Editor’s Note: This interview first appeared in Path Finders, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each week, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Like what you see here? You can join the mailing list at the bottom of this article and receive more conversations like this in your inbox each week.

Amy Rowland is a writer, teacher and editor from eastern North Carolina. Her second novel, “Inside the Wolf,” released on July 11.

Enjoy our conversation about the tragic intractability of gun violence, escaping the liberal bubble, and reinventing fairy tales, below.

Olivia Weeks, The Daily Yonder: Your new book “Inside the Wolf,” as the title might suggest, contains a lot of potent interactions with animals – a rabid raccoon, a fallen coywolf, and a bat in the attic to name a few. Are you always deriving so much meaning from interactions with animals, or is it particular to the novel’s setting in your native North Carolina?

Amy Rowland: Animals always become central to my novels though that isn’t my original intention. On an intuitive level, I wanted to write about red wolves. The only remaining wild population lives along North Carolina’s Albemarle Peninsula, which includes five counties. Beaufort County, where I’m from, is one of them. Red wolves are beautiful, mysterious, endangered, and I couldn’t help but see them as a metaphor for how some rural southerners feel about “the state.” I’d heard my dad and brother and their hunting friends talk about red wolves and government protections and theories about the presence of red wolves in North Carolina in a way that was different than how red wolves are written about and thought about in news and conservation stories. I wanted to explore that along with the idea of wolves as imagined villains. Claude Levi-Strauss famously said something along the lines of ‘animals are good to think with.’ I wasn’t writing with that in mind, but writing about animals does allow me to explore ideas and attitudes, norms and biases and beliefs in a different register.

Rowland’s new novel, “Inside the Wolf” released July 11th. (Photo via Hachette Book Group)

DY: What’s your relationship with your hometown like today? As far as I can tell you’ve taught, written, and edited in some of the U.S.’s largest cities for most of your adult life. Was this book a way to connect with your roots, or just an outgrowth of remaining connected?

AR: Writing this novel was a way of thinking through some arguments I have with the place I grew up. I’ve spent my adult life in New York and Princeton, New Jersey, and now Berkeley, California. I have family in eastern North Carolina, and I visit several times a year. I long resisted writing about the south, because it felt too fraught, too weighted with the burden of history. But while I was slogging away on a New York novel that was dead on the page, I was thinking about and taking notes on a southern novel. On one of my trips to visit family, I met a young boy who had accidentally shot his cousin to death. I couldn’t get his image out of my mind. At some point the first sentence of the novel came to me (‘I buried a wolf today’) and I knew I had to follow that voice. I knew it was the voice of someone haunted by violence and that it would lead me to the tragic boy.

DY: The book’s main character, Rachel, is an ambivalent folklorist. Is that detail autobiographical? How did the three little piggies and the witch who sheds her skin come to feature so prominently?

AR: No, I’m not a folklorist. In an early draft of the novel Rachel was a George Eliot scholar, studying the pastoral, the social experience of agrarian life. But as I kept drafting I realized Rachel was more prickly and tormented than my severe and confident Eliot scholar. Rachel isn’t able to let go of the south she’s fled, and she remains obsessed with the visibility and invisibility of southern history. She tried to leave North Carolina behind, but choosing to study southern folklore in New York was a choice almost of self-sabotage, if a subconscious one. She’s hurt and dejected from failing as an academic, but it’s clear from the description of her dissertation that it’s all over the place. It also becomes clear that her interest in the silences and mythologizing of the south are more personal than coldly academic. 

The stories of the three little pigs, the witch bride, and Virginia Dare as they appear in the novel are all distortions and reworkings of stories I grew up with. For example, the three little pigs evokes the fairy tale, but it’s also what three sisters were called in the farming town where my father grew up. I never knew much about these sisters, but they lived together in a house on the edge of a farm and I always wondered what their story was. The witch bride and Virginia Dare interest me in the ways women are punished (witches) or mythologized (Virginia Dare) in rural places with rigid views on women and the “feminine.” I’m interested in the symbolic language of folk and fairy tales and how it functions in oral cultures, especially regarding the belief in fate, and the silences and omissions and warnings imparted.

DY: How closely do the communal qualities of the hamlet where the novel is set resemble places you’ve actually spent time? I loved your portrayal of complicated, often antagonistic but still collectivist gatherings in the wake of tragedy. Sometimes, though, they felt aspirational. Was drawing out that blueprint at all part of your aim?

AR: The setting of the novel is very close to the tiny town where my father was born, where many of his extended family still live, and where we went to church when I was a child. I have a long and troubled history with this place, which is so small it’s an unincorporated community. My happiest childhood memories are from here, not from my hometown. But I also find it politically and culturally impossible. I do find the gatherings there both antagonistic and collectivist.

Author Amy Rowland (Photo provided)

I’m curious that they felt aspirational. Because when I began the novel during a difficult transitional year in California, I remember thinking about how I’ve lived in a comfortable liberal bubble more years than I lived in North Carolina. I felt myself hardening to eastern North Carolina. I asked myself what it would be like if someone not me but similar to me in some ways were to move back to the farming village where my dad grew up. What would it mean to live in a place where her political and religious views are in the minority? In what ways might she be open? About what would she refuse to compromise? What does it mean to live in a place where you’re challenged in a way that forces you out of your individualist shell? Of course, there’s a reason the novel ends in 2015. I felt more hopeful then.

DY: Aside from writing a novel in large part about gun violence, are you an activist on that issue? As someone easily overwhelmed by the intractable nature of that problem, I’m curious if you’ve found any day-to-day work around preventing gun deaths that feels meaningful.

AR: I’m not an activist, but I still think the imagination can play a role in shaping the values of public life. I’m an introverted writer who believes in radical autonomy, so what is my responsibility? This is one of the internal arguments I have with myself, about what it means to write fiction now, and what it means to write about the south, with its innocent cruelties and vicious past. I’ve thought about this a lot, especially since the 2016 election and then during the isolation of Covid. It’s unrealistic to think we’ll all become activists, in the current understanding of the word. But we have to find ways to try to communicate and to remain undefeated. For me, this means trying to speak through fiction. I didn’t want to write about the south or about guns or about what would be considered a ‘political’ novel. But when I followed my characters for a few years, this is the story that bubbled up. 

The very political divide about gun rights and regulations does feel intractable, and I wanted to try to find the roots of that intractability. After I met the child who shot his cousin by accident, I learned the astonishing and infuriating statistic that guns are the leading cause of death of children under 19 in the United States. The majority of those 19,000 deaths occur not in mass shootings, but in the home. The news rightly gives much attention to acts of spectacular violence. I wanted to explore a personal story of an accidental childhood shooting, which is an overlooked crisis. 

I also felt that living in my comfortable liberal bubble was protecting me from political problems. I’m from the rural south. People in my family own guns. I know some of my family members and some of the people I went to high school with will read this book and disagree with me. I’m ready to disagree. I’m tired of the bubble.

This interview first appeared in Path Finders, a weekly email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Each Monday, Path Finders features a Q&A with a rural thinker, creator, or doer. Join the mailing list today, to have these illuminating conversations delivered straight to your inbox.

Success! You're on the list.

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.