Sara B. Elfgren is the international bestselling author of books like the Engelfors trilogy, with co-writer Mats Strandberg, and the novel Norra Latin (In Dreams).
. She wrote Voices of the Dead, a Prix Europa-nominated radio drama for Sveriges Radio, and Ghost Giant, a VR game coming out in April. At the time we spoke, she was in rehearsals for two different two different plays for Malmo City Theater and Dramaten, Sweden’s National Theater.
She also wrote the graphic novel Vei: Volume 1 with artist Karl Johnsson, which is out now in the U.S., with the second and concluding volume out in Sweden now. The titular character was raised to be a warrior by the giants of Jotunheim, who have always been written in the myths as the enemies of the gods of Asgard. The books present a different view of the giants, the Aesir, and some of these myths in interesting ways. Elfgren and I spoke recently about the comic and playing with myths, cultural taboos, opera, and spending years on different projects, all of which come out in just a few months.
What were you reading when you were younger? Do you think comics played a role in shaping your sensibilities as a storyteller?
Definitely. I started out reading the kind of comics that kids in Sweden in the 1980s were given like Donald Duck and Lucky Luke and Asterix. In my early teens I started discovering American comics and British comics. I fell in love with Elfquest and then I discovered Alan Moore. My mother had a bookstore in the 90s and one of her employees lent me her copies of The Sandman. That was a huge experience for me because it was this whole universe and it was so complex. I loved the way that the comic dealt with stories and storytelling and myths. That affected me a great deal.
According to the note in the back of the book, it sounds like Vei had a long and complicated process.
Karl was interested in the giants of Norse mythology. Most of the time they’re portrayed as the bad guys but he wanted to create his own mythology around them and tell the story from their perspective. There was this magazine called Utopi that Karl and a couple friends of his – I was involved in that circle, too – started. They wanted to promote science fiction, fantasy and horror comics. In Sweden for the past twenty-thirty years we’ve had a lot of great comics but often they’re political satire, humor, or autobiography. There was a group of people trying to do other things and make different types of comics and this magazine was supposed to publish these comics in episodes and then there would be books. So Karl started working on this comic for this magazine and I was there in the beginning as a friend and I got more and more involved. On chapter two he asked me, would you like to do this together? We ran the comic in the magazine for six or seven episodes, but Karl had developed so much as an artist and we had discovered so many things about the story that we realized we don’t want to finish it the way we started it. We made this huge decision – especially for Karl – to stop and redo the whole thing. [laughs] Sheer madness. Especially for Karl. He’s spent a few years on this now.
Did Karl redraw everything he had done up to that point?
Yeah. We used the main parts of the story and some compositions and designs, but there was so much that we wanted to make better. It was an huge project but still very rewarding in the end because we wouldn’t have been happy with that book we had started working on. I don’t think it would have been published in the US, actually.
What was it about the idea that interested you, beyond just being curious to see what Karl would do with it? What made you want to get involved?
I’m interested in myths and telling stories on this scale where you have actual gods interacting with humans. Part of the attraction for me was that Karl had the idea of reversing the perspective. I find that very interesting when you do that to myths and fairy tales. We have these giants and they’re always the bad guys and what if they’re not? Or at least, what if it’s more complicated than that? What if we tell the story of someone who has worshipped the giants as her gods instead of the aesir. That was exciting for me. But also, it was a chance to write for comics. In Sweden we don’t have a comics industry like that; it’s basically people doing everything by themselves. Most people write and draw, so there are very few people who write comics and work with an artist on a professional level. I had to grab this opportunity.
Vei is told from the point of view of humans who have this relationship with giants and see the aesir as these fearsome enemies. You’re starting with the myths, but how do you figure out how to build the story by inventing and changing ideas and elements?
That’s a tricky question to answer because it’s been such a long process. We worked on this comic in a very organic way. It’s not a very practical way of creating comics but it worked for us. We had a basic idea of how the story should be told and then we planned chapter by chapter together, text and thumbnails. I was sitting next to Karl and he was drawing and I had suggestions that would make him sigh and say, do you know how hard that is, but OK, let’s do it. [laughs] I was often writing and rewriting sitting next to him. It’s been an ongoing process for several years. We knew from the beginning what kind of story we wanted to tell when it came to the main character Vei, and what we wanted her journey to be like. Then we used what we wanted to use from the mythology, played around with that and then invented new ideas. Also we have this baggage in Sweden of these images of the aesir from the Swedish romantic nationalism era. For example if you look on Swedish wikipedia you’ll find “facts” like this god was depicted with a beard, but that didn’t start happening until the 19th century. So we also wanted to play around with the images of the aesir. For example, I suggested we base Freyja on the Venus from Willendorf, an ancient fertility symbol. It was interesting to find a different kind of portrayal of Freyja and what she stands for. We wanted to throw out some of the stuff has clung to the images of the aesir in a Swedish context.
So in Sweden Freyja is more what she would be in the US, I’m guessing, this tall willowy blonde who looks like a model?
It sounds like you and Karl has this great working relationship if you made part of the book sitting next to each other and working the story out together.
We were working from a distance too with him sending me material and me commenting on them. In the end we used Google Docs a lot. It’s been really great. On the one hand the process has been really complex, but on the other hand it’s been really easy because our working relationship has been really easy and we had a lot of fun from beginning to end. Even though it was a longer run than we imagined in the beginning. [laughs]
Even though you made two books instead of one.
We got about twenty percent into Book 2 [before we stopped], but then we also we filled out the story from what it was to begin with. We wanted to elaborate and add more detail. We knew it would be longer when we started reworking it, but we didn’t know we would end up with 350 pages altogether.
I keep thinking about Vei, about the Engelfors trilogy, reading about your plays that are opening this spring, and so much of your work is about playing with myths and legends and archetypes and trying to rethink them. What is it about these stories because you obviously find a lot of meaning in the ideas even if you don’t respond to the stories themselves?
It’s hard to say. It’s a preference, perhaps from an early age. I loved fairy tales and myths. I was obsessed with Greek myths when I was a kid. I wanted to change my name to Athena when I was five. [laughs] It was on that level. I preferred reading books when there was a fantastic element. I’m interested in different kinds of literature, but there is something very powerful about the sheer act of being able to make the unreal feel real. This feeling that you can have as a child where you were playing something and you were carried away where you know that it’s not real but what if it is? That uncertainty is really exciting.
Also there is something about these myths and legends that carry some meaning for us. The play I’m writing for Dramaten (Sweden’s National Theatre) is an adaption of The Changeling by Selma Lagerlöf. It’s about a troll growing up among humans, basically. I write is as though he really is a troll and trolls are real, but for me, it’s also about many other things. What trolls can mean and stand for and what this experience of being a changeling can be. But I think it’s important to write the fantastic element in a way that you take it seriously, otherwise it just become empty. You can read the fantastic as allegory, but you can’t write it as allegory, if that makes sense.
A lot of the old myths and stories were often treated as true on some level at one time. There’s a need to honor that in some way, to make it feel real to have meaning.
It’s interesting because when you talk about myths and fairy tales, on the one hand you have fairy tales, “once upon a time,” that were told as entertainment. Then you have, my grandma told me this and she never told a lie so it must be true. Those kinds of tales that were told as truth. There is something deep within us as humans that we’re fond of playing around with reality for entertainment or to explain things for ourselves. I think if you really look at it, it’s hard to explain. Like, why do you like music? I think the urge to make things up is as strong as the urge to sing or play an instrument. It’s useless but essential at the same time. [laughs]
Some people reading this will have read or be familiar with the Engelfors Trilogy, but I know right now you have two plays coming out soon.
I have a very busy spring. [laughs] I have seven releases between January and April, which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone. It’s fun but the day only has so many hours.
You spent years writing these things and they all come out within a few months.
Exactly! There’s The Changeling and I’ve written an original play for Malmo City Theater, The Vanishing of Oscar Lilja, about vampires. I wanted to delve into the whole vampire as an artist and the artist as a vampire idea. That’s been haunting the modern vampire myth since the romantics, basically. I think there is something interesting about that because there is some truth to it. Many artists, writers, journalists sometimes feel a bit like vampires – I do – because you look for inspiration and you want to find things within others that you can use. [laughs] I find that interesting.
I’ve also written a VR game for Zoink Games and Playstation that’s coming out in April. That’s been a very exciting experience. I don’t know if you’ve tried any VR games but they’re often about driving a car or shooting a crossbow. We’ve created a world with many characters, and I got the chance to write a story I really cared about. It’s called Ghost Giant. You as the player become a giant that’s invisible to everyone except a small boy and you’re supposed to help him with his problems. While you’re doing that you get to know the people around him and the town where he lives and then you realize that he may have more serious problems than you think from the beginning and then you have to try to help him with those. It’s been very exciting to tell a story in that medium. Then I’m working on two TV shows as well. You never know if those things will be produced or not, but so far so good.
I also know that you wrote the radio drama Voices of the Dead, which is a genre that I love.
I got this request from Sveriges Radio (Sweden’s national radio broadcaster). They have this radio theater that’s been going on since they started but it’s been very much associated with the elderly. [laughs] They wanted to rejuvenate radio drama and when I got that request I had been listening to some American fiction podcasts like Limetown and The Black Tapes and The Signal and I was thinking, why doesn’t anyone do this in Sweden? Then they asked me and I said, I want to make a mockumentary series. Those American series are often made to sound like podcasts, and sometimes they rely on “Oh My God, what’s that in the corner”-cliffhangers. Those moments tend to make it feel less real to me so I wanted to go in a different direction and base it on the classic radio documentary format. I was thinking that if you have a fictional journalist/narrator she will have edited the series in a way that makes it exciting for the listener, but the tone will be still be objective and enhance the illusion of reality.
I wanted to tell a story about a bunch of friends in the 90s who have grown up and lost touch with each other. Basically, there was this murder that occurred in their circle of friends and one of them was accused of the murder and they look back and try to find out what really happened. There may or may not be supernatural elements in it. I also wanted to use the whole panic surrounding role playing games in Sweden at that time. In the mid-90s some people were convinced that role playing games were ruining the minds of young people and turning them into psychopaths and killers. It was very extreme – and quite hilarious in retrospect. [laughs] I thought it would be interesting to use that as an element in the story.
I was curious about Vei and the magazine Utopi. What was the envisioned age and audience for it?
It’s more genre than age. Volume 2 is much darker so in one sense it would have been better to publish the story as a whole because that’s how it supposed to be read. Volume 1 is the setup and we wanted it to have this pulpy feel and be entertaining and fast paced with bright colors. Then we get more into different layers of the story in Volume 2. It’s all about keeping the balance. I think it’s interesting where you can have a silly joke and then something that’s really sad on the next page. There has been this trend in popular culture during this century where everything has to be so dark and so serious. Our culture often mistakes a lack of humor for depth, and I think that is so wrong. For example I love The Sopranos. That’s my favorite TV show and one of the things I love about the show is how they can make you laugh in one second and then make you go, ugh, what was I laughing about? I like stories to contain the whole spectrum of emotions.
Yes, there are a lot of American comics – and creators – who think if the sun is shining, you’ll forget for an instant just how grim and serious this story is.
Exactly. I think there is a trend in the US going against that, too. Saga is an excellent example of that. Perhaps we’re leaving all that behind us for a few decades or so.
You said That Vei: Volume 2 is darker, but Act 2 of the play or the opera gets darker and heavier. A lot of retellings of old myths get flattened and simplified and you and Karl seem very aware of that and are trying to push against that.
We tried to be aware of that. It’s interesting when it comes to Freyja for example because she is a goddess of love and sex and fertility, but she’s also a goddess of death and war. Odin is associated with honor, but he is also portrayed as an unreliable trickster. And he practices seidr, which is supposed to be women’s magic. There is a spectrum when it comes to all the gods. For example we’re not sure today how evil Loki really was in the original myths. If Loki was an aspect of Odin that got turned into another character. If Loki became more like the devil because the people who wrote down the myths were Christians. There’s a lot of complexity to it and we wanted to keep that because it makes it exciting.
There’s inherent tragedy and brutality to the Norse myths. Odin and Loki and others are these really complicated figures. And hey know that no matter what they do, they’re going to see the world end and die. You clearly wanted to keep and convey that complexity.
Thank you. We get to know a lot more about Loki and Odin in Volume 2. Part of the reason why we wanted to rework Vei was that we got so interested in the aesir and the giants as characters that we wanted to give them more space in the story. I think it’s interesting when it comes to Norse mythology because as you pointed out it’s about everything coming to an end. The gods know they’re going to die and they play out this tragedy where they know their own fates. It’s so different from Greek mythology because there’s no myth about Zeus knowing he’s going die. I don’t know if it’s got something to do with the climate. It’s easier to imagine eternal gods if you lived in ancient Greece and you could just hang around and eat grapes and drink wine. [laughs] But in Sweden, winter is coming. Everyone’s going to die. The gods are going to die, too. I think that’s part of why Norse mythology is so useful to us as storytellers today because there is this vulnerability to even the gods. Greek gods have desires and flaws but they don’t have death hanging over them. It’s interesting especially in these times when we’re dealing with climate change and disasters on a global scale. It’s myths for our time in a sense.
I asked about age and audience because like I said before, if you gave Vei to me when I was 10, I would have loved it, but you have a brief scene of the two main characters naked. I don’t have a problem with it, but I remember thinking, well, you can’t have this in American schools. I assume that Sweden lacks many of our religious hangups around nudity.
[laughs] Yeah it is different. It can be sensitive, but there’s a huge difference. It’s a bit complex. I can understand why kids would want to read Vei because it has bright colors and action and it’s an exciting story. Genre is often a bridge from around age 10-11 when you start reading Lord of the Rings and stories like that. It’s a place where you can meet over the age barrier and I think that’s exciting. We try to tell parents to read Vei before they give it to their kid. There’s a lot of violence in it and violence is more taboo in Sweden than sex. At least it used to be. In the 80’s you could go to the movies and watch a French film with sex and the age limit was 7 and you were sitting there as a horrified kid. [laughs] But The Empire Strikes Back was age limit 15 because of the violence. And you don’t even see blood. In the US you would say that’s a movie that kids can watch. But not here, at least back in the 80s. That has changed though. Violent movies tend to get lower age limits in Sweden today.
Here the violence wouldn’t raise an eyebrow, it’s literally that one scene. [laughs]
We ruined it for ourselves. [laughs] But it was important for us to make that part of the story. This is a different kind of world where nudity is not taboo because they’re all walking around semi-nude most of the time in the book. They don’t wear a lot of clothing. It was a challenge to us where people are showing their naked bodies a lot but not in a sexualized, objectified way that you see in many other comics. We wanted to have a different perspective on those scenes as well because we thought that was interesting.
And of course there’s so much to that scene. Beyond what we learn about the character, seeing him naked the reader and Vei see how his body is covered in scars. It’s this incredibly vulnerable and layered scene.
Thank you. That’s what we were going for.
I know that you’re a big opera buff and I’m curious what you like about opera.
I haven’t picked sides when it comes to the Italian vs German thing. [laughs] The last thing I saw was Rigoletto and I enjoyed it very much. It was a good production. I’ve seen The Nibelung’s Ring twice, so I obviously enjoy Wagner, too. I love the scale of opera. It’s so big and the emotions are big and the stories are big and also that I don’t fully understand it because I’m not a musician. Of course I have opinions about how it’s been directed or produced, but when it comes to the music it just hits me. I can’t analyze it, whereas I can do that with most other things. And if you compare it to theater, if it’s a bad opera production, you can just close your eyes and listen to the music. You can’t do that in bad theater. [laughs] It’s so emotional– and there is no hiding from that emotion because it’s built into the music. Watching a lot of theater, at least in Sweden, there is this fear of emotion where you want to hold back and comment on everything that you’re doing and showing the audience that you’re looking at yourself when you’re doing it, in a sense.
Your work is very sincere. It’s not cynical or detached. Scale and emotion are two things that are very important in your work.
Definitely. Of course you’re making yourself vulnerable as the creator of something if you are sincere about emotions and what you want to tell. But for me that’s the most exciting area to work in. It’s where I find the things that intrigue me as a writer. I can enjoy reading a novel that’s very dry and intellectual but I could never write a book like that. I like storytelling too much, I guess.