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Reading Group Choices Interview with Claire Cameron

Reading Group Choices reads the second novel by Claire Cameron, The Last Neanderthal.

This novel took us across history and kept us curious about the characters. Luckily, we caught up with Claire Cameron to share our impressions and get her insights, and learn about the inspiration for the story!

Reading Group Choices: First of all, thanks so much Claire for answering our questions!

Claire Cameron: I loved this interview, thank you. It’s so much fun to be a part of a conversation. I only wish we’d been able to talk while sitting around someone’s living room with a glass of wine in hand!

RGC Group: Is there a screenplay in the works?

Claire Cameron: Not yet, but who should play the female lead Neanderthal, Girl? If I were an actress, I would love to play her—all that strength and passion would be a lot of fun. Also Girl doesn’t talk a lot, so it would be about using all the senses to convey her point of view.

I know who should be the Neanderthal brother, Him. Jason Momoa, the actor from the Game of Thrones, am I right? I’d cast him for muscular reasons, obviously, but more importantly because he has studied marine and wildlife biology. I imagine that someone who is interested in science will appreciate the research behind the book. I had a strong, intellectual, and dignified woman in mind for the archeologist, Rose. Someone like Cate Blanchett or Meryl Streep, because they both appear to focus outward on their work, rather than worrying about what people think about them. I love this in a woman.

RGC: We talked about this for a while, and we’re not sure we should even ask, but are the bones of the 2 bodies supposed to be “lovers” and are those “lovers” then Runt and Girl? Did you mean to leave us with the thought/idea that runt and girl could be family vs. lovers?

CC: I hope you always ask—a life filled with curiosity is a life well lived. But, I’m also not going to tell you. I want that question to belong to the reader at the end.

Even though they are not Neanderthals, those skeletons inspired the novel. In real life, they are called The Lovers of Valdaro. They were modern humans buried over 6,000 years ago and found locked in an embrace near Mantua in Italy. I can tell you the feeling that The Lovers give me: They represent the things that don’t fossilize—love, warmth, and companionship. Those are the things that matter the most.

RGC: Do you feel a connection to a specific character or did you notice where your personal point-of-view came in more? A few of us guessed Caitlin…

CC: Really, Caitlin? I wish I were there for this conversation because now I’m dying to hear why.

It’s a surprisingly hard question to answer. On one hand, my personal point-of-view comes into every character because it’s the only point-of-view I have. On the other, I write because I am interested in attempting to move beyond the limitations of my perspective. The truth is probably that I am a perfect mix of Girl and Rose. I try to lead my life with my heart, but my head often gets in the way.

RGC: Girl felt more relatable to most of us than Rose. Was Rose more remote so that we could relate to Girl more? Did you write the character of Rose more socially distant so the reader would have stronger relationship with Girl? Even though girl has limited capacity for connection it’s very visceral.

CC: Yes, Girl is the star of this novel. Rose is her contemporary foil. I hope that Rose’s experience will help the reader get closer to the problems that Girl has to confront and the choices she makes. That said, I love Rose and have deep empathy for her situation. We live in a society that can put pregnant woman, and families with young children, in difficult positions where life becomes a struggle. It’s a result of how we have chosen to organize ourselves and it leaves many parents and care givers feeling like they are alone. Part of what I realized while writing this novel is that it doesn’t need to be this way.

RGC: In your mind what was the physical appearance of Big Mother?

CC: She’s the best. She is old for a Neanderthal, but she would be more like middle aged to you and I. She would look older, though, because living the wild ages a body in a different way. Her limbs are thoroughly used, muscles wiry and strong, joints wide and sturdy. She has a few hairs growing out from her chin and assumes you see these as a sign of wisdom. Same with her bad breath. In her mind, only the clever, wise, and well respected get to grow old. Anything that makes her look old is a sign of her strength.

RGC: We all noticed all the different animals mentioned and described throughout the book. We wondered about the ecosystem. What was it and how did you create it? Was it based on research or more on imagination or a combination of both?

CC: Great question because the ecology was complicated and took a few drafts to get write. I wrote first from my imagination. I had to be able to imagine how it would feel to put my foot down in the soil and what it would smell like in the forest after it rained. That meant I imagined the volcanic range in central Oregon, where I used to teach wilderness courses, and the Coast Mountains in British Columbia. That was great for making the landscape come alive, but then I had an ecosystem that was historically and geographically off.

After that draft, I worked with John Shea, an archaeologist and paleoanthropologist at Stony Brook University in New York, to move the ecology towards a better representation of ancient France. The fossil record is astonishingly complete, so once I was armed with the right sources it was an enjoyable task.

I also had to think about the perception of a modern reader. The animals have changed since 40,000 years ago and I didn’t want to spend a lot of time on description, as the beasts are so familiar to Girl and the story is told through her eyes. This is still an ongoing project. My Dutch translator, Aleid van Eekelen, and I just had a conversation about the difference between deer, caribou, and the large red deer that roamed through France long ago.

RGC: How did you decide what to include that was based on research vs. what was based on creativity and imagination? Now that you are done writing, can you tell the difference – where you see the research-driven portions and where you added imaginative information? It’s interesting to read it and not know what might be based on truth and what might not, and more often than not we just accepted it all as truth and then had to remind ourselves that it’s fiction so it might not be.

CC: I did about five years of research and I know every little crack that shows between creativity and imagination, but I love to hear that it’s disguised for you. That was what I tried to do.

I used the research like a set of creative constraints to write the story within. So when I found compelling evidence, it became a rule. One example: Neanderthals had hyoid bones. This is a small U-shaped bone in our neck that anchors the tongue and allows for our nuanced speech. They also had the FOXP2 gene, which in modern humans helps to enable communication and speech. Those are things we know.

Then I moved on to informed speculation by experts. Another example: A vocal expert speculated that the Neanderthal larynx, or voice box, might have been shorter and squatter than ours, which might make their voice come at a higher pitch. She also speculated that they probably had to force out words, so their sounds were probably loud, louder, and loudest.

Taking all this kind of research together, I came up with my theories about how Neanderthals talked and their cultural attitudes towards conversation. But, when I build them into the story my theories become firmly in the realm of the imagination, as they should be.

The sound of a voice doesn’t fossilize. Scientists can’t hear a word that was spoken 40,000 years ago. A novelist is the right person to take the risk of speculating.

RGC: Everyone brought up the lip curl. How did you come up with that? It stuck in all of our minds!

CC: My friend just did her version of the lip curl and it made my day. That is completely made up, but in some ways it is based on experience. When I am in the wilderness for an extended period of time, I notice that my senses wake up. I become so much more alert to my surroundings, for example I was once with my husband smelled a bear before we saw or heard it. I decided that Neanderthals probably experienced the same. Then I was staring their skull profile. They had much less chin and large jaws, so I thought it might be easier to slide the top lip up.

There is a sensitive spot above our top teeth on us, isn’t there? Lift your lip to the breeze and you can sense things. I think that’s why it sticks with readers, because it rings true in some way.

RGC: We were so surprised, and some of us were very sad about wild cat. Was there any evidence that you found about cats living with Neanderthals? How did you choose to focus on that relationship originally?

CC: There is evidence of a relationship between cats and Neanderthals that I know about, but there is early evidence of ancient relationships between modern humans and dogs. There is a great book by Pat Shipman called The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction. Though dogs aren’t directly in my novel, Shipman’s work helped to shape mine. I asked myself if Girl would ever have a dog and thought maybe, but that she would never use it to hunt. She wouldn’t see another beast as a tool, because she doesn’t distinguish herself as separate from them.

Also, you know how there are cat people and dog people? Sometimes it feels like they are from two different tribes. I used that idea, this subtle but significant difference of outlook, as a basic first way to delineate the difference between Neanderthals and modern humans. I gave Girl a cat. This cat is a companion, but neither one has the intention of becoming dependent on each other…until they are.

RGC: The idea of “warm” – did that stem from research or did that come out for you on its own? Is there evidence of the sense of warmth in the Neanderthal community? Why that specific descriptive word? It was interesting to see the difference of the warmth needed for the pregnant Neanderthal vs. the pregnant woman, and how differently they considered the importance of warmth.

CC: My neighbor grew up in a small community in Newfoundland without central heating. This is a northern, cold climate, with a long winter. He told me about how he slept in a bed with his brothers. As he’s a private and shy person, I assumed he would have hated sharing a bed. When I said this, he looked at me like I was crazy. Having bodies in the bed with him was the only way to stay warm and alive.

I kept thinking about this conversation. I’ve spent a lot of outside and how fire keeps me warm, but it is such a superficial kind of heat. It comes from outside the body and warms you, but even sitting close to a fire can leave your back cold. If you snuggle up to someone, however, that is truly warm. It’s like body heat is the only thing that can truly warm you from the inside out. If you lived outside 40,000 years ago in a cold climate, I think you would revere body heat. Central heating is a luxury, but it also means that we’ve lost something. We no longer are in touch with the significance of body heat.

RGC: We talked for a while about the Pregnant Neanderthal vs. the pregnant woman, and
the differences between the two experiences, and how the needs for caring shifted. We didn’t really have a question, but we just kept returning to those descriptions and parallels. We wondered if you started with a pregnancy in mind at the beginning as part of the focus for the book or if that came up through research or if it just came organically. Again, we don’t have a question, but if you have information you’d like to share or comment on in regards to these sections/this part of the parallel.

CC: I think of a novel as a question that takes the length of a book to ask. I don’t necessarily have answers, but it’s a conversation that counts. I’m glad you had it.

I wrote several drafts before I figured out that pregnancy has changed little in 40,000 years. Our bodies haven’t changed much. There is still only one way to make, grow, and deliver through a birth canal, so having a baby is a physical link to our past. When I realized this, the story started to flow. I didn’t have to force a link because it was already there. Within this, we tend to tell a story about ourselves, that our kind has gone from primitive to perfect, that things are way better now that we have all our technology and convenience. I wonder if it’s true? I am glad that I don’t have to live with tooth pain and that I have a refrigerator full of food, but I also wonder about what we have lost.

Read more about The Last Neanderthal and find other great author interviews on the Reading Group Choices blog!