Author Interview (#2): Tessa Gratton on The Strange Maid

Tessa Gratton author photoTessa Gratton’s Songs of New Asgard has quickly become one of my favorite series. These books are smart, sharp and a perfect blend of myth and fantasy elements. After reading The Lost Sun, I was hooked. The Strange Maid came out earlier this year (you might remember Tessa’s wonderful guest post here about strong women that feature in the book) and Tessa is here today to talk about this latest installment in the series.

Miss Print (MP): What was the inspiration for The Strange Maid?

Tessa Gratton (TG): The Strange Maid grew out of the world of The United States of Asgard, so the answer to this is really about what inspired the world itself. For a more complete answer, here’s a link to the author’s note of the first book, The Lost Sun where I talk about that:

Briefly: I wanted to write stories about American religion, politics, and war, and realized that I could use an alternate US founded by Vikings and their gods like a giant metaphor to do that. Soren’s story from The Lost Sun is all about a young man who fights his berserker nature, a nature he thinks is dark and violent and dangerous (it is), who fights against what Odin Alfather stands for: madness, sacrifice, poetry, death. I wanted to write the second book about a person who embraces everything Soren fears and denies, and I wanted that person to be a girl. Girls are taught we can’t be violent and dangerous, we shouldn’t love those things or be drawn to them for their own sakes. We’re only allowed to fight for our children – like mother lions – not for ourselves or our rights or sexuality.

That’s how Signy was born. And she was so difficult to work with! But worth it.

MP: In addition to Signy, you mention the other Valkyrie throughout The Strange Maid. Did you always know that the valkryie (both present and long past) would play such important roles in this book’s plot?

TG: I knew I couldn’t write Signy’s story without using the Valkyrie. When I first started reading about Viking mythology (and Anglo-Saxon poetry, which is intrinsically linked to it), I was fascinated by two books: Woman as Hero in Old English Literature by Jane Chance and Beowulf’s Wealhtheow and the Valkyrie Tradition by Helen Damico. Both discussed women’s roles in epic poetry, as warriors, queens, goddesses, and many other things. I became a little obsessed with images of Valkyrie-like women in Old English literature, like Wealhtheow from Beowulf, who became Valtheow in The Strange Maid for pronunciation purposes. The Valkyrie were always part of Signy’s story – she always was some kind of Valkyrie figure – though in the 17 different drafts they played very different roles.

MP: The Strange Maid seamlessly integrates elements from Beowulf and references to the classic poem into the text. What drew you to this source material? How did you go about adapting elements to fit with your more modern Asgardian world?

TG: Oh! Well, thank you! I love Beowulf something fierce. It’s such a gorgeous, passionate, fantastical poem, with amazing heroes, monsters, magic, and morality. I translated it myself when I was in grad school about ten years ago, so was pretty familiar with it. I spent the summer of 2008 writing a historical novel from Wealhtheow’s point of view I loved the source so much – and stole a lot of that for The Strange Maid. (Like Unferth). It wasn’t actually very difficult to integrate because I’d been thinking about the themes and characters for so long it felt natural – I built the story around it instead of trying to shoe-horn it in.

MP: Signy is an original narrator who tells her story frankly and with a fair bit of poetry thrown in. How did you go about writing Signy to create her unique voice?

TG: It was a disaster. A messy, ferocious disaster. It took me 2.5 years to write and rewrite and rewrite. I blew 3 major publisher deadlines and drove 2 editors crazy. I think I was both too close to Signy and also not sure exactly what I wanted from her. Every time I detected even a whiff of something not true enough or raw enough in character or tone I scrapped it in order to dig deeper, with the help of my amazing editor.

I’m glad her voice seems to work for so many readers, because I worked excruciatingly hard for every word!

MP: This story features some overlap between The Lost Sun with characters like Soren turning up in this installment. The Strange Maid also has a timeline that overlaps with The Lost Sun. Did you always know these two stories would intersect in those ways?

TG: This series has always been built around Soren. He’s the narrator of book one, and though he won’t narrate anything else, he plays a major role in every story. I also knew a major part of Signy’s story was the troll massacre mentioned in The Lost Sun, but I did not know that it happened in the middle of Signy’s story instead of the very beginning. It was a surprise to me when I finally realized I had to start Signy months before the events of The Lost Sun in order to tell her story right.

MP: Is there any scene that you are particularly excited for readers to discover in this novel?

TG: My favorite scenes are all pretty spoilery, and all have to do with Signy and Ned Unferth “discussing” things. There are three conversations they have that have ALWAYS been in every draft of the book. Sometime they took place in different locations and at different times, with different contexts, but they always existed in some form. I’ll give you a line from each:

– “If I can have a prayer, this is it: may Signy Valborn never regret.”

– His eyes drift closed. “Finally.”

– “Make yourself deserve it; rise up to meet me if you want me.”

MP: This story again spans much of New Asgard, even bringing your characters into Canadia. Which was your favorite location to reimagine as it would be in the world of New Asgard?

TG: New Orleans, definitely. It’s one of my favorite cities, so I loved thinking about how it might be different (or the same) with a very different history of religion in the area. I liked playing with holidays and the layout, and especially using the cemeteries as set-pieces. I indulged myself by using the character Rathi, who loves history, to tell the reader a little bit about it.

MP: Can you tell us anything about your next project?

TG: I’ve got some USAsgard novellas coming out this winter, first of all, and the third book in the series in May or June 2015. After that: I’m working on a few YA Fantasy stand alones right now. I need a break from working on a series!

Thanks again to Tessa Gratton for a great interview. You can also read my review of The Strange Maid here on the blog and visit Tessa Gratton’s website for more info about her and her books. (Be sure to stop by the badass United States of Asgard section while you’re there. It’s awesome!)

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