Award-winning title Wranglestone is part zombie apocalypse, part gay love story. Set in a post-apocalyptic America, a community survives in a national park, surrounded by water that keeps the Dead at bay. But when winter comes, there’s nothing to stop them from crossing the ice.
Homebody Peter puts the camp in danger by naively allowing a stranger to come ashore and he’s forced to leave the community of Wranglestone. Now he must help rancher Cooper, the boy he’s always watched from afar, herd the Dead from their shores before the lake freezes over. But as love blossoms, a dark discovery reveals the sanctuary’s secret past…
We chat with Darren Charlton today on lyrical writing and celebrating the beauty of emotions and each person’s uniqueness.
The descriptions of the scenery are so beautiful. When nature has so many things for one to depict, how do you pick which details to portray?
Thank you. All I know is that I laboured for days on those sequences, they were among the hardest to write, but honestly, I don’t know how I whittled my choice down. I wanted to make the passages about nature more lyrical so it wasn’t just description but a feeling when the natural world surrounds you. And of course, I used it that way to try and symbolise how Peter’s scary world transforms into wonder when he begins to see it through Cooper’s eyes. But nature plays an even bigger part in Wranglestone‘s sequel, Timberdark. I hope readers will see that, rather than existing as mere decoration, by the end, it’s there to illuminate one of the two books’ central ideas.
Snowflake is used to depict different things within Wranglestone. What is so special about snowflakes? What is the image that comes to your mind when you see the word ‘snowflakes’?
Well, it’s come to have different connotations now, of course, but in Wranglestone it’s the allegiant symbol of the Returned. I needed something to accompany the winter setting, and of course, every snowflake, just like every person, is unique.
Wranglestone is a story of love and grief. In particular, you described The Missing Monster – feeding people lies when loved ones are far away. How do turning these emotions and insecurities into monsters help children cope with them?
Well, the missing monster’s a figure of speech, of course, for an older readership who’d understand that. In the book, it’s the thing that gnaws away at your tummy filling you with all those lies and insecurities about a loved one when you’re missing them. And young people experience big emotions. I’m pretty sure that’s the main draw for authors writing in the YA space. I suppose I just hoped that by devoting so much of the story to showing the love that exists between two boys, you can help others new to those feelings, to find a way through.
Peter becomes the lake’s guide, guiding those passing away to beyond the falls. This duty is written so elegantly that it almost promises peacefulness amidst the zombie apocalypse. How do you balance between these moments of serenity and moments of high intensity in this tale of love and zombie epicness?
Thank you. I really appreciate that. You know, the sub-plot of Peter guiding the fatally wounded members of the community to the ‘Waiting Bench’ beneath the falls is perhaps the one strand I wish I could’ve devoted more time to. I’m very fond of that scene between Peter and Mr Schmidt and when it came to me, it transformed the book’s potential, both plot-wise and thematically. But you have to keep the plot moving forward, don’t you? However, these moments, whether they’re reflective, elegiac, romantic, epic, or a father-son interlude, are all incredibly important to me. I suppose in writing Wranglestone I wanted to prove myself as a writer in many different areas. I also wanted genre for teenagers to have beauty, both in thought and words, because that was something I often felt was missing.
It is very lovely to see a LGBTQ+ romance nested within a zombie story. There’s no big coming out, and the adults just accept the relationship. Why did you choose this portrayal?
Thank you. Yeah, the decision to omit any coming out and bullying narratives was one of the big “Post-It” goals I wanted to achieve with Wranglestone. It’s taken some criticism for not being very realistic. But it’s not that I don’t understand first-hand that those experiences affect nearly all queer people, but rather, they shouldn’t. The matter of coming out in particular can be portrayed as something of a Rite-of-Passage for LGBTQ+ people. But it’s an act of having to explain your differences to others and seek their approval of who you are. I had no interest in mining that shared trauma. You don’t get Katniss & Peta in The Hunger Games, having to do all that. I wanted to give readers a piece of that pie and by doing so, play my small part in the path towards the mainstream queer stories are on right now.
Different people of course have different ways of interpreting the zombies. What did you intend for them to be a metaphor for? Or would you rather leave that to readers’ interpretation?
I felt that zombies were the one remaining fictional monster readers wouldn’t suspect anything more of. They’re a nightmare, right? Nothing more. And so they made a good metaphor for any demonised group in society. I started writing Wranglestone during Brexit, so the island nation wanting to keep ‘unwanted visitors’ from their shores was very much background to all this. But my intention was absolutely to let readers make their own connections. Some friends asked me if the ‘Returned’ were an AIDS allegory, others, a stand-in for those communities suffering anti-Muslim sentiment post 9/11. In reality, it was none of those things, but that’s the great thing about genre – it lets the politics of a book breathe and to mean different things to different readers. Most of all, it future-proofs it from becoming dated past the time in which it was written. All I know is that inside every much-maligned group, is a human story. That, in a nutshell, is Wranglestone.
Get your copy of Wranglestone here.