The Writing Life of: Bjørn Larssen
This week I am thrilled to be interviewing author Bjørn Larssen. Bjørn will be sharing with us details of his writing life, telling us all about his latest book ‘Storytellers‘, which was released on 28th March 2019 and answering a few fun questions too. This post contains affiliate links.
Bjørn Larssen was made in Poland. He is mostly located in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, except for his heart which he lost in Iceland. Born in 1977, he self-published his first graphic novel at the age of seven in a limited edition of one. Since then his short stories and essays were published in Rita Baum Art Magazine, Writer Unboxed, Inaczej Magazine, Edurada.pl, Homiki.pl, and Holandia Expat Magazine. He is a member of Alliance of Independent Authors and Writer Unboxed.
Bjørn has a degree in mathematics, worked as a graphic designer, a model, and a blacksmith. He used to speak eight languages (currently down to two and a half). His hobbies include sitting by open fires, dressing like an extra from Vikings, installing operating systems, and dreaming about living in a log cabin in the north of Iceland, even though he hates being cold. He has only met an elf once. So far.
1) As a child did you have a dream job in mind?
I wanted to be a pop star. Specifically, I wanted to be Michael Jackson, only more famous. I was ready for my unprecedented talent to be discovered any time. Once a gold-hearted (har har) manager showered me in money and very expensive clothes, I’d conquer the world. I even practised the speeches I’d give when receiving my Grammy Awards and all.
It’s taken me until I turned 30 or so to accept that maybe my talents never got discovered because I didn’t have them…
2) Who was your favourite childhood author (s)?
I taught myself to read when I was four, when my mum refused to re-re-read the same few books over and over again. She said that I must have memorised them by then and she was right. I re-read those books a few more times, got bored, moved on to newspapers and my grandma’s women’s magazines, then the “grown-up” library at home. It took my parents a while to realise I wasn’t making it up.
They took my Raymond Chandler books away without even explaining why. Censorship! I moved on to Lucy Maud Montgomery, Astrid Lindgren, Tove Jansson and Winnie The Pooh. In retrospect, those were quite good choices.
There was one book I tried to read and DNFed back at that age. The encyclopedia. I don’t think I even got through the A section.
3) Was there a particular point in your life that you realised you wanted to be a writer?
I put together my first “book” when I was five or so, a graphic novel in limited edition of one. Unfortunately I don’t have it anymore, I can only remember that it had robots in it. The moment I finished I was so excited that I immediately started work on the sequel. I didn’t just love writing, but the whole package, the idea of a book. Being able to take a world – not even THE world, any world, put people (and robots) in it, fold their lives into sentences, arrange them on pages…
In the 3D world I was lonely and bullied. With pen and paper I never ran out of company and exciting things to do. My childhood consisted mostly of reading, writing, drawing, and preparing to receive Grammies.
4) What is your average writing day like? Do you have any special routines, word count, etc?
Oh, I’m a mess. I’m disabled and my doctors – art-hating bastards, all of them – insist that I work at most 2-3 hours a day. Instead I go for 7-10 (it used to be 10-12) hours for a few days, then hit the wall and write nothing for a week. I think I’ve now been trying and failing to follow this advice for at least eight years. The worst is that I know it would be better if I had a routine, I just don’t seem to know how to have one.
5) How many books have you written? Any unpublished work?
My debut, Storytellers, came out in March 2019. Now I am finishing my second book, Children of the Gods, which I hoped would be out today – alas, I did not predict a worldwide pandemic. (I remember thinking smugly, back in December “for once my deadlines are completely realistic and nothing can go wrong”…) Before Children I was working on another book called The Age of Fire.
I already sent it to beta readers, who didn’t hate it too much, then I decided to shelve it. I’m not good enough to write that one yet
6) Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I am an aspiring plotter that ends up pantsing. I always have my lovely outlines, everything planned, then my characters give me that look which means “bless your silly little heart, dear”, and do whatever they want. If I’m lucky, what they are doing is at least related to what I hoped they would…
Concerning your latest book:
Publisher – josephtailor
Pages – 292
Release Date – 28th March 2019
ISBN 13 – 978-9082998528
Format – ebook, paperback, hardcover
In March 1920 Icelandic days are short and cold, but the nights are long. For most, on those nights, funny, sad, and dramatic stories are told around the fire. But there is nothing dramatic about Gunnar, a hermit blacksmith who barely manages to make ends meet. He knows nobody will remember him – they already don’t. All he wants is peace, the company of his animals, and a steady supply of his medication. Sometimes he wonders what it would feel like to have a story of his own. He’s about to find out.
Sigurd – a man with a plan, a broken ankle, and shocking amounts of money – won’t talk about himself, but is happy to tell a story that just might get Gunnar killed. The blacksmith’s other “friends” are just as eager to write him into stories of their own – from Brynhildur who wants to fix Gunnar, then marry him, his doctor who is on the precipice of calling for an intervention, The Conservative Women of Iceland who want to rehabilitate Gunnar’s “heathen ways” – even that wicked elf has plans for the blacksmith.
As his defenses begin to crumble, Gunnar decides that perhaps his life is due for a change – on his own terms. But can he avoid the endings others have in mind for him, and forge his own?
7) How did you go about researching the content for your book?
The first thing I found out about Iceland was that it would make the perfect setting for Storytellers. The second – that there were very few resources in English available to me.
I first emailed back and forth with Helga Maureen, an exhibition project manager at the Borgarsögusafn Reykjavíkur museum. Later I went over to Iceland to interview her in person, which had a side effect of me falling in love with the country. One question stumped the entire museum staff – how much my protagonist’s farm would be worth in March 1920. I was referred to professor Guðmundur at the University of Iceland, someone specialised in this exact period. I thought it would be the kind of useless detail that only I would know I got wrong (or right), but the professor explained to me that March 1920 was the very beginning of a sudden economic collapse in Iceland. Just like that, I had extra motivation for the characters’ actions.
I also had to keep reminding myself that just because I know something it doesn’t have to be in the book, I had a three-page political treatise in there at one point.
8) How long did it take to go from ideas stage to writing the last word?
Technically, something like seven years…? The idea for the book came to me in a dream – three brothers, a fisherman, a pastor, a carpenter; one woman, an outsider; an old man telling the story to someone many years later, someone who doesn’t know the story is still not over. I never have particularly interesting dreams, so this one was worth remembering. The trouble was that the dream also demanded to be written down and I was one of those people who go “pftft, writing is so easy, I could do it even in my sleep, it’s just that I’m so busy watching TV”.
In 2015 I sustained heavy spine injuries that didn’t allow me to do much but sit in a specially profiled chair and use a laptop. On January 1, 2017 I decided that I had read the entire Internet and it was time to try and write something. It took me twenty-one full rewrites and 26 months to declare the book finished. The second book has so far taken thirteen months, it’s on rewrite 28 and I really wish I were kidding.
9) How did you come up with the title of your book?
I originally tried to force the book to be called Liquid Fire, Black Ice, as it sounded vaguely George R.R. Martin-ish and potentially commercial. It also didn’t work. I shortened it to Liquid Fire, which made even less sense. Storytellers came to me when I realised that what the book is really about is that we all have our truths, that nobody is ever a villain in their own story. The winner gets to rewrite history, but that doesn’t mean the loser would tell it the same way.
My protagonist, Gunnar, sees himself as the only person that has no story, someone who just exists until one day he dies. He doesn’t know that if he doesn’t write his story others will do it for him, then tell him what it is.
10) Can you give us an insight into your characters?
It wasn’t until I read the first reviews that I found out that Gunnar comes out as unlikable at the beginning. Having lived with him for over two years I just saw him as “my Gunnar” – a simple, unhappy, lonely blacksmith who self-medicates his mental illness with alcohol. Gunnar is suffering from depression and social anxiety, doesn’t even know those are things that exist, much less how to explain them.
Sigurd, the old man telling the story, is someone who doesn’t forgive and doesn’t forget. Thirty-five years weren’t enough to make him move on with his life. He’s got a plan to make his story become the story, he wants to own the truth. It’s similar with Brynhildur, who decided that she would “fix” Gunnar and marry him, his opinion on the upcoming nuptials not even optional. And there are secrets, so many secrets that they develop lives of their own…
11) What process did you go through to get your book published?
Originally I was going to go the traditional agent-editor route, because I was under the (false) impression that the publisher would take care of the marketing. The way I imagined it was that I would write the book, get a lovely advance, then devote myself to my art while other people did the selling and the advertising. Instead I found out that agents expected the potential writers to already have a social media following and a list of published pieces, and that the best a debut author could expect from a publisher was to have an intern maybe send review copies around.
The final drop was a #ShareYourRejections hashtag on Twitter, where someone declared that she has gone through nine years of searching for an agent, the agent spent four years before finding the right editor, and her book will be out next year. Her point was that one should never give up, but I could only think that fourteen years from now I might be dead. I have never had an agent reject the book, because I never sent one query.
Doing it on my own meant costs upfront instead of an advance, as I had to pay the editor, the proofreader, buy the cover photo – I saved lots of money by having background in graphic design. The result, however, was the book I wanted to write, not one that someone decided would be marketable. Every time a review mentioned “I have never read anything like it” I knew that no publisher would have touched Storytellers without turning it into a completely different book.
12) What’s next for you writing wise?
Iceland has always had a relationship with what most people call the supernatural… *sits on hands not to give a two-hour lecture* In Storytellers there’s only Grendel, the elf. I’m going to explore this connection deeper. The Norse lore, the heathen Nine Worlds, and their connections with Earth. There will be the two novels, Children of the Gods and Land of the Gods, but I’m also working on a series of humorous novellas, each based on one Norse myth.
As if Neil Gaiman decided to write his version of Norse mythology… oops… well, if you want to read a book, sometimes you have to write it yourself. Then there’s my kinda-sorta memoir – I keep starting on it, then changing my mind as to where I want to take it. I have way too many ideas.
1) If you could have any super power for the day which would you choose?
Teleportation. I’d teleport to Iceland for one night. The morning after I would discover that the pandemic makes it impossible to go back, so I would regrettably have to stay there.
2) Do you have any pets?
We were adopted by Gareth The Cat. He’s been ruling the neighbourhood since we moved here. Recently he decided that we are allowed to feed him and pet him. He’s very upset, because we can’t seem to understand that this is actually his house we’re living in. Seriously, though, he can’t move in – we own lots of things that a cat would enjoy destroying. So we decided that we will absolutely not allow him in.
Same as we earlier decided that we would not feed him, then – that we wouldn’t buy any more food, that we wouldn’t pet him… Cats are the worst. By which I mean the cutest.
3) If you decided to write an autobiography of your life, what would you call it?
The memoir-ish… something… I am working on is called Nonsense.
4) Your book has been made into a feature film and you’ve been offered a cameo role, which part would you choose, or what would you be doing?
Casting! I’ve already done it on Pinterest – I’m ready for the call, Hollywood.
5) Where is your favourite holiday destination?
Icel– sorry. I’ll go with Scotland. I want to take part in Up Helly Aa someday and I also have an, ahem, thing for Scottish accent. I hardly understand anything, but it doesn’t matter.
6) A baseball cap wearing, talking duck casually wanders into your room, what is the first thing he says to you?
“This is why you shouldn’t order mushroom pizza in Amsterdam.”
I would like to say a big thank you to Bjørn Larssen for sharing with us details of his writing life and for a wonderful interview.