When Michelle Paver was an infant in Malawi, her family had “a big Alsatian dog whose job was to look after me. She treated me like I was her cub, making sure I was safe, making sure a snake wouldn’t bite me”.
Some 30 years later, after graduating from Oxford with a first-class degree in biochemistry, and rising to partner in one of London’s top City law firms, Paver thought of her canine nanny as she started to consider writing a book for children. She wondered what the world would be like if it were to be described by a wolf.
“I did a lot of research,” she explains from her home in Wimbledon, where the Victorian ghost-story writer Margaret Oliphant lived before her. “I met wolves at the local wolf trust. I looked at wolf behaviour and wolf biology: researched how good their ears and noses, their senses, are. But I hadn’t really planned that the wolf would be so central to the story. I just thought about my dog and the bond we had.”
The resulting novel, Wolf Brother, published in 2004, was the first in what would become the bestselling Chronicle of Ancient Darkness series, which traces the relationship between 12-year-old Torak and his companion Wolf as they navigate the dangers of the Stone Age world. Like all the best heroes of children’s literature, Torak is an orphan, whose father was killed by a bear. Wolf and his friend Renn become a surrogate family for him as he struggles to survive in the hostile prehistoric landscape, when the local clans reject him.
Her active approach makes her job description sound more akin to that of an adventurer than a novelist
In Paver’s books, the prehistoric world is drawn in vivid detail – both from a factual and a world-view perspective – but it is Wolf who first captures the reader’s imagination. At the start of Wolf Brother we watch as he tries to understand Torak, who he first mistakes for his brother because of the stripe of wolfskin stitched into his coat. Wolf seeks to understand him by measuring his difference, and names him Tall Tailless, identifying Torak by what distinguishes the boy from himself.
It is that inventive way of describing the world that excites the reader, but as Paver explains: “I didn’t plan their vocabulary. I just started writing and their language came quickly.” The river is a Fast Wet, the sun a Hot Bright Eye, the sky the Up; just as a wolf might perceive it.
Of course the trajectory of Paver’s transformation from lawyer to bestselling children’s author is not quite as straightforward as the narrative might seem. Wolf
Brother was not her first book, nor was it the first time she had thought about writing a story from the perspective of a lupine character. As a student at Oxford, she had written a book from a wolf’s point of view, but had failed to get it published.
After her father’s death in 1996, however, she took a sabbatical from her lucrative law job, and gave herself a year to become a professional writer. The gamble paid off. Before long she had nine romance novels to her name, before Wolf came calling. She then sketched out a six-part series, themed as the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, and sent it to her agent. After a bidding war, Paver became one of the biggest names in contemporary children’s literature.
With the forthcoming publication of Viper’s Daughter, Paver returns to Torak’s world after an 11-year hiatus. Following the frenzy of Wolf Brother’s initial success, she produced a book a year for The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, and by the end of the projected six-year trajectory she felt she had exhausted the territory of its ancient setting. However, although she had told fans that Torak’s story was over, she realised two years ago “he still had a lot of life to live”; the latest instalment in the series will run over three books.
In Viper’s Daughter, Torak finds his surrogate family torn apart as Renn heads off into the wild without him after a premonition suggests she is a threat to his life. Torak sets off in pursuit, leaving Wolf, who has just become a father, to take care of his cubs; but Wolf struggles with the idea of abandoning his brother to fate, and tries to follow Torak’s track through the forest. The journey is dangerous for all, fraught with battles with the Hidden People as well as the inhospitable landscape.
Like the previous books in the series, we are so immersed in the characters’ experiences that, despite the prehistoric setting, events take on a sense of lived reality for the reader. This is exactly the effect that Paver was going for.
“One thing that has always frustrated me,” she explains, “is that journalists, readers, booksellers, often use the word fantasy to describe the books, but Torak, Renn, these are not Stone Age superheroes. I have always regarded [their world] as reality, a Stone Age reality. I have been very careful that nothing should happen that couldn’t be explained from a physical or psychological perspective. The Spiritwalker, for example, can be explained from a biochemical perspective; the strange smoke that they inhale. The figure of the Mage is really a bit like a shaman. So, there is a 21st-century explanation that we can draw on for everything in the books, but hopefully the reader is so excited by the story that they aren’t questioning it.”
It is for this reason – and because she enjoys it so much – that Paver spends so much time on research. Indeed, her active approach makes her job description sound more akin to that of an adventurer than a novelist. We run through a few fun questions, just for context. The most dangerous adventure? “Climbing an active volcano for my Bronze Age series.” The scariest adventure? “Swimming with killer whales in North Norway. The cold was definitely a factor, but there was also the fear that I would be mistaken for a herring.” The most disgusting experience? “Eating a leopard slug in British Columbia, which made my mouth go numb. It was an ancient remedy for toothache. I can see how it would work.” The most uncomfortable experience? “Going up through the Bering Strait in the Arctic Circle, the last home of the woolly mammoth. It was like being at the end of the world. The wind was so powerful it made my bones ache. But then we found a tusk jutting out of a frozen river bed. What a profound link with the past.”
Paver talks about her research with the practicality of an explorer. She takes notes on her treacherous travels, writing in pencil in a waterproof notebook. “It is the only way to ensure that your notes survive,” she explains. “And you can’t rely on memories, and photos are useless, so taking notes is critical. They make it so much easier to make the writing come alive.”
It is not just about authenticity, however. The expeditions, “give me ideas that make their way into the books in a concrete way, ideas for my characters that I might not otherwise have. They feed directly into the process of writing the book, like when a whale barrelled into the prow of a ship I was travelling on and I saw directly into a whale’s eye. It was so incredibly magical. That happens to Torak exactly as it happened to me.”
The research trips are also “my favourite bit of my job”, she admits. “They are fun, whereas writing can be very difficult.”
Still, it can be hard to let go of the knowledge she accumulates on these adventures: the gauntlets she saw recently on a trek in British Columbia, for example, where each finger had a bear claw on it. “There is no end to creativity and inventiveness of the hunter gatherer!” Paver has volumes of notes that she has not yet used, “but I do wonder would I find it all interesting if it wasn’t going into a story?”.
Viper’s Daughter by Michelle Paver is published by Zephyr, £12.99 in hardback