by Carol Rifka Brunt, author of Tell the Wolves I’m Home: A Novel (Dial Press Paperbacks), winner of the 2013 Alex Award
Here’s a secret: When I first started Tell the Wolves I’m Home I had no idea whether it would turn out to be an adult or a YA book.
“Tell the story you need to tell and worry about the rest later.” That was the advice everyone gave me.
Good, I thought. I like worrying about things later.
So I forged ahead and pounded out a solid first draft. I told a story of a shy, socially-awkward, teenager in 1987 and her love for her dying uncle and her secret friendship with the man he loved. I told a story of AIDS and shame and things we hide from other people. Mostly, though, I told a story about love. Looking back, I think that first draft could have made a pretty decent YA novel. It was half the length of the published version and it was a more streamlined unlikely friendship story. Still, it seemed like there was more to say. I kept working and reworking and by the time I’d redrafted several more times I found that I’d added 60,000 more words and several extra layers to the story. At that point I was sure it was no longer really YA, but rather an adult novel with a teen narrator. My agent agreed and Random House published it as adult literary fiction.
That was the end of it. Genre questions put to rest. So I thought, anyway. Until the day someone told me I’d written a historical novel. I’d pondered YA or adult, but historical? No way.
“Um, I don’t think so,” I said. June, my narrator, is 14 in 1987, three years younger than I would have been. The book is set during my teenage years. I am not historical!
The someone in question gave a slow, but certain nod. “1987 was 26 years ago. History.”
I felt myself blushing. Could I really have been so unaware of my own and my book’s status? Was it time for me to start wearing slacks and a nice practical blazer? What did this mean?
I didn’t really know and so I just told myself it wasn’t true. I hadn’t written a historical novel at all. It was still in the realms of the contemporary and that was that. That’s what I was going to believe.
Then I started getting letters from readers. Letters from people my age who shared their memories of fear and confusion during that time, of losing fathers and uncles. There were letters from people older than me, men and women who lost many good friends in the 80s and 90s. Those letters broke my heart, but it was the ones from younger readers, readers in their teens and early 20s that finally made me understand what historical meant. It was those readers who wrote to tell me that they couldn’t believe that there was a time when AIDS was perceived with so much panic and misunderstanding. That they couldn’t believe people could have been so inhumane. Really? You really don’t know about that? Until those letters came to me I really thought everybody remembered.
But they didn’t. Their memories—the stuff that will be their history in the future—is made of strides forward in gay rights. 2012 was a landmark year in gay rights history. The leaps forward have been astounding. Gay marriage wasn’t even in the universe of things worth dreaming about in the 80s. It just didn’t seem possible. But now here we are. All of us.
Many amazing and wonderful things have happened for Tell the Wolves I’m Home. It’s become a New York Times bestseller and was on many ‘best of the year’ lists. I’m thrilled about all of that, but the most exciting thing of all was having my novel honored with an ALA Alex Award for adult books with special appeal to teens. YA. Adult. In the end it didn’t matter after all. It’s a story that can be shared across the generations. A bridge between what is now and what we still need to remember. A marker of how far we’ve come.
The most common thing that readers tell me when they take the time to get in touch is this: After reading your book I felt like I wanted to be kinder to the people I love. And that’s the best reason I can think of for why Tell the Wolves I’m Home would make a terrific common read for your students.
Carol Rifka Brunt’s work has appeared in several literary journals, including North American Review and The Sun. In 2006, she was one of three fiction writers who received the New Writing Ventures award and, in 2007, she received a generous Arts Council grant to write Tell the Wolves I’m Home, her first novel. Originally from New York, she currently lives in England with her husband and three children.