Lauren Wolk’s new novel, My Own Lightning, is a follow-up to her breakout Newbery Honor-winning historical debut Wolf Hollow. In this new installment, when her heroine Annabelle is struck by lightning she gains the ability to perceive the feelings of animals and she forges a bond with a former enemy. Wolk spoke with PW about what prompted her to return to these characters, the complexity and reexamination of her prior villain, and the themes she sees in her work.
What inspired you to craft a sequel to Wolf Hollow? Did you feel there was something unfinished?
I felt that Annabelle deserved another chapter. I wrote Wolf Hollow as a tribute to my mom who grew up on this little family farm in western Pennsylvania that has been in our family for generations since the Revolutionary War. And I spent a ton of my time there as a child. It was my favorite place and I grew up on her stories about growing up in the 1940s there. When I sat down to write a new book, especially because it was during the pandemic, when I couldn’t go anywhere else and when thoughts of home and of days gone by were always in my mind, I decided that I would consider returning to Annabelle even though Wolf Hollow was a book that ended with very few loose ends. But I went back for the place, the people, and because at the time I felt like I needed in my own life to return to Wolf Hollow.
The pandemic informed the writing of this book, but so did Black Lives Matter. In fact, if one had more effect than the other, it was definitely the social justice movement. Both had a profound effect on my writing and these characters.
One of the villains from the previous book, Andy Goldberry, reemerges in this one. How did you decide to reexamine the complex nuances of this former bully?
I write without a map, without having any clue what the story will be. I always start with setting, but then I follow my protagonist’s lead. The first line usually comes to me in the shower and then I go from there. Annabelle is a very inquisitive, sensitive, and empathetic girl. I discovered pretty quickly that Andy, who had been portrayed as a villain and a bully, partly secondhand but largely deserved, needed a second look as well. In 2020 I was going through a very confusing time. A lot of people I thought I knew well turned out not to be quite the people I thought they’d been, and I myself was changing a lot. And I thought it was very unwise to judge people at first glance or even second glance. I decided to take a harder look at him [Andy] through Annabelle’s eyes.
As I followed her into her new life, quickly, in the very first chapter, I realized that Andy was on the edge of things still and had this sort of dark presence that continued to mystify her, upset her, and pique her curiosity. I just let them interact and decided to see what would happen. And as more light shined on him I saw all these layers. And of course, we’re all made up of layers, no matter what we present to the world. And I began to see beneath his second skin, and so did Annabelle. It got very complicated, but that’s the way life is.
One thing Annabelle hasn’t known before is that her family is so wonderful. There’s no abuse in her family. There’s no fear in her family. That’s the crux of her intention of getting to know Andy better. There’s clearly a great deal of fear and some abuse in his life. She starts to understand how privileged she really is, which was another big part of 2020.
After Annabelle is struck by lightning and a “mystery hero” restarts her heart, she can sense the perceptions of animals around her, especially the injured dogs cared for by her neighbor. What drew you to this subject?
Right as I started to write this book I wrote a lighting strike. I usually get about halfway through a book and then I realize why something is here. And then I go back and develop the first half more. And that was true about the lightning strike. It became clear to me that Annabelle is sort of divided between the external and the internal, and she needs to integrate the two of them to feel like a whole person.
Such a small portion of our brain is actually active and we don’t understand the vast majority of its potential. I’m curious about what we don’t know, and also what some people do know. They’re often dismissed as kooks. After I had started to write this book and had already written about the lightning strike, I was listening to NPR and there was a man being interviewed about how he had had a traumatic brain injury and suddenly could play the piano like a virtuoso. He had never played the piano in his life but after he came out of his coma he walked into a Steinway store in New York and sat down and began to play. I started to do research and found that so many people after being struck by lightning or suffering a traumatic brain injury suddenly have extraordinary abilities they never had before. They’re mathematical geniuses, or they can speak other languages. I think that proves that there’s so much in our brains that is untapped.
This is your fourth work of historical fiction for young readers. Do you see any continuing themes in your work?
I don’t intentionally set out to follow a theme, but the common ones seem to be courage and empathy. I think kids are grossly underestimated. Young people have a kind of courage that a lot of adults lack. They’re honest in ways that we often are not, and they’re smarter and wiser than we give them credit for, and we should try hard to return to the artistic abilities children have naturally. I think of myself as a real introvert, because sitting at my desk writing is where I feel whole, and yet I’ve always had jobs that I’ve loved that put me not only in community but in the position to build community, and I’ve thrived there. I think we’re all many people in one skin. So be brave, go forth, and do good.
My Own Lightning by Lauren Wolk. Dutton, $17.99 May 3 ISBN 978-0-525-55559-9