You are officially studying Egyptology at UBC but we bumped into each other during a fantasy reading event at White Dwarf Books in Vancouver. Of course, I do not find this surprising as most fantasy is inspired in part or in whole by history and mythology. As someone who studies these subjects formally, how does your academic background influence your experience of reading fantasy novels?
Well, I do read novels that are set in an Egyptian context now, as I can understand the obscure the facts, even though they are very much exaggerating the culture. Authors like Wilbur Smith, and Elizabeth Peters (Elizabeth is actually an Egyptologist). But when it comes to classical fantasy books, I don’t think it has really changed anything. Other than not having a lot of time to read novels outside of studying. So I would say that I tend to read more YA or Adult fantasy that isn’t a huge epic, just because I don’t have the time or brain power to “study” another huge story. Authors like George, R.R. Martin, or Steven Erickson are way too “intense”. Authors like Jim Butcher, Brandson Sanderson, Dan Brown, etc…are ones I tend currently to gravitate towards. I love fast paced adventure. Of course there is Tolkien! He is my ultimate favourite!
Well, I do read novels that are set in an Egyptian context now, as I can understand
Your studies in Egyptology and ancient cultures have taken you to many incredible destinations including Turin, Italy and Cypress in the Eastern Mediterranean. What is the next travel destination on your research list and what do you hope to study there?
"I went to the Chicago museum which is attached to their Art Institute, and it was amazing. But I didn’t know what I was seeing, till after I started studying art history and then it made those pieces understandable in a whole new context."
In your interview on The Tipsy Archives (a history podcast featuring just the right amount of wine) you mention that you have always been inexplicably drawn to Egyptian history and myth. I myself am drawn to the body of stories that make up the Norse myths and also have a hard time explaining what it is about them that I find so intriguing. Where do you think the power of myth is rooted and what about these stories makes them relevant today?
Ooh, that is a tough question, as we talked about briefly in person and via email, I too am also drawn to Norse myth, I have just academically studied Egyptian myth more. I think the power of myth lies in its ability to captivate a reader/listener because it is relatable. In myth, a reader can find hidden cultural gems of information that would otherwise have not been discovered. There is only so much that archeological evidence can tell us, albeit quite extensive, but nevertheless myth and story hold a culture’s “essence” or values. It is important I feel, for us to share and remember these stories cause then these cultures that do not exist in the same fashion as they used too come back to life and are remembered.
There is only so much that archeological evidence can tell us, albeit quite extensive,
In your essay The Portable Shrine of Anubis, you mention how the discovery of King Tutankhamun’s tomb gave archeologists unparalleled access to information about Egyptian death customs which other fields of archeological study surely view with envy. As we come from a modern North American culture that does not like to dwell on death (but rather obsesses over a glorified version of youth), what strikes you as profound in ancient Egyptian beliefs about death?
"Most seem to think that they are a culture that is obsessed with death, and that they worship it (hence all the pop culture-egyptianizing) but they were in fact quite scared of death, and as such had all of their rituals around death so that they could keep on living in the next area they called The Field of Reeds."
Same like the grave goods, as you needed all of those items with you so that you could continue on. For the Egyptians, magic and death were literal. For example, if you drew a person missing an arm, then that person would have no arm in the next life. So you needed to make sure that once something was drawn, written, placed, that made it so. Death and life were interconnected to them.
In your research paper Soundscaping in the Ancient World: Weaving through the Writings of Time you discuss the importance of sound, as well as silence, in Egyptian language and culture. As my field of study involves the language Old Norse, sound becomes paramount because it was an oral culture with no official written language. However, today so much communication happens visually instead of audibly. What do you think we lose when we move away from auditory language towards text-based communication?
"I think we lose the emotions. We lose empathy. We lose our ability to become personal with people."
The ideological fanatics Nazi Germany in World War II seemed drawn to myths and sought to exploit them for their cultural power. Beyond the Germanic and Norse myths, Nazi archeologists tried, in a bizzare blending of fact and fiction, to prove that the Egyptian pharaohs were ancient Aryans. These bewildering notions still feature heavily in popular conspiracy theories. What do you think the role and responsibility of researchers and historians is in addressing such wildly inaccurate and potentially destructive ideas?
Researchers, historians and archaeologists need to publish their work!!! This is a real problem! There are many people out there who are doing amazing studies but that information never gets told to the public, and therefore stupid theories arise and you get Egyptomania and the misinformed meanings of symbols, be they Egyptian or Nordic.
"Researchers, historians and archaeologists need to publish their work!!! This is a real problem!"
As our role is to study the past, we need to do that in a professional, respectful way and to realize that it doesn’t matter where people come from or what they believe in, we are all here on this planet and we are here to keep our heritage alive. It is about cultural heritage. Educating and involving the locals about their own culture so that they can learn about what was lost to them as well as to us.
"It is about cultural heritage. Educating and involving the locals about their own culture
Where can Egyptology fans find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest research?
Ha! I will be uploading some of my essays, like the ones that you mentioned here, on my academia.edu page (once school is finished).
Find more of Larissa's work at academia.edu!
"I usually reach for the 1554 beer from New Belgium Brewery and drink Guinness on more special occasions."
One of the hardest things for any writer is to move forward with a story once it no longer feels ‘fun’, i.e., once the story is no longer flowing easily from your mind onto the page. What advice do you have for writers who feel like they are stuck in their narrative and are struggling to move forward?
I think that’s an issue that all writers struggle with at one time or another. We all want to write when we feel inspired, but bouts of inspiration can be few and far between. I follow some advice from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird. Anne emphasises the importance of routine and of reaching a minimum word count no matter what. I’ve found that keeping a daily writing routine trains my creative muscles to work when I need them. I also aim to write eight hundred words a day, even if every sentence is a struggle. Once I get those eight hundred words down, I’ve usually broken through the wall and entered a good writing flow. If not, I can stop there and try again tomorrow. Repeat ad infinitum, punctuated with long walks and reading.
"I follow some advice from Anne Lamott’s book, Bird by Bird.
I am always interested to learn about what else writers do for work as I find this has a significant influence on their writing. How has your work as a wildlife biologist informed your narrative and influenced the fantastic world you have created?
My training in biology makes it a point of professional pride to be accurate and precise in my descriptions of nature. No one else might notice if I confuse the behavior of hares with rabbits, but those are details that I care about. I spend an inordinate amount of time researching the life cycles of every flower, tree, and critter that I include in my book because I want my natural descriptions to be as realistic as possible.
"No one else might notice if I confuse the behavior of hares with rabbits, but those are details that I care about."
On the less technical side of things, my love of nature causes the natural world to loom large in my stories. Nature can be a setting, but it also influences moods, themes, and characters. I particularly love exploring how characters relate to nature because I think that is such an essential part of the human experience.
You and I are both avid fans of poetry in fantasy. I have enjoyed some of the poems you have posted on Twitter as well as those featured on your website, particularly The Road Goes Ever On. In the world of Kellen the Fey, what special role does poetry play in the context of the adventure?
I’m so glad you asked this question because it’s something I love to talk about. For Kellan, poetry begins as a gateway to an elder time full of daring heroes and magic. All the old stories were written in verse, and so that’s how he connects to them. When Kellan starts creating his own poems, it quickly becomes a driving force in his own legend. He learns that poetry is somehow connected to a very deep and powerful magic, but one that comes at a significant price. As Kellan matures into the legend himself, poetry becomes a medium through which he reflects on his journey. I think as the series progresses it will be really cool to see how the role of poetry, and Kellan’s relationship with it, changes from beginning to end.
"For Kellan, poetry begins as a gateway to an elder time full of daring heroes and magic....
As your site hints, there is a sequel to The Wind from Faerie which is tentatively titled The Many Antlered Crown. I am intrigued by the fact that we are both currently working on the second book in our respective series. I have personally found writing the sequel to be a vastly different experience than writing the first. In what ways has the process of writing The Many Antlered Crown been different for you compared to the first book?
When writing my first book, I was very aware of my word count. I knew that publishers and readers were more likely to take a chance on a shorter book, so I wanted my debut to be an approachable length. With this sequel, those concerns are completely out of the window. I’ve got a lot of room to explore the world, the characters, and some really exciting themes. The end result is going to be a book that is significantly longer than The Wind from Faerie, but will be better for it.
"With this sequel, those concerns are completely out of the window.
I also originally conceived Kellan’s story as one arc, but that has necessarily been divided into three books. The Wind from Faerie was just the opening act, an introduction to everything. With The Many Antlered Crown, I feel like I’m finally biting into the meat of Kellan’s story and it’s immensely satisfying.
I think it is fair to say that we both believe in the power of words. As you write, do you feel that there is something you want your reader to feel or do you write simply to tell a good story? Is there a specific message behind Kellen’s adventures or are they purely a narrative escape from our day-to-day reality?
Where can readers find you online and what can they expect to look forward to reading in 2020?
I have a website where readers can check out my weekly blog, see what I’m working on, and find links to my Twitter and Instagram pages. I hope to release The Many Antlered Crown in December of 2020, and the audiobook for The Wind from Faerie should become available early next year.
In light of these depictions, you may be surprised to learn the historical source material for dwarves in fantasy, the Norse myths, portray them as unequivocally evil. Though not even the Norse gods enjoy the benefit of the doubt with Odin himself being nicknamed Bolverk (Evil-Doer), dwarves were viewed as particularly vile. At one time they had supposedly been maggots wriggling in the dirt which were given the wits of men; with such repulsive origins they might be viewed as a symbol of the greed, lust, and violence that marked most of the Viking Age. (And if you think that is an ignoble birth then consider the fact that Ymir spawned giants out of congealed sweat in his armpits...)
"At one time they had supposedly been maggots wriggling in the dirt which were given the wits of men..."
"The dwarven brothers tied him to the chair and cut his throat so they could catch his blood in a vat.
"Mighty Fenrir is brought low when the gods call on the dwarves to craft the strongest chain of all;
There she comes to the dank cave of four dwarven smiths who are admiring their latest creation,
In my own writing I have worked to honor the original conception of the dwarves as presented in the Norse Myths while taking care to remain sensitive to the historical contexts in which the myths have been abused. Particularly heinous are the propaganda posters used to instill hatred toward people of Jewish descent during World War II; an honest evaluation of these political weapons will admit some clear lines being suggested between people of Jewish descent and the dwarves from Norse Mythology. Further, some adaptations of Wanger’s ring cycle clearly present Norse dwarves as pseudo-Jewish type characters which is yet another example of the toxic racism that led to one of the darkest chapters of human history.
Instead of abandoning the myths to those who would weaponize them for ill purposes,
Were they metaphors for human lust and greed? Were they archvillians to flesh out a world full of heroic gods?
For more on the history of the Norse Myths and their modern interpretations, Joshua recommends
From Asgard to Valhalla: The Remarkable History of the Norse Myths by Dr Heather O'Donoghue.
Stay up to date on Joshua's latest books by joining the Trollhunters!
What does a productive day of writing look like for you? Do you write in your office at the university or do you prefer to write at home? Do you have a writing schedule or do you write around the rest of your professional commitments?
I ponder my writing practice quite a lot. I have no rigid writing structure, but as many others, I often write best first thing (which is not necessarily very early, as I am a night owl). If I am on a deadline I wake up and immediately start writing in bed (don’t tell my physical therapist). But of course I do have to write around other commitments. I usually do better if I plan writing slots and add them to my calendar, and best if I also specify to myself in some detail what to do in such a slot (e.g. ‘write one paragraph on houses as social technology’).
"If I am on a deadline I wake up and immediately start writing in bed (don’t tell my physical therapist).
I have a daily writing target of 500 words — which is not excessive. I am quite a slow writer and a ‘poor first draft’ sort of writer, meaning that I have to plan for time to revise the text to make the arguments click and, hopefully, make the writing both clear and evocative.
As a non-native speaker publishing mostly in a second language, there’s a separate set of challenges there — but English has been my academic language for such a long time now, that I struggle more to write academic text in Norwegian, to be honest.
A lot of people are really fascinated with the Vikings at the moment, but I think it is important to shed focus on the flip side of the traditional narratives of kings and warriors too — and talk about the lived experiences of the unfree populations, of being a low-status woman in societies with a strong ideology of violence, and uncomfortable topics such as infanticide. We are all fascinated with the past, but we shouldn’t glorify it.
"We are all fascinated with the past, but we shouldn’t glorify it."
As I talk to other writers whose work falls into the category of either historical fiction or non-fiction they often speak of the enormous amount of time they spend researching their areas of interest before sitting down to write. This is obviously a significant addition to the already laborious task of writing a book. Do you have any research tips for aspiring writers of historical fiction or non-fiction to help streamline their process?
I’ve never published fiction, but for my writing practice I often research and write simultaneously. Again, this means having to revisit and rewrite text as my thinking on a certain topic develops, but to me the two processes are entwined — I write to clarify my thinking — and therefore it is too artificial to divide the process into two separate tasks.
"I write to clarify my thinking — and therefore it is too artificial to divide the process into two separate tasks."
In 2015 you took up the role of editor for the publication Viking Worlds: Things, Spaces and Movement, which illuminated a variety of perspectives on exploring Viking history. As a writer of Norse-inspired fiction I am always fascinated by the reverberating effects of Norse culture across the world throughout time. What were a few of the most interesting conversations around current and future research in Viking studies that Viking Worlds raised for you?
Your most recent book, Architecture, Society, and Ritual in Viking Age Scandinavia, explores Viking culture through the lense of architecture with a special focus on the meaning and symbolism of doors. My brother happens to be a practicing architect on the East Coast of Canada and can read far deeper into physical structures than I manage to. How did you approach this study of culture through structural forms and what applications might this have for writers?
Someone once said that architecture is a totalitarian activity. By ordering space you are also controlling how people move, what they see, where they execute different activities, whether their bodies feel small and minuscule (as in vast cathedrals), or trapped and claustrophobic, how they view the world. Social space is social order.
"Someone once said that architecture is a totalitarian activity. By ordering space you are also
While several books and archaeological reports have considered the technical aspects of house building or the resource management of Viking settlements, I wanted to flesh them out as real people specifically through their use of architecture. Through a new compilation of houses in Norway, 750-1050 CE, I considered household size and structure, analysed movement patterns, the landscape placement of houses, their ideas of privacy, and the ritualisation of houses; which can be seen for instance in the practice of covering houses with burial mounds (accepted manuscript version here).
"I wanted to flesh them out as real people specifically through their use of architecture."
The implications of these approaches is to challenge some of our own assumptions of where meaningful social action takes place: it is not only on ships or on battlefields, and what happens in the domestic sphere is connected to, and also driving, larger socio-political structures.
Architecture, Society, and Ritual in Viking Age Scandinavia challenges the often male-focussed lense of Viking history research. How has Viking architecture contributed to our knowledge of the influential role of women in Viking society and what specifically do you think might surprise readers?
I also consider, based on others’ research as well as my own, whether placed deposits of particular artefacts in houses (so-called ‘house offerings’), may be a ritual practice linked with women — which may help explain why it is not recorded in the medieval written sources (which, obviously, were all penned my elite males).
What can readers look forward to next from you and where can they keep track of your latest publications and appearances?
I have some things in the pipeline: a book chapter will be coming out in 2020 about whether people in the Viking Age dreamed of houses (spoiler alert: they did); another entailing a new consideration of Bronze Age houses and households; and I am currently seeking funding for a larger project on the deposition of human remains in settlements in the first millennium CE, a topic on which I also have a journal article under review. Further down the line there are a couple of books under development. I always have (too) many writing projects going.
People are welcome to keep track of my work on my website or follow me on Twitter. (I must admit, I am still really bad at Twitter, but I try — perhaps a New Years’ resolution is in order?)
I mean, the woman got armored all up and marched to the gods’ doorstep to demand compensation
Some authors stick to strict writing schedules while others prefer flexibility when managing where and when they write. How have you managed to maintain productivity as you write short stories and novels? Do you have any tips for writers who feel that ‘there just isn’t enough time’ to write?
My advice to writers who feel there isn’t enough time is to give yourself a deadline and try to plan around it. Find a magazine accepting short story submissions and say to yourself, “This is the deadline for submissions; I need to have the story done by x date to have it ready to submit,” or tell your friends or beta readers you’ll have a story to them by x date and implore them to keep you accountable.
Find a magazine accepting short story submissions and say to yourself,
My other piece of advice—if you hate pressure and deadlines—is to just try staying inspired. Read books in your genre, do research on your subject matter, write your outline, or write drabbles to get to know your characters. If you’re busy, there’s no such thing as “making time.” But if you’re so invested in your story to the point where it won’t leave your brain until you get the words down, you’d be surprised how much you can accomplish even in a short amount of time.
I ended up taking her Norse mythology and Icelandic saga classes too, and co-founded the Icelandic Saga and Scandinavian Clubs with some like-minded geeks.
I think one of the things I love about Norse mythology is that every time I reread the Eddas, I come across something I didn’t realize before and find myself looking for an Old Norse version of the poem or paragraph and reaching for my Old Norse dictionary to look up certain words.
Plus every translation of the Eddas is slightly different, and there are also several different manuscripts that could be used as sources—and if you’ve ever seen pictures of them, you can see that there’s room for error in transcription. The whole thing is like one giant puzzle and you can’t take anything at face value, and I love it.
...every translation of the Eddas is slightly different... The whole thing is like one giant puzzle
You have now had two short stories published in fantasy anthologies: Beneath Yggdrasil’s Shadow and Between the Tides. Will you continue to write short stories now that your debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, has been signed for publication? Also, do you have any tips for writers trying to break into the fantasy publishing scene with a short story?
Even if your first published story isn’t in a huge magazine or famous press,
Signy Ketilsdottir versus the Sea (as featured in Between the Tides) is the story of a Viking woman living in a remote fjord with a grudge against Ran, the Norse goddess of the sea. Was Signy’s inspiration a specific historical figure, a character from the myths, or from somewhere else?
The anthology Beneath Yggdrasil’s Shadow highlights stories about lost or forgotten goddesses in Norse Mythology. Your piece Bright One, They Called Her, as featured in the anthology, tells the tale of wandering witch who offers a young girl named Eydis a chance to avenge her murdered family. Within the story there is a tension in framing the traditionally heroic Aesir (i.e. Norse gods) as far less than admirable. Did you choose this alternative perspective simply as a way to freshen up an old narrative or as a critique of the traditional view of the myths?
That’s a great question! I framed it that way because the wandering witch is Angrboda, who doesn’t necessarily feel the gods are all that great, since they took her kids and all. Her whole message to Eydis is about taking her fate into her own hands and not relying on divine intervention or the support of others for justice. Eydis also appears as the witch Heid (which is more of a title than a name) in Signy vs. the Sea and will appear again in Gudrun’s story, so there’s a bit of continuity in these tales.
Her whole message to Eydis is about taking her fate into her own hands
I am very intrigued by the topic of your upcoming novel, The Witch’s Heart, which sets the character Angrboda at center stage. A somewhat obscure figure in the myths, she is most famously known for her infamous offspring by the trickster god Loki: the world serpent Jormungandr, the ferocious wolf Fenrir, and the chilling half-corpse Hela who is queen of the Norse underworld. What was your approach and process for filling in the gaps of her storyline while writing The Witch’s Heart?
I am so glad you asked! You’re right that Angrboda is super obscure. She’s mentioned once by name in each Edda and both times in relation to Loki and their children together. In most retellings she’s either some sort of creature or just sort of…there. And a lot of people picture her as this fierce warrior women, which is totally cool and also I hope those people aren’t disappointed with me. (I happen to have one such depiction as a poster on my wall because it’s so awesome—just not the way I went in TWH.)
The angle I took with Angrboda was to explore the associations she has in common with or which are echoed in other female figures in the mythology, so I ended up writing them all as the same person. Sounds crazy, right? But Norse mythology abounds with multiple names for the same figure (Odin being the best example of that) so I just sort of took this idea and ran with it.
Sounds crazy, right? But Norse mythology abounds with multiple names for the same figure
Another giantess in the mythology who has associations with wolves, snakes, and death is Hyrrokkin,
And then there are the other seeresses: the Seeress from “The Prophecy of the Seeress,” who mentions Heid, the woman with the “pleasing prophecies,” who was once Gullveig, whom the gods burned three times and who was three times reborn near the beginning of everything.
So I ended up writing Angrboda as all of the above: Gullveig, Heid, Hyndla, Hyrrokkin, the Seeress, etc. and interpreting all their names as one name for the same woman, so the story just kind of flowed from there. My goal was to make this novel slip seamlessly into the background of Norse mythology—which meant not changing the myths themselves, up to and including Ragnarök. But my problem was that I’d given this one woman phenomenal cosmic power… what kind of person would she have to be not to use this power to save her children and alter their fates?
But my problem was that I’d given this one woman phenomenal cosmic power…
With all that said, I definitely took some liberties when writing the story, and I’m the first to admit that. For example, I made Jarnsaxa one of the Jarnvidjur (the giantesses who inhabit Jarnvid) and made Angrboda and Skadi’s relationship central to the story. There isn't any evidence for either of these things—they just sort of happened as I was writing!
Where can readers stay up to date on your latest projects and learn more about the upcoming release of your debut novel?
I’m still in the revising stages of The Witch’s Heart so there isn’t much to update at the moment. I recently got the first peeks at my cover and I am so thrilled because it’s absolutely gorgeous and I can’t wait to share it. Although I’m most active on Twitter, I’ll be updating Facebook and my website as my release date (early 2021) draws closer.
Joshua Gillingham is an author, editor, and game designer from Vancouver Island, Canada.