Welcome Bjørn! Thanks for taking some time to chat about writing. First, a few quick-fire questions: What is your favourite kind of cheese? Do you prefer sailing or flying? And if you were to be thrown back in time to the Viking Age what would your weapon of choice be?
Cheers Joshua, thanks for having me!
Brie plays an important role in my life (oh great, just started salivating), but generally whatever it is they put on pizza is my favourite. So I suppose my favourite kind of cheese is “melted”.
I have never had a chance to actually sail. I’ve been on a few moored ships, including Viking ones, but that’s not quite the same. In a few months I’ll have a chance to sail on a real Viking longship for actual research purposes, which is very exciting, but for now I have to go with flying.
I’m immediately tempted to say “a hammer,” because that’s what I’m good with, but I don’t think it would be dangerous enough. Give me two throwing axes.
"In a few months I’ll have a chance to sail on a real Viking longship for actual research purposes, which is very exciting,
You and I have two rather peculiar things in common - one is a love of Viking lore and history and the other is a degree in mathematics! From one mathematical Viking nerd to another, what role do you see numbers playing in Norse mythology and which are the most significant?
Three and nine – three times three. There are the Nine Worlds, three Norns take care of the passing of time, Odin was born with two brothers, and when he hung from Yggdrasil to discover the runes, it took him nine days and nine nights. The twenty-four runes are divided into three eights: Freyr’s aett, Hagal’s aett, Tyr’s aett.
"There are the Nine Worlds, three Norns take care of the passing of time, Odin was born with two brothers, and when he hung from Yggdrasil to discover the runes, it took him nine days and nine nights."
I often like to emphasize that the actual writing of a book is not usually the hardest part; the most difficult thing is actually getting yourself to sit down and write the damn thing. How do you keep yourself accountable and on track when it comes to your writing schedule?
I’m disabled and my illness flares up randomly, which makes it impossible to have a schedule. When things are bad, I do very little – sometimes I can’t even read. Then, once I feel better, I decide that I have been magically cured and can go on working for twelve hours. A day later I am so exhausted that I write nothing. I don’t seem to learn from this, perhaps because I love what I do. So I get better again, reopen Scrivener and start again… then rest… then start again… until the book is ready decades later. Typo! Months. I totally meant months.
Earlier this year your novel Children was released, the first book in the The Ten Worlds universe which draws heavily from the Norse Myths. The two main characters, Magni and Maya, are the offspring of well known Norse deities and must reckon with the many short-comings of their parents. What drew you to this theme of familial conflict and in what way did family culture of the Viking Age play into the narrative?
I read an article about Paris Jackson, who might never get a chance to become more than “the daughter of”. And that was before Finding Neverland showed Michael Jackson in a very different light – now being “the daughter of” carries even more weight. And I thought – how does it feel to be a child of someone so famous that it’s hard to find a person who has never heard about him? When you meet somebody and their eyes light up, and you know it’s never because of you, but your father?
"And I thought – how does it feel to be a child of someone so famous that it’s hard to find a person who has never heard about him?"
Thor gets half the mythology for himself. He is possibly the best known and most amusing out of all the Norse deities. His son, Magni, only gets two mentions – once when he saves his father from a troll, then after Ragnarok, when he inherits Thor’s hammer. How does it feel to be “the son of” a God everyone knows and worships, while hardly anybody knows about your existence? When people only care for you because you can be a useful tool to get closer to your father – who doesn’t seem to even remember you exist?
I didn’t actually try to recreate Viking Age families. I will have to for Land, the next instalment in the series and I’m already dreading it excited.
In discussing your process for writing Children, you mentioned that you rewrote the story 29 times! How do you view the editing process in terms of its purpose and function? Do you have any techniques or strategies to ensure that each draft is better than the previous one?
I don’t revise or edit in the “traditional” way – I rewrite the whole book over and over. I go through what I have written before, read it, then try to write it again, but better. Sometimes I will finish a part, then immediately go back to its beginning and start again. There are a few scenes in Children that I have rewritten 40-50 times, and I am still not happy with one of them.
"It wasn’t until draft 28 that Maya revealed a crucial piece of information to me – she was claustrophobic from the beginning, but it took me 14 months to find out why."
My characters tend to hide things from me for a long time. It wasn’t until draft 28 that Maya revealed a crucial piece of information to me – she was claustrophobic from the beginning, but it took me 14 months to find out why. That last moment scene is one of the strongest parts of the book. The whole story would have made much less sense if I stopped with draft 27.
This is an unusual writing process and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.
Any fantasy author would envy your work as a blacksmith. From your time at the forge, what do fantasy writers get wrong about this age-old trade and about weaponcraft in general? Are there any good online resources for those who want to learn more?
People underestimate the amount of time it took to create, for instance, a chain maille vest when each of the tiny rings had to be made by hand, then woven with all the others. That’s why only the richest wore chain maille, while most people put on leather and prayed for luck. It’s similar with swords, especially elaborate ones – those things were worth a fortune, because they took so long to produce. And that’s not including many years of learning the craft before you knew how to do it.
"People underestimate the amount of time it took to create, for instance, a chain maille vest when each of the tiny rings had to be made by hand, then woven with all the others."
Forges are not hot places, unless it’s summer. The fire is not placed on the ground (nobody’s back would survive that), but elevated. In the winter your face will drip with sweat and your feet will be on the brink of frostbite.
That one’s not a book, but I can’t believe none of the many great bladesmiths and blacksmiths who worked on Game of Thrones enlightened Gendry that the forge fire is there for a reason when, twice, he grabbed cold iron and began to hammer it. It took me zero minutes during my first class to understand you don’t do that.
Can you give us any hints or clues about your next project? Are you continuing to write the The Ten Worlds universe or are you taking a break to write something else?
The Norse Gods claimed all my writing time. I’m working on the sequel to Children, called Land, where some deities and their mortal BFFs go to Earth – the tenth world – to discover Iceland. At the same time I’m fiddling with a series of novellas, How to Be a God, humorous retellings of some myths I haven’t worked into The Ten Worlds yet. I’m not a fan of Neil Gaiman’s take on Norse mythology, so I’m writing what I want to read.
Last, but certainly not least, where can readers find your books and keep track of your latest publications?
The e-books are on Amazon and Kindle Unlimited. The dead tree versions, both paperbacks and hardcovers, are available everywhere – if your local bookstore happens to be open, you can order the book there, same as with libraries.
The best way to keep track with what I’m up to is to subscribe to my newsletter. I tried Instagram, but I just ended up following way too many bearded Vikings for, um, research purposes. I spend less and less time on Facebook, because their latest redesign is actively hostile towards the users. Instead I write 1000 words in Scrivener and 5000 words in my tweets.
And amplify a sense by a factor of ten...hmmmm. I would say sight because my vision suuucks, so amplifying it by a factor of ten would probably just about give me normal vision, yay! In all seriousness, yes, I’d say sight. I feel like all the other senses being amplified would be really rough in different ways.
I love both Sci-Fi and Fantasy in all their forms. However, I sometimes wonder why they are grouped together as, for me, they seem distinct in many ways. As a writer of sci-fi and fantasy yourself, how do you distinguish the two genres? Can there be any crossover? Should they be considered separately or are they just two ends of the same spectrum?
That’s a really great point, and it’s a pretty big part of my concentration. For my major, I chose to study The Concept of Otherness in Speculative Fiction, and one of the things I talked about a lot with my adviser was the use of the term “speculative fiction” instead of “science fiction” or “fantasy.” For me, speculative fiction means anything that lets the writer make observations about the human condition, society, technology, or really anything, without setting the story in our own world. I would say that sci-fi and fantasy have always been grouped together because they take issues that exist in the here and now and comment on them through creating these other worlds, whether those worlds involve magic and whimsy or tech and innovation. For that reason, I see them as two ends of the same spectrum working towards a similar goal. And as for whether there can be any crossover, my WIP merges magic and technology because I love both genres so much. Whether that crossover is effective is up for debate, but I enjoy it and always look out for it to read!
"I chose to study The Concept of Otherness in Speculative Fiction, and one of the things I talked about a lot with my adviser was the use of the term 'speculative fiction' instead of 'science fiction' or 'fantasy.' "
You host the online journal Satyr Central which posts “anything soulful and non-conformist”; I personally find this focus so refreshing as almost every publication I have encountered is looking for something so specific that it seems that all but a dozen people on earth are disqualified from submitting. What have been some of the highlights of hosting Satyr Central?
Thank you so much! That means a lot to me. And shoutout to one of our editors, “Jon the Semite” for coming up with that little blurb on our About page.
I think the biggest highlight of hosting Satyr Central is knowing that I can post some really weird stuff and not worry about “Oh, does this meet guidelines? Oh, is this too weird to publish?” I’ve accepted some great submissions where the authors told me when they submitted that they weren’t sure what category the piece fit into, so they thought it would work well with us, and it did! From theological rants to odes to headless women to articles rating books by how nice they feel and sound, we’ve got some bizarre stuff on Satyr, and I say that with a lot of pride.
"From theological rants to odes to headless women to articles rating books by how nice they feel and sound, we’ve got some bizarre stuff on Satyr, and I say that with a lot of pride."
Most writers spend a fair amount of time sending queries and submissions. You have experience on both sides of that conversation. As someone who receives and reviews submissions, what are some tips you have for writers who are trying to get their work published?
Other than that, the biggest tip I can give writers looking to submit anything--whether it’s queries for a book, article, short story, poem, whatever--is that it’s a good idea to (politely) follow up if we take too long to look at your submission and get back to you. I love getting submissions, but with everything going on, it’s very easy to get overwhelmed and I always appreciate someone giving me a gentle nudge and saying, “Hey, I sent you this a few weeks ago and just wanted to confirm that you got it.” Now note that some publications/publishers/lit agents don’t like it when you do that and will say that they’ll get to you when they get to you or to take no response as a rejection, and that’s where reading guidelines carefully comes back into play. But for me personally, I appreciate those quick nudges and it’s helped me get back to awesome writers whose submissions I somehow managed to entirely miss. So there’s that!
"...the biggest tip I can give writers looking to submit anything... is that it’s a good idea to (politely) follow up if we take too long to look at your submission and get back to you."
Sci-Fi and Fantasy as genres offer writers almost unlimited freedom in creating worlds and characters. As always, in the words of Uncle Ben, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’. What are your thoughts on the power of that freedom and what do you think should guide writers in their use of that power? Are there any limits? And where have you seen this power wielded masterfully for the greater good?
"I do think the best stories—Sci-Fi and Fantasy in particular—have the power to
You and I share an interest in myths and mythology. One of the joys of engaging with the writing community online is the opportunity to learn about myths from all over the world. Which is your personal favorite flavor of mythology and are there any mythological personalities that you think deserve more air time?
Wow, this is a great question (and a tough one!). I grew up on Greek mythology and have always loved it, but in terms of mythological personalities that don’t get enough air time, I’d have to say the legends from The Ramayana. I got to be a student mentor teaching a high school class this Hindu epic, and it was such a joy to explore all of the themes, characters, and political and religious context for the story of Rama, Sita, and Lakshmana. Yet I had never, ever heard of the epic before being invited to take part in that program. I think that’s a real shame and I highly recommend that any lovers of mythology check it out.
"I grew up on Greek mythology and have always loved it, but in terms of mythological personalities that don’t get enough air time, I’d have to say the legends from The Ramayana."
Can you give us a hint about your current project? Any tantalizing clues or sneak-peek quotes?
I’m planning on finishing my first short story from my work-in-progress, which will hopefully be the start of some sort of web series I can post on my website. I want to hold myself accountable because I’m a chronic procrastinator, so I’d love to include the first paragraph from the short story!
“It had been two years since the first time Kamiel had been to the Hex Market on the border between his home district and the worst, most loathsome district in The Core City. Since then, he’d gotten accustomed to the hushed conversations, the shifty-eyed patrons, the bubbling of Imaginate elixirs used for something far different and more sinister than their intended purpose, and even the occasional Rending when tensions were high and fights would break out...”
Fingers crossed I can actually finish it, ha!
“It had been two years since the first time Kamiel had been to the Hex Market on the border between his home district and the worst, most loathsome district in The Core City..."
Where can readers keep track of your latest writings and stay up to date on your next publication?
I am all over social media, but the best way to keep up with my writing is to subscribe to my blog’s newsletter! I promise we don’t send hundreds of emails a day, but you will get an update when we have a newsletter out or a brand new post weekly.
"My favorite magical creature is Al mi’raj from Arabic poetry. It is also known as the Wolpertinger in German mythology, the Jackalope in American myth and the Lepus Cornutus from medieval and early Renaissance times."
I like stories when seemingly weak or underdog characters win in unexpected ways. I’m not particularly religious, but even as a kid I liked the David and Goliath story. Speaking of Goliath- the mythology there is of the Nephilim- the giants who were apparently offspring of demons and humans. That’s interesting. It was when I was a little kid and to me, it probably always will be. I’m a lover of myths that attempt to explain life to believers. There’s a creature from the Ewe tribe of Togo and Ghana called the Adze. The Adze are shape shifting vampires and evolved as a way to warn against the deadly effects of mosquitos and malaria in the region.
"If I had to be best friends with a villian, I would choose the Fratelli family from Goonies."
If I had to be best friends with a villian, I would choose the Fratelli family from Goonies. They were such a bumbling group of silly meanies. I write Middle Grade and Picture Books, so it follows that I would like this group of greedy criminals from a smash hit kids movie. I especially loved Sloth Fratelli but he was a good guy, wasn’t he?
I drink an unnatural amount of coffee while I write. I recently upgraded to a Keurig after a decade of using the same drip coffee maker. Now, I can have a hot cup - fresh every time I need a bathroom break. It’s kinda funny- I was gifted a box of mixed flavor coffee from my wonderful husband and now I rotate through cinnamon, vermont maple, hazelnut, southern pecan and blueberry vanilla and I love it.
"I drink an unnatural amount of coffee while I write."
I often offer to read rough manuscripts for fantasy fiction and one piece of feedback I often give (and sometimes get!) is that the narrative doesn’t feel ‘real’. How do you manage to connect with your characters and express their thoughts and emotions to readers in an authentic way?
Well, thank you for this question because it implies that I know how to make a character come to life and feel ‘real,’ jumping off the page. I am not sure I always do this. There are times that I’ve reread my work and felt the feelings that the characters are reported to be feeling. I’ve cultivated those moments by writing about something that I have a personal, visceral connection to. Feelings are triggered by sensory experiences and if you can tap into the sensory experiences of your reader and make them feel the feelings that the characters are feeling from the lens of their own visceral life experiences...it becomes real for them. They feel like they “know,” the character. Using the five senses can get you where you need to be quickly. Also using observations about human nature and human behavior can create a connection and give insights into how a character might be feeling. The reader might find themselves thinking “I do that too.”
Many authors branch out from writing to provide other services related to the process of making books as editors, graphic designers, and online forum hosts; I call these ‘writing adjacent’ skills. In addition to your writing, you also design incredible author logos to help writers present their brand effectively. What advice do you have for writers who are thinking of exploring the option of offering services using their ‘writing adjacent’ skills?
I think that writing adjacent services help you to build an author platform. If you are launching a writing career out of obscurity - offering a service can help others get to know who you are and where you sit within the writing community. You can cultivate friendships, readership and writing adjacent customers in this way. When it comes time to enter into the querying trenches, having a following of some kind is important. How important? The blog subscribers, twitter followers or insta numbers as a platform are a mystery to most of us, but a general, strong effort to get your name out there is valuable and it shows. It shows you have staying power and that you are willing to work for your place in the industry.
There is an origin story for the bunny in The First Easter Rabbit narrated by Burl Ives from 1976 but I wanted to give my story a classic feel and tie it to another famous rabbit story. I find retellings satisfying because the reader gets to re enter a world they’ve loved before and learn a little bit more about the beloved characters. They get to relive the joy. My version of The Velveteen Rabbit, The Girl Behind the Magic sticks to Margery Williams’ original and has enough of her story for modern children to receive the wisdom that Williams intended about ‘realness,’ coming from the pure source of love. However adding a few more layers of contrast helps this story come to life in a fresh new way. Also there is a little girl in this story and I think adding little girls to stories that once had boys as the only protagonist is a fresh take too.
"However adding a few more layers of contrast helps this story come to life in a fresh new way. Also there is a little girl in this story and I think adding little girls to stories that once had boys as the only protagonist is a fresh take too. "
You are also a writer of short stories and in your lyrical piece The Hope Goblin, a young girl named Isabelle learns to confront a wicked, bullying goblin. The themes of building one’s own self-confidence and self-image are apparent throughout the rollicking tale. On that topic, how do you feel about instructive literature vs. escape fiction? Where is the line for you as a writer between stories that teach and stories that entertain?
I love escapism as a reader.
As a writer, I must be true to my roots, and instructive literature comes out in me in earnest. I was an English teacher overseas in the Peace Corps, Uzbekistan and then also independently in China. I taught 8th grade writing in Texas as well as ESL to adults and kids. If teaching is breaking something down to its simplest components to be able to build- students in tow, a thing to its theoretical completion- this is how I approach most things in life. I am a parent and I utilize those skills. I love to cook and paint abstract pieces and I do graphic design. I use the skill of looking at the building blocks and ingredients to get to a desired result in those areas too. I think this is why I like writing for kids. Simplifying may seem just that...simple...but it’s a lifetime thus far of developing the skill of breaking things down in order to teach it... I think I bring this skill to the table as a writer too.
"Simplifying may seem just that...simple...but it’s a lifetime thus far of developing the
You have an impressive compendium of mythological creatures on your website, including the little known fairy pig from the Isle of Man known as the Arkan Sonney. What draws you to these creatures and in what ways have other writers responded to your work on that collection?
"We all have similar fears and insecurities too and you find them personified in many of the creatures of myth."
Authors from other countries have contacted me and asked when I am going to do an article on a creature from their culture. I am slowly working through an alphabetical list and so many have said they will be patient until I get to theirs! Others have reached out and thanked me for expanding past what they can find on Wikipedia. I try to cross reference and give examples from several sites so that I am not just replicating what is already easily accessible on the internet. What also seems to be helpful is talking about where the mythological creature has shown up in American pop culture. I find that advertising and product naming ventures pull from International myth and folklore a lot.
"I try to cross reference and give examples from several sites so that I am
What can you tell us about your most recent project? Do you have a few smaller stories on the go or are you working on something big?
I am currently seeking representation for a #STEM, PB series and am very excited about the process. I have a MG Contemporary Adventure based on Aztec Mythology that I am trying to find a home for as well and am also continually working on short stories and creature articles for my blog.
Last, but not least, where can readers find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest publications?
Find A.R. Jung's adaption of Margery Williams’ The Velveteen Rabbit on Amazon: The Girl Behind the Magic.
I set up a certain time frame, in which I’d like to be done writing. After creating a detailed outline I can break it down easier. It helps me figure out how much I need to write each week to reach my goal!
"For a writing retreat, I’d love to go to The Black Forest."
I often hear writers complain that they don’t want to waste their time on social media. Personally, I have sparked many meaningful connections within the writing community online and have received much in the way of encouragement from this network of fellow writers. As you have found success in attracting a large audience online, what justification would you present to writers who are skeptical about the usefulness of social media?
I think anyone that has the opportunity to converse with, or learn from, other writers and authors, as well as spread the word about their work, should take that chance. You never know when that big break will come!
Before I wrote The Gatewatch, most of my writing took the form of song lyrics which I sang and performed with a Celtic folk music group. You have a musical background as a vocalist in the hard rock genre. How do your experiences in music shape your stories and what do you think other writers could learn from musicians?
I’ve been a musician for over 10 years now. People often feel moved by music, whether it’s the lyrics or the sound. I think metaphors are a big reason for that. Novels can have that same effect.
"People often feel moved by music, whether it’s the lyrics or the sound.
My stories are primarily inspired by the Norse Myths and I often find myself going back to source material to pick up small details about minor characters that I missed before. Most memorable for me are some of the characters that never get mentioned in popular culture, unlike the well-known actors like Thor, Odin, and Freya. I think a similar phenomenon happens in representations of Greek Mythology as characters like Zeus, Hermes, and Aphrodite overshadow most others. As your work is inspired in part by Greek Mythology, who do you think of as a figure in the Greek myths that deserves a moment in the spotlight?
I think that all deities deserve the spotlight, honestly. There are those shrouded in mystery, and chaos, and so many of them are highly misunderstood. Oh and Hera! Definitely Hera. Looks around the room, nervously, with a forced smile.
"There are those shrouded in mystery, and chaos, and so many of them are highly misunderstood.
The fantasy realm of Gnariam that you have created is both deep and wide. I sense a lot of anxiety from new fantasy writers about creating the world in which their stories take place. While I think we can both agree that there is no end to the work a writer could do in crafting their world, where do you think a new writer of fantasy should begin in their world-building process?
I absolutely love the world of Gnariam so far. It’s going to continue to grow. I think the best tip I could give is to think of as many things in this world, and write them down. For example: governments, religions, currencies, land masses, creatures, if there is magic or tech, terrains, climate, clothing, technology level, etc. Creating a world that feels tangible is a key to success.
"Creating a world that feels tangible is a key to success."
Where can readers find more of your work and stay up to date on your latest publications?
Discover the realm of Gnariam through C.S. Ratliff's novel The Lightning Rod on Amazon.
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!
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.
"I’ll be honest and admit that there is something rather lovely about a good whisky!"
If I could, I would love to spend an afternoon with Ernest Hemingway. My uncle introduced me to his work at a young age, Fiesta: The Sun Also Rises was incredible and the first novel he gave me, I’d never read anything quite like it. Hemingway had a wonderful ability to describe human nature, how complicated we are as beings, and how destructive we can be to one another. I also fell in love with his descriptions of each new landscape and location.
"Hemingway had a wonderful ability to describe human nature, how complicated we are as beings,
We have discussed our mutual interest (i.e. obsession) with all things related to vikings on several occasions, but I’d like to know where it all started for you. Were you always drawn to viking history and the Norse myths? Was there a particular author, book, or event that first sparked your interest?
Growing up I was very lucky to have a wonderful grandfather who shared many authors, books and ideas with me from a young age. He encouraged me to read as often as possible and to try many different subjects. He had a love for history and genealogy, Norse myths and sagas were a deep interest he passed on to me, on both sides of my family there are links to the Viking past of Ireland, Scotland and the Scottish islands. I remember sitting as a child and looking at the bookcases filled with leather bound books and the smell that comes with old worn pages, my grandfather introduced me to Tolkien and The Hobbit, to the tales of Erik the Red, and the Saga of the Volsungs, for that I’ll always be grateful.
"I remember sitting as a child and looking at the bookcases filled with leather bound books
Children of Midgard, as told through Liv’s eyes, offers a unique female perspective of the Viking Age world which is so often presented through male-dominated narratives. Recent archeological discoveries have also stoked increased interest in women of the Viking Age and continue to broaden our perspective of the diverse roles they played in that society. What sources would you recommend for readers who want to learn more about women in the Viking Age?
We are currently experiencing a very exciting period regarding the discovery of archaeological evidence, conversation, and theories of women in the Viking age. With Liv, I wanted her to remain a strong individual while observing the fact that she had to make decisions based on the fact she was a woman caring for a child on her own in the Viking era. From reading the sagas and poems of the Norse I knew women were strong characters, they were driven and capable, but I knew I needed to delve a little deeper than that. I read the Gragas, which is an amazing document, if a little heavy at times! I also read a number of books by well known names including Judith Jesch, Johanna Katrin Fridriksdottir, Carolyne Larrington, Hilda Ellis Davidson, Jesse Byock, Anders Winroth, Gwen Jones, and possibly a few more! I have a book addiction!
"From reading the sagas and poems of the Norse I knew women were strong characters,
In our last conversation you mentioned that you had been digging into the research archives to learn how children were raised in the Viking Age. Have you come across any major differences between how children were raised then and how they are raised today? Would you adopt any Viking approaches to child-rearing over today’s culturally accepted wisdom?
I don't have children myself, so I certainly would not claim to have experience of, or know, what the best method for bringing one up in this day and age might be. That being said I have the joy of children and teenagers within our extended family, and what I have noticed is their curiosity, appreciation for honesty, and wonderful imaginations. I think children are extremely adaptive and in many ways develop strategies and mechanisms to deal with situations that can surprise adults. In some ways I think that applies to children in the Viking era, their childhoods were not what we would consider very long, particularly easy going, or free from labour. From the sagas we have glimpses of situations young girls and boys found themselves in, that violence played a part in their lives which is significant given the world in which they lived, and again the Gragas (medieval Icelandic lawbook) is a marvellous tool giving us an insight into how the law regarded them.
"From the sagas we have glimpses of situations young girls and boys found themselves in,
"I quickly started to realise that even though there might be great distances and cultural differences present in various myths and legends, there were also similar ideas, characters and messages."
If I could suggest any materials for readers and listeners to try it would be the works of Joseph Campbell, Hilda Ellis Davidson, and perhaps podcasts that look at philosophy as well as history, myth and legend, it might give them the sense of discovery it gave me. My goal with the podcast is to share and encourage the tradition of storytelling, to fire an interest or curiosity in our past and provide glimpses into the world in which our ancestors lived.
"My goal with the podcast is to share and encourage the tradition of storytelling,
What can you tell us about your next big project and where can we find more information about your writing and your podcast?
Currently I am editing my next manuscript which is due for release this summer, it's an exciting project that I’ve been developing over the past few years. The art of storytelling is such an important part of my life, and I wanted to create that intimate feeling of being within a circle by the campfire, the magic of hearing tales that perhaps no-one else had ever heard before, and I think this new book is what I had imagined. The podcast is going from strength to strength, my listeners are wonderfully supportive, I’ve really enjoyed discussing so many ideas and stories we all have to share. I’ve been very fortunate to have friends, both new and old, on the show and the community that I’m so very lucky to be a part of is wonderfully talented, encouraging and enthusiastic. Gosh, so in short, a new book and lots more podcasts!
Siobhan Clark's The Children Of Midgard is available in Waterstones, Barnes & Noble, and on Amazon.
She also has a limited number of signed copies!
Follow her on Twitter at Siobhán Clark (@siobhancoda) and at the Myth Legend & Lore Podcast (@LoreMyth)
Find the Myth Legend Lore Podcast on iTunes or Podbean
I recently had the pleasure of being featured as a guest on the Myths, Legends, and Lore Podcast hosted by my good friend Siobhan Clark (also the author of Children of Midgard). Listen in on our conversation about the Norse myths, their influence on our work, and habits that cultivate creativity. The episode also features an original musical arrangement of The Song of the Nidavel from The Gatewatch!
Find more amazing podcasts by Siobhan by following The Myth Legend & Lore Podcast on Twitter.
What does a productive day of writing look like for you? Do you have any habits or rituals that help you stay focussed or be more productive?
I’m currently working on ritualizing 1,000 words a day minimum. I’ve been all over the place, ranging from zero to 8,000 in a single day. A good day is when I’m in a state of flow, when the words seem to come of their own accord. That only comes if I’ve been regularly writing for a few weeks. Habits right now are hard to form, because I have three toddlers. But I do have a special writing station, I have noise cancelling headphones and my favorite 16th century choral music station on Pandora, and sometimes, that works.
"I do have a special writing station, I have noise cancelling headphones
What is the greatest obstacle between you and your writing?
Myself. Having a self-defeating mindset that feeds on internal negativity. Sometimes I can’t write. Then I hate myself. But recently I’ve gotten pretty good at just forcing myself to work through it. Still have some bad days, though.
Your work is inspired by the Russian Folktales; I can relate as my work is based off the Norse Myths. Where does the writing process start for you: with an original idea or with the folktale?
Good question! The folktale is the frame for me, the backbone. I don’t study it or read it; it’s inside me already, I grew up with them. So within that world that I know, I then start to think about original ideas inspired by the tropes of the fairy tales. If I’m stuck, then I’ll read a folktale I haven’t read before, and often I’ll get weird tangential ideas for mythical creatures or obstacles or conflict that way. It’s fun.
"The folktale is the frame for me, the backbone. I don’t study it or read it; it’s inside me already, I grew up with them."
But there’s something about them that engages very intrinsic parts of human beings, no matter what the culture. Tolkien talks about this, modern neurobiology confirms it with interesting studies on brain scans. Basically, there’s something about fairy tales that can tell a deep truth in a way that goes straight to the heart, sometimes even bypassing the brain. It’s some like incantation or music, which is more experiential than rational.
"there’s something about fairy tales that can tell a deep truth in a way that goes straight to the heart,
What is next for you creatively? Do you have another project on the go?
I’m taking a very long time editing book 4 of my series, which is a novella, but has taken longer than almost any other book I’ve written. It’s got a lot of emotional stuff in it, which I need to get right. And I’ve been battling… what do they call it? crippling self-doubt? Something like that. I’m also working on a screenplay with another writer, a historical fantasy set in the early days of medieval Russia, when the Russians were basically Vikings. It’s been fun.
Where can we find more about you and your work?
I blog about Russian folk history and culture, and I write book reviews on my website, where you can find all my books as well. You can also find me on Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, where I share images that inspire my writing.
Read more from Nicholas and find his Raven Son series on his website.
Joshua Gillingham is an author, editor, and game designer from Vancouver Island, Canada.