Monday, September 3, 2012

Interview with Joanne Harris (Runemarks and Runelight), Part Two

Click here for the previous installment of the interview.

Joanne Harris travels through the Nine Worlds

KS – Your novels hint at lands beyond the area your characters inhabit. Traders bring “glass and metalware from the Ridings; persimmons from the Southlands; fish from the Islands; spices from the Outlands; skins and furs from the frozen North.” You mention Wilderlanders, “all painted in blue woad,” and write that “[b]eyond the One Sea . . . there were men and women as brown as peat, with hair curled tight as bramble-crisp; and these people had never known Tribulation or the Good Book, but instead worshipped gods of their own – wild brown gods with animal heads.” Clearly, the action of the book only takes place in one small corner of the world you’ve created, with its reimaginings of real lands and peoples.

I’ve always wondered about the localization of Big Important Mystical Events. Gods with the power to shape existence and travel throughout the universe only seem to appear to very small groups of people in very specific locales. Yahweh never holidays in Alaska; Njord doesn’t seem to notice that there are some really nice beaches in California. How do you imagine the inhabitants of your world reacting to the fact that the disagreements of a bunch of Anglo-Saxon godly types bring all of existence to the edge of destruction? In the world of Runemarks, do other lands have gods as physically real as Odin and Loki? If so, are these other gods secretly observing the battles between the Northerners?

JH – I’ve often wondered that myself. It’s one of those non-linear folkloric suspensions of disbelief I was talking about earlier. In fact, I’ve been thinking about trying to write a Rune book in which world belief systems interact, just to see if my gods would survive, say, in South America, amongst all those bloodthirsty Aztec gods.

Of course, in the Rune books, the concept of “world” is limited to the world we know. This has been true throughout history, and religions – which tend to adapt to local conditions – reflect this pattern too. That’s why Jesus is traditionally shown as very Anglo-Saxon-looking in Europe and America, and the Nativity is most often depicted under snow.

Little blond baby Jesus in the snow

I’ve touched on a tentative explanation of this, both in my Rune books and in some of my short stories, by suggesting that gods are not all-powerful, and that the word “god” – like the concept of “world” – is open to massive historical and regional interpretation. Loki – whose voice I often use to voice these subversive theories – says as much in Runemarks: “In my time I’ve seen theatre gods, gladiator gods, even storyteller gods – Maddy, you people see gods everywhere. Gives you an excuse for not thinking for yourselves.” And again: “God is just a word . . . Reverse it and you get dog. It’s just as appropriate.”

I’ve also touched on the idea that gods might appear in different aspects to suit the time and place. Therefore the god of thunder, for instance, might have multiple personae – appearing as Thor in one place, or Tlaloc in another, or Jupiter – to suit the current perception of what a thunder god should be. Even the figure of Jesus, I would argue, has borrowed a number of aspects from previous religions, from Osiris to Mithras – all of them aspects of the same archetypical figure sacrificed at Easter and later reborn into godhood.

Tlaloc, Aztec god of thunder (& etc.)

KS – Given the large role of giants in both Norse myth and British folklore, I was surprised they didn’t appear in your books. When Surt shows up, he’s “a black bird shadow with a corona of fire,” not the Edda’s sword-wielding giant. Your imagery reminded me of some lines from the Kalevala, the epic poem from Finland:
The sky’s bird struck fire
made a flame flare up.
The north wind burnt the clearing
the north-east quite consumed it:
it burnt all the trees to ash
reduced them to dust.
Skadi is listed as “of the Ice People” in your character list, not specifically as a giant. Why did you choose to leave the big fellas out of the story?

My Little Pony wielding the flaming sword of Surt
Awesome painting of Rainbow Dash by ColinMLP

JH – The word most often translated as “giant” in Old Icelandic is open to a number of other interpretations, including “demon.” That started me thinking about the relationships between gods and giants/demons, and how little we hear about the actual physical size of these “giants.”

In some stories they are indeed of giant size. The giant Skrymir, for instance, is large enough to house four people inside his glove, but Loki, supposedly half-giant, is of normal size – perhaps even a little shorter than average. Many others – Skadi, Gerd – are of similar size to the gods, able to intermarry without difficulty.

Thor, Loki, and Thjalfi emerge from the glove of the giant Skrymir

I came to the conclusion, then, that the word “giant,” like the word “god,” might be metaphorical – closer to the concept of “hero” or “superhuman.” We do, after all, refer to “literary giants” and “gods and goddesses of the screen.” Because of that, I wanted to use a word that didn’t necessarily convey monstrous size in every case, reserving the word “giant” for the actual “big fellas.”

KS – When in Aspect (her mystical appearance), Maddy’s hair is “loose instead of being sensibly braided, and in the place of her usual clothes she now wore a belted chain mail tunic of what she judged to be immodest length.” This reads like a description of 19th-century artistic depictions of Valkyries. For novels that center around some very powerful female characters (and butt-kicking teenage girls), the Valkyries are notable by their absence. Why did you choose not to use these mystic warrior-women in your books?

JH – I was never entirely taken by the image of the Valkyries. They always seemed to me tainted by those 19th-century depictions – more the manifestations of some teenager’s wet-dream than actual symbols of female empowerment. They exist en masse, with no characterization or real means of telling them apart – like the chorus of We Will Rock You, rewritten by Wagner after a particularly dissolute Oktoberfest. I didn’t know what to do with them or how they would contribute to my story. And so I chose to leave them out altogether, concentrating instead on re-inventing the (somewhat male-dominated) Norse pantheon to include some kickass female characters.

Peter Nicolai Arbo's 1869 Valkyrie shows a bit of leg for the lads

KS – At the beginning of Runemarks, Maddy is fourteen years old – the age you were when you first began imagining new tales of the Norse gods and the age your daughter was when you finished the novel. You’ve described Maddy as “a mixture of myself at fourteen and of my daughter as she is now. In fact, we’re pretty similar personalities.” How do you think things have changed for strong-minded young women from your generation to hers? Is there a difference in the way today’s real-life Pippi Longstockings interact with peers and adults?

JH – I think, if anything, that things have changed for the worse for imaginative teenagers since then. When I was fourteen, there was far less pressure to conform, and our role models were actresses, sportswomen, musicians and writers instead of TV “celebrities.” There was much less pressure on teenage girls to focus on clothes and makeup; most of us lived in t-shirts and jeans, and although we were interested in boys (of course we were – who isn’t?), we were far more interested in fictional heroes and stars of the screen. Contrast that with my daughter being bullied at school at the age of twelve because didn’t shave her legs or because she didn’t like the same music as her peers.

Pippi Longstocking, matinee idol

In the Seventies, we felt that feminism was on the rise. We felt that women were coming of age; we were optimistic. Now, I think that feminism has lost its way. So many girls nowadays seem to think that laddishness is “empowering,” rather than just childish. So many of them seem to think that marrying a footballer, or becoming a reality TV star, or getting a boob job and becoming a pole dancer, or just winning the Lottery counts as “living the dream.” I remember when dreams were better than this.

KS – I once took an art history course with a girl who would make completely original observations on the material, yet always begin her statements with “I think I read somewhere in the textbook that . . .” There was a boy in the class who would repeat passages from the book almost verbatim, but always present the concepts as his own ideas. The idea of a creative young woman feeling that she has to hide her gifts appears near the beginning of Runemarks: “For Maddy’s deepest secret . . . was that she enjoyed working magic, however shameful that might be. More than that, she thought she might be good at it too and, like anyone with a talent, longed to make use of it and show it off to other people.” Did you intend a connection between Maddy’s relationship to her magical knowledge and talents and the continuing external and internal struggles of today’s “wise women” – whether students, professionals or creative artists?

Maddy on cover of "The Secret Words," the Italian edition of Runemarks

JH – Yes. Maddy’s magic is something of a metaphor for the imagination of women generally. For too long, women have been judged primarily on their looks rather than their abilities, and, even now – in a world in which we can hardly move for political correctness – men and women are still viewed slightly differently in the world of music, literature and the creative arts. There is a patronizing smirk from the world of literature when a woman writes a romantic novel; but when a man does the same thing, he is being sensitive and insightful, making a valuable statement on the nature of relationships. In Runemarks, the same thing happens; a boy who reads is intelligent and will go a long way; a girl who reads is “clever,” which is useless in a girl – even potentially dangerous.

To be continued in Part Three.


Unknown said...

Wow! This is good stuff. It's a bit of a synchronicity for me in that I've been doing some work with Odin & Loki over the last two years. The comments expressed as coming from Loki sound EXACTLY like the kind of things Loki "says" to me.
Very interesting material here. It's both strange and gratifying to find out that other people's experiences and thoughts on these matters line up with my own, even though we have no opportunity to consult one another. Very mysterious...

Unknown said...

I follow Joanne Harris on Tumblr, and there as well she writes amazingly insightful things on women's rights and equality. I totally agree with what she said regarding the receiving of novels and books written by women. I read somewhere that "you can change laws, but you can't change the way people think".
On a completely different note, the way Joanne Harris portrays Loki is entertaining and accurate! Though I imagine Loki's appearance very differently (don't worry, it's not the Marvel way!), his attitude is just cheeky enough to be charming, but not so much as to annoy me when reading his voice! I also read her The Gospel of Loki, and this was such an interesting way to voice the myths!
Thank you for posting the interview!

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