Ask the author: The story behind a magical mystery in northern Sweden

Ask the author: The story behind a magical mystery in northern Sweden
Cecilia Ekbäck is the author of Wolf Winter. Photo: Private
The Local Sweden's Book Club has been reading Wolf Winter, a historical thriller set in Lapland in 1717. Author Cecilia Ekbäck tells us how interviews with her grandmother helped her shape the novel.
Do you prefer to write in Swedish or English, and why did you choose to write your first novel in English?

I left Sweden when I was 20 years old, so my Swedish is still that of a young adult in the 1990s. It has taken me a long time to be able to write in English, but now it is easier for me to write in English than Swedish. I still make a lot of grammatical errors and find that some Swedish expressions do not translate well. Sometimes I use them nevertheless, and poorly translated, because they demonstrate a way of thinking or they impart a wisdom. I chose to write in English for my first novel for I was attending Royal Holloway's Master in Creative Writing at the time in London, UK.

Since the birth of my daughters I use Swedish much more as I speak to them in Swedish. It used to be that I thought in a different language depending on the topic, but now I find my mind is fully Swedish. I worry about what this will do to my writing.

We understand you didn't write the Swedish translation of the book yourself (it was translated from English to Swedish by Ing-Britt Björklund. Have you read the Swedish version and does it feel strange to be reading what are essentially your words and someone else's words at the same time?
 
I have read the Swedish version. It felt very strange and it is still a bit of a shock every time I pick it up. It had never occurred to me until then what a big job the translator has – to ensure the text works in a different language while remaining true to the original. 
 
You write that you experimented with setting the book in three different historical periods. What made you pick 1717, and how did you research this time? Did you come across anything in your research that surprised you?

I don't see this as an 'historical novel' as such. I wrote the book four times. The first time it was set in 2005 and was a family saga, then it was set in 1930, then in 1865 and finally the book found its true home in 1717.

So I didn't set out consciously to write a book set in the past. I have a bad memory, and little patience for detail, but this story seemed to set itself in 1717 and that was that. When I wrote it the previous times I kept thinking: but this is not when it begins in Lapland. It begins earlier. Finally when I found the period when settlers began to arrive I thought: here, this is where it starts.

A lot of the folklore is still there. I researched – read everything I could find, but the most valuable information I got from the interviews with my grandmother and her friends who grew up in a 'roadless Lapland'. And I remembered stories from my childhood. We grew up with tales about sprites and fairies, like the ones about 'the boy on the bog' who would steal your things if you had bad thoughts… or Santa Claus who was not a large, jovial man dressed in red but a small, grey goblin who lived in the barn and who would punish you if you did not treat him right. What surprised me was how very late modernization came to Lapland. 

The characters have very different reactions to winter. How did/do cold winters affect you personally?

My grandmother used to say, “I don't think I'm living in Lapland as much as Lapland is living in me.” And growing up in northern Sweden, its setting has made its mark. The long winters, the six months' darkness, and the seemingly endless forest landscape – contrasted with the summer midnight sun, the hot weather and the absolute explosion of flora and fauna; one season is lived as quietly as the other is, exuberantly. This, our setting, governs, to a large part, I feel, the rhythm of our lives and imprints itself on our psyches. Me, I love winter. Frederika thinks at one point that she likes what she becomes in the cold: her brain works well. That's me!

Which characters were the most interesting to write?
 
I love the priest. He is so flawed. I loved seeing him change from someone I disliked to someone I genuinely cared for. I loved trying to bring that out of him – turn him in our eyes.
 
As someone who has lived in multiple countries outside your home country, did this experience play a part in your writing in any way? In particular, how did it influence the themes of home and belonging in the novel?

My father was my best friend. The period preceding and just after his death was my wolf winter. As he lay dying, I interviewed him about his life. He died and I continued speaking, with my grandmother, her sister, their friends, my mother… Wolf Winter came out of those conversations. It was written as a riposte to a life event. I think writing Wolf Winter was how I returned home during that period of time and tried to make sense of a number of things. Exploring home and belonging is a big part of all my writing.

Author Cecilia Ekbäck has travelled and lived in multiple countries and now resides in Canada, but set her debut novel in the landscapes where she grew up. She wrote the book in English, but it has also been translated into Swedish, Ekbäck's native language.

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  1. I loved the Wolf Winter! It has everything… I didn’t want it to end. Thank you for recommending another great rread. I can’t wait for the next book!

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