Q&A

Birgitta Hjalmarson answers
questions about her novel, Fylgia.

What does Fylgia stand for?

The word comes from Norse mythology. A fylgia is a presence that follows you from birth to death, an emissary of fate. Most of the time it will be invisible, but once in a while, as in a crisis, it will appear as an animal or even as a person. It will only leave you shortly before your death, when it will hurry to make room for you in the life hereafter, or disappear forever if you’re to be damned.

 

And how does it apply to Anna?

Anna was born with a caul, the birth membrane still draped over her head. As a result, her fylgia is particularly strong. Even so, she thinks she can bargain with fate, or find a way to get around it. Throughout the book she’s torn between her own sense of guilt and wanting to blame her lover. Like so many of us, she hopes for some kind of order, some kind of justice that will carry her through, none of which turns out to be true.

 

How did you come to write this book?

It began with an image I couldn’t forget. I had moved to the US but was visiting my mother in Sweden. She mentioned the burial almost as if in passing. She said it was shortly after WWI. Must have been, she said, for she herself was still a child. The family had crossed a snowy field to a country churchyard, hidden in the forest of Sweden. As Anna’s brother lowered the small coffin into the frozen ground, Anna clenched her fists, her knuckles white from the cold. A man, dressed in black, watched from the pasture below, a wreath on his arm. Only after the family left, did he approach the grave. When I questioned my mother on the details, she was unsure. And so, to find more answers, I went back to the village where Anna had lived, and where I used to spend my childhood summers. The village had changed. The young people had left. A few farms had been abandoned, others converted into summer houses, boarded up or rented out to German tourists. The old people did not speak easily in front of tape recorders, nor did they allow themselves to be rushed. Year after year I returned. Perhaps it was my refusal to give up that eventually swayed them. Stubbornness, I believe, was something they respected and understood.

 

What did they tell you?

They told me stories, some based on hearsay, others on recollections that even the villagers themselves would question when pressed. Mostly I was struck by how matter-of-fact they were. The villagers had no use for sentimentality. If they ever did, it must have been chased out of them, since most of them had lived long, harsh lives, and what remained was a wry sense of humor, a form of wisdom as it were, a means to lighten what couldn’t be endured. “All my life I’ve been frugal with the truth,” one woman said. “Still can’t make it last.” Yet, whenever I mentioned Anna’s child, the stories grew darker, voices trailing off, calloused fingers tracing the rims of delicate coffee cups.

 

So Fylgia is based on real events and people?

That’s how it began. I was trying to write non-fiction. The harder I tried, the less progress I made. And so I began to look inward, playing the tapes over and over again, listening to the pauses, the deflections, even more than to the words themselves. In the first few drafts I had the manuscript divided into three parts: War, Famine, and Plague. It steadied me as I wrote, helped me see where I was heading. Eventually I had to discard them, certainly in the obvious sense, as printed words on the page. That was when I realized I was writing fiction, drawing on imagination and memory both. Most of it was still hard work, plain and simple, when I knew what I wanted to say but not yet how. But then there would be a glimpse of sky and the book started to hum. Clarity, for me, always comes in stages — no one grand revelation, everything has to be fought for, most of all the truth.

 

What is Anna’s truth?

She does come to terms with her fate, a sense that none of it could have been different, and that strongest of all was her will to live. At least that’s what I hope the reader will come away with. Of course, it’s really not for me to say, is it? Reading is much like writing, just as demanding in many respects. At first we need guidance, signposts as to who and when and where, but then it shifts and we become creators too, making connections, remembering, even running ahead. All good books pose questions that are as relevant today as they were in the past. Village gossip has become false news, no less dangerous, capable of starting wars and destroying lives. Stories are never innocent. They never were.

 

Tell us about your writing day.

Well, first I need to tell you about my nights. Insomnia has long been my companion, not the debilitating kind, but still disruptive. I lie awake for hours listening to the sounds of the night, the hoot of an owl, the bark of a fox, the snarl of raccoons below my window. My thoughts will come and go, and I used to rise in the middle of the night to write them down. I’ve since grown wiser. I now keep a tape recorder on my bedside table. Most of those thoughts, even the ones that seem brilliant at night, turn commonplace in the light of day.

Morning hours I spend in my office, before the rest of the world breaks down my door. My husband and my friends would probably smile at such a notion, since I lead a quiet, private life. In the afternoons I go walking, at times with friends but also alone. Thoughts about writing never really leave me, and as I set out for the forest or the ocean bluff, I keep the tape recorder in my pocket. I’m fortunate. These days I can focus almost exclusively on my writing, which wasn’t always the case. Even so, there’s the constant push and pull — wanting to be part of the world at large, and yet seeking the solitude that Rainer Maria Rilke claimed we must “love.”

 

What are you working on now?

Still between me and the owl.

Journal

by Birgitta Hjalmarson

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