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Interview: Eleanor Arnason

Eleanor Arnason published her first short story in 1973. Since then, she has published six novels, three short story collections, a couple of chapbooks and some poetry. Her novel A Woman of the Iron People won the James Tiptree Jr. and the Mythopoeic Society Awards; her novel Ring of Swords won a Minnesota Book Award; and her short story “Dapple” won the Spectrum Award. A collection of her Icelandic fantasies came out in 2014. She has since written four more stories about Icelandic ghosts, trolls, elves and ordinary people. This is one. “The Graveyard” is Arnason’s first appearance in Uncanny, a beautifully crafted tale that weaves together folklore and history.

 

Uncanny Magazine: I love the structure of this story—we are reading the account of a narrator who is hearing about the ghosts from a curator, who in turn has heard the story from Atli. Why did you choose this structure?

Eleanor Arnason: The story begins with an actual conversation I had with the curator of a historical site in Iceland. She told me about a farmer who didn’t believe in ghosts, but had to deal with them. But there was no end to her story. The curator didn’t tell me what happened to the farmer. So, I rewrote her narrative and added an ending. The layering—the narrator who is told the story by the curator, who is in turn told the story by the farmer—came out of the actual situation.

Uncanny Magazine: What was the easiest part of writing this story? What was the most challenging thing?

Eleanor Arnason: The easiest part was the beginning, since I had a real (I think) incident. The hard part was finding an ending. I wanted to keep the uncertainty. Were the ghosts real? Did the characters end by believing in ghosts? And I wanted to keep the story pragmatic: the farmer had a problem. How was he going to solve it? What’s more important than believing in the ghosts is finding a way to get rid of them.

Uncanny Magazine: “The Graveyard” has a lovely anthropological feel to it, centering on a cultural conflict and weaving together Icelandic folklore and history, which are recurring topics in your work. What other topics or themes do you find yourself drawn to repeatedly?

Eleanor Arnason: A lot of my fiction is about social stereotypes and characters who don’t fit into the roles they are assigned by society. I come out of the Second Wave of Feminism, which hit SF in the late 1960s and was very strong through the 1970s. (Theodore Sturgeon said all the good new writers in the 1970s were women, except for James Tiptree Jr.) So I do a lot with gender roles. My characters want to be something they can’t be in their society, because of their gender. Sometimes they succeed in being the people they want to be. Sometimes they don’t manage. But I give them tolerable lives. There is enough suffering in the world.

My Icelandic stories are different. Not about gender, for the most part. They are about people who get in difficult situations which are often supernatural and struggle to get out of the situations and get on with their lives. Maybe the commonality with the gender stories is the struggle to have one’s own life. Atli has to find a way to calm down the ghosts and to get the Icelandic-American businessman to stop bothering the graveyard. There is nothing epic about this: he’s not like Frodo. He just wants to get on with his life.

Many of my Icelandic stories are about history: the land is built on the past, as my curator says. A lot of my Icelandic characters are trying to come to terms with the past and the folklore of their country: ghosts, trolls, elves. I am not a fan of Icelandic elves, who seem like rich people, indifferent to the suffering of the poor.  But I sometimes write about them. I like trolls, which I see as ordinary people, though very large and rock-like, who struggle to get by. Ghosts are past all effort. Though they can complain.

Writing the above I thought of the famous lines by Karl Marx in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” Maybe that’s what my fiction is about: trying to make a decent life in spite the rules of one’s society and the weight of the past.

Uncanny Magazine: Do you believe in ghosts?

Eleanor Arnason: No, but neither did the farmer. I am not invested in not believing in ghosts. If I meet one, I will believe in it.

Uncanny Magazine: You’ve been writing short stories since the 1970s, and have published dozens of short stories and three collections. What draws you to short fiction? Which writers or stories do you consider to be your strongest influences?

Eleanor Arnason: I think my natural length is the short story. I especially like long short stories, novelettes. But I write a fair number of classic-length short stories. I’m a slow writer and writing a novel takes forever. So I like the shortness of short fiction, and the fact that—written well—it can have a density and tightness that’s hard to get in a novel. It’s hard to write a flawless novel, though Jane Austen managed in Pride and Prejudice. But you can write a close to flawless short story.

I think Ursula K. Le Guin is an obvious influence on my work. Possibly Jane Austen as well. I have read Austen’s novels over and over. I love her wit and clear-sightedness and extreme skill as a writer. Very obviously medieval Icelandic literature has influenced me, especially the Icelandic family sagas, not only in my Icelandic stories. My brother says he can see the influence of the sagas in everything I write. (I grant that Austen and the sagas are an odd combination. But it’s what I grew up with.)

Uncanny Magazine: What are you working on next?

Eleanor Arnason: I have just finished another couple of Icelandic stories. Then I will take a break from Iceland. I have a story about a journalist who gets an assignment to interview the ghost of Hugo Chavez, the former president of Venezuela, to find out if he was involved in the 2020 American election. (Some of Trump’s allies say Chavez helped steal the election. Chavez has been dead since 2013, as people keep pointing out.) I’m still tinkering with that one. I think it will be difficult to sell. And I have started a story about Yu the Great, who founded the first Chinese imperial dynasty, assuming he actually existed. What I like about him is he’s credited with taming the floods on the Yellow River. Imperial China was founded by an engineer! Of course, he was a supernatural engineer, helped by a yellow dragon and a gigantic black turtle. He was also, according to the Chinese stories, an exemplary person and devoted to the common people. Not all my stories work out. These last two may or may not.

Uncanny Magazine: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us!

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Caroline M. Yoachim

Caroline M. Yoachim is a two-time Hugo and four-time Nebula Award finalist. Her short stories have been translated into several languages and reprinted in multiple best-of anthologies, including three times in Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy. Yoachim’s short story collection Seven Wonders of a Once and Future World & Other Stories and the print chapbook of her novelette The Archronology of Love are available from Fairwood Press. For more, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

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