Charlotte McConaghy’s second novel, Once There Were Wolves (Flatiron, Aug. 3), is more than just a cautionary tale about the dangers of losing a keystone species—it’s about the stubbornness of humankind, the conflict inherent when an outsider introduces something new to a frightened community, and, above all, the bond between twin sisters. After a horrific trauma, Aggie has followed her twin, Inti, to Scotland, where Inti attempts to reintroduce wolves to the Highlands to revitalize the ecology.
McConaghy, a screenwriter living in Sydney, Australia, explores the dangers of radical empathy through the presentation of mirror-touch synesthesia, a rare condition Inti has suffered since childhood. She can feel the physical sensations that another person experiences just by looking at them, and it is through this lens that the reader learns of the fallout from Aggie’s ordeal and the ongoing difficulty of Inti’s task in Scotland.
McConaghy’s first book, Migrations, was published in 2020. It tells the story of Franny, a woman intent on tracking Earth’s last surviving Arctic terns. Both books might fall under the classification of climate fiction, but McConaghy thinks of them outside the framework of a single genre. “I don’t think I had a moment where I thought, I’m going to write books about climate change.…I love writing about nature, and I don’t think you can write about that without also writing about human impact,” she says. “I just couldn’t look away anymore.” These books, then, are an answer to a world that will continue to change rapidly—they are, as McConaghy puts it, about “an emotional connection to conservation.”
McConaghy’s passion for the natural world also extends to her protagonists, dynamic women who aren’t afraid to fight the forces that neglect or damage the environment. While there is a sense of continuity between the protagonists of both novels, McConaghy claims there was one significant difference in her conceptions of Franny and Inti.
“The place I wrote Migrations [and Franny] from was a place of sadness and loneliness.…She was driven by a sorrow for the things that she could see leaving the world,” she says. Inti is “a character who’s really driven by fury. And it was a joy to write that, actually, to write a woman who is furious.…But a book has to be a transition, a movement. I had to take her and myself on a journey into something gentler and more tender.”
Once There Were Wolves, she says, came to her in a flash—“I went for a walk around the bay, and within 15 minutes I had the entire book exploding into my mind. I knew…it was going to be about this woman who wanted to take on this project. I knew she was going to be a twin. I knew she’d have mirror-touch synesthesia.” Unlike Migrations, which took several years to write, the new book took McConaghy only about a year to finish, and “a good chunk of that was research,” she acknowledges.
There is an urgency to Inti and Aggie that matches the feverish pace of conceptualizing and writing this story. When we first meet Aggie, she is mute following a trauma that her sister also witnessed, the details of which McConaghy reveals to the reader only later in the novel. That fierce hum underlies the whole book as Inti processes her own guilt and her place in her sister’s life even as she attempts to protect the wolves she and her team have fought so hard to see “rewilding” the Highlands.
“I think I’ve always been fascinated by twins,” says McConaghy. “It’s a beautiful kind of closeness, but there is also a level of dependence.…It’s what happens when that closeness becomes the only thing that you can experience and it’s actually causing problems for the rest of your life.”
McConaghy is a master of the artful pivot; at first, throughout their childhood, Inti relies on the more rebellious Aggie, until, after the shattering event that befalls Aggie, the dynamics are reversed. There’s a “funny swapping of roles.…Inti starts her life as [the] intensely empathetic one, who believes the best in everyone, and Aggie’s got a…slightly more cynical view of things. And then because of that shock and trauma they go through…Inti becomes quite hard and closed off.”
McConaghy doesn’t consider herself an angry person, but she allows that her research led to more and more frustration at the global predicament of wolves. “This book became a kind of explosion of that,” she says. Some of her favorite facets of the research process came from learning about the wolves themselves—how smart and strong they are, how capable, and, above all, how critical they are to biodiversity and a tenable ecological future.
“The main thing that really blew me away,” she says, “was the individual personalities of the wolves.…It’s impossible not to love them after you read about them.…The people who were working with them loved them in that same way.…I found that very moving and knew that there was a story in that.”