Q&A with Marianne Hem Eriksen
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?)
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Joshua Gillingham is an author, editor, and game designer from Vancouver Island, Canada.