What attracted you to Vikings?
I’d always been fascinated with other times and cultures, but my leaning usually went to more primal civilizations – aboriginal cultures or the Ancient Near East, Egypt, classical Greece…. I’d never had any particular interest in the Viking period and knew little about them when I started writing, beyond the clichés most of us grow up hearing. But one gray Saturday morning, well over a decade ago, I was strolling with my husband in downtown Manhattan. At South Street Seaport, we spotted a crowd and moved closer to see what was going on.
Three wooden ships were moored at the dock, sails furled, hulls open to the lapping waves. They were replicas of Viking ships that had sailed all the way from Norway to Iceland, Greenland, Canada, and finally down the coast of the northeastern United States, following the path of Leif Eiriksson’s discovery of Vinland and the New World.
The first thing that struck me was their size – barely bigger than overgrown rowboats – yet they had faced the bitter reaches of the North Atlantic, through storms and wind, icebergs and heavy seas. The second was one of the crew – a woman, tall, blond and truly beautiful in the most unaffected way, with her hair in a disheveled pile on her head, wearing a thick, brown Icelandic fisherman’s sweater. Completely unadorned, she was the most striking woman I’d ever seen. I began wondering what it would have been like to be a woman traveling on those minute, vulnerable ships, settling and surviving in a remote, difficult land.
Why did you pick Greenland?
Perhaps it was Greenland’s landscape, its sense of isolation and threat. I’ve always been interested in edges, desolation, living on the periphery of existence while all the rest of the world marches forward oblivious, the feeling of being part and apart at the same time.
To me, Greenland is both geographically and psychologically as far to the edge as one can travel. Its forbidding environment begs isolation. Historically, and even in contemporary times, its culture is completely unfamiliar. But people have lived in Greenland for well over one thousand years. There was evidence of human settlement when Eirik the Red first explored it in the late 10th century. Far to the north, the Dorset people lived along Greenland’s coasts long before the Norse ever set foot on its southernmost outcrops, and their successors, the Thule, survived there long after the Norse disappeared. Their descendants, the Inuit, are today’s modern Greenlanders. For them, it is a vital landscape, but one must know how to live in it. One must respect and even revere the land. I think I am attracted to the sense of insignificance one feels in such formidable solitude.
You take a very unconventional approach to the topic of Vikings. Your main characters are women. There is very little focus of raiding and battles. What were your objectives?
I was actually quite put off by the stereotypical Viking – the bloodthirsty warrior ravaging fair, Christian shores. I believed the Norse people were full, round and human, just like anyone else.
Going back to the topic of edges, I wanted most to tell a tale of marginalized people in a marginalized society. Women in Norse culture are essentially invisible, except for characters like Freydis Eiriksdatter, whose portrait in the sagas is as vicious and bloodthirsty as her male counterparts. But there were other women – wives, mothers, healers, seeresses, goddesses. And there were slaves. I cannot imagine a more marginalized individual than a female slave in Norse Greenland. And as thrall to Thorbjorg the Seeress at the end of the pagan era, Katla’s alienation is complete.
Most of us live lives that are essentially insignificant in the scheme of history. And yet we live, want, love, lose, hurt, mourn. To these sorts of people, I wanted to give the spotlight. In The Thrall’s Tale, the historically important characters, like Leif Eiriksson and Eirik the Red, take second stage.
You say the Norse settlements disappeared. What happened to them?
There’s a lot of speculation about that in scholarly communities. The Norse Greenland settlements survived for almost 500 years. But early in the 14th century, a period of cooler temperatures known as the Little Ice Age began to threaten their traditional way of life.
The Greenlanders were dependent on Europe for basic necessities, and traded Greenlandic goods in return: walrus ivory, woolen (wadmal) cloth, even polar bears and falcons shipped alive to Europe’s kings. But the changing climate increased sea ice that clogged vital trade routes. Meanwhile, demand for Greenlandic goods was decreasing due to new sources of ivory in Africa and changing European tastes and economies.
Greenland’s landscape had always been dubious for supporting traditional Scandinavian farming and animal husbandry. The Little Ice Age’s colder weather produced successively bad winters, which diminished conventional food supplies. Increasingly, the Norse relied on local food sources, especially seals, which they hunted by traditional means, using clubs and nets, and only when there was no sea ice. Meanwhile, Thule hunters, who had migrated from the high Arctic with the changing climate, were using harpoons and hunting in winter through holes in the ice. The Norse appear to have disdained Thule methods. In fact, they called them skraelings, roughly translating as “weaklings” or “wretches”, and there are many stories of hostile encounters on both sides.
In the end, the Thule survived the Norse, becoming the ancestors of Greenland’s modern Inuit people. Cultural inflexibility combined with environmental degradation are often blamed for the Norse settlements’ demise. Jared Diamond’s book, Collapse: How How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, gives an excellent overview and analysis of the circumstances.
You obviously did a lot of research for this novel. How did the story evolve? Did you develop the plot first, or was it based on your research?
For The Thrall’s Tale, I had one question: what was it like to be a woman traveling on a Viking ship, settling and surviving in Norse Greenland? I started reading archaeology, history and, of course, sagas. In one chapter of Eirik’s Saga (part of the Vinland Sagas), Thorbjorg the Seeress prophesizes the end of a terrible famine. The scene is filled with idiosyncratic ritual and obeisance. I also sensed a hint of hostility in the Seeress’ remarks. I wondered, who was Thorbjorg? Why the hostility? What was her place in the community? How was she viewed by others in her time? From this sort of questioning, my Thorbjorg slowly evolved.
I also happened upon Land Under the Pole Star by Helge Ingstad who, with his wife, Anne Stine Ingstad, discovered the first conclusive evidence of the Norse people in North America at L’Anse aux Meadows in Newfoundland, Canada. The book was full of rich detail of the landscape of Greenland. From it I learned how a homestead’s boundary was marked, which became a significant scene in the early part of my book. I read on about a gravestone found on an island off Ivigtut at Mellombygd (the Middle Settlement) that bore the name Ossur Asbjarnarson. He became another important character.
Each piece intrigued me and flowed into my initial question, slowly fitting together into a very rough outline of the story, with pages and pages of character description. Finally, I discovered a fascinating artifact – a runestick found in Greenland dated to the time of the early Norse settlements. It was inscribed on three sides – the complete, sixteen-character runic alphabet on one; on another, a row of “secret” runes used for mystical purposes, including prophesy; and finally an inscription: Bibrau is the name of the girl who sits in the blue. Who was this Bibrau? What did it all mean? Thus Bibrau became a key character in my novel.
Where did you learn to write?
Mostly from writing constantly, day in and day out, despite obstacles, little time, and exhaustion. I’ve taken writing workshops, but never enrolled in a formal program. I also belonged to a writers group that met monthly for nearly a decade.
My greatest writing lessons came, oddly enough, from my RADA-trained English acting teacher. (RADA is the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London.) She taught me how to break down a scene, how to listen, how to respond, how to be in the moment and in character. She always used to call out during classes, “Stay on the thread of the scene!” in her rich, emphatic voice. It is an echo I still hear in my head when I’m writing.
I think all writers should at least attempt an acting class. I know that may sound strange, since writers are generally reputed to be reclusive and uncomfortable before a crowd, but my acting training has given me a very visceral sense of how to portray a character and how to build a scene dynamically. It was invaluable training, not to be overlooked.
What are your literary influences?
For this book, of course, there were the eddas and the sagas. I read Sigrid Undset’s glorious trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter very early on. Perhaps even more significant was Pär Lagerkvist’s classic, The Sibyl. But I believe my greatest influence springs from my roots in the theater.
I began reading Shakespeare at a very young age, and actually took myself alone to my first production when I was less than a teenager. As a performer, I studied Shakespeare, Chekhov, Ibsen, Shaw, Harold Pinter, Tennessee Williams, Edward Albee…. The dynamic of theater inherently permeates my writing.
As for other works, I’m partial to classics. I often joke that Jane Austen is my beach reading. I am fond of Nikos Kazantzakis, Orhan Pamuk , Mario Vargas Llosa, Jhumpa Lahiri, Louis De Bernieres, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Milorad Pavic – mostly international writers, or those with an international perspective. I rarely read contemporary American writers these days. It is a personal prejudice, not a judgment of work. I’m much more attracted in something very different from my own experience, in looking for the commonality within.
The Thrall’s Tale is written in a very lyrical, poetic style. What is your approach to language?
Rhythms are very important to me, perhaps because I was a dancer for so long. I wrote The Thrall’s Tale with echoes and music in mind, using repeated words, unconventional syntax, alliteration, and other poetic forms to give a sense of depth and movement, but also to create some distance from our own time. I wanted the language to be rich, layered and archaic, not crisp and spare, as is generally the current style.
As I wrote, I often read aloud. I felt – even feared – that if I broke my paragraphs into phrases, much of it would scan almost as poetry. But it was the sound, in addition to the actual words, that I wanted to convey the feeling and texture. That is also why sometimes I invented words, or at least used existing ones in unorthodox ways. The English language is surprisingly limited. Sometimes I’d spend hours searching for a word with a certain, subtle meaning, only to find it did not really exist. I even embraced ambiguity. Context is everything. It cues the reader to stretch beyond the literal to understand and communicate by inference and emotion.
Is there an underlying motif behind the three main characters?
I have always conceived of The Thrall’s Tale as a stretch of weaving. Katla is the warp, and Bibrau is the weft, forever entangled, forever at odds. Thorbjorg is a fine, gold filament twined amidst the heavy woolen.
I also see each character having a different relationship with time. Katla is a victim of the present, ever caught in the moment. She is a slave. She cannot change her fate, no matter how she tries. Bibrau, on the other hand, rejects her own existence. Her entire life’s purpose is to destroy her past. Yet, in doing so, she clings to those very circumstances, holding onto what is finished and can never be undone. Thorbjorg is written in shifting tenses, often in the future; she sees the broader picture, moving fluidly between moments, accepting the constancy of change and the futility of fighting the inevitability of time.
Finally, the three main characters are based on Jungian archetypes: Bibrau, the maiden; Katla, the mother; Thorbjorg, the crone.
Norse magic figures prominently in The Thrall’s Tale. Where did you learn so much about it?
My initial exposure to Norse magic, properly termed seidr, was in Chapter Four of Eirik’s Saga (part of the Vinland Sagas), in which the seeress, or seidkona, Thorbjorg gives prophecy in an elaborate ritual. In Norse mythology, Odin is said to have practiced seidr, which he learned from the goddess Freya. But his practice, and that of any male, was unusual, considered emasculating and perverse. The wisdom of seidr is portrayed particularly well in the Voluspa (The Sibyl’s Vision), part of The Poetic Edda, a collection of mythic and spiritual verse transcribed from oral tradition in the 12th or 13th century.
Beyond these examples, I researched Scandinavian folklore, where I found, for example, my first references to fylgie, invisible guardian spirits who attend each human being, often thought protective, but mischievous and potentially evil. I also did a bit of deconstruction, taking medieval magical practice and church taboos and essentially associating their roots to pagan or Norse ritual.
Finally, I turned to shamanistic practices in general. I found great instruction in Saami and Siberian shamanism. Also in practices from South America. Though there are infinite variations and subtleties, an essential route seemed to permeate them all, through a trance-state that enhanced the shaman’s awareness and created a direct relationship with the practitioner’s gods or spirits.
What were your objectives in depicting the Greenlanders’ conversion to Christianity?
The conversion of Greenland is, honestly, not well recorded. Many of my assumptions were based on Iceland’s conversion, which happened rather matter-of-factly through a vote at the annual Icelandic parliament, the Althing of A.D. 1000. The Viking sagas bear many accounts of persecuted and murdered priests, and much in-fighting among believers of the differing faiths prior to official conversion. The decision was made to help unite a divided land.
My first thought for The Thrall’s Tale was compassion for a world that is lost. Once, long ago, what we now call “mythology” was actually the sacred guiding vision that informed whole communities in their social, ethical, and spiritual existence. In The Thrall’s Tale, Thorbjorg serves her faith with the same dedication a modern devotee might serve his or her own conception of God. But the Christian priest in my novel condemns her actions and teachings, declaring her practices dangerous and deceitful. Fervor such as his, as I imagine it, may have been what eventually relegated pagan practices to the realm of sorcery.
In contrast, the coming of Christianity is salvation for Katla, returning her to the secret faith of her mother, and providing a chance to ease her soul over all the pain, loss, and anguish she’s endured. For others in the community, Christianity helps to break the ingrained ties to vengeance and violence, and to rectify some of the inequities of a hierarchical social structure.
There were practical reasons, too. Christianity bore heavily on economies, with Christian Europe unwilling to trade with pagans, and an increased market for goods to serve the Church and its followers. Where they saw a chance for riches, be it through raid or trade, Greenlanders, like all Vikings, generally would have turned it to their advantage.
Still, for some, Christianity had a negative impact. It was not always the perfect salve for all human woes. Even for Katla, a true believer from the start, the illusion is shattered by events that accompany the conversion of her community.
Overall, it was with sadness, mourning and a plea for tolerance that I portrayed the transformation of the Old Norse world. All cultures pay a heavy price for the loss of any perspective, a different way to interpret the world and the lives of all its creatures. Like taking a single color out of the myriad shades of the spectrum, we suffer from a kind of blindness, a narrowing of scope. But, for me, Thorbjorg’s parting words also echo truly, “It matters not – not what they are named, so long as they are called.”