Special to Unbound Worlds: Jeff VanderMeer Interviews ‘Jagannath’ Author Karin Tidbeck


One of the great pleasures of teaching at Clarion is meeting some of the superstars of the future. In the case of Swedish writer Karin Tidbeck, my wife Ann and I also have had the pleasure of publishing Tidbeck through our Cheeky Frawg imprint. Just released, her Jagannath story collection has gotten major buzz, with Gary K. Wolfe calling the book as possibly the most significant debut since Margo Lanagan. Other praise has been just as fulsome, from the likes of China Miéville and Karen Joy Fowler. Ursula K. Le Guin wrote: “I have never read anything like Jagannath. Karin Tidbeck’s imagination is recognizably Nordic, but otherwise unclassifiable–quietly, intelligently, unutterably strange. And various. And ominous. And funny. And mysteriously tender. These are wonderful stories.”

Tidbeck has published short stories and poetry in Swedish since 2002, and in English since 2010. Her 2010 book debut, the 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 Weird Tales, Shimmer Magazine, Unstuck Annual and the anthology Odd?.  She also recently sold her first novel to Sweden’s largest publisher.

Recently, Unbound Worlds asked if I’d interview Tidbeck about her work… – Jeff VanderMeer

One thing I love about this collection is that it veers from quiet stories about dysfunctional families, with a hint of the fantastic, to stories about full-on bio-mechanical living arks. What ties the stories together, in your opinion?

For me it’s the principle of telling stories from the inside. I want to be absolutely faithful to the story’s reality and its characters. If [in a story like “Beatrice”] I say Miss Anna Goldberg falls in love with a printing press and has a baby with it, then that’s an indisputable fact. It’s just as natural that [in the story “Aunts”] the three Aunts should be slaughtered upon their death and made into sausages and pastries for their next incarnations. Using the voice of a fascinated observer, or commenting on the strangeness of these occurrences, puts a distance between the reader and the text. I want to suck the reader right in and put them in a state where they completely believe in the reality of the story.

How hard was it to gain a foothold in the Swedish markets, and then to make the move to submitting to English-language markets in the US and UK?

When I started trying to get published, there was barely anywhere to go. Most spec fic magazines were dead or dying, and almost no publishers were interested in fantastic fiction. If they were, they wanted traditional fantasy and sf. I couldn’t see myself getting anywhere in the foreseeable future, and that’s why I made the decision to go for the English-language markets. Happily, things are looking up here in Sweden. More publishers are interested, more authors are getting published, fantastic fiction has become more popular with the mainstream, and there are new magazines and fanzines popping up. But during those years that I only worked on publishing in Swedish, it was just hopeless.

I’ve only met two other Swedish writers who write in English with an eye on the US/UK markets (It seems more common in the world of comics. I’ve heard of several graphic novel authors who have taken this route). Almost everyone I’ve talked to say their English simply isn’t good enough. Most are surprised that I translate my own work, and sometimes doubtful that I can actually write well enough to -be- published in English. In general, you wait and hope for someone to discover you and make the offer to translate. I’ve said it’s an almost hopeless prospect, but then I looked it up, and it turns out Sweden is #7 on UNESCO’s list of languages works are translated from, so I’m going to have to amend that statement. It’s not hopeless, but it comes down to target language and genre popularity. I didn’t see the point in waiting.

I know you read Lovecraft, but who else did you read as a teenager that left a lasting impression?

I read a lot of graphic novels. The 80’s and early 90’s were a golden age for Swedish translations of comics, so I gorged myself on Heavy Metal and 2000 A.D. Hellblazer left a huge mark. So did the works of Enki Bilal, Joakim Pirinen, Alan Moore and Frank Miller (especially Give Me Liberty). Most of all though, when I started reading them in English, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman and the work of Dave McKean. I can’t overstate how much the Sandman comics meant to me: I’d had similar ideas about reality and dream, and here was someone who put it into writing.

On the book side, Ursula Le Guin, Tanith Lee, Inger Edelfeldt, Robert Anton Wilson and Poppy Z. Brite each left their own distinct impression. As you see there are few Swedish writers in this bunch. There were just not that many Swedish writers I could find who wrote what I was looking for.

When you applied to the Clarion Writer’s Workshop, did you expect to make it in? And was it exciting or daunting to make that trip, both mentally and physically?

The goal that felt realistic was to apply for the workshop. That in itself was an accomplishment. I thought my English was decent, but it’s easy to overestimate your proficiency in a language not your own. Of course I daydreamed about going, but I forced myself to keep expectations low. Clarion is one of the most difficult things I have ever done, but easily the most important career move. It was insanely hard both mentally and physically, but incredibly exciting, a meeting of minds and an orgy in creativity like nothing else. As a writer, it was like being broken down and built up again. I’m very glad I did this after having attended numerous other workshops, though, and being past thirty. I would not have had the discipline or distance to my work to do this ten years ago, or learn as much from it.

You said that the “language gnomes” in your brain would get scrambled sometimes from speaking and writing in both Swedish and English. Has it gotten easier, in terms of self-translation and writing directly in English?

Somewhat. I deal with three languages daily – my husband and I speak two different languages, so I’ll talk to him in Swedish, he’ll answer in Danish and then I’ll go write something in English. I still get confused, and there’s grammar and vocabulary bleed, and those bloody gnomes keep mixing up signs… but they’re a little better at keeping up now. Translation is still hard, but these days it’s hard in the sense of trying to carry over more layers of meaning than I did before. I don’t think it’s supposed to be easy.

Do you have a favorite story in the collection?

“Jagannath,” without a doubt, because it was so difficult to write. The first idea was completely alien to me, but I had to go with it because I was at Clarion and only had three days until the next hand-in. The characters were like nothing I’d written before, their motivations and morals were very unfamiliar, and I couldn’t cut any corners. Writing that story was truly like exploring an unknown country.

In the afterword to the collection, you talk about perhaps being more understated or tentative writing in English. Is that a hindrance or a help to the kinds of stories you’ve been writing?

In the stories I’ve written to date, both. I think they benefit from a restrained language, but at the same time there’s always a danger of being too restrained, you don’t want the text to lose tension or flavor. Like everything else it’s a learning process. I don’t know if I’ll see it the same way in the future.

Can you tell readers a little bit about your novel, just published in Sweden? Since you’ll be translating it soon.

Amatka is what I’d like to call a “utopian dystopia”; it’s about colonizing a world where where physical reality is mutable, and language both a tool and a threat. It follows Vanja, a researcher who has failed to fulfill most of the duties expected of a good citizen. She is sent to the distant colony Amatka to map hygiene habits. What she finds during her research leads to something quite different, unraveling the truth about the colonies and their history. It’s been a long experiment in the effect of language on reality and psychology.

So far the book has been very well received. It’s a very interesting translation project, too. I’m looking forward to see how it’s received by an English-speaking readership.