Interviewed by Matt Bell
Born in 1977 in Stockholm, Sweden, Karin Tidbeck lives and works in Malmö. An alumna of the 2010 Clarion San Diego writers’ workshop, she studied comparative religion and social anthropology at the University of Stockholm and creative writing at Skurups folkhögskola, where she also trained as a creative writing instructor.
She has worked as a freelance writer for role-playing productions in schools and theatres, and has written articles and essays on gaming and interactive arts theory. Her short stories and poetry began appearing in Swedish around 2002, and she has been publishing in English since 2010. Her debut short story collection Vem är Arvid Pekon? awarded her the coveted one-year working grant from the Swedish Authors’ Fund. Her English publication history includes stories in Weird Tales, Shimmer Magazine, Unstuck Annual, and the anthology Odd?, as well as the collection Jagannath (Cheeky Frawg, $11.99). She recently sold her first novel to Sweden’s largest publisher.
Matt Bell: The debut short story collection is a notoriously uneven form. I rarely read every story, much less in order, and even more rarely with the growing admiration and awe that I felt toward Jagannath. It starts strong with “Beatrice,” which is clever and funny and touching, and every story in the early part is equally enjoyable. But then, around the middle of the book, it swings into more elemental, mythic territory. I associate the way these stories got under my skin with things that frightened me as a kid. The deep paired weirdness of “Augusta Prima” and “Aunts” and the closing title story stand out to me, but so do the stories that precede these—“Pyret” and “Cloudberry Jam,” and so on. I’m curious how you arrived at this exponentially pleasing order. How do you see the stories in the collection speaking to each other?
Karin Tidbeck: The first half of Jagannath consists of translated stories from the Swedish collection Vem är Arvid Pekon?. The other half gathers both new stories in English and translations of Swedish originals previously unpublished in book form. We gave a lot of thought to the story order. The idea was to create a transition between themes and environments—from a world that resembles our own to worlds that don’t, from relatively mundane events to full-on weirdness. ”Beatrice” was chosen as an opener because it's both low-key but also makes a promise of more fantastic themes a little later on in the collection. The title story you could say is the crowning piece, the marzipan centipede on the cake.
As for the stories speaking to each other, I'm not sure what to say about that. I wrote these over the course of a decade, so the themes and images have changed along with where I was in life and craft at the time, and any intertextuality (except for “Augusta Prima” and “Aunts”) is either coincidental or tied to when the story was written.
MB: Thanks so much for sharing that organizing principle: “from a world that resembles our own to worlds that don’t, from relatively mundane events to full-on weirdness.” I can absolutely feel that while reading the book, and there’s a lot of strength in it—so many books wear down their mystery as the book progresses, where I think yours opens up, into greater and greater mystery. It hadn’t occurred to me that the stories might be written over such a long span, although of course that’s completely typical, especially for an early-career collection. Can you talk a little about how your goals for your stories have changed over that time, as you progressed through “life and craft”? What kind of stages did you move through?
KT: My early stories revolved around reality and faith. I wrote a series of stories about the darker aspects of Christian myth: a woman who hides in the attic and watches the Apocalypse, a cult whose members preserve themselves in huge formalin tubs waiting for the Second Coming, and so on. “Rebecka” was the last of these stories and the only one to get published. “Who is Arvid Pekon?” was published around the same time, in 2002, and is quite representative of the other aspect I was working on, the breakdown of reality. After “Arvid,” I spent several years working on other types of text, such as LARP-related fiction and manuscripts, articles and essays, and copyediting. I wrote a poetry collection, too. All of these, especially LARP and poetry, changed how and what I write. When I returned to short stories, I’d started working on what is still central to much of what I try to do: putting myself in the place of the alien rather than describing it from an outside point of view. “Augusta Prima” (written in 2007) was one of the first ones in this vein. The same work that led to “Augusta Prima” also had me going deeper into Nordic folklore, something which really resonated with me. Many of the mid-collection stories have their roots here. But like everything else it’s not a straight progression: these are themes that show up every now and then and also overlap. What does seem to be a constant is that I write more emotional stories the older I get. I think a lot of that has to do with growing up in a patriarchal structure where unemotional intellect (male) is taken more seriously than delving into emotions (female), and gradually freeing myself from those expectations.
MB: In “Aunts,” we begin the story in a place where “time is a weak and occasional phenomenon,” where “unless someone claims time to pass, it might not, or does so only partly; events curl in on themselves to form spirals and circles,” in which there is an orangery that holds the titular Aunts, giant stretch-skinned creatures that have “one single holy task: to expand,” and the Nieces who feed them (and later butcher them, bake them, and serve them to new Aunts). There’s a cyclical nature to life in the orangery, but it is interrupted—and perhaps altered permanently—by what seems to be just a few beats of time introduced by an outsider. (I feel like I’m getting into touchy territory here—I hate to ruin any of the surprises in these stories.) In the story that precedes this one, “Augusta Prima,” the title character is told that to “measure time in a land that doesn’t want time” is to try to “map a floating country.” (But I’m also struck, looking back through the book, at how “Brita’s Holiday Village” has such a sure time structure, with its dates entries, how “Pyret” has its references and histories, a fairly sharp contrast to the timeless but time-sensitive spaces of “Aunts” and “Augusta Prima.) I wonder if you could talk about the way time works in “Aunts” and “Augusta Prima,” or in the collection as a whole: It seems like many of the stories deal with either irregular time or large expanses of it, and many of them contain a present that is affected by creatures or forces out of folkloric ages and places. What is the experience of time really like, in the Tidbeckian worldview?
KT: I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of time. I really started working on ideas around time while organizing an experimental LARP which was set in the world of “Augusta Prima” and “Aunts.” Some of the played characters are actually present in “Augusta Prima” (Walpurgis, the twins, the page who explains time to Augusta. The croquet practice too, by the way, except it was played with lumps of meat instead of balls). In that world, Faerie -or whatever you call it- consisted of all the places where humans don't live. Time is built entirely on consensus: humans decide that they have linear time, so they do. In Faerie, in those human-free pockets, the rules are different—they have several competing concepts of time, if they acknowledge it at all. Some people from this kingdom dip in and out of the human time stream like wading birds. Get them too close to humans or human ideas, though, and they risk becoming infected with linear time. That's what happens to Augusta Prima.
What happens in “Aunts” is that Augusta peeks in on them—so this story happens during the Augusta story—and by watching them, changes their reality. Up until then, the Aunts have lived in a bubble of circular time. Augusta calls that reality into question just by observing them. “Augusta Prima” and “Aunts,” I should mention, are the only stories tied into each other in the collection.
MB: I love the idea of time by consensus, and it seems to me that “consensus” is at the heart of the kind of storytelling that must happen in a LARP setting, if I can infer from my own experiences playing pen-and-paper RPGs. I think there’s a lot of my own storytelling roots in my experiences with Dungeons & Dragons and the Choose Your Own Adventure books (and their variants like the Lone Wolf books by Joe Devers, which were my favorites), as well as computer games throughout my childhood. All of these differed from other kinds of books and movies by being malleable experiences, where I could direct plot and outcome, an experience intoxicating enough that it’s still, more or less, what my adult life is built on. I still occasionally play D&D in a game my brother hosts, but not too often, and I no longer DM. But you’re still actively involved in LARP, at least, and it obviously ties directly into your writing, which I find both admirable and impressive. Can you talk a bit about how you got into LARP, what an “experimental LARP” is, and how often it affects your writing or inspires it, as it did with “Augusta Prime” and “Aunts”?
KT: You read Lone Wolf! I did, too. They were translated into Swedish fairly early on. I remember being around eight or nine and stealing my brother’s Lone Wolf books to cheat my way through them. So yeah, I’ve played computer games and tabletop RPGs since childhood, and I was always more interested in the story than anything else. (How I hated damage tables and boss fights. I still do.) Interactive storytelling was a natural part of fiction from early on, and the step into LARP was logical. I’ve used the term “experimental LARP” but it’s not very accurate. It is more descriptive to those who haven’t heard about Nordic LARP, which is the formal name for the style. Nordic LARP focuses on immersion and collaboration. It’s not a game you can win, it’s a story that you help each other tell. To an outsider it might look a bit like improv. It’s about immersing into and becoming affected by your character, getting new ideas and insights and perhaps even changing as a person. So this kind of immersion has definitely affected my writing, both when it comes to writing characters but also in creating environments and worlds.
MB: You just had a new story published in English, as an eBook single from Tor, called “Sing”: it’s a fantastic read, and seems a continuation of the work you did in Jagannath, while also breaking new ground. Reading it this morning—and enjoying the story’s world of sound-snuffing moons and fraught parasitic ecosystems—it reminded be of one of my favorite aspects of your writing, which is the great confidence with which you approach the fantastical and the fabulist and the worldbuilding necessary to pull it all off. I recently read an essay by Karen Russell where she talked about her own inventions, which she said were grounded in a sort of “Kansas:Oz ratio,” in which a mix of real world specific detail needs to be mixed with the invented world of the story in order to create the “right sort of otherworldy cement,” and that seemed like a very sensible way of worldbuilding, but I think it’s hardly the only approach. How do you approach “creating environments and worlds,” as you say, in your own stories? What do you think it takes to make all the different kinds of fabulist writing we find in your work successful? Is there a single overarching theory at work, or is it something that varies story to story?
KT: Worldbuilding to me is taking the consequences of an idea. All my stories and worlds spring from the basic principle of being a slave to the premise, to follow the consequences wherever they may lead without taking any easy or comfortable ways out.
I think that the more alien and strange a world or situation is, the more concise you have to be if you want the reader to follow you. It depends on what effect you’re looking for. You have to be aware what the consequences are of the approach you take. If you want the reader to accept the premise as a given, then being specific is vital. This is what I’m after; I want the reader to accept the setting and the mindset of the characters, so we can get on with the story. So, what I do with the story itself varies of course, but what I want to do is to present the world so that the reader can access it without tripping over the details.
MB: Of the many things that impress me in Jagannath, one of the most impressive was that you translated the book into English yourself. But then, on reading it again, I realized that wasn’t exactly what you said: In your afterword to the collection, you say, “Writing in Swedish and English are two very different experiences. Your native language resonates in your bones. Each spoken word reaffirms or changes the world as you see it, intellectually and emotionally. Because Swedish is my mother tongue, I can take enormous liberties with it because I know exactly and instinctively how it works. English doesn’t quite allow itself to be grabbed by the scruff of its neck in the same way. As a result, I’m more careful with the prose, perhaps less adventurous, because without that gut reaction it’s hard to know exactly how something will resonate with an English-speaking reader.” I was particularly struck by your note about being “less adventurous” in English, in part because it makes me curious about the process of writing these stories: You said you were “writing stories in both Swedish and English, creating translations in both languages,” which makes it sound like you’re often starting in one language or the other, but not necessarily always going in the same direction, say from a Swedish final draft to an English translation. Am I understanding that correctly? Does the process go both ways? Since you’ve started working in two languages in this way, have you noticed any new advantages or constraints in your process?
KT: Some stories I write in Swedish, some in English. Short stories I've almost exclusively written in English lately, mostly because there's such a small market for them in Sweden and it doesn't really pay either. So, the translation goes both ways. What also factors in is that I have a different voice in English, which means that a straight translation wouldn't be the same as if I'd written it in English originally. I want my voice to be consistent no matter if it's an original or a translation. So the advantage is of course that I have control of my own style. The disadvantage is that it's very time-consuming to make all these translations. As for being less adventurous—note that it only has to do with language and not storytelling. I'm just being honest about the fact that a second language won't resonate with you like the first does. I can write a story in working-class Stockholm Swedish, but I'm not going to assume I can perform the same feat with Cockney. I'll focus on adventures in story, themes and structure instead.
MB: Your work has been championed by Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, who in the past year or so published The Weird, an 1100+ page anthology of “strange and dark stories,” in addition to starting Weird Fiction Review, where your work has appeared. I know it’s sometimes easy to resist labels and groupings, but do you identify yourself with weird fiction or the New Weird? How do you see this area of speculative fiction developing right now, and where do you see your work in relation to it? I’m so curious to see what you publish next, and how the work continues to enstrange, to subvert, to build upon what’s come before, both in your own work and the work of others.
KT: I don’t consider genre while writing, and I honestly don’t know. I don’t go out of my way to write Weird Fiction, or in any other genre. Some of my stuff easily slips into the Weird slot. On the other hand, the novel I published last year has been classified as dystopian science fiction. Some of my other stories are talked about as fantasy, some as horror, and some aren’t talked about as genre at all. And the same story will be labeled differently depending on country. I’m not comfortable with categorizing my own work, but I don’t mind if others talk about it in relation to genre as long as they don’t try to hold it up to some genre standard.
But there’s a context here: I come from a nation where fantastic fiction has a very low status, unless it fits into some very specific categories or is written by already established authors. I don’t by any means try to hide what I write, but the way people think in categories here is pretty extreme: it blots out discussing the actual work on its own terms. That’s made me loath to talk about my own work in terms of genre, because once you get a label, it sticks and poof go a slew of potential readers and reviewers because eww, fantasy cooties. Although I think it’s too late for me. Happily, fantastic fiction is slowly gaining in status.
I do love the weird, and I realize that I write much in that tradition (although like I said it’s unintentional), so I’m happy to be counted in among some of my favorite authors. As for where the area is going, analyzing these things isn’t really my area of expertise (boring answer, I know, but really—not my thing). I’m sure it’ll keep on creeping on.