Karin Tidbeck Interviewed by Charles Tan (Author Week #5)
First off, what made you decide to pursue writing?
I’ve always made up stories, and I couldn’t imagine not writing. I did make a decision to work towards getting published when I was about 20, although actually getting published felt very distant at the time. I made another decision to start a new life with less money and more time when I was 29, and left my hometown to spend two years at one of the best creative writing workshops in the country. But I don’t think I ever made a decision to pursue writing. There just was no question about where I was going – it was a matter of how hard I was going to work for it.
For me, your fiction could easily fall under several categories. How would you describe your writing, or what term are you comfortable with?
I don’t consider genre when writing. Jagannath, like you say, is very diverse that way. I just published a novel in Swedish that’s been classified as a dystopia, which isn’t really true but was a solution for marketing purposes: fans of fantastic fiction will understand it has a fantastic or science fictional element, while readers who are put off by an sf label will accept a dystopia because it’s classified as literary. But any genre term will inevitably create expectations that will colour the reader’s experience – if they haven’t dismissed the book because it’s in the ”wrong” genre. So I’m not really comfortable with any terms. The ones I’m the least uncomfortable with are weird or fantastic fiction. But, you know, someone will always complain that X is the wrong term and that my stories are easily classified as Y.
In several of your short stories, there’s usually something that’s dark, unsettling, or tragic. Is this a conscious decision on your part and what is it about that aspect that fascinates you?
I wrote about the melancholy tradition in the afterword for Jagannath. It’s a kind of wistfulness that pervades much of our culture, and that became a natural element when I wrote the stories set in the fictional Swedish North. The themes or atmospheres aren’t a conscious choice, though, just like I don’t choose genre. Ideas show up and I write the stories in the way they need to be written. I don’t find what I write unsettling, most of the time not particularly dark or tragic either. But maybe my weird-o-meter is off? Because even when I think I’m writing beautiful, happy, utopian froo-froo someone will come up and say it gave them nightmares.
I will say that I have a lifelong fascination with madness, and the idea that reality – on the inside and on the outside – is a very frail thing. And that I like trying on mindsets or ethics that are alien to me, to see what it looks like from the inside.
How did Cheeky Frawg Books end up publishing Jagannath?
Ann Vandermeer had bought two pieces from me – Jagannath and Augusta Prima – and she and Jeff knew I’d published a short story collection in Swedish. They asked to see the rest of it, so I translated it and sent it over, and they thought it’d work with some additional material. We collected the other stories I’d published in U.S. magazines and anthologies that year.
What is it about the short story format that appeals to you? How different was the experience writing short stories vs. Novels?
I’m usually interested in exploring an idea or a concept, and am not too keen on drawing it out or surrounding it with fluff. I like the sport of boiling a story down to its bare bones, and then seeing how much flesh it needs to walk around but still have that concentrated taste. And I just have too many ideas, I want to work with all of them.
The long form is a different beast altogether. Writing Amatka was grueling. An editor I’d sold two short stories to asked if I had a novel. I didn’t. I did have an old, old project: a bunch of short texts and a poetry collection set in the same world, and which I’d begun trying to turn into a novel at some point. So like any sane person would, I told the editor ”Certainly! Let me just do some edits”, and finished the first draft in a blind panic. I’m very happy with the result, but I’m not sure I’ll revisit the traditional novel format anytime soon. The idea of nested stories is appealing, though, or short stories with an overarcing narrative.
How did your experience at Clarion 2010 influenced the way you write, or the way you view the industry?
Clarion changed a lot of things. I knew little about the industry outside Sweden – only what I’d gleaned from working in a bookshop and reading the occasional issue of Locus – so that was a whole new world. I got the tools for breaking into the industry. As for writing, I started writing longer pieces, and it was a magnificent exercise in pushing mental boundaries: there’s too little time for self-censorship, too little time to question what the hell you’re on about. I wrote Jagannath (the short story) during the last week. People living inside a biomechanical centipede, sure. Who was I to argue? I’m a huge fan of Keith Johnstone, especially what he talks about the dangers of censoring your first impulse because you’re afraid it’s ”obscene, psychotic or not original”. This became a demonstration of the wonderful things that happen when you gag the censor. People wrote some incredible things during those final weeks.
At the end of your collection, you talk about translation and some of the nuances between English vs. Swedish. What was the most challenging and rewarding aspect of translation?
The main challenge is to bring nuances and atmosphere over to the other side. It became very clear over the course of translating from Swedish to English that there were more layers to my language than I’d been aware of. It’s not just finding the right words, it’s also about cultural shorthand and wordplay that doesn’t even appear as such on the surface. Peeling those layers back was a huge learning experience. The same goes for English to Swedish, really. There are tones and built-in references in the English language that only carries over to Swedish with difficulty. I admire professional translators who can do this with other writers’ works. At least I have myself right here for reference.
How different is your process when writing in Swedish? In English?
Writing in Swedish is very intuitive. I can sit back and just record what I see in my head. With English, there’s always an extra language filter, so the process is slower – unless I’ve been speaking and writing in English for more than a few hours and my brain has had time to shift gears. (I’ve been wondering if my English and Swedish would score differently on a readability index, but I haven’t found a calculator that can take both languages.) Other than that, I don’t think the processes differ much.
What’s the Swedish genre scene like?
It’s perked up dramatically over the last few years. Not long ago it was near-impossible to publish fantastic fiction – there were two or three fanzines that published sf or fantasy short stories, and maybe a handful of indie publishers. Larger publishers were uninterested in fantastic fiction unless it could be marketed to children or sold as literary. But things are definitely looking up, both in that fantastic fiction has seeped into the mainstream market and is now much more visible in mainstream media, but also in that blogs, magazines and publishers are popping up everywhere. There are a bunch of very exciting new authors that I hope will get the international attention they deserve, like Mats Strandberg and Sara Bergmark Elfgren with their brilliant Engelsfors trilogy (the first installment, The Circle, was recently published in English); Nene Ormes and her unique urban fantasy novels set in Malmö (the second installment, Särskild (”particular” or ”special”, came out just a couple of months ago); Jenny Milewski’s meta-novel Skalpelldansen (The Scalpel Dance) is one of the most exciting books to happen in the horror field lately. Add to this a HUGE surge in graphic novels and comics – I haven’t seen anything like it since the late ’80s. Artists like Lina Neidestam, Fabian Göransson, Kim W Andersson and Karl Johnsson will hopefully become internationally known before too long.
Who are some of your favorite writers?
I have many, but to mention just a few: China Miéville, Ursula K Le Guin, Elizabeth Hand, Tove Jansson, Caitlín Kiernan, Chip Delany and P C Jersild. On the graphic novel side, Neil Gaiman and Roman Dirge.
Anything else you want to plug?
Nothing other than that I’d ask everyone interested in Sweden to check out the names above. There’s so much cool stuff happening on the Swedish scene right now, it deserves more attention.
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