Cecilia Ekbäck wins the 2016 HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown for her novel Wolf Winter. We spoke to Cecilia right after she accepted the award at Harrogate History Festival.
Cecilia, how do you feel about winning the Debut Crown?
It hasn’t quite sunk in yet. I was so proud to be on the shortlist with such good books, so it feels a bit unbelievable. I almost get embarrassed. I feel we all should have won! I’m very Swedish that way – I want everyone to get the cookie at the end of the race!
During the New Blood panel (festival event with all the shortlisted authors), you mentioned that the book came out of conversations with your father after he was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and the period in your own life following his passing. The success of the book must have a lot of personal meaning for you.
It does. I think when you start writing there are a certain amount of things you have to learn and the only way to learn them is to write. You either write the same book over and over as I did – I wrote it four times – or you have a drawer full of unpublished novels. Every time I rewrote it, it stepped further away from where it started. It moved away from being about my family and changed into something else, but the themes remain.
I wrote it for myself and never actually thought I would sell it. It wasn’t meant for sale. But I’m a perfectionist and I wanted to learn how to write properly so I took a course at Royal Holloway, but not with any intention of being a writer. My agent saw some of my writing at the school and contacted me, but I still never thought about selling the book. So when she sold it I freaked! I’m not a public person, and it wasn’t what I intended. Then I realised I had the opportunity of a different life. I didn’t like my job. I loved the process of writing. I don’t like ‘being a writer’, but I love the process of writing. So, of course, the success is personal – it was personal all along.
Can you tell us about your experience of being a debut novelist?
There are highs and lows. I’ve been so fortunate getting an agent and a publisher quickly but then I have to remind myself that I did write the book four times. I did work hard.
Writing the second book was much harder because then it was a job. I started questioning if I could do it again and felt so much expectation. I had a two book deal and I’ve found out I don’t like working under the pressure of a contract. I didn’t take as much time as I wanted. When you become a writer you learn about yourself and your process as you go. You don’t quite know how to do it until you’re there. I hope the third one will be easier and I can already see I’m enjoying it a lot more.
And I find I’m becoming a real nerd with history. I’m loving it. I don’t see myself as a historical novelist – I think there’s a story and it happens to be set in a certain time. But I do find I can’t stop the research. I love that. I find it fascinating. I love the writing. I don’t like the other stuff that comes with it. I struggle with the public speaking and promotion so I try and think of it as meeting individuals, because I do love meeting individuals and it’s an opportunity to do that.
I think a lot of authors struggle with the public side of the job. Not many are social extrovert types.
Yes, it’s the exact opposite to how we choose to spend most of our time.
The New Blood panel was excellent. Did you enjoy it?
I did. It was so interesting. I wanted to ask a thousand questions of the other authors. And Andrew Taylor is an amazing chair and made all of us feel relaxed. Once it becomes a conversation then I enjoy it. I was speaking at a book club with Sarah Perry about a month ago and that was the same. We had so much to talk about it could have gone on and on. I think that’s the best. I think it’s much more enjoyable for the audience that way.
Have you read any of the other books on the shortlist?
No, but I bought all of them today! I’m researching for book number three at the moment so all I’m reading is World War II Scandinavian history and I haven’t read a good novel for ages. I’m looking forward to it.
Did you have any ideas about who you thought might win?
Andrew Taylor, Chair of judges, said:
“The judges were unanimously impressed by Wolf Winter. Not only is it astonishingly accomplished for a first novel, but it plunges the reader into Swedish Lapland 300 years ago and plays havoc with your emotions. Dark, powerful and beautifully written, it’s a worthy winner of the HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown.”
Imogen Robertson, HWA Chair, who awarded the prize at Harrogate History Festival:
“This is an astonishing debut, rich and atmospheric, dense and chilling, a remarkable evocation of time and place which draws the reader in and holds them long after the last page has been turned. The shortlist was incredible this year, so that makes Cecilia Ekbäck’s triumph even more impressive.”