. It is an effort. These books are very hard writing, they take a long time to write because I have to think myself into the mind-set of a hunter-gatherer like Torak and Renn.

“I’ve talked to more recent hunter-gatherers, people for whom every rock has a spirit, and you talk to some Chukchi people out in Siberia and every hill has a story to them, and a spirit. Their burial ground, which I had to avoid to be respectful, is where you leave the corpse out in the tundra – not even with a death platform like in Torak’s world. You don’t want to disturb the spirit so you have to be careful. But I am always drawn to ghost stories and the numinous.

“It’s a strange thing – when I’m writing, I am Torak, I am Renn, I’m the forest, and then later I think: ‘Where did that come from?’”

I mention that, even though the book is officially published on April 26, here we are on April 22 and there’s already reviews appearing on Good Reads. How does she explain that?

“Reviews?” she says, rather taken aback. “I don’t understand how this works. That is more arcane than the spirit world to me.”

Author Michelle Paver. ‘Wolfbane’ is now on sale
Author Michelle Paver. ‘Wolfbane’ is now on sale

Right at the core of Chronicles of Ancient Darkness is a moment of significant change which has resonance for the plight of humanity today, because 6,000 years ago is when humanity first started to try and impose its own will on the Earth – and the long-term effect wasn’t good, as we are now finding out. The break from the past in Torak’s world comes when a bear does something that no animal has ever done before – it kills for pleasure. Until then, nothing was wasted. Animals used a kill as a source of food: everything was eaten by various creatures, leaving just bones. For humans, the bones were used too, for weaponry, and every other part was used for food, fuel, clothing… nothing was wasted. And then, boom, a bear kills for the sake of killing, and the impulse infects people, and our death spiral begins, even if it’s taken 6,000 years for the logical conclusion – a society suicidally squandering resources – to arrive.

So what was the impulse for writing about this murderous new type of creature?

“That’s a great question,” Michelle replies, “and it goes back to where I said it’s kind of intuitive. I wanted an element of wrongness. The bear kills for pleasure, which is awful. I wanted an element of extreme sickness, because it is inhabited by a demon which knows no right or wrong. I wasn’t thinking in environmental terms at all, and I’m glad I wasn’t, because I’ve always felt very strongly that I don’t write with a message and if you do, that is the quickest way to kill a story because your characters are wooden pegs on which you hang your polemic. But I’ve always been attracted to hunter-gatherers, since I was a child. I didn’t even know at the time about sustainability, but I like the idea that they clearly did live very very close to the wild and in tune with it. It was there but it was subliminal.”

Michelle is known for her anti-computer stance, but there’s been a shift on that front.

“I’ve softened a little bit because my agent said ‘you really need access to the internet’ just before lockdown, so I can now do Zoom.”

Michelle Paver, author of the wildly successful Wolf Brother series. Picture: Anthony Upton
Michelle Paver, author of the wildly successful Wolf Brother series. Picture: Anthony Upton

However, she still writes on a Compaq Deskpro (launched in 1984) – “I back up on floppy disk” – and her phone is pre-internet (I have called her on her landline.)

“The internet has its uses – it’s great for travel research – but it’s the enemy of concentration and I don’t have a smartphone and I don’t like being interrupted.

“It sucks up time,” she adds with the finality I quickly understand is a motif in her speech. She needs that time because her work ethic is ferocious, six hours a day writing and around 1,000 hours per book – although she claims to have scaled back a bit recently.

“I would love to do more writing but the pandemic has had an effect, it’s been a fragmenting time for me as I’m looking after a 91-year-old mother. But there will be something I’m sure.”

Describing herself as a “commitment-phobe” apart from her Belgian-born mother, she remarks “I don’t want to commit to personal relationships, I can’t find enough time to write”.

Michelle Paver with Sir Ian McKellen, who reads the audio version of ‘Wolfbane’
Michelle Paver with Sir Ian McKellen, who reads the audio version of ‘Wolfbane’

She accepts that this can be confusing for others to understand.

“I know people say ‘how come, she has no children or dogs?’, but I have three cactuses and – a recent addition – a small garden pond with newts.”

Sir Ian McKellen will continue a long-standing tradition by being the reader for the Wolfbane audiobook. The great thespian and cultural icon has read all nine of the series. Their eighteen-year association has been described as “a dream come true” by Michelle who has attended every day’s recording of every single book, from Wolf Brother to Wolfbane.

“He recorded Wolfbane back in March,” says Michelle. “Luckily, I’ve been present every single day for every one of the books he’s read, and each time I’ve thought: ‘He’ll be too busy’ but he’s read even when he’s had to do Waiting for Godot in the evening.

“I was there to give him a précis sometimes, for the tone. I took him to visit the wolves at Reading, at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, they have a wolf called Torak there and they were really respectful to him. He was great with the wolves and they were great with him. They intuit a lot. It’s a real privilege and, for Wolfbane, we recorded a little interview at the end which was nice.”

Sir Ian said: “Like other great children’s books which also entrance adults, Wolf Brother conjures up an utterly believable yet original world where the story grips you to the very last page.”

Michelle Paver will keep going – “writing is a compulsion” – but for now, she’s looking forward to getting out to meet her readers. Details of her Heffers visit, including booking arrangements, can be found here.

Wolfbane is published on April 26, 2022, by Head of Zeus, price £12.99 hardback.

‘Wolfbane’ is published by Head of Zeus in hardback, audiobook and eBook options
‘Wolfbane’ is published by Head of Zeus in hardback, audiobook and eBook options

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