Author of ‘American Wolf’ answers all of our questions in advance of book release
It’s not often a book about a wolf is released with much fanfare. Next week, though, will be different as a highly anticipated wolf book hits shelves Tuesday. American Wolf: A True Story of Survival and Obsession in the West comes out Oct. 17. The book, written by Nate Blakeslee, tells the true story of a wolf called O-Six in Yellowstone National Park.
The story of O-Six setting off to find a pack, find a mate, raise a litter and her untimely death reads much like a heart-pounding piece of fiction. Thanks to the fact that O-Six’s life was chronicled by a group of dedicated wolf watchers in Yellowstone, though, it’s all true and reported in fine detail.
Blakeslee became interested in wolves after taking a class at Yellowstone. He got to know the wolves in the park and recognized a story was waiting to be told about them.
“I knew there was a really good story there,” Blakeslee said. “I just wasn’t sure exactly how to tell it.”
To aid in the story, Blakeslee spent countless hours learning about O-Six from Rick McIntyre, the Yellowstone Wolf Project’s biological technician. Blakeslee also learned from diaries kept by Laurie Lyman, a key Yellowstone wolf watcher, among other sources.
When the reporting was finally done, Blakeslee returned to his home in Texas and got to work putting it all together. The end result is a book so well received that one reviewer (J.B. MacKinnon) called it a “Shakespearean tragedy played out against the backdrop of our troubled relationship with nature.”
The International Wolf Center conducted a question-and-answer session over the telephone with the author.
Q: How did you go from writing Tulia, a blistering account of racism, cocaine and injustice in a small Texas town, to writing a story about a wolf?
A: “I spent my whole career writing about politics and policy. In that sense, this book is really not that much of a departure. The subject is different, but it’s still written about policy and how it’s shaped by politics.
“The debate about how wolves ought to be managed is driven by politics, misconception and a certain cultural divide as it is any sound principles of scientific management.”
Q: What is it about O-Six that resonates with people, or captivates them?
A: “She was the wolf that was easiest to see, but it wasn’t just that. She was an unusual and amazing character. The first thing people will tell you was what an accomplished hunter she was. When the watchers first spotted her and kept tabs on her, she was a lone wolf. She had taught herself how to take down game by herself. It’s not unheard of, but it’s unusual. She had a knack for it.
“(The wolf watchers in Yellowstone) were able to see several instances of it right there in the valley. That led her legend to grow.
“It’s really a dangerous time for a wolf when they’re out there on their own. Most of them don’t survive. She was unusually adept socially. She was observed mating with three or four different males. She never settled down.
“When she finally did find her territory, in order to establish herself she had to fight the alpha female of the resident pack — the Druids. That was a really dramatic scene that everybody was able to follow in real time. They documented it as it unfolded.
“When she had her first litter, it happened on Slough Creek at this den that is easily viewable from the campground road there. There’s this really popular wolf watching spot — Bob’s Knob. You can see this den from there. She used that den and that meant that her first litter, everything they did you could see from about a mile and a half away with spotting scopes.
“She became one of the prime attractions in the park. Like Old Faithful or the Upper Falls. It was something you stopped to see. She just became more and more famous.”
Q: Before this book, how much did you know about wolves?
A: “I was born and raised in Texas. I used to go out to the Jackson Hole area every summer in college to work summer jobs. I fell in love with that part of the Rockies. Then, in 2007, about 10 years ago, I went out and took a wolf watching class in Yellowstone and absolutely loved it. We saw a lot of amazing behavior.”
Q: What surprised you while writing this book?
A: “I didn’t know what level of detail was available about the lives of these wolves. I wasn’t aware that there was this really small group of extremely dedicated aficionados that came to the park every day with their spotting scopes and stayed until they spotted the wolves and wrote down everything they could about them.
“It wasn’t only Rick (McIntyre), but also a number of his friends who became just as dedicated as he was, including Laurie Lyman. They’d send out daily updates. Because the pack I focused on, the Lamar Pack, was the most visible pack, there were more notes on them than any other pack.
“Laurie agreed to turn her notes over to me. I had this diary of a wolf pack. It was three years of material — 2,400 pages of material. Digging through it, you could see how you could write a story about a wolf pack that read like a novel. There were characters and all these moments of drama and empathy and tenderness that wolves are known for. It was all there in the notebook.”
Q: What’s one part of the book you hope impacts people?
A: “I read every wolf book I could find. I read some really wonderful books, but very few of them tried to tell a story … with characters you could get invested in. I read a lot of extended essays and wildlife biology books, and I enjoyed those, but it was important to me that this book would have all that information about politics and policies, but also it was important to me that it would be a good story.
“The story is part of the message. When I first started working on this book, one of the park biologists came up to me and said, ‘You know, (O-Six) wasn’t a super wolf.’
“I was operating from the assumption that any wolf’s life would be an amazing adventure story if you only knew enough details about it. If it’s true that that any wolf’s life would be as amazing a story as the O-Six lived, then what does that do to our understanding of them when one is killed in a trophy hunt? Does it change the way that we think about that policy? Does it change the way the hunter looks at a wolf?
“That’s why I wanted this to be a good story — stories are how we understand the world. Stories are what have the potential to change the way we think about the world.”
Q: You’ve written before about the politics of wildlife management before – bighorns in west Texas, for example – but have you ever seen more fighting over a native species than you’ve seen with wolves?
A: “No. I personally haven’t. I don’t think there have been many debates in recent history that are quite like the fight over wolves. This one has gone on so long. It’s extremely contentious.
“It’s gotten to a point where politicians in the west know they can score points by being against wolves. It’s one of those things you say you are for or against to signify where you stand on the political spectrum. People get to the point where they’re afraid to say the wrong thing because it would damage their political career.”
Q: What did your family say when you told them your next book was going to be a true story about a wolf in Yellowstone?
A: “I have two 9-year-olds. Anytime you tell them you’re going to be traveling to do the reporting, they’re not happy about that, but they were excited about the fact that I was going to be in Yellowstone. They got to come visit when I was doing the reporting. It was the summer, but it was still the most snow they’ve ever seen.
“We didn’t see any wolves when they were there. They want to go back and see it in the winter, which will blow their minds. Hopefully on their next visit they’ll see the wolves.”
Q: Leonardo DiCaprio purchased the movie rights to the story. Do you have any kind of update on the movie?
A: “It’s still in development. The script is written and it’s moving forward, but there’s nothing like a green light. It’s just wait-and-see.”
Q: What’s next for you?
A: I’m going to do some magazine work at Texas Monthly. I’m not on staff there anymore, but am a contributing writer. I’ll be out there looking for another story good enough to build a book around. It won’t be easy. This was quite a story, but I’m always looking.”
American Wolf was published in the United States by Crown Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. The book can be purchased directly from the publisher by following this link: https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/248840/american-wolf-by-nate-blakeslee/9781101902783/.
Copies are also available at the Wolf Den Store at shop.wolf.org and elsewhere online.
The Washington Post wrote that Nate Blakeslee’s first book, Tulia, was one of the most important books ever written about wrongful convictions.