February 13, 2013 by Heidi
Today I am thrilled to play host to a YA author genius of all things creepy, Marcus Sedgwick, as we talk about his wonderful new US release, Midwinterblood. If you stopped by last week, you saw that I was a huge fan of this unconventional tale that was simultaneously atmospheric, eerie, and positively original. I asked Marcus to tell us about his inspiration through the Carl Larsson painting and his use of recurring characters throughout time. He is, I am happy to report, stunningly obliging!
Take it away, Marcus!
How long does it take to write a book? It’s a question you get asked often as a writer, and one I always hesitate over answering. I must look pretty stupid when I do – surely he knows how long it took him? – but the reason I hesitate is because it depends what you mean. Do you mean the length of time that you were in front of your computer with a Word doc open? If that’s the case, Word has a nifty feature that will actually tell you to the minute how long you took to ‘write’ the book. But there’s more to it than that, so should it include the time you spent making plans (if you do such things), and before that the time you spent making notes? And before that the time you spent reading things, getting ideas, and generally staring into thin air and pretending it’s all part of the hard work? And if you want to include that, then don’t all these things depend on who you are, and everything you’ve experienced up to that point? Is that how long it really takes to write a book – your whole life?
Enough of these existential and slightly silly questions. The point is that I first saw the painting known as Midvinterblot, or Midwinter Sacrifice, by Carl Larsson, around six years ago. At the time I knew Carl Larsson only from his small and charming depictions of old-style Swedish life; scenes of midsummer parties, or butter-churning, or Christmas Eve celebrations.
When I stumbled up the steps of Stockholm’s National Museum therefore, and turned and saw the vast work hanging on the wall behind me, I was blown away. The painting is over 15 yards wide. That’s the first thing to know. It is HUGE.
The main figures in it are greater than life-size, and what the painting depicts is a scene from pre-Christian Sweden, in which the legendary King Domaldr is about to be sacrificed in order to bring back fertility to the land, which has been suffering from famine and pestilence.
The colours are superb, the composition striking – the central still trio of figures around which swirls the chaos of the ceremony. But the real genius of the painting is this; it doesn’t show the sacrifice itself. No doubt Larsson could have painted that, but instead he chose to show the moment immediately before the terrible act. That’s its power – it’s the quiet before the storm, the moment before the football game gets going, the breath in before the diver plunges, the whistle through the air as the executioner’s blade falls and the crowd falls quiet with it.
I immediately knew I wanted to write a book about it. But at the time, I just didn’t know what ‘about’ meant. It took me about four years to work out how to do it. A couple of summers ago, I revisited the museum with a friend, and on the way home the following day, all the answers popped into my head. I wouldn’t write just one version of what was happening in the painting, but seven, each in a different historical period. They would be linked by the setting for the story, a mysterious island, and by the twin themes of sacrifice, and love. And there would be two characters in each story who are the same pair on the inside, though they become different people on the outside. Through each story they meet and re-meet, trying to find each other, to know each other again.
Since I wrote the book I’ve deliberately tried to avoid using the word reincarnation, because, being the age I am it just feels a bit too 1970s. The 1970s was all tie-dying and karma and UFOs-abducted-my-wife and knit-your-own-sandals-from-tofu. I wanted to stay away from those kinds of things.
But I guess I have to come clean and admit that it is a book about reincarnation, though I prefer to see it this way; it’s more about who else you might have been. What other potential lives you could have lived, if you haven’t ended up with the one you have. That’s the real driving force behind the book – I think lots of us have had that feeling from time to time – why we can’t experience other versions of our own lives, and not just the one we have? But, since we only have the one, the most important thing is to make the greatest success of it you can. Be adventurous. Give love. Be kind. And, at all costs, avoid sacrificing your loved ones on a giant stone altar.
I’ve now slightly disturbed myself by contemplating knitting with tofu, though I suppose that might count as adventurous…better than signing up for ritual sacrifice, I suppose. Thanks, Marcus!
Giveaway: Midwinterblood is available now, and I really couldn’t recommend it more for those of you who enjoy the slightly chilling and an unconventional set-up. Lucky for you, the lovely folks over at Macmillan are offering one finished copy up for grabs.