Emily Fridlund had other things on her mind when her editor e-mailed her in late July to say her novel, "History of Wolves," had been longlisted for the prestigious Man Booker Prize.
"I was in labor," Fridlund said. The book news didn't really sink in.
But when she was told last week that her novel had made the Booker shortlist, she was all ears.
"It's really exciting," Fridlund said, as 7-week-old Eliot slept nearby. Hours after hearing the news, she still sounded in awe. "It's incredibly humbling. I didn't expect it at all."
It is all the more unexpected, given Fridlund's low profile and the star power of the writers she booted off the longlist: Zadie Smith, Sebastian Barry, Arundhati Roy, Colson Whitehead (whose novel "The Underground Railroad" won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award).
All made way for 38-year-old debut novelist Emily Fridlund from Edina.
"History of Wolves" is the story of a teenage girl called Linda (or Commie, or Freak — she's a definite outsider) who was raised in a commune in the woods of northern Minnesota. She starts babysitting for a family and gradually realizes that something is not quite right.
"And because of her age and incredible isolation, she doesn't quite know what that is, how it's wrong," Fridlund said. "Her ignorance slips into complicity, allowing terrible things to happen."
Fridlund said she wrote the book to explore questions of memory and complicity.
"When you look back, how do you understand the events that occurred when you were much younger?" she said. "And do you hold yourself responsible for things that happened when you are basically a child? They were technical questions, but they ended up being narrative questions, too."
A homecoming — sort of
Fridlund is the second of three children. She grew up in Edina next door to the house her grandfather built, and her family traveled up the North Shore for vacations. She never meant to move away, but college happened — first St. Olaf in Northfield, then Principia College in Illinois, where she earned a bachelor's degree. She earned an MFA in fiction at Washington University in St. Louis, and a doctorate at the University of Southern California. "Lots of school," she said with a small sigh.
It was while she was in California that she began writing "Wolves." It was wintertime, and she was missing the snowy North Woods.
"I wanted to be in that place," she said. "The first chapter was initially a short story, and then as I began to move around, this invented little town kind of stayed with me, and I found myself going back to it."
Fridlund, who now lives in New York state, traveled to northern Minnesota for research, but "it was also important to me that it was invented — a place that was sort of a combination of memories and research, but also invention."
It was the voice of her main character, Linda, that turned the short story into a novel. "It was looming and achy and peculiar enough for me to stay interested in it," Fridlund said. "I was kind of curious about it, and I wanted to know more. I wanted to follow it farther."
Thanks to the women
Fridlund completed the book with the help of a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund for feminist projects. She also credits three women in particular for helping her believe in the book and see it to publication — writer Aimee Bender, with whom she studied in California; her agent, Nicole Aragi; and her editor at Grove Atlantic, Elisabeth Schmitz.
"So much of the writing process is sitting quietly in a chair, or wandering around outside," Fridlund said. "It's such a quiet process, so internal and private. The vast majority of the time I didn't think about publication.
"These three extraordinary women have meant a great deal to me, and their enthusiastic voices urging me along and helping me find my way."
Fridlund's collection of stories, "Catapult," winner of the Mary McCarthy prize, will be published in October by Sarabande Books.
The Man Booker Prize is one of the world's biggest awards for writers in English, carrying a prize of 50,000 British pounds (about $68,000). For years, it was open only to novelists in Ireland, South Africa and the United Kingdom and its Commonwealth, but in 2014, it was opened up to all English-language fiction writers.
There were fears then — and the fears continue — that the United States would engulf the field.
"I think as an American, growing up as a writer I paid closer attention to the National Book Award and the Pulitzer than the Man Booker," Fridlund said. "As a writer, though, I think it's fantastic to have a prize that puts together all writers in English, a prize that allows readers to set these books side by side."
In 2015, St. Paul writer Marlon James, a Jamaican, won for "A Brief History of Seven Killings." In 2016, American writer Paul Beatty won for "The Sellout." This year three of the six finalists are Americans.
Fridlund, her husband, and baby Eliot will head to England in early October for a week of events leading up to the awards ceremony.
"I just got used to going to the coffee shop" since the baby's birth, she said. "And now I'll be traveling to London."