Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian writer whose stories have appeared in Unstuck, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, Metazen, and other literary journals. Her short story collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin, was published by firthFORTH Books in 2012. She was also nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the British Science Fiction Award that year. Berit’s novel, The Empty City, was translated and publishedin French as Une Ville Vide (Publie Monde) in 2013.
We reviewed Berit Ellingsen’s novel, The Empty City, and caught up with her for an interview.
I was wondering if you were thinking of a particular city when you wrote the Empty City. What city or what cities would you say resemble the city in your book the most?
I had several cities, from Berlin to Seoul to Vancouver, or the essence of the modern city, in mind when I started writing. Most cities do have characteristic landmarks or buildings, and even a special atmosphere or flavor, but with globalization and modernization, they also become more and more similar to one another, with similar type of stores, apartment buildings, business high rises, industrial areas in the periphery, and such.
For The Empty City I wanted a nameless city so the reader would identify as much as possible with the location and the setting.
There’s a quiet energy to the writing in this novel. It’s the same thing that I’d observed in your collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin as well. Who would you say are your major influences?
I’m very glad you see some similarities between The Empty City and the stories in Beneath the Liquid Skin!
The influences are so many, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, JK Huysmans, Comte de Lautreamont, Edgar Allan Poe, to haiku writers such as Matsuo Basho, Kobayashi Issa and Yosa Buson, and more current writers such as Albert Camus, Ursula LeGuin, the Japanese writer Naoyuki Ii, the Finnish-Swedish writer Irmelin Sandman Lilius, and the films by Terrence Malick, Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Michael Haneke, and Andrei Tarkovsky.
Current writers such as Kathy Fish, Ethel Rohan, Tania Hershman, Kristine Ong Muslim, Sam Rasnake, Matthew Salesses, Jeff Vandermeer, Paul Jessup, and many others, have been influential.
What was the inspiration or the seed from which The Empty City grew?
Before I started The Empty City I really wanted to write something longer. My life situation changed and it was time to start writing what had been brewing at the back of my mind for a while. It was probably inspired by many different sources and the new opportunity to actually sit down and just write. I wrote the first draft with as few constraints as possible, then cut much of it and tweaked and edited a lot. It was a long, but fascinating process.
One reason why it’s not talked about so much is that I self-published it. I wasn’t good at finding reviewers or sending it to book blogs for review. I didn’t think many people would enjoy it.
How much do you plan when you write your stories? Would you say you’re a pantser or a plotter?
I’m very much a pantser. I can plot a little, but the story usually changes while I write it, sometimes drastically, and I just follow those changes as they happen. I make notes to keep track of events, but usually quite few, or only after the first draft is done. It might have be nice to plot more, but it doesn’t seem to be the right method for me now.
There are many lovely lines in this novel, but one of the ones that captivated me was this where you write: Now the world played out inside him…He was completely and irrevocably real.
Would you like to talk a little bit more about how your protagonist reached this point in the novel? Is it reflective of a personal epiphany?
Oh yeah, like in the story, when someone first notices the gap between thoughts and that there is a difference between events and our perception of them, this discovery tends to become clearer and clearer over time, just through whatever happens in their everyday lives.
It is the recognition of a part of oneself that is there all the time and which all humans share, and which our everyday culture has little knowledge of and religions tend to ascribe something mythological or unattainable to, but is an accessible and an integral part of everyone, even if we don’t always notice it.
Another thing that fascinated me about The Empty City is that feeling of space—there’s also that feeling of solitariness despite of the fact that your protagonist interacts with other people in the story. Would you like to say something about that? (Was it intentional or did it happen organically?)
Part of the reason for that may be that the story plays out more on the inner plane than in outer events, so it seems more solitary. And I do think the protagonist is alone for most of the time in the various sequences. It seemed the most straightforward thing to do in the story.
What is your own take on genre and genre boundaries?
As you can probably guess I don’t like the genre boundaries at all. They’re small and restrictive and keep writers and readers in their comfort zones, and worse, make people reluctant to try something outside the boundaries. The genre “limits” are also artificial and pretty arbitrary, but I guess they make things easier for marketing and audience targeting, and hence are difficult to change.
I try not to worry too much about the genre boundaries and assumptions when I write, but it’s hard to shake them.
What is it like to be an sff writer in Norway?
There are a few SFF writers working and publishing in Norway, but because there are only a couple of literary journals (no creative-writing MFA “track” with university-backed journals, like in the US), I assume that Norwegian writers in all genres publish their work directly in books with the Norwegian publishing companies. Maybe some also publish online on their own websites or as ebooks. I’m not sure since I have not submitted anything to a Norwegian journal or publisher.
You’ve written about your feelings regarding genre boundaries, is this reflective of the attitude in Norway towards genre boundaries?
I don’t think it is. There was talk a few years back that Norwegian publishers were looking for SFF young adult, paranormal romance, and fantasy manuscripts. I see that a few homegrown SFF books are published each year, but I suspect that the translations of the biggest fantasy books are more popular.
Here the big genre is crime fiction, and it seems to have very clear boundaries towards for example literary fiction. I assume other genres have equally strong boundaries.
I’ve read a good bit of your work in English. I was wondering if you also wrote in Norwegian and if there’s a difference in dynamics when you write in English as when you write in Norwegian.
I usually don’t write fiction in Norwegian, but I do write non-fiction (popular science articles) in Norwegian. Which I’m glad I do, otherwise I might lose even more Norwegian words than I already have. Learning more in one writing styles does influence the other form, which is a good thing.
What was your compelling reason with regards to choice of language to write your fiction in?
It wasn’t a decision that was really planned, it mostly just happened. For years I had been reading almost exclusively in English, both fiction and textbooks at university, so I was using English a lot.
I wrote a few stories in Norwegian, but thought I’d try to write in English, and it made writing “click” much better. One reason for that may be that English is a more specific language than Norwegian, and has a wider vocabulary, and I prefer that for writing.
What are some of the things you struggle with as a writer? How do you deal with those things?
My biggest difficulty as a writer is to set aside time and energy to actually write or edit. Life is busy and also has many fun and some not so fun distractions. I’ve found that the best way to deal with this is to write, and especially edit, during the day, whenever that’s at all possible. I’m most awake then and that makes it less difficult to write or edit my way through a challenging story or part of the manuscript.
I usually get slightly obsessed with the stories I’m working on, and just let the “obsession” work itself out by writing, without exhausting myself or getting too obsessed. That makes finding the time and energy to write much easier, almost effortless at times, but difficult parts that I know will require a lot of work or several rewrites, can still feel like a chore.
My other biggest challenge is to trust my own instincts in how a story should read and play out. Therefore, I always try to follow the story itself and worry less about how it “ought to be” or how I want it to be, and just write and keep in mind that things can always be changed once the first draft is done. As with writing itself, learning to do this is a work in progress.
What are you working on right now? Would you like to talk a little bit about it?
I’m currently working on a novel that is a sort of follow-up to The Empty City. It has the same protagonist, but a different structure, setting, and plot. It’s about climate change, environmental activism, personal agency and responsibility, and cabins.
Where can we find you on the internet?
I keep a blog at http://beritellingsen.com/, tweet at https://twitter.com/BeritEllingsen, and have a Facebook profile at https://www.facebook.com/berit.ellingsen.1. The profiles are open and anyone can comment or send a personal message if they want to.
You can read Rowena’s review of The Empty City here.
*credit for Berit Ellingsen’s photograph goes to H. Jensen