This week on Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub, I’m focusing on comedic fantasy! There is such a broad range, and the creativity of comedic authors is boundless. Bjørn Larssen, author of Why Odin Drinks, has kindly shared his time and expertise on comedy, Norse mythology, and feather dusters.
I would also like to thank Sue Bavey for her suggestions and help with this interview.
Thank you so much for chatting about comedic fantasy with me! Would you introduce yourself to the readers?
I’m the sort of person who immediately blanks when asked to say something about himself. (My grandma used to ask me to say “something” in Dutch and I would immediately forget the entire language. Including the word for “something.”) I’m an ex-mathematician (that’s stretching the truth, I have a degree, though); ex-graphic designer; ex-blacksmith; currently a recovering perfectionist, a Norse heathen, and a writer.
Can you talk a little bit about ‘Why Odin Drinks’?
In the beginning there was confusion… in the shape(s) of Gods who have been tasked with everything, but received no instruction manuals. They don’t know what they can do until it’s done, and only one of them is vaguely aware of the idea of “consequences.” With great power comes great responsibility, but that’s a way too long word to think of when this floozie Freya wears a miniskirt and you don’t even have sweatpants.
The idea actually came from my dark fantasy book, Children – which is also funny, although the dark and the light are balanced differently. Gods having to figure out their powers by trial and error. That would explain a lot about the world, like for instance why celery exists.
To say that you are knowledgeable about Norse mythology would be an enormous understatement. What made you decide to bring the comedic element into ‘Why Odin Drinks’?
The Northmen never had a Holy Book – they had drunken bards. The Norse Gods made mistakes, cheated, lied, stole, or worse – lost… and those who listened to those stories gasped, cried, slammed their fists on the tables, and laughed their bellies off. Those are not “do this or else” stories – they’re “they did this and you won’t believe what happened next” ones. So I didn’t bring the comedic element into it, I just emphasised it.
(Thor would like everyone to know that he has never agreed to wear a dressing gown to recover his hammer by marrying a jötunn king. He is the most hurt by the suggestion that when the king looked under the veil Thor’s rage-filled eyes scared him, though. Thor’s beautiful eyes were in fact full of peace and compassion for the soon-to-be-massacred court of the king. Or rather would be, had this not been a filthy lie, probably made up by his Twitter haters.)
Is it difficult to write characters that are already established in a way that fleshes them out differently and shows a new aspect that does not already exist?
Yes. Certain aspects are locked in place. For instance, Týr has his hand bitten off by Fenrir wolf and I can’t really make that funny. I can make the act Týr’s idea and give him agency, nevertheless it must happen. I call this a pinch. I’ve read other authors’ books that are spun around retellings of myths and often the myths themselves are the weakest parts. It’s difficult when you have an act that must happen or a characteristic that must be there – in the middle of the very different story you’re actually trying to tell.
I try to go around as many of those as I can, and I make smaller, less consequential changes to the Norse lore. For instance, in Why Odin Drinks Frigg, Odin’s wife and Goddess who can foretell the future, finds out that she is going to remain childless. She is the Norse mother figure, though, and according to the Eddas Frigg and Odin did have children together. So now I lock things in place. I have an explanation why the Northmen called Frigg “mother” – that’s what the story is about. I pinched myself now, though. If any of Frigg’s and Odin’s children must appear in a book ten years from now, I better have a very good origin story for them.
I am not incredibly well-versed in Norse mythology, but I do know that certain comic book characters share the names of well-known Norse characters, but they don’t share much else. Do you think the current pop-culture expectations for those characters and mythologies make it more difficult to write about them?
This is a very good way of phrasing it – they “share the names” indeed. MarvelTM introduced the idea of Father, Son, and the Naughty Ghost, where Odin basically delegates tasks and Loki is a bit of the Fallen Angel But Cute. What they did was an unconscious (apparently) attempt to translate a polytheist faith for people used to monotheism, and it worked too well. The real Thor is not Goody-Two-Shoes-With-Great-Pecs, Odin is not God Almighty, and Loki is not Handsome Devil. So I have to remember I am dealing with those expectations and do it without “…and now we interrupt for this scholarly explanation…”
The humour itself is difficult, because it evolves. Most retellings, such as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, are limited to the myths that are easiest to adapt to modern sensitivities (and therefore best known). I wrote about The Lay of Harbard for Norsevember and I was surprised at how, frankly, rape-y some of it is. “I made them all submit to my will,” Harbard (Odin) says, “I could have used your help, Thor, you could have helped me hold that gorgeous girl down.” “I would have helped you,” Thor answers, “if I had been there.” This was probably amusing in the 9th century, but there is no way to twist it so that it’s funny in the 2020s. I’m not surprised most writers, including myself, stay away from it. Can’t imagine MarvelTM touching it with a long pole, either.
You introduce the idea of bigotry among the humans, with some thinking they are better than others. Do you think it is important to have a message in your writing, even in comedy?
My biggest inspiration is Calvin & Hobbes, where the characters’ personalities are informed by the works of the theologian John Calvin and philosopher Thomas Hobbes. Those strips often work on multiple levels. They’re funny because Calvin is wearing rocket underpants and simultaneously argues with Hobbes about what constitutes happiness or what man does to nature – in one panel with two sentences on it. They shape the reader’s subconsciousness without slamming them on the head with The Message.
I have my agenda and I have my politics, and there are things I want to talk about, but I also know that people don’t like being yelled at or be told they’re dumb and need to “educate themselves.” Humour is a very powerful weapon. There are jokes in Why Odin Drinks that are just silly and nothing more, and then there are others that smuggle my thoughts about, well, bigotry or sexism or tribalism or basic human traits. It’s funny because it’s true.
In one of the stories in ‘Why Odin Drinks’, I believe one of the characters is portrayed as a dominatrix. How sexual is the humor in that book?
It’s much worse than that! First we meet the dominatrix, Madame A, then the Wise Dom from the cover, Sir Daddy Mímir. Madame A’s favourite, ah… tools, or perhaps her clients’, are an egg whisker and a feather duster. I stole those, I mean – found inspiration in the old TV series ‘Allo ‘Allo. There’s nothing you can call explicit, yet I try to examine why people engage in BDSM without using either the acronym or explaining what it means.
Odin’s visit to Sir Daddy Mímir is my look at dom/sub relationships. The All-Father has to find something special to offer Sir Daddy (and he has to squeeze the word “Sir” out in the first place) to get what he wants. At the same time, Mímir is genuinely concerned about Odin. Odin will lose an eye (that’s another pinch) but that doesn’t mean Mímir actually wants it to happen, and he is more shocked than Odin himself when it does. I can’t remember whether there is anything actually sexual in the story. The word “seductively” appears, though.
I apply the Shrek rules here. A 13-year-old reading Why Odin Drinks will understand something very different from a 30-year-old, and it’s the latter who might be shocked by my audacity. (Although now that Internet exists, I am probably very naive about 13-year-olds.) I’m actually a prude. I feel very uncomfortable writing about sex, so I write around it, sort of.
What would you say are some of the obstacles to writing comedic fantasy?
It’s actually really hard to be funny without overdoing it, or making it too on-the-nose, even though the latter is something satire is supposed to do. Some people will laugh at “peeing dispensers” in Creation, the first story in Why Odin Drinks – some will be disgusted. The former might not appreciate the Douglas Adams inspirations, though, while the latter will sigh in relief. My sense of humour is also seriously weird. My editor sometimes marks something that I think is hilarious and comments simply “?”
I have once watched a Joan Rivers documentary showing her enormous collection of index cards with one-off jokes she came up with. I also write those things down. I use memes and build around them, but the story still needs to be funny for people who don’t even know what a meme is.
There is this episode of Monty Python where the British come up with a joke so funny it makes the German soldiers die from laughing so hard. The joke finally makes its way to one of the highest rank officers, whose face goes puce as he snarls “das is nicht funny!” I have to remember that when someone scoffs at how super nicht funny my writing is.
What is the best thing about writing comedic fantasy?
Laughing at things that are not supposed to be laughed at.
I have lived through the final years of communism in Poland. No matter what the church-pleasing politicians would want you to believe, communism has fallen because there was no food. You can live without freedom, you can’t live without food. There was a movie director, Stanisław Bareja, who managed to make that funny. His humour was so subtle that it got past the censors, because they knew he was doing something they should demand he changes, but they couldn’t figure out what. It was the humour that carried the people though those years.
2020/2021 have been… not hilarious. I can either sit here and cry my eyes out (I do sometimes) or laugh. It’s not going to change a thing, but I will feel better. When in October 2020 I published Children, which is dark, psychological fantasy, I peppered it with humour that some found inappropriate – most readers thanked me for it, though. It gave them that breath of fresh air. Why Odin Drinks is the opposite, all of the inappropriate humour with serious undertone you can choose to miss.
In a way writing comedic fantasy is my refusal to let the *gestures at everything* get to me. I’m going to create my world, my hapless Gods, then laugh at all that even though *gestures at everything* is literally trying to kill me. My naked emperor will uncontrollably salivate at the words “feather duster” and “egg whisker.”
How would you say you “get in the zone” regarding your creative process, and comedic writing in particular?
Randomly. I try to have a routine, sit in my little indoors cabin (longer story) and get In The Zone. There are times, though, when I’m just too tired or depressed to be creative at all, much less funny. This is why I reject the “write every day” advice – if I tried to force it, 1) I would just feel even worse about myself, and 2) you’d notice. Sometimes, though – this mostly happens either at 2am or in the shower, which is why I have a waterproof phone – I’ll have the electric jolt of an idea. (This is dangerous when you’re in the shower.) The zone pulls me in.
Do you have anything on the horizon that you’d like to talk about?
The follow-up, What Odin Drinks, will explain the origin of wine – and how Thor ended up with both a wife and a lover, neither of whom is too chuffed about the other’s existence. Unfortunately, I also came up with a new oooh, shiny. Typo! A new project. Some people know that I’ve actually always wanted to write rom-coms and always failed. Romance is a very difficult genre to write. I got much better at writing, though (I think) so I’m trying again and it looks promising. Being me, I’m tackling difficult themes again, but being me, I’ll also find a way to make it funny. There will be Iceland, there might be a fantasy element here or there, and someone will be hapless enough to search for a waterfall and find an admittedly impressive puddle. Which might or might not be based on personal experience.
Thank you so much for having me!
About the author:
Bjørn Larssen is a Norse heathen made in Poland, but mostly located in a Dutch suburb, except for his heart which he lost in Iceland. Born in 1977, he self-published his first graphic novel at the age of seven in a limited edition of one, following this achievement several decades later with his first book containing multiple sentences and winning awards he didn’t design himself. His writing is described as ‘dark’ and ‘literary’, but he remains incapable of taking anything seriously for more than 60 seconds.
Bjørn has a degree in mathematics and has worked as a graphic designer, a model, a bartender, and a blacksmith (not all at the same time). His hobbies include sitting by open fires, dressing like an extra from Vikings, installing operating systems, and dreaming about living in a log cabin in the north of Iceland. He owns one (1) husband and is owned by one (1) neighbourhood cat.
Readers’ Favorite Gold Medal winner (‘Storytellers’)
2020 Stabby Award Nominee (‘Children’)
Find out more about Bjørn at http://www.bjornlarssen.com