Interviewed by Harriet
C: I was always a writer – ever since I was a child – but I never thought I would be A Writer, if you see what I mean? I’ve always known I feel best when I write, but I never thought it would one day lead to an actual published book.
H: Wolf Winter is set in a very specific time (1717) and place – a remote area in the north of Sweden. What lay behind these choices?
C: 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, in 1865… Finally the book found its true home in 1717, I think for two reasons: one was that I felt it was around this time that the settlers would have arrived in Lapland. Secondly, in 1717, Sweden found itself on the cusp of massive change. Its position as a great power, which began in the early 17th century and had bestowed on Sweden control over much of the Baltic region, was looking increasingly uncertain, there were demands for the end of the autocratic kingship, the power of various social classes was changing. As I am interested in the impact of ‘place’ on people – ‘place’ in the largest sense of the word – this was a perfect background to the story.
The location, Blackåsen Mountain, doesn’t exist as a physical place, but its nature is something I remember from my childhood: a combination of the places and memories I have from Hudiksvall, where I grew up, Knaften and Vormsele, the two small villages in Lapland where my grandparents lived, and Sånfjället, a mountain close to the Norwegian border, where our family had a cabin. Blackåsen is the embodiment of what I felt like growing up in the north of Sweden. It represents the fear, the doubts, the religious fervour, the loneliness and the need to fit in and to belong.
H: One of the important themes in the novel is the clash between Christianity and the old pagan beliefs in that area. Did you know much about this before you began, or did you do lots of research, or did you rely on your imagination?
C: I grew up in this clash – it was very much present when I was a child. I was brought up in a strict Pentecostal faith, yet the folklore was still there 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.
When I later began writing, I researched and read all I could come across. But the most valuable information I got with regards to the old pagan beliefs came from interviews with my grandmother and her friends, and from my own memories.
H: The two central female characters, Maija and her daughter Frederika, are both very strong but rather different women. What interested you about their personalities, their differences and their bond?
C: Both of them have number of traits from the women in my family: Maija, with her stubbornness, strength, wisdom – qualities needed to survive in a harsh world; and Frederika, with her emerging spirituality, looking ‘beyond’ – which many of our women also did.
Their bond is a difficult one. They love each other so much, but one woman’s practicality meets another one’s spirituality, each deemed dangerous to survival by the other. Both characters are passionate. So much remains unsaid. They are flawed, human. I resonate with both of them – as a mother, as a daughter and as a woman.
H: In one sense Wolf Winter is a thriller or crime novel, but there’s a strong element of the supernatural in there too. How important to you was this juxtaposition of genres?
C: Not important to me, but important for the story. I knew I wanted to write something that involved several generations of women. It became a thriller/crime novel because that is my own favoured read. In 1717, the supernatural, or the fear of the supernatural, was very present in peoples’ daily lives. (And not knowing whether there is something mystic at play or whether it is your mind playing tricks, can be so very frightening.) Thus the supernatural was part of the ‘place.’ It had to be there.
H: One of the most impressive things about the novel was the way you conveyed the experience of living through the frozen darkness of the long winter. As you originated from that area, presumably this is something you have clear memories of?
C: My childhood is in this story in the shape of the setting, the culture and drivers such as the Church. The stories of my parents and grandparents are in there. The fear we felt growing up is in there. The characters are spun from people in my past. The plot is all imagination.
The winters, the darkness – I remember it and I miss it. Though of course our conditions were very different from those of the characters: we were warm inside, with food, light, electricity…
H: Can you tell us something about what the process of writing is like for you? When, where, pen, pencil, computer etc.?
C: I write in the basement of our house where I have an office that overlooks the garden. Behind our garden lies a forest. Plenty of deer, rabbits, and coyote (!) come to visit. I plot on a large paper with a pen, and use lots of photos – I am very visual – I like to ‘see’ my characters and how they live. Then I write on the computer.
Right now my writing process can be summarised in one single word: FRAGMENTED. With toddler twins and Wolf Winter recently published, there are a lot of interruptions and a lot of noise.
I try to live in the present – when I am with my daughters, I don’t do emails or spend time on social sites. Likewise, when I sit down to write, or when I travel for promotions, I know I have provided well for them and I try not to worry about them or have a bad conscience (easier said than done!).
I am disciplined with my time because I don’t have much of it. I used to say that ‘you can do anything you want if you work hard enough,’ and that almost killed me. Now I repeat to myself: ‘you are a limited human being.’ Some things just have to go. I spend half an hour on social sites in the morning before the girls wake up and half an hour in the evening when they are in bed. I write for four hours when they are at nursery. I exercise and then I pick them up. I don’t socialise during the week. Writing doesn’t live well in a fragmented life – at least not for me, but I try to keep this ‘second world’ alive by making sure to begin my day with reading what I wrote the previous day, by writing every day, and by ending my day with reading what I’ve written that day.
And then there comes illness, or dentist visits, or… And you have to learn to just let go and not resent.
As for the writing itself, I begin with an idea of a story, a grain, and then I search for the geographical setting. The characters and the plot grow out of the idea and the setting.
H: What writers do you admire, and who do you recommend people should read?
C: As for writers, Hilary Mantel is the one who moves me the most. You can take her books, pick any page and just step into her world. It is clear the author is not only a genius, but also wise, kind spirited and has a lot of humour. I always feel that her books work on two levels – there is the story – but also almost a dialogue that the author has with the reader.
As for who to read – I would say read a lot, and read ‘wide’. Something I have found very useful for myself as a human being, is to read the books of ‘thinkers.’ I read the writings of a number of Swedish ones (Ylva Eggehorn, Olof Wikström, Tomas Sjödin) and find answers – and then more questions – therein.
I would recommend Saul Bellow’s Herzog if I had read it. I keep on my book shelf half-read. Every time I start reading it, I think to myself that, surely, this is the most brilliant book ever written and then I can’t continue reading. What if I will never find anything better? And thus I put it back on the shelf.
H: And finally, everyone will be waiting impatiently for the next Cecilia Ekbäck novel. Is there one in the pipeline?
C: I am working on a very loose sequel to Wolf Winter. It is set 130 years later: different people, different dilemma, same curse. I am not quite done with Blackåsen Mountain yet. I am right now in a good spell of writing: that period when the characters seem to step off the page, they have their own voices, their own thoughts. I can’t think of anything more exciting!
H: Thanks very much, Cecilia!
Read Harriet’s review of Wolf Winter in our Fiction section – click here.
Cecilia Ekbäck, Wolf Winter (Hodder & Stoughton: London, 2015). 978-1444789515, 432 pp., hardback.
BUY at Blackwell’s in paperback via our affiliate link (free UK P&P)