Berit Ellingson is a Korean-Norwegian who writes haunting fiction such as The White. Her novel The Empty City has also been published in French as Une Ville Vide. You can find more at her website http://beritellingsen.com/ and follow her on Twitter.
You and I shared my very first anthology appearance TOC in Growing Dread
That’s awesome!!! I didn’t know that was your first antho!
MZ: and I immediately followed everyone on Twitter and have been following you ever since
BE: thanks so much 🙂
MZ: I know from Twitter that you’re very science-oriented, have two cats, live in Norway, and are a pretty hardcore gamer
BE: Not sure if hardcore is the right word 😀 but I enjoy gaming and have worked as a game reviewer. Now I just write the occasional essay about games. And I work as a science writer during the day, writer at night. 🙂
MZ: you’re headed on an arctic expedition soon? Am I remembering that right?
BE: Yeah, a short trip to Svalbard in the Arctic and Longyearbyen, the biggest settlement there, it’s like a small Norwegian town.
MZ: while it’s still summer?
BE: Oh yes, because it’s summer up there too, about 8 Celsius, which is the same temperature as late fall/early spring here. Much better than when it’s 20 below freezing in Svalbard.
MZ: I very much want to visit various arctic areas in the summer, there’s just something about that environment that appeals to me
BE: I hope you have the chance to go there. The landscape is unique, and the air very clear because it’s cold and dry and still relatively unpolluted.
MZ: I think it’s the openness while still having so many secretive pockets. I’d love to go to Alaska, and do a Scandinavian tour
BE: Alaska sounds wonderful! Wide open spaces, fjords, and mountains, wild life etc. Most of Scandinavia resembles Washington/British Columbia, a bit more northern than OR.
MZ: Yeah, I grew up in Seattle and come from a Scandinavian background. Plus my family used to own a salmon cannery in Alaska
BE: Really? That is so cool! They don’t own it any more? I remember you mentioning traditional Scandinavian baking on twitter. So cool you’re continuing the tradition. 🙂
Did your family speak Scandinavian?
MZ: No, they sold it when I was very small. And my family is 3rd/4th generation so there’s not much language that’s hung on. A few words and things, but no fluency.
BE: Then your family must have been among the first waves of immigrants, in the mid-to-late 1800s. Language would be hard to hold onto after such a long time. The written language might not be too hard to pick up for English-speakers, many similar words and somewhat similar grammar.
MZ: I personally find it fascinating what things have been passed down and how culture changes. Yes, I can read a lot, plus I also took German in school. Definitely not 100% though, maybe 60% at most. Enough to get the general idea of what a Tweet or webpage is about. I am super good at reading food labels though 😀
BE: That should make it easier. Did you see the study about half a year back where some scientists claimed English was more similar to Norse and might have taken in more Norse words than they did from Northern German, which was assumed to be the “root” language till now?
MZ: I didn’t see the study, but I completely believe it. It would make the weird grammar bits of English make more sense
BE: Yeah, the similarity in grammar and sentence syntax was one of their arguments.
MZ: I know the word “knife” has always been something we’ve said funny in our family as a homage to our background
BE: How do you say it?
MZ: like “Kah-nif”
BE: heh heh heh, that sounds Scandinavian, yes. 🙂
MZ: not like properly pronounced in either language, but garbled on purpose 😛
BE: hybrid is good 🙂
MZ: Oh, I wanted to talk to you about themes in your writing. I mean this is a writer chat, I suppose we should talk a little about it 😀
BE: 😀 Language is a part of it 😉
MZ: I’ve also noticed there’s a very stylistic almost desolation or emptiness in a lot of your work. Like I almost always imagine wide open emptiness in your various settings.
BE: Glad to hear that comes across. I like to think that comes from the open landscape I’m used to here, and also a little from zen or East-Asian art, which I like (but am by far no expert on).
MZ: It feels very deliberate not an absence of description, but purposeful emptiness
BE: Oh and also, maybe a tiny bit of it is inspired by Scandinavian minimalist design.
MZ: I personally find, at least in the US Scandinavian communities there’s this strange mix of minimalist design and warm clutter
BE: Stylistically, I think what’s not said or not said directly can be as important as what’s spelled out, like the use of negative space in minimalist design and East-Asian art.
Heh heh oh yeah, I know what you mean with warm clutter. That’s like the other end of the design spectrum. Fashion designers Moods of Norway have used that to their advantage, a sort of warm, rural clutter 🙂
MZ: it doesn’t seem like they could work together, but it seems to!
BE: It does, strangely enough.
MZ: Are there other themes you find you revisit in your writing?
BE: Apart from landscapes and silence, the natural world seems to come up a lot, especially in the two novels I recently completed. Animals, plants, the stewardship of those, but also space, research, technology.
MZ: are you self-publishing them?
BE: I’ve wanted to write fiction set in space, as I mentioned to a friend, not just science fiction in a distant future, but our present, which is becoming a little like sci-fi.
I’m trying to find a publisher for the novels. If I can’t find that, I’ll self-publish them.
MZ: near future sci-fi is near and dear to my heart
BE: Like Gravity?
MZ: I love taking the cutting edge technology and extrapolating how it will change in a very short period of time
I haven’t seen that yet, our local movie theater closed down. I meant more in fiction than movies though. My novella Copper takes place not too far in the future and is a world recognizable to us now.
BE: That extrapolation is great for science fiction indeed
I must ask this: Why is it called Copper? Peak copper?
MZ: 🙂 the word has many meanings in the story, mostly it is because they are using the old technology of copper phone lines to circumvent government monitoring
BE: Ahh, old-fashioned landlines. 🙂 Or even telegraph?
MZ: modems! 🙂
BE: 🙂 wow! I remember those. A lot of waiting for pages to load. 😀
MZ: and the screeching!
BE: 😀 yes! Our current world is indeed a little like science fiction.
MZ: How do you think being a science writer changes what you write in fiction?
BE: I think it’s made me interested in bringing in issues and themes such as the natural world and the existence outside of human cities and human culture. I’m not a hard SF writer, though, I haven’t been inspired by physics and mathematics to such a degree. It also makes me aware of current news, and what research actually reaches the news.
MZ: I will admit I dislike the term “hard” relating to SF
BE: It’s certainly a bit of artificial separation
MZ: especially when no one can decide if biology is hard or not
BE: ha ha ha, so true! Saw that conundrum in a recent discussion about the project that’s currently mapping the neurons in the human brain.
MZ: it is SO true about what research makes the news though. I mean think about research relating to only one gender or a small population of people.. it’s rare for amazing breakthroughs in certain things to get any kind of notice at all
BE: So true. When it happens it does so bc of a concerted effort of publication specifically towards the media and the top media. I guess it’s similar to most other current affairs, what gets the world’s attention and what doesn’t. The imbalance of representation.
That’s why I think the debate about representation going on in writerly circles these days is very good.
MZ: Yes. It’d be good for it to extend to science publications too.
BE: Indeed. I saw some reports last year about how female scientists are presented and highlighted in media vs their male colleagues. One female was presented as being a good mother and good cooks, despite primarily being a top scientists.
MZ: I think some scientists could use better PR too, a lot of the time they assume the research will be important enough to spread far and wide, when a lot of the time it is the squeaky wheel that gets the grants and publicity.
BE: So true! Science needs to alert publicity and the media too.
MZ: I know in Archaeology it’s talked about as “National Geographic Archaeology” and “The important stuff”
MZ: cause if you’re lucky enough to get a digsite that will appeal to a NatGeo photographer and lots of full page pictorials, it’s easy to get continued funding and permits.
BE: Those NatGeo articles are lovely, though, and I’m sure they can be “Important Stuff” too.
MZ: But… so few of what actually give us amazing information also appeal to super glossy color pictures
I mean, fossilized human poop is fascinating
MZ:…but I don’t expect two page spread of it any time soon
BE: There was a news story about that some weeks ago. Something about early humans and their waste. Lovely. I actually didn’t read it.
MZ: lots of exciting work going on in Oregon about that right now 🙂
BE: 😀 Really? I guess it can tell lots of things about nutrition = food = culture.
MZ: the arid desert regions are full of caves that were used by early humans to North America so they’re finding lots of preserved things they don’t normally find, shoes and stuff too
BE: Soft objects, that’s nice.
MZ: Well, I probably shouldn’t keep you up all night 🙂 Is there anything else you want to make sure we talk about?
BE: I should probably say that not only science, but also ecology, climate change, and the not too distant present are also themes in my current work. Difficult themes, but I’ve felt it was important to write about.
It goes back to my education as a biologist and the surprise of actually living in a time of a biological mass extinction.
MZ: It is not an easy thing to accept, no.
BE: It seems like it’s not happening bc we don’t see it from day to day or notice the species being gone, but it is happening and we seem to be doing little about it.
I heard that 40% of the Norwegian bird species, just common birds that used to be everywhere in the country, are now approaching an unhealthy status. That’s unsettling.
MZ: it does seem to be happening slower in middle latitudes, so maybe that’s why people aren’t paying as much attention?
BE: It’s not just in the Amazon or Africa or the Antarctic, but in the temperate zones and near where humans live.
Yes, that’s probably part of the reason why, it’s happening gradually and slowly, or relatively slowly, and we don’t see it directly, so it’s easy to forget or overlook.
MZ: like the lobster slowly being cooked to death
BE: 😀 sadly, yes.
I saw one scientist in a fairly recent climate documentary say that it’s like we’re approaching a cliff, but we’re making few attempts at steering away from it.
driving towards a cliff, I mean.
MZ: I guess all we can do as writers is try to bring attention as we can
BE: Indeed. That’s why writing the recent novels have felt so important. I agree, that’s what we can do.