In her new book, Wolf by Wolf, Ryan Graudin opens up a chilling thought experiment: What if the Axis Powers won World War II, and the Third Reich and Imperial Japan controlled Europe, while the U.S. chose isolation? What if cruel and terrible concentration camp scientists figured out, with chemicals and injections, how to turn a human being into a skinshifter — someone who could transform their body to match someone else’s exactly? And what if there was a motorcycle race in which the winner got a one-on-one meeting with Adolf Hitler himself?
Yael, a former camp prisoner and skinshifter, lives in this world, and it’s up to her to impersonate an Aryan girl, enter the motorcycle competition, and get close to Hitler — so she can kill him.
Below, read our interview with Graudin about conjuring this dark, parallel universe, and check out an exclusive excerpt from Wolf by Wolf, out Oct. 20, after that.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Wolf by Wolf combines some intriguing, historical thought experiments with a protagonist pulled from sci-fi. Where did you get the idea for the book: Both the setting and the skin-shifting?
RYAN GRAUDIN: World War Two history and Hitler’s reign of terror has always fascinated me. There was something so extreme about that time—people went to extraordinary lengths to do both good and evil—and ever since I was a young girl I read everything I could about that era in an effort to understand it. The more I learned about the sheer breadth of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity, the more thankful I was that the war ended the way it did. As an author, however, it’s my job to look at the world through a What if? lens. What if the Axis powers had won the war? What would that world look like?
History wasn’t the only genre I read at a prolific rate. Fantasy was one of my first great loves, with its magic and impossibilities and humans capable of fantastic things. While I was researching Adolf Hitler’s vision for the New Order, I started thinking about race and the immense role it played in the formation of the Third Reich. This gave rise to another what if question: What if skin-shifting (the ability to change one’s own appearance) was introduced into this world? What kind of implications would that have?
These questions led to more questions, eventually laying down the foundation for what would become Yael’s story in Wolf by Wolf.
I see shades of X-Men and The Hunger Games here. Did any books, TV shows, or movies inspire you?
The inspirations are many. For the sake of brevity I’ll offer two: Wolf by Wolf’s cross-continental motorcycle race was inspired by The Long Way Round mini-series featuring Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman as they tackle a long-distance motorcycle trip from London to New York. Their journey is incredible. The landscapes they pass and the challenges they encounter are both so varied. My mind was spinning with potential plot points after I finished watching!
Another television show that inspired me was Alias. I adore Sydney Bristow! She’s an amazing fighter, she speaks dozens of languages, she keeps her head in tough espionage situations, and yet she also has a very vulnerable side. When I set out to write Yael, I wanted her to embody these same qualities: to be more than capable, but also wrestling with her own ghosts.
What kind of research did you do to write the book?
Loads of reading, and reading, and re-reading. One of my staple books was The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich by William Shirer. At 1249 pages, it’s incredibly comprehensive and always harbors the possibility of breaking my little toe if I drop it.
Some of the research was less traditional. To get a feel for the all of the different terrains of a cross-continental motorcycle race, I went to a dirt-biking course and zoomed around a bit. (I ended up with so many bruises!) I also got some first hand experience with the weapons Yael and the other characters would be using. As fortune would have it, I’m good friends with the people who run Candrsenal.com, a website dedicated to historical firearms. World War Two weapons are their specialty, and as soon as they heard I was going to be writing this novel, they invited me out to the shooting range. I got to shoot a Walther P38, as well as a Mauser Kar98K.
Can you walk us through your writing process? Did you have the whole book outlined or did you just let the story take you where it wanted to go? What surprised you during the writing process?
I used to write the latter way—letting the story take me where it wanted to go—however, the publishing business has pushed me more in the direction of outlining. Wolf by Wolf was the second book in my contract with Little, Brown. It sold to them as a 50 page partial and synopsis. Because of the nature of the motorcycle race, the book had to be a little more structured in the planning stages than any of my previous novels.
That being said, there’s always room for exploring, even within an outline. The thing that surprised me most was how well Yael’s past tied into her present. I had absolutely no idea if the five wolf flashbacks would work or not when I first wrote them, yet they ended up being essential to the final story.
What was the most challenging part of the book to write?
Writing a book means you spend hundreds upon hundreds of hours dwelling in its world. At the outset, I wasn’t quite prepared for the emotional toll creating a narrative based on Hitler’s New Order would take on me. Yael’s backstory—especially the scenes that take place inside the camp—was really hard to pen. There was a weight to these passages, a responsibility to get them right.
Did you have any reservations about writing a book that touched on such sensitive — and well-covered — topics like the Holocaust and Hitler?
Definitely. These are real atrocities that happened to real people, some of whom are still alive today. Though Wolf by Wolf is set in an alternate world, I still strove to approach the Holocaust with the same gravity and respect as if I was writing straight historical fiction.
Why a motorcycle race?
I was attracted to the concept of a cross-continental motorcycle race because it presented the opportunity to write a travel narrative. It also gave me a chance to display the global changes an Axis Victory would’ve brought about. The more I researched, the more I found there was some historical precedent for such a competition. There was a branch of the Hitler Youth called the Motor-HJ that was dedicated solely to motorcycles. Competitions were also at the heart of the Hitler Youth program. To imagine that Joseph Goebbels would latch onto an idea of motorcycle racing as a means of spreading propaganda isn’t as absurd as one might think.
I was fascinated by Yael’s study of poisons by smell — did you get to do any of this in your own research? It also seemed like a very wolfish thing to do, following the senses.
Unlike the motorcycles and firearms, there was no first-hand poison research. All of that was by the book! You’re right, it is a very wolfish thing to do! I intentionally tie wolf symbolism into Yael’s identity and backstory, but this particular instance must have been subconscious. Oftentimes subconscious symbolism is the most effective!
And finally, the most important question: Will there be a sequel?
Yes! Wolf by Wolf is the first book in a duology. The sequel should be out next fall. I’m also working on a novella set in this world.