“Starfish” is a rich, intricate story. What inspired you to tell this particular tale?
This story has gone through several permutations. I once had a dream in which Skipper tells his story. That was the foundation for a poem that was never published, so it ended up on the recycling heap. I picked it up a few years later, and combined it with ideas from another story that I hadn’t been able to finish. This is pretty typical for my creative process. I come up with a lot of ideas, but they usually have to ferment for a while, or permutate, before they become part of a story that works.
This is a very subtle story. Many writers rely on flashy, bright dialogue to carry the plot and weight of the story, but here you allow the conversations between Kim and Skipper to flow and ripple, expanding the world without weighing down the narrative. How conscious are you of the interplay between characters in a story?
Extremely. An idea itself is useless if the interplay between characters doesn’t work. I just don’t believe in high drama one hundred percent of the time; flashy dialogue isn’t really my thing.
The wealth of sensory details comes together to create a framework for the story as a whole. The burn of plum brandy, the yellow-green glow of the starfish in Kim’s cabin, the biting cold, the undercooked potatoes. What is it about such details that helps cement readers in a story?
Sensory details help anchor the reader in the story. I try to be very specific when it comes to detail, particularly if there are weird things going on. The stranger things I want the reader to believe in, the more specific I get; I don’t want the reader to be busy orienting themselves or losing their suspension of disbelief. I also find stories without sensory detail flat and uninteresting.
You write in both English and Swedish, and teach creative writing in Malmö. Do you write exclusively in one language and then translate into another? Do you find that your style of writing and use of description changes depending on the language for the story’s publication?
I write primarily in English, although I sometimes take commissions for Swedish texts. Apart from commissions, I’ve pretty much given up writing prose in Swedish, since it pays so little and it’s harder to publish. My writing does change depending on language, although it’s fairly subtle, and the directions have changed over the years. I tend to be more florid in English and stark in Swedish. (I’ve been told that my English prose is considered exact, but it’s nowhere near what my Swedish can be.)
Many English print and online markets make a point of seeking out a range of voices, to reach beyond the borders of language to discover new stories. How do you feel your work has been received by English readers?
I’ve had a very warm reception, and I’m grateful to all the readers and colleagues out there who have been so generous in promoting my work. However, I do think people tend to get too fixated on my nationality and the fact that English is my second language. It’s not unusual that a review or interview is based almost entirely on my Swedishness. I hope that people will get used to my person and focus more on the stories.
If you could write a letter to the young Karen Tidbeck, what would you say to her?
“You don’t have to know what you’re writing about, and the word ‘plot’ is meaningless. Just let your imagination do its thing. You’re on the right track.”
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