In the last of our Debut Crown interview series, Historia talks to Cecilia Ekbäck about her shortlisted novel, Wolf Winter.
The HWA Goldsboro Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
Throughout the years, I’ve been fortunate to live in many different countries. Learning the local history has always been important to me in order to better understand a context and a culture, but perhaps it’s been more of a means to an end, rather than an end in itself, if you see what I mean.
I didn’t consciously set out to write a historical novel. I don’t really see myself as an author of historical fiction. The past was just where the story found itself. Wolf Winter was written four times. The first time it was set in 2005 and was a family saga, then it was set in 1930, then in 1865 and finally the book found its true home in 1717. But since I began to properly read about our history and enquire deeper into events, it seems I can’t stop. My second book, In the Month of the Midnight Sun, is set in 1865. The third one I am working on now is set during WWII. I am infatuated with the research process, crazed by the learning, and nobody is more surprised by this than me.
How did the initial idea for Wolf Winter come about?
The expression ‘Wolf Winter’ in Swedish (Vargavinter) refers to an unusually bitter and long winter, but it is also used to describe the darkest of times in a human being’s life – the kind of period that imprints on you that you are mortal and, at the end of the day, always alone.
My father was my best friend. The period preceding and just after his death was my wolf winter. As he lay dying, I interviewed him about his life. He died and I continued speaking, with my grandmother, her sister, their friends, my mother… Wolf Winter came out of those conversations.
The book is set in early 18th century Sweden. What was it that attracted you to that period in Swedish history?
In 1717, Sweden found itself on the cusp of massive change. Its position as a great power, which began in the early 17th century and had bestowed on Sweden control over much of the Baltic region, was looking increasingly uncertain. At this point Sweden was fighting in the Great Northern War against Denmark, Poland, Saxony, Hanover, Prussia and Russia. Apart from short periods, the country had been at war for over 150 years. To finance the wars, the king imposed higher taxes, higher customs fees, and – for as long as it was possible – borrowed abroad. Add to this a few years of crop failure and the plague that returned in 1710 and the times would have felt very dark indeed.
For Wolf Winter, I wanted to find a period where my characters’ world was changing, crumbling, creating additional uncertainties in their lives.
The period is also when I feel my own family’s history in Lapland ‘began’. As part of its nation-building in Lapland in the early 17th century, Sweden encouraged colonisation. Land that had previously been used by the indigenous people, the Sami, was distributed to new settlers. It was a long process that really only caught on in the early 18th century. Most of my ancestors were settlers who arrived around that time.
You’ve lived in lots of different places but chose to set your story in the remote Swedish landscapes in which you grew up. What came first, the setting or the story?
The setting came first. Blackåsen Mountain does not exist as a physical place, but its nature is something I remember from my childhood: a combination of the places and memories I have from Hudiksvall, where I grew up, Knaften and Vormsele, the two small villages in Lapland where my grandparents lived, and Sånfjället, a mountain close to the Norwegian border, where our family had a cabin.
My grandmother used to say, ‘I don’t think I’m living in Lapland as much as Lapland is living in me.’ And growing up in northern Sweden, its setting has made its mark. The long winters, the six months darkness, and the seemingly endless forest landscape – contrasted with the summer midnight sun, the hot weather and the absolute explosion of flora and fauna; one season is lived as quietly as the other is exuberantly. This, our setting, governs, to a large part, the rhythm of our lives and imprints itself on our psyches. And Blackåsen is the embodiment of what I felt like growing up in the north of Sweden. It represents the fear, the doubts, the religious fervour, the loneliness and the need to fit in and to belong.
In Wolf Winter, I wanted ‘place’ – the mountain – to be almost a character in its own right. It felt right to give it a voice in the interludes. Blackåsen Mountain watches the settlers. It doesn’t care. It is dispassionate. It has already seen many of them come and go and it will see many more come and go after them. I brought this ‘place’ down onto the characters and let it impact them to the full. That then became the story.
In the character of Maija you’ve created a woman who is punished for acting ‘against the natural order of things’. The treatment of women is a strong theme in the book. Was that something you particularly wanted to bring to light and if so, why?
The treatment of women in the book was mainly a byproduct of the time and the characters, but the choice of a woman for protagonist was not.
Maija has a number of traits from the women in my family – stubbornness, strength, wisdom – qualities indeed needed to survive in a harsh world. The more I learnt about our history, the more I understood why we had turned out the way we did. Even until quite recently, women were treated as subjects – by the state, the church and at home by their fathers, husbands, brothers. I think not enough is written about how it was for the women. I want them back in the history. I want them seen and heard.
Folklore, superstition and religion are also strong themes, particularly the religion of the Sami people. How did you go about researching that and did you find anything unexpected along the way?
A lot of the folklore is still there. I researched – read everything I could find, but the most valuable information I got from the interviews with my grandmother and her friends. And I remembered stories from my childhood. We grew up with tales about sprites and fairies, like the ones about ‘the boy on the bog’ who would steal your things if you had bad thoughts, or Santa Claus who was not a large, jovial man dressed in red but a small, grey goblin who lived in the barn and who would punish you if you did not treat him right.
What surprised me was the extent to which the folklore was accepted by the priests as long as it remained on the homesteads. Whilst the Sami were persecuted for their beliefs, the church never tried hard to eradicate the superstition amongst the settlers.
Your second novel In the Month of the Midnight Sun came out this summer, and is set in the same area, over 100 years later. What was it that drew you back for more?
When I finished Wolf Winter, I knew that Blackåsen wasn’t yet done with me. I wasn’t done thinking about it and, as I am fascinated about the impact a place, physical or imaginary, has on people, I was also interested in what this mountain would be like some 140 years later. What would be different? What would be the constant thread of what it was like to live near this mystical place?
The inspiration for In the Month of the Midnight Sun then came mainly from a true story told in passing. At a party at my parents-in-law’s house, a man was telling me how, as a young medical doctor, he had escorted a mass murderer from a distant northern village to the closest town for medical evaluation and sentencing. While he was talking, I was feeding my twins who were then a year and a half old and I didn’t listen closely. I regretted it. In my mind, I kept coming back to that voyage and what it would have been like for him and the perpetrator. I wanted to know…
What was your path to publication?
I have been so, so incredibly fortunate. My wonderful agent Janelle Andrews from PFD read my writing in an anthology produced by the Royal Holloway Creative Writing Master class and she contacted me. She really believed in Wolf Winter from the start and once there was a finished draft she sold it. BUT, again, by then the book had been written four times. I think that as a new author, there are a certain number of things you just have to learn and that you can only learn by writing. You either do that by rewriting one book until it works, or you end up with several finished unsold books in your drawer. The work has to get done.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
I myself live by this quote: “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.’ (Isak Dinesen)
“Write a little every day…”
To manage to live in the world your writing creates – thus making it come alive – you have to visit every day. Goals such as word count seems less helpful to me as the writing waxes and wanes and there are periods which are very productive quantitively and others – more reflective ones – which are as productive qualitatively. But the writing must be revisited daily.
The moment you start writing “to be published”, you have lost it. You must remain true to yourself, to what you have inside you and not look at what people will like or at what will sell. This becomes so clear once you know you are going to be published. There is so much noise and if you let yourself get distracted by it, your writing peters out in the same pace as your confidence.
Writing is hard, but you must trust in ‘the muse,’ or in your subconscious who is at it all the time even when you don’t sit at your desk. When you get stuck, go for a walk, cook a lovely meal or play with your children. The answer will come when it’s ready.
Do you have any favourite historical writers?
I don’t really want to put the label ‘historical writer’ on any author. I do believe that the story will use whatever time period it needs to get told. But if I look on books based in the past, my favorite ones are written by Hilary Mantel. I can’t get enough. Her books work on so many levels that I read and reread them and am just as amazed every time. Two other books that I recently read and adored are Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent and Priya Parmar’s Vanessa and Her Sister.
And what are you reading right now?
Right now I am reading history books about WWII with focus on Scandinavia. I am reading a lot of poetry and diaries written by people who worked in the iron mines in Sweden in the early 1900s. I am also re-reading all of John le Carré’s books. A mish-mash that works wonderfully.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
Something to do with WWII. All I have at this stage is the setting…
Cecilia Ekbäck was born in Sweden in a small northern town. She has lived in Russia, Germany, France, Portugal, the Middle East and the UK. In 2010 she completed a Masters in Creative Writing at Royal Holloway. She now lives in Canmore, Canada, with her husband and twin daughters.