Sam Law’s Interview on Fylgia and More
Sam Law, of It’s Good to Read, published this interview in November, 2018.
Please, give us a little more about the person behind the book:
Born in Sweden, I’ve spent the better part of my life in the US. I came to writing late. The desire was always there. What was absent was not opportunity but courage. When I finally began to write, it took me over. My friends no longer saw me — I’m sad to say I lost a few that way. These days I live with my husband on the northern California coast. Even now there’s the constant push and pull, the wish to be part of the world at large and the need to close the door and write.
Why did you begin writing?
I think I write because I must. As my husband can testify, I’m too hard to be around if I don’t. It may sound overly dramatic, but it’s the truth. When I was younger, I was always on the move. Not until I began to write did I finally settle down. I happened to live in San Francisco at the time. It could have been anywhere, but the fact that I was writing made it feel like home.
How do you form the ideas for your books?
I look at old photographs, pinned to the bulletin board in my office. One shows a group of people in a Swedish summer garden. The lilacs are in bloom, the tablecloth blinding white. What’s the occasion? Who’s the tall man? All through the writing of Fylgia, I searched their faces for answers. Many ideas come in the middle of the night. Still, what seems brilliant in the dark often lacks luster in the light of day. The best ideas show up when I least expect them. That’s why I go to my office every morning. If inspiration knocks, I’d better be there.
What authors inspired you to write?
Selma Lagerlöf for her lyricism and her reliance on folklore and myths. August Strindberg for his fury and compassion both — even Jean, the valet, hesitates before he sends Miss Julie to her death. Henrik Ibsen for exposing the lies by which we live and portraying women we’ll never forget (how on earth did he know?). Leo Tolstoy for capturing the world and yet writing so intimately about the Russian soul. Edward Albee for throwing us off balance and refusing to help. I still don’t like endings too clear. Human nature is much too complicated. Some corners must remain dark.
Describe your writing space.
My office used to be part of the garage. The window looks out over a meadow, green this time of year, cow parsnips and poppies in full bloom. Wild turkeys amble by, the females in the afternoon, clucking gently as they pass. Only yesterday I saw a doe with two new fawns. If I’m lucky, I’ll spot a red-tailed hawk.
The room itself is lined with bookcases, crowded with books. More books fill the file cabinets in the actual garage, all eight of them. I kept ordering one cabinet after another, until the saleswoman asked me what they were for. When I told her I was trying to get organized, she shook her head. “If you can’t get organized with eight, you may as well give up.” She’s probably right. Besides, I must leave room for the car.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with them?
Criticism, when done well, is an art itself. As a writer, I must trust the process and write precisely what I mean. A critic or a reviewer must do the same. So, holding my breath, I read them all.
What is it like, to have your book published and out there?
It’s odd, a mix of panic and relief. For so long I’ve been in control (or as much in control as a writer can hope to be). Once I signed the contract, I relinquished that. Fylgia now belongs to the publisher and to the readers. A part of my life is over — no more rewrites, no more revisions, no more drafts. The only way to stay sane is to start work on the next book.
What did you learn when writing the book that you found surprising?
All writing is discovery. As with Michelangelo, the statue is already there, hidden in the marble. Fylgia began as non-fiction. Yet, the harder I tried, the less progress I made. I finally realized I had to turn to fiction to get to the truth. That was the moment when everything came into focus, when I knew that none of it could have happened any other way.
What do you read to relax?
I don’t. I take all writing seriously, too seriously perhaps. I watch movies. But even then, I don’t really relax. I write the scenes in my head as I watch them, much like I write from the photographs on my bulletin board. Relaxing, to me, is being with my husband and friends. Walking by the ocean and up on the ridge. Growing kohlrabi. Laughing.
What words of advice would you give aspiring authors?
Don’t fight it. You only lose time.
In Fylgia, what would you like readers to get the most from?
I would like them to linger in Anna’s world, as foreign as it may seem. My hope is that the title, echoed by the cover, will draw them in, and that Anna herself will win them over. But who am I to say? Reading is much like writing, just as demanding in many respects. At first we need the author’s guidance, signposts as to who and when and where, but then it shifts and we become creators too, making connections, remembering, anticipating.
What are your upcoming projects (if you can talk about them!!)?
The setting of my next novel is a country house in southern Sweden, much like the ones I used to visit when I was a student in Lund. It’s the early 1900s. I see men and women in a mirrored room. Curtains stir in the breeze, rose petals are scattered on the floor, someone plays a sonata on the grand piano. Hours go by. What are they waiting for? So far, it’s all surface. I must go deeper now.
What are you currently reading?
The Art of the Wasted Day, by Patricia Hampl. It’s a collection of essays, but also a memoir, dealing poignantly with her husband’s death. Montaigne, when he retreated to his tower, had also lost the love of his life. In fact, if it weren’t for his lover’s death, he might not have written his essays. Perhaps that’s why we write, to hold something forever, something that may already be gone. Hampl calls it a “solitude wanting to be heard.”
Any last thoughts?
We live in times of unrest. There have been great migrations before, and we see one now. Until recently I was leery of just about anything I encountered on the Internet, but I’ve changed my mind. Social media has the power to break down borders, both imaginary and real. Writing can be part of that. I can’t wait to see what the future will bring.
by Birgitta Hjalmarson
The End of Christmas.
The girl’s breath misted the glass as she pressed her nose against the windowpane and looked out at the street. An eerie stillness ruled out there, no movement seen, other than snowflakes falling slowly from a black evening sky. In front of the house, a solitary lamp post shed a small circle of light. The father and the boy had shoveled the garden path free of snow, all the way from the white wooden gate to the front door.
In this town, on the west coast of Sweden, winter had come early that year. The war had ended less than a decade earlier. Memories of the camps already seemed distant, the guilt assuaged, for all the claims of ignorance of something that should have been known. But the girl and the boy knew nothing of that, especially not on an evening like this, the house warm and snug, the oil furnace humming in the cellar, the Christmas creche on display in the fireplace, the wise men in their richly colored robes, the ceramic ox looking down on the infant in the manger. Out in the bicycle shed, the hedgehog had bedded down for the winter, underneath a pile of twigs and leaves, its breathing suspended, its torpor all but complete.
From the sofa in the living room, the sister-in-law watched the wife. The sister-in-law came rarely to the house. She was a stranger to the children. Even the husband, her younger brother, had long since tried to understand who she was, or perhaps he understood it all too well, her desire for his wife, her need to see her, if only from a distance, and only once a year, as this evening in the living room, her mind taking note of the wife’s every gesture, her quietness and content, and yet that hint of strain, the skin below her eyes tinged with blue, and now the news, as the wife had whispered in her ear, even as they greeted each other in the hall, that she was expecting a third child.
The boy joined the girl at the window. He wore his new pullover sweater, an early Christmas gift. Early that morning, he and the father had gone to the country, the boy in the back seat of the Volvo, as they traveled along winding forest roads, with glimpses of the frozen river against the gray winter light. At the farmhouse, the grandmother had been waiting, a devout woman in black, made even more devout by the death of her husband years before the war. A horse dealer, he had lived on too grand a scale in a place where most of the forest had already been felled, leaving the ground scorched and too stony for crops. No one, not even the grandmother, had been willing to admit that his death had been a suicide. Rather, it was blamed on a sudden dizziness, which must have struck as he crossed the old stone bridge, his body floating ashore a couple of miles to the south.
While the grandmother stayed behind, the boy and the father had walked out into the forest, following the tracks in the snow, the boy carrying his grandfather’s rifle. The fox had waited for them, or so it seemed to the boy, at the far end of a meadow, the boughs of the fir trees weighed down by snow. As the father guided him, the boy raised the rifle to his shoulder, his finger on the trigger. The fox looked straight at them, as if in anticipation of what the boy would do next. Blood hammering in his ears, gun oil stinging his nostrils, all the boy could think of was the stillness of the fox, the frozen landscape around them, and the father wanting him to shoot. Just then, the fox turned and loped back in among the trees, and the boy lowered the rifle.
On their return to town, the boy and the father had found the Christmas tree toppled by the cat, ornaments scattered all over, the cat on the windowsill licking its paws. Order had been restored, the Christmas star rewired to the top of the tree, the tree itself secured to the wall, and the shards of the broken glass balls, covered with fake frost, swept off the floor. At last, after hiding in his room, the boy had come out to light the candles in the tree, not electric, as in the houses of his friends, but real, the candleholders made of brass with drip pans for the melting wax. He bowed before the aunt and joined the girl at the window, who kept wiping the mist off the glass. He was not at all sure that Santa Claus would come, especially not since the father was still in the house. In the past, the father had always disappeared just before Santa Claus arrived. Now, looking at his father converse with the aunt, the boy felt sorry for his sister, who clung to the notion that Santa Claus was no less real than the grandmother’s God.
The wife was still in the kitchen, preparing the sauce for the lutfisk, rich enough to conceal the blandness of the cod. The afternoon had grated on her nerves, and she had reached for one of those pills she kept hidden in the corner of the cabinet, behind the crystal glasses. She could hear her husband’s voice from the living room. A month earlier, her sister-in-law had helped her with a dress that needed to be let out. It was only natural that the wife should have asked her, the sister-in-law being a seamstress with clients coming to see her as far as from Berlin. In the bright atelier, the sister-in-law had bent at her side, one knee against the floor, as she pinned the dress around her waist, the porcelain pin heads like pricks of blood. Even now, the wife could feel the hands of her sister-in-law resting on her hips, longer than necessary, long enough for the wife to respond, as if a small animal had stirred inside her womb. That night, unable to forget, she had turned away from her husband in shame. The following morning, a messenger delivered the dress with a note from the sister-in-law, embossed in blue and gold, with hopes that the dress would now be a better fit.
To this day, the wife could see the husband enter the shop where she used to work, his collar raised, his coat of the latest cut. He had asked to taste almost every cheese in sight, buying two or three, as the other customers waited in line, the matrons smiling behind his back. When she married him, she had already been pregnant with the boy. Crushing his dreams to become an architect, she expected him to provide for her in style, all those dinners and bridge parties, the maids in starched aprons and caps. Once he became a successful businessman, he took her to Milan and Paris, the two of them sitting in their own loge at the opera house or walking hand-in-hand along the Seine. Even now, after all these years of living in this small Swedish town, when he thought she was asleep, he would leave their bed for the room in the attic. Here, when cleaning, she would see his blueprints spread on the drawing board, his pencils sharpened and lined up, his compass and triangles laid out the way one might set the table for a long-lost friend, someone who might still return, all those dreams stashed away, like her pills.
Now, as the wife entered the living room, she found her sister-in-law talking to the husband, the cat purring in his lap. Both children were at the window, looking out. This year, aware of the boy’s suspicions, she and her husband had agreed to hire a Santa Claus. Other parents in the neighborhood had asked to join, and an advertisement had been answered. The man, named Linder, was given not just the addresses but also the names of the children, their grades at school and the subjects in need of improvement. He should already be making his way down the street, sacks of presents waiting for him in garages and cellars, a glass of snaps offered him in each house, strong enough to warm his insides. The wife did not know this man, nor did her husband. According to the agency, he lived east of the river. People there had little to do with the people who lived in the villas to the west, but the agency had presented him as a retired engineer, very respectable, his own son long since grown.
Approaching the house, Linder saw the children’s faces in the window, noses pressed against the glass. His mask had holes cut for his mouth and eyes. Rubber bands attached his cotton beard to his face and dug into the skin behind his ears. He did not need the money, but he was willing to suffer it all, as long as he did not have to be alone on this one night, when once, underneath the stars, the shepherds heard the angels sing, “Glory to God on high!” Before he knocked on the front door, he stomped the snow off his boots, loud enough to make sure the children heard him. The husband and the wife shook his hand, as did the girl and the boy, curtsying and bowing, neither one brave enough to look him in the eyes. The woman, who introduced herself as the sister-in-law, remained seated, while the cat hissed at him and hid under her chair. He had seen women like that in the other houses too, widows and maiden aunts, their relatives taking turns in having them over for the holidays, as inconvenient as it was, and in this particular case clearly putting added pressure on the wife, whose hand had been cold and wet in his, before she quickly took it back.
Linder sat on a chair in the middle of the room. He emptied his glass of snaps, uttered a few Ho-Ho-Ho’s, pulled the presents out of the sack, and read out the names on the tags. When still in his thirties, he had come down from the north, building railroads through the wilderness, living in barracks with the other men, carousing and fighting, until a young woman from one of the villages stood at the barrack door, wanting to save him, her face tapered and pale. She had a child by a man, whose name she never knew. The boy, she said, needed a father, and so a deal was struck. She had been pliable, adjusting to his ways to please him, quoting from the Scriptures, and calling him a decent man. In the end she had bent too much, and she broke right under him, something erupting inside her; the doctors were unable to save her, or even explain what had gone wrong.
After the funeral, he moved with the boy to this town, where the railroad company paid him handsomely and called him an engineer. When Germany occupied Norway, the Swedish government allowed German trains to travel through Sweden to transport wounded soldiers back to their own country. He stood on the platform, as did many of the other townspeople, watching the trains roll by, the soldiers leaning out the windows to wave. Several newspapers published articles in protest, claiming that the trains carried not just wounded soldiers but also Swedish iron to be forged into guns. The townspeople jeered and shook their fists, the air hot with hatred, but one man – he recognized the husband, who now stood behind his seated wife, cupping his pipe, making sure his children behaved — had raised his right arm in salute, palm down.
The distribution of presents over, the mood in the room was one of comfort and warmth, all meant to convince the children that they were somehow in good hands. For a moment Linder too felt drawn in, but only until he met the stare of the cat, still crouching under the older woman’s chair, its pupils opening and closing, yellow slits against black. At the husband’s insistence, he accepted a second glass of snaps. It was then that the girl climbed up on his knee, her stockings white and crumpled at her feet. Someone ought to have stopped her, but no one did. She was too close to him, her scent of vanilla and milk, her slight body trusting his. He heard himself burst into song, his voice like the cranking of a rusty shaft, raucous words about lonely men around a fire, miles and miles of forest to the nearest town, the curses and profanities shielding them from the dark, but the girl still leaned against his chest, until he wrenched her away and the wife rushed in to gather her up. The girl was crying now, not loud, more a drawn-out sob, as if she had glimpsed the hunger in his eyes and made it hers.
From the window, the boy and the girl watched their father walk Santa Claus down the shoveled garden path, through the gate and out into the street. Stopping under the lamp post, the father handed Santa Claus an envelope, slapped him on the back, and returned to the house. The snow had stopped falling now. Pressing her cheek to the misty glass, the girl looked up at the stars. She told the boy she could see the star of Bethlehem leading Santa Claus on his way, his red hood bobbing and disappearing in the night. The boy put his arm around her shoulders and told her about the fox, all that wood stacked in front of their grandmother’s house, enough to take her through the winter, the empty stalls in the stable, halters hanging from iron hooks, the wood nicked from kicking hooves. He told her he was all she had.
This essay was first published by Women Writers, Women's Books. Garbo portrayed you in Queen Christina, beautiful, when you, in fact, were not. These days you’re celebrated as an early feminist, although you, of course, would have sneered. And to be fair, some still...
When I was young, I went crayfishing with my father in Sweden. Although I can’t remember the exact year, it must have been on August 7, for that was the day the season began. My father and his brothers were fortunate enough to have their own fishing waters. They had...