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Bookmarked Blog
Charlotte McConaghy, author of the international bestseller Migrations - set to be adapted for screen by Claire Foy and Benedict Cumberbatch - returns to our shelves with Once There Were Wolves, a pulse-pounding novel set in the wild Scottish Highlands. We asked Charlotte about the environmental themes in her novels, researching wolves and the highland setting, and the blend of genres in this spellbinding novel.

Last year Migrations was an international success. Once you saw it on bestseller lists and bookseller picks, how did it make you feel to know that readers were so interested in your writing?

CM: It was such an honour and a true pleasure to know readers and booksellers were responding to the novel, and I’m so grateful to all the support they’ve shown me and the book. It’s a very surreal moment seeing your book hit a bestseller list, or to have a bookseller choose it to promote – I still have to pinch myself! And I couldn’t be more excited that I now get to share a new novel, one I care deeply about, with the world.


What was it about wolves that interested you, considering we don’t have wolves in Australia? How does Inti’s research and rewilding of wolves build upon the broader narrative? 

CM: As someone who grew up reading a lot of myths and fairytales, I have always had a love and fascination for wolves, but it wasn’t until I discovered their extraordinary power that I knew I needed to write a book about them. As an apex predator – much like our dingoes – and a keystone species, wolves have trickle-down effects on every other species in their environment, from other mammals, to insects, to birds and especially plant life, which is why we say they literally have the power to regrow forests or change the course of rivers. They are essential animals, and we should value them as such instead of vilifying and hunting them. I also find the level of passion that wolves seem to generate in people a truly interesting thing; from fear and hatred to immense love, they bring out so much feeling in humans, and I think it has to do with the fact that they represent true wildness, and perhaps this speaks to something ancient and primal within us.


What inspired you to set the book in Scotland? What research did you use to create an authentic portrait of Scotland and its communities?

CM: Scotland is a very progressive country in terms of its rewilding efforts – they’re in the midst of a debate about reintroducing wolves, which were native to the UK until they were hunted to extinction, and their absence has resulted in much degradation of the ecosystem. It’s also a place that is heavily populated by farming, so for a story that was going to be about rewilding in every sense, and the challenges that this can pose for local communities, it felt like the perfect place. I also love Scotland, having been there to explore my own Scottish heritage and then again on a specific research trip for the novel, and the landscape felt like the perfect aesthetic for a noir mystery that embraces the conflict between people and nature.

Photo of Charlotte McConaghy taken by Emma Daniels   

The novel is part murder mystery, part thriller, part redemptive love story. Were there any specific genres, authors or books that inspired the style of Once There Were Wolves?

CM: I don’t think there were specific influences – I mean, everything you read as a writer becomes part of your general awareness and therefore is of some use or inspiration – but I always start my novels with a rule for myself, which is to write the book I want to read. I love murder mysteries, thrillers, and love stories, I adore literary fiction and nature writing, so I think it was inevitable that this book became an amalgamation of all those elements. I like to think it has a little something for everyone!


Inti and Aggie’s relationship becomes pivotal in the book. How are the characters similar and where do they differ? What do they gain from each other? 

CM: I think of Inti and Aggie, twin sisters, as moon and sun, or in some ways as two halves of a whole. As children, Inti was soft, empathetic, she saw the best in people and trusted with her whole heart. Aggie, conversely, became her sister’s protector. She was fierce and strong and unforgiving. But over the course of their lives, and a traumatic event the sisters go through, a shift occurs. When we meet the sisters as adults, they’ve undergone a kind of swap. Something has damaged Aggie, turning her fragile and vulnerable, and so Inti has become the protector. She has lost her faith in people, having witnessed too much harm. She is intent on taking her sister into the woods to be healed by the quiet of nature. Both the women, in their own ways, are in need of rewilding. They are intent never to be parted, only to share a kind of secret universe of their own, but the world has different ideas for them, and other people can’t be avoided forever.


What inspired Inti’s mirror-touch synaesthesia? Do you or someone you know have personal experience with this? If not, what did your research entail?

CM: I have a mild form of synaesthesia myself, which means my memory is connected to shape and colour and texture. So I was aware of the notion of perhaps experiencing the world slightly differently to others, when I came across a much rarer form of synaesthesia called mirror-touch. Although it seems almost like magic, it is a very real neurological condition that allows someone to physically feel on their own body any sensation they witness. I scoured the world for accounts of this and read everything I could on it, and anything that remained a mystery was just something I had to imagine experiencing for myself. In a novel primarily about empathy and its lack, mirror-touch seemed like the perfect thing for Inti to be grappling with.


Following Migrations, it seems the environmental theme is becoming a pattern in your novels. Should we expect a new novel in the near future and will it have a similar focus?

CM: It’s important to me to always be pushing myself to write about what I love and what I fear. What’s happening to our natural world is not something any of us can ignore; it needs to be in the forefronts of our minds, we need to feel it. So I guess, for a while, there will be some element of this in my work, and in fact I am currently working on a new novel set on a sub-Antarctic island that is being swallowed by a rising ocean, about a family of caretakers who discover a woman washed ashore, and have no idea who she is or what she could possibly be doing there. It will be a story about the complexity of raising children in a dying world and what our responsibilities are around that, and about what we choose to save and why.

Once There Were Wolves by Charlotte McConaghy is available in store and online now.

Once There Were Wolves
Charlotte McConaghy

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