Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Of Nature and Myths: Berit Ellingsen and Vessel and Solsvart

Today I'm thrilled to bring you an interview with one of my favorite authors: Berit Ellingsen. If you know Berit, then you know that her work is gorgeously weird, a crystalline web work gracing the page. She wowed me with the stark grace of last year's Not Dark Yet, but her latest literary offering, the story collection Vessel and Solsvart, spins away from the minimalist style and instead presents four stories which are complex, lush and primordial. You can read my full review of Vessel and Solvart over at the Small Press Book Review, but for now I'm talking to Berit about constellations, myths and Baroque art. Read on...

Steph Post: As you already know, I loved your collection Vessel and Solsvart. I'm going to jump right in, though, with my most burning question: what's up with cover? It's gorgeous and even if I weren't already a fan of your writing, I would immediately be drawn to this book. Is it a constellation? A mathematical equation? And how does In the Region of Bellatrix relate to the stories within or the collection as a whole?

Berit Ellingsen: I'm so glad to hear you like the collection and the cover. And thank you for reading and reviewing it.

The cover is an artwork called In the Region of Bellatrix by Eugene Newmann and is a star map of constellations. The artwork was part of an exhibition called The Raft Project, which featured a raft with human figures. In the Region of Bellatrix was a star map meant for the raft's navigation and was displayed on the wall behind the human figures. The book's designer, Brendan Connell, and Snuggly Books thought the cover fit the collection because several of the stories feature stars and other astronomical phenomena.

SP: The opening and title story, "Vessel and Solsvart" clearly has mythological roots. Is this story based on any one tale in particular?

BE: With the story "Vessel and Solsvart" I tried to imagine a new mythology, a mythology after our time, after the age of humankind, what the world might look like in that sort of future, and how the world might have reacted to the age of humankind and what took place in it. I also envisioned a world where the kinds of animals and plants we find in dark and moist places, such as moss and centipedes, and processes of decay, had taken over the planet because the sun had dimmed.

The structure with the repetition of four is common in Norwegian folk tales, but I didn't have any particular folk tale in mind when I wrote the story. Actually, the nearest direct inspiration was the music video for "Pyramid Song" by Radiohead. In this animated video a human figure dives into the ocean and finds an entire world down there, a suburban neighborhood, and a home where the figure settles in at the end. I thought of that video when I wrote the scene where Vessel dives down to the City of Reeds and Solsvart imagines what he might find there.

But the other cities in the story have no direct inspiration like that. They are imaginings of the essences of human cities and human life, such as the City of Stone and Tar.

SP: One of the first notes I wrote down in reading Vessel and Solvart is "attention to nature- would expect nothing less." The natural world, and in particular the eroding of the natural world, also featured heavily in your novel Not Dark Yet. I know that climate change is something you write passionately about in other arenas as well. Why is this issue so important to you and so central to your work?

BE: The natural world is very important to me because without the natural world the human world and humans can't exist. In our everyday lives we don't notice this much, except for those who work in agriculture, with livestock or with hunting in some way. But we are nevertheless all dependent on plants and animals for food, water for drinking, and an environment that is stable. When the natural environment is ruined or made less habitable, that will make life difficult also for human beings in urban environments.

The reason why the natural world is so central in my writing may also be that I live in a part of the world where almost all activities are heavily dependent on the weather, because the weather can turn from comfortable to deadly at any time of the year. Thus, everyone is aware of the weather and dresses for it. I also have a background as a biologist and work with space science and appreciate the natural world, the non-human living beings, and the Earth's great systems both academically and personally.

As I often like to say: The Earth's true riches are not oil, gas, rare metals or precious gems, but its great biodiversity and multitude of life forms. There are hydrocarbons and metals on other planets but so far, Earth is the only planet where we know there is life. And that makes not caring about or protecting that life and biological wealth so much worse in my eyes.

SP: All of the stories in Vessel and Solsvart have a dream-like quality to them, even though they referencing very earthy, physical elements- swamps, bones, snakes, etc. When you write, do you see your stories clearly, or is there a haze or a gauze over everything that you work through? I guess what I'm getting at is that, so much of your storytelling style is about mystery. I'm wondering if the mystery is there for you as well when you write.

BE: Often, the places and characters are mysterious to me too and slowly unfold as I write. I love exploring them and discovering new sides to them.

Inspiration is a mystery to me as well. Or rather, a bit of a black box. I call myself the first reader of my stories because I rarely plan them and tend to just write what comes into my mind then and there. That means I often have to do a lot of editing of both plot and language to turn it into a story with a structure that will satisfy other readers.

But I don't know where the ideas come from, other than inspirational sources here and there. Often when I re-read my own stories I wonder "where did that come from?".

Some of my stories are based on dreams, so that might give them the dreamlike quality. "Apotheosis," the last story in the collection, is one such example. It was based on a very strange nightmare I had and I thought it would make an interesting flash story about life, immortality, and eternal youth, which is so desired in our culture.

SP: Another theme I noticed flowing through this collection, is that of the attention to contrasts. Life and Death, Darkness and Light, Hope and Despair, Beauty and Horror. How do opposite elements work to tell a story? And were these contrasts something you consciously set out to explore or did they creep into your work on their own?

BE: I didn't consciously intend to write stories with such contrasts. But I think the kind of stories I like best myself are ones that have contrasting emotions and themes and go from high to low to light to darkness, and where the characters have contrasting sides to their personalities which encompass all of that. And in life you rarely get light without darkness, joy without sorrow, etc., and often the two can exist simultaneously, and a situation or place can be both beautiful and horrible.

I admire classical still lifes a lot, as well as the Dutch, Flemish, and Italian masters of European painting. "Summer Dusk, Winter Moon" is partly inspired by such art, as well as the fairy tales of HC Andersen, which are more romantic and softer than the Norwegian folk tales. I love the classical chiaroscuro painting technique of sharp highlights and dark backgrounds, such as in Rembrandt's or Caravaggio's work, so it's probably no coincidence contrasts play a role in my stories.

Even though artworks from the Baroque era may seem dated today, I think their subjects and portrayal of human life show that these artists knew everything about existence that we know in modern times, with the exception of the technology of course.
So, if you haven't been introduced to Berit Ellingsen before, I hope you have now. Vessel and Solsvart hits shelves on March 6th- be sure to pick up a copy- and also check out Berit's novel Not Dark Yet as well as her many other stories. Happy Reading!







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