Interview: Berit Ellingsen and the Weird

"I’d like to see more experimentation, more playfulness..."

Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian writer who lives in Norway and writes in English. Her stories combine the realistic and the imaginary, prose and poetry, and are inspired by, among others, science, history, philosophy, music and film. Berit’s fiction has appeared or will appear in literary journals such as Unstuck, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, Metazen and decomP magazinE. She’s also had haiku poems and creative non-fiction work published, as well as popular science articles in Norwegian. Berit was a semi-finalist in the Rose Metal Press Chapbook Competition in 2011 and two of her stories received an honorable mention by Ellen Datlow for Best Horror of the Year vol. 4. In September 2011 Berit’s novel, The Empty City, a story about silence, was released, and in February 2012 Turtleneck Press published Berit’s chapbook What Girls Really Think. Berit’s collection of short stories, Beneath the Liquid Skin, was published by firthFORTH Books in November 2012. You can find her online at her personal website.

I recently interviewed Ellingsen via email about her writing, weird and unclassifiable literature, and the link between science and fabulism, among other things. What kinds of stories did you read growing up? Do you remember reading anything especially unusual, weird, or out of the ordinary?

Berit Ellingsen: The first book I can remember reading with a passion was Cosmos, Carl Sagan’s popular science book about the universe. I didn’t understand all of it, but I loved it.

Later on I enjoyed Swedish-speaking Finnish writer Irmelin Sandman Lilius’s Sola Trilogy, Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series, the books by Norwegian fabulists Tore Hansen, Jon Bing and Tor-Åge Bringsværd, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and short story collections, and Edgar Allan Poe’s work, as well as Norwegian, Danish and German folk tales and the Norse sagas and mythology. Living in Scandinavia, you don’t get away from those.

As a science student I read a variety of literature and genres, such as the plays by classical Norwegian writers Henrik Ibsen and Alexander Kielland, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler’s crime stories, P.G. Wodehouse’s 20th century farces, the French SF comics by Moebius, Enki Bilal, Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, and classical haiku by Matsuo Basho and Kobayashi Issa. Which writers or stories have been most influential to you, as a writer?

Ellingsen: Most recently, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I remembered the end passage from my teen years, but didn’t know which book it was from, so it was fantastic to find it again and finally read the entire book. The same with J.K. Huysman’s decadent and surreal novel Against Nature, and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Aleph,” which felt like stories I should have read a long time ago, but didn’t know about.

Ursula LeGuin’s Orsinian Tales, a collection of short stories set in a fictional Eastern European country, has also been a large influence. The same goes for Irmelin Sandman Lilius’s Sola Trilogy, which also mixes realism with fabulist elements.

I’ve also recently read short stories by many contemporary writers (some of them do not write weird fiction), such as Kathy Fish, Paul Jessup, Kristine Ong Muslim, Tania Hershman, Jeff VanderMeer, Matthew Salesses, Ethel Rohan, Jennifer DuBois, Paul Griner, and Aliette de Bodard, as well as essays by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, and they have been influential as well. What about some of these stories or writers do you find so influential or inspirational to you? Why do they impact you?

Ellingsen: What I think all these writers have in common is the ability to make accurate and relevant observations about our world and the way we live and act, and to communicate this in eloquent ways, via both the content and form of their stories. By doing so they also question our ways of living and I find that important and a source for hope. What do you want to see more of, in regards to literature and art?

Ellingsen: I would like to see a higher degree of freedom from commercial constraints and the current expectations of entertainment value and value-for-money for literature and all art forms.

Every genre has its conventions and expectations to theme, length, characterization, setting and so on, and if the artist strays too far away from it, it doesn’t belong to that genre any longer and can’t be marketed as such. These conventions and rules tend to make things repetitive, simple, and easily digested, and well suited for consumption. But the question is, do we really want more of the same, or something new or more complex that may surprise, challenge, change us, or show the world in a different light?

Therefore, I’d like to see more experimentation, more playfulness, more hybrid forms, more questioning of the conventions and traditions of genres and art forms, and by extension, questioning our current ways of life and civilization, which aren’t working that well anymore.

Weird, surrealist, experimental, and cross-genre literature’s willingness to consider the unusual and the unexpected and to try new avenues is probably why it has a special place in my heart. There’s definitely an element of playfulness and experimentation in your writing, especially formal experimentation, that’s present in many of the stories in Beneath the Liquid Skin, like “A Catalog of Planets,” which is essentially what the title would indicate, and “Still Life in Hypnos, which takes the form of a series of time-lapse photographs. What do you consider as successful or failed experiments in your own writing?

Ellingsen: I really enjoy playing with forms and styles, and as with any experimentation there are failed attempts, where I can’t express what I want to, or can’t shape or edit the story into what I envisioned it to be like, or work I lose interest in before it’s finished, or pieces that lose interest in me before they are finished, stories that just don’t work.

I have gone back to a few of them after a while and then they have transformed into something else and unexpected, which is great fun, or become what I hoped, but it’s rare. I do think of these stories as maybe meant just for me, and for testing the waters, and that’s all right.

A successful experiment is like a puzzle: all (or most) of the pieces will be there and just need to be assembled and polished, and comes to life like a little Frankenstein creation, almost all by itself. What kind of impact does science have on your writing overall? You’ve mentioned your affection for literature like Cosmos, as well as your experience as a science student. How does this admiration for science and scientific literature impact, or possibly conflict with, your affection for fabulist or surrealist literature?

Ellingsen: One might think there would be a conflict there, but I suspect my liking for science expresses itself more as a desire for even fabulist literature to have a clear connection to the world and be somewhat analytical as well as imaginative, instead of dismissing the imaginary outright.

The background in science is probably also why I like describing the landscape and ecology of a setting, and how the people there sustain themselves. It also makes me enjoy satirizing systems of hierarchy or taxonomy, as in “The Tale That Wrote Itself” (one of the stories in Beneath the Liquid Skin) .

The science background may also make me more open to experimentation and playing with form and content, but as words and images, rather than in a lab. What inspires you the most in your writing? Where do you most frequently find catalysts for your stories?

Ellingsen: What I find most inspiring in writing is the writing process itself, when the story almost seems to write itself, when you find ways to express what you want, both linguistically and plot-wise, in exactly the tone and style you wish, and seeing the story take shape from tentative tries and sketches to the finished version.

I find the catalysts for stories in everything from phrases, ideas, questions, memories, dreams, indignation, science, philosophy, paintings, photography, film, music, games, design, to other people’s literary work. It can be everything from a great phrase, to an interesting character, to certain colors or a tone of light.

For example, a recent shot from one of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s movies, which are known for slow panning into or out of scenes, and a masterful cinematography of water, made me realize that his films have influenced my writing a lot. It’s a while since I watched them, so I didn’t realize how much of an influence they are.

A montage of images from Stalker:

The last scene of Nostalghia, which is a classical Tarkovsky shot: How about your story “The White,” which we’ve reprinted elsewhere on this site? What inspired you to write that story in particular? Please walk us through the process of the story from inception to completion, if you like.

Ellingsen: “The White” was written for literary magazine The Medulla Review’s call for “lucid fiction”. They wanted fiction that experimented with and presented new ways of regarding the world, the self and how we tell stories, point of views, characterization etc. I therefore wanted to write a first contact story, since extraterrestrials might have a very different view of themselves, their minds and bodies and where they belong, than we do.

One of the most challenging and alien settings on Earth is Antarctica. I had read blog posts and descriptions from scientists that spent the winter in bases in the Antarctic and it sounded like being on another planet, so that became the setting for the story.

In my work I’ve also interviewed scientists who have, like Professor Johansen in the story, what they themselves describe as “polar sickness”. They’ve been to the Arctic or the Antarctic and constantly want to go back. I’ve been to the Arctic myself, it’s a fantastically beautiful place despite the harsh conditions, and I can really understand why some people are eager to live there. All of that made up the inspiration for “The White” and found its way into the story.

I also wanted the reader to be a part of the narrative and have a sense that it’s about them, or a different part of them, and therefore wrote it in second person present tense. The text itself was straightforward to write and revisions consisted mostly of polishing the dialogue and do line editing. In addition to your short story collections, you also have a novel that was published last year, The Empty City. How does your novel fit into your overall body of work, in terms of the themes you choose to explore and the style you develop? What lessons did you learn from writing your novel that you can now apply to your short fiction? And what might readers of weird fiction find really fascinating about your novel?

Ellingsen: The Empty City shares some of the themes of “The White,” but takes place in an everyday setting rather than the Antarctic. The novel is written as a series of vignettes, each ranging from a few hundred to several thousand words long.

During the course of the story, the protagonist starts questioning the objectivity of the individual experience, the accuracy of personal memory, and in particular the continuity of the personality. It seemed pertinent to make the form of the narrative reflect this as well, and writing the novel as separate but interconnected vignettes therefore seemed to be the best form.

I learned a lot about developing a story, both the short form and longer structures, as well as revising, and working with an editor, something I hadn’t done before. Maybe the biggest lesson was the freedom to choose approaches and themes that were previously new to me.

The Empty City is about encountering the strange and the unexpected, but also about turning inward and finding what’s there. It uses some science fiction and fantasy imagery to explore the protagonist’s past and present. Do you have any other projects that you’re currently working on?

Ellingsen: I’m working on a novella which mixes existential themes with imaginary elements. Among other things, it’s about how the past is a very fluid narrative that tends to change according to our present, even without any conscious lying or glossing over. But when we know this is the case, what is really true and objective? The first draft of the story is almost done, and I hope I will like it well enough to start editing, which for me is a long process. I’m also usually working on a short story or two, of flash fiction length and longer. Finally, what’s the weirdest piece of fiction, story or novel,  that you’ve ever read? Why?

Ellingsen: Comte de Lautreamont/Isidore Ducasse’s long and surreal prose poem Les Chants des Maldoror was an eye- and mind-opener when I read it a few years ago. I loved the non-linearity of it, the lack of a solid plot or storyline, a central character who is willful and unusual, the dark and sometimes disturbing descriptions, the striding poetry and play with words and images, and the unapologetic and uncensored voice of the writer.

It’s one of the most unsettling and weird pieces of fiction I have read so far. It felt like what I imagine taking a peek into insanity would be like, but with a high degree of expression and accuracy and control of language. The author died at a young age, it would have been very interesting to have seen what he would have written, had he lived.

One reply to “Interview: Berit Ellingsen and the Weird

  1. Pingback: The White and an interview in the Weird Fiction Revew! « Berit Ellingsen – Fiction Writer