In her first novel, Carol Rifka Brunt tells a story of love and loss, sibling rivalry, secrets, and jealousy.
June Elbus is 14 when she finds out that her uncle Finn, the one person in the world who seems to understand her, is dying of AIDS. June is devastated when he dies, and wary when she’s approached by Finn’s longtime partner, Toby. She’d never met Toby before—in fact, her mother had insisted that Finn keep him a secret. June and Toby’s new friendship is fragile, but one that leads to healing and understanding for each of them.
Why did you set the story in 1987, a time when there was such a stigma surrounding AIDS?
I’m not sure the ’80s setting was really a choice. I started out with the idea of a dying uncle painting a final portrait of his niece. I didn’t know that the disease he had was AIDS until later on in the writing process. Once I understood that, it seemed natural that the story would take place in the ’80s. Setting it at a time when so little was known about the disease and when fear was rampant seemed the most interesting way to approach it. Narrator June’s uncle Finn dies just before AZT—the first real treatment for AIDS— came along. The idea that you or your loved ones could just miss out lifesaving treatment seemed like a particularly cruel twist of fate and something I thought worth exploring.
June is a perfectly realized teen character, vivid in her self-doubt, her uncertainty about her own nature and how the people in her life feel about her. How did you create such a touching, vulnerable teen character?
Thank you! I’m so glad you connected with June. I think I might have an unusually strong memory of my feelings at June’s age. Her sense of not really belonging anywhere, not connecting with her peers, being an outsider, watching the action from a distance—all of that is how I remember feeling at her age.
I also wanted to get away from anything that felt stereotypically “teen.” As a writer, I’m always trying to understand a character as an individual rather than as part of a group. So, although June happens to be a teen, I hope she is also very much a unique person with a singular way of seeing the world.
Did you anticipate that teens would read your book? Why did you choose to write a coming-of-age novel?
I would love to think that teens could find something to connect with in Tell the Wolves I’m Home. When I first started writing it, I thought it could end up as either YA or adult. By the end, I felt pretty sure it was an adult novel. I wouldn’t say I set out to write a coming-of-age story exactly. I felt like I was writing a friendship story, but because of June’s age there’s an inevitable coming-of-age element to it. The events of the story will surely be life changing for June and make a huge mark on how she views the world.
In this novel, love causes embarrassment, jealousy, and terrible vulnerability. Learning that, as Toby says, “Nobody can help what they feel,” is an important part of June’s coming-of-age experience. Do you think June moves on from the events of this story to trust herself and her feelings?
You’re right, love is the source of most of the pain in this novel. I think Toby is trying so hard through the course of the story to give this gift to June—to make her understand that her feelings aren’t good or bad, that what you feel is not something you can control—and I think by the end she does understand that. I think she is so much stronger by the end of the story.
Like your protagonist, I understand you grew up in Westchester County, New York. Are there autobiographical aspects to the story? What was your inspiration for the novel?
The setting isn’t Pleasantville, exactly, but a sort of amalgam of elements from a few towns I remember. Same with the woods. There weren’t woods behind my school, but I do remember parties in woods around the town.
I did give June a lot of my way of thinking at her age. I also lumbered her with some of my own geeky teenage interests—an overly romantic view of medieval times, the escapism of movies set in the past, Choose Your Own Adventure books, and a love of the Cloisters, to name a few. That’s where the autobiography ends, really. I don’t have a charismatic Finn-like uncle. My relationship with my own sister isn’t like June and Greta’s. My parents are very different from the Elbus’s.
When I was in eighth grade, my English teacher was an exchange teacher from London. We all liked him. He’d often share English music with us and generally had a good sense of humor. At the end of the year, he left. A few months later, we were told that he’d died. This alone was quite shocking. He was only in his 30s. Not long after that we found out that he’d had AIDS. Living in the suburbs, I think we all felt very distant from AIDS. It was a scary thought, but that’s what it remained for most of us—a thing we heard about but never saw, something unrelated to our lives. Here it had come right into our midst. Without being aware of it, that experience had stayed with me all these years. Writing often works this way for me. Rather than taking something from life and working with it, I write and write until finally I see where the material has come from. It’s those wonderful little moments of revelation that make the whole thing worthwhile.
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