I interview Saskatchewan’s Patricia Miller-Schroeder about her book Sisters of the Wolf, which was published by Dundurn Press in August. Sisters of the Wolf was more than 35 years in the making. I talk to Miller-Schroeder about our ancestors, writing fiction and non-fiction and bringing Shinoni and Keena’s stories to young people.
Thank you so much for agreeing to speak with me and congratulations on your book Sisters of the Wolf, which came out in August.
Q. In your acknowledgements, you mentioned you started researching and writing Shinoni and Keena’s journey as a graduate student in biological anthropology (what is this?) and had three children who are now grown up. How long did this story take to write from when the pair first appeared to you to the time it was published?
A. Biological Anthropology is the study of human biological variation and evolution.
My first thoughts about “the girls” were at least 35 years ago and I perceived their story as a film.
Q. How much did the story change?
A. The story evolved, but the main characters and story line were there from the start. Plot twists and subplots came and went and supporting characters came and went. I had to ‘kill off” some characters I liked and invent others to fill new roles.
Q. What had to happen within your own life for this story to be finally published?
A. I had to realize this story had a better chance as a book than as a film (at least to start).
My kids had to grow up a bit, and I had to teach less. I had to create and claim the time I needed to research, write, and network.
Q. Did information change over the course of that 35 years?
A. There was definitely a great deal of knowledge and attitude change and discovery about our human ancestors and prehistoric fauna, environment, etc. I kept informed as much as possible via the latest scientific research, which was often contested among different researchers. I often went back and changed sections of the story and deleted or added things. I enjoyed doing this a great deal.
Q. You did a significant amount of research for this book, including visiting caves where Neanderthal people lived in France. Why was this research important and how did it improve the story?
A. The caves I visited were also ice age homes to early modern humans as well as Neanderthals. They both occupied the caves as did many animals such as cave lions, cave hyenas and cave bears. I could imagine what the caves were like, but nothing could bring that feeling of the atmosphere and envelopment of being in the caves. Also, to see the countryside and lay of the land (changed as it might be in places) made it all so much more real. These were my ancestors. I think it added to the authenticity of my storytelling.
Q. As mentioned in your author’s note, there is no written evidence of what life was like at this time, but there are other types of evidence including DNA, fossils and more. What do you find fascinating about this time period? What would you still like to learn?
A. I feel strongly that these were my ancestors and I feel a strong connection to them. During the past decade, so many things have been discovered about them, especially Neanderthals. We also are discovering the presence of even more of our ancestors like Denisovans, who also interbred with both Neanderthals and early modern humans. I want to learn as much more about all of them as I can.
Q. How did you balance between fact and fiction in this book, meaning Shinoni and Keena’s story is obviously fiction, but how much else is fact and how did you balance between presenting correct information and helping the story grow?
A. There’s a saying “Don’t let the facts get in the way of a good story.” However, I feel that knowing and using the facts as much as possible in this case opens up more possibilities for different stories, or new scenes within stories that are built on the new discoveries.
Q. Your friend and fellow author Judith Silverthorne said the book has a strong girl-power vibe. Why was it important for you to write a story with strong females who break society norms even during the ice age period?
A. I believe girls and young women need interesting and strong role models. I also think Shinoni and Keena are good role model for all young people to believe in themselves and achieve goals that may be denied to them based on gender, race, or culture.
Q. You are the author of 17 children’s non-fiction books as well as a writer and researcher for TV and film. What made writing this book different from your non-fiction works? Was there anything that is the same?
A. Fictionalizing the stories allowed me freedom to recreate a far away time and place and populate it with people and creatures that lived in those times and places. It allowed me to show similarities and differences to our own experiences. I wasn’t limited to only showing things that were “hard” facts and it allowed me to weave stories using what we know and what different researchers hypothesize about prehistoric life. I can create characters by putting flesh on fossil bones and brains in fossil skulls, bringing them to life and allow them to live in their long ago environments.
Q. Can you tell me how research differs between fiction and non-fiction?
A. For me it’s very similar. I read all the current research I can find in both the popular science publications and often the academic publications that they are based on. This gives me a wealth of material to write about. I also check material in museums, blogs, and documentaries dealing with the subject I’m writing about. I find this useful in both fiction and non-fiction. For fiction and sometimes in non-fiction, I also research different ways of writing stories to enrich the readers experience including using storytelling in non-fiction.
Q. Sisters of the Wolf is your first young adult book. What did you enjoy about writing for the older group? Is there something that you found challenging?
A. Sisters of the Wolf is young adult but focused more for the younger end of that spectrum and overlaps with upper middle grade readers (12 and up). I feel there is a broad overlap for the story and theme. I felt quite at ease writing for this group and enjoyed exploring serious, humorous, dangerous and challenging life experiences.
Q. You have had a busy and interesting career, including teaching Women’s and Gender Studies and Screenwriting at the University of Regina. How have these varied pieces of your career helped in the creation of Sisters of Wolf as well as the other things you have written?
A. I have a broad spectrum of interests and enjoy bringing them together in different ways.
When “the girls” first started sitting on my shoulders and whispering their stories to me, I was a sessional instructor at the University of Regina also doing freelance writing for an educational publisher. A friend talked me into taking a scriptwriting class with her and I was hooked. I became adept at juggling several activities and interests, but through it all I never lost interest in Shinoni and Keena.
Q. What are you doing more now that you didn’t have time for when you worked?
A. I am retired but still teach occasionally. I’ve always juggled my teaching and research so now I do less of that and more writing. I also am getting more involved with the writing community again.
Q. Is writing something you do full time or part time?
A. It varies but right now it’s pretty much full time.
Q. Are you working on anything else?
A. Yes, I’m working on a sequel to Sisters of the Wolf.
Q. Will you write more about women from this time period?
A. Absolutely. In my sequel and perhaps other stories.
Q. Is there a dream project you are interested in?
A. A Sister’s of the Wolf Trilogy would be nice.
Q. What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
A. NEVER GIVE UP!
Read my review of Sisters of the Wolf.