When twelve-year-old Annabelle’s small town is terrorized by a series of vicious attacks, many townsfolk blame World War I veteran and vagabond Toby. Only Annabelle knows that new girl Betty is actually responsible for the cruelty. Adult author and poet Lauren Wolk makes her (stunning!) middle-grade debut with the powerful historical novel Wolf Hollow (Dutton, 10–13 years).
1. Your work has mostly been for adults. Were there any differences in your writing process for this novel?
LW: Actually, I wrote Wolf Hollow for no particular age group, though I’m thrilled that it’s in the hands of young readers. But since I’ve written two other books for young people since, I can tell you that my process has not changed at all. I still write without knowing where the characters will take me. I still try to use the right words in the right order. I still write like a maniac in giant bursts for as long as possible, before my job/family/stomach/life make me pause for a while. But the revision process is a little different, since my stupendous editor, Julie Strauss-Gabel, looks at the manuscript with a young reader in mind and shows me ways to engage this audience. But she never asks me to make the language “easier” for kids. There’s nothing wrong with expanding their vocabulary.
2. How did your setting (WWII-era rural PA) help shape your narrative?
LW: I tried to make Wolf Hollow a layered setting, both light and dark, safe and threatening. It is a haven where people could live off the land and take care of one another, but it is also a place where farmers used hunger to trap and slaughter wolves. A small community where everyone knew one another and should have protected their weakest members, but instead were quick to condemn a man because he was odd. So the setting is really both a world removed and a microcosm of a world where a terrible bully was wreaking havoc, bringing out the worst in some people and the best in others.
3. The book is quite sad overall, but Annabelle’s family provides many warm (and, in the case of her younger brothers, occasionally hilarious) moments. How did you find the right pitch?
LW: As with the setting, I tried to create contrast in the characters — between them and in each of them individually. People are complicated. Life is complicated. Books should be complicated, too. Sad one minute, funny the next. Sometimes cold and dark, other times warm and light. And when I write, especially in the first person, I share everything my protagonist feels. When she is sad, I crave a little laughter. I suspect my readers do, too. I try to avoid monotone.
4. Toby is something of an enigma. How did his character evolve?
LW: Since I don’t know where the story will go, I never know for sure how my characters will evolve. I spend a lot of time with them before I start to write — eavesdropping and spying on them as they live their lives. So I know them to their bones as people right from the first word. Then I give them a challenge, set them loose, and see where they go and how they change along the way. Writing a book is a wonderful and surprising adventure, even when it breaks my heart.
5. Betty, on the other hand, is terrifying. Was there any temptation to make her more sympathetic?
LW: I tried to suggest, in subtle ways, that there was a human being inside that monster, but I would have been lying about Betty if I’d made her too sympathetic. There are truly evil people in this world, and Betty is one of them. So was Hitler. She had to be an embodiment of that truth. Otherwise Annabelle and Toby would not have been called upon to rise as high as they did in response to the deep, dark elements in the book, including the wolf pits, the World War I trenches where Toby was ruined, and Betty herself.
From the July 2016 issue of Notes from the Horn Book.