'The Wolf Tone' With Christy Stillwell
Margot Fickett is principal cellist for the symphony orchestra in the (fictional) college town of Deaton, Montana. Injured, out for the season, she is waylaid by twenty-year-old Eva Baker who claims that her son is Margot's grandchild. Now involved with a divorced veteran, Eva wants to invest in his medical marijuana business. Gatekeeper to this scheme is the peculiar money man, a dark horse known only as "Dutch." Beguiled by this cast of misfits, Margot's measured, organized world quickly dissolves. Forced to rely on one another to escape serious threat, Margot and Eva two women discover an unlikely friendship that transcends family ties.
The following highlights are from a conversation with Christy Stillwell about her novel, "The Wolf Tone." To hear the full conversation, click the link above or subscribe to our podcast.
Sarah Aronson: What’s the thing you’d rather do than eat?
Christy Stillwell: It’s either read or write, they’d be in close competition with each other. Probably write.
I was hoping you could describe the “wolf tone” and how it inspired the book?
The wolf tone is an aberration of sound. It’s a fact of life for all large-stringed instruments, mainly cellos. It’s not uncommon at all. It’s a stutter of sound when the vibration of the string is in competition with the vibration of the body of the instrument. The main character, Margot Fickett is a cellist. The title and the concept came to me late in the book, several years in, several drafts. There are all these different themes: classical music, medical marijuana, parenting, women’s issues, women friendship, and paternity.
I was actually in graduate school and the professor brought up the concept. I loved the metaphor of the wobble. I think we can all relate. I think we all have a wolf tone, especially artists of any sort. I loved the fact that lots of cellists don’t want to suppress it, and there’s an instrument called a “wolf tone suppressor,” that’s excellent. The concept that you might want to try and let your wolf tone howl. . .
One of the things that shocked me about the book was the collision of high art and drugs—symphony meets marijuana. How did you know you could weave these two worlds together without making it jarring for the reader?
It was risky, I knew. For a while I did flounder—for months, not just a couple weeks. I knew they were related. I knew the stories converged, I just wasn’t sure how, which took half a year or a year. That idea of what would you rather do than eat, of being so passionate about something and having it taken away. It seemed related to me as a descent or a fall. Margot almost does come down into the real world without her art, and that got me thinking about high and low—the cultural concepts of highbrow and lowbrow. What a fascinating intersection. It brings up issues of class, all that’s tied into it. Once I did finally let highbrow and lowbrow collide, it just started to happen. Everything started to get interesting and bubble over. It was actually really fun to see where it would all go.
Are you from the South?
I am, in a way. My family moved to the South when I was 16 from the Midwest. So it was kind of a big thaw for me for sure—a whole new concept of kindness, and friendliness, and warmth. And storytelling, to be honest. The Southerners are such good storytellers, and the Midwesterners tend to be a little bit reticent. We don’t do a lot of talking. We do a lot of mockery, a lot of derision, but not a lot of open friendliness. It was shocking. I can remember that even at 16.
And then, when I moved to the West, I first came to Wyoming when I was in my 20s. I do think there are so many parallels between the two regions as far as the landscape being so massive as to kind of silence a person. One can’t ignore the landscape, the climate. There’s no ignoring it, but in such different ways. It’s such a softer climate and such a softer picture that you’re getting in the South, versus the stark, harsh, nowhere-to-hide reality you get in Montana. In a way, there’s an honesty to the Western landscape that I hadn’t encountered. And in my 20s that’s exactly what I was looking for. I felt like here, the outside matched the inside. Here’s a place I could stay.
About the Book:
Margot Fickett is principal cellist for the symphony orchestra in the (fictional) college town of Deaton, Montana. Injured, out for the season, she is waylaid by twenty-year-old Eva Baker who claims that her son is Margot's grandchild. Now involved with a divorced veteran, Eva wants to invest in his medical marijuana business. Gatekeeper to this scheme is the peculiar money man, a dark horse known only as "Dutch." Beguiled by this cast of misfits, Margot's measured, organized world quickly dissolves. Forced to rely on one another to escape serious threat, Margot and Eva two women discover an unlikely friendship that transcends family ties. With lyrical prose, vibrant depiction of place, and lively plot twists, this exhilarating debut creates a music all its own.
About the Author:
Christy Stillwell is the author of The Wolf Tone, the winner of the 2017 Elixir Press Fiction Award, a finalist in the Glimmer Train Short Story Contest, a Pushcart Prize nominee and the recipient of a Wyoming Arts Council Literary Fellowship. She and her work have also been featured in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, Salon, Writer's Digest and many other publications. She lives in Bozeman, Montana.