This time, to Gunnar’s relief, Karl was away only for two days. Mother always got upset when father left, but this time she seemed to be upset with Gunnar for some reason. He didn’t like his mother very much and it seemed that she felt the same towards him, even though both maintained the facade of politeness that came with clenched teeth and white knuckles. It was her own fault, decided Gunnar. If she didn’t start fights with father, he wouldn’t have to go away to get some peace and quiet.
When Karl came back home, all smiles, he handed her a book. Sóley threw it on the table without even looking. Gunnar knew what would happen next. He’d be sent upstairs, to bed, and his parents would fight again. Why did mother have to be like this? Father brought her a present. At least they were quiet enough for their voices to become background noise and Gunnar fell asleep, the unfinished nail under his pillow.
“How are your hands? Still hurting?”
“Nay. They’re perfect,” said Gunnar and immediately began sweating at the thought he’d be forbidden from working at the forge ever again. “Never better. Excellent,” he said, avoiding his father’s doubtful gaze, hiding his shaky hands behind his back.
“Good! We can make your first horseshoe then.”
The boy relaxed at first before grasping the full sentence. “A gleaming horseshoe,” he mumbled, trying to sound happy.
Karl looked at him oddly. “Gleaming? Where did you get that from?”
“Eh… a story?”
“The one with the gleaming horseshoes, clearly,” snapped Sóley. Karl winced, but kept smiling. Gunnar turned his eyes away, staring at the forge door. It was locked, like always, but maybe he could somehow get his hands on the key, then work at night… no, they would hear that, maybe when father was away… but then, mother hardly ever left the house…
“Good,” said Karl. “We’ll make a gleaming horseshoe.” He chuckled and Gunnar blushed, although he didn’t know why.
Note: for clarity, I am going to ignore the questions such as where the coal, wood, and paper came from; how Karl obtained wire steel stock; etc.
“Today’s the day,” said Karl.
Gunnar looked up, surprised. He was busy rearranging his collection of animal bones, this time from the largest to the smallest. Sometimes he picked the prettiest one, sometimes the most bad-ass one (a broken skull of a fox), then arranged them in the badassery order. Strangely, the older he got, the less he enjoyed the game. Perhaps he just needed more bones. “The day?”
“The day you start working at the forge.”
Gunnar jumped up to his feet, dropping the large bone he was holding. It hit the skull, breaking it further, but the boy didn’t care. “I…will work at the forge? All on my own?”
Kids’ toys – Árbæjarsafn open air museum, Reykjavík
His father laughed. “No, Gunnar, you can’t work at the forge all on your own. You need a helper. Or, in this case, I need a helper. That will be you.”
The boy was overjoyed. He watched his father at work since the forge was built a year before. Karl was self-taught, or more precisely still self-teaching, explaining to Gunnar over and over again over the noise of the hammer and the roar of the fire that the most important thing about forging was practice, practice, practice. To Gunnar’s dismay, Karl had never made a sword. Yet. “Will I make swords?”
Karl emitted a sound somewhere between a sneeze and a chuckle. “Come, boy.”
Gunnar’s head was already filled with the images of himself making a huuuuuuge sword. One that would slay enemies in half before even touching them. So what that in the twentieth century nobody really needed swords? Gunnar wanted one. He could already see himself expertly handling the weapon. He ignored his mother raising her eyes from the shirt she was mending, then shaking her head. What did mother know about swords? Nothing, that’s what.
One of the many reasons why I decided to self-publish Storytellers rather than go the traditional agent > editor > publisher route are my control issues is my love for the art of cover design. When you have a traditional publisher, you have very little say as to how your book will be promoted, marketed… and how it is going to look. I don’t mind the first two, but the cover is my baby. Which means I am revealing my baby to you. Hey, at least there was no gender reveal party!
Here’s the cover – click through to read more about the design process, upcoming audiobook, and all other formats.
The reason why Storytellers will be released on March 28, 2019 is simple: the last words of the book are “March 28, 1920”. On one hand, this BEGS for me to wait another year. On the other, it allows me to swap “20” with “19” in the upcoming second trailer. (Watch the first one here.) 99 is a round enough number for my needs.
In 1920, Iceland was a very different country. Not just because it lacked airports and tourists. In addition to already looking like a different planet, Iceland was also following what seemed to be parallel history, where modern and traditional ideas regarding the genders were reversed, where the war was a fantastic development… and what else?
The Great War
In 1920, Iceland began to experience a major, unexpected financial crisis. The first World War was known in Iceland as “The Great War” – not just size-wise great, but the first time ever Iceland experienced true prosperity. While other countries were busy fighting, Icelanders did what they’ve always been doing – fishing, herding sheep, producing wool. Now, however, they were also exporting all those things, and the demand was huge. Once the war ended, though, the other countries began to rebuild their own economies. Almost overnight, at the end of 1919 and beginning of 1920, the prosperity ended.
The lead protagonist of my novel Storytellers, a blacksmith called Gunnar, suffers from depression, social anxiety, and possibly a form of PTSD. Today we would be able to steer him gently towards a medical professional of some sort – that is, if he managed to break through the internalised stigma of having to be a Strong Man Who Needs No Help Ever. But Gunnar was born in 1888, the novel takes place in 1920, and all he knows about his condition is that 1) it makes him “not normal” and 2) he can never, ever tell anybody about it.
In 1917, Freud “believed that a person’s unconscious anger over his loss leads to self-hatred and self-destructive behavior. He felt that psychoanalysis could help a person resolve these unconscious conflicts, reducing self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. Other doctors during this time, however, saw depression as a brain disorder”. (Source: verywellmind). As time passed, around 1920 “treatments for severe depression were generally not enough to help patients, leading many people desperate for relief to have lobotomies, which are surgeries to destroy the frontal portion of the brain”. Another technique used back then were electroshocks.
Gunnar lives on the outskirts of a small town. The local doctor, despite trying to keep up with the medical news, wouldn’t be able to administer electroshocks or lobotomy. In any case, he would first have to know what Gunnar suffers from, but the blacksmith can’t find words to describe how he feels. His depression comes and goes, and he refers to it as “the darkness”. His social anxiety manifests in ways that he doesn’t realise are even related to people – he thinks he’s afraid of objects, not understanding he is afraid of what would happen (according to his subconscious) if he accidentally broke or stained something that belonged to somebody else.
Exactly as the title suggests, the twenty-first and final draft of Storytellers arrived from my editor this morning.
The dream I had many years ago inspired the first draft. I was somewhat sick, but not too sick to type, so I wrote it down within the first two weeks of January 2017. At the end of September 2017 I sent what was in my head the final version to the editor, asking only for grammar and spelling corrections. Sixteen months later we both declared the book ready. January 1, 2017 – January 28, 2019. Exactly two years and twenty-eight days.
Obviously, I didn’t spend every single day working on those drafts. When the book was with the editor, I busied myself writing an outline for another book that didn’t work, two drafts for God of Fire which is now in my “perhaps one day in the far future” folder, and recently started rewriting the Norse mythology as a character-driven epic fantasy series. I don’t mind revealing that, because the idea is the easiest part of writing a book…
It all starts with the idea. Many people say they have no ideas. I believe this, generally, to not be true. If you ever looked at your ex and thought “I wish you’d fall into a sewer during the first walk with your new girlfriend”, you came up with an idea you could elaborate on. You, or rather your heroine who would definitely not be you at all, could curse the ex – every time he went on a date, something awful would happen to him. Instead of a werewolf, he could be a wererat or a werecockroach. If you had a conversation and came up with the perfect answer half an hour earlier, you came up with an idea you could write down. Once you had enough of those mini-ideas, you could start writing.
As I might have mentioned once or twice, I am (hopefully) getting close to finishing my first novel, Storytellers, historical suspense with fantasy elements set in Iceland between 1885-1920. Here’s an honest confession about my delusions…
Having read approximately 15823098 articles on writing, I was under the impression that a book is written in three drafts. The first is for the writer. The second is for beta-readers. The third is when everything gets fixed, becomes perfect, and I get my first Pulitzer Prize.
Things didn’t turn out that way.
On January 1, 2017, I started working on the first draft of the story I’ve been carrying in my head ever since I dreamt it years earlier. I vomited rather than wrote that first draft. It took me two weeks to produce roughly a hundred thousand words. At this point, I didn’t know yet where the book would be set, so I went for generic “village” and “ocean” terms. But of course, I was already starting to get obsessed with Iceland. When I read Independent Peopleand Wasteland With Words, I realised it was the perfect setting. In fact, it seemed as if Gods created Iceland with the sole purpose of helping me write the novel.
I am currently in Reykjavík, Iceland. The sky is fully covered by clouds, which doesn’t stop us from hoping to see Northern lights just one more time before we depart. Yes. I’m greedy like that.
But how did all this happen?
It all started with a dream I had many years ago. I dreamt of a fishing village, where three brothers – one of whom was a pastor – fell in love with the same woman. There was more to the dream, of course. Blood, gore, fire, drama, and that final scene where the pastor confesses his sins to all the parishioners, and gets chased out of town, as the church burns in the distance.
It was the most cinematic dream I’ve ever had. It was also, frankly, quite ridiculous. Entertaining, but ridiculous. So I thought I would forget about it, same as all my dreams before, but I didn’t. I carried it in my head for years. Every now and then I would see or hear something, and then be reminded of the dream. My writer’s mind – I’ve been writing since I was 7, blogging for 15+ years with thousands of readers who followed me when I moved on – kept on adding and removing details. Expanding on them. It became one of my multiple “yeah this might become a novel one day, I mean look at those horrible books that get published nowadays lulz I could do so much better if I only tried”. But I never tried. Who’s got time for that?
A few years ago I had enough to do. I was working at the forge aiming to become a full-time professional blacksmith, I was renovating and selling an apartment, getting married…and somewhere in the middle of all this I lifted a piece of IKEA furniture, something snapped in my back, and that was the moment my blacksmithing career was over, although I didn’t know it yet.
Someone sent me this video. There are two people who could have sent me this song. Both insist they heard about it from me. I listened, then again, and fell in love with the song, but didn’t like anything about the album. I dismissed it as muzak. Then, a while later, I noticed husby was playing something really beautiful. I asked “what’s that?” and he answered, “oh, it’s this Ásgeir guy”. My jaw dropped, and I listened. And listened.
In The Silence would later become my album of the year for both 2014 and 2015 (nothing better came out). I’d buy the regular CD, Icelandic version (Dýrð í dauðaþögn), the vinyl, the 3CD special edition, acquire (thanks Jens!) the 7″ picture disc for Nú hann blæs, cry my eyes out during the concert in Amsterdam – the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.
Once I realised who translated Einar Georg Einarsson’s – Ásgeir’s father’s – lyrics into a language I understood, I fell hard for John Grant. A little book called “Bad/Good sides of Iceland” lists John Grant as the only celebrity who moved to Iceland and bothered to learn the language. (Which didn’t stop him from singing “I hate this fucking town” about Reykjavík, but that’s a different story.) I listened to the music, the dream marinated quietly in my head, until one day something in my brain sort of clicked.
A thought appeared: “I wonder if they used to have fishing villages like ‘mine’ in Iceland?” Had I known the timing of this thought would prove to be important, I would have written it down. But back at that point all I knew was that Ásgeir’s Dýrð í dauðaþögn sounded divine, the English translations were beautiful, and everything about the music largely describing freezing cold felt like home and warmth. Which was something I needed a lot at that time…
I spent most of 2016 in horrible pain from the back injuries. I tried, and failed, and tried, and failed to return to the forge. 30 minutes of work would result in three weeks of pain. I started dreading going to the forge, already wary before leaving the house of the pain that it would cause. Finally, I gave up. (And tried again, and gave up again, because that’s how I roll.) I missed – still do – the smell of hot iron and burning coal more than anything in the world, but still not enough to voluntarily cause myself massive suffering.
I survived this year because of the love of my husby and friends; music; sheer stubbornness. But it got close, very uncomfortably close. Maybe that was why on January 1, 2017, I opened the laptop and started typing in my story of three brothers in a fishing village. The date wasn’t a symbolic gesture. I was mildly depressed, in a bit less pain than usual, had nothing better to do. People with spine injuries don’t party too hard on New Year’s Eve. So I sat on my profiled pillows, and typed. For two weeks. Averaging 12 hours a day. I finished the first draft, 180 pages of text, in two weeks.
When you write a story down, you start seeing the problems with it. The weaknesses, parts that simply make no sense at all, but also the research and problems you’ve just placed in front of yourself. To begin with, I didn’t actually know if villages like the one I needed existed at all. I couldn’t place it right in time – it had to be historical-ish, but I never really read much about this period. I hated things that had to do with war, shooting each other (what’s wrong with a good ol’ axe???), digging trenches, throwing grenades, and writing letters to your beloved one back at home. I had a story about people, and this story required the right timing, place, backdrop… and Ásgeir continued providing the sonic landscape.
I did not do a bit of research until this first draft was finished. I didn’t even check whether Iceland would work for me at all. But when I bought ‘Wasteland with words’ by Sigurður Gylfi Magnússon it felt like magic. I received answers to questions I didn’t even know I had. Mostly, though, I was shown very clearly that Iceland was the right setting for my novel to take place. Better than right. Perfect. Reading ‘Wasteland with words’ resolved problems I didn’t notice I had. Sigurður Gylfi’s book allowed me to write down a list of all research questions I needed to do before proceeding.
I read a lot and I started work on the second draft in March. At this point I was already trying to contact historians and church officials in Iceland, asking on my Polish blog whether somebody could perhaps help me with some things (my blog readers are magical). I talked husby and my dear friend Ulf into going together for a few days in June. But no blacksmiths or historians responded to my queries, and I gave up on the idea I would get to talk to anybody. Weeks before our departure I heard from Helga Maureen at Árbæjarsafn – yes, she would be happy to meet up and help me find answers to my questions. Bart the Leatherman, whom I met through my blog, helped me figure out where to go and what to see. In disbelief, I watched my dream coming true.
This first trip in June 2017 would give me new friends, new adventures, and turn Iceland from a place suitable for my novel into a full-blown obsessive love that began as the plane was landing, and I saw the shape of the island.