“A dazzling debut novel.”—O: The Oprah Magazine
“Tremendously moving.”—The Wall Street Journal
“Touching and ultimately hopeful.”—People
1987. The only person who has ever truly understood fourteen-year-old June Elbus is her uncle, the renowned painter Finn Weiss. Shy at school and distant from her older sister, June can be herself only in Finn’s company; he is her godfather, confidant, and best friend. So when he dies, far too young, of a mysterious illness her mother can barely speak about, June’s world is turned upside down.
But Finn’s death brings a surprise acquaintance into June’s life. At the funeral, June notices a strange man lingering just beyond the crowd. A few days later, she receives a package in the mail containing a beautiful teapot she recognizes from Finn’s apartment, and a note from Toby, the stranger, asking for an opportunity to meet. As the two begin to spend time together, June realizes she’s not the only one who misses Finn, and that this unexpected friend just might be the one she needs the most.
WINNER OF THE ALEX AWARD • NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY The Wall Street Journal • O: The Oprah Magazine • BookPage • Kirkus Reviews • Booklist • School Library Journal
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My sister, Greta, and I were having our portrait painted by our uncle Finn that afternoon because he knew he was dying. This was after I understood that I wasn’t going to grow up and move into his apartment and live there with him for the rest of my life. After I stopped believing that the AIDS thing was all some kind of big mistake. When he first asked, my mother said no. She said there was something macabre about it. When she thought of the two of us sitting in Finn’s apartment with its huge windows and the scent of lavender and orange, when she thought of him looking at us like it might be the last time he would see us, she couldn’t bear it. And, she said, it was a long drive from northern Westchester all the way into Manhattan. She crossed her arms over her chest, looked right into Finn’s bird-blue eyes, and told him it was just hard to find the time these days.
“Tell me about it,” he said.
That’s what broke her.
I’m fifteen now, but I was still fourteen that afternoon. Greta was sixteen. It was 1986, late December, and we’d been going to Finn’s one Sunday afternoon a month for the last six months. It was always just my mother, Greta, and me. My father never came, and he was right not to. He wasn’t part of it.
I sat in the back row of seats in the minivan. Greta sat in the row in front of me. I tried to arrange it like that so I could stare at her without her knowing it. Watching people is a good hobby, but you have to be careful about it. You can’t let people catch you staring at them. If people catch you, they treat you like a first-class criminal. And maybe they’re right to do that. Maybe it should be a crime to try to see things about people they don’t want you to see. With Greta, I liked to watch the way her dark, sleek hair reflected the sun and the way the ends of her glasses looked like two little lost tears hiding just behind her ears.
My mother had on KICK FM, the country station, and even though I don’t really like country music, sometimes, if you let it, the sound of all those people singing their hearts out can bring to mind big old family barbecues in the backyard and snowy hillsides with kids sledding and Thanksgiving dinners. Wholesome stuff. That’s why my mother liked to listen to it on the way to Finn’s.
Nobody talked much on those trips to the city. It was just the smooth glide of the van and the croony country music and the gray Hudson River with hulking gray New Jersey on the other side of it. I kept my eyes on Greta the whole time, because it stopped me from thinking about Finn too much.
The last time we’d visited was a rainy Sunday in November. Finn had always been slight—like Greta, like my mother, like I wished I was—but on that visit I saw that he’d moved into a whole new category of skinny. His belts were all too big, so instead he’d knotted an emerald-green necktie around his waist. I was staring at that tie, wondering when he might have worn it last, trying to imagine what kind of occasion would have been right for something so bright and iridescent, when suddenly Finn looked up from the painting, brush midair, and said to us, “It won’t be long now.”
Greta and I nodded, even though neither of us knew whether he meant the painting or him dying. Later, at home, I told my mother he looked like a deflated balloon. Greta said he looked like a small gray moth wrapped in a gray spider’s web. That’s because everything about Greta is more beautiful, even the way she says things.
It was December now, the week before Christmas, and we were stuck in traffic near the George Washington Bridge. Greta turned around in her seat to look at me. She gave me a twisty little smile and reached into her coat pocket to pull out a scrap of mistletoe. She’d done this for the last two Christmases, carried a piece of mistletoe around to pounce on people with. She took it to school with her and terrorized us at home with it. Her favorite trick was to sneak up behind our parents and then leap up to hold it over their heads. They were not the kind to show affection out in the open, which is why Greta loved to make them do it. In the van, Greta waved the mistletoe around in the air, brushing it right up into my face.
“You wait, June,” she said. “I’ll hold this over you and Uncle Finn and then what’ll you do?” She smiled at me, waiting.
I knew what she was thinking. I’d have to be unkind to Finn or risk catching AIDS, and she wanted to watch me decide. Greta knew the kind of friend Finn was to me. She knew that he took me to art galleries, that he taught me how to soften my drawings of faces just by rubbing a finger along the pencil lines. She knew that she wasn’t part of any of that.
I shrugged. “He’ll only kiss my cheek.”
But even as I said it, I thought of how Finn’s lips were always chapped to shreds now. How sometimes there would be little cracks where they’d started to bleed.
Greta leaned in, resting her arms on the back of her seat.
“Yeah, but how do you know that the germs from a kiss can’t seep in through the skin of your cheek? How can you be sure they can’t somehow swim into your blood right through your open pores?”
I didn’t know. And I didn’t want to die. I didn’t want to turn gray.
I shrugged again. Greta turned around in her seat, but even from behind I could tell she was smiling.
It started to sleet, and the little nuggets of wet ice splatted against the window as we drove through the streets of the city. I tried to think of something good to say back to Greta, something to let her know that Finn would never put me in danger. I thought about all the things Greta didn’t know about Finn. Like the way he’d let me know the portrait was just an excuse. How he’d seen the look on my face the very first time we’d gone down for the painting sessions. How he’d waited for my mother and Greta to go ahead into the living room, and in that moment, when it was only the two of us in the narrow hallway inside Finn’s apartment door, he’d put his hand on my shoulder, leaned in, and whispered in my ear, “How else could I get all these Sundays with you, Crocodile?”
But that was something I would never tell Greta. Instead, when we were in the dim parking garage, climbing out of the van, I blurted out, “Anyway, skin’s waterproof.”
Greta pressed her door closed gently, then walked around the van to my side. She stood there for a few seconds, staring at me. At my big, clumsy body. She tugged the straps of her backpack tight against her little sparrow’s shoulders and shook her head.
“Believe what you want,” she said, turning away and heading for the stairs.
But that was impossible and Greta knew it. You could try to believe what you wanted, but it never worked. Your brain and your heart decided what you were going to believe and that was that. Whether you liked it or not.
My mother spent the hours at Uncle Finn’s in his kitchen, making pots of tea for us in a magnificent Russian teapot Finn had that was colored gold and red and blue with little dancing bears etched around the sides. Finn said that pot was reserved for serving tea to his favorite people. It was always waiting for us when we came. From the living room we could hear my mother organizing Finn’s cabinets, taking out jars and cans, plates and mugs, and loading them back in again. Every once in a while she’d come out to give us tea, which would usually go cold because Finn was busy painting and Greta and I weren’t allowed to move. All those Sundays, my mother hardly looked at Finn. It was obvious that she was being broken up into pieces about her only brother dying. But sometimes I thought there was more. She also never looked at the painting. She’d come out and set the teapot down and walk right past the easel, craning her head away. Sometimes I thought it wasn’t Finn at all. Sometimes it felt like it was the canvas and brushes and paint she was trying not to see.
That afternoon we sat for an hour and a half while Finn painted us. He had on Mozart’s Requiem, which Finn and I both loved. Even though I don’t believe in God, last year I convinced my mother to let me join the Catholic church choir in our town just so I could sing the Mozart Kyrie at Easter. I can’t even really sing, but the thing is, if you close your eyes when you sing in Latin, and if you stand right at the back so you can keep one hand against the cold stone wall of the church, you can pretend you’re in the Middle Ages. That’s why I did it. That’s what I was in it for.
The Requiem was a secret between me and Finn. Just the two of us. We didn’t even need to look at each other when he put it on. We both understood. He’d taken me to a concert at a beautiful church on 84th Street once and told me to close my eyes and listen. That’s when I first heard it. That’s when I first fell in love with that music.
“It creeps up on you, doesn’t it,” he’d said. “It lulls you into thinking it’s pleasant and harmless, it bumbles along, and then all of a sudden, boom, there it is rising up all menacing. All big drums and high screaming strings and deep dark voices. Then just as fast it backs right down again. See, Crocodile? See?”
Crocodile was a name Finn invented for me because he said I was like something from another time that lurked around, watching and waiting, before I made my mind up about things. I loved when he called me that. He sat in that church, trying to make sure I understood the music. “See?” he said again.
And I did see. At least I thought I saw. Or maybe I only pretended I did, because the last thing I ever wanted was for Finn to think I was stupid.
That afternoon the Requiem floated over all the beautiful things in Finn’s apartment. His soft Turkish carpets. The old silk top hat with the worn side to the wall. That big old Mason jar filled to the top with every possible color and pattern of guitar pick. Guitar pickles, Finn called them, because he kept them in that canning jar. The music floated right down the hallway, past Finn’s bedroom door, which was closed, private, like it always was. My mother and Greta didn’t seem to notice the way Finn’s lips moved along with the music—voca me cum benedictus . . . gere curam mei finis . . . They had no idea they were even listening to a death song, which was a good thing, because if my mother had known what that music was, she would have turned it right off. Right. Off.
After a while, Finn turned the canvas around so we could see what he’d done. It was a big deal because it was the first time he’d let us see the actual painting.
“Take a closer look, girls,” he said. He never talked while he worked, so when he finally spoke, his voice was a thin, dry whisper. A flicker of embarrassment shot across his face, then he reached for a cup of cold tea, took a sip, and cleared his throat. “Danni, you too—come in, have a look.”
My mother didn’t answer, so Finn called into the kitchen again. “Come on. Just for a second. I want to see what you think.”
“Later,” she called back. “I’m in the middle of something.”
Finn kept looking toward the kitchen like he was hoping maybe she would change her mind. When it was obvious she wasn’t going to, he frowned, then turned to stare at the canvas again.
He pushed himself up from the old blue chair he always painted in, wincing as he held on to it for a second, steadying himself. He took a step away and I could see that, other than the green tie at his waist, the only color Finn had was in the little splotches of paint all over his white smock. The colors of me and Greta. I felt like grabbing the paintbrush right out of his hand so I could color him in, paint him back to his old self.
“Thank God for that,” Greta said, stretching her arms way above her head and giving her hair a shake.
I stared at the portrait. I saw that Finn had put me slightly in the foreground even though we weren’t sitting that way, and I smiled.
“It’s not done . . . is it?” I asked.
Finn came over and stood next to me. He tilted his head and looked at the portrait, at the painted Greta, then at the painted me. He squinted, looking right into the eyes of that other me. He leaned in so his face almost touched the wet canvas, and I felt goose bumps prickle on my arm.
“No,” he said, shaking his head, still staring at the portrait. “Not quite. Do you see? There’s something missing. Maybe something in the background . . . maybe a little more with the hair. What do you think?”
I breathed out and relaxed my chest, unable to hold back a smile. I nodded hard. “I think so too. I think we should come a few more times.”
Finn smiled back and rubbed his pale hand across his pale forehead. “Yes. A few more,” he said.
He asked us what we thought of the painting so far. I said it was fantastic and Greta didn’t say anything. Her back was turned to us. She wasn’t even looking at the painting. Both her hands were in her pockets, and when she twisted slowly around, her face was blank. That’s something about Greta. She can hide everything she’s thinking. The next thing I knew she’d pulled out her mistletoe and was standing there holding it up in one hand. She waved it in an arc like she was cutting the air above our heads, like she was holding something more than just a scrap of Christmas leaves and berries. Finn and I both looked up and my heart seized. We looked at each other for the amount of time that’s maybe one grain of sand in an hourglass or one drop of water from a leaky tap, and Finn, my uncle Finn, read me—snap—like that. In that tiny slice of a second, he saw I was afraid, and he bent my head down and kissed the top of my hair with such a light touch it could have been a butterfly landing.
On the ride home I asked Greta if she thought you could catch AIDS from hair. She shrugged, then turned and stared out the window for the rest of the drive.
I shampooed my hair three times that night. Then I wrapped myself in towels and crawled under my blankets and tried to sleep. I counted sheep and stars and blades of grass, but nothing worked. All I could think of again and again was Finn. I thought about his soft kiss. I thought about how just for a second, just as he’d leaned in to me, AIDS and Greta and my mother had disappeared from the room. It was only Finn and me in that tiniest of tiny moments, and before I could stop myself I wondered what it might be like if he really did kiss my lips. I know how gross that is, how revolting, but I want to tell the truth, and the truth is that I lay in bed that night imagining Finn’s kiss. I lay in bed thinking about everything in my heart that was possible and impossible, right and wrong, sayable and unsayable, and when all those thoughts were gone there was only one thing left: how terribly much I was going to miss my uncle Finn.
What People are Saying About This
Tell the Wolves I'm Home was named one of the Wall Street Journal's Top 10 Novels of 2012, one of Oprah.com's Best Books of 2012, one of Kirkus Reviews' top 100 books of the year, and one of Booklist's Top 10 First Novels of 2012 as well as a 2012 O Magazine Favorite Read. It is also a Goodreads Choice Awards Finalist for Fiction and a Shelf Awareness Reviewer's Choice pick for 2012.
“A dazzling debut novel.” – O Magazine
“Tremendously moving…Brunt strikes a difficult balance, imbuing June with the disarming candor of a child and the melancholy wisdom of a heart-scarred adult."—The Wall Street Journal
“In this lovely debut novel set in the 1980s, Carol Rifka Brunt takes us under the skin and inside the tumultuous heart of June Elbus…Distracted parents, tussling adolescents, the awful ghost-world of the AIDS-afflicted before AZT—all of it springs to life in Brunt’s touching and ultimately hopeful book.”People
“[A] transcendent debut… Peopled by characters who will live in readers’ imaginations long after the final page is turned, Brunt’s novel is a beautifully bittersweet mix of heartbreak and hope.”—Booklist
“Carol Rifka Brunt’s astonishing first novel is so good, there’s no need to grade on a curve: Tell the Wolves I'm Home is not only one of the best debuts of 2012, it’s one of the best books of the year, plain and simple. In a literary landscape overflowing with coming-of-age stories, Tell the Wolves I'm Home rises above the rest. The narrative is as tender and raw as an exposed nerve, pulsing with the sharpest agonies and ecstasies of the human condition.”—Bookpage
“A poignant debut…Brunt's first novel elegantly pictures the New York art world of the 1980s, suburban Westchester and the isolation of AIDS.”--Kirkus
“In [Tell the Wolves I’m Home], 15-year-old June must come to terms with the death of her beloved uncle Finn, an artist, from AIDS in 1980s New York. …What begins as a wary relationship between former rivals for Finn’s affection blossoms touchingly.”-PW
“[This] gut-wrenching portrayal of a 13-year-old coping with her beloved Uncle Finn’s death from AIDS more than delivers.”—Daily Candy
“[A] striking first outing…Brunt weaves a terrific coming-of-age story, painting a vibrant picture of June’s dreams and insecurities as she teeters on the border between childhood and maturity.”—The Onion A.V. Club
“An uplifting debut novel about loss, love, and unlikely friendships in the midst of the 1980s AIDS epidemic …a literary pleasure read.”—BookBrowse
“[A] beautiful novel of love and loss… accessible, sensitively told, and heartbreaking.”School Library Journal Blogs (Starred Review)
“If summer reading means being wholly transported to another era, I recommend Carol Rifka Brunt's brilliant and thoughtful debut novel Tell the Wolves I'm Home.” David Gutowski, of Largehearted Boy, on The Atlantic Wire
“With this debut novel that flawlessly encapsulates the fragile years during the mid-'80s when the specter of AIDS began to haunt society at large, Carol Rifka Brunt establishes herself as an emerging author to watch…TELL THE WOLVES I'M HOME will undoubtedly be this summer's literary sleeper hit.” – Minneapolis Star Tribune
“Brunt's debut novel is both a painful reminder of the ill-informed responses to a once little-known disease and a delightful romp through an earlier decade. The relationship issues with parents and siblings should appeal to YA audiences, but adult readers will enjoy the suspenseful plot and quirky characters”—Library Journal
“A fresh yet nostalgic debut novel about a 1980s teen who loses a beloved uncle to AIDS but finds herself by befriending his grieving boyfriend. Filled with lost opportunities and second chances, Tell the Wolves I'm Home delivers wisdom, innocence and originality with surprising sweetness. Its cast of waifs and strays will steal your heart as they show each other the way to redemption.” –Shelf Awareness
“A gorgeously evocative novel about love, loss, and the ragged mysteries of the human heart, all filtered through the achingly real voice of a remarkable young heroine. How can you not fall in love with a book that shows you how hope can make a difference?”—Caroline Leavitt, New York Times bestselling author of Pictures of You
“Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a charming, sure-handed, and deeply sympathetic debut. Brunt writes about family, adolescence, and the human heart with great candor, insight, and pathos.”—Jonathan Evison, New York Times bestselling author of West of Here
“Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a tale as charming and magnetic as the missing character at its heart. It’s a love story of the most unusual kind—several love stories, really—vivid and madly relatable, heartening as well as heartbreaking. Brunt is a captivating storyteller and a wonderful new voice.”—Rebecca Makkai, author of The Borrower
“Not since To Kill A Mockingbird have I read a piece of fiction that so beautifully captures the point of view of a young person, especially one so inspiringly unable to accept the prejudices of others….at turns getting away- with-it exhilarating and pass-the-tissues heartbreaking — but also a testament to the power of secrets kept and revealed.”—Metrosource
Reading Group Guide
Tell the Wolves I’m Home, A Novel by Carol Rifka Brunt
A Reader’s Guide
A Conversation with Elin Hilderbrand and Carol Rifka Brunt
ELIN HILDERBRAND lives on Nantucket with her husband and their three young children. She grew up in Collegeville, Pennsylvania, and traveled extensively before settling on Nantucket, which has been the setting for her eight previous novels. Hilderbrand is a graduate of Johns Hopkins University and the graduate fiction workshop at the University of Iowa.
Elin Hilderbrand: I am always asked at the start of every interview where I get my inspiration for each novel I write. Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a beautiful, haunting story about a young girl dealing with the death of her uncle from AIDS. What was the seed of thought that got you started?
Carol Rifka Brunt: I’ve found over the years that if I’m truly immersed in writing fiction—even if it’s a story that isn’t working at all—the subconscious starts to offer up its secrets. I was working on some short stories when the image of a dying uncle (I had no idea it was AIDS at the time) painting a final portrait of his niece came to me. I could see the apartment; I could sense the reluctance of the niece. I could also sense that there was a much bigger story behind what I understood initially. Usually, if a scene or idea keeps coming back to me over the course of months (or sometimes even years) there’s something there. There’s something nagging to be worked out. That was very much the case with this idea. I had several unsuccessful shots at writing the scene, until one day June’s voice was there and I knew I had my way in: I’d hit on the heart of the story.
EH: It’s not unusual for an author’s debut to be a coming-of-age novel—and yet it’s also hard to make this kind of story fresh and original. Were you conscious of this as you wrote? What is your favorite coming-of-age novel and how did that book influence you?
CRB: I actually didn’t think of this as a coming-of-age story for a long time. I saw it more as an unlikely friendship story between June and Toby. Since June is fourteen, and the events of the novel are life-changing, the novel automatically becomes a coming-of-age story. In fact, it seems every novel with a teen narrator is labeled coming-of-age, and I’m not sure if I fully agree with that. It has the effect of ghettoizing all teen-narrated stories. If the same events happened to a slightly older narrator, the book would just be called fiction. I actually had to go back and make the coming-of-age element more apparent because it really wasn’t a big part of my way of thinking about this novel.
June’s voice was there right from the start, so I always knew it would be narrated by a teen. To use a teen as the lens to see AIDS in the eighties wasn’t something I’d seen before, so I didn’t worry so much about freshness or originality. If you always see your characters and their places and concerns as individual and specific, then I think you will always end up with something unique. As soon as you start thinking about the work and characters in terms of labels—such as “teen” or “coming-of-age”—that’s when you risk slipping into more stereotypical territory.
After all of that, I have to admit that a lot of my favorite books are coming-of-age stories. I love Skellig by David Almond, How I Live Now by Meg Rosoff, Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros, and The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I always say that every book I’ve ever read influences my writing in one way or another. I really hoped to create a book with emotional resonance, something readers would connect to, and the novels I’ve mentioned all do that very well. They were a real inspiration in that way.
EH: One of my favorite things about Tell the Wolves I’m Home is the setting in time and place—New York City and its bedroom communities in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS epidemic. Your details are keenly observed. What kind of research did you do?
CRB: The one thing I didn’t want to do was write an autobiographical first novel. Let alone an autobiographical coming-of-age novel. Such a cliché! And yet, as I started writing, the gravitational pull of my own place, my own time, seemed to become irresistible. I started with an idea that was entirely not autobiographical and inch by inch it dragged me back to Westchester in the eighties—the place I grew up, the place I lived when I was June’s age. So, to answer your question, I didn’t do very much research at all into time and place. Writing can sometimes work like a time machine. You think you don’t remember the fine details of a place from your past, but as you write the most surprising things come out. Things like a Fred Flintstone grape jelly jar drinking glass or Bonne Bell lip gloss. Things you never knew you still stored in your brain.
Once I understood that AIDS was the illness Finn had, New York in the eighties felt like the best place I could set it. Once I came to terms with writing about a place I knew, it became such a liberating thing. I was able to really inhabit the setting in a way that allowed it to be a seamless part of the whole story.
EH: One of the most interesting relationships in this novel is the one between June and her sister Greta. The sister relationship is nearly always an emotional tango—complicated and lovely. Can you talk a little bit about how this relationship developed for you over the course of writing the book?
CRB: I’m very much an organic writer in that I don’t know a lot about how the story will develop until I get there. Greta started off as the cruel older sister. I really enjoyed writing her mean, quippy dialogue, but I didn’t know if or how she would redeem herself over the course of the book. Getting Greta’s storyline right was actually one of the most difficult aspects of writing this novel. She’s self-destructive, mean, and—although talented and successful in so many ways—clearly struggling with herself. I always knew I wanted to avoid a big “Ta-da!” moment where Greta revealed some external reason for being such a tortured soul. I didn’t think this novel could take an announcement of pregnancy or an affair with a teacher (quite a few readers have said they wondered about Greta and her drama teacher) or any other “big issue” kind of rationale for her behavior. There was no way there could be enough room in this book to do anything like that with the depth and justice it would deserve, and it would have swung the story too far away from the one I wanted to tell. What I did remember so clearly from when I was a teen was how the smallest of problems could seem hugely magnified. So, rather than one big reason for her behavior, I wanted Greta to suffer from a slow mounting of smaller situations. More erosion than explosion.
Although Greta always knows more than June, I think June is the wiser one. She despises Greta at times, but underneath it we still see how much she cares for her. At times it’s frustrating to see. I think as a reader you want to tell her to give up on Greta, but she can never quite do it.
EH: I love how June’s parents are reminiscent of the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoons—they are a bit like wonky voices heard from offscreen for most of the book. June and Greta are left to largely raise themselves. And yet, at the end of the novel, we learn more about how June’s mother was emotionally tied to her brother. She struggles with accepting Finn’s homosexuality, lifestyle, and love for Toby. What was it like to write from the point of view of a character who is initially so intolerant?
CRB: I’ve had feedback from readers who have said that they really disliked Danni. That they thought she was responsible for all the hurt in the story. I never felt that way about her. I loved all of the characters in Tell the Wolves. Danni’s jealousy never felt anything but human to me, something that anyone could feel. This may not come across fully in the novel, but I never thought Danni really had a problem with Finn’s homosexuality. In my mind, she used that as a way to hurt him, to redress the sense of abandonment she felt when Finn left her behind all those years ago. By forcing him to exclude Toby from his relationship with Greta and June (on the pretense of not wanting to expose her daughters to that kind of “lifestyle”) she’s able to wield a small amount of power over him. To me, it always felt like a sad and desperate thing to do, rather than a fully cruel thing. “You can’t have everything,” she says in the book, and she wants to make that true for Finn, the way she felt he had made it true for her. Unfortunately for Toby, he ends up as a pawn in all of this. He’s the one who ends up hurt the most by her actions.
EH: Your use of Finn’s painting, and the ways the girls amend, are nothing short of brilliant. What is your background in art? How did you get the idea to use the painting as a form of dialogue between people who couldn’t speak to one another honestly face-to-face?
CRB: I always wish I had a better answer to questions like this, but, again, the whole idea of the painting being visited by the two girls was such an organic thing. As a writer, you’re always asking, “What if?” I knew as soon as Greta was handed the other key to the safety deposit box and dismissively said she’d never visit that she wasn’t telling the truth. What if they’re both going down to see the painting? What if they’re both trying to leave their mark there? The idea of using the portrait as a way for the girls to “speak” to each other sprung from those initial thoughts. The portrait almost functions like a continuing version of Finn—a beautiful and beloved thing that both pulls the sisters together and tears them apart.
I also wanted to give the book a slightly magical feel. The portrait and its vault, like the basement space in Finn’s apartment building, and the woods at night, all have a little bit of that sense. They are places and objects that are real in the story but function a little bit outside the world of true realism.
As for my background in art, I can’t really claim much beyond spectator status. I took as much art as I could in high school, but I can’t say I was very good. The idea of negative space is something I remember from my high school art teacher, actually. While writing Tell the Wolves I’m Home, I made several trips to the National Portrait Gallery in London just to look and get a sense of where the power comes from in the best portraits.
EH: Who are your favorite authors? What are your reading habits?
CRB: I seem to have about seven or eight books on the go at any one time. Of those, I might finish two or three. Favorites are always shifting and changing, but over the last few years it seems that a lot of my favorite books have been nonfiction. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Nothing to Envy by Barbara Demick, The World Without Us by Alan Weisman, Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters, to name a few.
EH: Tell the Wolves I’m Home is a triumph. I love being excited by an author’s debut work, because most times the writing only gets deeper and richer. Are you working on something new?
CRB: Thank you very much. Tell the Wolves started out as a very short story. As soon as I finished I knew there was a lot more to tell. Right now I’m working on a number of short pieces, one of which feels like it’s headed in the same direction. It seems I need to trick my brain into writing a novel. I wish I were the type of writer who could come up with a solid outline and write from there, but it seems I’m the sort who needs to make many, many false starts before finding the real story. It’s a pretty slow process, but along the way there are so many unbelievably satisfying “Aha!” moments: wonderful little epiphanies when a character’s motivation becomes achingly clear, when a line of dialogue becomes suddenly loaded with meaning, when my conscious mind realizes what my unconscious was doing all along—that I’m not sure I’d really want to do it any other way.
1. Toby initiates a relationship with June that necessarily involves secrets kept from her parents. Can this ever be right? Is it ever okay for an adult to have a secret relationship with a child, even if it’s formed out of the best of intentions?
2. Every relationship in the book is tinged with jealousy and/or envy. How is this played out in each of the relationships? Can jealousy ever be a positive thing? Does loving someone too much always lead to jealousy?
3. How do you feel about Danni, June’s mother? How much is she to blame for the events in the book?
4. What did you make of June’s special feelings for Finn? Have you ever felt the wrong kind of love for someone in your own life?
5. “The sun kept on with its slipping away, and I thought how many small good things in the world might be resting on the shoulders of something terrible” (page 233). How does this speak to the events in Tell the Wolves I’m Home? Can terrible things like AIDS result in good?
6. “You get into habits. Ways of being with certain people” (page 206). Toby says this to June when they’re talking about her relationship with Greta. Many sisters (and brothers) have fractious relationships as teenagers, then grow up to be friends. Do you think that will be the case with Greta and June? Have you had an experience like this with your own sibling(s)?
7. If you remember the late eighties, do you remember anything about your perception of AIDS and the fear surrounding the disease?
8. How has society’s reaction to homosexuality changed over the last twenty-five years? How would this story have been different if it took place in 2012?
9. Greta is older, savvier, and knows more than June, but June sometimes seems wiser than her sister. How is this so? Does knowledge equal wisdom?
10. Do you think June will ever show Greta the secret basement room and the stash of Finn’s paintings, or will she always keep this to herself?
11. Do you blame June for what happens to Toby toward the end of the book? Do you think June will ever forgive herself for what happened that night?
12. Do you think the portrait was more beautiful before or after it was restored to its original state? Can a work of art be improved by external additions, or is the artist’s vision and intention the most important aspects of art?
13. June would like to escape to the Middle Ages. All her favorite places are escapist in nature. Would June actually be happy if her wish of time travel were granted? How does that wish change over the course of the story? Is escapism ever valuable? How do you escape?
14. Of all the themes in the novel (love, loss, regret, family relationships, etc.), which one do you think is the most important and why?
A Conversation with Carol Rifka Brunt, Author of Tell the Wolves I'm Home
What inspired you to write this story?
I can't really name a single inspiration. I've heard other writers talk about getting ideas from newspaper articles or photos or overheard conversations. I'm always envious when they can remember the exact thing that inspired the work. I don't think I work that way. It's not that I don't also notice those sorts of things, but they seem to need to go into the compost heap of my mind for such a long timelike decadesthat by the time they make their way into fiction the original inspiration is entirely unrecognizable.
What I can remember is that I was working on several short stories at the time and, in the way that often happens when you're doing a lot of creative work, a scene came into my mind that was unrelated to any of the stories. The scene was a dying uncle painting a final portrait of his niece. I didn't know anything else at that point. No sense that he was dying of AIDS or even that this would be set in New York. I just saw the two of them and felt that there was a lot of tension in the situation. That scene turned into a 700-word short story (very similar to the first chapter of the book) and from there I kept going because there was so much more I wanted to know about the situation and the characters.
Where do you usually write?
I am so easily distracted that I have to stay at home. I have a tiny little closet-sized office across from the kitchen. Even when I've lived in houses where I had an office with a view, I found that I had to draw the curtains in order to stay focused. It is very easy to spend days staring out the window. I would love to one day be the kind of person who can write in coffee shops or in the park, but I fear that may never happen.
How did you come up with your characters?
I don't feel like I really came up with them. I don't do character profiles or anything like that. They seem to just emerge. That is such an unsatisfactory answer! I know. But, really, that's pretty much how it feels. June's voice, for instance, was there right from the start. That's usually the key for me. Once I can hear the way the character speaks, I can start to uncover who they really are. June is the first-person narrator of Tell the Wolves I'm Home, but I also wrote pages where I let the other characters ramble on in first person, knowing they would not be included in the book, just as a way to get their voices in my head.
I do think that for me, charactersall of them, not just main characters or narratorsare little slivers of my own self. Each has a little seed of a possible me in them and if that seed had been allowed to grow, maybe I would have turned out that way rather than this. Maybe characters are a way of exploring our alternative selves.
Why did you choose to write from a teenage girl's point of view?
Well, June's voice was the first thing I had. It's hard for me to imagine the story without her voice and perspective. Every story has so many possible points of view. Any one could be interesting, but as a writer, I want to tell the stories that are mine to tell in some way. Telling the story from June's perspective had that feel for me. I was around her age in 1987 and could still conjure the sense of being a teenager at that time. I also think June is an excellent filter for this story. Her lack of full understanding of certain aspects of AIDS, for instance, meant that I didn't have to burden the story with that information. Rather than being limiting, the teen perspective allowed me the space to explore the story in a deeper way because of all the information I was free to leave out.
What made you explore the topic of AIDS?
It was more of a process of uncovering that the uncle was dying of AIDS than a decision to explore that topic from the outset. The uncle was childless, which was why this final painting, this final chance at forging a connection with somebody who would go on to outlive him by so many years, was so important to him. He was childless and only in his 40s, and when I understood that, I started to understand that he had AIDS. What I quickly realized was that as a writer of fiction, AIDS affords you a lot of morally complex material to work with. There will be somebody who gave the character AIDS. There will be guilt and shame. Cancer isn't like that. No other modern day disease has the particular cruelty of AIDS, where you can give somebody you might love a life ending (in the 80s, when Tell the Wolves is set) illness. I don't think Wolves is an AIDS story as such. It isn't a book about disease, but the implications of this specific disease are felt right through the novel.
Late in the writing of the first draft I understood something else about my connection to AIDS. My eighth grade English teacher was a man from London who had come over to teach us via an exchange program. This was quite an exciting thing for us. His accent, musical taste, dress sense, all of it was pretty exotic. He taught us for the year then returned to England. About six months after he left, word came back that he'd died. He was only in his 30s. A few weeks later word got out that he'd had AIDS. This was my (and I'm sure most of my classmates') first personal brush with AIDS. It was shocking at the time. Only after a lot of writing did I understand that this event had remained in my subconscious in a rather large way. Even my descriptions of Toby in the book bear a strong resemblance to that teacher. I think that's one of the most miraculous things about writing; the way you get a kind of sneaky access to your own subconscious.
Who have you discovered lately?
I've recently re-discovered Russell Banks. I love Affliction, The Sweet Hereafter and his collection of stories, The Angel on the Roof. For some reason he kind of drifted off my radar for a few years, but I just started reading Lost Memory of Skin and am remembering all over again why I like his work so much.