I’m going to take a slight break from my interview series with poets for National Poetry Month. I’m going to re-post this interview with longtime Center member and novelist Solveig Eggerz, who’ll be reading with poet Wendell Hawken at The Writer’s Center on Sunday, May 3 at 2:00 P.M. right here in Bethesda.
I was excited to pose a few questions to Solveig Eggerz regarding her first novel, Seal Woman. It’s a fascinating first book, and in many ways a very ambitious one. Yet it’s a novel that’s firmly–and grittily–grounded in the harsh realities of life during and following WWII. Please visit Ghost Road’s website, at the bottom of this page, for a complete description of the book. I did not–and do not–wish to give away too much with these questions. A special thanks goes out to Solveig for graciously spending time answering my questions.
Seal Woman is a novelization of German “refugees” in Iceland during WWII. For those who aren’t familiar with the story, can you tell us a little about why Germans went to Iceland?
In the late 1940’s Icelanders, especially women, were leaving the farms to find work and more comforts in Reykjavik. At the same time, employment conditions were dreadful in Germany. The Icelandic Agricultural Association decided to advertise for farm workers in German newspapers. About 314 Germans sailed to Iceland, most of them women.
What was the genesis of the story for you?
During the years 1988-96 I told folk and fairy tales to children in the library of my son’s school. Among the stories I told was one about a lonely farmer who falls in love with a creature sitting on a rock by the ocean. It’s not clear whether the creature is a seal or a woman. He marries her and they have children. All goes well until she hears the call from her past or from her other world and she returns to the sea. This is a Celtic and a Scandinavian story. I was moved by this story and felt it applied to particular human situations–especially to the immigrant experience when much is gained in the new place but much is also left behind.
The other stimulant for writing the story was a German/Icelandic film I saw in Iceland, Maria. It was about one of these German women. She is contracted to work on a very primitive farm where she is greeted with a profound silence. It was the silence more than anything that impressed me about this film. I imagined that a woman coming from the huge trauma that the Nazis inflicted on the world and on their own citizens might arrive in this new land with a need to talk, a need to process that trauma. I wanted to solve the riddle of how such a woman in those circumstances might respond or develop.
How long did it take you to write the novel?
I drafted the novel in ten days in 2001 when I was attending a writers’ conference at Sewanee. After that I revised it for a couple of years. And after that I changed it some more.
Did you write any of the book while in a workshop at the Center?
No, but I was concurrently working on another novel, which I workshopped at the center. Much of what I learned in those workshops undoubtedly carried over to the writing of Seal Woman.
Charlotte, the novel’s main character, is an artist shorn from her life & family in Germany. In Iceland she finds a new life. Can you tell us a little about the complications of writing a novel set in two different times and places?
The complication lies primarily in needing to research the details of life in two different places and two different times. The nature of the research was also entirely different for the two parts: for the sections set in Iceland, I researched plants and their uses, foods, and work methods; for the German sections I researched the historic details of the Weimar Republic, the Nazi years, and the Holocaust.
And how did you come to the technique you use–shifting back and forth between post-war Iceland and Hitler’s Germany?
I adopted this technique because I wanted to show what Charlotte might be thinking. The entire flashback to Germany might be contained in her memory and in her heart. Chang Rae Lee’s novel A Gesture Life made a strong impression on me.
The passage of time is a unique feature of your book. It’s compressed into small units, and months–even years–pass in a single page (Erik’s marriage and life with Lena, for example). Can you talk about the difficulty of writing about the passage of time in fiction?
Passage of time is for me a matter of focus. If you are coming in real close and focusing on a single moment in a character’s life, you will describe it second by second. But then if you pull away and focus from a distance, you can can allow several years to pass on a page. Readers will usually stay with you if they realize what you’re doing. I think, however, we as readers get resentful when the writer combines both forms of focus and pushes them together into one sentence: The newly married couple spent an hour picking out a lampshade that would match the beige decor of their bedroom, and then the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union.
What, if anything, do you think this novel says about today?
This novel says the same thing about today as it said about yesterday—that humans, brave as they are about pulling up roots and “moving on,” often must struggle to regain their balance and to integrate any kind of trauma that they have experienced. It tells us also that silence and the suppression of memory is often not the best way to move forward from the past.
Can you tell us how your book has been received, if at all, in Iceland?
I was interviewed last May and received a full page display in the main newspaper. This generated considerable interest. However, I can’t really say much about reception in Iceland until it is published in Icelandic.
Will you be reading there?
Because the book is published in English, I won’t be actually reading from it, but I hope to talk about it in some forum during my next visit.
Seal Woman a novel by Solveig Eggerz
Publication date: 5/15/2008
Ghostroad Press: http://www.ghostroadpress.com/