It’s my stop on the blog tour for And the Swans Began to Sing today and I’m handing over to the author Thora Karitas Arnadottir to talk about the inspiration behind the book.
Over to you, Thora!
Ever since I was a little girl, my mother, Guðbjörg Þórisdóttir, wanted to write a book. I therefore grew up next to a book that was never written. When I was twenty-three my mother told me her story. It came as a big shock to me and I didn´t know what to make of it. How could someone so strong, so positive and someone who seemed so wholistic as she appeared to me, have had such a traumatic childhood? I started to encourage her to write, because I wanted to know more and I felt she still found it terribly difficult to talk about her trauma.
I wasn´t sure if I knew my mother and my family as well as I thought, given this new information, let alone myself, since I now questioned everything. I felt as if I had to get to know Mum from scratch and know where I was coming from in order to move on. I was a student, studying Theology at the University of Iceland and had read a powerful book, a true story of a woman who survived child abuse. It had a great impact on me and I felt that even though it is a difficult topic it needed to be raised otherwise society fails when it comes to protecting the children around us.
Silence doesn´t solve the problem.
In the meantime I moved to London and studied drama. I wrote a few letters in which I asked my mother to tell me her whole story. She wrote one letter back but it was mainly about the complications of her story and her fear about how to speak up – what should she say? Her letter was beautifully written and I was hoping that she would be ready to write about her life and publish a book. But it wasn´t until many years later – when I had stopped encouraging my mother to write, as I could feel that she wasn‘t ready – that things started moving.
I was studying Creative Writing at The University of Iceland in 2013 when I went to a weekend workshop in the westfjords, led by one of Iceland‘s greatest authors, Vigdís Grímsdóttir. As a prompt she gave me this sentence: “Your mother‘s sweater lies crumpled on the floor.” During this workshop I wrote a short story about a young woman whose mother has passed away. Her daughter is collecting her belongings when she finds her mother‘s old diaries. That´s how she realises that her mother had carried an untold secret through all of her life.
It just so happens that Vigdís Grímsdóttir and my mother were friends from the past and she realized I was expressing my mother‘s untold story. She encouraged me to go home and read the short story out loud to my mother, and ask her permission to interview her and write a book about her.
My mother was ready to tell her story when I asked her if I could be the one to write it. What we didn´t know by then is that she had an early onset visual dementia, Benson syndrome, which made her gradually unable to read and write. She therefore knew she couldn´t write her story herself and she felt like she owed the story to other people who shared the same experience as her, people who – like she had done – thought they were alone. “If my story will make just one person feel better, I know it´s worth telling,” my mother said when she accepted my offer and gave me persmission to write this book.
Before starting to write the book I conducted a one hour interview with my mother. She calmly told me of her darkest hours in that short time we spent discussing it together. The rest of it is what I took from living with her and being brought up by her. I spent quite a lot of time researching Reykjavik in the olden times as well, and asked other family members about their stories and the history of our family. I asked my mother if anything was missing. My father was also of great help with some of the details, and when it came to reading over the first draft.
I wrote the original story (published in Iceland as Mörk, saga Mömmu), as an MA essay at The University of Iceland. Then it was a book of letters between a mother and a daughter. In that draft I stretched my need to get around this story, suggesting what now has been scientifically discovered, that violence moves from one generation to the next one and exposure to violence or other traumatic events within the family during childhood can leave lasting marks on stretches of DNA called telomeres, and can permanently affect chromosomes.
When I started working with my editor I visited London for a long weekend and decided to let the voice of the daughter and the mother converge; as the need for telling the story comes from the same place. It is an experience that both of us needed to work through and lift off our shoulders. Originally I studied acting. I have worked quite a lot as an actress and somehow I feel that I was acting the role of my mother when I wrote her story. I stepped into her shoes because I wanted to walk with her through her journey. I didn´t want her to feel that she still had to face her past alone.
Sometimes I think I could have told more funny stories about my mother, as she is quite an impulsive, fun, bubbly character. She knows how to celebrate life and never moaned or felt sorry for herself when I grew up. She was very encouraging and uplifting as mother and always quite cheerful. She was always up for a party and she still is, but her dementia has taken quite a toll. In the past she loved to cook and invite guests to dinner. She always cooked for thirty people, even though there were only five guests, and said that it was in case more people dropped in. Before her dementia mum‘s glass was always half full and she always aimed for solutions to any problem that came up. I also heard some quite funny stories about her from students – after I wrote the book – stories that described the bubbly, happy go lucky character that my mother is.
Þóra Karítas Arnadottir
If you’d like to find out more, here’s the blurb …
The swans on the pond, quite abruptly began to sing. It was a singing so loud they were almost screaming. The swans were screaming, screaming as if they saw the horror of the world.
Gudbjorg Thorisdottir has been hiding from the ghost of an ugly secret for most of her life. When she finally faces the truth of what happened throughout her childhood, the ghost floats away. Painting an evocative picture of her life in Iceland, this is the story of a little girl who didn’t know how unnatural it was to experience both heaven and hell in the same house.
Thora Karitas Arnadottir (b. 1979) studied drama in the UK, and is a producer as well as appearing on stage and television. And the Swans Began to Sing is her first published book; her mother’s story, and formed the final dissertation for her MA in Creative Writing. The book was nominated for the Icelandic Women’s Literary prize Fjoruverdlaunin in 2016.
Huge thanks to Thora for joining me and to Anne at Random Things Tours for my spot on the tour.
Keep up with the rest of the bloggers:
About the author …
Thora Karitas is an Icelandic actress and author and this is the English translation of her Icelandic debut.
It’s a narrative non-fiction about her mother’s life in Iceland.
Throughout her childhood Thora’s mother, Gudjborg was raped on a regular basis by her grandmother.
THORA KARITAS ARNADOTTIR studied drama in Britain and is best known for the award winning TV series, Astridur, in her home country and for hosting Unique Iceland, a highly popular travel magazine show about Iceland.
Thora is currently working on her first novel, which will be released in Iceland in 2019.