Karin Tidbeck is one of the finest writers I’ve recently had the privilege to meet. I remember reading Jagganath and being quite enchanted by Karin’s voice as well as the range and the depth of her imagination.
There’s always a danger of stories sounding samey when you have a collection of work coming from one author, but Karin’s work is anything but that. I love how the element of playfulness shines through even in the works that are somber in nature. Tidbeck’s prose is crisp, clear and incisive and her stories have that element of surprise that electrifies the reader and just makes you want to read more.
It’s no wonder that Jagganath has been showered with praise and awards. I completely loved this book and I look forward to reading more of Karin Tidbeck’s future work.
(Photo: Karin Tidbeck by Charlotte Frantzdatter Johansen. Used with permission.)
I loved the uniqueness of the stories in Jagganath. Would you like to share some of the inspiration behind the stories in Jagganath, what were the seeds they sprung from and how did you go about developing these stories?
A couple of stories have a definite origin, such as “Who is Arvid Pekon?” and “Augusta Prima”, both written after LARPs, but most of them are just the drippings from whatever was on my mental compost heap at the time: books, film, experiences, storytelling. I know of people who plan stories out in their heads. That confuses me. If I do that, I end up censoring myself, rejecting the first impulse in favor of something that seems cooler or less unoriginal. And I end up with something that may sound smart, but has no life because it was artificially created.
So, about developing the stories. The earliest story in Jagannath is from 2002, so my methods have changed over time. What’s consistent is that I don’t really have eurekas. I have to write myself into a state where ideas can start to form. In practice this means filling many notebooks with mostly disjointed rants which I then have to sift through for material. Very occasionally an idea or a sentence will pop up while I’m doing something else, but it’s so rare that I remember exactly which ones: “Beatrice”, for example. (I was crossing a street when a little voice in my head said conversationally: “a man fell in love with an airship.”) : I’ll write as much as I can by hand, and then transcribe it, editing in the process and filling in gaps. I don’t really work chronologically, I hop back and forth a lot. I do a lot of rewrites and edits. Most finished stories have little resemblance to the original draft. I guess what’s changed over time is that I work more intuitively now – I used to be more concerned with writing a story from beginning to end.
The Swedish novel I published last year, Amatka, was developed very differently though: it started out as a series of dreams that I wrote down, and became an experiment that took years and went through several different formats. I wanted to see if my dream world had a geography that could be mapped. I’m happy to tell you more about that project if you’re interested. I wrote a small post about it on my blog, here: http://karintidbeck.com/2012/03/11/publishing-news-amatka-a-novel/
What was the most challenging story for you to write and what made it so?
“Jagannath”, without a doubt, because it was the most alien perspective I’d inhabited so far. It was a world that I at first knew nothing about, and the people whose psyche I didn’t understand. It was an exercise in examining a mind with a very different view of reality, and very much about not trying to figure out what these people were but instead feeling my way to them. I also had very little time to write the first draft, since it was at Clarion. So it was these four or five days of frantically fumbling in the dark, channeling these characters and the world onto the page without ever stopping to consider what I was writing.
I read your novel blurb on your website and was quite intrigued by what you wrote about language being both and tool and a threat. It’s interesting to read this as there have been on and off conversations regarding non-anglophones and the use of English. Would you like to say more about this view of language as being both tool and threat?
That specific wording concerned the function of language in the novel. It’s very literal: the spoken and written word literally changes the fabric of reality. Because of that, language is very tightly regulated and used to “remind” reality of what shape it should have for the people in it to survive. For example you have to actually paint or carve an object’s name onto it: a chair must be labeled CHAIR and so on. If the label fades or is scraped off, you risk that chair turning into the sort of ur-goop it was originally formed from. The society itself is a direct result of what living in this kind of reality means. They’re not allowed to speak in metaphors or similes – imagine what would happen if you liken an object to something else! – or homonyms, for that part. Everything they say and write must function to maintain the agreed-upon reality.
Amatka isn’t a political commentary or parallel, it’s a thought experiment. But the idea of language as a reality shaper is a hobby horse of mine. Language works the same way in our world as it does in Amatka, although not on a quite as physical level. Reality is what we name it. This of course is why language is so powerful, even in its most seemingly innocent forms. A word is never just a word.
I think it’s wonderful that you can translate your own work, what challenges have you encountered in doing this? Do you find yourself rewriting passages or changing some things around? Are there concepts that are easier in English? What about in Swedish?
I wrote about this in the afterword to Jagannath, and it really is the best way I’ve been able to explain it. So, apologies for copypasting, but I’ve tried to word it differently in other interviews but it always comes back to these examples and conclusions:
Concepts and stories definitely work in different ways depending on language. For example, “Jagannath” and “Aunts” taste different, partly because of the sound of words associated with the stories. They are both concerned with anatomy, and the English terms I found appropriate were often softer and less abrupt. The word flesh, for example, can be drawn out and rolls around in the mouth; the Swedish analogue kött (sounds similar to the English shut) is hard and brutal in comparison, and also means ”meat,” which is not the feel I wanted. The same goes for intestine versus tarm, blubber versus späck and so on,
with the exception of slemhinna which sounds far better than mucous membrane.
Some concepts and cultural overtones refuse translation, but that’s the case with any language. If I say something has a “dansband” atmosphere, a Swede will immediately know what I’m talking about and probably cringe. Few people outside Scandinavia will b familiar with the sickly sweet faux-country music played by men in identical frilly pastel suits, and the claustrophobic image of small-town monoculture that comes with it (whether that culture actually exists is uncertain, but the cliché certainly does). So in these stories I’ve left in some words that could technically be translated but would completely lose their meaning. On the other hand, some small details have to be translated—even if some nuance is lost—because they aren’t vital to the story and would just trip up the reader. In “Rebecka,” there’s a group of kids dressed in ski overalls that in Swedish would have been bävernylon: beaver nylon, a fabric so strong that you could be dragged behind a car without getting a scratch. The image of kids in beaver nylon overalls is a sort of shorthand for innocent childhood and everyday Sweden. Figuring out which of these concepts require translation and which do not has been a great exercise for understanding my own language . Cultural shorthand is convenient but can also make you a little sloppy, so being forced to think about what a throwaway phrase really means jolts you out of writing on autopilot.
Who are your major influences and how have they influenced you in particular?
It’s difficult to pick out specific influences because I’ve read pretty widely, and I end up picking different writers every time someone asks. But today, it would go something like this:
I grew up with the stories of Tove Jansson, both her illustrated children’s books and her novels and short stories. Much of her stuff terrified me, but she was important in the way that she refused to flinch from telling children about the darker aspects of existence. There’s also a sort of earthy quirkiness, both dark and light, that I suspect has rubbed off on me.
Neil Gaiman’s graphic novels, especially the Sandman series, were very important to me as a teenager. I was very concerned with dreams, and I had similar ideas about reality, and here was someone who had made it into a comic. It was very much like coming home. I started reading Robert Anton Wilson at about the same time, and especially the Cosmic Trigger books made a big impression in that I became very interested in conspiracy theories and Forteana. I still am, although these days it’s maybe more on a folkloric level.
And then there’s Ursula le Guin, always Ursula and her ideas of gender and social structures. I grew up with the Wizard of Earthsea books, and then started reading her SF later on. The Left Hand of Darkness and the collection The Birthday of the World have been the most important ones, I think.
Say you were stranded on a desert island, what three books would you like to have with you?
I think I’d bring a survival manual and a flora and fauna. Also a blank notebook in which I’d record my adventures: either for publishing my marvelous adventures when I get back home, or so that people know what happened to me when they find my (mummified? Mangled? Who knows) corpse.
Are you working on a new novel or a new collection? Would you like to share something about it?
I’m working on several different projects, both fiction and non-fiction, but I usually don’t like to talk about them until they’re done (or almost done).
What was the most recent thing you read that impressed you? How did it impress you and why did it linger in your thoughts?
I recently finished Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, and it was the most challenging and rewarding book I’ve read in a very long time. Not only is it a fascinating story that you have to kind of figure out as you go along, as opposed to having everything served up on a platter; it’s also an amazing exercise in how culture affects language, and language affects psychology (the dominant culture has no gendered pronouns, for example, and a radically different way of thinking about gender, and Leckie really follows through with that idea instead of just tacking it on as cultural bling). But that’s not all – she also delves into things like telling a story from the perspective of someone who is at the same time a personality and a group of entities. I think I’m going to go straight back and re-read it. There are so many layers to the story that going through it again will be a very different experience.
Where can we find you on the internet?
I have a website at www.karintidbeck.com where you can find a (mostly complete) biography plus bloggy stuff. On Twitter I’m @ktidbeck, and on Facebook www.facebook.com/ktidbeck.
*With thanks to Karin Tidbeck for her generosity and her time. Also, my apologies for the delayed publication of this interview.