Michelle Paver talks about travelling to the frozen arctic for her latest book, Viper's Daughter

Published on: 04 April 2020 Author: Michelle Paver

Licking slugs, eating raw seal liver, and making friends with wolves - Michelle Paver shares stories about the incredible adventures she had whilst researching for her latest novel, Viper's Daughter. Watch the video below or read the transcript.

Hello, I’m Michelle Paver. I wrote the Wolf Brother books and I want to tell you about the latest – Viper’s Daughter.

I wrote it to appeal both to existing fans, who are desperate to find out what happens next, and also to new readers in the original 9-12 age group, who’ve never read any of the books.

So it doesn’t matter if you haven’t read any of the books – you can dive into Viper’s Daughter. It’s a standalone story.

To set the scene though, if you haven’t read any of the books, the stories are about a boy, a girl, and a wolf battling to survive in the Stone Age. It’s 6,000 years ago. The forest covered the whole of northern Europe, and somewhere in this forest, in the first book – Wolf Brother – Torak is twelve, and he’s got to survive on his own for the first time in his life. His father’s just been killed by an enormous bear possessed by a demon, and the bear is rampaging through the forest, killing everything it can find. But Torak makes two friends – he makes friends with a girl called Renn from the Raven clan, and Renn is a good friend to have because apart from being a reluctant mage (that’s like a shaman or a witch-doctor) she’s also the best shot in the forest with a bow and arrow. He also makes friends with a wolf cub who has lost his pack, and parts of every story are told from Wolf’s point of view, through his eyes and ears and nose. And Renn and Wolf are going to be with Torak throughout his adventures.

And that’s the most important thing about these books – they are adventures. I aim to write the most stonkingly exciting stories you’ve ever read. I want children to be told off for staying up at night and reading in bed, and readers often tell me that they feel they’re having the adventure with Torak and Renn and Wolf – and I think that’s because I try to make them real. To do that I go where Torak and Renn go and I do what they do, within reason. Of course I’ve also done lots of research in libraries into the Mesolithic – but I’ve also camped in the wild in the arctic, and I’ve swum with wild killer whales and I’ve made friends with wolves. I couldn’t ask stone age people what they believed, or how they thought – but I’ve done the next best thing. I’ve visited people who still live in traditional ways: the Sami in Lapland, the Inuit in the Arctic, and the clans of the Pacific north-west – that’s off the coast of America. And I think the thing that struck me about them is, although they vary a lot, in what they believe, three things really stand out.

The first is of course that Torak and Renn are hunter gatherers. Everything they need to survive – that’s food, weapons, clothes, shelter – they’ve got to find or make from what’s just around them in the forest, so they really know the animals and plants around them because they depend on them.

So here’s a bit of reindeer antler that I picked up in Greenland. This is really hard and it’s incredibly useful. You can make fishhooks and knives and arrowheads out of this, you can dig up roots, you can bash someone over the head with it, but you need to know where your reindeer are going to be in the forest and when they drop their antlers, or how to kill them. If you want to collect berries or roots, you could make a birch-bark basket like this. This was made in Canada, it’s sewn together with split spruce root, which is quite difficult to say! You could make a smaller one to drink out of – it’s really nice and light if you’re a hunter gatherer moving through the forest.

If you want to tie things together, you might make a piece of string. Torak and Renn would do this out of nettles (this is a piece I made earlier), or they could make a whole bag. This is a small one, this was made by Aborigines in Australia out of plant fibres, but you could make as big a one as you liked.

The second thing I discovered about the hunter gatherers that I talked to is that when they make things, they have to work. If Torak and Renn are in the cold up in the far north, and if their hands are too cold that they’re too clumsy to build a fire, they’re going to die. So I’ve given them reindeer-hide mittens. This is a pair I bought in Canada – I think I’m only going to put one on because it’s a bit clumsy. Reindeer hide is incredibly thick and warm. It’s actually so thick that you cannot part the hairs to see the skin, and I’ve slept on reindeer skins and they’re really nice and warm – so that’s why Torak and Renn have a reindeer hide sleeping sack.

The third thing about the hunter gatherers like Torak and Renn is that they’re not vegetarians. When they kill an animal, they have to do it, but they – like all hunter gatherers – thank the animal’s spirit for giving its body to them, and then they feel honour-bound to use every bit of the animal. When I was in Greenland doing research, I talked to an Inuit hunter who’d just killed a seal. This is a seal skin of the kind that he’d killed – don’t worry, these are not endangered seals and this one actually fed twelve people – and he told me how he would use all the bits of the animal through an interpreter. It would take me hours to tell you every bit, but a few things struck me. The first thing they do traditionally is take out the liver of the animal while it’s still warm, and every hunter eats a little bit of it. So I thought, because Torak’s going to do this, I’d better try! And I did, and actually it was surprisingly nice.

Out of the bones, they make needles, and I love this bit – out of the sinews, which hold your joints together, they make thread, so the animal makes its own sewing kit to sew clothes out of its hide which I think is really neat. The flippers are missing as you can see – this is because, as the hunter told me through an interpreter, they cut them off and they stick them under a pile of rocks and let them go nice and slimy for a few months, and then they eat them. I didn’t try that bit.

At the end, I asked the hunter, OK – which bits do you throw away? And he looked quite surprised and said, “we don’t throw anything away. We even use the claws.” (You may have noticed I’m wearing a seal claw necklace – two flippers’ worth.) And that made a big impression on me.

So that’s Torak and Renn, but what about Wolf? Parts of the story are told from his point of view so of course I read about wolf behaviour, but also made friends with some real wolves in a wolf sanctuary. Although I don’t speak wolf-talk quite as well as Torak does, I know enough to make them comfortable with me and I’ve picked up all sorts of little ideas which have made the wolves alive in the stories. A particular favourite of mine was when I saw a she-wolf running her jaws over a branch of brambles with little spines, and she was cleaning her teeth – I put that in the books!

I think it’s fair to say that sometimes the books can get quite dark, because living in the stone age was pretty tough. But the friendship between Torak and his pack-brother Wolf, and between Torak and Renn, is at the heart of the stories, and I always see it as a sort of golden thread running through them. So that brings me to the new book, Viper’s Daughter.

Viper’s Daughter begins two summers after the end of the last book, Ghost Hunter. Torak and Renn and Wolf and his mate have been happily living in the forest until Renn realises that Torak is in danger and she’s the threat, so she leaves. And to find her, Torak and Wolf have to track her north, out of the forest, beyond even the far north, to the edge of the world. This is a strange place of hostile clans, and giant ice caves, and volcanoes and mammoths.

To make it real, of course, I had to go there. So I went to the remote islands of Haida Gwaii, off British Columbia, and there the Haida people, one of the first nations, told me lots of things, including a rather neat cure for toothache. You go into the rainforest and you find a particular kind of slug called a leopard slug, and you lick it. Of course I had to try. It was a clean slug, it had just been raining, and although I didn’t have toothache it did actually work because my mouth went numb for about twenty minutes.

I also went to Alaska, because I needed a really large ice cave which comes into the story, and my guide told me “the most dangerous bit is getting into the cave because rocks fall off the edge,” so I had to wait until he told me when to get in. Inside, it was the most incredible blue you’ve ever seen, but it was also a little bit daunting because there’s a massive glacier right on top of you and if it moves, you’re squashed.

I also went to literally the edge of the world to outer Siberia, up through the Bering Straights to somewhere called Wrangel Island, which was the last home of the woolly mammoth. Of course I didn’t see any mammoths, but we did find a tusk embedded in a riverbed which went into the story, and lots of polar bears! One day a few of us were in a rubber dinghy bobbing around on the sea at the bottom of a cliff, and suddenly one of us looked up and there we saw a polar bear standing right at the edge of the cliff looking down at us, clearly thinking “how do I get down so I can eat these people?” and that’s something else that’s gone into the story.

The people in that part of outer Siberia, the Chukchi, were fascinating and gave me lots of ideas. Traditionally, they lived very harsh lives and gave their children incredibly rough upbringings. The children were not brought up by their parents, they were brought up by their aunts and their uncles – the idea being that parents wouldn’t punish you harshly enough. So these poor little boys had to toughen up by dragging walrus heads up and down hills. Why? Because the Chukchi lived on hunting walruses, which are incredibly dangerous when you’re hunting them, and so they had six men in a boat and they all had to obey the rules – which is why they had such harsh upbringings.

Finally, on my travels for Viper’s Daughter, I picked up something which I’ve always wanted and never been able to find: a pair of Inuit snow goggles. These are made of reindeer antler, the same stuff that I showed you earlier, and they’re incredibly clever because although I can see pretty well, it cuts out the glare from snow and ice and the sea. It also sharpens your sight – if you’re short-sighted, like me, if helps you see better. This design hasn’t changed in thousands of years, so I’ve given Torak a pair of these in Viper’s Daughter.

So all that, and lots more, has gone into making Viper’s Daughter real and, I hope, stonkingly exciting. Thank you for watching, and I really hope you enjoy it!

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