JUDITH LINDBERGH INTERVIEW PART ONE
Photo by Sigrid Estrada
Interview by Cindy Thomson
Welcome to PASTimes. Tell us a little about yourself and your road to publication. Did you really take ten years to write your novel?
Yes, including editorial input, The Thrall’s Tale took ten years from inception to hardcover publication last January. It’s an unbelievable story – one I truly do not take for granted.
I came to writing seriously after nearly a decade pursuing a career in dance and theater. I’d published short stories, poetry, essays, and travel articles, but my true love has always been the novel.
I began working on The Thrall’s Tale more or less by accident. I had no particular interest in the Viking period. Though I’ve always loved history, archaeology and mythology, I was honestly put off by the Viking warrior stereotype. But I happened to be in downtown Manhattan one day when three full scale replica Viking ships arrived at South Street Seaport. They’d just sailed from Norway to Iceland, Greenland, and Canada, then down the North American coast, following Leif Eiriksson’s journey to the New World – Vinland, as he called it – over 1000 years ago.
What first struck me was their size – barely bigger than oversized rowboats, maybe thirty or forty feet long, and completely open to the icy sea. They seemed utterly vulnerable, a description I never would have thought to apply to anything “Viking”. Then I noticed a woman – clearly a member of the crew. She was working at the ropes, wearing a big, Icelandic fisherman’s sweater, her blond hair piled up haphazardly on her head. She was the most stunningly beautiful woman I’d ever seen.
I’d never really thought of women in the Viking context. I began to research, and soon came across the Vinland Sagas that recount the establishment of the Norse Greenlandic settlements. The remote location and enigmatic time completely captivated me, and sparked a story that revolved around the woman I had seen.
I worked on The Thrall’s Tale for eight years, through job changes, the birth of my first son and the conception of a second son. It was late August 2003 when I finally finished the latest draft. I decided to send it out, knowing that I wouldn’t have much time after the baby came.
An industry friend suggested several agents. One also represented an old friend of mine, Stephanie Cowell, whose latest book, Marrying Mozart, was just coming out. I called Stephanie and she agreed to recommend me in a quick email. In an instant, her agent requested to see the manuscript. Within a week of submitting it, I had a glorious message on my voicemail. “I love it. Please may I represent it?” Only one week more, and another phone call came. “Viking wants to buy it.”
I nearly collapsed. It was September 26. My baby was due in three weeks, and suddenly another had been born.
You say that the role of women in history interests you and inspired you to write The Thrall’s Tale. Was it difficult finding research material that told their stories?
I chose three women protagonists because I wanted to tell a tale of marginalized people in a marginalized society. To me, Greenland is both geographically and psychologically as far to the edge as one can travel. And women in Norse culture are essentially invisible, with a few rare exceptions from the Icelandic sagas and eddas.
I collected these meager references – names and stories of goddesses, lovers, wives, concubines, prophetesses, and healers. Some women were influential leaders like Aud the Deep-minded. Others, like Freydis Eiriksdatter, were vicious murderers, more scheming and manipulative than even the cliché Viking men. Though they were rarely central characters in the saga tales, women clearly played a wide range of roles in Old Norse society, especially high-born widows who had significantly more freedom and self-determination than the rest.
But I didn’t want to focus on the aristocracy, and I was determined to overcome the hackneyed Viking stereotype. I chose Thorbjorg the Seeress as one of my central characters, gleaned from a single chapter in one of the Vinland Sagas where she elaborately prophesies the end of a famine in Greenland. She also foretells the future of a young Christian named Gudrid Thorbjornsdattir, who eventually becomes the matriarch of an important Icelandic family.
I relied heavily on several academic works detailing the lives of Viking Age women, particularly Jenny Jochens’s Women in Old Norse Society and Judith Jesch’s Women in the Viking Age. I also turned to Old Icelandic laws that outlined women’s rights and treatment.
Beyond the documentary evidence, I discovered a great deal in the archeological record: spindle whorls and other weaving apparatus, cooking pots and implements, bits of clothing, children’s toys, runestones dedicated to the good works of high-born women, and a particularly mysterious rune-stick that bore marks of ancient magic, and a young girl’s name, Bibrau. She became the third central character in The Thrall’s Tale.
Come back tomorrow to hear Judith tell us why her experience as an actor helped her novel writing. Leave a comment for a chance to win her book!