Elias Combarro: My good friend Pedro Román has recently reviewed Jagannath by Karin Tidbeck, an extremely interesting collection of short stories. Today, he has published an interview with the author in Spanish and he has been so kind as to letting me simultaneously publish the original version in English. Enjoy !
Pedro Román: What is the state of science fiction and fantasy in Sweden?
Karin Tidbeck: Things are getting better and better. The genre was in a long slump during the 90’s and early 00’s, but now blogs, magazines and publishers are popping up everywhere. The larger publishing houses are also showing interest in fantastic fiction. A bunch of new authors have arrived on the scene in recent years, mostly in horror, urban fantasy and high fantasy. There’s also been a boom on the sf/fantasy comics scene, which is great, because Sweden does have a long tradition of quality comics. I’m very optimistic of the future.
Pedro Román: A few weeks ago, I recommended new SF/fantasy Spanish writers to study English and have their works translated, as the local market is quite… complex. It seems you took that very advice several years ago. Was it the only way to expand frontiers for your work? Do you think it is a good choice? Is it the only one?
Karin Tidbeck: At the time, it seemed like the only viable choice for me. However, there were other ways I could have taken to expand in Swedish, but that would have required more work, like starting a magazine of my own or self-publishing. I don’t have that kind of energy, but I admire those who have. One of the main reasons the Swedish scene is looking up now is because a bunch of very creative people have done just that. Even so, expanding into English means a larger audience, both because there are about a gazillion more potential readers, but also because Swedish literary culture still looks down on fantastic fiction. As an example, while both my books in Swedish have gotten a ton of love from book bloggers, genre magazines and the all-important library registry (you get a good review there, you ensure presence in the public libraries), regular magazines and journals have shown almost zero interest. This is par for the course when writing fantastic fiction except when the handful of journalists sympathetic to the genre make an effort to bring it forward. I’m in general extremely annoyed about the rigid ordering into genres – people fixate on whether it’s social realism or not, instead of looking at themes and narrative.
Pedro Román: How do you define your work?
Karin Tidbeck: I don’t. I often get that question, but I don’t really want to go beyond saying “fantastic fiction” or “stories”. See my annoyance regarding genre division. I’m using various terms to describe what’s going on in Sweden, but really, genre terms should be used only when needed as a tool for discussion or analysis. I think it’s way more important to discuss what goes on in the stories rather than ”does it have dragons or rockets? Is it real fantasy or not?”. I don’t know if I even feel like using the term ”fantastic fiction” anymore, because people hang onto that instead of talking about what the stories are about. They don’t do that with social realism.
Pedro Román: Most of your tales draw from Nordic myths. However, you use not the well-known Norse Gods but rather the unknown domestic beings. As an expert in comparative religion, one could think your first base would be Thor, Odin and the like. Was it a conscious choice to ignore the huge and explore the small? If so, why?
Karin Tidbeck: I write about people, sometimes about people that aren’t humans. The human/not-quite-human territory fascinates me, the in-between states. As someone who was reared on Norse mythology, the Aesir and Vanir are a little boring in comparison. They’re gods, they go on adventures and get in trouble and punish humans or each other. We know all about them, their stories are written. Stories about gods are also a different beast than stories about folkloric creatures: traditionally, myths about gods are a way to explain why the world looks the way it does, where we come from, what happens after death, what rules there are and what happens if you break them. Basically they define reality and our place in it. When you start to involve gods in your fiction, it’s inevitable that this aspect creeps in. In Nordic folklore, as in many other places, humans didn’t have direct contact with gods except extremely rarely. They saw vittra, gnomes, nixies, trolls, changelings. The gods were huge, abstract beings that you didn’t really want to bump into. Folklore often deals with more immediate human problems: why is my cow not giving milk? Why does my baby look different than other babies? What was that creature standing next to my bed and why couldn’t I move? It used to be trolls and witches – these days it’s aliens (or governmental conspiracies). We compulsively tell stories about these folkloric creatures that we feel are there but aren’t humans, and not gods, and might be from here or elsewhere. They’re very interesting.
Pedro Román: Jagannath is the name of an Indian Deity which means “World” and has no legs. At first I thought it was a sort of joke, as your jagannath is a world in itself but many-legged. Later I came up with a deeper idea of the story as a sort of metaphor of our own world and its deficient running course. What is the truth behind Jagannath?
Karin Tidbeck: I don’t write my stories as metaphors, so my intention is exactly what you can see on the page. I’m delighted that readers can find deeper layers of meaning in the text, though. That’s how it’s supposed to work. I chose the name (which to my understanding means “Lord of the world”) because of the sensation it describes, rather than going for the etymological meaning. In the story, Mother is an enormous creature driven forward by a myriad of workers, crushing and eating everything in her way. That sensation a huge, sentient being with an almost unstoppable inertia led me to the concept of the Jagannath. In hindsight, the etymological meaning works well, too. Mother is, after all, the lady of the world in a sense.
Pedro Román:: “August Prima” has a distinctive Carrollian taste; “Arvin Pekon”, Kafkaesque. Which are your writing influences?
Karin Tidbeck: They’re from many different places. I could name some: Tove Jansson, H P Lovecraft, Samuel Delany, Elizabeth Hand, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K Le Guin; the comics of Alan Moore, Frank Miller and Enki Bilal. I’m just naming writers I love, here – it’s always hard to tell what’s actually influenced you and whose works you just enjoy. Everything you see and hear is fodder for the mental compost heap. I’ve not read Kafka very extensively. I guess we’re just kindred spirits.
Pedro Román: “Aunts” is maybe the weirdest tale of this collection, not only because of the story itself but also because it cannot be read in isolation — reading “August Prima” before is needed to understand it fully. Both tales work extremely well together and offer insights into a very interesting universe. Do you plan to release more tales within it?
Karin Tidbeck: I’m considering it, yes. I have a few more stories within that same world that I’m working on translating. I have a lot on my plate at the moment, but it’s possible!
Pedro Román: You have just published your first novel, “Amatka”, in Swedish. What can you tell us about it? When will we see it published in English?
Karin Tidbeck: “Amatka” is a ”utopian dystopia” of sorts – it’s about colonizing a world where reality behaves in a very different way from what we’re used to. It has a lot to do with exploring language and its effect on consciousness and reality. I’m working on a translation right now.
Pedro Román: What can you tell us of your future plans?
Karin Tidbeck: The translation of “Amatka” into English, building a new story collection in Swedish, then translating that into English. I wish I could work more on producing new material, but since I’m writing everything twice, it’s slow going.
© Pedro Román & Karin Tidbeck
The interview was posted in english version on Elias Combarrro’s The Sense of Wonder Blog. We’re reposting the interview with the permission of Pedro, Karin and Elias.
We’re thanking Elias, Pedro and Karin.