It has been said that you can’t know what the story is until you come to its end, until the final scene or line casts its retrospective light and illuminates everything that came before. In writing History of Wolves, I thought I was done many times. The first of these endings was a paragraph that came to me like a dream late at night, a set of sentences in the second person that concluded a short story I’d drafted while living in Los Angeles. That short story was chilly and spare, everything LA and my life at the time were not. Its final paragraph offered a hopscotch through time and place as its ferocious protagonist, a 14-year-old girl for most of the story, grew up unable to leave the past behind.
The second time I finished was a couple of years later. By then, I’d added about 150 pages to the story of Linda (or Mattie or Madeline) in a three-month dash of notes that I scribbled in a notebook each morning, then typed up each afternoon. I’d recently left behind my beloved community in LA so my husband could complete graduate work in New Jersey. I was feeling unmoored, lonely, and Linda’s stark Northwoods home provided a familiar place for me to live each day. I pencilled a little map of the lakes and roads, researched species of fish and types of ice. But it was Linda’s unusual voice that compelled me most. As I followed her beyond the first ending I’d written, I found myself increasingly interested in how her peculiar combination of canniness and naivety allowed her simultaneous insight and blindness. At a crisis point in the new manuscript, I wrote a drawn-out scene showing Linda wandering through her hometown and looking for help. When I showed it to the marvellous writer Aimee Bender, she said it felt like the ending. I resisted the idea for a long time, but her comment plucked open the deeper logic of the book, helped me see why the point where a story stops might not be its chronological end.
And so this second ending, as I considered it, paved the way for a third. I’d begun thinking of memory, and especially memory of trauma, as roving and recursive. Increasingly the book seemed less about its events and more about how Linda thinks about them. As the novel evolved in these new directions, I was drifting between cities myself, living first in suburban Philadelphia and then in upstate New York. At some point around this time I began to feel that the scene showing Linda walking through town might be close to, but not quite, the end of the novel. Though I’d resolved the novel’s main events by then, I felt there was some residual anger, some lingering hunger, in Linda that demanded outlet. So I wrote yet another ending, the final, final chapter of the book, as a way of acknowledging how events in one part of a life ineluctably affect experiences in another.
But that wasn’t the end of the story of this book, either. What followed were a flurry of smaller revisions when the manuscript made its way to a publisher. In the spring of 2016, I found myself poring over copy edits in a dark Airbnb in New York City. Is it relevant to say that I was in NYC that spring for fertility treatments? I think it is. I was struggling to make my deadlines while injecting myself with drugs and commuting across town to the clinic. Childless, hormonal, I could not help but consider with fresh urgency the death that opens History of Wolves – not the death of the teacher that inspired the original short story, but the death of the little boy, Paul, whose parents fail him so profoundly. At that point I’d been trying to become a mother for five years. This period coincided almost exactly with the long process it took to write and revise and edit my book. I could not have known that this second round of IVF would fail days before I turned in the copy-edited manuscript, just as I could not have known that a last-ditch effort the following fall would lead to the birth of my son, Eliot. To base your understanding of a story on the ending suggests a system of belief that sees that conclusion as the necessary outcome of unfolding events. But at no point was the writing and finishing of History of Wolves inevitable. At any point along the way it could have fallen apart or changed course or simply gone unwritten, just as any part of a life might have been different – until at last, due to bad luck or malevolence or terrible human folly, we are all, like Paul, no longer granted that exquisite gift of an open ending.
History of Wolves is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.