Interview with Dorothy Hearst

YARN is thrilled to offer our readers an end of summer treat: an interview with Dorothy Hearst, author of The Wolf Chronicles Trilogy. It’s been said, by the legendary author Jean Auel, no less! that Hearst is doing for wolves what “Watership Down” did for bunnies. That’s some pretty heavy praise indeed.

YARN: In “Promise of the Wolves,” you introduce readers to a world 14,000 years ago in which you write in the voice of mixed-blood wolf-pup Kaala. Though first person, readers will agree that Kaala is all wolf. How did you create the voice of a young wolf experiencing uniquely animal-like behavior like hunting, in addition to complicated social interactions with other wolves and ravens, while avoiding a completely anthropomorphic Disney-esque character?

DH: I worked really hard to get this right.  If I had been completely true to how a wolf perceives the world, it would have been confusing and distracting for the humans who would read the book, because it would seem so strange for scent to be the primary sense and for everything to be seen from wolf height. However if I made the wolves seem like people in fur suits, the book would lose much of its power and authenticity.  So I had to strike a balance.

Before I was a writer, I was an actor.  One of the things I learned as an actor was that in order to portray a character who was very different from me, I couldn’t just look at the character from the outside.  I had to imagine what it would be like if I really were that character.  What would I, Dorothy, be like if I’d grown up in castle 400 years ago?  How would I react to that environment and the limitations and opportunities offered by that situation?  I used that technique to imagine what I would be like if I were a wolf.

YARN: The Wolf Chronicles Trilogy reveals a wolf hierarchy that is complex, volatile and fiercely overseen by the Great Wolves. What was your inspiration for the Great Wolves and the rules that govern the wolves of Wide Valley? Were some of these rules based on your research and observation of actual wolf packs?

DH: The Greatwolves are VERY loosely based on Dire Wolves, though Dire Wolves were smaller than my Greatwolves and there’s nothing to indicate that they were particularly fierce.   One of the great things about writing about an extinct species is that no one really knows much about their behavior. The Greatwolves’ actions and attitudes come entirely from my imagination, and are based on human behavior, rather than wolf.  I wanted characters that were corrupted by power and driven by the fear of losing that power, because I think such motivations are extremely dangerous in humans.  So I created the Greatwolves and their rules. The behavior of Kaala and her pack are based on observed wolf behaviors.

YARN: In the past, you’ve mentioned that Kaala’s story was originally envisioned as a single novel? Were there any special challenges in making The Wolf Chronicles a trilogy?

DH: Yes, because I originally thought I was writing one book, I wrote myself into a few corners that I had to find my way out of when I wrote the second book.  It was a real challenge. It taught me to be a much better writer because every time I ran into an obstacle in the story, I had to write my way around it.  For example, I gave more of the story away in the first book than I would have if I’d known I was writing a trilogy. That forced me to add more layers to the rest of the trilogy.

YARN: Without giving too much of “Secrets of the Wolves” away, Kaala is intent on keeping her promise to watch over humans, to maintain “Balance–how all creatures are part of the wold and must not destroy that which they depend upon to survive.” In what ways do you think animals remind humans to keep balance today?

DH: It was not that long ago that we lived not so differently from the way animals live now.  We’ve forgotten that, which makes us think we are different and makes us forget that we are dependent upon the natural world.  We need animals to remind us of that.  One of the reasons I think that dogs are so important is because they are animals that we cherish and take into our homes.  If we can take our love of dogs, and transfer that love to their wild wolf cousins and to the rest of the natural world, we can stop seeing nature as the Other and start seeing it as part of ourselves and worthy to be saved.

Writing Process:

YARN: What does your writing process consist of, from the idea to publication?  Do you outline, draft, revise?  What is your favorite part?  Your least favorite?

Photo courtesy of Dorothy Hearst.

DH: I start by doing some free writing. I just get whatever ideas I have onto paper (or computer).  Then I might write a scene or two. Then I outline.  I use big pieces of paper and colored pens to make giant flowcharts and then transfer the outline to the computer. Then, once I’ve outlined, I start putting scenes together and writing new ones.  Then the story usually takes me away from the outline, and so I create a new outline and start writing from that one until the writing takes me away from it and I start all over again.  Once I’ve written something, I revise, revise, and revise some more.

I love free writing and drawing my outline on giant pieces of paper, but I think my favorite part is when it all comes together into a scene.  There’s a point at which the story takes on a life of its own, and all the work I’ve done starts looking like real writing.  I also really like the revision process, since it allows me to add depth and shadings to the work.

My least favorite part is when all my storylines get tangled up in each other, and I have to untangle them.

YARN: Have you ever felt “stuck” in your writing?  What advice can you give teens who might be struggling with writing assignments and need to get unstuck before the due date?

DH: Many, many times.  Every writer does. There are two ways to deal with being stuck.  One is to keep writing.  The other is to stop writing and do something to rest your brain.  One of the things I’m still trying to learn when to do which.  Sometimes you just have to keep powering through, to just write something.  Get words on paper, even they are terrible.  Writing terrible stuff is one of the most important parts of the process, and often I will give myself permission to write the worst stuff I can for half an hour, and that frees me up.  Other times, I just have to take a walk, or play with a dog, or read a book I like.  When my brain is resting , the story then works itself out.  So you really have to try both.

YARN: Before becoming an author, you were an acquisitions editor at Jossey-Bass. How does your experience as an editor inform your writing?

DH: Even though I edited nonfiction, I learned how to craft a story and to create an arc of the story. But the most important thing I learned is that writing is work, and the more you work, the better your writing gets.  I edited so many wonderful, talented, smart authors, and I saw how their early drafts were flawed and how they worked until they were really good.  They were so professional about their writing, and I carried that with me when I became a writer.

The other thing I took with me was the importance of always keeping the reader in mind.  It was the key thing I told the authors I edited, and I always think of how my reader will experience my books as I’m writing them.

YARN: Do you have any advice for teens who aspire to be writers in the future?

DH: I echo the advice of many others who say read as many books as you can, and just keep writing. I  think it’s important to add one more thing:  don’t be afraid to write many, many pages of terrible stuff to get to the good stuff.  In order to get a 350 page book, I write about 3500 pages of bad stuff.  A novelist I know who has been writing for 30 years writes 8 times as many pages as end up in her book.  I think people get discouraged when their writing isn’t good after the first, second or ninth draft.  Sometimes it takes a really long time to get it right  Persistence in the face of frustration is one of the most valuable tools a writer can use.

On Other Reading:

YARN: In your essay for YARN, “How I Went from Hating Research to Loving It,” you detail the many techniques you used to learn more about wolves, ravens, and even 14,000 year old botany! Is there a book you discovered while searching for information about wolves that you might be able to direct some of your wolf-enthusiast fans to while they’re waiting for the final installment in your trilogy?

DH: Everyone who is interested in wolves should read “Of Wolves and Men” by Barry Lopez.  It’s been around for about 30 years and is still an amazingly relevant exploration of the relationship between wolves and people.  There’s a great book called “The Truth About Dogs” by Stephen Budiansky that talks about the evolution of the dog.  “The Mind of the Raven” by Bernd Heinrich is a wonderful raven book as is “In the Company of Crows and Ravens” by John M. Marzluff, Paul R. Ehrlich and Tony Angell.  Temple Grandin’s “Animals in Transation” is wonderful for anyone who wants to understand how animals think, and Meg Olmert’s “Made for Each Other” is a wonderful exploration of the human-animal bond. There’s also a book called “Dogs Make us Human” by Art Wolfe  and Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson coming out in September.  Here’s a link to a list of books on my website.


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