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Wolves, the Wild, and the Other: An Interview (and giveaway) with Maria Vale

I’m not drawn usually to shapeshifter stories but the rave reviews at AAR for Maria Vale’s series, The Legend of All Wolves, convinced me to read book one, The Last Wolf. Hooked, I binged on the next three and enjoyed them all. The series is uniquely complex and, as I read the books, I had questions. Maria, thankfully, was happy to answer them. She’s also–woo hoo!–giving away a free ebook set of the series–make a comment below and you’ll be entered into a drawing for them!

Dabney: Maria, your series, The Legend of All Wolves, has been a big hit here at AAR. (We’ve reviewed the first and third and will be reviewing the fourth.) I’ve read them all and enjoyed them thoroughly.

The world you’ve created is singular. In some ways, your attention to what Nature might be like for the animals, especially wolves, reminds me of the world created by Delia Owens in her breakout bestseller Where the Crawdads Sing.

What inspired you to delve into the world of wolves?

Maria: Maybe because I moved constantly as a child, I sympathize with outsiders and monsters are the ultimate outsiders. My favorite books tend to be from their perspective whether it’s Frankenstein or John Gardner’s Grendel or Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea.

I’d read a lot of PNR in which the wolfish part is a ravening, bestial monster, but I wanted something different, something that valued wildness, so I decided I would write it myself. I’ve gotten some really nice responses from readers who say that the books have made them reconsider their ideas about wolves.

Dabney: The refuge the wolves live on is in upstate New York. What made you choose that locale?

Maria: A couple of reasons. During the mid-17th century England’s forests were plundered for mining and agriculture and timber, so like any pack faced with habitat loss, my wolves had to move on. In 1668, they came to the New World and to the Adirondacks which would have seemed almost impenetrably wild then.

Adirondack Park is still “forever wild” by state decree (I imagine an earlier Alpha having a hand in that legislation), however it is possible for a single owner to control hundreds of thousands of acres.

Finally, my dad lived right on the southwest boundary of the park and it loomed large in my imagination growing up.

Dabney: Your wolves face two threats, often intertwined: Humans and Shifters. What, specifically, is a Shifter and how do they differ from wolves?

Maria: The differences between Wolves or Pack and Shifters is in their relationship to their wild. Pack revere their wild selves and feel cut off when they are “in skin.” Then for the three days around the full moon, they must be wild. The Iron Moon, as I call it, is really a device to reinforce their devotion to land and pack: They simply couldn’t be fully integrated into human society if for three days, they were wolves.

Those who are best at playing human live among humans part of the time, serving as the Great North’s lawyers or lobbyists or financial advisors. I imagine those Pack tiptoeing largely unnoticed through oblivious, self-centered humans for whom werewolves are things only in movies.

This means humans serve as a kind of constant threat, but I needed a more active enemy. One who not only knew Pack existed but could identify them. That’s when I decided to create Shifters (or Lukani, as they call themselves) who can change into wolves, but don’t have to. Over time, the dangers of being wolves and the advantages of being human have become more pronounced, so now they never change.

This allowed me a pool of characters who could serve as both enemies but also as examples of the danger of losing our wildness and the wonder of waking to it.

Dabney: In book one, the hero is a Shifter who falls in love with a wolf. Book two features a wolf falling for a human, book three is a Pack wolf falling for a lone wolf, and book four showcases the love story between a wolf and a Shifter. All of these stories explore the tension between the communal nature of the Pack and individual love for an outsider. What speaks to you about that conflict?

Maria: This is to my mind a crucial part of the series and I’m glad you brought it up. On one hand, I wanted to portray the nervousness of a suspicious, worried group faced with the arrival of outsiders. But then I wanted to show how once accepted, these outsiders brought new strength to the pack.

Dabney: It’s clear you’ve done A LOT of research about wolves and their preferred habitats. What’s the most interesting thing our readers probably don’t know about wolves?

Maria: Three, to me, intensely interesting things that have influenced the writing:

Wolves are among the few species that cross-foster. This means that a female will raise a pup who is not her own. In these books, the ties that bind the pack start from birth.

Omegas are the opposite of Alphas. They are the wolves at the very bottom of the pack, but they have an important role as peacekeepers. Using a combination of play and submission, they diffuse pack tension. I love that even in a social organization that values power, the least wolf is still crucial.

Very few animals have white sclera (the area around the iris). Humans do, but so do wolves and dogs. The theory is that because they hunt cooperatively, it is necessary to see where packmates are looking. I have used wolves’ close attention to each other as an element in the building of the romantic relationships. For me, there’s nothing sexier than paying attention.

Dabney: The wolves mistrust humans profoundly. The Pack especially loathes humans’ use of guns for sport. The wolves kill too but they have a strong moral code around taking a life. Can you elaborate on that?

Maria: There has been controversy over what is called surplus killing by real wolves. Usually they do this in the winter, when prey will freeze solid and provide a source of food for the lean months ahead. Generally speaking, though, they kill to eat and for the Great North Pack, I make that law.

In the fifth book, I even play with the word “Werewolf,” a term that the Pack rejects completely, partly because it was co-opted by humans but partly because for wolves, Werewulfas, “man-wolves”, are those wolves who like humans, will kill their own. They are feared.

Dabney: Perhaps the greatest threat humans pose to wolves is environmental. Would you say that’s fair?

Maria: Absolutely. I was struck by an article in the New York Times a couple of years ago that pointed out that 77% of the world has been modified by humans, up from 15% a century ago. The pack is intensely conscious of their responsibilities to the balance of the natural world.

In each book, I rework some Norse myth involving wolves so that it is told from a more wolfish perspective. In Season of the Wolf, I use the story of Sköll and Hati– their names mean ‘the mocker’ and ‘the hater’—the wolves who hunt the gods of the sun and moon through the sky until at the end of time they eat them.

In my retelling, these gods slack off, not caring about the subsequent destruction down on earth until two wolves (I’ve renamed them Ceald & Háte, or cold and hot) force them to get moving. The wolves do it partly so that their pack can have the Iron Moon again, but partly because they have a duty to the cycles of life and death.

Dabney: When the wolves aren’t trying to save themselves from humans, they are trying to stay one step ahead of the Shifters (Is it all Shifters or just this specific group?). Where the wolves venerate the wild, this group of Shifters wishes to destroy it and “make the world safe for cabbages.” What is it about the wild that Shifters so revile?

Maria: For me Shifters and wolves start from a common origin, but the Shifters have become increasingly like humans and like humans believe they their function on earth is dominion rather than the more wolf-like stewardship.

Unfortunately for them, nature has a way of striking back.

Dabney: In the last two books, it’s become increasingly clear that the ancient rules that keep the Pack together are also sexist. Even the heroine of book four, Evie, the Pack’s Alpha, struggles with her lack of sexual agency and power. The hero, Constantine, muses that “There’s only so small you can make women before they explode.” Would you say the Pack is patriarchal?

Maria: No. For me, all the wolves are bound by the duty of strong wolves to mate with strong wolves and breed even stronger wolves. It is not our current idea of love, but it isn’t that far removed from rich families marrying into other rich families to create even richer families.

In Evie’s case, her own expectation and the expectation of the entire pack is that she will choose one of the two strongest unmated wolves. The same had been true when she was mated to John.

She needs an outsider’s perspective to break through those assumptions.

For Constantine, when he talks about women who have been made small, he is thinking about his mother and August’s wife, Drusilla, i.e. Shifters. Shifter women used to have power—more like wolves– but in an attempt to fit in with human expectations, they took on smaller roles. The cost turned out to be fatally high.

Dabney: In several of the books, the wolves are warned that the days are coming when men will be as wolves to men. I assume this is a riff off the Latin proverb, Homo homini lupus, meaning “A man is a wolf to another man.” What does it mean here?

Maria: Yes! In Forever Wolf, I re-worked the myth of Garm, the wolf guardian of the gates of Hel whose howl is supposed to announce the end of the world. The verses in the Eddas were the usual Edda-speak: “Garm will howl and the wolf run free. Brothers will fight each other. It is axe-time, sword-time, wind-time, wolf-time.”

It was easier to boil that down to the better known “Man will be as wolf to man,” which gave me another opportunity to play with our preconceptions of wolves, switching the original meaning of “man will become cruel” to something more optimistic and truer to wolves, i.e. “man will become loyal to the pack, killing only for food & working together to protect all pups.”

Dabney: While it’s true that there is darkness in your books, they’re also terrifically funny. I laugh almost every time a wolf in The Year Of The First Shoes shows up. It’s a brilliant concept. What made you think of it?

Maria: I’m so glad you like them. I couldn’t imagine the Pack with babies. What would they do with these totally helpless creatures during the Iron Moon? If there was trouble, how would they get them up to the High Pines? So I assumed they would be pups until some point at around 6? 7? 8? I never really worked that out. Then they would have to start putting on skin and learning how to play act at being humans. It means they have to learn math, but also forks; reading, but also pants.

Dabney: I understand you are contracted for two more books in this series. Who’s up next? Julia and Arthur?

Maria: Yes! And can I can’t tell you how much I’m enjoying writing this. Julia is a woman who has been an adjunct to powerful men, whether it is her father, her uncle August or her fiancé, Cassius. Then she finds herself falling in love with Arthur, a wolf who for Reasons will never be anything but an Omega. Because of this, she has to become something she has never been allowed to be—dangerous.

Dabney: Anything else you’d like to share with our readers?

Maria: Just that I am so grateful to you, Dabney, and to every reader who has been willing to take a chance on these slightly weird books by an unknown writer. Stay well and stay wild.

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