Genevieve Gornichec’s debut novel, The Witch’s Heart, was one month in the writing but 10 years in the making.
In the fall of 2011, she needed to write a term paper for a college class on Norse mythology. Her professor said the paper could be about anything . . . except Loki. Luckily, the professor had said something else that drew Gornichec’s attention, about the relationship between female figures in Norse mythology and the concept of fate and death. The comment led her to Loki’s mate, Angrboda, a witch-mother with the gift of prophecy.
Gornichec ended up writing a paper that connected Angrboda to other female figures in the mythology—eventually. “Before that,” the author says from her home in Ohio, “I wrote The Witch’s Heart in three weeks for NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] in the wee hours of the morning while I should have been working on that paper.”
“In many ways, Loki is the least interesting person in the novel.”
In The Witch’s Heart, Angrboda is trying to build a new identity for herself at the edge of existence after being thrice burned for refusing to give Odin the secrets of the future he desires. But then Loki comes along. Despite her initial mistrust of the trickster god, Angrboda falls in love. The witch raises their three improbable children—the goddess Hel, the Midgard Serpent Jörmungandr and the wolf Fenrir—in her cave in the forest. At first she is safely hidden from Odin and the burden of knowing what fate has in store for her children, but her sheltered life won’t last. She of all people knows that she can’t hide forever. Ragnarök (the apocalyptic end of the world in Norse mythology) is coming, and everyone must play their part.
Like John Gardner’s Grendel or Madeline Miller’s Circe, The Witch’s Heart shifts the focus of a well-known myth to a secondary character with stunning and heartbreaking results. The novel actually started as a “love letter, to Loki, really,” but by the end, Gornichec realized that she’d “really made him suck” and that the story was more of a love letter to “Angrboda . . . and all the other characters.” In many ways, Loki is the least interesting person in the novel. He’s certainly far less interesting than Angrboda, the woman who can see Ragnarök coming but knows she can do nothing to stop it.
After graduating from Ohio State University, Gornichec became involved in Viking Age Living History, a community that re-creates the customs, fighting styles and arts and crafts of Viking life. Her experience with the group helped to root her book in historical reality. Originally, she described Angrboda as wearing heavy, ornate brooches and beads, inspired by the jewelry that archaeologists have found at Viking burial sites. But after struggling to do daily chores around camp in similar clothes, Gornichec knew she needed to simplify the witch’s clothing. Away went the brooches and beads, replaced by a more sensible ensemble.
Gornichec’s command of detail in The Witch’s Heart is immense, pulling readers in and making them examine not just Angrboda’s deepest, most unsettling worries but also the tiniest, most mundane moments of her life. Indeed, some of the most beautiful scenes in the book are the smallest—Loki snoring in bed or Angrboda’s efforts to make her cave more suitable for habitation with help from her huntress friend, Skadi. The grand background of foundational epics such as “Beowulf” is still there, but Gornichec grounds the story in its practicalities.
Because the Norse pantheon can only end with Ragnarök, Gornichec always assumed that she knew exactly how The Witch’s Heart would end. Her editor, Jessica Wade, didn’t quite agree. “She said, ‘I know what you’re trying to do here, and I think that you could craft an ending that’s more satisfying to your readers . . . without compromising the source material.’ ” Gornichec says that her editor’s intervention “single-handedly saved everyone” from the original ending by encouraging her to build something that is instead more “bittersweet” and “satisfying.”
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE:
Read our starred review of The Witch's Heart. And if you love audiobooks, check out our review of the audiobook, read by Jayne Entwistle.
Gornichec hopes that readers will walk away from her book wanting to know more, ready to ask and find answers to questions about the more mysterious figures of Norse mythology. “A couple people have asked me if I’m ever going to do a Sigyn companion novel of some sort or if I’m ever going to write her side of the story,” she says, referring to Loki’s Asgardian wife. “And my answer to that is no.” She encourages fans to write that story themselves, to “explore on their own and find their own conclusions.” Because, as she notes, what is The Witch’s Heart but “an alternate universe mythology fan fiction, really?”
Author photo by Daina Faulhaber