Linnea Hartsuyker is the author of The Half-Drowned King, the first of a historical fiction trilogy that continues with The Sea Queen. Hartsuyker’s epic books follow Ragnvald, a Viking warrior who served and fought alongside Norway’s first king, and his sister Svanhild, whose fight for her own autonomy begins to drive a wedge between herself and her brother. We sat down with Hartsuyker to talk about how hating your first drafts can be a rite of passage and why you should be obsessed with your work. And of course, we asked about her favorite book.
You have a degree in Material Science and Engineering from Cornell, then later went and earned your Master of Fine Arts from NYU in Creative Writing—what was your deciding factor to pursue the path of creative writing?
I always loved books and writing, but I also wanted to make money when I graduated from college, and I saw writing books and getting published as something “other people did.” So even though I loved the idea and kind of wanted to do it, I didn’t really think of it as a career when I was thinking about college. I was thinking about having enough money to buy books when I graduated. I was pretty good at math and science as well, so that’s why I pursued an engineering degree.
But once I got out in the real world and started doing the jobs that I was able to get with my first degree, I realized how important it was to really enjoy what you’re doing and feel like what you’re doing is meaningful. And so, while I had a pretty boring job in my early 20s that didn’t really engage me, I started writing on the side, and for a long time I would write for a while—and as I’m sure you know, writing is hard—so I’d get frustrated and stop. But I couldn’t keep myself away, and I kept on picking it up again. Thinking about getting published, trying to write things, getting frustrated, putting them down again—there was a long period of time as a young writer I think where [your] taste is much better than your ability. Which is extremely frustrating, to write things you know don’t measure up to where you’d like them to be.
This also sounds like a cliché, but I’m not sure it was even a decision to pursue a creative writing path, just that I couldn’t stay away from it. I had a really important moment in my late 20s or early 30s when I was considering getting an MBA to try and see if I could get more interesting jobs with that, because I was still doing all kinds of jobs and trying out startups and web development, and things like that, which were fine but didn’t really hold my attention. A friend of mine said, “You shouldn’t get an MBA, you should get an MFA.” And it was the right thing to hear at the right time. And I realized, yes, yes I should. So I started taking classes in New York, various creative writing classes, to make sure I wanted to do a Masters, and very quickly I realized I did. Once I made that decision, that I was going to make writing the most important thing in my life, it felt like everything suddenly felt right. But it took a while to get there.
I totally understand the “your taste is better than your ability” concept. Also, when you said writing is something that you’ve always really loved, it reminds me of Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. Have you read that one?
That’s a wonderful book. I love that book. Whenever I read it, I feel so known and understood.
Do you wish you started your career as a writer earlier?
You know, even once I decided to sort of center my life around writing and take it really seriously, I never thought that I’d be able to quit my day job and be a full-time writer. I’ve always viewed it more as a sort of a calling rather than as a career. So it’s exciting to me now that it is my career, and that’s just beyond my wildest dreams. But in terms of starting earlier, I don’t know, because I wouldn’t be in the place I’m in now if I hadn’t had the life I had leading up to it. I’ve had a ton of frustration. I was a total perfectionist in my 20s, and because it’s really hard to be a writer and a perfectionist at the same time, you spend a lot of time beating yourself up.
I wish I was a little easier on myself, because when I was 25, I wanted to have a published book when I was 30. I think when I was 30, I’d calmed down and said, “I’ll publish a book when I publish a book,” but setting those deadlines didn’t make me feel good at the end of the day.
Does this still feel surreal to you then? Because it’s happening for you now—you’re on a book tour and everything.
It’s funny how quickly it became my life, and I have to remind myself every so often that it is a dream come true, because every day, yes, this is my life, I’m a writer. And it has its ups and downs like everything else. But the flexibility of having writing be my full-time job is fantastic. My husband had a conference in Thailand, and I got to tag along because I didn’t have to worry about leaving behind a 9-to-5 job. Or more like an 8-to-10 job, because a lot of my jobs had been that way, which left little time for writing.
Have you always wanted to write historical fiction?
I’ve always loved history and historical fiction. I also grew up in love with fantasy novels, and I would like to write a fantasy novel someday. But something I like about history is that obviously a historical novel is fictionalized, but it has the benefit of being somewhat based on truth. [When you’re] writing a fantasy novel, you’re creating so much from scratch that needs to all have a reason to be created, whereas when I’m writing historical fiction, I’m trying to create the world in my reader’s mind that is how I imagined that particular history.
How much extra work did you have to do for you to accurately portray not only the setting but also the characters themselves, since they were based on actual historical figures?
I think it is extra work to some degree, but it’s work I love. Sometimes I feel like I write so I have a good reason to learn about this stuff, and sometimes I feel like I learn about it so I can write about it. I had a novel writing teacher who said, “If you’re going to write a novel about something, you should be obsessed with it. Because you’re going to have to spend years of your life thinking about it.”
So, Viking history, ancient history, Norse mythology, Scandinavia are all things that I’ve always been obsessed with, so it’s really easy for me to spend time learning more about them. And having an excuse to visit Norway, Denmark and the Faroe Island, it’s . . . it’s just a pleasure.
I couldn’t help but notice in reading your acknowledgements at the end of the novel that every one of your first readers was female. Was that a coincidence, or were you looking for a specific perspective?
I wouldn’t call it a coincidence; it is just most of my writing friends are women. I did have a few men in my writing classes who read chapters of it, but the first people who I felt like I trusted enough to read it from beginning to end, and give me advice, were close friends, and they were women.
And I think it’s interesting, the book business. There are men in the book business, but it’s very women-dominated—publishing is something like 70 percent women. Also, the book-buying public is heavily skewed toward women as well. I felt like if it turned out to be a book that only women would like (which I’m happy to say that it isn’t), then at least I knew that it would do well in the market.
After your trilogy is complete, will you continue writing historical fiction? Is there any desire to create a world or characters of your own?
I think so—I have some ideas for historical fiction that I still want to work on. I have kind of more fairy-tale influenced ideas, and then I have been thinking for many years about how I would design a fantasy world, and how it would work, and I hope to write that at some point as well.
What I’m not sure I’ll ever write is kind of modern literary fiction. There are a lot of people writing that really well, and I’m not sure I’d have as much to say in that area. When you asked earlier about the characters being based on history, I would say with that, in the research I found the characters were almost barely mentioned. So a lot of the research was more about trying to figure out how people would or could have lived, than figuring out how these specific people lived. Which I really liked. One nice thing about writing [in a period] that was so ancient is I could create a lot of it. So, knowing certain events in their lives, I could sort of work backwards to put together the things that they did or would have done to get to where they ended up.
If you were sitting in front of a roomful of undergrad students, all with a desire to be writers, what would be your best piece of advice that you could give to them?
I think it’s really hard advice to hear, but I would counsel all of the people to be patient—it takes a really long time to get to be a writer, where your writing starts to catch up with your taste. I still feel like I write so many things that are awful, and I have to do a ton of editing, too, to make them into something I like, and they never quite achieve what I want them to achieve. But even being able to do that, I can be pretty happy with a lot of things. It takes a really, really long time just to get the skill. And some things do get easier over time. . . . I’m kind of glad it took as long as it did. For a long time, I wanted to write things that I felt would be easier to write—I tried writing a romance novel, even though I don’t like romance novels, and found out it’s hard to write something you yourself don’t want to read. I found what I needed to do was to find a project that I was obsessed with and to put my energy into that, no matter how long it took.
So, patience, and read widely, and the advice I was given about if you want to write a novel—be obsessed with it.
So why did you choose Ragnvald and not Harald to be your protagonist?
Some of the reasons for that may cause spoilers, but when I read the history that this was mostly based on, the section on Harald and the history of the kings of Norway, Harald was the one my family traced our ancestry back to. So, my original plan was to have Harald be the protagonist, but when I read Harald’s history, he was just wildly successful and basically wins every battle. And that’s really boring.
Whereas Ragnvald was flawed.
Yes, and there wasn’t much mentioned on him, but the details that were [mentioned] were tantalizing, and something that he does and that happens later in his life indicated to me someone who had a lot of power, but chose to be put at the service of a younger king, rather than try to become king of Norway himself. There’s also some sacrifice that he makes for Harald later in his life which struck me and made me wonder what kind of person he must be to do these things and remain loyal to Harald, so I started to focus on him as the main character because of that.
The power behind the throne, the sidekicks, things like that have always interested me more in fiction than the hero at the front of the battle.
Did you ever feel constricted, like something couldn’t go how you wanted it to, since your characters were based on real people?
A little bit, but not too much—it was kind of fun to come up with how these people got to all of the places that we know happened, and also to come up with their reasons for being there. So it’s constricting in one way, but I think sometimes the constraints can actually give you some freedom to work with, because there are some things that are already decided, so you don’t need to worry if those decisions are right or not.
Also, I’ve taken some liberties. Svanhild is only mentioned once in all of the sources, so I got to invent most of her story, which was actually quite freeing as a writer. And since it was so long ago, even if things may not have happened exactly as I have them written, everything is at least plausible.
Finally, what book has most influenced or inspired you as a writer?
The first book I ever read that made me think that I wanted to be a writer was Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon. At the time, it was really groundbreaking, the idea of retelling a historical myth from the point of view of different characters, especially from the point of view of women. I’ve read it since, and there are some ways in which it holds up, and some ways it doesn’t, and I certainly read it differently now than when I read it at age 12, but it’s definitely the book most responsible for me being a writer now. Part of me wants to say that my choice was something more highbrow, but that’s the truth.
Well that’s a better reason than mine—I had read a book once, and it was so . . . horrible. [Laughs.] And I told myself that I knew I could do better, and that’s why I started writing.
So I think your explanation is a little more uplifting than you may think. I think a lot of people have that idea as well. I remember complaining to a friend about something similar, and he was like, “But she finished a novel.” And that kind of made me keep quiet, because truthfully that person had indeed finished a novel, several actually. So that at the very least made me sit down and keep my mouth shut a little bit.