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Interview: Juliette MacIver talks about the Faelan the Wolf series



Juliette MacIver has an MA in Linguistics, and a Diploma in Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages, both from Victoria University of Wellington. She lives near Wellington with her husband and family. Juliette talks to NZ Booklovers.


Tell us a little about the Faelan the Wolf series.

Faelan is a very unusual wolf. He is vegetarian, for starters – given a creature of prey, he would much prefer to make friends than eat it. He also plays the harp, which he knows is most unwolflike so he keeps it secret. He hates howling at the moon (he finds wolf-singing tuneless); he hates going on pack runs (what is the point?), and obviously, he loathes the hunting. In fact, Faelan sometimes wonders if he belongs in the pack at all.


His mother died when he was very young, and so did his father. No one will tell him anything about his father - they are all strangely silent on that topic. But the pack's much-loved leader, Bardolph Lupus, has always protected Faelan, and he even tolerates his peculiar ways. He has deemed that Faelan’s particular friend, a skunk named Flora, is not be harmed in the wolves’ territory. Bardolph protects the rest of the pack too, from the fierce and ruthless Varg, who is the leader of the neighbouring pack and champing at the bit for war.


​But Bardolph is getting very old and it seems he may die soon. When he does, his son Weylin will become pack leader. Weylin despises Faelan and his prey-loving ways and wants to kill his little skunk friend Flora and throw Faelan out of the pack forever. And, to make matters worse, no one has any faith that Weylin will be able to stave off an attack from Varg. Flora must soon leave the territory, leaving Faelan alone and friendless. The only friend he has, it seems to him, is a chicken. And she has problems of her own. What can Faelan possibly do to avert all these looming disasters?


What inspired you to write these books?

The evolution of this story, at least in terms of the format and intended length – and target age, for that matter – took a few unexpected turns. It started out as a picture book. The central character appeared immediately: Faelan, a vegetarian, harp-playing, misfit of a wolf. I was writing in prose for a change, where I usually write in rhyme (I have 22 picture books published), and as I wrote, it quickly became apparent that this story was too complicated and involved to fit into the roughly 600-word template that constitutes a picture book. Some months and several drafts later, at its longest incarnation, the story was over 80,000 words long. This, I thought perceptively, is definitely not a picture book. Then, when Scholastic accepted it for publication, they decided the best approach was to trisector it and publish it as a three-part series, rather than as a single book. And so it became a series.


What research was involved?

Oh, I researched fungi and wolf behaviour and the flora and fauna of Northern Europe and the process by which a fire can be started with flintstone and names from all over the world that mean ‘wolf’ and battery farms and moon songs and … that’s about it, I think! The story contains a few factual elements, like the fungi chaga which does grow on trees and makes excellent tinder when dried. On the other hand, the wolf conduct is quite far off. In the natural world for example, they don’t live in a pack ruled by one leader but rather in family groups led by a breeding pair. And wolves don’t drink tea, tend fires, build huts, wield sacred moonstones imbued with special powers or befriend singing chickens. And chickens, I’m sorry to say, are not really considered to be highly intelligent, nor do they play the mouth organ.

 

What was your routine or process when writing these books?

Writing longform, I discovered, requires considerable discipline. When I write picture books, I pretty much write anytime, anywhere. I go with inspiration and play with words and ideas and eventually start crafting a structured story and thinking about themes, or what I’m actually trying to say. For me this process is all very free-flowing and fun to the point of being exhilarating, and I don’t need to commit to any kind of routine in order to do it.


Writing a children’s novel was a different experience. At various stages of the writing I set up different routines: most often, I set myself a target of a thousand words per day, or alternatively four hours of thinking/writing/planning, if I was re-drafting the story, say. For ‘intense bursts’, where I pretty much knew what I had to write, I upped the word count to two thousands words per day.


At the start of the whole process, my husband was doing early morning study and so I decided I’d do early mornings too, since we’d never see each other if I wrote late into the night. I rolled out of bed trembling and groaning at 5am everyday and wrote for two hours before the children got up. On later drafts I quit this torturous behaviour and wrote during godly, circadian hours.


Over a period of five years I rewrote the story seven times (with a two-year gap in the middle where I did nothing on it at all, except shudder at the thought of how terrible it was). The drafts were all based on feedback from highly insightful beta readers – I was lucky to have a range of willing adult and child readers – with the most detailed and useful feedback coming from in-house: my husband Ken and our oldest, Louis, are both extremely incisive critics. It was with some trepidation that I underwent their literary knives, but the story was improved immeasurably for it, time and again (which just goes to show how awful it must have been to start with). 


If a soundtrack were made to accompany this book, name a song or two you would include.

I looked up a few songs about the moon for this story, so I guess they would have to feature: Faelan soulfully plays a rendition of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata on his harp, and he also plays a lively Irish war song from the late 1700s, The Rising of the Moon (for which my children and I subsequently learnt all the words and ukulele chords), and then there’s Avian’s song – she’s the chicken – Au Clair de la Lune, the old French folksong. I changed the words a little though, naturellement, so that they’re singing about chickens.

 

What did you enjoy the most about creating these books?

I think I had the most fun creating the characters and also learning about the craft of storytelling: plot, motivation, character arcs, dialogue, plot devices, scenes versus narration, etc. I also love words, so the process of composing the prose was always delightful.


Initially I did no planning, led by my love of spontaneity and general loathing of planning. But I misled myself; this approach turned out to be highly stressful. I just didn’t know what was going to happen next and so I wrote some very stupid stuff where the plot took off in ridiculous directions and all of it had to be cut in later drafts. I then shifted to a more planned kind of approach, spending hours nutting out backstories and reasons for the characters to be pressured into certain acts. To my surprise, this was much better. Things went smoother and the story slowly became more cohesive. Now, I still struggle to determine the optimal approach: how much should I plan? How much space should I leave for freedom of discovery during the writing? It’s a curious question and an interesting balance.

 

What did you do to celebrate finishing the trilogy?

I don’t remember doing anything in particular except crying with joy when Scholastic picked it up. But if I did do something, it would be this: I would take a bottle of prosecco and some samosas (unfortunately chicken) and have a picnic with my family on a grassy knoll overlooking a sparkling blue sea. We would take our ukuleles and sing all our favourite songs, then juggle a soccerball until the sun goes down. Actually, I think this is what I’ll do when I finish the next series!

 

What is your favourite book you have read so far this year and why?

I’d say Wifedom, by Australian writer Anna Funder. It’s a fascinating portrait of Eileen Blair, George Orwell’s brilliant wife who was almost completely obscured, essentially by patriarchy. In general though, my preference is literary fiction, which I absolutely love. But recently I have set myself a reading programme of middlegrade fiction: I am trying to read the best of the world’s kids’ lit (some of it prescribed by Louis), and all of Aotearoa’s recent children’s titles. I am thoroughly enjoying Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy at the moment.

 

What’s next on the agenda for you?

 I have three picture books coming out this year, two with Scholastic and one with Walker Books. But beyond that, I have nothing contracted. So I am writing the odd picture book, for the happy reason that it is pure fun, and for the heavy reason that I have a career to maintain.


But my major project is now a seven-book middlegrade series (middlegrade being 10-14 years, approximately). I have written two drafts of the first book and am about to start a third draft. In direct opposition to my approach to the Faelan series, I have spent weeks – now months – writing a background document covering worldbuilding, characters and plot notes. This background doc is now over 66,000 words long, so it’s getting kind of wieldy. But then again, I have seven books to write, each with their own story arc, and each contributing to an overarching, series-long story, so there is an awful lot to bear in mind ... I just hope I have left enough space for the writing to be fun! Otherwise I don’t think the reading will be. I’ll get on to draft three as soon as I finish this interview, and we’ll see.


Scholastic NZ

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