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Talking with Larissa Brown about Beautiful Wreck, knitting, Iceland, and old Norse

One of my goals for 2015 is to read all the romances my colleagues here at AAR picked as their choice for Best of 2014. (That column is here.) The first one I chose was Melanie’s: Beautiful Wreck by Larissa Brown. (You can read Melanie’s DIK review here.) I loved this book. I’d give it six stars if I could. And, once I read it, I couldn’t stop wondering about it. So, there was nothing for it but to ask Larissa Brown if she’d answer some questions for me. She graciously said yes.

Dabney: Beautiful Wreck is your debut novel. I find this rather astonishing. Your prose and your plot are wonderfully confident and strong. How long have you been writing?

​Larissa: Thank you so much for your kind words about my book and for interviewing me. Though Beautiful Wreck is my first novel, I have written two books about the craft of knitting and I write essays about craft for magazines or I self-publish them on my site. I blogged for 10 years and built a following of “fans” that I consider more like friends.

The writing is very different. The novel is so much more personal and was initially hard for me to share. But it had some lessons in common with the craft books, such as persevering to finish a manuscript, and the ins and outs of publishing and promotion.

Dabney: Jenn/Ginn, the heroine of your book, is from our future–is it the beginning of the 22nd century?–and lives in modern Iceland. In her time, there are no real animals and hardly anything left of the natural world? Why? Did you have a backstory for how Earth became so, to me, sterile?

​Larissa: I’m glad it felt sterile, because that is Jen’s experience of her time, and we feel it through her point of view. ​Jen is odd, because in a world where people are obsessed with playing roles, she craves something real and genuine. I hope that the cold and flat future fuels her central desire and drives her character. Being from the future is key, just one reason being that Jen does not share the superstitions of the past and this allows her to love Heirik.

Dabney: Ginn travels through time to 10th century Iceland, onto an island of Vikings. Why did you pick Iceland?

Larissa: ​Iceland is gorgeous and epic and unreal. I hoped for my book to have some of those same qualities. Once I’d seen the country (on a too-short research trip) the landscape became almost like a character to me.​

Initially, I chose it for practical reasons. One was peace. I wanted a hero who was not out burning down villages and fighting. I wanted him to be close to the heroine and spend tender time with her. Also, Iceland is the one place where Vikings’ everyday life was recorded (albeit a couple centuries later, after the conversion to Christianity.) So I had some guidance about their worldview and daily lives.

Also, bathing. Iceland is full of hot springs and bathing pools everywhere in the ground, and Vikings were known for spending a lot of time in them. Hygiene implements have been found in ruins there, including tools to clean your ears, and people in Iceland had access to herbs they used for mouthwash. Our hero is kissably clean!

Dabney: The world Ginn goes to is one far most sophisticated than most of us would credit existing in the 10th century. And yet your book feels meticulously true. You must have done an extraordinary amount of research for Beautiful Wreck. When did that process begin? What was the most interesting thing or things you learned?

Larissa: Thank you. Yes, I did a ton of research, and whenever possible it was hands-on. The key question for me was: How would a woman from the future feel when trying to learn to fit in here? What would she see? So I tried things. I tried to learn the craft of naalbinding to make socks, I shot arrows in the little alley behind my house, I dyed yarn with birch leaves, I rode an Icelandic horse, and I walked around a weekend SCA re-enactment in a 10-pound linen dress.

However, the book is definitely not a history lesson. Where there were scant details, I made lots of things up. I hope that it’s the small moments of daily life – which I think all humans share – that give it a feeling of authenticity.

The most interesting thing I learned was that I’d accidentally picked one of the most romantic spots on earth for my story. Early on, I chose a real Viking house that was the location for Ginn’s farm, so that I’d have a reference for my landscape.

Like Jen, I found myself squinting at a screen wanting to go there. So I did go there, and my first thought was that the Viking who built the house there truly knew poetry. Walking around, my traveling companions and I found the most gorgeous waterway, with big rocks leading down to twin waterfalls, and we were basically stunned. It became a setting in my book.

(Ginn’s house can be seen on my Pinterest board and also in an episode of Game of Thrones. I was thrilled when the Wildlings raided it. It is a horribly violent scene, but my eyes were just glued to her grass-covered house and stable yard.)

Dabney: The Iceland of your world is remote from the rest of the world and yet not entirely isolated. At one point in the book one of the characters tells a story in which men who go to “the end of the known world” and trade “for slippery cloth spun by insects.” Did that detail come from your research? Did the Vikings in Iceland travel to China?

Larissa: ​It did come from my research, though I didn’t know if Icelanders had a word for silk, so I made up a phrase for it. Vikings traveled as far East as Central Asia. The traded for silk and also for spices, wine, sliver and more. Heirik’s family would not have gone there themselves. He personally has never left Iceland. But his family is rich – richer than any family that would have actually settled there – and his brother travels to other parts of Europe to trade.

Dabney: Cloth, weaving, crafts: These all figure mightily in your story. In the novel, Ginn arrives in Iceland wearing an Icelandic red dress which you describe her in again and again. How many dresses would a woman like Ginn–who is presumed to be from an elevated class–have had in that world? Would she have had more than Betta, her friend, who is from a lowly origin?

Larissa: ​This is one thing I guessed about. I figured that a rich woman would have multiple dresses, but that in Iceland rich was a relative term. I decided she would have three dresses: a working dress, the pretty red one she arrives in, and a formal equivalent of a gown. The thralls (slaves) would have washed them for her. When the family takes Betta into the main house, they would have given her more clothes and basically cleaned her up so that she was appropriate.

Dabney: Betta’s father is a thrall–a slave. How did these people come to have their slaves?

Larissa: I decided early on that for romantic fiction, I was not going to delve into or dwell on slavery, because it is a complex topic and not what Ginn’s love story is about. However, I learned a lot, some of which applied to her friend Betta.

In very early Iceland, slaves (called thralls) would have come on the boats with their masters, since only a couple other humans are known to have lived on the island prior to the late 800s. Thralls were purchased in the Danish lands or forcibly taken from the islands along the way. Especially in Iceland, where it was a pioneer land with no kings and everyone had to work​, relationships and status were probably less clear. I don’t know if I have it right AT ALL. I believe Betta would have been technically free, because she was third generation, but she had nowhere else to go.

Dabney: From the moment Ginn sees Heirik, the young chief of the tribe, she is struck by his physical presence. And yet, to his people, he is terrible to look at because part of his face and body are covered by a port wine stain or birthmark. What made you pick that for him?

Larissa: I needed for Heirik to be lonely and awkward in a way that matched Ginn’s loneliness. They are the only ones for each other in all of time. She is the only person who can love him, since she is from outside their culture. And ​I had to have a reason that Heirik – THE best catch in the country – would not already be in a partnership of marriage (which at the time would be more of a business partnership between families which might or might not include love and attraction. Another thing I bent to my fictional will was that several marriages in my book are based on epic love.

Dabney: Ginn is, in this book, the only time traveler. This seems to be both something specific to her and something enhanced by the technology of her time. Do you envision others able to travel as she does?

Larissa: ​Absolutely! I am working on a companion book in which someone follows her.​ I don’t want to give away much about it, though, because I’m writing it now and think it’s coming out really fun.

Dabney: There are no mirrors in your 10th century world–no one uses anything, not metal, not water, to see him or herself. Why is that?

Larissa: ​Heirik’s mother would have gotten rid of anything that hurt him, but I don’t think in general that a mirror would have been a priority the way it is for us today. (Women groomed the men and made them look exactly how they wanted, which I think is an excellent system.) There is a motif of hiding throughout the book, and I wanted Heirik to be clueless about his own image. I hope the reader will wonder: Is he actually ugly? And what does that really mean when it’s in the eye of the beholder?

Dabney: Tell me about the language of the book. I know nothing about ancient Icelandic… unlike you!

Larissa: ​Hah! Well, I own A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic, if that counts as knowledge. I have a friend who speaks Old Norse and a very rudimentary understanding of today’s Icelandic. After gathering all that intelligence, I made up their words. It was one of the most enjoyable parts of writing. I had the most fun inventing insults and my own kennings (Viking compound-word-poems that revealed a lot about their worldview.)

Dabney: Are you done with these characters? I confess, I want to know what happens to Heinrik’s brother Brosa and what happens to Ranka, a little girl in the story, when she grows up!

Larissa: ​No way! I’m not done with them. Brosa is the main male character in the next book set in this world, which I’m tentatively calling So Wild A Dream.​ Here’s another atypical “hero.” I think of this Viking saying when I think of him: “Who can say what sorrow a carefree man bears to his life’s end?”

Dabney: What is next for you?

Larissa: ​Right now, I am on a writing retreat where I’m working to finish a novella that’s set in a different world. I’m also at work on the much-longer So Wild A Dream.​ I’ll let the world know through all my social media channels when each of these comes out.

If you want to link to places where people can find out about my books, my website is here: www.larissabrown.net

And I post pictures of my #writingspot multiple times a week on my Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/beautifulwreckbook

Also, I give sneak peeks and knitting-related news through my newsletter: http://eepurl.com/Y9N4T

Thank you again!

Dabney: Thank you.



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02/10/2015 8:01 pm

The interview and the review both sounded so interesting that I immediately went to Amazon and bought the Kindle version. I look forward to reading it. Thanks to all for the insightful information and for introducing me to a new author.

02/09/2015 7:24 pm

I enjoyed Beautiful Wreck so much. The language was beautiful, the story compelling, and the descriptions mesmerizing. I want to learn more about Iceland and visit there, and read more by Larissa Brown.

02/09/2015 9:50 am

Sounds like a really fascinating story.