Zarathustra’s Tightrope Walker
Come along for the ride as Birgitta takes you behind the scenes!
What was the inspiration for this book?
It began with an image I couldn’t forget. WWI rages on the continent. In Sweden, a family crosses a field to bury a child. Anna, the young mother, walks between her parents. Her brother carries the coffin, which seems even smaller in his large, awkward hands. The vicar waits for them at the old village church. The ceremony is short. A man watches from the pasture below, dressed in black, a wreath over his arm. Only after everyone has left does he approach the grave.
When I first heard about this, I had moved to the US and was visiting my mother in Sweden. Anna, long since dead, was my great aunt. My mother may have felt she had already said too much for she was vague on the details. What she did tell me had the sound of a twice-told tale. A wealthy farmer forbids his daughter to marry the man she loves. Surreptitious meetings lead to the birth of an out-of-wedlock child, all swathed in shame imposed by an unforgiving church. Even then I knew there had to be more. The Anna I remembered couldn’t be bullied into obedience, not by her father, and not by God.
When did you know you had to write it?
I think I knew right away. Year after year I traveled to the farm where Anna had lived and where I spent my childhood summers. Rummaging around in the attic, I found a copy of Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, with Anna’s scribbles in the margins. She had searched for answers but found none.
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 into tape recorders, nor did they allow themselves to be rushed. Perhaps my stubbornness moved them, since at long last they began to tell me what they knew.
What pitfalls did you face with the historical aspects?
In those days I wrote only non-fiction. Entirely at ease with the process, I enjoyed doing research. Of course, endless researching can also be a form of procrastination. It certainly was for me.
After much ado, I wrote a perfectly respectable story. Anna’s Child, part biography, part mystery, was pieced together from interviews, letters, diaries, and archive documents. Seen against a backdrop of social and political upheaval, it was a story of cold wills and combative temperaments, masked behind an outward calm and an ancient sense of ritual. It was all very interesting. But where was Anna in all this? I had been writing around her, never allowing her to speak for herself.
This was what I struggled with when I had my dream. It’s still vivid in my mind. Someone guides me through a cave. It’s all quite matter-of-fact. A young woman hangs suspended in mid-air — I can’t quite see how. Wearing a thin blue dress, she sways slightly as if in a draft. Her chin rests on her chest so I can’t see her face. Darkness is all around, but spotlights shine on the woman herself, her skin deadly white. The guide informs me that her tendons have been cut. She can no longer move.
Was this what I had done to Anna? Or was I the woman myself? I’m not well versed in dream interpretation, but I could see that both versions might be true. My writing had stalled. Giving up was surely an option. Instead, I turned to fiction. I filed away my research, cleared all reference books from my desk, and began to write without notes. I was like Zarathustra’s tightrope walker, leaving the tower and stepping out on the rope. No crowd cheering from below. Just Anna and me.
Anna was so forward thinking for her time. How did that play out?
Anna ran the village bank. She was a woman of importance. Under the counter, she hid a box of condoms. Distributing them was illegal but her concern for the villagers was greater than her fear of jail. She knew about farming, often more than the farmers themselves. Before approving a loan, she carefully weighed the cost and return of machinery and labor. Yet, in her personal life she was anything but cautious. When trapped by circumstances, she became a law unto herself, a law no less binding, no less demanding, than the official one. She was at her most defiant at the very moment when she appeared to yield. Had she learned something from Nietzsche after all?
In Anna’s world, all of society existed according to rules that had been tried and fixed over the ages. The individual mattered less than the collective. Conforming was essential, standing apart, dangerous. There was only so much luck to go around. The unlucky, as if contagious, were driven out.
Perhaps the world we live in now is not so different? Our capacity for evil is just as great, the veneer of civilization just as thin. We still think in terms of “them” versus “us.” Nationalism flourishes, borders close, and people are forced from their homes. It’s tempting to look the other way. Anna never did.
What wisdom would you impart to other writers, taking their own writing/publishing journeys?
Go deeper. Don’t hold back. No one can help you with his. Keep it to yourself as long as you can, before you ask anyone to read. Get out of your comfort zone. And when you’ve done all you can, find a good editor, someone you trust. Be ready to start over.
What are you most proud of?
Not giving up.
You can connect with Birgitta Hjalmarson here:
by Birgitta Hjalmarson
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