Friday, September 14, 2012

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

Click here for the previous installment of the interview.

KS – Fenris, Skoll and Haiti all appear as nasty teenage boys that dress and talk like dumb metalheads. Two of them have a swastika tattoo, “not a runemark, exactly, but a sign of allegiance to Chaos in one of its darkest, most sinister forms.” The teenage boys in the novels (including Adam Scattergood) are all delightfully disgusting, which got me wondering about the target audience for these books. I remember reading Tiger Eyes by Judy Blume as a teen and thinking, “Whoot! I don’t think boys are meant to be reading this!”

Runemarks and Runelight seem aimed at smart tomboys – Maggie is “too tall; too boyish; too clever; too pert; unwilling to play the seduction games played by other girls of her age.” This is totally understandable (and welcome), given the adolescent male fantasy of so much genre fiction (I’m looking at you, DC Comics editors and Game of Thrones producers). Aside from your daughter, were you writing with a specific audience in mind? What sort of response have you gotten from young women? From young men?

Speaking of adolescent male fantasy… A sexed-up
version of Maddy on Russian edition of Runemarks

JH – I rarely think about my target audience. In this case I did – but my audience was an audience of one [my daughter], and I wasn’t thinking further than that. Later I began to receive fan mail, and realized that my audience is too diverse to be easily categorized.

I get a lot of letters from young people, of course, although some of my most persistent fans are women in their fifties. Boys write to me, as well as girls, and I’m glad to see that my publishers haven’t tried to direct the readership by suggesting that this is a “girl book” rather than a “boy book.” I don’t like the book apartheid that has sprung up over the past few decades or the ridiculous marketing of books with glittery pink covers – sometimes with a little free necklace or bracelet, as if a book needed to come with some kind of jewelry to appeal to girls – designed to indoctrinate little girls into conforming early.

Runemarks and Runelight author Joanne Harris – Photo by Jennifer Robertson

My young readers, male or female, are Loki fans to a man (or woman). I think that, in many ways, Loki is the true hero of the books – even more so than Maddy. I’ve already spoken a little about Loki’s appeal, but I sense that my young readers see him as a reflection of themselves; they understand his feelings of alienation, so common in adolescence, and they enjoy his sense of humor and his irreverence towards authority. They like Maddy, too; but most of the time, it is Loki who has their heart.

KS – Early on, Maddy works rune magic by drawing runes on the ground with a stick. The rune-shapes are not magical in themselves; they need to be activated with a spark: “That was the only true magic involved. Anyone familiar with the runes – which were only letters, after all, taken from an ancient language – could learn to write them. The trick, Maddy knew, was to set them to work.” This usage of runes echoes the practice attested in Norse mythology, like Odin carving and staining the runes in Hávamál. The more striking rune-magic in the novels, though, is the casting with finger-shapes. You have a great demonstration of runic fingerings on your website. What were the influences on your development of the fingering system?

Maddy practices rune fingerings as red-bearded Thor looms behind
Art by Les Kanturek

JH – I owe a huge debt of gratitude to Jan Fries and his book, Helrunar. It was my main starting-point for developing the runes, interpreting their meanings and developing the “fingering” system that Maddy uses. The original source material of the Norse legends never explains all the methods in which runes are used, although study of Old Icelandic tells me that there are many, many different uses.

In Runemarks, I needed something simple and graphic enough to be easily visualized. Jan Fries puts heavy emphasis on “rune stances” – almost like yogic postures – to recreate the rune-shapes, but although a physical expression of the rune-shape seemed like a good idea to me, I found whole-body rune-shapes impractical. And so I decided on finger-shapes, a shorthand form of the rune stance, partly because as a child I remember my great-grandmother making the sign against the evil eye with her fingers – the same sign I’ve used for the rune Yr in Runemarks – and explaining that it was for protection against bad spirits.

You can find a lot of weird stuff on the internet

KS – I’m curious about your use of the Bjarkan rune. The source poems all agree that the rune simply means “birch” or “birch twig,” and their verses are clearly about the tree or shrub. In the world of your novels, however, the fingering of this particular rune is peered through to gain “truesight” – to see the hidden trails of magic that light up the world when seen through the rune-shape, to see the “true colors” of the beings that surround you. It’s one of the most distinctive runes in your books, and many characters use it to gain insight. Why did you choose this particular rune to invest with this ability?

JH – I’m going with the connection between Beorc/Bjarkan and the Old High German word bar (Old Icelandic berr) meaning naked, open, bare – as well as the fact that birch trees are so immediately visible among the trees in the forest. It’s a tenuous link, I know, but it’s a possible interpretation.

Mystic moonlight, bright birch

KS – Each section of the novels has a bind-rune frontispiece. Did you design these yourself? Do they have specific meanings related to the events they precede?

JH - I designed them with my editor, who has become a very enthusiastic participant. They can be deconstructed to make a kind of shorthand accompaniment to the chapter. Some of my young readers are also very enthusiastic in decoding these bind-runes and send me their various interpretations of what they mean, which makes me very happy.

KS – The bind-runes preceding each section of the novels are accompanied by quotes from Lokabrenna, Invocations, Prophecy of the Seer, Proverbs, Apocalypse, Book of Mimir, Fabrications – imaginary lost poems of the Eddas and sections of the Order’s Good Book. The quoting of works from within the world of the novel reminded me of Frank Herbert’s use of imaginary quotations (like passages from “The Collected Sayings of Muad’Dib” in Dune). I didn’t see Herbert in your lists of influences, but he seems a simpatico persona, given his creation of worlds built on complicated internal logic and investigation of the meanings of religion to those involved in their mystical heart (his Paul Atreides, your Maddy Smith). Herbert left Catholicism for Buddhism, and questions of religious belief play a major role in his works. Does Maddy’s journey reflect your own spiritual experiences in any way?

Frank Herbert and his awesome Viking beard

JH – I don’t subscribe to any organized religion. I never have, although all belief systems interest me and I’ve spent most of my life studying aspects of belief. I didn’t want the Good Book to be the Christian Bible – although a number of people have assumed that it was – which is partly why I included the quotes. But patriarchal ideologies in general have overlapping areas of belief. My intention was not to portray one existing religion, but to draw on the concept of the evolution of religions in general and how they shape society.

KS – The books freely mix Norse myth and Christian myth in a very interesting fashion. Ragnarökkian imagery intersects with Christian Apocalyptic visions, and the power of rune magic overlaps the power of the Word. The two traditions even join together physically in the final scenes as Maggie – daughter of Thor and follower of the Order – names her unborn son Adam, of all things. This both highlights differences between the two religious traditions and underscores how much Christianity took from the Old Way as it developed in the North. Your knowledge of the source texts of Norse myth rings through throughout your work, but I’m curious about your background in regards to Christian tradition. Were you raised in a believing family?

Norse Ragnarök meets Christian Apocalypse
on England's 10th century Gosforth Cross

JH – No, but I was raised in a family with a strong Catholic background. I never intended the Order to be seen as Christianity, although it has some things in common with the early Christian church – most of all its ability to naturalize and assimilate native beliefs. The Elder Edda itself shows how this works, retelling the myths from a different point-of-view [that is] biased towards Christianity.

However, I do believe that this is the nature of religion. No belief system stands alone. All are part of a long process of evolution and re-invention, and however much believers may reject this idea, all are ultimately related to one another.

To be continued in Part Four.

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