THE CLAN is an established international community for fans of Michelle Paver: http://torak.info/ You guessed it: I am a clanner! I hold my paws up! You can join for information, news, competitions etc. As well as the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, I love the first book, Gods and Warriors, a new series set in the Bronze Age which is similar in structure to the Chronicles but uses a dolphin rather than a wolf (I cried twice in this book). I watched Michelle speaking on Puffin Virtually Live about her the new series and her experiences researching and writing and it got me really impatient for the second book in the series! I would definitely recommend Gods if you enjoyed the Chronicles. I've also got Dark Matter and the Jamaican trilogy (The Serpent’s Tooth, Fever Hill and The Shadow Catcher). I have never read Without Charity, Michelle’s first published book which is set at the turn of the 20th century or A Place In The Hills, Michelle's second book, which features two parallel love stories set over two thousand years apart, an archeaologist heroine and some Romans!
Creating A Stone Age World
Torak’s world is the world of six thousand years ago: after the Ice Age, and before farming reached his part of north-west Europe. The land is one vast Forest, peopled by small clans of hunter-gatherers. They have no writing, no metals, and no wheel. They don’t need them. They’re superb survivors. They know every tree and herb in the Forest. They know how to make beautiful, deadly weapons from flint and bone. They know the animals they hunt and they respect them, because without them they wouldn’t survive.
We know so little about the world of the Mesolithic hunter-gatherers. What weapons did they use? What shelters did they build? For their material culture, I’ve studied archaeology, but to fill in the numerous gaps, I’ve taken ideas from the ways of life of more recent traditional people, such as certain Inuit and American Indian peoples, the San of Africa, the Ainu of Japan, the Sami of Lapland, and certain central and south American tribes.
The term `hunter-gatherer’ can be misleading, evoking a picture of someone casually spotting a clump of berries and saying, `Oh, good, I think I’ll gather some of those’. In fact, hunter-gatherers had to be experts about their world. They had to know precisely when particular plants bore fruit or nuts; when the bark of different trees was at its best for making rope, where such trees could be found, and so on. They had to be unbelievably skilled. It’s as far from The Flintstones as you could possibly imagine.
But Torak’s world is about more than tracking prey and scraping hides. How did they think? Again, I’ve learnt from more modern hunter-gatherers, and at the outset I was struck by key differences in attitude between them and farming or pastoral societies:-
As hunter-gatherers travel often, they don’t tend to value possessions as much as we do.
They often don’t have a concept of owning land. This means they attach less importance to inheriting property, so there’s less emphasis on marriage, and women tend to play a more equal role in society.
They value the qualities you need for hunting: patience, resilience, and the ability to listen (hence Torak being “The Listener” in WOLF BROTHER).
Often they treat their weapon as a valued `hunting partner’, not just as an object (hence Renn and her bow).
But that’s just the bare bones of a society. What did they believe about life and death, and where they came from? The challenge has been to create an entire belief system for the clans. Again, I’ve borrowed from the beliefs of more recent hunter-gatherers, then used my imagination to adapt them for the stories. For instance:-
When Torak tracks his first kill in WOLF BROTHER, I’ve based this on how the San (Bushmen) of the Kalahari track their prey, identifying so closely with it that in their imagination they become the animal they are tracking.
To show how Torak perceives his world, I’ve used the rather eerie Sami idea that everything – including rocks, rivers and trees – is alive and has a spirit; not all of them can talk, but all can hear and think.
In the books, when a hunter kills an animal, he feels honour-bound to use every part of that animal (whether it’s for food, clothing, weapons, or shelter). This is because of “The Pact”: the clans’ belief in an ancient bargain between themselves and the World Spirit, to the effect that they must treat the prey with respect, and in return, the World Spirit will send more prey. I based this on the beliefs of the Nunamiut Eskmimos of northern Canada. Similar beliefs are held by many hunter-gatherer peoples.
Torak’s antagonists in the books, the evil Soul-Eaters, were inspired by reading about shamanism. In most hunter-gatherer cultures, there’s one member of the clan who is in touch with the spirit world, and who goes into a trance to visit it: to cure sickness, foretell the future, and so on. Such people are often called shamans or witch-doctors. Mostly they do good; but it occurred to me that as they’re very powerful people, if they did ever band together to do evil, they’d be a force to be reckoned with. That’s the idea behind the Soul-Eaters. (As an aside, what I find really alarming about the Soul-Eaters is that they don’t believe they are doing evil; they’re just utterly convinced that they’re right.)
I’ve also drawn on shamanism, and particularly on the experiences of Inuit and American Indian shamans, for Torak’s “spirit walking” – that is, when two of his souls leave his body and enter the body of another creature, so that, while remaining Torak, he experiences life as they do.
Many readers have found the most frightening creatures in the stories to be the tokoroths, the evil children possessed by demons. I based this idea on certain African beliefs about monstrous creatures believed to have been created by witch-doctors, using children abducted in infancy and brought up in darkness, in an atmosphere of deep evil. In Malawi, where I was born, these are called tokoloshe. I simply changed the name a bit and added a demon or two.
I’ve tried hard to make Torak’s world accurate, and I’ve been delighted that the stories have met with favour in archaeological circles. A few years ago, I was asked to open a special WOLF BROTHER display case at the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. The Museum had taken excerpts from the book, and exhibited them alongside real archaeological artefacts mentioned in the story, such as flint blades, red ochre, etc. I was delighted that the book has been so honoured, and I’ve since been back to enjoy the Museum’s subsequent display cases for later books in the series.
Becoming A Wolf
How do you get inside the mind of a wolf? How does Wolf’s world differ from Torak’s? What are the unbridgeable differences?
Since I was a child, I’ve read everything I could find about wolves, and the wolf talk which Torak uses is as close as I can get to real wolf talk. For example, when he asks Wolf to play, or muzzle-grabs him when he’s a cub, that’s how a real wolf might invite play, or discipline a pesky cub.
However as regards the language which Wolf himself uses in the parts of the story told from his point of view, I arrived at this by knowing something about how wolves perceive the world, and then imagining how Wolf would think and feel in a given situation. In other words, I had to get inside Wolf’s mind: to experience the Forest through his eyes – and more importantly, through his nose and ears.
For instance at the start of WOLF BROTHER, I knew that when he first meets Torak, Wolf mistakes him for another wolf, because of the strip of wolf skin which Torak wears on his jerkin. I realized that Wolf would regard Torak as a special kind of wolf – albeit a strange one, with complicated forepaws and the puzzling lack of a tail: hence Wolf’s name for him, “Tall Tailless”.
However, I always bear in mind that although Wolf can be endearing, particularly when he’s a cub, he is also an authentic wolf – and therefore, even to Torak, in some ways ultimately unknowable.
As with any research, you can only get you so far with books, and I would never have been able to bring Wolf truly alive if I hadn’t got to know some real wolves. This I’ve done over the years by befriending the wolves at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust in Berkshire (www.ukwolf.org). It’s been a privilege to get to know these wolves, and I’m hugely grateful to the Trust for helping to make this possible.
The wolves at the Trust are not wild, as they’ve been brought up from an early age in proximity with people (their devoted volunteer handlers). However they aren’t tame, either, because you can’t tame a wolf, so you need to know a bit about wolf etiquette when you approach them: for instance, talking softly and reassuringly, not staring directly into their eyes, and not patting them on the head.
Over the years, I’ve got to know three wolves particularly well, as I’ve known them since they were tiny cubs (see OUTCAST research). Over the years, I’ve watched Torak and his step-sisters Mai and Mosi grow from small bundles of fluff to big, happy, healthy wolves. They’ve inspired me in so many ways: from the little things – as when I watched a wolf clean her teeth by running a bramble branch through her jaws – to bigger things, as when one of the wolves had to have the tip of her tail amputated, which gave me an idea for a major episode in SOUL EATER.
I’m honoured to be a Patron of the UK Wolf Conservation Trust, whose aims are:-
- To enhance conservation, scientific knowledge and public awareness of wolves.
- To improve their chances of survival in the wild.
- To run education programmes for schools, conservation and other organisations; and
- To provide opportunities for behavioural research, and for people to interact with wolves
Michelle Paver shares tories from her research trips to Greenland and talks to Nikki Gamble about her respect fo anthropological science
Born in Malawi to a Belgian mother and a father who ran the tiny 'Nyasaland Times', Michelle Paver moved to the UK when she was three. She grew up in Wimbledon and, following a Biochemistry Degree from Oxford, she became a partner in a City law firm. Eventually, she gave up her career in law to follow her long-held dream of becoming a writer. Successfully published as an adult author of historical fiction, CHRONICLES OF ANCIENT DARKNESS are her first - brilliant - books for children.
Interviews with Michelle Paver
Michelle is interviewed by Nikki Gamble for The Just Imagine Story Centre.
On your website you mention that Tove Jansson’s Moomin stories were favourite books from childhood. I can see the connection with your writing, which like Jansson’s has a depth of feeling for landscape. In Soul Eater you describe the frozen North so evocatively. I understand that you went to Greenland to do the research, that must have been amazing. Can you tell us something about it?
Yes, I’d been to Greenland in the summer to research for Spirit Walker and did a little for Soul Eater while I was there. Even in the summer, icebergs can be seen crashing into each other and I managed to get close to a glacier, but of course it was quite sunny. I was keen to get back to experience cold Greenland. So towards the end of winter I took a trip to the east coast, which even the Greenlanders call the back of beyond because there is a population of just 2,000. The first day, I travelled on a husky sled with an Inuit guide. What struck me was the chaotic way in which Greenland huskies run. Not in neat pairs. No, the Greenland way is just to have them fanned out, so they leap over each and get tangled up. Sometimes a dog decides to hitch a lift on the sled, and the others get annoyed. The weather was foul; there was a very strong wind and it was freezing cold. Of course I already knew that Greenland was cold, but it was the power of the wind that struck me. When we stopped all the dogs huddled behind a rock, as did I and the guide. We just had to get out of the wind. That’s why as soon as Torak and Renn leave the forest in Soul Eater, the power of the wind hits them.
One of the things that struck me when I visited Churchill in Northern Canada was the change in the landscape. First the trees peter out and then there are a few low, windswept trees and then nothing. I wasn’t really there to scope the scenery but to see some polar bears. I had considered going to see them at London Zoo; after all, a polar bear’s a polar bear. But really I knew I had to do it properly, so I went all way to the Churchill, Hudson Bay. It’s a great place to see polar bears. The scenery is amazing it’s not just flat ice. It gives you the sense that you really are going to the edge of the world. I thought, I’m going to have re-write the book because the landscape is completely different to the way I had imagined. That’s why I do location research because there are always surprises.
Your writing is very sensory ...
If you’re sitting in a nice comfy study in Wimbledon, there’s only so much you can imagine. So first hand experience is essential for me, because I need to use all the senses. It’s one of the reasons that I don’t take photographs when I’m on a research trip. I take a few snaps for the publisher, so they can see me with the husky dogs, but I never use them as research tools. Photographs just show a little bit of what you can see, not what you can hear and feel.
I find your descriptions of animal behaviour completely convincing, the difference between the ways that polar bears and the brown bears behave, for instance.
Thank you. Well I am pretty careful. So far the experts, the archaeologists and the wolf behaviourists have said, “Oh, we like your books and we haven’t found any mistakes.” So, I feel confident, though I’m not an expert.
Does that level of accuracy come from observation or from book based research?
Both. I spend a few weeks holed up in the British Library researching archaeology and anthropology for every book, which I love doing. I’ve read the classic studies on wolves and polar bears, and that’s great for generalities: how the animals behave, when they breed, the latitudes where they are found. Documentaries are very useful; I have watched David Attenborough. But that sort of research doesn’t help you experience what it’s really like to meet a polar bear; that’s why I had to go to Churchill. The first time I saw a polar bear was at night. We went out in the moonlight searching for the bears. I was in the tundra buggy: a huge truck with wheels about ten feet high and very thick, so they don’t damage the tundra too much. There’s a little open air platform that you can stand on and look down. There were clumps of snow around and as I was looking, one of these humps just got up and started towards us. It was a bear. He’d been sleeping and we had woken him up. I’d seen the documentaries about polar bears and I knew how they moved but I was surprised that this huge bear didn’t make a sound, not a sound. As he walked across the ice it was silent. You could see the breath, but you couldn’t even hear the breath. It was awe inspiring. Of course the polar bears hunt seals on ice, and if his claws were busy clicking away they would starve. So when Torak meets the ice bear it’s the silence that I emphasise. And when his eyes meet the bear’s eyes, I’m describing what happened to me. I’ll never forget that experience everything is prey to the polar bear and that was another realisation that came from that encounter. I already knew it in biological terms but the force of what that meant came home to me on that trip. So I would say it’s the emotional experience as well as the sensory details that you uncover on location research.
You also learn about anecdotal, anthropological science. The Inuit have been observing polar bears a lot long longer than we have. Their observations are not necessarily scientifically verified but I can show respect for them in my novels. For example, there’s an Inuit tradition that wolves are believed to be so clever that if they want the reindeer to think they’re further away, they put their noses in the snow to muffle their howls. To my knowledge, no scientist has observed this behaviour, but it’s a strong Inuit belief. I’ve used that in Wolf Brother.
In writing the dream sequences you shift from using the past tense into using the continuous present. Does that happen intuitively or do you plan to write like that?
You try it and see. Clarity is the most important thing, especially as my readers are quite young. The first time Torak’s spirit walks, which, of course, isn’t dreaming, I did try going into the present and it got too confusing trying to communicate the idea that his soul is leaving his body. But for dreams it does seem to work, partly because I think dreams feel so present.
I write from three viewpoints. One of them is a wolf. Although I knew I was going to write from wolf’s point of view, I didn’t know how I was going to do it. I did a lot of research on levels of smell and taste. The first scene from Wolf point of view comes after his pack has just drowned; it’s based on a documented incident. The first time he pats the fire, I hadn’t realised he would do that. Then I had to solve the problem of how it would be interpreted by Wolf and that’s when I thought he would call it a ‘bright beast that bites hot’. This is very like Anglo-Saxon. In Soul Eater I had to imagine what wolf would think dreams are? He calls it ‘the other now’. Children enjoy decoding wolf’s thoughts but it’s an effort. So, with the dreams I’ve got to be very careful not to make things too complex
Queen Of The Stone Age
Michelle is interviewed by Stephen Moss for The G2 section of The Guardian.
Michelle Paver is sparkier and less diffident than I recall. We originally met in 2004, when Wolf Brother, the first of her bestselling series of children’s novels about stone-age life, appeared. Outcast, number four of a planned six, is published this week, and Paver is becoming used to the trappings of celebrity – interviews, book signings, author tours. She is at home now in the media age as well as the stone age.
Her celebrity status is about to be raised a notch, too: the director Ridley Scott has optioned the entire Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series and plans to do for the Mesolithic what he did for the Roman empire. Her publisher, Orion, which gave her an advance of £1.8m for the six books in 2003, will be hoping it has the next JK Rowling on its hands.
Not that the sensible Paver, 47, a former commercial lawyer who retains her legal precision and groundedness, is pushing such comparisons. “I’m not the next JK Rowling,” she insists. “We’ve got one already. It’s flattering to be compared to her. I like her books and loved the first three particularly, but apart from the fact that they’ve got young boys as heroes, they’re very different. She writes pure fantasy. What I’m trying to do is make the world I write about real. Everything could have happened.”
Paver’s series is the everyday story of boy meets wolf. The central character is Torak, a 12-year-old who is orphaned when his father is killed by a bear. The books follow his struggle to survive, aided by a faithful wolf and a girl called Renn, in a hostile environment – Paver’s vision of northern Scandinavia circa 6,000 BC – and faced by a complex clan system that rejects him. Rarely has an adolescent faced such a tortuous rite of passage, and Paver accepts that, four books in, poor Torak must be a psychological wreck.
Since she insists on getting as close as possible to what Torak has to go through, Paver herself seems remarkably level-headed. She has made journeys across Scandinavia and into the mountains and forests of central Europe in her quest for authenticity, swum with killer whales, peered into the mouth of a large brown bear, and eaten elk heart and fish eyes. I’m quite pleased to be having a coffee with her in a cafe in Wimbledon, south London, where she lives, rather than a whale sandwich and goblet of elk blood in a windswept bar in Spitzbergen.
Paver’s wanderings reflect her desire to present as accurate a picture of the stone age as possible. “There’s no message in these books at all,” she says, “but regarding hunter-gatherers as the Flintstones is something I hope I will have changed a little bit. Dramatic reconstructions of the stone age on TV usually have them running around with awful, rough clothes flapping open in sub-zero temperatures, and they are all unshaven, with messy hair. I don’t think it was like that because they wouldn’t have survived – Eskimos and Inuit have very carefully engineered and highly sophisticated clothes. Indigenous people all over the world take quite a lot of trouble with their hair and their clothes.”
For Outcast, her derring-do concerned pythons. “I didn’t realise snakes were going to be important until fairly late on in the first draft,” she says. “So I thought, ‘OK, I’ve got to go and handle some snakes.’ It was quite easy: I nipped down to Longleat and got them to lay things on for me.” She describes cradling two royal pythons in loving detail. “Have you ever held a snake? They are so strong. You can see why there are so many myths about them: they are unlike any other creature. It’s extraordinary how that little brain can keep everything moving in different directions.”
She also visited a large lake in Sweden, got to know the ways of elk a little better, and studied wolf cubs at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust in Berkshire. “I know the wolves, they know me.” No stone is left unturned in her attempt to make the stone age come alive for her young readers. “For a child, reading a book can be such an intense experience,” she says. “The great thing about children’s literature, as Philip Pullman has said, is that you can deal with the big themes which you feel somehow constrained about with adult novels – life after death, losing your parents, loyalty, betrayal, the nature of evil, our relationship with the natural world. You sometimes wonder what you’re doing to these little children’s brains.”
She gets to meet some of her fans at literary festivals, and has just been in Edinburgh, where one boy gave her a beautiful drawing of Torak and Renn, dressed in ultra-cool Mesolithic gear that wouldn’t look out of place at Gap. Another presented her with a sharpened arrowhead flint. Once, in Bath, a girl surprised her by asking if she had ever eaten squirrel. Paver hadn’t, but the survivalist girl, who was modelling herself on Renn, had, cooked in a den she had constructed at the bottom of her garden.
Paver has written fiction ever since she was an undergraduate at Oxford, where she got a first in biochemistry. But it has been her job only since 1996. For a dozen years before that she was a lawyer, specialising in patent litigation, earning a fortune and getting sucked into a high-status, high-pressure world that she increasingly came to dislike. She jumped long before she had the security of her publishing advance.
“I had quite enjoyed the challenge of being a woman in law back in the 80s because we were outnumbered five to one,” she says, “but by the mid-90s it was gradually getting through to me that I wasn’t happy. The big thing, which happens for a lot of people, was my dad dying of cancer in 1996. It forced me to ask, ‘What have I done with my life?’ I was putting things off and kept saying to myself, ‘Next year will be different.’ Of course it was never going to be different in that job. Looking back, I think I was quite near a nervous breakdown. I use to huddle on the floor and cry, and I was drinking too much.”
She took a sabbatical for a year, travelled, and, without a publishing deal, wrote a romantic novel called Without Charity. Then she went back to work. She shivers at the recollection. “It was like a bad dream. You’ve had your year of freedom driving round Nevada, and now you’re facing 3,000 unread emails and acting for a tobacco company. That was when I started plotting, drawing up my plans, trying to work out how long I could live before I got published.” She knew she had to quit rather than wait for a publishing contract. “If I hadn’t got out then,” she says, “I could still be there.”
She sold her swanky penthouse, got a functional little house, sold lots of her possessions, abandoned Armani in favour of M&S T-shirts, embraced simplicity, and started writing furiously. Soon after she had handed in her notice, Transworld gave her a modestly reassuring two-book deal and she was launched.
She wrote five romantic novels in quick succession and met with reasonable success, though she now accepts that the genre was not entirely suitable. “I was in my 30s and still thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to be getting married’ and all that kind of Bridget Jones stuff was going on, so maybe I thought that’s what I should be doing.” Her second book, A Place in the Hills, is both a love story and a quest to unravel a mystery concerning the death of a Roman poet. Her publisher may have played up the former, but Paver now realises where her true interest lay. “I did quite enjoy it, making up all these gorgeous men, but if you read those books, the best bits are always about getting back into the past. That’s when the prose really catches fire.”
Her career caught fire when she returned to a long-ignored draft of a story about a boy and his wolf companion, changed the setting from the ninth century AD to the stone age, and, over a week, sketched out a six-book sequence. Her agent loved it, and quickly sold it. Her writing future was assured, though her celebrations were tempered by the fact that she still had to finish her Daughters of Eden trilogy. Commuting between colonial Jamaica – the setting for Fever Hill, the second in the Daughters of Eden series – and the frozen wastes of Scandinavia was draining, even for someone as prodigiously well organised as Paver.
The Bridget Jones wannabe never did get her man. She is happily unmarried – or perhaps she could be said to be married to her cast of stone age characters. “It’s a self-reinforcing thing,” she says. “Because I’m enjoying these books, I don’t want a husband and children because it would interfere with them. I don’t feel I’m alone because I’ve got my characters with me”.