Maximum Shelf author interview: Cecilia Ekbäck

Following Monday’s review of Wolf Winter, here’s Cecilia Ekbäck: The Impact of Place.


Cecilia Ekbäck was born in Sweden, in a small northern town. Her parents come from Lapland. Ekbäck now lives in Calgary with her husband and twin daughters, “returning home” to the landscape and the characters of her childhood in her writing. Wolf Winter is her first novel.

ekbackWhat background–literary or personal–led you to this subject matter?

A wolf winter is a very cold, very bitter winter. But in Sweden, it is also the period in life when you’re faced with your mortality, when you realize that you’re alone–an illness, or the loss of a loved one or something like that, when you come face to face with death, and feel very lonely. Where you have to face sides of yourself that you didn’t know that you had, that you like less, or things that you haven’t dealt with. I wrote this book after my own wolf winter, which was when my dad passed, from cancer. He was my best friend. That was the time when I had to do a lot of soul-searching, when I had to do a lot of thinking through what I wanted to do with the rest of my life and what I was going to do with the enormous space that he left after himself. The book sort of came out of that. I wanted to take a number of characters and have them walk through their wolf winter, if you like, both literally, with the cold and the winter and the snow and the hunger and so on, but also emotionally.

The book switches perspectives slightly between several characters. What led you to that strategy?

Society in those days was very compartmentalized, so I knew that I wanted the main character to be a woman. When we read history, there’s so little about women. I wanted to write women back into that period. And I felt you had to have a few different views to get access, for example, to the church. Maija was always there; and then I felt that her character did not let her easily get involved in the more emotional or spiritual side of Blackåsen, so I let her daughter do that. And then I felt that we needed the priest to get access to the church and to the crown.

Was there a character you felt closest to?

Well… I like them all. But I like Maija and the priest very, very much. Frederika felt… a little bit close to home. I grew up in a very religious environment, and I just felt she came a little bit close to home, so I liked her less! But I was very, very fond of the priest and of Maija.

Are there heroes and villains in this story?

I think there are more strengths and weaknesses. You could say that there are certainly villains. But I guess what I wanted them to be was thoroughly human. So nobody, I don’t think, is straight out one way or straight out another. I wanted to work more with strengths and weaknesses of each character.

What kind of research did you do to evoke 1700s’ Sweden?

I read lots. I’m not a historian, and I get uncomfortable when people say this is a historical novel, because I know that I don’t have my education in that field–I have a terrible memory, and very poor attention to detail. It’s a story set in the past, is how I think about it.

I read everything I could find. In northern Sweden, very often when a town celebrates 200 years or 300 years, they publish a book. Those books are only locally published, and they give the history of the place and lots of anecdotes and so on. I worked a lot with books like that. Then, one of the most important things I did was interviews with my grandmother, her sister and their friends. Even though the story happened way earlier, Lapland didn’t actually change that much until after the Second World War. My grandmother used to say they lived like people had lived in all times. And then, one day to another, they went from shoes that they had made themselves to buying high-heeled shoes in the shop. It was a shock to everyone. It was like when falls a meter of snow and you wake up and you go out and you think, this is not my world! I recognize certain things, but not many others…. So, I spoke a lot to them about the practical details, how they cooked, how they shepherded goats, how the cold was, how the houses were, and I imagined that a lot of it wouldn’t have been that different. Because a lot of this sort of knowledge was passed down through generations–the way you did laundry, the way you worked with nature and so on. So that was really, really important for the practical life of the settlers. And I spoke to a lot of priests, but that was more to understand the faith of the state church as was in that time.

I wrote this story four times. The first time it was set in 1985, and it was really much more of a family saga. I was writing it to try and understand where we came from and why we were a certain way and why we were religious, why we didn’t speak of certain things, why we were frightened of certain things, and so on. And the second time it was set in, if I remember correctly, 1865. And then I wrote it set in the early 1800s, and then, finally, in 1717. And every time I wrote it I thought yes, but this is not where it starts, this is not the beginning. And the further I went back, the more I felt that 1717 was a great year, because the early 1700s was when the settlers began to arrive to Lapland, for various reasons. That particular year was a year when Sweden was at its peak. Sweden was a great power, but it was crumbling. The king had warred abroad for his whole life, and he had just returned to Sweden, and we were warring on several fronts and there was no more money and so many people had died in the years of war…. I thought that added something, that crumbling sense, where things change for the characters regardless of which social class they belonged to. I thought that was a good setting for them and for this story. It’s where the story felt comfortable. We’re so influenced by place, in the largest sense of the word; not just nature and climate, but political history and socially what’s going on and so on. I wanted a place that would have an impact on them, whether they were close to it or further away.

What did you feel upon completing your first novel for publication? What are you working on next?

It’s a bizarre thing, publishing your book. You’ve lived with it for so long and it’s so close to you. The delight is that others read it and talk about it, and they’ve seen things in it or found things in it that they feel are valuable, and then I feel elated. But the publication of it actually frightened me more than it made me happy. When I found out that I had actually sold the book, I went to my best friend and I cried. I said, I don’t want to be published! And he said, you’re insane. But that’s what I did. And then I called my husband and said I thought I had a brain tumor. Those are the two things I did.

Now I’m working on the second book, which is a very, very loose sequel. It’s set 130 years later, at Blackåsen, and so the mountain is the same and the supposed curse is the same, but the characters and the dilemma they face are completely different. I have found it easier in a way and harder in others, to write the second one. Easier in that I have more of a writing process. And also easier because I wrote it in so many different centuries that a lot of the research I’d already done. But harder in the sense that it’s much more real: it’s actually going to be a book! It’s not just a story for me any longer. And I find that makes it harder.


This interview originally ran on November 25, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: Jonas Karlsson

Following yesterday’s review of The Room, here’s Jonas Karlsson: On Acting in Writing.


Jonas Karlsson writes plays and short fiction. One of Sweden’s most prominent actors, Karlsson has performed on Sweden’s premier stage and in several acclaimed feature films and television series. In 2005, he made his debut as a playwright, earning rave reviews from audience and critics alike. Spurred by the joy of writing for the stage, Karlsson began writing fiction. He has published several short story collections; The Room is his first novel.

jonasThe Room is a short and apparently straightforward work, but takes us deeply inside the head of Björn, which is a strange place. How difficult is it to present such seeming simplicity?

Thank you! I’m glad to hear that. As an author, I believe it’s all about trying to get inside your main character’s head. If you’re close enough to the story, you’ll get an instinct for what is important and what isn’t. If I choose to describe the right details, it will give the reader a clear image–probably not exactly the same as mine, but one shaped by the reader’s own experiences.

Your background as an actor would imply that you haven’t spent a great deal of time in office settings, but this isn’t the first work of fiction you’ve set there. What experience are you drawing on?

That is correct–I’ve never worked in an office. But I’ve visited many offices and maybe I nurture a secret dream about working in a real open office landscape. I can tell you that the environment in the theater and movie business is more similar to offices than you could imagine. There are a lot of meetings, deals, hierarchies, informal decision paths, intrigues, jealousy–not to mention weirdos–there as well.

Did you intend this as another short story that got away from you, or did you set out to write a novel?

I actually never know how lengthy a story will be when I start writing. Most often I start with a situation or some dialogue that I think seems intriguing. Then I write on and see what happens. Sometimes it turns into nothing, other times it becomes a short story, and sometimes–pretty rarely–it turns into something as lengthy as this. It all depends on what I find along the way, and if I find it exciting to keep going. (I love this feeling of freedom in the writing process. It is like being a jazz musician and starting on a piece of music, and not knowing what will happen–all you can do is hang on.) The story about Björn was hard to let go.

Your decision to write in Björn’s own perspective or voice is a large part of what makes his story so creepy. How did you make that choice?

In the beginning, I only had the part where Björn finds a room. I put myself in his shoes and, as the character took shape, he became very special. When I had the whole story set in my mind, I actually tried to change it to third person because it was so hard to describe how the people around Björn reacted to him. But this proved not to be so easily done. I felt it was like exposing him: “Look here, what a crazy guy, and look at the weird stuff he does….” It became obvious that the story had to be experienced through Björn for it to work.

Besides, I think it’s very intriguing to gradually, over time, discover your narrator isn’t to be trusted.

What do you think makes Björn such a compelling protagonist?

I hope that I’ve given him depth, despite the many comic situations he finds himself in. I always try to imagine that I’m my main character–I have to think: Okay, if I was Björn, what have I done? Kind of like I do as an actor when I play a part.

How hard, or troubling, is it to write from inside a space of darkness or even mental illness?

Above all, it is very exciting. But I did have periods when I thought it was difficult and wondered if I was going to go mad, or if my readers would think that I had become weird and had all of those crazy ideas. At the same time, it is a wonderfully mind-blowing feeling to create and enter into the mind of such a special character. Again, it is similar to acting in that way.

Did you have any role in the translation of this novel by Neil Smith into English? What does the process look like? Is there any sort of back-and-forth?

Neil is such a good translator, and I trust in his judgment 100%. We really just talked about the end, which is altered a bit from the original text. Otherwise I let him do his work, which he does so well.


This interview originally ran on November 10, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

Maximum Shelf author interview: John Vaillant

Following yesterday’s review of The Jaguar’s Children, here’s John Viallant: Looking at the World Differently.


John Vaillant’s work has appeared in the New Yorker, the Atlantic, National Geographic and Outside, among other magazines. His two previous nonfiction books, The Tiger and The Golden Spruce, were award-winners and international bestsellers. Vaillant was born in Massachusetts and lives in Vancouver, B.C. The Jaguar’s Children is his first novel.

vaillantIs Hector’s story based on a specific true account? Where did you get the idea?

The idea came from a conglomeration of different border-crossing incidents. There was one particularly awful case in which a boxcar load of immigrants attached to a train was taken across the border and never opened. It wasn’t found for weeks, until it got to Iowa. Just a hideous, nightmarish situation. I started wondering, what happens in there? What would you go through? And then my family and I lived in Oaxaca for a year, 2009-2010. In Oaxaca, water trucks are a common sight. On one side, they read, “Agua por Uso Humano,” “water for human use,” and I kept thinking about that, and I kept thinking about thirst, and the anagram of agua and jaguar. It just fell into place. All these disconnected observations and ideas gradually coalesced. There was a moment when this fellow, the narrator, just announced himself to me, in January 2010.

This is your first published fiction. What led you here from your past work in nonfiction?

Trying to find a container that was suitable for the story I wanted to tell. Needless to say, Oaxaca is a really interesting place–Mexico is full of stories. There was a nonfiction story that was jaguar-related, that I was pursuing and actively researching down there, and for a couple of reasons it didn’t fully coalesce. A lot of what I was experiencing were more like travel anecdotes, but I didn’t want to write a travel book. It felt too trivial. So then I asked, how do I take all of these things I’m seeing and hearing and feeling, and put them all together in a place where they will make sense and hang together, and create a synergetic narrative and a picture of what is going on down there right now? And the novel was the right form.

This is also somewhat a departure from writing you’ve done about the relationship between people and the natural environment.

I’m really interested in hearing voices that I, or we, don’t usually get to hear, so that’s in a sense what the books are about: creating a platform for these people or beings who are generally invisible, to get some air time. You know, it’s not a selfless, altruistic mission on my part–I’m really curious and I want to see what that world is like, I want to understand it better and re-create it in a way that feels authentic. Ideally people who live that life, whether they’re tigers or conservationists, or biologists or foresters or Mexicans in Oaxaca, will feel that their realities were accurately reflected. So the whole natural world connection is almost incidental, honestly. For me, those margins where human beings and the natural world collide, that’s where the most dynamic tension is. It’s a kind of a front line, and also a fault line. Whether it’s human beings and corn, or human beings and thirst, or human beings and tigers, or the forest, there is a common thread. But it’s certainly not intentional; it’s just where my natural interest seems to go.

Did you go to Oaxaca with any work in mind, a book or a story?

I was deep in The Tiger then. I was in the middle of edits and to be perfectly honest, all I wanted to do was finish that book, lie in a hammock and read books that didn’t have tigers in them. Or any other big cats. That really was the plan.

And here we are.

Here we are. That’s the beauty of the muse, really. All the books I’ve done have really come unannounced. It wasn’t a premeditated objective to write any of those stories, they’ve all come to me and I see them as gifts of sorts. Really time-consuming ones. This again came right when I was just about wrapping up The Tiger and ready to read Under the Volcano or some other books about Mexico. And instead, Hector showed up.

Hector’s perspective is of a Mexican indio from Oaxaca, and his voice is convincing.

I do have a strange, kind of inside track to Mexico. For three generations my father’s family lived there, and I grew up steeped in Mexican lore as it was refracted through their experience. My grandfather was a well-known archaeologist who wrote the first comprehensive history of the Aztec nation, a book called Aztecs of Mexico. My grandmother told us many stories about him. Her house, all her kids’ houses, including my father’s, were filled with things from Mexico, some of them very very old, none of them more modern than 1930 because that’s when they came back. So Mexican art and artifacts were featured in my upbringing, as were stories of my grandfather.

In what ways was your year in Oaxaca helpful?

My wife is a potter and an anthropologist, and she wanted to spend time with traditional Mexican potters. I would follow her around in her trips to these villages, quite remote and very very traditional, so we’d meet people who didn’t speak any Spanish at all. People who have never really succumbed to the dominant culture. They were nominally Christian, but observing and worshiping traditional deities and certainly pursuing traditional practices, whether it was ceramics or agriculture. So it was really like going into another world. I had a notebook and a camera and my innate curiosity. The fact that I had a deep Mexican connection in the family gave me more of a motive to try to understand it. What was it that kept three generations of my family down there when they were all Americans? And perfectly well-connected Americans; they could have had fine lives up here, but for some reason Mexico was the place that offered them something different, something more.

But ultimately this is a story about a Zapotec guy from southern Mexico. Think about the U.S./Mexican border: it’s the most active border on the planet, the site of the largest human migration on earth, and Oaxaqueños play a huge role in that. One in three people from that state go to the States at some point to work, most of them illegally. And all kinds of things happen to them. As I came to understand that, it just started to feel more and more important.

And there was another inspiration. Just as I vowed not to read any more books about tigers, my father-in-law gave me The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, which won the Booker Prize in 2008. It’s a wonderful novel about a low-caste, indigenous guy from northern India, who notices that there’s something big going on in Bangalore and Delhi. Big money is being made. He’s very smart, but he just doesn’t understand the system well enough to know even how the money’s being made. And that’s how a lot of indigenous Oaxaqueños approach the U.S.–they may have family up there, they may not, but they do not understand the culture terribly well–or often the hazards of the journey, which are many, and can be absolutely lethal. So you have these people who are capable in their sphere but naïve about the wider world, making the journey north, and a lot of them come to grief on the border.

Was this book as difficult or traumatic to write as it may be to read?

I wondered a lot about why I would want to return to this place over and over again, and go back into that truck. It’s a hideous, deadly place. But I thought, nobody else is probably going to do this. And this is something that happens to people, that shouldn’t be happening. And Hector was a very compelling person. But as far as difficulty goes–it was extremely difficult. The novel is a different animal, so to speak, than nonfiction, and certain narrative tools do translate, but being in that voice and pacing it and dealing with the other voices… really was new to me. You’re not really the same after doing something like that. I look at the world differently and feel it differently as a result of spending so much time there.

So the challenge of immersing yourself in the painful subject matter was ultimately rewarding, which I think is the case for readers as well. This is about more than just a nightmarish border-crossing incident.

So much of the book isn’t about that. It’s really about being a young person in a very troubled–some could argue broken–society and first trying to find his place in it, and then ultimately having circumstances align in such a way that he has to leave. The time you spend in the truck is desperate and terrible, but also you get to see how strong Hector is, and what he’s made of. He’s extraordinary in some ways, but he’s not superhuman. It’s amazing what people survive. It’s amazing the kind of clarity and wisdom those kinds of stressors can evoke and inspire. I think it’s a crucible for him, and for his character. I think all of us undergo tests, some of them truly terrible–it’s part of the human experience. Hector is a guy trying to figure it out. Trying to survive at the immediate level, but also at the cultural and occupational levels. The world is changing really fast around us. There are pressures being brought to bear that I have no control over, so what do I have control over? How should I respond to the people around me, to those who are trying to help me and those who are trying to impede me or hurt me? In that sense it feels like a kind of fundamental story.


This interview originally ran on November 5, 2014 as a Shelf Awareness special issue. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!

book beginnings on Friday: When Books Went to War by Molly Guptill Manning

Thanks to Rose City Reader for hosting this meme. To participate, share the first line or two of the book you are currently reading and, if you feel so moved, let us know what your first impressions were based on that first line.

books went

You can easily understand, of course, what attracts me about this book: history, even books in history, making a difference in the unlikeliest of places. I was very excited to receive this in the mail. It begins:

“Were you ever so upset emotionally that you had to tell someone about it, to sit down and write it out?” a Marine asked in a letter to the author Betty Smith. “That is how I feel now,” he confided.

And so it continues: confiding in nature, filled with primary sources, on the impact of books in war. Stick around!

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

Halloween, or Dia de los Muertos, in book history

This post is part of a series.

To celebrate Halloween (today), or Dia de los Muertos (this weekend), let’s take a look at today’s date in authorly history.

reader's book of daysAccording to A Reader’s Book of Days, on October 31, 1795, John Keats was born, and in 2008, Studs Terkel died. I have not read much Keats, but I think I like him. I am very grateful to have a copy of Terkel’s The Great War on my to-be-read Britannica bookshelves, a gift from my buddy Gerber that I look forward to reading…someday.

In 1967, Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America was published. I am not sure why this resonates with me. Perhaps Maclean references him?

And in 1615:

Miguel de Cervantes hinted at the end of the first book of Don Quixote that further adventures might be forthcoming, but before he could complete his own sequel, a rival appeared that credited another author, Alonso Fernandez de Avellaneda, on the title page and insulted Cervantes as old, friendless, and boring. Cervantes, meanwhile, took advantage of being second by adding a scene in which Don Quixote and Sancho Panza themselves mock the false sequel. In the second book’s dedication, written on this day, he mentioned “the loathing and disgust caused by another Don Quixote,” and in the book’s preface he completed his revenge: humbly declining to abuse his usurper, he instead told a tale of a madman who, after inflating a dog from behind through a hollow reed, asks, “Do your worships think, now, that it is an easy thing to blow up a dog?” “Does your worship think now,” added Cervantes, “that it is an easy thing to write a book?”

And that is a sufficiently odd anecdote, I think, to recommend its being shared here.

You may recall that I read book one of Don Quixote several years ago, and solemnly promised to get around to book two someday. I have not. And I hear book two is better, too. Sigh. So many books…

Happy weekend, friends.

Teaser Tuesdays: The World of Raymond Chandler: In His Own Words, edited by Barry Day

Teaser Tuesdays is a weekly bookish meme, hosted by MizB of Should Be Reading.

chandler

Yes, it’s true, I just recently did a book beginning; but Chandler is just so quotable (thus this whole book, of course). I couldn’t let this one pass us by.

I write when I can and I don’t write when I can’t, always in the morning or the early part of the day. You get very gaudy ideas at night but they don’t stand up.

That first sentence is unclear: which condition happens always in the morning or the early part of the day? the can, or the can’t? I choose to believe that it is the can; many respected writers (ahem Hemingway) do or did their best work in the mornings. I am certainly a morning person myself. And I like this idea that our nighttime ideas are “gaudy”; I think that’s perfect. I get ideas at night, but they never stand up to sunlit scrutiny. What about you?

This quotation comes from an uncorrected advance proof and is subject to change.

The Lodger by Louisa Treger

In a lively debut novel, H.G. Wells takes a back seat to his lover, the rebellious Dorothy Richardson, a literary figure deserving of the spotlight.

lodger
Louisa Treger’s debut novel, The Lodger, opens in 1906. Family tragedy has landed Dorothy Richardson in a boarding house in a less-than-savory part of London, working at a dentist’s office for a pittance and living hand-to-mouth. She is relieved when Jane, an old friend, extends an invitation to visit her country estate for a weekend of relaxation. Jane has recently married an up-and-coming writer, H.G. Wells. Bertie, as he is called, turns out to be a strong personality: “He was like a volcano, continually bubbling over with urgent thoughts and incandescent ideas.” Dorothy is not sure at first whether she is attracted or repelled; his lively eyes and magnetic intensity are marred by zealous and sometimes off-putting opinions. The comfort of an intellectual who listens seriously to her ideas, however, proves irresistible, and between arguing about science and admiring Bertie’s writing, Dorothy finds herself helplessly falling for the husband of her best and oldest friend.

Bertie assures Dorothy that he and Jane have an agreement that allows for extramarital relationships, although this arrangement is as emotionally complex and problematic as it sounds. Having fallen headlong into an affair, Dorothy is then torn between her hard-won independence, which she feels is worth even the high price of poverty, and her love for a man who needs more of her than she can give. When a strikingly beautiful suffragette named Veronica Leslie-Jones moves into Dorothy’s boarding house in London and becomes a singular new friend, Dorothy’s energies and loyalties are still more divided. Writing becomes the outlet for her pain; Bertie has long encouraged her to make such an effort but, fittingly, Dorothy discovers this outlet, and her talent, on her own terms and schedule.

The Lodger is based on the real life of Dorothy Richardson, a groundbreaking but little-known author of the early 20th century. Treger’s taut evocation of Dorothy’s life and emotional struggles is gripping from the very first page, and readers are thrust into Bertie’s overwhelming presence just as helplessly and thoroughly as Dorothy is. While an unflattering light is shed on her famous lover–H.G. Wells comes off as obnoxiously self-centered–Dorothy herself is undoubtedly the star. She is a sensitive, passionate woman wrestling with the conventions of her time, and even while she experiences several traumas, Dorothy is a source of inspiration–for Treger, for those around her and for the contemporary reader as well.


This review originally ran in the October 2, 2014 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish fun!


Rating: 7 hot London attics.
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