I am flummoxed. I am trying to write about Elise Broach’s most recent book “The Wolf Keepers” (Henry Holt and Co.). Elise will be speaking on a panel about writing middle-grade fiction that I will be moderating (“Islanders Write,” August 14). I am tasked with writing a thoughtful introduction. But what I want to write is a fan letter.
“The Wolf Keepers” is the story of a young girl whose father is a California zookeeper. The girl meets a boy who has run away from his foster parents. The book is about wolves in the zoo that are dying mysteriously, but it is also about an unexpected friendship, and transcendentalism, and ethical queries, and the naturalist John Muir and his lost cabin, and so much more. And it’s for kids (ages 8-12), but has a resonance that adults will relate to. And it’s suspenseful, and you see … this is becoming a breathless fan letter.
I emailed some questions to Ms. Broach, a New York Times bestselling author who has written nearly 20 books for children that run the gamut from board books to young adult novels. Her responses are below.
What inspired you to write
‘The Wolf Keepers’?
In many ways, writing this book was like coming home for me. My family moved to Northern California in the 1970s, when I was 14. Just down the road from the house where my parents still live is the town of Martinez, where the home of the famous preservationist John Muir (who was so important in the fight to save Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and other wild places) is preserved as a museum. I have vivid memories of visiting Yosemite for the first time as a teenager. Seeing Half Dome, El Capitan, and the giant sequoias, I was stunned by the scale of the landscape and by its incredible beauty.
In college and later in a Ph.D. program, I studied environmental history and the history of the American West, so John Muir and the preservation movement played a big role in my research. Questions about the human relationship to nature have always interested me. One of the wonderful things about writing “The Wolf Keepers” was having the chance to explore the idea of the “wild” in fiction; to think about the complexity of our interactions with nature — the risks, the joys, the obligations — and hopefully to write about all that in a way that engages young readers.
You have folded a lot of information into a gripping narrative. Did you spend a long time doing research for the book? And how did you do the research?
I did do a lot of research for the book, but with my history background, I love doing research. Even for works of fiction — maybe especially for works of fiction — I think research can provide the essential backbone of the story. Some of my research for “The Wolf Keepers” consisted of reading or rereading books in my collection from graduate school; I did other research online, and it was particularly helpful to find online photographs and other early images of Yosemite. I love writing about real historical mysteries, and the lost cabin part of the story (along with the curse!) are based on actual historical puzzles. I came across John Muir’s lost cabin quite by accident in my readings on Yosemite, and it became the very foundation of the mystery, which is a great example of the gift that research can bring to a story. Muir lived in the Yosemite Valley in the late 1800s and entertained a bunch of famous visitors there, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson and Theodore Roosevelt. But nobody has ever found traces of the cabin Muir built, or figured out its exact location. I hoped that mystery would be as interesting to young readers as it was to me. I also did a lot of research on zoos, animal behavior, and wolves — again, that was very fun for me, because I love animals and find them fascinating.
While you have an incredible amount of information about wolves, Yosemite, and John Muir, who, as you tell us in your endnotes, founded the Sierra Club, I never once felt you are trying to feed us information or educate us. I don’t actually know what my question is here, aside from how in the world did you accomplish that?
Ha! Thank you, I am so happy to hear that. I guess my first answer would be: I always leave out the boring bits. And I never have the goal of forcing information on the reader. Nothing is included unless it serves the story. I try to weave in information that is interesting and necessary to the plot, and in a suspenseful tale of mystery and adventure, those facts and historical elements tend to be absorbed eagerly by readers.
There are quite a few
suspenseful scenes in the book. What are the particular challenges to writing suspenseful scenes?
The biggest challenge to writing suspenseful scenes is to remember to slow things down. Often your instinct as a writer is to make suspenseful scenes unfold very quickly, as if the pace of the scene should echo the quickening pace of the suspense. What I’ve learned from years of working with my terrific editor, Christy Ottaviano, is that the best way to increase tension and build suspense is to slow things down. In revision, I almost always lengthen suspenseful scenes, adding pauses, showing more of the characters’ reactions, creating breaks in the way the scene progresses. These tactics can increase the tension dramatically because they force the reader to wait and wait for the exciting thing that is just about to happen.
What surprised you most while working on this story?
Oh, there were so many surprises! As there are with most books. You start out intending to write one kind of story, and it becomes something else entirely. As I mentioned earlier, the discovery that Muir built a cabin in Yosemite that is a continuing source of mystery today was the best surprise, because it gave me a linchpin of my plot. But another important surprise was the role of Tyler, the runaway boy who’s been hiding out at the zoo and noticing strange things happening at night. The novel was originally called “The Zookeeper’s Daughter” because I thought the main story would belong to Lizzie, daughter of the head zookeeper at a small California zoo. But then as I wrote the book, Tyler moved center stage alongside Lizzie. He became crucial to the themes of the book; his bond with Lizzie became the heart of the story. I wanted the title to reflect that, so the book became “The Wolf Keepers.” MVT
Elise Broach will be on a panel about writing middle-grade fiction with Gregory Mone and Linda Fairstein at “Islanders Write” on Monday, August 14, at 9 am, at the Grange Hall in West Tisbury. islanderswrite.com.