Editor Edwin Wollert poses some questions for D. T. Kizis, author of “Packs:”

Editor Edwin Wollert poses some questions for D. T. Kizis, author of “Packs:”

Wollert: There’s not much fiction about wolves out there.  Why do you suppose that is?

Kizis: How do you write about wolves without getting too anthropomorphic?  That might make fine kid’s literature, and in fact has, but I never wanted to actually describe the wolves as talking, though they clearly communicate with one another with much detail.  One of the sources I used for research is an “ethogram” of wolves, a catalog of behaviors, and there are hundreds of them, more than typically get categorized in descriptions of human children.  I also wanted the wolf scenes to be entirely plausible to the biologists and behaviorists.  Since I raise some contentious issues in the book, too, I never wanted anyone, especially the wolf-haters, to be able to claim that a scene was somehow unrealistic.

Wollert: So, no talking, definitely.  Are there other reasons?  

Kizis: Maybe it’s the ancient stereotypes, and I already mentioned the wolf-haters.  Even I got the old tales of Red Riding Hood and those crazy Three Pigs when I was a kid, and the wolves always sounded evil.  They sometimes get updated for the current century, especially in one version in which the pigs get shown as rather nasty.  But still, the old imagery is still with us: we “wolf” our food, toss one another to the wolves, beware the wolf at the door, use degrading wolf whistles.  These are rather odd.  The first one makes sense, since wolves do typically display troubling table manners, but they don’t knock on doors, can’t whistle, and if we tossed someone their way they’d hardly know what to do with the person other than start sniffing around like dogs.  So wolves just don’t show up in regular literature; maybe the prejudices are too strong.

Wollert: You discuss those biases at some length, too, don’t you?

Kizis: It’s necessary to do so to make my point.  Without giving too much away, the critical shift is more historical, which leads to the ethical: current research confirms that very ancient humans admired wolves and learned at least some social behaviors from them.  The other “great apes” just don’t behave like this, and considering that wolves later became our “best friends,” it’s important to be clear about the shift in human thinking: once we developed agriculture and tended more to stay put, the wolves were seen more as adversaries than allies, occasionally stealing our newly domesticated livestock rather than help us hunt wild creatures.

Wollert: Speaking of hunting, some readers may conclude that you’re opposed, maybe an oddity in itself for a resident of Alaska.

Kizis: There are places to hunt almost no matter where you live, once you can get out of the cities.  And I’m not opposed to hunting as such; but I do have some major moral reservations about trophy hunting, which is nothing more than egocentric posturing.  And Alaska has fights about this all the time, often culling predators which don’t need culling and which are blamed for prey species declines which either don’t exist or which are actually caused by weather or by humans over-hunting.  Put responsibility where it belongs.

Wollert: Back to the agricultural divide for a second: do you think all dogs are descended from wolves, then?

Kizis: Oh, yeah.  Genetically, it’s there.  On the surface, it’s tough, I admit, to see the wolf in something either tiny, like a Chihuahua, or funky, like a sheepdog.  It would be like us encountering living contemporary Neanderthals or Cro-magnons.  But the link is there.  Even the geneticists have trouble telling what’s wolf and what’s dog, though determining “canid” ancestry is easy.  What makes a wolf a wolf is largely a mix of appearance and behavior, really.

Wollert: What about pets, then?  Different areas have tinkered with legislation about “wolf-dogs,” or hybrids.  How do they work out?

Kizis: Interestingly, they were declared illegal here in Alaska not many years ago, but based on what I just said about genetics, such a law is likely unenforceable.  But they’re a bad idea, to be sure.  The problem is that they’re huge, lack the fear of humans wolves have, yet have all the capabilities and desires wolves have.  And anyone who quotes percentages, like, “I have a hybrid who’s 80% wolf” is talking complete nonsense.  The ancestry will be visible, but the percentages are impossible to verify.

Wollert: You talk a lot about ethics in the novel, too.  Where did that come from?

Kizis: I actually studied history, but wanted to discuss the importance of environmental considerations without getting preachy, so a novel seemed to best way to make my case.  And there are historical scenes anyway, little short stories by themselves, with this in mind, though the book sometimes seems like a novel masquerading as a philosophy reader, hopefully like “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,” or “Ishmael.”

Wollert: Those scenes often leave Alaska, too, don’t they?

Kizis: I wrote my way around the world with the historical short stories, which are intermissions, if you will, between the major sections.  They take place in Europe, the Near East, Japan, and America.

Wollert: Did that interest arise from your own travels?

Kizis: Partly.  Traveling on your own, without an organized group, I think is the best way to experience at least part of another culture.  Try the language.  Try the food.  It’s amazing how far you can get with a couple of smiles and questions in the local dialect.  And during my last travels, I began wondering about species which lived or formerly lived in different areas, so that emerged in the book.

Wollert: Do you prefer historical fiction, then?

Kizis: I often do.  I really dig Laura Joh Rowland, and Sharon Kay Penman.  Michael Jecks is fun, though his stuff’s harder to find in the States, and Michael Crichton was always good at describing historical contexts and their influence on the present, especially within science.  The academics often decry fiction, of course, unless they’re teaching literature itself, but if a novel gets someone interested more fully in an academic subject, then I think that’s very encouraging.  My own interest in studying history came from reading novels, actually.

Wollert: You’re got a lot to take in here, D.T.; there are plenty of themes in your work.

Kizis: Thanks, Ed; hopefully the different strands have come together to tell a good story.

What’s D. T. reading right now?

I'm still reading plenty of biographies these days, and have most recently found "Wolf: the Many Lives of Jack London," by James Haley.  London died too young, alas, but his contributions to American literature as well as to understanding various canids more honestly are noteworthy.  He had quite the adventurous life himself, too, starting largely with joining the great gold rush in Alaska at the end of the 19th century!

What are D. T.’s favorite books?

“Here’s my own list:

‘Raptor Red,’ by Robert Bakker;

‘State of Fear,’ by Michael Crichton;

‘Watership Down,’ by Richard Adams;

‘Lila,’ by Robert Pirsig;

‘Sophie’s World,’ by Jostein Gaarder;

‘On Liberty,’ by John Stuart Mill;

‘Tao te Ching,’ by Laozi;

‘Pragmatism,’ by William James;;

...and lastly, since my work is mostly in Alaska, I’d have to add ‘Travels in Alaska,’ by John Muir.  They’re all hugely worth the effort.”

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