Friday, May 18, 2018

Book Bites: Berit Ellingsen, author of Now We Can See the Moon

Book Bites: Short and Sweet Interviews for Readers on the Go

Today, I'm excited to bring you an interview with Berit Ellingsen, one of my favorite authors. Now We Can See the Moon debuts May 28th and like all of Ellingsen's previous work (including her novel Not Dark Yet and her short story collection Vessel and Solsvart) it is quietly brilliant, foreboding and stylistically gorgeous. Ellingsen's latest offering, full of haunted landscapes, weighted characters and the struggle between nature and civilization at the hands of humanity, is not to be missed.
“This is the best work yet from a truly unique writer who clearly will be a name to conjure for decades to come.” – Jeff VanderMeer

Were they any parts of your novel that were edited out, but which you miss terribly?

In Now We Can See The Moon I had other parts with the rescue/ID-team searching the city for dead people, but these parts were cut because they didn't add much to the story and slowed down the pace.

There was one part I regret cutting, though. I wanted to show that society had started to break down in various ways long before the hurricane arrived.

In the cut section, Jens, the emergency physician, describes how he used to work as an ambulance doctor, but quit because the ambulance would be attacked by mobs when it arrived in certain areas of the city. The people there would call the emergency services to lure them into ambushes.

Emergency service personnel have nearly been killed in such attacks, even here in Scandinavia. I wanted to hint that these experiences were the reason Jens started working as a rescue physician in the distant Southern Ocean instead, before he joined "The Corpse Counters".

What is the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

Right when I started writing novels, which was a very different process than the short stories I had been writing until then, I was discouraged by seeing how bad my first drafts were and how much editing they needed, to even get close to how I wanted them to be.

But a coder friend told me: "First you write it. Then you tweak it. Then it becomes perfect".

As a coder, he was familiar with the process of getting the ideas down on paper first, and then slowly refining it into a working whole. I wrote down those words on paper and had it over my desk until I changed writing spot and unfortunately lost the note.

But by that time I had gotten used to the slow process of novel writing and multiple rounds of edits. Today I really enjoy the first draft as it mostly feels like reading a book for the first time. Was it you who said that "The first drafts are for me"?

I feel like that too. The first draft is opening a book you didn't know you had and reading it for the first time.

How important is the setting in your novel?

I love to write settings. To me, the setting is a character of its own, and more, because it determines much of the tone and feel of the entire story.

In visual design they say that form follows function and that the two must work together for the same purpose. That's how I think of setting, too. It must work together with the rest of the story to enhance or emphasize the atmosphere and feel of the story. And sometimes the plot and characters, too.

Or you can do the complete opposite and use setting and plot that really clash or contrast with one another, on purpose for an interesting or unsettling effect.

I love to write weird settings, rarely used settings, or realistic settings but viewed in unusual ways. I think the reason is that I love landscapes as well as interiors, and environments that are either completely wild and natural, or 100% designed by human minds.

Are there any symbols running throughout your novel? Do readers recognize them?

In Now We Can See The Moon, animals such as snakes, leeches and eels appear, and hummingbirds, herons, seagulls and sparrows. Maybe interestingly, many of the creeping animals appear in the first half of the story while many of the flying animals are mentioned in the second half.

I enjoy adding animals to my stories, both as part of the setting but also as symbols or archetypes. Humans share so many of our basic reactions and behaviors with the other mammals, and to a smaller extent, reptiles and birds, so it's very interesting to have animals in stories.

Like you, I share my life with an animal, and I've learned so much about communication, intelligence and humans and animal life from that.

When you get to know an individual animal, you discover they have a wholly individual and sometimes very strong personality. That we can recognize personality and specific demeanors in animals show how much we share with them.

I always assume readers will get symbols, if not all of them, then most of them, on a conscious or unconscious level. And if they don't, it's not a disaster. They'll see other parts of the story that are important to them.

What single book has been the most influential to you as a writer?

In 1967, Swedish-Finnish writer Irmelin Sandman Lilius, published Bonadea, a collection of short stories set in a fictional Finnish town during the Crimean War (1853-1856). These stories are not typical historical fiction, nor are they the entirely realistic, but somewhere in between. A mix of historical fiction, speculative fiction, and literary fiction.

The book's title refers to the name of the young girl who is the main character in the stories. Their plot and structure are quite simple, but also wise and have a very home-like atmosphere. Maybe because they are very Scandinavian/Nordic in a way I can't explain.

I guess these stories would be considered Young Adult today, but to me they seem to be written for adults in mind, but at the same time being accessible to younger readers.

Something about the setting and the mix of the fantastical and the poetical realism really makes me treasure these stories. It's a slim volume, just 155 pages, but I take it out at least once a year to re-read one or two stories from it.

Unfortunately, this collection has not been translated to English. But a novel trilogy, called Gold Crown Lane, which this collection is strongly connected with, was translated to English. These novels are set in the same village as Bonadea and are about three sisters and their mother's life in the village. Like the collection, the novels are a poetical mix of realism, historical fiction and fantasy. Sadly, all of these books have been out of print for years.

The closest I can compare Lilius' style and sensibility with is Ursula LeGuin. Her collection Orsinian Tales, one of her less known works, which are realistic stories set in an imaginary country, is also one of the books I keep returning to.

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