I’m excited to talk to T.K.P. Sternberg, author of The Singing Gold, today. Thanks for taking time to answer my questions!
First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about The Singing Gold?
“The Singing Gold is the first in a series of maybe four or five novels following the reluctant adventures and tribulations of a poor family living on the very borders of a deep, wild forest. As a fantasy novel, I am sure it is not very typical. My heroes get pulled into something complicated and dangerous not from some urge to save the world or because they are fated to. They are much more already in a precarious situation, which makes it hard for them to say no or to back off when trouble comes knocking. It was important to me that my characters felt like real human beings living in a very real world, fantastic as it is. I love both fantasy and history with a passion, and with a highly critical mind.
When I started writing, the one thing I wanted to avoid was tropes and stereotypes. As a matter of fact, I am quiet the stereotypical hater of stereotypes. This goes for the motivations and emotional life of my characters, for the world they inhabit, and for the events and accidents turning their everyday existence fraught enough to validate writing a book about them. If I would guess, I would say that The Singing Gold will be best enjoyed by people who have read a lot of speculative fiction and who wish for something a bit refreshing. For readers new to the genre, I admit that I might not be the best start, as I do my best to withhold at least the cheap and easy rewards that the genre promises.”
What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?
“I’m a Swede who grew up in the 80’s loving table top RPGs and whatever Fantasy was available at that time. Back then, there was a lot of negative pressure from the mainstream, labelling SFF as just for kids or as trash, and sometimes even as dangerous. But I loved my roleplaying games. I usually ended up being the DM, and after a few years I realized that one of the greatest joys was in the actual writing of the adventures and worlds I prepared for our sessions. I guess that is when I started writing. Whatever the format, be it trying your hand at fiction, bantering and gossiping with friends, or making up a scenario for a game, the urge for telling stories is age old and probably in our genes. I was lucky enough to discover it early on, but unfortunate enough to allow myself to be swayed from what I had started with so much playfulness and joy.
As I slowly emerged from my teenage years and started studying, among other things a very nice one-year creative writing course at a community college, I was steadily herded towards more ‘serious’ subjects by everyone around me. Since I couldn’t imagine giving up on being playful, I choose to go into Fine Arts instead. I had to find a study place abroad though (again, much too playful and childish for the severe Nordic taste) so I ended up at Goldsmith’s College in London, which turned out to be an amazing couple of years that taught me an endless amount of giving and receiving criticism, of thinking constructively about art, of writing and discussing. Goldsmith’s was above all a place where you learned to think as an artist, and I have found this skill highly transferable and useful.
So now I make my living as a conceptual sculptor, crafting weird and beautiful objects for the wealthy, and sometimes as a tinkerer, craftsman or whatever needs be to get the money in. I live in Berlin since about a decade now, enjoying the closest thing you get to the Paris of la belle Epoque in this globalized hyper-economy of ours. I started clawing back writing and making it entirely mine a couple of years ago. Looking back on it now, I am grateful for having taken such a roundabout detour to it, past a lot of struggles and joys in another art form. It has helped me get straight to the core of what I want to do. And to enjoy it in a relaxed way.”
When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot?
“I only start thinking seriously about a story when I get a good idea for a premiss. These come a bit as and when they want to. I am one of those people who could have vouched for the existence of the Muses had I not been such a thorough non-believer in anything. They do speak to me however, and when and what they want to.
Next comes some of the characters, the main people this premiss revolves around, and a few basic plotlines. I then slowly digest the main ingredients for a while, working on something entirely different and preferably for quite some time. If they survive this ordeal and come out the other side, they are worth taking a closer look at. And surprisingly enough, they always seem to have gained in weight by then. By this stage I start taking notes, still while working on something different. I very seldom sit down and plot. Instead, I wait for the story to whisper to me while my frontal cortex is occupied with something ‘important’, and thus forgets to intervene and mess everything up. When I feel that I have a good first look at the main characters, and know roughly where they are standing and in what direction I want to send them off, I simply start writing. I never have more than at the tops a quarter of the story ready in my head before I start. But I also wouldn’t start with just a cool character and a setting.
I am very much a believer in letting the characters and the world guide you along. My job is to throw things in the way of the characters and then observe how they deal with it. This all sounds a bit esoteric, but is in fact the opposite. If I would give a rational explanation to it, it would run something like so:
Anything can happen in a story as long as it is consistent with the story itself. When the story starts out, few things are set down, so the freedom but also the insecurity is great. As you go along and write what happens and what your characters do, you get more and more materials to reference your new ideas against. When you think of a way for your protagonist to get past an obstacle, you can check this against what you already know. Would Stig punch the guy and push past? Hardly. As I have written him up to now, he is much to careful for that and would find another way. Merely what you have written down is not enough to make these judgement calls, of course. You have to temper it with your own experience of the world, with what you know and feel about how people act and think. If you lack empathy, you will never be able to write great character driven stories. Also, if you lack curiosity, you will find it hard to describe anyone outside of your own narrow life. But there is always research where experience fails.
I follow my own rule about internal consistency and honesty to my characters and world with stubborn determination. There are many examples of where my story took a completely different turn than I had thought, simply because I learned some new facts that threw off my plans. This is a good thing. Accepting outer borders and limits helps creativity push further, not the other way around (as I would have thought as a younger man, before all my years in the Arts). I will mention just one instance, to give a feeling of what it can concretely mean while writing.
At one point fairly early on in the story, a physically weak character sees the threat of a much stronger one approaching. She is holding something small and valuable in her hand which she fears might be taken from her. In the spur of the moment she feeds it to a cow she is herding. I thought this a rather nifty idea for protecting your valuables. The potential bully would now have to drag the whole cow along would he want to get her treasure. And she would only have to keep an eye on the cow’s droppings for a while to get it back. Then I quickly researched how the innards of cows function, to get a good guess of how long my heroine would had to wait, and… Well, anyone with farming expertise will be smiling now. Others will have to read the book to find out. Anyhow, this is an example of how I am more than happy to be forced to rewrite my entire story as long as this makes it more true. Forcing through an idea you just had, no matter how brilliant it is, against the will of your own writing is never a good thing. Listening to where your characters and world wants you to take them is the key to deep and believable writing.”
Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way?
“I drew on a lot of my own experiences to create the main character Stig. He is not necessarily like me in that he is much more shy and hesitant, but in other respects he is. Stig is under constant pressure to provide for his family. As an often struggling artist, this is something I know a lot about. I wanted to integrate the boring part of poverty, that incessant weight of never being able to relax, of never having a backup or a surplus, into how my characters navigate the world. It was important to me that the main motivation be not how to achieve some lofty goals of incredible powers or of fulfilling your destiny, but rather the mundane and very common of making ends meet in a hostile environment. Admittedly, I have turned up the stress level some notches to make for a more dramatic story, but the basic focus is not of achieving but of making do.
In a way, Stig is the least colourful of the characters in the book. I feel that this is right since he is very much a pair of eyes we can experience the world through. Given his extraordinary abilities of observation, tagging along gives us access to much more than simply the medieval everyday. He is also very calm and balanced, even if he makes some rash decisions. These don’t stem from his personality, however, but much more from the dire circumstances he finds himself in.”
What was the hardest character or part to write?
” It was tricky to flesh out the whole family as distinct and unique characters, as the trouble hitting them pushed in the same direction. The eldest daughter Klara was easy enough, since she embarks on her own escapades early on, but the mother and younger kids simply didn’t get enough specific resistance from the plot do emerge as fully drawn personalities yet. I plan for this to change in the second instalment, as much of the story focus will shift to Liv and how she will have to deal with the fallout of Stig’s failure. As I write almost no backstory, I need things to happen to my protagonists for them to emerge from the fog and become clear.”
I felt immediately drawn into the setting. What did it take to make it seem so complete and rich in historical detail?
“The Singing Gold is written against a very detailed background. The premise for my world is to take the real medieval Europe instead of inventing a quasi-Europe with vaguely disguised countries and regions. But to then populate it with all the beasts and beings from my favourite mythologies, and the magic and mystery too. And to make it all work in a consistent and believable way.
Writing within a historically realistic setting and being strict about it is a way for me to set up a framework against which I can bounce my creativity. If I know the world my characters inhabit, it is easier for me to figure out how they should act to solve their problems. Of course it means that I can’t often fall back on the first idea I get, but instead the result feels more solid. I hope. My protagonists didn’t move about on a blank piece of paper slowly filling it out to become a map as they trundled along, but rather started in the middle (not in the lower corner near the coast, as Diana Wynne-Jones so poignantly remark) of one that was there waiting for them.
This goes for all the small details as well. Meaning, Stig never pulls something from his pockets, since they didn’t have pockets in the 13th century, and Klara ties her tunic together with a string, since neither did they have buttons. And none of the houses is made of huge blocks of stone, since even the king of Svitjod lived in a log house (or rather, in log houses) and only churches had started being built in stone. And no rich lord thunders past in his elaborately decorated coach with liveried servants hanging on to its back, since there were no roads around decent enough that one could drive such a carriage on, at least not in Svitjod. Which despite the perhaps initial doubt made it easier to write and not harder.
To reach this kind of certainty in my story world, I had to do an inordinate amount of research. Or rather, I did, even if it might not have been all that necessary. Partly it was a way to delay the inevitability of having to start writing, I have to admit, but partly it was to give me a very secure base to stand on. As I continue writing, I am sure I will be more precise and economical with my research, but for The Singing Gold I went a bit overboard.
It’s also amazing just how much you are able to research when you use the real world for your story. Not only Google Maps is available for you to zoom in on every topographic detail you want, but other resources are even more astonishing. I have to mention here ‘Fornsök’ on the website of Riksantikvarieämbetet (raa.se), the Swedish Archiver General. It has a clickable and zoomable map of Sweden with every single archaeological find marked out. You can search and filter for a number of different categories, or simply get very, very close to the area your protagonists are about to enter to see if there is something interesting there to include in the story. Clicking on the small icons on the map gives you access to photographs and notations done by the field archaeologist responsible for investigating that particular find. That’s how I got the beginning of the anecdote on Vendela and her mound. Vendela’s mound is really there by the way. As is Ottar’s mound, and all the old boat graves around the church. I never visited Vendel in person, but the majestic seven mounds next to the church of Old Upsala, I managed to see.
Standing on top of the largest mound, the one where Illugi performs his improvised spell to alleviate Stig, while looking down on the old stone church was a truly magical moment. The 11th century church is small. It’s what you would expect from a large village perhaps, not from an entire bishopric. And the huge mounds dwarf it in volume if not in height. A moment like this where I could feel history under the soles of my feet helped me get a perspective on all the history I had read. It helped me decide what interpretations of the finds I would go with. For interpret one must. In history there are precious few facts, but an abundance of traces and relics. How one chooses to read the signs is very much up to you, and says a lot about you. This vagueness is fantastical too. It allows for imagination to happen. The traces of our real lived history provides at best a skeleton which I as an author can dress with my own views, ideas and speculation.”
Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?
“I find side characters more fun and easy to write than main characters. Since they don’t have to carry the weight of the story forwards, but most often try to get in its way, it allows for freer creation. As for villain and heroes, I think and hope that I have complicated things a bit more than that. I don’t believe in the simple good vs evil dichotomy in real life, so neither do I want it in my fiction. Sure, there are a lot of people out there with truly vicious and caustic behaviours, opinions and beliefs, but none of them are beyond empathy. If someone is a human being, a good author should be able to imagine how it feels to be that person, to live that life and make those decisions.
The two parts that were most fun to write in The Singing Gold both were kind of rascals: Illugi and Valgeir. One very sophisticated and arrogant, the other charmingly natural and unabashedly selfish. Giving voice to someone not hampered by social norms and morals can, of course, be such a relief and is probably why so many writers love their ‘villains’. I hope it will be even more fun when we get to the non-human opposition in the next book. When we get to know the dwarves better, and start getting real cosy with the creatures of the forest. Because even beasts can’t be merely one dimensional killing machines. That would be boring.”
Do you have any writing quirks, or a routine that you stick to?
“Writing comes easiest in the morning. For the promise of an undisturbed writing session, I have no trouble getting up at 5. My biggest problem, with a toddler at home and a wife with a busy work-schedule, is finding time to write at all. I am sure this is the boring reality for many writers and other artists. I usually solve this by working frantically at all my other duties until I have a clear slate of a few weeks ahead with at least a couple of free hours each day. That way I can get into writing properly and let it flow, until I have to wrap up for a while and abide the next possible bout.”
Lastly, I’m always curious? What is your favorite book (and you can absolutely say your own!)
“I don’t have any books as my all time favourites. I like or don’t like what I read at the moment. This even goes for the heroes of my youth, maybe because I found Fantasy through roleplaying games and not through, for example, Tolkien. When I read Tolkien the first time, I had already gamed with halflings and dwarves and elves.
What I really enjoy as an adult are authors who manage to surprise me, and at the same time be in total control of their craft. I am very sensitive to inconsistencies and to when the illusion is broken, for example by a vampire behaving like some insecure high-school kid, or by the squire arguing class-identity with his knight. Some writers I have enjoyed very much recently are Angela Boord, Joe Abercrombie, Octavia Butler, Rob J. Hayes, Naomi Novik… All very different but with a distinct and confident style.”
I’m a Swedish guy who grew up in the 80’s, loving table top RPGs and whatever Fantasy was available at the time. Back then, there was a lot of negative pressure from the mainstream labelling SFF as trash or as just for kids. Sometimes even as dangerous. As I started studying, among other things a very nice one-year creative writing course at a community college, I was steadily herded towards more ‘serious’ subjects by everyone around me. As I couldn’t imagine giving up on being playful, I choose to go into Fine Arts instead of continuing to fight orcs and write sagas. I had to find a study place abroad though (again, much too playful and childish for the severe Nordic taste) so I ended up at Goldsmith’s College in London, which turned out to be an amazing couple of years that taught me endless amounts about giving and receiving criticism, thinking constructively about art, writing and discussing… but not much craft. That was never what Goldsmith’s was about. It is not place where you learn to paint or sculpt as an artist, but a place where you learn to think as one, and I have found this skill highly transferable and useful.
Since fifteen years, I make my living as a conceptual sculptor, crafting weird and beautiful objects for the wealthy, and sometimes as a tinkerer, craftsman or whatever needs be to get the money in. I have been living in Berlin for about a decade, enjoying the closest thing to the Paris of la belle Epoque that you get in this globalized hyper-economy of ours, I guess. I started clawing back writing and making it entirely mine a couple of years ago. Looking back at it now, I am grateful for having taken such a roundabout way back to it, past a lot of struggles and joys in another art form. It has helped me get straight to the core of what I want to do. And to enjoy it in a relaxed way.
I am married and have a three year old daughter. I speak English to my wife, Swedish to my daughter and the family back in Stockholm, and German or English to friends and colleagues. English is very much the Lingua Franca of the art world, but it is often so badly mishandled that I sometimes wonder if it shouldn’t be re-named Globish instead, at least as a dialect.
I can be contacted through my website http://tkpsternberg.com/
and my book can be found on Amazon at http://www.amazon.com/dp/B07T984K3B
or Goodreads at https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/54670943-the-singing-gold