The Swedish Invasion: An Interview with Karin Tidbeck
By Dustin Monk
28 May 2012
Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck attended Clarion Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers' Workshop in 2010, and there was much discussion of writing gnomes. A short story collection, Vem är Arvid Pekon? was published in Sweden in September 2010, and another is set to be released later this year from Cheeky Frawg Books; her short story "Jagganath" first published in Weird Tales #358—was featured on Drabblecast in March. It was great to catch up with Ms. Tidbeck; in this interview we discuss the speculative fiction market overseas, LARPing, the dark and dangerous worlds of Tove Jansson, and, of course, those gnomes.
Dustin Monk: Your first published story in English was "Augusta Prima," in Weird Tales. It concerns the titular character's curiosity about the nature of her world and time which, as she points out, "can't be measured properly here." Sweden has several months of perpetual darkness and several months of perpetual light; did this influence the story at all and how does it affect your own sense of time, if at all?
Karin Tidbeck: I grew up in Stockholm, which is in the south, so no total darkness or light. However, a midwinter day is maybe six or seven hours long, and summer nights are so short that it never gets completely dark. Sunrise and sunset is a slow, very gradual process that can last for hours. I suppose the way this affects my own sense of time is that I'm always a little jet-lagged. Midday isn't the same time as it was last week; or, suddenly dusk starts at five p.m. and not seven. It can be hell on your sleep cycle. We spend a lot of time in twilight, which is a liminal condition, a no-man's land. The light has an eerie and melancholy quality. I suppose this has carried over into my writing as well, both in the sense of the eerie and melancholy, but also the sensation of having stepped sideways into another world where the sun has stopped in its course.
DM: You're working on an English translation of your short story collection, Vem är Arvid Pekon. What do you find to be the most difficult aspect of translating a work, even your own?
KT: The main challenge is that you don't have the same intuitive grasp of a second language as you do with your first. I'm not talking about skill, but about how words resonate with you. Swedish is the language in which my brain has been programmed; the meaning of words is instinctive and immediate. I can manipulate that language with precision and find the words that feel right. With English, it's sometimes like writing with gloves on because the language isn't hard-wired into me. I must be getting better, though, because I started out with mittens.
Dialect and register is another issue. Some of my Swedish stories are a little troublesome because I've written them in a specific dialect, for example a story in phonetic working-class Stockholm dialect. On another level, there's vocabulary or turns of phrase that identify the speaker's geographical or social origin. Then there's using sentence structure and punctuation to convey the general feel of the story. All of these need an English analogue. It can only be an approximation, because the two languages come with different cultural baggage and worldview. So what I'm really doing is a re-imagining, not a translation. I've ended up with two voices as a writer: a Swedish and an English one.
DM: In all your work there is an "unsettling" feeling—as if everything is a little off-kilter, almost like vertigo. Your stories always leave the reader with a knot in their stomachs—the good kind of knot, the kind that makes you want to read the story again, and then again. Who were the writers who influenced you in your formative years?
KT: I was a bookworm of epic proportions, like most writers I guess. Some works of fiction changed me slowly, by their background radiation. Some reading experiences immediately and dramatically changed the way I looked at the world and myself. Most of the latter experiences reinforced a conviction I had that reality was fragile, that it's just a thin veneer that can at any moment be torn asunder.
Early childhood was marinated in folk tales and the works of Tove Jansson. I especially remember reading her picture book Who Will Comfort Toffle?, the story of a very small critter who's terrified of everything but eventually masters his fear and confronts the most horriffic being in Jansson's mythos: the Groke. Jansson's works were the first I read that acknowledged that the world and the mind can be a dark and dangerous place, but also that evil isn't a simple thing. Take the Groke, for example. She was monstrous not because she was evil, but because she was so lonely.
When I was nine, my dad gave me The Fellowship of the Ring for a car trip, which started an obsession with all things Tolkien that lasted until I slid into Gothdom at fifteen. I'm not sure how it left a mark on my writing, but I came out of it with an even stronger interest in other worlds.
When I was fifteen I encountered H. P. Lovecraft's works. It was way too early, as I wasn't a very mature or stable fifteen-year-old. I devoured Lovecraft's stuff all at once, and had this epiphany that all of it was true, and Cthulhu was about to rise from R'lyeh and eat everyone. It took years to get over that one. It was horrible at the time, but now I see it as a very valuable experience: to be inside the mind of someone who has that kind of belief.
I transitioned from Lovecraft to the paranormal via At the Mountains of Madness, and became obsessed with it for a while: Erich von Däniken, Zecharia Sitchin, John A. Keel, Charles Fort. I was especially nuts about lost civilizations, alternate worlds, and cryptozoology.
Reading Neil Gaiman's Sandman was a major turning point. I was very involved in my own dream life at the time, so the Sandman stories hit me on a visceral level. I even remember the first time I read them: it was late summer 1992, while waiting in a long line for tickets to The Cure. I borrowed an issue of a magazine called Inferno—a Swedish publication with translated comics from the U.S. It featured the Sandman story "The Sound of Her Wings": the one where Dream is bummed out on a park bench and Death shows up to teach him some of life's lessons. It was like a door swinging open in my head. I had no idea that kind of stuff existed!
I could go on for a while, but I think I'll stop there.
DM: During Clarion, you showed us pictures from some of your Live-Action Roleplaying adventures. It looked like a hell of a good time, by the way. Do you think LARPing has influenced your writing? If so, how?
KT: Yes. I should probably mention that the type of LARPing I've been doing is very character- and immersion- oriented, heavily influenced by psychodrama and theatre, and with a sociological and political slant. For me, it's about exploring unknown territory and testing your own limits and boundaries. It's an enormous amount of time spent immersing yourself into a fictitious person's mind. I've made a point of trying to play roles that are as different from myself and earlier characters as possible. I'd say that LARPing has influenced me in that I've become focused on exploring alien psychologies, sets of morals and ethics that differ from my own, and experimenting with social structures.
DM: You have a story, "The Aunts," in ODD?, an anthology edited by Ann and Jeff Vandermeer and published in July on their Cheeky Frawg ebook imprint. The story is, well, odd. Tell me a little bit about it. What do you think makes a story "odd" or "normal"?
KT: "The Aunts" is about just that: a trio of sacred, enormous women who exist in a loop of life, death, and self-cannibalization. It's set in the same world as "Augusta Prima," and therefore also deals with the nature and passage—or non-passage—of time. I wrote the story to explore their world, and also what would happen if the rules of their universe were broken. I'm not sure how odd I think it is, but then I don't think many writers would define their own stuff as odd.
As for what stories I perceive as odd, well . . . an odd story is something I didn't see coming, a perspective I had no idea existed, and that makes me feel like someone just opened a small window in my head.
DM: You've said before that Sweden's SF/F/H community is very small and underappreciated, but has a larger, more well-respected "literary" movement; yet, you were recently awarded the Swedish Author's Fund—a grant of 50,000 SEK. Congratulations, first of all! Do you think speculative fiction is gaining popularity among Swedish readers?
KT: Thank you! Yes, I've been grousing about how publishers and reviewers have long been treating fantastic fiction as either crap or kids' stuff (and therefore crap). Historically it hasn't been uncommon for fantasy to be marketed to children and young adults, even if it's clearly adult material. Fantastic fiction is a phase you're supposed to grow out of.
However, I think things are definitely getting better over here. There is a horror wave going through the industry right now, with many very talented writers, and their success is very helpful to speculative fiction as a whole. There are also some very interesting urban fantasy writers. And there are more SF/F/H-friendly indie publishers than I ever remember seeing. The grant from the Swedish Author's Fund was a wonderful surprise, not just because I was piss-poor, but because I had fully expected The Establishment to ignore me. I had my spleen gun warmed up and everything.
As for popularity with the readers, I don't think readers have been the biggest problem—the readers are much more fond of speculative fiction than the publishing industry seems to be. Because of the dearth of translated fantastic fiction, people started reading the originals in English instead. I used to work at Science Fiction-bokhandeln, a store that sells a lot of American and British SF, Fantasy and Horror. During the '90s and early '00s they started doing so well that they almost couldn't keep up with demand. They now have stores in three major towns and constantly have to expand to larger locales.
Speaking to an editor recently, she stated that many writers of fantastic fiction are now pointless to translate into Swedish, since the readership has crossed over to the English originals. The upside of that is that there has instead been an increase of translated works from other languages, like Russian, Finnish, Japanese, and German. And that's fantastic.
DM: Would you mind telling us about the gnomes? The writing gnomes? (Here's a link where you can see the gnomes in action: http://karintidbeck.com/2010/10/15/vatteorkestern/)
KT: Mweheh. The gnomes.
I'm kind of neurotic (to put it mildly) and tend to have too many thought processes running at the same time. At some point I was so frustrated that I told my fiancé that "it's a fucking a gnome orchestra in there." It stuck, because that's exactly what it is. There are a gazillion gnomes in there, all with their assigned tasks. Some take care of stories (it looks like brain storming at an ad agency); a large group with signs handles translation (those are a little unreliable. Sometimes one of them will pick up signs in the wrong language, and then look confused when it doesn't work); some of them do the internal monologue (with a separate string section for those moments of anxiety). Somewhere in there is a submarine section with a captain who looks a lot like Jürgen Prochnow. And so on, and so on. Of course, at bedtime they all run around like a bunch of five-year-olds on a sugar high. This is all probably a little ridiculous, but hey, I've heard worse. I think.
DM: What else can you tell us about upcoming publications?
KT: Autumn is when things will get interesting, to put it mildly. My first novel in Swedish—Amatka—is planned for release in mid-September, and my short story collection in English with the working title Jagannath (published by Cheeky Frawg Books) will be out in U.S. a few weeks later.
Amatka is a story about colonizing a world impossible for humans to fully grasp and understand, and what happens to a hopeful utopian society when it has to take drastic measures to survive. It's also about the relation between language, mind, and reality, quite literally so in this case. This book took many years to write, and I went through about three or four formats before I finally found the right shape and structure. The fact that it's actually about to get published after all this time feels very strange. I'm planning to start translation into English as soon as I catch my breath.
Jagannath contains translations from my 2010 Swedish collection, Vem är Arvid Pekon?, stories published in the U.S. magazines during 2011, and some previously unpublished material.
There are some anthology appearances on the horizon, but it's a little early to talk about them.
Karin Tidbeck lives in Malmö, Sweden, where she works as a writer, creative writing instructor, and project assistant. She has published stories in Swedish since 2002 and in English since 2010. She is a graduate of Clarion 2010. Visit her at www.karintidbeck.com.