Karin Tidbeck is one of Sweden's most popular authors of speculative fiction, signed to a major international publisher, with books sold across the world. But at home, editors remained indifferent for years. I spoke to Karin about how roleplaying games and LARP shaped their writing – and how Swedish sci-fi and fantasy is coming along.
By Clarence Redd
Four years ago, Karin Tidbeck was signing books at ComicCon in San Diego, one of the largest pop culture fairs in the world. The line to the signing table continued to grow, amidst the cornucopia of movies, games, books and comics. I ask how it feels to step onto a tradeshow floor as a Swedish indie author and be regarded as a celebrity.
"It was baroque! I really didn't expect that kind of attention – standing at a convention, signing books until my hand cramped. It was very strange, but also fantastic, of course."
But the road to ComicCon was not easy.
"I wrote in Swedish at first and was rejected everywhere. Somewhere along the line I started translating my texts into English because I felt - in some kind of hubris - that if Swedish publishers didn't want me, I was going to change languages. It was essentially driven by coffee and wrath."
After working with a few micro-publishers both in Sweden and abroad, Karin was accepted to a writing course in speculative fiction at Clarion, considered by many to be the premiere education for science fiction and fantasy authors.
Teachers include Jeff VanderMeer, with an impressive line of best-selling sci-fi novels and films behind him, and Ann Vandermeer, longtime editor of Weird Tales. And they were thrilled by Karin's short stories.
"They were very keen on my stuff. And they really went out of their way to get my first collection of short stories, Jagganath, published, making sure it got distribution. It's largely thanks to them that my books have reached an international audience."
Karin Tidbeck's latest novel, The Memory Theatre
Roleplaying and LARP
But Karin’s writing began in a quite different setting.
"Writing for live action roleplaying and roleplaying – that was my entry point into professional writing. In the 1990s, it was like 'the thickest LARP wins.' I could write up characters that were ten pages long. And I realised, wow, this is what I'm going to do."
The step from ten-page character write-ups to writing fiction was surprisingly small.
"The characters I wrote were often entire short stories. That's where I found my voice."
And the writing process still contain traces of LARP and RPGs.
"When I write a short story or a novel, I use the tools I've learned through LARP and RPGs. I work with a text much like a Game Master, with huge amounts of background material. Only a fraction makes it into the story."
"I also make flow charts of plot lines, and for Amatka I had a binder full of material – maps, letters, local customs – that didn't fit into the book."
"Often, my main characters have character sheets as well, so I can get to know them. If I get writer's block, it's almost always because I don't have enough information. Then, for example, I might interview an antagonist about their motives, which in turn moves the plot forward."
Outside Amatka. Illustration by Clarence Redd
The author of The Golden Compass, Philip Pullman, compares reading a book to following a path through a forest. The writer has mapped out a path that the reader follows.
In contrast, interactive storytelling – as in roleplaying games and LARP – describes the whole forest instead. And the player finds his or her unique approach, making a path where they go. Each time someone walks through the forest, the story turns out slightly different.
But as a writer, the boundaries between the two forms of storytelling become more fluid, overlapping each other, something Karin Tidbeck uses as a writing teacher.
"I take a lot of inspiration from LARP and roleplaying when I teach. We often improvise and swap characters with each other."
"I want to bring students into the creative process in a playful way. That way, I try to bypass overly high expectations and make the creative process less intimidating – to get the students to try things they otherwise wouldn't dare."
Because it's much too easy to begin at the wrong end.
"That's why I tell students “don't start by thinking you're going to write a book,” because it's such a massive project. You might not even know where to begin. Instead, just write a single sentence. Then, write the next one. If you keep going, you'll end up with a book."
"I miss playing LARP and being a Game Master. You write some fiction and then drop a bomb on it – that is, the players – and they break everything you've set up. Great fun but really terrifying!"
Speculative Fiction in Sweden Today
Today, the world's largest publisher, PenguinRandomHouse, publishes Karin Tidbeck's books.
I'm re-reading the early short stories in Jagannath and I’m struck by how well-written they are, with beautifully terse prose and immaculate story structures. They remind me of Tove Jansson's short stories (especially those not featuring Moomin), paired with H.P. Lovecraft's stripped-down writing and dark surrealism. How is it possible that Swedish publishers didn't pick up Karin’s work years ago?
"The answers I got were 'your book does not fit our publishing focus' or 'we don't know what to do with fantasy.' I still feel that major Swedish publishers are extremely rigid when it comes to all forms of speculative fiction. Almost like they are afraid of it.
"In Sweden, it’s common to praise what I usually call 'social realism.' And books that are not social realism don’t qualify as serious literature. Anything with fantastical overtones has been classified as children's literature."
We talk about how Sweden was a poor country with hard-working farmers, lumberjacks and fishermen right up until after WWII. In the late 1940s, the population was plunged straight into hyper-rational modernism. And there, fantasy didn't really fit in. Perhaps this combination – from soil-bound pragmatism to scientific rationality in a single leap – has left very little room for secondary worlds and fantastic stories.
"At the same time, we have a long tradition of fabulists, like Torgny Lindgren and Selma Lagerlöf, who actually wrote a kind of magical realism. It's also a form of fantasy, even though we seldom think of it that way."
And while Karin Tidbeck met a lot of scepticism early on, a small imprint of one of Sweden’s bigger publishing houses actually made an attempt to publish Amatka some years ago. But that might just be the exception that proves the rule – within a couple of years, they dropped the title.
But what does the future hold for speculative fiction in Sweden? Will the teenagers who grew up with Dungeons & Dragons and Star Wars breathe new life into Swedish pop culture?
"There are several small indie publishers working really hard, such as Swedish Zombie and Fafner Förlag. And quite a few authors sweat to get their stuff out. But small publishers don't have big budgets. There are things happening, but it's still on the grassroots level."
"And there are a lot of nerds who have grown up now, trying hard to get the message out. I'm thinking of Orvar Säfström and Johanna Koljonen, for example. Or Jesper Huor who made a recent documentary about roleplaying games on Swedish TV, Mot andra världar (Toward Other Worlds)."
Before we hang up, we agree that there is hope for a brighter future after all. Speculative fiction might not be growing fast on the Swedish literature scene. But if you take a wider look and include illustrations, computer games, roleplaying games and LARP, Swedish sci-fi and fantasy is reaching more people than ever. Simon Stålenhag’s Tales from the Loop went from an obscure social media account to worldwide success and a TV-series, Free League’s RPGs The One Ring and Alien took Kickstarter by storm and Johan Egerkrans’ book Vaesen have turned both into an international bestseller and a roleplaying game. They might not fit with the traditional view of literature, but pop culture tends to ignore such rigid classifications.
The kids from the 1980s and 1990s might end up as the first generation of speculative creators from Sweden to truly break through internationally. And Karin Tidbeck is working on a new book, putting one sentence after another.
The future of Swedish sci-fi and fantasy indeed looks bright.
Clarence Redd is a writer and illustrator from Sweden. He runs FrostByte Books, publishing roleplaying games like M-SPACE and Odd Soot. You can follow him at Instagram: @clarence.redd
This article was first published in Fenix RPG Magazine. © Clarence Redd 2022