Welcome Andrew! Thanks for taking some time to chat about writing. First, a few quick-fire questions: Who is the greatest Viking of them all? Which is the scariest monster you’ve ever read about? And what is your writing/translating beverage of choice?
Technically not a Viking, (Vikings are Norse pirates) but I’m going with Leifr Eiriksson. Probably the most famous Norseman of them all, he actually was a peaceful man, the first European to set foot in the Americas (491 years before Columbus,) bringing Christianity to Greenland, and rescuing shipwreck victims.
Scariest monster goes to Ungoliant from J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium. The Queen of the Spiders even scared Morgoth, Middle-Earth’s equivalent of Satan (who makes Sauron look like a schoolyard bully)! I also have arachnophobia, and Shelob is hard enough to watch in Return of the King, and Ungoliant is Shelob turned up to ten-thousand!
I drink both tea and coffee, but I’m going to go with tea. Especially a P.G. Tips builder’s brew!
"Scariest monster goes to Ungoliant from J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium."
We both share a love and passion for Viking history, particularly the epics such as Beowulf. What drew you to study these texts and, in particular, to explore them through your own translations?
I first got interested in history at age four because of Indiana Jones. I wanted to be an archeologist, so borrowed all kinds of books on ancient cultures, especially on ancient Egypt. A few years later, my focus shifted to medieval history. Later, I found out that Tolkien specifically based his works on Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures, so my studies soon began to focus on the early Middle Ages. When I was 9, I was diagnosed with Friedrich’s Ataxia, a rare genetic disorder, similar to Muscular Dystrophy, and my pursuits became more and more academic, and less archeological.
"Later, I found out that Tolkien specifically based his works on Anglo-Saxon and Norse cultures, so my studies soon began to focus on the early Middle Ages."
Several years ago, I took a course on Old English from Michael Drout at Signum University (you can take the class as an Anytime Audit). At the end of the course, Professor Drout suggested we read Beowulf in Old English to become better acquainted with the language. Rather than simply read it, I decided to translate it into modern English and write an extensive commentary.
Congratulations are in order for the publication of your new translation of Beowulf! Talk us through the journey of exploring this famous text and rendering it in this new translation. What are you hoping that readers take away from reading this story in this fresh light?
For the original text I used a book called Klaeber’s Beowulf. When coming across words I was unfamiliar with I would use the Bosworth-Toller Old English Dictionary. Sometimes I chose to go with more archaic terms because it fit the alliteration better. I used more recent scholarship and that was reflected in the way I translated some of the words or phrases, for example: a damaged word in Line 587 is typically read as “hell,” but I offer the reading “hall” which gives the line a very different context.
I hope that this new translation, with its alliteration, will harken back to older translations, such as those by Francis Gummere and John Clark Hall, but will also give it the accessibility of modern translations.
"I hope that this new translation, with its alliteration, will harken back to older translations, such as those by Francis Gummere and John Clark Hall, but will also give it the accessibility of modern translations."
Beowulf is getting a lot of attention right now with Maria Headley’s new translation, a very modern take on the tale, which was released a short while back. What are your thoughts on modernizing ancient texts like Beowulf and why is it important that these stories continue to be told today?
While I don’t mind modernization of ancient texts, I actually had a much different intention for my translation. I feel that many recent translations modernize it so much, that it loses much of its beauty. I understand that pre-modern texts can be difficult to read, (that is the main reason I provided an extensive commentary along with the translation) but often they lose their alliteration and meter, which is much of poetry’s appeal.
In talking with Dr. Alison Killilea and Norse epics student Rosemary , I complained about the lack of quality film adaptations of this incredible tale. Do you have a favorite film adaptation of Beowulf or do you have any ideas as to why it has been so hard to capture on the silver screen?
My favorite movie adaption of Beowulf has to be The Thirteenth Warrior. Based on Michael Crichton’s novel Eaters of the Dead, it’s not a straightforward Beowulf adaption. It follows an Arab, Ahmad ibn Fadlan (portrayed by Antonio Banderas,) who gets caught up in an adventure with a band of Vikings, led by a warrior called Buliwyf (portrayed by Vladimir Kulich.) If you are familiar with Viking history, you may recognize the name ibn Fadlan; he was an ambassador from Baghdad, who gave an eyewitness account of a Viking ship cremation on the River Volga.
Crichton wanted to show a possible historical basis for Beowulf, so he was trying to give a more natural rather than supernatural explanation for the monsters in the story. There are some anachronisms (such as Buliwyf wearing plate armor in one scene) and other inaccuracies, but the movie is well written. While not a perfect adaptation, it is probably the most entertaining adaptation I’ve seen.
"My favorite movie adaption of Beowulf has to be The Thirteenth Warrior."
As an author of fiction set in a Viking-like world, I often find myself challenging tropes associated with Vikings in popular culture. What false assumptions about Vikings or Germanic culture do you hope to address through your work with these ancient texts?
A lot of popular culture portrays Vikings or Germanic people as people who would only raid and plunder, but I hope that with my different works people will appreciate that Vikings had their own culture and that they even had deep thoughts. When you take the time to study their culture and way of life, barbarian is no longer an adequate way to describe them.
Can you give us a sneak peek of what your next major project will be? Any hints or perhaps a little snippet to get readers excited?
My next big project is a trilogy of historical fantasy novels called Guthbrand’s Saga. I am hoping to have these novels traditionally published, so if you’re an agent or know of someone who is, feel free to contact me! The first book is completed and I am currently working on the second book.
"My next big project is a trilogy of historical fantasy novels called Guthbrand’s Saga."
The books are set in early 6th Century Norway, and are prequels to Beowulf. Book 1 is called Troll Bane. The story opens with Trolls raiding farmsteads bordering the wilds of Jötunheim. A jarl named Guthbrand and his small warband set out to hunt them down, but the closer they draw to a battle Guthbrand knows they can't win, his men's lives weigh heavy on him. Guthbrand’s Saga has characters and creatures from Norse mythology and legendary sagas. Characters share songs and folktales inspired by Old Norse sources.
I paid special attention to surrounding this fantasy-infused story with historically accurate details and placing it in precise geographical locations so that you can even follow the party’s journey on a modern day map. I actually provide a map with the Old Norse place names. Like so many fantasy authors, I have been greatly inspired by the works of J.R.R. Tolkien. Like him, I have tried to create an expansive world inhabited by people and creatures with their own rich cultures, languages and history.
"I paid special attention to surrounding this fantasy-infused story with historically accurate details and placing it in precise geographical locations so that you can even follow the party’s journey on a modern day map. I actually provide a map with the Old Norse place names."
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.
You are someone who knows how to finish things as you recently completed your first book. What lessons have you learned on your creative journey that might help those who are constantly starting stories but never seeing them through to the end?
Great question! First, the story must have legs. It must compel and fascinate me enough to obsess you for months, if not years. My debut novel, The Norse Queen, took six years to write. I was working full time and commuted to work on the backroads so I could work on the story in my head. When I pulled into the parking lot or my driveway, I would scribble everything I’d come up with on the drive. I know, a tape recorder would have been better, but it didn’t work for me. I adore the research, poring over books about the Vikings, trying to translate texts from Norwegian. I went to Norway twice, and dogged the steps of archeologists. So, obsession helps, but maturity is also important. I tried to become a novelist in my twenties, and actually forced myself to finish a literary novel that made me so miserable I gave up writing for years. I wanted to have adventures, not sit in front of a computer, so I chucked that miserable novel in the sock drawer and went to sea. Years later, I had calmed down a bit and was ready to dive down the rabbit hole.
"So, obsession helps, but maturity is also important. I tried to become a novelist in my twenties, and actually forced myself to finish a literary novel that made me so miserable I gave up writing for years."
You and I share two particular things in common: an interest in writing stories about Vikings and the area of the world we live in, specifically the Pacific Northwest! I often hear the Pacific Northwest, especially the coast, being compared to the iconic geographical features of Norway and Sweden. How has living in this part of the world influenced the world you write about in your historical fiction?
I do feel like I’m in touch with Norway in the Pacific Northwest. It is very similar in many ways. I love the sea and always want to be close to it, and the fact that seagoing is still a way of life here helps a lot.
Maria Headley has famously challenged the male-dominated narrative of the epic poem Beowulf, both through her award-winning book The Mere Wife and her new feminist translation of the original text. What was your process for discovering, uncovering, and filling in the gaps of Åsa’s story in your Norsewomen series?
There was very little fiction from a Viking woman’s point of view, so I had to put my story on the bare bones of archeological discoveries. I read a ton of archeological books, especially Neil Price’s The Viking Way, as well as the sagas and the various annals from the time. I try to stay up-to-date on new discoveries that can have a major impact on my writing. About midway during my writing of The Norse Queen, BJ581 became big news. BJ581 is a grave in Birka, Sweden, that was uncovered by an archeologist in the mid-1800’s. The burial was a full weapons grave with two horses. The occupant was buried most likely sitting upright on a saddle. It was long considered a chieftain or war leader’s grave. In 2017 the only occupant was proven to be that of a woman!
"I try to stay up-to-date on new discoveries that can have a major impact on my writing. About midway during my writing of The Norse Queen, BJ581 became big news."
You have a really interesting background knowledge concerning the handling of raptors (falcons, eagles, etc). How important were raptors to Vikings and in what ways were they used? Were they symbolic or culturally significant in any particular ways?
Viking falconry is an elusive subject. There’s not a lot of archaeological evidence—most of the harnesses, hoods, jesses, etc. were leather and didn’t survive burial or cremation graves. Bronze or copper items such as swivels and tiny bells have been found in burials, as well as some raptor bones. There are picture stones in Norway and Sweden that portray hawking scenes. The Carolingian Chronicles mention that the Danish King Godfried was murdered just as he was about to release his hawk. In Hrolf’s Saga Kraki, riders with hawks on their shoulders are mentioned. The goddess Freyja owned a falcon cloak that enabled the wearer to fly—possibly alluding to “shapeshifting” (in which the shaman’s spirit enters an animal).
"Some of the most magnificent raptors are found in Norway, and the Norse traded in falcons."
Your third book is in the final stages of development and will soon be released. How did you find the process of completing your third book compared to the challenge of finishing your first one? And what have you learned along the way that might help a new writer who is stuck on their first book?
My writing method is a strange amalgamation of pantsing and plotting. I write a lot of scenes until I get stuck and then I drag out one of my writing craft books such as Story Engineering by Larry Brooks, or The Night Time Novelist by Joseph Bates, and just follow the steps until the writing begins to flow again. It works every time. I think I just run out of plot and need to go back and impose more structure. In the later stages of writing I flit all over the place, making the beginning, middle, and end work together, and at one point I was working on all 3 books at once. Like most writers, the majority of the writing I do is actually revision. Just get something down on paper so you have something to work with, then go back and work on it until it’s right.
"Just get something down on paper so you have something to work with, then go back and work on it until it’s right."
Will there be another book in the Norsewomen series or are you going to begin a different project following the release of the third book? Can you give us any hints or sneak peaks?
I’m already working on the fourth book. Åsa ruled for 20 years and there is absolutely nothing written about those years. The tale doesn’t pick up again until her son takes over the kingdom, and she is never mentioned again. I have a lot to explore!
Where can readers find your books and keep track of your latest articles and publications?
My books are available on Amazon in paperback, ebook, and free on Kindle Unlimited. I also have a website, a Facebook page, and I’m active on Twitter.
Find out more about Johanna's Norsewomen series on her website!
Tea - I love the smell of coffee, but can’t stand the taste. I process bitter flavors more strongly than most. I also don’t like IPAs.
Dragon from Pern - Flight, fire breath, AND time travel? Yes, please.
"Boromir - After a solid first scene, Aragorn became a generic character with very little depth.
Describe a successful day of writing. Where are you? What time of day is it? And how do you measure a solid day’s work?
The most successful days, I get at least two hours in before my 6 year old wakes up. I still consider myself to have been successful if I can squeeze in 45 minutes of writing while he’s playing Smash Brothers or watching Pokemon. I have daily goals, to which I hold myself accountable by posting something online almost every day. If my post goes up each day, I was successful in my writing.
You are a writer, teacher, runologist, and host of the website Futhark Village. What does your work entail and what drew you into your study of the runes?
I was 12 when I first found the runes of the Younger Futhark. The writing system of the Vikings was the coolest thing I had ever seen, and I proceeded to write the next half dozen papers I was assigned in school in runes. My teachers, however, did not appreciate having to translate, even though I gave each of them a key. I got a bunch of Fs on papers, and even detentions.
Everything I do through Futhark Village is trying to teach people about the runes. There is a mindset that using runes in magick creates, and I find it easier to talk to witches and heathens who are able to use that structure to their thoughts. Really, I’m just trying to reshape the world in my own image.
"The writing system of the Vikings was the coolest thing I had ever seen, and I proceeded to write the next half dozen papers I was assigned in school in runes. My teachers, however, did not appreciate having to translate, even though I gave each of them a key."
Also, you left out sword-fighting instructor. I teach medieval martial arts (sometimes called HEMA or WMA) to children. When I am writing combat scenes, I get to think back on battles that I have fought at various events and describe that feeling, that motion. I don’t get to use any of the fancy words like Zornhau or Schrankhut, because my readers won’t know them, but I can describe how they work in the same way that I teach a child how to do them.
Fantasy authors love to use runes but I doubt that most have much of an understanding of what they mean. In my limited experience, I believe there are several versions of the runes with different origins, characters, and purposes. What is the history of the runes and why are they still relevant today?
Among the Long Branch family of Younger Futharks, I’m aware of at least a dozen, and then there are the Short-Twig and Staveless families. The Anglo-Saxon runesets add extra runes, including the Frisian and sometimes the Northumbrian mini-Aetts.
"There are three major groups of runes: the Elder Futhark, the Younger Futhark, and the Anglo-Saxon Runes."
I think the word “still” is inaccurate when you ask why they are “still” relevant today. The Runes are relevant “again,” rather than “still,” because modern practitioners of magick have revived their use. We don’t know if they were ever historically used in magick as we currently do, and we can be fairly certain that we are doing at least most of it differently than the ancestors ever did.
"I think the word 'still' is inaccurate when you ask why they are 'still' relevant today.
For me, the Runes are a system which allows me to structure my intention. If I can phrase what I want through the esoteric meanings of the runes, then I can create a spell that will be more effective. I use it the same way that some witches I know make all of their spells rhyme.
Many writers and readers online are fascinated by folklore and participate in social media events such as #FolkloreThursday. However, many may be unaware of some of the more nuanced conversations happening within the folklore community right now. As someone who actively practices your beliefs, can you give us a brief explanation of the origins and implications of Declaration 127?
In order to answer this question, I want to back up and talk about the Skinhead Punk movement. The Skinheads were a very inclusive group, inviting everyone who was dissatisfied with the status quo to come, enjoy the music, and share a beer while talking about changing the world. But that’s not how most people think of them today. The phrase “Skinhead” is almost always associated with “Neo-Nazi” now.
Declaration 127 says that Nazis are not welcome in Heathenry. We are experiencing the same thing that the skinheads did in the 70s and 80s, where they are trying to invade our faith and corrupt it to their own evil ends. I will welcome anyone into my faith, except Nazis. I have seen the damage they have done to other movements, and I will not have it happen to mine.
"Declaration 127 says that Nazis are not welcome in Heathenry."
For a long time I’ve enjoyed snippets of your serialized microfiction series on Twitter. What inspired you to start writing micro-fiction and what advice do you have for a new writer who would like to explore that field?
So I shifted to the idea of writing a novel. To keep myself accountable, I post 400-600 words of the story on Twitter each day. It isn’t a lot by comparison to the 1700 words per day you need to do for a typical NaNoWriMo, but I’m not trying to write a novel in one month. I’ve been writing my current iteration of Futhark Village since November, and I am about 60,000 words in. I expect to finish somewhere around 75,000 words.
As for advice: I have two things. 1.) Find a system that keeps you accountable. And 2.) When you get writer’s block, pull out a divination system, like Runes or Tarot, and ask them what is happening in this scene that you are stuck on.
"I shifted to the idea of writing a novel. To keep myself accountable, I post 400-600 words of the story on Twitter each day. I’ve been writing my current iteration of Futhark Village since November, and I am about 60,000 words in."
Can you give us any hints or clues about your upcoming projects? Any sneak peeks or snippets?
Futhark Village gets posted to Twitter three days per week, so you can see that just by looking at @futharkvillage.
I am reopening my sword school, now that my state is in a safe enough condition to do so. We will all be wearing cloth masks under our fencing masks and wiping all the equipment down both before and after, but the parents and I agree that it is safe to restart. I have also started a dual blog called “Tarot for Rune Lovers” and “Runes for Tarot Lovers” which is coming out twice per week on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
"Futhark Village gets posted to Twitter three days per week, so you can see that just by looking at @futharkvillage."
I am trying to figure out how to get my coven (Wicca) and my kindred (Heathenry) back together safely. Cakes and Ale (Wicca) and Sumbel (Heathenry) don’t work with a mask on, and the social connection is so much more strained when we can’t hug each other or share a meal.
Unfortunately, I don’t really have the energy for more projects right now because my day job, as a math teacher, is back in session for in-person classes. This wouldn’t be so bad if we were allowed to have more than 25% of the students in the building at once, meaning that I still need to teach 75% of my students online while also teaching some of them in person. My 60 hour workweeks in the spring just got even longer.
"Cakes and Ale (Wicca) and Sumbel (Heathenry) don’t work with a mask on, and the social connection
Where can readers keep track of your latest writing and stay up to date on your future publications?
I am most active on Twitter. Writing Twitter and Magickal Twitter and Heathen Twitter are fun happy places, and a liberal use of the mute functions keeps Politics Twitter away from me for the most part. (I am politically active in my own town and region, but the internet is not a place for political activism. It just makes people angry, which I find unhelpful.)
Eric Schumacher presents the harrowing flight of young Olaf Tryggvason from the vengeful sons of Erik Bloodaxe in spectacular close-up detail through the eyes of young Torgil. Caught up in the deceptive schemes of Erik Bloodaxe’s sons, the two boys follow Torgil’s father, Torolv Loosebeard, as they flee to safety along with Queen Astrid, Olaf’s mother, and her retinue.
"Eric Schumacher presents the harrowing flight of young Olaf Tryggvason from the vengeful sons of
"In this, he has captured two equally vivid sides of Viking life, the valorous battles fought with
Schumacher shines particularly bright while narrating battles at sea. These conflicts, fought in close quarters and on choppy waters on the far-famed Viking longships, were a defining feature of life in the East Sea in the time of Olaf Tryggvason. Through his retelling the reader feels as if they are aboard the ship in the thick of battle alongside Olaf and Torgil as they dodge deadly arrows and thrust their sharpened seaxes.
"Schumacher also infuses his deep knowledge of Viking history into the narrative with details such as
Any complaints I had were small. Queen Astrid, though stoic, seemed to me to lack both the tenacity and cunning required of Viking queens of the age, particularly in the first section of the novel. Second, though the narrative follows an epic and heart-breaking arc, I felt at times the need for a bit more comic relief between the heavy subjects of the book such as the abuse of slaves and the death of parents. That being said, neither of these issues prevented me from thoroughly enjoying the book.
I highly recommend Schumacher’s Forged by Iron for anyone who has an interest in Viking history, particularly if they enjoyed The Long Ships (Frans G. Bengtsson) or The Half-Drowned King (Linnea Hartsuyker). Forged by Iron can be found on Eric Schumacher’s website and will be available as of April 15th, 2020.
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.
What does your writing schedule look like? Is it highly structured or very flexible? Is there a particular location or type of space you like to write in?
I write primarily in the mornings when my son is in kindergarten. But I often end up writing at night if the words are flowing. I’m not at my best in the evenings, but anything to get the words on the page! I used to love writing in cafes or bookstores, but the last few years I’ve tried really hard to make my desk at home as personal and comfortable as I can. I have a stuffed purple dragon on the upper shelf, and I always light a candle from Folklore Candle Co (their scents are literary- and mythology-inspired.) I also listen to lots of folk metal when I write.
"I used to love writing in cafes or bookstores, but the last few years
When I first started writing I was discouraged from writing fantasy if I wanted to get published. However, both you and I have succeeded in getting our works of fantasy published traditionally. Do you have any advice for fantasy authors who are still trying to land that first publishing contract?
Oh goodness, this question is right in my wheelhouse! I struggled early on with finding my niche, and even today I have certain well-meaning family members tell me what I should and shouldn’t write. I cannot stand that type of pretentiousness in literature. Genre fiction authors must fight against it all the time. My advice to any genre fiction author, whether fantasy, sci-fi, fairy-tales, or any type of speculative fiction - write what you love, and never listen to “shouldn’t.” I promise that others - even the big publishers - also love what you love.
"My advice to any genre fiction author, whether fantasy, sci-fi, fairy-tales,
Your current project, an Urban Fantasy novel called Draugr, is the prequel to a series following the exploits of Leif Halfdan. This sharp-tongued immortal character spends his time working as a historical consultant and local detective. In your novel, he’s called to consult at an archaeological dig in Scotland. What were your sources of inspiration for this quirky, cunning character and the world he inhabits?
Oh, Leif Halfdan is such a special character to me. He carries so much on his shoulders and I feel bad for terrorizing him. But then he goes and pulls a numbskull move, and then I don’t feel as bad. He’s someone who desperately wants to do the right thing, and holds himself - and sometimes everyone else - to an impossible standard. He actually arose as a secondary character in the first novel I ever wrote, which will never ever see the light of day. I ended up falling in love with his rough manners and guilt complex, and thus Draugr took its first breaths. I wrote the first version of the story in six weeks, and knew for certain that this was a story and a character that needed to be shared.
"I tried to go more for a feeling of the mythology and the history, rather than a true retelling.
When I wrote my first full novel, The Gatewatch, it was originally only meant to be an extended backstory for the book concept which I’m now working on. It seems you had a similar experience with your first book Wergild and your current project, Draugr. What led you to make the decision to let Wergild lie idle for a time while you write Draugr?
Funny how side projects can slip past us and become main projects! Wergild was the first novel I ever truly finished. It taught me how to complete a long project. I wrote and rewrote for six straight years, and shed lots of blood and tears over it. But in the end, I knew it just wasn’t the right story to be telling. It broke my heart, but ultimately, setting it aside freed my creativity up to rewrite Draugr. There are elements of Wergild that I will take with me along Leif’s journey, happily. I’ll always be grateful for the lessons it taught me.
"It broke my heart, but ultimately, setting it aside freed my creativity up to rewrite Draugr."
I really enjoyed the excerpt of Draugr that you posted to your blog! Where can we track the release of Draugr and stay up to date on your future writing projects?
Thank you! There are actually a couple of excerpts on my blog, so readers can get a good taste there. I am currently in the revision process, but I hope to be finished and querying agents by autumn. I am very active on Twitter, and I frequently post progress reports there. I also hope to be announcing a new mystery project in the next two months. Stay tuned!
Joshua Gillingham is an author, editor, and game designer from Vancouver Island, Canada.