Karin Tidbeck’s Jagannath: Weird in All the Right Ways

Books GeekMom
Image: Cheeky Frawg

Yesterday, Karin Tidbeck’s short story collection Jagannath officially released. The book is being published by Cheeky Frawg, the joint project of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer. Considering the book has been blurbed by the likes of China Mieville and Ursula K. Le Guin, you could say it’s making some waves. But I think it’s NPR that put it best:

For you, dear reader, something wonderful — and weird — is going to happen if you open this book.

It’s waiting for you.

My humble verdict? Jagannath is a collection of stories that will keep you up at night, both while reading and days later, that blends the fantastic and the weird in a perfect concoction. One that will make you return again and again to the images and stories within its pages. You can get it online at Amazon. (And really, you ought to.)

I was lucky to catch Karin before she went off to World Fantasy last week, and she was kind enough to answer some of my more curious questions. But for a writer of the weird, as you might expect, it was hardly a challenge.

GeekMom: First tell us a little bit about yourself and your collection of short stories, Jagannath.

Karin Tidbeck: I live in Malmö, Sweden, where I divide my time between writing, working for a writers’ organization and do some freelance work as creative writing instructor. I’ve published short stories for about 10 years and started translating them into English a couple of years ago, because I found the publishing possibilities in Swedish too few. That has since changed, and I’ve ended up with handling two simultaneous book releases this autumn – one in Swedish and one in English. In Swedish, I’ve published a short story collection, Vem är Arvid Pekon?, and the recent novel Amatka. Jagannath contains translated stories from Vem är Arvid Pekon? and lots of new material, some of which has appeared in magazines like Weird Tales and Unstuck Annual, and some that’s previously unpublished.

GeekMom: When did you first start writing speculative fiction?

Tidbeck: I was eight years old when I wrote what would now be called fan fiction, that is, stories about the characters in Elfquest. I’ve also found some horror stories from when I was 10 – zombies, horrible death, bags that are portals to outer space.

GeekMom: As a woman writing speculative fiction, have you run into any unusual challenges?

Tidbeck: There’s the established fact that female authors have access to a smaller readership: Female readers read both male and female writers, while male readers read male writers. There’s also the established fact that in Sweden, speculative fiction has long been looked down on by mainstream and highbrow readers (unless it’s by the right writers, of course). The latter isn’t an issue of gender, but both of these factors combined make a challenge.

I haven’t faced overt sexism as a writer, but it’s obviously hard to say if I’d had more readers and an easier time reaching out had I been a man. I don’t dwell on it. What is difficult is talking about sexism in speculative fiction and in geek culture; there’s a good discussion going on but also a lot of resistance and an unwillingness to acknowledge obvious issues, even in a country that’s supposed to be ahead in feminism and equal rights. The overt sexism I’ve run into has been as a geek in the gaming and fandom circuits – it’s the usual objectification, ridicule and/or being ignored – although I’ve gotten off easy compared to other women I know.

GeekMom: What were your most treasured books as a child? What are your most treasured books now?

Tidbeck: As a child I loved everything by Astrid Lindgren, especially The Brothers Lionheart and the illustrated story Most Beloved Sister. Who Will Comfort Toffle? by Tove Jansson made a huge impression, although it was very scary. I read Eva Ibbotson’s The Great Ghost Rescue, Roald Dahl’s The Witches and of course Lord of the Rings again and again.

It’s really hard to say what books I treasure most now, there are so many! But books I keep coming back to are Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Garth Nix’s Abhorsen series, The Birthday of the World by Ursula K. Le Guin, Babel-17 by Samuel Delany and Keith Johnstone’s Impro.

GeekMom: You’ve mentioned in other interviews that Tolkien was a big influence early on in your reading life. What are your thoughts on the new films coming out?

Tidbeck: I think I should make a distinction between impression and influence, if that makes sense. Tolkien’s books don’t seem to have made much impression on style or themes, but it was my first encounter with a three-dimensional, hyper-detailed world. As for the films, if you mean The Hobbit — it was never my favorite (which means that I only read it about five times and not 20, like LOTR), and I could never identify with the characters, but Jackson knows his stuff so I’m sure it’ll be a very well crafted and loving tribute to the book. I loved the Lord of the Rings films unreservedly; there was nothing to do but capitulate to the 12-year-old in me that had waited for that moment for so many years.

GeekMom: Is there a particular subject you consider yourself a geek about? How does it impact your writing?

Tidbeck: I fluctuate between a number of geek areas, but a big one is folklore. I studied comparative religion and social anthropology early on, which got me interested in modern paranormal phenomena and how they follow the principles of folklore. I’ve loved and collected various Forteana for years, especially cryptozoology and phenomena like Mothman or Men in Black (not Will Smith, more like John Keel and Robert Anton Wilson).

I’m also an old gamer — everything from board games and computer games (currently in horrible Mass Effect 3 withdrawal) to table-top RPGs and Nordic avant-garde LARP. Roleplaying especially has had a huge impact on my writing, both because I’ve worked with developing characters for games and because of the experience of seeing a character from the inside. My stories have been described as very character-driven, and I think doing the kind of method acting I did as a roleplayer has a lot to do with it.

GeekMom: Is there a particular story in Jagannath that you’re most proud of, or particularly attached to, that you’d like to talk about?

Tidbeck: The title story, “Jagannath,” because it was hellishly difficult to write. I was at Clarion (SF & Fantasy writers’ workshop), it was in the last week, and I was so out of my head from fatigue that some invisible wall just broke … and out crawled “Jagannath” with its alien characters that I had to understand completely in order to write. That story represents a new level in my craft.

GeekMom: If you could have any super power, what would it be? (Or, if you happen to have a super power, please tell us what it is!)

Tidbeck: I tried to come up with something witty, but really, what I dream of is a Professor X ability to mind-control the asshole politicians and corporate giants who are doing their very best to send the planet to hell.

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