Has been a while, but I’m back with more SPFBO interviews! I bring you this one with Tobias K P Sternberg today with his book The Singing Gold, hope you guys enjoy!
STARTING OFF WITH A BANG
Introduce yourself! An easy question to start off with. Who are you, what do you write?
TKP Sternberg, The Singing Gold, Pathfinder of Svitjod 1.
I’m a Swede who grew up in the 80’s loving table top RPGs and whatever Fantasy was available at that time. Back then, there was a lot of negative pressure from the mainstream labeling SFF as just for kids or as trash, and sometimes even as dangerous. As I started studying, among other things a very nice one year creative writing course, I was steadily herded towards more ‘serious’ subjects by everyone around me, but as I couldn’t imagine giving up on being playful, I choose to go into Fine Arts instead. I had to find a study place abroad though (again, much too playful and childish for the severe Nordic taste) so I ended up at Goldsmith’s College in London, which turned into an amazing couple of years that taught me endless amounts of giving and receiving criticism, of thinking contructively about your art, of writing and discussing… but not much craft. That was never what Goldsmith’s was about, though. It is not place where you learn to paint or sculpt as an artist, but a place where you learn to think as one, and I have found this skill highly transferable and useful.
So now I make my living as a conceptual sculptor, crafting weird and beautiful objects for the wealthy, and sometimes as a tinkerer, craftsman or whatever needs be to get the money in. I live in Berlin since just about a decade, enjoying the closest thing you get to the Paris of la belle Epoque in this globalized hyper-economy of ours, I guess. I started clawing back writing and making it entirely mine a couple of years ago. Looking back on it now, I am grateful for having taken such a roundabout detour to it, past a lot of struggles and joys in another art. It has helped me get straight to the core of what I want to do. And to enjoy it in a relaxed way.
Is this your first time in SPFBO?
I had wanted to submit this year’s entry in 2019 already, but events conspired against me. Just the week before Mark Lawrence (bless him) opened the doors to Xanadu, I was hit by a car while peacefully minding my own business on a bicycle going slowly down a street in a torrential downpour. Poor driver claimed he didn’t see me, and I am reluctantly prepared to believe him. Which didn’t help me much as I was trying to format, covert and whatnot files meant for apples and windows on my trusty Linux, while nursing five broken ribs with as much painkillers as I dared. A hopeless proposition, as anyone can guess. So for 2020 I was ready and prepared well in advance, and even had time for two more, very harsh edits. Probably for the best, in the end.
What book did you enter into this year’s event?
The Singing Gold is the first in a series of four or possibly five novels, set in Svitjod in the mid thirteenth century. Svitjod is where Stockholm would be built later, which is where I grew up, but it was a whole other world back then.
Does one of the main characters hold a special place in your heart? If so, why?
I try to love all my characters. At least the ones I get into the head of, but the one closest to me is Stig, the poor and humble woodsman who was accidentally blessed with the Sight as a child. They say you should write what you know, and even though I know little about surviving in the woods, I know plenty about scraping together a living against all odds. I knew as I started writing, that I wanted my protagonists to be connected to the world where their adventures happen. And to each other, like normal people are. Instead of a lone hero, I decided to describe the adventures and misfortunes of an entire family. In the first book, we mostly follow Stig and his eldest daugther Klara, but in the coming books, this focus will shift.
Another thing I have noticed is that I find it much easier to love my side characters. Perhaps because I can allow myself much more expressive space and make them as excentric as I wish to, without messing up the plot line. I am sure many writers have a similar experience.
What was the inspiration for the story? What are your future project(s)?
I have always been a total nerd for history. Not the numbers and facts kind of nerd, unfortunately. Then I could have become a history teacher and gotten a livelyhood out of my passion. I’m rather a causes and systems and anecdotes kind of nerd. I love to tease at and speculate about the underlying mechanisms shaping human society. And the sheer weirdness of the human experience, the cultural richness and diversity of medieval Europe being my own favourite. Because of this, I could never understand why so many fantasy authors felt the need to reinvent the world, when it is all there for the taking. Especially since even those who make an effort very seldom stray that far from the well trampled tropes. A floundering society built on the ruins of ancient greatness (ehh… Rome anyone?) The disappointed ideal of the good king. The brooding threat of the hordes from the East (or from where ever the steppes/mountains/deserts are located). The lively southener and the sullen northener. The corrupt and power hungry church. The cynical mercenaries and the naive but heroic squire. The false humility of the money counting merchants, pushing and pulling behind the scenes. It is all already there, and in a richness of detail impossible to imagine.
Apart from the orcs, of course. And the elves and the dwarves, and the dragons.
My project is to take the medieval European world as it was, with orcs, elves, dwarves and everything, and tell my stories in it. But not just pasted on top like a sticker, or seen skulking in the shadows. Not the stories, that is, but the elves and the dwarves (getting the orcs to stop skulking in the shadows is a difficult task, it has to be admitted). What would the medieval world have been like, if all those amazing imaginary beings they themselves believed in were real and not just belief? What place would they have in the medieval society?
What are the key themes and/or messages in the book?
The story which is begun in The Singing Gold focuses on the ordinary, and how life as you know it can seriously break down and derail from just some minor bad decisions. There doesn’t have to be some evil plan, or hidden threathening enemy, or slowly revealed destiny that smacks you out off your everyday and sends you howling on a desperate quest to salvage what you have. It can be enough to get on the wrong foot with the wrong guy. Or to make some promises you cannot live up to, or to misjudge a situation just a little bit. Small mistakes are especially fatal to those at the very bottom of the social ladder. If you have few friends and resources to lean back on, even a small mistake can send you sprawling on the ground. I wanted to try this tack since I believe that most of us feel rather distant from the grand machinations shaping the fate of society above our heads, simply struggling to keep our lives in decent order, while fantasy tales tend to overly focus on the semi-divine causes and explanations. For the foot soldier, the future outcome of the war is never as important as where the next volley of arrows is going to land. Not that the grand schemes are to be totally ignored, but I wanted to put them in a more true perspective, as something the little person surely gossips and wonders about, but only after immediate concerns have already been addressed.
What were the key challenges you faced when writing this book?
Given my decided premise, it is perhaps no surprise that I dove headfirst into a huge messy pile of research and got myself entirely entangled before I finally managed to extract myself two years later with only a broken nose and still a touch of dignity. Wrestling with history can quickly become a loosing proposition, at least if you grab for way to much as I did at the beginning. I had some great ideas about tying together the Latin Empire with the Teutonic Order and a Hellenistic Egypt still ruled by Alexander. I took a deep enthusiatic gulp and almost drowned. When I finally came up to the surface, I swam for known shores, wisely enough, and with an exhausted mind I crawled up and collapsed on a muddy and wet Svitjod. (If ever there was a fantasyesque name without an ‘ in it, Svitjod clearly qualifies. But then again, the real middle ages are full of them). That is why my first forray into this fantastic realistic realm of mine takes place only a scant 85 miles and 850 years from where I was born. In a landscape I know by heart, and a time I have read and studied well before, even if never so precisely.
What is the future for the characters? Will there be a sequel?
The Singing Gold is the first of at least four books. This is partly because I wanted to give voice to an entire family, and not merely as different perspectives on the same story. Another thing I personally miss in much of the fantasy I read, is a sense of how entangled our lives are. No one (hardly) is singular and can act without consequences to their family and loved ones. When one is cast out, it affects the entire family. If one is lucky and strikes a fortuitous alliance, they can more easily help their kin, which is also a very common cause for success in real life. Someone who likes you had or managed to get the resources you needed.
In the first installment, the onus is heavily on Stig, the father of the small family, with important plot threads being spun also by the older daughter Klara and another one begun by Liv, the mother. This is because the initial plot which threw the little family into turmoil, was mostly fastened on Stig. In the sequel, we will see the consequences of his early errors, but also follow Liv into a nightmarish world of would be helpers who really give nothing for free. In the end of the cycle, the children will be the ones taking turns carrying the batton.
MORE RAMBLES ABOUT WRITING
What is your favorite book you’ve written?
I wrote another novel back when I was twenty something and sent it to all publishers in Sweden. Thankfully, none of them replied. Looking back on it now, I see that it was embarrasingly naive and bursting with the youthful desire to shock and please at the same time. After that I took a very long break from writing and built up a decent career as a contemporary sculptor. It goes without saying then, that my current, The Singing Gold, is my favourite. But I do really like it.
Who are your favorite authors?
I tend to not read all and everything of any writer. I like things widely even if I am a critical reader. I also read very much with an eye to improving my own craft, or to further my knowledge. This leads me to indulge heavily in books that are not necessarily ‘enjoyable’. For example, I find the Icelandic Sagas unbeatable for gleaning motivations and opinions of the medieval man. They are not at all boring, perhaps a bit hard on the memory for UKUS readers with all the Björn Ulvsson and Ulf Björnssons, and amazing as Hemingwayish Sergio Leones with a blunt axe. In contemporary sff, I tend to like authors who write consistently with their own style and ideas, and happily forgive if they sometimes go over board as long as the writing is fun and original. Joe Abercrombie, Naomi Novik, Octavia Butler, some Mark Lawrence, Benedict Patrick and Rob J. Hayes, late Guy Gavriel Kay, high quality pulp like Jim Butcher (or Richard Stark). A sequel I am really looking forward to will be from Angela Boord. Some past writers that really inspired me are Jack London, Mika Waltari, Robert Louis Stevenson. The term favourite author, however, is one I hesitate to apply as I am a very faithless and fickle reader. Sorry guys.
Ah, and yes, I liked but never loved HP, and from JRR I much prefer Bilbo (the Book!)
I also have to mention prof Dick Harrison, from whose books I have lerned many of the details for Svitjod. Highly recommended for those who understand Swedish.
What makes a good villain?
Humanity. A slithering dark shadow devouring souls with it’s poison dripping fangs is never scarier than cancer. It is something you deal with or not, but your response would be an attempted cure, not to win empathy or compassion. A real weak human being holding power over you and considering what to do with it can be truly terrifying, as anyone who has been standing on the wrong side of a pulled knife will attest to.
Do you have any writing blogs you recommend?
I don’t have time to read writing blogs, unfortunately. As for books about writing, I would mention two. Stephen King’s unusually short On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and the excellent (literary) editing manual Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Browne and King.
Do you have any writer friends you’d like to give a shoutout to?
Pass. I would only recommend writers I love to read (to a reader who doesn’t know me anyway and don’t really care about who I like to spend time drinking beer with).
Did you learn anything from writing your latest book? If so, what was it?
I have to reluctantly admit that I did way too much research for The Singing Gold. Most of it didn’t even end up in the text. Looking back on it, I think that a really well drawn map (yes, I mean that literarly. I checked the tax records from 1306 for which farms and villages were around in the area my story is set in) mostly served as a steady and reliable surface for me to try out my wobbly legs on. For my next project, I have promised myself to limit research to what is needed. It will be a challenge, but as time is such a dire commodity for an artist with a family, I will do well to learn how to apply it with great scrutiny.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? A gardener or an architect?
I am a bit of both. I find that I prepare by reading a lot about the world, and at the same time making many notes on all the ideas I get for plot twists or characters. These notes then serve to support me going forward, even if I always allow myself to be swayed by what the story demands. Once on the way, it feels as if the story is talking to me and I just have to listen to know where it is supposed to go. At some points in the story, I had to pause and seriously puzzle the following chapters together. It is extremely important to me that the story, the characters and the world all remain consistent and convincing. If some of my initial ideas don’t really add up as I get to write that section, I had damn well revise until it gels. As a reader, I hate nothing more than the feeling of the author ‘cheating’, by quickly shuffling past or by obfuscating some parts they didn’t manage to solve. It’s much better then to take a break, think it through properly, and get on the right track, even if it turns out to be a completely different one than what you had initially thought out. Stubborness in writing means sticking to the page, not sticking to your ideas no matter what.
If you had to give up both snacks and drinks during writing sessions, or music, which would you find more difficult to say goodbye to?
I could never write to music. I often start out with a coffee, but if none would be available, I would manage that too. When I start aching for a snack, it is anyway often a sign to take a break and do something else for a while.
Which is your favourite season to write in, and why?
I write whenever I find time. Early mornings is easiest. After a whole long day, I seldom manage to write anything creative. That is a better time for marketing. One remark though. I get most of my best ideas while working on something completely different. Often something manual which I am so familiar with that my mind can relax and wander. Like when I am cooking, or doing the surface work on one of my sculptures (sanding, sanding, sanding…)
It’s sometimes difficult to get into understanding the characters we write. How do you go about it?
I can only write what the characters want me to write about them. For this to work, I have to allow them to come alive. This is a gradual process, which grows the more I write them, but breaks as soon as I would have them act against their own personality. My prime example in The Singing Gold is Illugi. He is supposed to be the bad guy, dammit, but somehow he constantly manages to sort things out for people. Ok, he grumbles and schemes and plans, but then he ends up instigating some important Church reform, or saving Stig’s hide again. “To keep things from dissolving. You can’t let things fall apart like that!”
Richard Stark (Don.E.Winslow) wrote something amazing about this kind of writing. Pantsing, I guess. It goes something like this (from my memory)
“You start only with your character and then you throw him in the worst kind of trouble you can imagine. The rest of the book is you trying to get him out of there. Writing a Parker novel is like entering a very dense forest with only a jumble of loose papers in my hands. Hopefully, I will have a finished novel in my hands when I emerge on the other side.” (my apologies to Don if I got it wrong).
What is your writing process? Do you have one? What is your workspace like?
I sit down at my desk, with a bit of time and a coffee, at a moment when hopefully no one is going to disturb me.
Where do you draw inspiration from?
For the world I write, I draw inspiration from reading tons and doing a lot of nerdy research (Swedish speakers can check out Fornsök at raa.se. A website with every single archealogical find in Sweden on a Google type map. Crazy when you think about it). For my characters I must be inspired from people I have met or read about or heard about, since the way they talk and act just pops out at me.
How many plot ideas are just waiting to be written? Can you tell us about one?
So, so many. And no, they are all mine. MINE! (sniffeling, growling sounds).
Do you have any new series planned?
I will take a very short break befor starting the sequel of The Singing Gold to write a stand alone YA set in a different environment. I am doing this as an excercise in restraint. I have limited myself to three books as research and the occasional fact check on wikipedia, and I picked YA because I wanted to force myself to write concise, clear and punchy.
MORE ABOUT YOU
What do you like to do in your spare time?
What is spare time?
If you couldn’t be an author, what ideal job would you like to do?
I guess I do have my ideal job, second or first, as a fine artist. Would be nice to be able to add ‘succesful’ instead of ‘struggling’ before it though.
Coffee or Tea? Or (exult deep breath) what other drink do you prefer, if you like neither?
I make strong coffee from beans I grind just before brewing (espresso of course. Filter, die!) and have trained my liver and spleen until I can ingest an almost imhuman amount in a day.
You can travel to anywhere in the universe. Where would you go, and why?
I can. I know. At the moment I am in Paris in an alternative history hanging out with Fallen angels. Bodard de Aliette is guiding me, and doing a damn good job of it.
Pick any three fiction characters. These are now your roadtrip crew. Where do you go and what do you do?
Sam Gambi, Pablo Picasso (the mythical one) and Sheherazade. We would do a very slow food, wine and gossip ramble through either Provance or Tuscany.
What superpower would you most like?
To be able to stop time around me, so I could get on with things.
What are two of your favorite covers of all time? (Not your own.)
I am so not an expert on covers, so ‘of all time’ would be a very tall order, but… I do love what Jennifer Zemanek did for Benedict Patrick on his Yarnsworld series.
If you could invite one person to dinner, who would it be and what would you cook?
I would have Dick Harrison over for a long extended evening on medieval(ish) cuisine and then slow drinks to be able to tap him on details concerning high medieval Swedish society that nobody writes about in history books. He would have to guess on most of it, of course, but I have a feeling his guesses would be well qualified.
Share something your readers wouldn’t know about you.
I know how to weld, sew, cast metal, build furniture and houses and carve wood, cook, bake, tinker and paint, but I don’t have a driver’s license.
It’s a very difficult time right now for the world. When quarantine and pandemic comes to an end, what is the first thing you would like to do?
Germany where I live have managed incredibly well, and have a fairly solidary and supportive social system. The worst for us was the two month’s without child care. As self employed freelancers, both me and my wife have been able to trundle along partly as before. What we both miss though, is visiting our family and friends in other European countries.
Finally, what is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, here on Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?
I am a bit bad on FB, sorry, but am active on Twitter as @SternbergTkp
I can be contacted through my website http://tkpsternberg.com/
and my book can be found on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07T984K3B