A wolf in the hand luggage

Michelle Pauli talks to Michelle Paver, whose final book in the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series has won this year's Guardian Children's Fiction prize

When Michelle Paver was writing the first book in her Chronicles of Ancient Darkness series, Wolf Brother, somebody "authoritative" told her that series never win prizes, and she has prepared a suitable "loser's face" for award ceremonies ever since. This week she had a chance to try out a winner's smile, after Ghost Hunter (Orion, £6.99), the sixth and final book in the series, was awarded the Guardian children's fiction prize. Does she now feel vindicated?

"Well, I'd thought, fine, as long as lots of children read and enjoy the books, that's the main thing, but it is a lovely surprise," she says. That it is the last book in the million-selling series that has secured a major award is particularly gratifying, she explains, as her aim was to write "six really good books and not have the thing tailing off". However, concluding the series is also bittersweet: it marks the end of her relationship with characters she has lived with for seven years and has described as "being like my children", albeit children from six thousand years ago.

Her boy-hero Torak, his female friend Renn and his lupine companion, Wolf, live in the stone age. From the opening scene in Wolf Brother, when we meet Torak cowering beside the body of his dying father after he has been attacked by a demon-haunted bear, to Torak's final battle with Soul-Eaters in Ghost Hunter, Paver has taken readers into a vivid, fully realised world of clan-dwelling hunter gatherers.

Although there is a fantasy element to the tales, it is grounded in an environment and a belief system that are as true as it is possible to be to a culture about which we still know little. Paver drew on Scandinavian myth and folklore, studied anthropological works to find out how traditional societies lived and worked and, most excitingly for her young audiences (and, it must be admitted, for those with wanderlust among her older readers, too), had her own adventures in the places she takes her characters.

Paver's mantra "what Torak does, so must I" took her trekking across Lapland on horseback, hunting seals in Greenland, swimming with killer whales in Norway and to a close encounter with a polar bear in Canada. For Ghost Hunter she snowshoed in the trails of elk and reindeer in -18 degrees in the Finnish Lapland midwinter. From the outset she has befriended cubs at the UK Wolf Conservation Trust and learnt to "speak wolf".

"For me it's not fantasy, it's reality," Paver insists. This extends not just to the stone-age world of the books but also to the characters who have accompanied her for the duration of the series. It has made for a painful parting with Ghost Hunter.

"They just bugger off!" Paver says. "As soon as you write that last line and finish the book they are gone and they don't come back. But I told myself it was OK, they were out in the world and having new adventures. So I thought it was all fine."

But then? "Denial is a funny thing. Months after finishing Ghost Hunter, at the Bologna book fair, I met my Japanese publisher and she asked how I felt about saying goodbye to Torak and Wolf. I started crying. Not even decorously crying, but great big jerky sobs. With a Japanese lady! Who presented me with these exquisite little paper tissues. It was extremely embarrassing."

It's hard to equate the slight figure huddled into a pale blue fleece in a café in Wimbledon who talks of crying about her characters and even gets a little damp-eyed when describing some of the sweet things her young fans have said and done, with the Paver who travels alone to the wildest reaches of the earth, eats seal blubber and faces down bears.

She displays an intriguing mix of toughness and vulnerability which the fame and fortune the Chronicles have brought her seem to have done little to alter. I first interviewed Paver six years ago, in this same café, just as the series was starting to take off. Sales of the books have soared but success appears to have made little difference to their author. She still lives in the same house in Wimbledon that she bought in the late 90s, when she abandoned her high-flying, high-stress career as a partner in a City law firm to try her luck as a writer, and she still uses her local library for her desk research (she doesn't "do" the internet and may be the only author still delivering manuscripts to her editor on floppy disks).

Her abrupt career change reflects a thread of independence that runs through Paver's life, starting with an imagination-driven childhood spent wandering Wimbledon Common all day on her own, armed with a map and a "pretend wolf" (her pet spaniel), and continuing into her current solo research trips to inhospitable climes. Has anything changed for her since the £2m deal for Chronicles in 2003?

"I've learnt a lot more about the process of writing and being published," she says. "There's this whole thing of being two people. You are the person you want to be – the writer – and then there's this weird other life of going on tour and talking about the writing. And that really is weird. I'm quite happy trekking around Greenland on my own, but those big book tours in America or the far east are the only time I ever really feel lonely. I take my toy wolf with me in my hand luggage."

Paver is renowned for her work ethic – "I just like to write," she says, simply – and although she intended to take off "months and months and go round Canada or something" after finishing Ghost Hunter, she actually managed about a week before getting started on a new book. Published this month, it's a ghost story set in the Arctic, Dark Matter. Surprisingly, it is for adults. "I've wanted to write a ghost story for years, and my main aim was to write the most frightening ghost story that I could think of," she explains. "I don't have children, so perhaps I was being overly protective, but as it got darker and darker as I was writing it, I thought this may not be for 10-year-olds . . ."

Her young fans who flock to the signing queues and gather in their thousands at the Clan fan website needn't worry, though. Paver has also started work on a new five-book series for children. She's tight-lipped about the details but it's set in a period slightly later than the Chronicles, though still pre-history, in a "culture further south" (she dropped a clue about volcanoes), and features another boy hero with a fearless female friend.

Following the commercial and critical success of the Chronicles with another lengthy series might seem a daunting task but, typically, Paver's concerns come from the perspective of her characters, the new voices that will be in her head for the next five or six years until the last line is written.

"I feel almost protective of this new lot," she says. "Compared to the polished, realised world of Wolf and Torak, this is very raw. You want to say to them: 'Don't worry, your time will come.'" Doubtless, it will.


Michelle Pauli

The GuardianTramp

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