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A Conversation with WINTER WOLVES Author Earle Wescott

“Place is the protagonist of my fiction. It sets the mood and sheds a history, and mood and history determine fate.”

Earle “Skip” Wescott feels place. It creeps into his psyche viscerally, and emerges on the page like the ghosts and spirits that rise from his novels.

Wescott has experienced a range of places. He was born in Maine, grew up in Connecticut, served with the U.S. Army in Alaska, earned a master’s degree in New Hampshire and a Ph.D. in Colorado, currently lives in Texas with his wife, Sharon, and loves to traipse the badlands of the southwest. He has just completed a novel set in Alaska about the evil Inuit spirit Tunghat, and has another in progress set against the 1880 Ute Indian dispersion from their Colorado homeland.

In this short interview, Wescott describes how ‘place’ seeps into his creative subconscious.

Q: You’ve described Winter Wolves as a novel about a place, a nightmare, and a secret. Can you explain how the story came to be?

The novel is set on the coast of Maine. Not the big towns like Portland, or the resort towns like Kennebunkport. Not the beaches and outlet malls, but the mill towns and fishing harbors, the tidal marshes and backwaters. I was born in such a town, and although we moved to Connecticut when I was three, every summer and most Christmases we went back to my grandparents’ house in the river town off the beaten track not far from Bar Harbor. Many of the characters and places in Winter Wolves are based on beloved haunts and faces from my childhood.

For me Maine was my grandparents’ mill-town house, the camp—a cabin on a lake—and the ocean. I spent hours and days in dinghies, canoes, and my grandfather’s old green rowboat on Toddy Pond—only in Maine would a body of water twelve miles long be called a pond—and the reaches and estuaries around Blue Hill. One of my favorite things, then as now, is to land on a small, uninhabited island and swim and explore. I can feel the sun on my back as I write this, and smell the tang of water on the breeze.

There are other fragments from places in my life. In the Army, stationed in Alaska, I became acquainted with a fjord south of Anchorage with huge diurnal tides, broad expanses of mudflats, and shifting ramparts of winter shore ice. I was a legal clerk and assisted at two inquest hearings within a year of soldiers cut off by tidal bores and trapped in quick-mud and drowned. The Steel Harbor flats in Winter Wolves are based on Brave Boat Harbor and Wolf Neck on the coast of Maine, but the scale and danger are Alaskan.

In college, I had a particular interest in 18th century literature. I got a kick out of the circumlocutions, the grouchy but lovable humorists, the periodic sentences, the Gothic revival. And the sense of history. History is like a grown-over well near the cellar hole of an abandoned New England homestead that you have to be careful not to fall into. One of my characters is based on General Putnam, a hero of the American Revolution. As a boy I vividly recall hiking with my dad to the rocky cave where Israel Putnam stalked and killed the wolf that had been raiding his flock, the last wolf seen in Connecticut. My favorite part of Winter Wolves to write was the 1820 account of the wolf hunt that sets the curse in motion. You know you’re on the right track as a writer when you can bring together things you love.

Q: You’ve also referred to the impact of ghosts, nightmares, the horrors of childhood fears. You’ve said, “Nightmares lurk in the shadows of dreams and horror glowers through the doorway opened by imagination.” Can you explain how your own fears pervade your novels?           

For me, fear has always involved wolves. I dreamed about them when I was a little boy and saw them for the first time at the Bronx Zoo (poor, bedraggled creatures). I read about both the real and the big bad variety. I heard them in the chill of Prokofiev’s French horns in “Peter and the Wolf.”The last time I saw them for real was cross-country skiing alone in the western mountains of New Mexico. Three adult lobos—Mexican gray wolves, winter pelts fluffed out and glossy—stalked a small herd of elk at the edge of a snowy clearing. After the elk sensed danger and withdrew into the trees with the wolves following, I crossed their tracks skiing back to the trailhead. I took great pains not to fall, just in case.

In first grade I had a run-in with a gang of older bullies. It was probably partly my fault—I could be a wiseass. One afternoon after school I heard the leader of the gang holler, “Get Wescott.” I ran into the woods. They followed and I kept running until I wasn’t followed anymore. By then I was lost. I wasn’t scared though. I remember how free I felt. How much at home. Eventually I came out on a country road and went up to a farmhouse and told a nice old lady with no teeth that I was lost. My dad picked me up after work and brought me home. That’s when the nightmares started. But to call them nightmares isn’t quite right. There was fascination too. I was being chased by a pack of wolves, but like the safety I felt in the woods, I was part of the pack.

When I was living in Los Angeles as a young adult, and having a hard time adjusting, I paid a visit to the La Brea Tar Pits, where the bones of the dire wolves drew me far more than the saber tooth cats and mastodons and giant sloths. I had a dream that night that I was standing outside my grandparents’ house, at the edge of moonlit moors, with a ribbon of road that led away across naked, rolling hills. A dark speck appeared on the road in the distance. It disappeared into the farthest valley, only to come over the next hill moments later, that much closer and larger. I recognized an old feeling of dread and fascination. By the time it came over the next hill there was no doubt. A timber wolf was following the road that led to me. I went inside the darkened house and locked the doors and latched the shutters. Then I remembered that the bulkhead door to the cellar was open. At that moment I heard a vicious snarl behind me and wheeled around, waking with a start. That was the beginning of Winter Wolves.

Q: What writing have you done since this novel was originally published?

To be painfully honest, I have spent more than twenty years writing three versions of a novel about Alaska. The scene is Houston, Alaska, the summer of 1985, the middle of the oil slump that ruined careers and ended lives. There is a strong undercurrent of Native American witchcraft working in the background, as well as a literal undercurrent. In the end my heroine, her lover, and her husband are caught in the Witch’s Eye, a whirlpool that appears in the fjord when the moon is full and the tide in flood.

During the writing I returned to Alaska several times doing “vibes research,” as a poet friend calls it. I took the ferry from Seattle to Haines, drove the Alaska Highway, hiked glaciers, cross-country skied the Harding ice field, met with long-time residents of the town of Hope, had a long conversation with an Anchorage police detective, and an even longer one with an Aleut ivory carver. One day at low tide on Turnagain Arm, I went out on a small wooded island connected to the mainland by sandbar to observe a tidal bore up close, and then made haste to get back before I was cut off. Within an hour the bar was under frigid seawater rolling in from the Gulf of Alaska. A pod of belugas spouted in the channel.

The inspiration for my new novel came a few years ago, when I spent a couple days hiking in the Great Sand Dunes National Park near Alamosa, Colorado. I imagined a Wild West jail break and four very different desperados escaping on foot across the dunes. One is a thief, another a prospector, the third an outlaw, and my main character, Frank Gaines, an Irish gandy dancer (railroad hand) who killed a man with his fists. They are followed by a bounty hunter, Pedro Borrego, a former Army scout whose method of operation is to pick fugitives off with a Sharps .50-90 buffalo rifle. The year is 1880 and the Ute Indian Diaspora—when the tribe was exiled from Colorado after the Battle of Milk Creek—comes into play. My working title is The Devil’s Take,from the saying, “Every man for himself and the devil take the last.”

Q: You seem to write over a wide span of genres.

Although Winter Wolves was categorized as horror, I’ve always thought of it as more of a ghost story. Ghost stories tend to have a strong psychological component—dealing with guilt, usually—and a sense of past sins. Horror comes right at you. The ghost story is about something coming back from the dead. The horror story is about something alive trying to kill you. The ghost story narrative is often wrapped in ambiguities of perception. Can I trust my senses? Am I dreaming? Am I going mad?

Of course, the distinction can be murky. The past is important in a novel like Dracula. And storytelling works the same in both—a kind of narrative striptease in which more and more is revealed until the truth is laid bare and bloody at our feet.

In my case, there is also the subject matter—wolves—to consider. Willa Cather’s My Antonia is recognized as a work of serious literature, but in the first part of the novel is the tale of a Russian wedding party chased by wolves that is as wild as any horror story. 

Or consider this: “He cried his wolf song of icy waters and long lonely hunts; of seeing brothers and sisters die in bitter winter; of finding a moonlit pond in a midnight forest and sleeping peacefully there. That is from a western story I read recently. There is something about wolves that raises the artistic hackles no matter what the genre.

My method in all three novels—ghost story, mystery-romance, western—is to take a genre and stretch it. There are risks. I had at least twenty rejection letters over several years for Winter Wolves. After it was published (Yankee Books, hardcover; Bantam Books, U.S. paperback) it was successful both critically and financially. I haven’t given up on the Alaska novel, and I’m in the middle of the western, which I think is the best thing I’ve ever written. But that’s probably the case with most writers. Whatever we’re working on now is the best.

The e-book edition of Wescott's novel Winter Wolves is available now. Click here to purchase!

 

Earle Wescott - Author Photo