The death of a friend’s son was the calling Martha needed to write her first novel, Winter of the Wolf, combining mystery with her passion for wolves and her beliefs about the afterlife.
Tell us a little about your background.
I grew up in rural northern Illinois, not far from the Wisconsin border, with my parents and two older brothers. Being among the first families to settle into a new housing development, I spent much of my childhood by myself, exploring the dense woodlands surrounding our home. My favorite destination was a place I called the Enchanted Forest. It was here that I first heard nature talking to me. The flora and fauna seemed excited that I was listening to them, but their messages were often dire. They were worried about their future, given the amount of clearing cutting that was going on to make way for new homes. And their concerns were warranted as, by the time I was in middle school, very few wooded areas remained.
Throughout my childhood, I had vivid dreams involving wild nature treks; often a lone wolf would be present. He felt like a distant ancestor, who, through his actions, was desperate to show or teach me something I might otherwise miss.
When I left Illinois after high school graduation, I moved to Steamboat Springs, Colorado, to gain emancipation from my parents so that I could attend the University of Colorado, Boulder, as an in-state resident. At this time (1976), Steamboat was a sleepy cowboy town with an up-and-coming ski mountain village. But just like in Illinois, changes began to happen rapidly and included, among other things, a great deal of habitat destruction to make way for new hotels and restaurants. Though the voices I’d heard as a child became fainter as I grew older, it became clear to me that my role on the planet in this lifetime was to be a voice for nature, as it’s what has tugged at my heart most strongly.
At UC Boulder, I designed a major called Environmental Conservation. Post-graduation, I worked as an environmental consultant in Washington, DC, San Francisco, and finally Los Angeles. Along the way, at a bar in Cozumel, Mexico, I met and fell in love with my husband Rich, and we had four children in quick succession. In 1996, we moved from Los Angeles to South Salem, New York. And now, the six of us live in close proximity to one another in New York City (our three sons actually live together).
When did you start thinking about making a change?
When we moved to South Salem, our four children were all under the age of six. My work as an environmental consultant had become much less fulfilling and far more bureaucratic than I’d hoped over the years and I decided it was time to take a break from working outside the home to determine what my next act would be. But, as fate would have it, just as we were settling into our new home and family routine, I began to hear the howl of wolves. My family also heard these howls, so I knew I wasn’t crazy, but it made no sense as wolves had been absent from New York state since the late 1890s.
Deciding I needed to get to the bottom of this mystery, one afternoon, I followed the howls into the woods behind our house. Eventually, I stumbled upon a large enclosure with two wolves. Further down the path, I spotted a trailer. After knocking on the door, I was greeted by a young French pianist, who’s now world-famous, named Hélène Grimaud. When she told me of her plans to open the Wolf Conservation Center, I jumped on board to help.
The mission of the Wolf Conservation Center is to:
- educate the public about the vital role wolves play in our ecosystems,
- advocate on their behalf, and
- breed and release back into their original habitats the two most critically endangered wolf species (Mexican grey and red wolves).
I’m immensely proud of our accomplishments over the last twenty-plus years. Currently, we have thirteen full-time employees, teach tens of thousands each year at our facility through our various programs, and reach an audience of millions around the world through social media and webinars.
Our family of six spends weekends in the country with our two rescue pups and the forty-plus wolves who reside at the Wolf Conservation Center. While I knew from my childhood dreams that I was to pay attention to wolf wisdom, I would never have imagined that I’d be living a life literally filled with wolves!
What is your next act?
Besides my love of nature, my two other hobbies are writing and reading. I wrote and illustrated my first book about a rabbit and the unlikely friends he encountered in the forest when I was 7 years old. I vividly remember handing it to my parents and proudly telling them I was going to be a writer when I grew up. My dad replied, “Writing fiction won’t pay the bills.”
His negative message stayed with me so that when I did write, it was almost always non-fiction. I regularly journaled, wrote an environmental column for my college newspaper, and as an environmental consultant, wrote technical papers on numerous environmental issues. When I moved East, I started writing a monthly magazine column with a friend for Wag Magazine. It was a fun, back and forth section called Class and Sass, and we were free to write about any topic we chose as long as it was light and humorous. The positive feedback I received from this column made me begin to believe that I might be capable of jumping into other writing genres.
Then in 2001, I received a call that would change my life. My childhood best friend had found her 12-year-old son Brendan hanging from a belt in his bedroom. This event shook me to the core and I immediately began to journal about the experience. His mother was steadfast in her belief that, despite appearances and the coroner’s report, her son hadn’t committed suicide. A few weeks later, I was ice skating with a friend on a lake and we stumbled upon a doe that had become embedded into the ice. That scene proved to be my “aha” moment because from then on, I heard Brendan’s voice pleading with me to tell his story and to “shed light on the illusion of death.” However, because Winter of the Wolf is a mystery, you’ll have to read it to find out whether or not his mother was right!
How did you come to write Winter of the Wolf?
I knew at that moment that this was a story I was supposed to tell. I could see that in telling this story, I’d be able to weave in everything that had always been important to me: nature, spiritualism, wolves, our interconnectedness with everything on the planet, moving from grief to gratitude after loss, and believing in and listening to our intuition.
But my kids were still very young, and their sports and other extra-curricular activities ate up much of my free time. So, although the idea was percolating in my head, very little found its way on to paper. The one thing I knew was that I wanted it to be fiction and based only loosely on my friend’s experience.
When I’d finally managed to complete a few chapters, I joined a local writing group led by a published author and consisting of other first-time fiction writers. But with four teenagers at home, my writing time was limited and taking an entire day each week to listen to and critique other’s writing often felt like a monumental waste of time. However, without the structure this group provided, I found that my book was meandering all over the place and I didn’t know how to reign it in.
How supportive were your family and friends?
My husband was always supportive of my writing, and my friends encouraged me based on my magazine column. However, writing fiction is a whole lot different than writing non-fiction, and being good at one doesn’t ensure you’ll be successful at the other. I was also too insecure about sharing my writing with others. I didn’t trust that my friends or my husband would be candid, and, if they were, I wasn’t sure I could handle their criticism. So, I was writing in a bubble for many years, but not making much headway.
What other challenges did you encounter?
When I’d finally completed my first draft, it was a whopping 250,000 words! I knew it was way too long, especially for a new author. Still, I was more than ready to push it out of the nest, so I had it edited and sent it out to about ten agents. They all quickly rejected it. Still, two offered the same advice: Make the story more relevant and urgent by having events unfold in real-time rather than from the perspective of an adult sister who’s looking back on her brother’s death and the effect it had on her life.
I knew I was fortunate that any agent, let alone two, had bothered to personalize their rejection letters, but what they were saying was that I should throw out everything I’d written and start from scratch writing from a young adult’s point of view. After letting the idea percolate for a few months, I came to the painful conclusion that it was the right move. I then spent almost a year reading Young Adult fiction to find my new voice and plot out my storyline.
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
Like my protagonist, I believe that as long and meandering as my journey has been (eighteen years from start to finish!), it’s launching at the perfect time given how especially timely the topics are today. Equally important is the personal growth I’ve experienced. I’ve become more confident in my writing and believe that what I have to say is not only relevant but has merit.
Looking back, is there anything you’d have done differently?
A few years ago, I was having coffee with a new friend. When she asked what I did, I told her about the novel and my frustrations with getting it completed. Typically, I wouldn’t discuss my writing with good friends, let alone a stranger, but I was feeling pretty desperate and discouraged by that point. Without hesitating, she said, “Have you considered hiring a book coach?”
Not only had I not considered it, but I’d also never heard of one. When I got back to my office, I researched the coach she’d suggested. To make a long story short, I hired her (Jennie Nash), and in a few short months, she’d helped me whip my entire manuscript into shape. It was a reasonably simple, no-nonsense approach that worked like a charm. Without her help, I’m sure I’d still be floundering around.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
I’ve recently started a Facebook group called WHIP. We are WOMEN, who are Hot, Intelligent, and in our Prime. HOT because we’re fired-up about this stage of life. INTELLIGENT because we have a high life-experience IQ. In our PRIME because we’re at the age (50+) when we can entirely focus on our dreams, and use our hearts, minds, and talents to their highest ability, while actively and excitedly embracing this next stage of life. This is a forum for women to share positivity, network, encourage one another, brainstorm ideas, find solutions to obstacles, and simply be present with one another.
What I’ve learned from this whole experience is that while we’re reinventing ourselves, there are likely others who’ve already been where we want to go, so why not ask them for their advice and guidance? Why reinvent the wheel when we can simply connect the dots?
What advice do you have for would-be writers?
When I hired my book coach, she initially had me complete two essential assignments. First, I had to write a paragraph about why I was writing my novel. This probably sounds like a no-brainer, but I’d never defined the why of my book, which I’m sure explains why I’d lost focus over the years.
My second assignment was to provide an outline of my entire novel, chapter by chapter. Each chapter had to have a plot (i.e., what was happening in the scene/scenes), and a point (how do the characters react to the plot and what action or conundrum compels the reader to continue to the next chapter). This assignment took a few weeks to complete, but once it was finished, I had my roadmap. All I had to do then was take what I’d written and fit it into my outline. The stuff that didn’t fit was deleted. It was painful but necessary, allowing me go from 250,000 to 20,000 words in just a few months.
What resources do you recommend?
On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It For Life by Twyla Tharp
Only as Good as Your Word: Writing Lessons from My Favorite Gurus by Susan Shapiro:
If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland
Bird by Bird by Anne Lemott
Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg
Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose
International Women’s Writing Guild
Women’s Fiction Writers Association
WHIP (Women Hot Intelligent in our Prime)
YA YA (Young Adult Books)
AAYAA (An Alliance of Young Adult Authors)
Connect with Martha Hunt Handler :
Book: Winter of the Wolf
Wolf Conservation Center
Martha, I’m going right now to check out WHIP. I had so much fun reading about your writing journey. Maybe because it’s so much like mine. (I actually live in a far northwest suburb of Chicago, almost at the border. Maybe I live where you grew up!)
I’m also about to check out your Winter of the Wolf.
Thanks so much for reaching out. I grew up in Crystal Lake. Where are you? I’d love to hear more about your writing journey. Have you blogged about your experience?