On Writing.

Apr, 2019

This interview was originally published by Lori’s Book Loft at author-spotlight-birgitta-hjalmarson.html.
Please tell us a little about growing up in Sweden and your studies?
I grew up in a town on the West Coast of Sweden. When not at school, I was at the library. To go there, I had to cross a bridge, the dark river roiling below. The library itself was a modern structure, a rectangular block of cement with large glass doors. On Saturdays, in a back room, we rehearsed plays, which we were allowed to perform at the town theater. I recall being alone on stage, the glare of the spotlights, and the hush among the audience. When I forgot my lines, a whisper came from prompt-box to the left. I thought of it as divine intervention. Part of me still does.
At eighteen, I left my home town to study English and literature at the University of Lund. As an undergraduate, I wrote a paper on Selma Lagerlöf, the first woman to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. My graduate thesis was on Edward Albee, quite a departure in both content and style. I had lived a sheltered life, and what I liked most of all was Albee’s “depravity.” Nothing “nice” about him whatsoever. I remain a great fan.
How come you moved to America?
I think, in a sense, I followed my father. He was born in Sweden but studied architecture in Chicago. On a visit to Sweden, he met my mother and never went back to America. Caught in his responsibilities as a husband and a father, he became a merchant, a far cry from being an architect. Still, for as long as I can remember, he kept blueprints in his office, his compass and triangles laid out the way you might set the table for a long-lost friend, someone you hope may come back after all. America for him was always the land of promise. He was a wonderful family man, but I do think he gave something up that he could never replace. Perhaps, at some point, I told myself I wouldn’t make the same mistake.
I found myself hooked on your book Fylgia from the Prologue. Could you explain what inspired you to write it?
It began with an image I couldn’t forget. I had moved to the US but was visiting my mother in Sweden. She mentioned Anna’s child almost as if in passing. Shortly after WWI, a family crossed a snowy field to the 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 cold and grief. 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. That was all she could tell me. She herself had been a child at the time. Still, the scene kept haunting me, and I traveled to Anna’s village to learn more. I think that’s what stories do. They insist on being written. They won’t leave you alone.
I loved how you write of Anna reading Nietzsche and scribbling in the margins. Do you believe many readers study stories this way?
My mentor, Helga Wall, was an inveterate scribbler. Yes, she was an editor, and a tough one at that, but her scribblings were different. She was no longer an editor but a reader, her comments directed not to the author but to herself. 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. Scribblings, I think, are proof of that. We’ve all come across used books where readers have left marks in the margins, notes-to-self as it were, reminders, sudden insights, protests, and questions. As distracting as those scribbles can be, I can’t wholly condemn them. Perhaps some of it is our need to be remembered, sort of like those rune stones from the Viking Age, someone saying, “I wrote this. I was here.”
The structure of Fylgia is fused with themes of birth, death, history, religion, and war. Can you tell us a little about the pealing of bells mentioned herein?
Ah yes, the bells. I’m glad you asked. The church bells proclaimed the end of the day, called to Sunday service, and tolled for the dead, a carefully orchestrated ritual, lasting longer for men like Anna’s father, who was the village leader. Myths and legends surrounded them, instances of bells pealing on their own, trolls hurling stones at them, and bells falling into lakes or sinking into marshes, thwarting all attempts to retrieve them. I learned a great deal about bells from the man who used to be the village bell ringer. He was in his nineties when we talked, almost deaf from his close association with the bells. As he spoke, his large orange cat kept wrestling his stockinged feet under the kitchen table, apparently using its teeth and claws, which made for several interruptions, all in good humor and with no harm to the cat. He said he could see for miles from the top of the bell tower, almost past the mountains. I can only imagine what it must have been like when he pulled the ropes and those huge bells began to boom. For my benefit, he listed the names of all the farms and all those who used to live there. When I took his photograph, I saw him straighten his back like a soldier standing to attention, still without his shoes. He too is now dead. I hope I do him justice in Fylgia.
How did you learn to tell stories the way you do?
Perhaps it’s true what they say. All stories have already been told, it’s only in the telling that they differ. I’m certainly no Selma Lagerlöf, but I was deeply affected by her lyricism and her reliance on folklore and myths. I may even have learned from Edward Albee, the way his characters talk past each other, the truncated sentences, the silences. As writers, we see stories in almost everything. I know all too well about false starts and stranded manuscripts. The challenge is to order those stories in ways we can’t always order our lives. When it works, it’s bliss. When it doesn’t, I’m convinced I’ll never write another word. Before I know it, I’m at it again. It’s an obsession. Otherwise, why go on?
Prior to writing Fylgia, you wrote Artful Players. What can you tell us about it?
No American city took up art quite like San Francisco. In the latter part of the 19th century, art was truly front-page news. The artists’ business was everyone’s business. Art criticism was more entertaining than informed, often to be taken with a grain of salt. With several newspapers competing for the readers, and with critics like Mark Twain, the articles were often as inspired as the art. It was that sense of excitement and fun that initially grabbed me. My goal was to write a lively social history with focus on art, using only sources of the period. Many of the artists had trained in Europe. In San Francisco they were free to experiment, even fail. They were splendid company and I miss them.
What did you find most interesting as a contributing editor for Art & Auction in New York?

It allowed me access to the inner workings of the San Francisco art world. Throughout the 1980s, galleries continued to open, new money from Silicon Valley mixed with old, and fine collections were formed. It was in many ways the contemporary version of Artful Players, as wildly irreverent and almost as much fun. Where but in San Francisco would a museum director and a drag queen sit next to each other at an intimate dinner party? In another life, I’d write a book about that.

What are you doing when you’re not writing?
Reading in my favorite armchair, sharing books and thoughts with my husband, although his forays into quantum physics leave me far behind. Walking alone or with friends, up in the forest or along the ocean bluff, past the cove where seals give birth (you know it’s imminent when sea gulls alight on the rocks in anticipation of the afterbirth). I also tutor local children. Many have parents who don’t speak English and work two or more jobs. The boy I meet with now is 9 years old. Once we’re past divisions (I’m the only one allowed to use a calculator), I bring out Harry Potter and his eyes light up. He’s supposed to read aloud to me, but as we get further and further into a chapter, his voice trails off. I know better than to interfere. He’s in that other world, where all is possible and boys growing up in cupboards can still have a say.
Who is your favorite author?
Penelope Fitzgerald is certainly one of them, in part because of her respect for the reader and her refusal to explain. She’ll capture her characters in a word or two, and you feel as if you’ve known them your whole life. Her intelligence and her sense of humor always shine through. You’re in the best of company, but you have to earn it. Doesn’t get any better than that.
What are you reading now?
The Ghost Writer by Philip Roth. I return to him time after time, mostly because of the sureness of his prose, that exactitude that always hits the mark. The Nobel Prize is in trouble right now, a sordid affair. The Royal Academy has some serious house-cleaning to do. One insider called it a rat’s nest, a shocking epithet for an institution that has existed for almost three hundred years. One can only hope it will rise again, immaculate and incorruptible, like the bastion it was meant to be. It took courage to award Bob Dylan the Nobel prize in 2016. Perhaps it would have taken even more to give it to Philip Roth? Granted, his books are sexist, some blatantly so, but he was true to his times and to the man he was. There’s honor in that, and art.
Finally, is there anything you’d like to tell readers?
Writing is a solitary occupation. When readers thank you, it’s the best feeling in the world.


Image by M. Maggs from Pixabay 


by Birgitta Hjalmarson

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