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

The End of Christmas.

The End of Christmas.

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.

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