It’s been exactly six months since I posted on Wild Muse. What have I been up to since then? I finished my first non-fiction book! (No, really! It’s done!) It’s tentatively titled The Secret World of Red Wolves: A True Story of North America’s Other Wolf. Writing this book is a singular accomplishment in my life. If you’ve read this blog, you’re probably familiar with the book’s topic. But if you’re not familiar, then here’s a quick recap: it’s a story of the red wolf, Canis rufus, which is a predator that used to live throughout the central and southeastern United States. It’s a contested species, and its taxonomy has been elusive. Some people don’t believe it’s a wolf at all. Others believe it opens a window to a lineage of wolves that evolved solely in North America. If you’re opening another browser tab to look it up on Wikipedia, take the entry with a grain of salt, it needs improvement and the sections on its taxonomy and origins appear to be largely authored by the camp of people who disbelieve the animal is a distinct entity, without much coverage of opposing views. In the book, I cover the full spectrum of these views, in the context of how our understanding of these animals has changed as science uncovers new clues to their past origins.
Oddly, a modern detailed treatment of the red wolf’s whole story has not been told all in one place before for a general audience. The idea for this book came to me after I moved to North Carolina in late 2008. The Old North State is home to the only wild population of red wolves in the world. They have been reintroduced to the eastern part of the state, in a coastal area known locally as the Albemarle peninsula. When I moved, I knew from my previous research on Mexican gray wolves that a red wolf program was underway in North Carolina, but that was about the extent of my knowledge. In my literature review of Mexican wolves, I’d also bumped up against several papers on red wolves for which I read the abstracts but didn’t have time to read more. I filed them away for investigation at a later time, but they left me with the lingering impression that there was something controversial about the red wolf’s origins and our current understanding of its genetics.
When I finally had some free time, I searched for an in-depth non-academic book to learn about red wolves, but I was surprised I could not find a current one. The most recent one for general audiences is actually a section of a book from 1993— and believe me, a lot has transpired since then. Other recent books were written for children, or were fairly superficial and did not address any of the evolutionary origin or genetic debates that I knew had cropped up about red wolves since the mid-1990s. Writings that addessed the red wolf’s genetics and taxonomy were relegated to academic chapters within other works, and scientific papers. Without truly understanding what I was getting myself into, I began to form the idea that perhaps I should write a current book about red wolves. Afterall, I love learning about predator ecology and conservation. What could go wrong? (Well, for one thing, I didn’t know how to write a book!)
After a few months of research, I wrote a book proposal and sent it to a few university presses. The University of North Carolina Press accepted it in November of 2009. After two months of joyously proclaiming to my friends and family that I had a signed book contract!, it hit me like a freight train that, Oh crap. Now I have to write a whole fricking book. My joyous proclamations suddenly seemed premature… I wanted to hide in my room and weep because I had no idea how to actually go about writing a whole book. With embarassment, I came to understand that I should have saved my theatrics for when I could tell them that I’d written a book. In hindsight, that seems oh-so-much-more mature and responsible.
After floundering about mentally and otherwise for the next four months, trying to get started actually writing the book, things finally picked up traction by the following April. My delays were not a case of writer’s block. Rather, the project I had undertaken was so massive I simply had no clue where to begin. Strike that, I thought I knew where to begin — at chapter one — but each attempt to write it ended with me miserably banging my head against the kitchen counter (which served as my office desk until fall of 2010 when I was finally able to afford a proper desk).
It took many months of effort, eight trips to the coastal reintroduction site, one trip to Albuquerque, one trip to Virginia, one trip to Washington state, being lost in my own mental wilderness, and writing, revising, editing, writing, revising, editing, but I finally finished the entire manuscript in November of 2011. (And in between 2009 and the book’s end, I planned my wedding, got into a horrific car accident, moved to a new city, and married my best friend. Which I mention to show that a writer must keep writing even when Life keeps happening around her, no matter how much she wants to crawl into a hermetically-sealed room, slam the door, and cut herself off from the world indefinitely.)
The book I’ve just completed spans the red wolf’s entire history, as best as we can piece it together from fossil fragments, DNA analyses, field observations, and historical writings. I also heavily emphasized the red wolf’s modern management and future conservation challenges. This was my favorite part, because I shadowed the red wolf field biologists over time from August of 2009 to January of 2011. The time I spent shadowing the red wolf biologists was the most exciting and engaging part of my research, and I wanted the readers to share in the first-hand encounters I experienced with actual wild red wolves.
I hold a great amount of respect for the biologists I worked with, and especially for Ryan Nordsven, the biologist I ended up shadowing the most frequently. One of the newest members of the red wolf field team, Ryan has already put in around seven years of field work on the reintroduction project. He proved to be an empathetic and accessible character and heartily agreed to me using his personna to tell the story of how the Service manages red wolves. The result turned out better than I could have ever hoped for. The other red wolf biologists share decades of experience; Chris Lucash, Mike Morse, Art Beyer and Ford Maunet have 26, 24, 22 and 14 years (respectively) of experience reintroducing red wolves. The current program coordinator studied the red wolf for his PhD in Zoology. Collectively, the whole red wolf recovery team has more than 100 years of combined experience in reintroducing red wolves. Not all endanagered species programs are so lucky as to have such a stable staff with such a deep institutional memory; particularly when the species at hand is a controversial large predator.
It’s my hope that readers of this book will feel transported to the red wolf recovery area where they’ll learn how difficult and rewarding it is to restore a species that once numbered as few as fourteen animals. I strove to portray the landscape, the ecology, the red wolves, the biologists, and the local people as accurately as possible. It’s a landscape that is accessible to many—it’s a bear, deer and waterfowl hunters paradise, not to mention a joy to kayak or canoe through—but the secret world of the red wolves within it is only visited by a lucky few. The nugget of this book is that it unlocks this elusive world for all readers who wish to enter. The book is aimed at very general audiences with a predisposition for reading about nature, wildlife and science; but it’s written in a way that makes it accessible to all.
In the beginning, I researched and wrote it while juggling other freelance work, an experience akin to schizophrenia. Switching mental gears between the gargantuan-to-do-list of researching and interviewing needed for the book, and shorter-term projects was, at the very least, distracting. At worst, I found it counter-productive. (I know other writers handle this sort of duality with ease, but it was a nightmare for me.) Around March of this year, I decided to put the freelance aside for a few months and make a dedicated push to finish the book. Luckily, my husband was on board with the decision. It worked. Having a dedicated stretch of time to do nothing but focus on the book let me burrow my head deep into the project and keep it there. It helped to sustain the rhythm of the writing and it helped my mind to dwell uninterrupted in the fertile stew of all the materials I’d collected.
The week before Thanksgiving, the day I’d been working toward finally arrived: the manuscript traveled down the Old Fort hill outside of Asheville and into the Piedmont in the back seat of a dear friend’s car. He delivered it to the University of North Carolina Press in Chapel Hill, where it’s currently in the skilled hands of my editor.
In my next post, I’ll share some of the lessons I learned about book writing while endeavoring to produce this project and make it the best it could be. I think of myself as a “young in my career” writer — I know there’s still lots for me to learn — and writing this book was entirely unlike any writing project I had ever undertaken previously. As such, it stretched me in ways I never imagined: both in terms of managing massive amounts of notes, research and information, and in terms of learning different aspects of writing craft to better deliver scenes, dialogue, and information in ways that strengthened both the reader’s connection to the story, and their understanding of red wolves.