Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < Digital Media < Podcasts < Conversations with Other Writers <

Recorded in November 2011 by Skype.

Main (Notes)
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Announcer: Conversations With Other Writers, with your host, award-winning travel writer and novelist, C.M. Mayo.


C.M. Mayo: It's a very special delight and an honor to have historical novelist Solveig Eggerz here at the other end of the Skype line. That's right, we're talking on Skype.

I know Solveig from Washington, DC, where we're both members of the
Maryland Writer's Association and we're both on the faculty of The Writer's Center, which is just outside Washington, DC, in Bethesda, Maryland.

But right now I'm in Mexico City. I'm looking out the window at an overcast sky and a big jacaranda tree full of bougainvillea.

And Solveig, before I give you a proper introduction, do you want to tell us where you are?

Solveig Eggerz: I'm at home here in Alexandria, Virginia, and it's raining outside.

C.M. Mayo: Well! I love the modern world that we can do this! I am just absolutely flabbergasted by Skype— and if you're listening to this five years from now, that'll just sound incredibly trite— but right now, in 2011, it is exciting to be able to do interviews on Skype.

Now I'm going to introduce Solveig, and I'm just going to read the introduction from the back of her novel, Seal Woman, because I know there's so much more to talk about. So I think we'll just do a briefer introduction. But here's the introduction for Solveig.

Born in Iceland, Solveig Eggerz has worked as a journalist and as a professor of writing and research. She tells folk and fairy tales in schools and women's shelters, and writes and teaches in Alexandria, Virginia.

And for those of you who aren't too familiar with the geography of the Washington, DC area, Alexandria, Virginia, if you were crazy you could swim across the Potomac and you would be right there. So it's practically within Washington, DC.

Now Seal Woman is a very unusual and very poetic novel. I'm going to read you the description of the novel, actually not from the novel itself I have my beautiful copy in my hand here, but from the description on Smashwords, which is where you can also get it as an eBook.

An extended description says, "Seal Woman is based on the documented migration of 314 Germans from post-World War II Germany to work on Icelandic farms. The main character, Charlotte, is reminiscent of the legendary Seal Woman who must choose between two worlds, the land and the sea, the past and the present.

"Haunted by the ghosts of her past life in Berlin, Charlotte struggles to stay rooted in the life of the farm with her silent farmer husband and her new children. Memories of the turbulent Weimar Republic, the Third Reich, and the Holocaust interrupt her daily farm tasks.

"Driving the story are two questions. Will Charlotte survive her inner struggle? Will she discover the fate of her lost and misplaced loved ones? Set in Iceland, Germany, and Poland from 1928 to 1959, this is historical fiction as well as a psychological novel depicting an inner struggle for survival, as well as the paths to healing."

Now before we launch into our conversation, I want to add here that this really is a very extraordinary novel. It's very unusual both in its subject matter and in the poetic quality of it, and it's gotten so many wonderful blurbs that if I begin to read them, we'll take up our whole time. But trust me, they're fabulous. So go check Solveig's website, which is solveigeggerz.com.

But here's an important thing. I knew you, Solveig, for a while before I realized how to pronounce your name. There's a G in there. So it's S-o-l-v-e-i-g-E-g-g-e-r-z.com. Okay!

So, well I'm delighted to have you at the other end of the Skype line, Solveig.

Solveig Eggerz: Well, I do want to say something about the pronunciation before we go any further. Garrison Keillor on "Prairie Home Companion" had a little sequence there where he talks with his mother. And his name is Duane, and the mother calls and says, "Dwayyyne, are you coming for Halloween," and he says, "No, I don't think so because I have a date with Solvayy." And I was so thrilled because he pronounced the name just right, and this is programs from Minnesota, and so this tells me that the Norwegians in Minnesota also pronounce the name correctly.

C.M. Mayo: Aha.

Solveig Eggerz: And he repeatedly discussed Solveig, this mysterious woman who was keeping him from…well, it may have been Thanksgiving, actually. But anyway, the mother even was saying the name right.

C.M. Mayo: Well, it must be a source of endless frustration in Alexandria and Washington, DC. My goodness.

Solveig Eggerz: Well, no. No. It's not English.

C.M. Mayo: Well tell us, Solveig. This is just such an unusual background to have been born in Iceland and come to Alexandria in the '70s. Isn't that right?

Solveig Eggerz: Well, a little before that. I had been in this country for six years, also with my parents, when I was a child from age 7 to 13. So it wasn't completely new to me.

I was born in Iceland and we lived there for two years, and then my father was sent to England to work in the Embassy there. He was a lawyer and he entered the Foreign Services at the beginning of the Foreign Service in Iceland, and so he was in the Embassy in London for five years and then he was sent to this country for six years. And so then I came back later, much later, and went to college here.

C.M. Mayo: Ah, so you were really educated in the English language.

Solveig Eggerz: No. No, no. In the meantime I also went to boarding school in Iceland. Boarding school and non boarding, so I spent four years going to high school and received the baccalaureate at the end of that, alone in Iceland separate from my family.

C.M. Mayo: Oh, that must have been difficult. Did you have a lot of other family in the area?

Solveig Eggerz: Yes. I had at that time lots of family in Iceland, so I stayed with various relatives and then I was also in boarding school. So I really wanted to go to Iceland. That was my choice, not my parents.

So I can say I've spent six years in Iceland, but my family, my parents, were both Icelandic, and it was a completely Icelandic home in the sense that they were representing Iceland here, and we had an Icelandic nanny, and we always spoke Icelandic at home, and the house was always filled with Icelanders.

So it was sort of like living in exile. We carried the country in our hearts, so to speak.

C.M. Mayo: So you were always within the diplomatic community…

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah.

C.M. Mayo: I kind of have a sense of what that means because my husband was not a diplomat but he was closely connected with the diplomatic community, and he's Mexican. So we have our sort of little Mexico in Washington, DC. Yeah, I know what you mean. Yeah, you don't really feel that far from home when you have so many people from there and you're always thinking about it. I guess it's different than going to another country and just having a completely different profession...I don't know, like trying to be a dentist or something in Cleveland. [Laughs] Then it would really be a foreign experience.

But you also lived for a while in Germany, isn't this right?

Solveig Eggerz: Yes. Well, my father was then sent to Germany after this post, after the US post, and he was sent twice to Germany. First he was the second man and then he was the first man. Later he became...I mean, this was over ten years, and he later became Ambassador to Germany from Iceland. But during this German period I went to Iceland for four years. So I lived both in Germany and Iceland during that time.

C.M. Mayo: But you were…

Solveig Eggerz: Before returning here. I mean, it sounds complicated but it's not really.

C.M. Mayo: Well, it's a bit of a hop, skip, and a jump on an airplane I guess.

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah.

C.M. Mayo: Well, but so you also grew up learning German as well…

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah, and I went directly to a German school and did learn German.

C.M. Mayo: Well now, what were the years that your father was in Germany?

Solveig Eggerz: Well, he was there until…he was in Bonn before the Wall fell, and he left Germany in 1983, it must have been. I remember my son was one year old and he was born in 1982. So yeah, that was when he retired.

C.M. Mayo: Ah, so he was there in the late '70s for a while then in that period.

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah, but in between he went home again to Iceland where he served as Chief of Protocol for several years, and then was sent back to Germany. So…

C.M. Mayo: Lots of back and forth.

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah, back and forth.

C.M. Mayo: So what I'm getting at, though, is your novel has so much to do with Germany. And I remember visiting Germany in the '70s and early '80s, and what really struck me, what's always sort of struck me is people of our generation…I'm assuming we're pretty close in age, being born after World War II, it was still so fresh. It was still so fresh a memory that I almost feel like I lived through it even though I didn't. It was just so huge for everyone involved at the time, and it's just impossible to go anywhere without thinking about it.

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah. Well, I'm older and I was born during World War II, but when we went to Germany…so that was in the late '50s, the very end of the '50s, and so I was still a kid then. But my father was very interested in the war period and what happened to the Jews and all of this whole dreadful history, and he talked about it a tremendous amount and he was always interviewing people. My father was a writer also, but he did it very much on the side.

But I really inherited this powerful interest from him, I think, in that history. It wasn't so much that I lived it, but yeah, we were coming in still a short time since, because Germany was still, well, hadn't nearly recovered in the late '50s. But as I say, we just had this intense interest in the home and my dad was always researching and reading about it, and then I went off and started doing that myself.

So this is something I've looked into for years and years before writing Seal Woman. I really had researched Germany better than Iceland by the time I wrote Seal Woman. Let's put it that way.

C.M. Mayo: Well, it's an absolutely extraordinary juxtaposition, and even more so to think, wow, it's true that German war widows were imported to Iceland to work on the farms where they needed more labor because so many people had moved to the towns or the cities. But this juxtaposition of someone from this very sort of urban and sophisticated and sort of very just crowded kind of life and crowded kind of history, to come to an Icelandic farm. That's just stunning.

Solveig Eggerz: Yes. I think it was a huge culture shock and most of those 314 people were women, and as you say, they came from urban areas, and these places, many of them were very, very primitive.

So that really stunned me, just thinking about that. And I had seen a film about this about a woman who went to one of these farms and how the two people there…there was a son and the mother, and then didn't seem to be anybody else on the farm, and nobody talked to her. That's what stunned me most about this film, that there was this enormous silence, which sort of increased the gap between the arriving women and the farmers.

But the thing is that these women brought a tremendous amount of culture. There was always culture in the countryside, everyone knew how to read and they were deeply steeped in Icelandic literature, but the German women brought a different kind of culture. They brought their own songs, their own poetry, and they brought a lot of hygiene. In their own ways they made a mark on the countryside. They're highly regarded, these women.

C.M. Mayo: And is there a specific part... because in your novel if I recall, it doesn't really say where this farm is. Is it just kind of, which is an artistic choice I find really interesting and very effective, actually.

Solveig Eggerz: It doesn't…no.

C.M. Mayo: In terms of the reality of what really happened with the women who came, was there any particular part of Iceland that they came to?

Solveig Eggerz: Well, they were all around the country. There were several on the western fjords, so they could be in contact with one another. I talked with some people who had known these women.

The novel actually is…many Icelanders actually recognized it as being near Vik, which is the southernmost tip of Iceland. It's a little village and there's a very beautiful countryside around there, and the ocean is very wild there.

My father was born in Vik, so I've always been very interested in Vik.

C.M. Mayo: Well, Iceland is something really that I've always had in my mind. I've only been there once, but it's like the edge of the world…

Solveig Eggerz: Yes.

C.M. Mayo: And yet, and coming back to your novel, though, and yet without knowing much about it, the little that I do know, what really strikes me as how on the one hand it's so separate from Europe. It's so isolated. I mean, just the realities of communication and transport until very recently, really until the end of the last century, made communicating with and getting to and from Iceland very, very difficult.

But yet, at the same time, one of the things I was really amazed to learn when I was last there, was that they had done all these DNA studies and it turns out that Icelanders are very closely related to the Irish and the Scotch, very Celtic.

And one of the things that really struck me when I visited, it was actually kind of funny because I've been living in Mexico for years where I'm just so used to always being the odd person, I'm always the foreigner. They just hear me, they look at me, I'm obviously not Mexican. In Iceland, everywhere I went people thought I was Icelandic! They looked at me and started talking to me in Icelandic!

Solveig Eggerz: Well, you look sort of Scandinavian looking.

C.M. Mayo: Well, genetically I'm Scotch and Irish, from northern Scotland, so I thought, well that would make sense. But that was really kind of funny to have people assume I was one of them when culturally I'm very ignorant about Iceland, really.

Solveig Eggerz: You could blend right in, you see?

C.M. Mayo: Yeah! Well, the language would be a problem. It would take me a while to learn that.

Iceland is so unusual a place, and so for you having a sort of a foot in several different cultures, the United States and Germany and Iceland, you must have a very different way of looking at Iceland from your fellow Icelanders because you have this different perspective.

Solveig Eggerz: Well, I don't know. I've written two novels and both of them are about Iceland. There's one now that's being promoted, or agented, and that second novel I worked on for years and years. So I must be steeped in something, a kind of yearning or some sort of deep attachment that your average Icelander doesn't have because they have Iceland. They live there.

C.M. Mayo: Well, they always say when we don't have something that's when we really appreciate it.

Solveig Eggerz: Until I was 13 we were living either in England or in the US and everyone was always talking about Iceland, and we were Icelandic, but we never went back. For 11 years, we didn't go back, and so maybe this sort of longing was instilled in me during those years.

When I'm in Iceland, they recognize that I am Icelandic, but they view me as the woman who lives in America, which is a different person than the person who lives down the street.

C.M. Mayo: It must have been a very interesting experience to have your novel…well, I know many Icelanders read in English so they must have read it in English, but also you had it translated into Icelandic and you went back to Iceland.

Can you talk about that?

Solveig Eggerz: A cousin of mine happens to be a professional translator and she did a beautiful job with translating it for me. A number of people had read it. My close friends had read it in English, but several people had complained that they found it difficult to read in English and so I knew that it was not going to have a wide readership among Icelanders in English.

And so together we translated it and I found a publisher last spring, and just last week it was published, actually.

C.M. Mayo: Really, last week?

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah, just last week. It is now physically a book.

It has been seen, and so I am going to Iceland now, the end of this month and I'll be gone for two weeks, and my translator and I will be promoting it. We've got nine meetings already organized for promotional purposes. So this is going to be really exciting and really scary.

C.M. Mayo: Well, so you're going to go all around the Iceland. Will you be mostly in one place in, Reykjavik...

Solveig Eggerz: Well, the gigs that we have are all in Reykjavik. I might offer it in a nearby town, but December is not a really great time to be traveling, so…

C.M. Mayo: Well, believe it or not I have been to Iceland in December.

Solveig Eggerz: In December! Oh, yeah, so you know what I mean.

C.M. Mayo: It was dark!

Solveig Eggerz: Very dark, and the weather is very unpredictable.

C.M. Mayo: The weather was pretty heavy. Reykjavik is just like New York and Washington and Chicago and Miami and everything of Iceland all in one city, isn't that right?

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah. So about half the population is right there.

C.M. Mayo: Well, that will be exciting. I had the impression that it had come out earlier in Icelandic. So this is really the first…

Solveig Eggerz: Well, we finished the translation last summer, so not this summer but this 2010. So this has taken a long time.

C.M. Mayo: Now is this because the country's took such a blow with the crisis?

Solveig Eggerz: Well, it always takes time to sell a book.

C.M. Mayo: That's true! [Lauhs] Tell me about it. That's true. Some of you haven't published a book often don't realize that one year from the time you deliver it 'til it comes out is pretty much standard.

Solveig Eggerz: But actually it took until this spring to find a publisher, and then he has taken from then, from April until November, to produce it. So that's what's been happening.

C.M. Mayo: Iceland, famously, has a lot of readers and a lot of book stores. I mean, isn't it true that Iceland has more readers per capita than any other country in the world?

Solveig Eggerz: Oh, that's the statistic and that's true, and books are a very favorite gift, a very favorite Christmas gift. They are fairly expensive, the hard cover books. So it's considered a fine gift to receive a book. And right now, November, there's just a flood of books coming out. There's huge competition in this Christmas market. So that's what I'm going into.

C.M. Mayo: Oh, but I'm sure you'll be very successful because it's an absolutely gorgeously told and amazing story. And it's really, you might even say that it goes into the heart of modern Iceland.

Solveig Eggerz: Well, thank you, Catherine. I haven't figured out yet what my angle will be because it will have to be different from the angle that I use here. I can't exactly tell the Icelanders how to feel about Iceland. [Laughs]

C.M. Mayo: But one of your main characters, Charlotte, is German. So this kind of…you know, I kind of had a similar thing with my novel, which is set in 1860s Mexico, and so a lot of people said, "Oh, well you're an American and you're writing about Mexico. How did the Mexicans take it?" And I said, "Well, many of the characters in the book are Mexican, but many of them are Austrian or French or American or Belgian." So I didn't really worry about it, I just went in and told the story.

But coming back to another connection between my novel and your novel, which is this aspect of how when we tend to think of a country, you know, like Iceland or Mexico or France or whatever, I think we sort of... probably coming out of school where we have different subjects we have to study, we sort of have this artificial bell jar over the topic, like this is Mexico and it's all very neatly defined.

But the reality is, foreigners have come in and come out and had enormous influence on Mexico in many different ways, and Mexicans also outside of Mexico. We can't really put this bell jar over it. The reality is so permeable and so complex.

And I get the sense that this is what's happening here where Charlotte comes from Germany and really starts affecting everyone around her in this community in Iceland.

Solveig Eggerz: Yes, and Iceland is really just the setting. For me, there's this particular phenomenon that's going on and it could have occurred anywhere, really.

It's just that it's the notion of carrying within you everything that has happened to you in the past, and bringing it into a new environment, and then having to deal with your daily life while being haunted by everything that you're carrying around inside of you.

Now, since publishing this here and doing a lot of book talks here in this country, I have sort of learned what the story is about in psychological terms because people have told me that they, too, have experienced this notion of carrying something around inside you.

I have people telling me how they carry Iowa inside themselves all their lives, even though they never were in Iowa, but their mothers were. That kind of thing.

But not only that, but also the PTSD concept, the concept of having suffered something and having had no opportunity to process it. And of course now with our military engagement here, we talk about this all the time in this country. But this happens to all kinds of people. Always regarding military engagements and wars, you have PTSD and this woman is coming out of that and has never been permitted to talk about it. And so it's been dawning on me that this is what it's really about. It's about something else, too. I've been told that it's a psychological novel more than anything.

C.M. Mayo: And so people can relate to it even when they have a very different background.

Solveig Eggerz: Yes.

C.M. Mayo: I was struck in a couple things you said in some other interviews about how you had looked at The Feast Of The Goat by Mario Vargas Llosa, where he's looking at two different time periods. In that particular book, the year of the assassination of Rafael Trujillo in 1961, and then 1996 when the fictional character wants to come get revenge. And then you'd also talked about Amy Tan, the wonderful Chinese American novelist and the sense of…let's see, I'm looking for your exact quote... I have it in one of your interviews. It was so interesting, about how the sense of being a foreigner but yet not, kind of both, that tension of understanding and being part and then not being part, or being part of something different.

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah, you know what? You're talking about Amy Tan and the person who is from two worlds really, and she's one of these who carries that world inside her even though she didn't spend much time in her homeland.

And Junot Diaz is another author. And I heard Junot Diaz being interviewed on this and he said, it's all right to be from two places. It's all right to contain these things within you and sort of straddle these two cultures, and to me that's what a "seal woman" is. It's a creature who has this dual consciousness, and that other world is so powerful within her that it sometimes imposes on her here world.

C.M. Mayo: And then I'm thinking... this strikes me as the perfect segue to go into talking about fairy tales, because of course "The Seal Woman" is one of the most famous and moving fairy tales, and it's also part of Irish fairy tale culture as well.

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah.

C.M. Mayo: So I think they're probably closely related, many of these stories. So well I can't help but this is probably a terrible cliché, but when we think of Iceland we often think of fairies and elves. Can you talk about that? I'm absolutely fascinated by that.

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah. Well, first of all the Seal Woman legend is a story I discovered that exists in Ireland, Scotland, on the islands of Shetland and Orkney, and in the Faroe islands. It exists on all these islands where you have a hazy coast, where the visibility is a little bit impaired, so that a farmer might mistake a seal for a woman. And it sort of exists in the Iceland collection, it exists in the Irish collection and the Scottish. So it's a universal theme in certain places.

As far as fairy tales are concerned, Ireland and Iceland both have a tremendous belief in this other world. And since I lived in England as a little child, I remember the fairies there were little tiny people that were just in the earth somewhere. But I had read since then that in Ireland the fairies are full-grown people who live parallel lives, they're just not visible, and that's what is similar to the Icelandic, and these are called the hidden people, huldufólk. And anyone who's been on a farm or walked around in the landscape believes in these hidden people, because they come to you when you are alone and you're not seeing very well and there's fog, and they want to connect to humans.

And that belief permeates the life of Charlotte's little boy, Henrik. He has a good relationship with the hidden people and that is to me a very appropriate scene because Charlotte was always living in her mind with people that she cannot see but that are still part of her life.

C.M. Mayo: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. Yeah. It's so different, though, to think of being…you know, here I am in Mexico City and then when I'm not in Mexico City I'm usually in Washington, DC, which are yes, cities. They're just so full of people and noise and cars and airplanes and helicopters and who knows what kind of things we can't see, like all the WiFi and the telephone and the cell phone towers, and 27 microwave ovens operating in this half a square mile or whatever.

So to go out to the countryside in Iceland where there's just none of that. That just silence. It just must be an amazing feeling.

Solveig Eggerz: It's silent and the weather is changeable and there's the visibility issue, and then the landscape can be very dangerous so that you can fall into a chasm or over a cliff or something like that. And so this adds to that sense of hidden people living there with you or perhaps helping you sometimes.

C.M. Mayo: This is sort of an esoteric question that for the Icelanders, is this phenomenon something connected with what like in the US and I think probably continental Europe we talk about the Astral World?

Solveig Eggerz: The Astral? You mean related to the stars?

C.M. Mayo: No, no. Astral, like the psychic world. Like when you go out of your body, when you're dreaming and interact with this, that and the other thing. They usually talk about that being the Astral World, so it's sort of like this world that exists but it's not really tangible. I mean, you can't see it or touch it or measure it, but the sense that there is this Astral World, a world that we can't see.

Solveig Eggerz: That might be a modern version of this, but certainly a part…I mean, this is such an old view, and I'm not familiar with the modern version of that.

But the faith is that there are a lot of things in the world that you can't see. Just because we can't see them doesn't mean they don't exist. And it's very short-sighted of us not to recognize that. But as far as going out of body experience, I don't think I'll go there because I don't know enough about that.

But I did want to say that the Seal Woman fairy tale is a fairy tale that I used to tell to children, and it always moved me very deeply and in a very strange way, and so when I really started telling it I had to be careful not to start tearing up over it because it is so dramatic. And so I knew that there was something powerful in this story.

C.M. Mayo: Yes, there is. Well, there definitely is.

Solveig Eggerz: I mean, the legendary story.

C.M. Mayo: Well, but both. The legendary story and your novel, it's really powerful.

Solveig Eggerz: Thank you. You've been very, very generous in your praise, Catherine.

C.M. Mayo: I think you're going to have a really interesting and exciting time taking the novel to Iceland. I think it's going to be really wonderful, and I also think that, that kind of…I'm just speaking from the knowledge of my own experience, I think that if I had written a book about just Mexicans, you know, having a completely Mexican story, I think as an American writing that, yes, I think I would have found some resistance. But I didn't. I have not had resistance to my novel. I'm speaking of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire. I really felt an open-armed welcome to it, and I think the reason is that it's a story about Mexico that has so much to do with foreigners. It takes place during a French Intervention.

So I think that my guess is you'll probably have a similar experience, a very open-armed welcome for this book in Iceland. I'll bet a hundred million bucks on that, Solveig!

Solveig Eggerz: You've had such a good experience. I probably will not stress the historical fiction part but rather the psychology of one woman. I think I can go farther with that...

C.M. Mayo: Well, the history. Just the history alone is very interesting. I mean, it's really an extraordinary thing. Three hundred-and-something women may not sound like a lot, but I know that Iceland's very small. I mean, the capital of the country, Reykjavik, which is just huge for the island. Isn't it only about 300-something thousand people?

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah, 320 thousand or so. Well, most people do know about the German women and most people either remember…Many of them are still alive. I mean, they're in their 80s now, so this is very close to everyone, the arrival of these German women.

Something that people are not as familiar with is, of course, Germany, and what happened there between the wars. So I might focus on that.

C.M. Mayo: Well, then also for a lot of younger people. I mean, I always felt that in my generation, everybody knew what World War II was because even though I was born afterwards, it was so fresh. You just had to be completely clueless to not know what happened in World War II.

But people born 10, 20 years after me don't really know. I mean, even really basic things like what was the Holocaust, or who started World War II, or why did Hitler do this or that. I mean, they don't even know that, and you have to just kind of tell them.

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah, and feel your way through also, to figure out what they want to hear about.

C.M. Mayo: Yeah. Well, that's also true, what they're willing to listen to. But yes, the stories get lost if we don't tell them.

Solveig Eggerz: I have talked to so many different groups and it's really amazing how actually the chemistry is different with each group. Some people really want to hear about the Jewish experience, the period between the wars, Germany, Poland, and others just can't get enough about Iceland. So you kind of have to be flexible. [Laughs] Let people take you.

C.M. Mayo: Well that makes sense.

Before we wrap up, I know that we have a lot of listeners who are writing students and other writers, and I know that one of the most interesting things for writers right now is to talk about what is happening in our crazy publishing world.

And like many writers, you have gone and gotten your book out as an e-book and I'm looking right now at the page from Smashwords for Seal Woman, and I see that you can download it as a Kindle and you can also download it as an epub onto iBooks, Nook, the Sony Reader, really almost most e-book reading apps you can download the book if you go to Smashwords and just look up
Seal Woman by Solveig Eggerz, and don't forget to add that G at the end of Solveig.

But what is so interesting to me, Solveig, is that the e-books, wow, they really do sell. I mean, right now in 2011, they are selling. People are actually downloading them, and rather than competing for shelf space in a book store and all that that implies, you just got to get it up there.

And I'm looking at the tags. This is what's so funny. The tags on your Smashwords page are World War II; historical; art; legend; Iceland; Germany; herbal; and psychological fiction. So people can I guess Google all those tags and bingo, they're going to get your book.

Solveig Eggerz: Yes. Well, maybe they will. Who knows. [Laughs]

C.M. Mayo: Now, did you get it up on Smashwords by yourself?

Solveig Eggerz: No, I didn't. I'll just tell you exactly what I did. I chose Smashwords because it seemed to be the easiest one to post onto, and I tried and tried, did all these different things, I was wasting way too much time focusing on this, and so somebody at Smashwords said, "Well, we have a list of people who will help you with this," for whatever, 35 dollars or 40 dollars, something, and so I looked at the list and I saw the name of someone who said he was the brother of the man who started Smashwords, and I said, "That's the man I need."

And so Brian, who's been very helpful, and he's still being helpful.

C.M. Mayo: So he got your book uploaded.

Solveig Eggerz: Yes. So for a small fee he handled the whole thing.

C.M. Mayo: And that's been a good experience, I gather.

Solveig Eggerz: Well, I'm not aware of sales of the e-book, but anyway, I felt I should place it there because a number of readers have mentioned to me that they only like to do e-books.

C.M. Mayo: Yeah. I actually don't like to read e-books, I much prefer a real book, but I've been very interested in doing e-books precisely because I've had so many readers tell me that. And I had thought that it would be the younger, very cutting edge technology kind of people and I thought well, they're not going to read historical fiction anyway, why should I worry about that? But it turns out that a lot of older and middle-aged women who are big readers of historical fiction, they don't want to buy books any more. They just download them on Kindle.

Solveig Eggerz: Oh, isn't that interesting?

C.M. Mayo: So when people like that were telling me that they just got everything on Kindle, I thought oh, there's my market.

Solveig Eggerz: Of course. Well, some of the travelers, people who travel a lot. I know people who love books, they love paper books and they have a house full of them, but when they travel they like the Kindle or whatever their e-book version is so that they only have that.

C.M. Mayo: Yes, and I think a lot of us…I don't think I'm unusual that I'm just literally ran out of space [Laughs] because I've bought so many books over the years and I can't bear to let them go. But then on the other hand as I say, I'm not a Kindle person myself. As a writer, I'm fascinated and grateful that we have this new way of reaching readers. But as a reader I want a book.

Solveig Eggerz: Oh, so do I. I'm an underliner and a highlighter, and when I teach I like to pull books off the shelf and I just bring them in and let people look at them. They read the first page or whatever. I use books so much in so many different ways, way after the reading.

C.M. Mayo: Yeah. Oh, yeah. I'm reading War and Peace right now and I tried to read it on a Kindle because I didn't want to carry the big, heavy thing around, and it was so frustrating because I had to go back and forth more quickly than the Kindle search feature would allow, and only a physical book will let you really move around that fast. Maybe not as accurately, but…

I congratulate you on getting it up on Smashwords. That is really fantastic. So people can get your book on Amazon.com, they can come to your website, they can go to Smashwords, they can go to iBook. Hopefully they'll be in Reykjavik and they'll go to the book stores.

The book stores in Reykjavik are amazing. I've been in them. They are really glorious. They are really, truly glorious.

Before we wrap up, though, there's one last question I want to toss at you, which I think is going to be really important for a lot of the people listening, which is: You are a published writer, and what advice do you have for people who are writing a novel or looking to publish a novel?

Solveig Eggerz: Well, those are two different issues, writing a novel and publishing a novel.

I have decided that writing a novel is way more important than publishing a novel. [Laughs]

I'm working on a third novel now and just solving the riddle of how these characters interact and how this is all going to work out, that is my big task.

Publishing? You have to find an agent...

But what I'm saying is I don't think people should be writing with publishing in mind. If you only have publishing in mind, then you're going to be losing a lot of the experience of really producing something that you are happy with yourself.
The gap between these two is huge.

The book that I'm trying to sell right now I am rather happy with, but it's very heavy on history and long on history and I don't really want to change it. I don't want to commercialize it more than it is. So, okay, I'm not being very practical, though, but I do want to make this distinction.

Now if you want to publish, now if you're really interested in publishing, get yourself an agent. Go to the different conferences. I found mine at the American Independent Writers conference. I found several agents there. I have gone through several agents, in fact, and I have one now that I'm very happy with. But eventually you will find one, and then eventually your agent will find a publisher.

There are many, many…what I've learned through my publisher, who lives in Colorado, is that there are many, many, many small publishing houses in the US. Every state has many, many publishers. They are small publishers. It's not all located in New York, in other words.

So this is a vast and complicated world and it can be a delight just to learn about this. But meanwhile, be honest in your writing and take the novel where it needs to go rather than commercializing it for sales.

I know, this sounds self defeating, but that's my belief.

C.M. Mayo: Well, your novel is one that I think will be read for many years.

Solveig Eggerz: Oh, thank you, Catherine. You're so kind and you've been so generous with your compliments.

C.M. Mayo: It's very true. It's very true, Solveig. I think that I often run into this with my students. I think everybody wants to jump in and publish and be famous, and we have this sort of big commercial famous, I don't know... model of what does it mean to be "successful" as a writer.

But I think one of the things that often gets lost is the commercial fate of a book from the publishing industry's point of view is really when it just comes out. You know that famous saying is a book has the shelf life of cottage cheese [Laughs]. Which is really true, I mean, in terms of actually getting it in a box, on a truck, unloaded, and put on a shelf in a book store. It really does have the life span of cottage cheese.

But the difference though now is that when people can get books so easily long after their pub date that I think we start finding that there are books— and I think your book is definitely one of them— that it has a long life because when people come across a book like this, it's not just something to sort of wow people in that three week span or less. It's really a very fine work of art that is a very classic, timeless story. I mean, it's set during a specific period, but it's timeless. It's really timeless. I think people could read it 300 years from now and still find something really wonderful in it.

I mean, I'm reading War and Peace right now. I really am reading War and Peace, and I'm now on like I'm on page 250, so I'm not even halfway done. But I'm in there, okay?

Solveig Eggerz: Good for you, Catherine!

C.M. Mayo: And I get it. This is a novel that's more than 100 years old and it's about 1805 and it's wonderful! It's absolutely wonderful. So I think this is to me, a novel as Susan Sontag famously said, "Is an education of the heart." It's really about how can we live another life? We're literally... the novelist in your novel and you're giving us another life. We get to experience life from the point of view of someone else just so vividly and so believably and so compellingly that we could never with all our own imagination get there. We need your novel to do that for us.

It's like this little time travel vehicle. So I think your novel will be around for a very long time, and as a writer I'm excited that we have things like Smashwords and so on to enable us to get copies of these books so easily any time, any place.

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah. Well, I think…the Smashwords and just the Amazon.com concept as you're saying, we have the capability now of getting books that are so to speak out-of- print, which of course now that we do print-on-demand there's a lot less of that concept. But this is a whole different world. There's just so many different ways of getting books. But I applaud you for reading War and Peace and…

C.M. Mayo: [Laughs] Well, applaud when I'm done. I'm not done yet.

[Update: See War and Peace blog]

Solveig Eggerz: Well, I loved War and Peace. I mean, for me it was a page turner, years ago, but I didn't read it again.

There are people who read these classics repeatedly. Dostoyevsky's books also. He's another one, Crime and Punishment. People will read this more than once in their lives.

C.M. Mayo: Well, it is an extraordinarily thing to be transported into this other world with people who seem so real, they seem so recognizably human. Even if they're really exotic on one level, they're human on another, and that…

Solveig Eggerz: Well, the details in Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are so vivid that yes, we believe that these characters existed and we believe that we could be like this or we might know someone like this. There's a universality there through all these wonderful details.

C.M. Mayo: What does it mean to be human? You know, they say the novel is really about an exploration of what does it mean to be human?

Solveig Eggerz: Oh, yes. So now we are into the Renaissance, my favorite period, and this thought, these thoughts are still very much with us.

But I have also sat in on your wonderful class that you taught at the Writer's Center about, and where you were focusing on the importance of details to bring a character alive, to bring a story alive, make it credible, and that's what these classic authors have done. That's why we're reading them again and again.

C.M. Mayo: I'm just thinking of your novel. You have so much amazing detail in your novel.

Solveig Eggerz: Well, some of it a little bit repellent, I know that.

C.M. Mayo: Well, just as the reality of the character and the reality of life on the farm. I was just opening it to something about a calf. I'm looking through your novel right now.

Listeners, anyone listening to this, go and get Seal Woman by Solveig Eggerz. It's an amazing book. You'll be so happy reading it. It's just like taking an exotic journey through time and space.

Now Solveig, are you going to be teaching at the Writer's Center any time soon?

Solveig Eggerz: I have a syllabus. I've been teaching elsewhere, so I've been developing my course, and so I probably will be teaching in the future.

C.M. Mayo: Oh, wonderful. If people go to your website they'll find your schedule, right?

Solveig Eggerz: Yes. The kind of course that I teach is focused on generating writing right there in the classroom, rather than revising. rather than moving towards perfection, really stress the creativity that lives within all of us.

I just had taught a class at NOVA in Manassas with a group of very young kids. Had a great experience. They all wrote and wrote and wrote in that class. And that was really fun to see them do that and to see them experience that creativity that they had.

C.M. Mayo: And we don't have so many opportunities in school, certainly to sort of have free reign to do that.

Solveig Eggerz: Well, we're always so busy telling people what is wrong as opposed to celebrating this creative urge and this ability that resides in people.

C.M. Mayo: I can relate to that because I know most writing workshops are about critiquing, and I always tell my students, I think it's valuable to take a class like that, or several like that, actually. I took many like that myself and I think they really helped me. But it's also very intimidating to have it all be about criticism, and it isn't always the most helpful thing for people.

So I actually don't teach critique. I stay away from it like it's kind of like I'm allergic to teaching a critique because I feel most people just need so much encouragement to just get it out in the first place and let's celebrate,.

And I think when the workshop is well directed, at least in my own opinion, people will actually do very good work. So I'm not just celebrating things to be nice. It actually is very good.

Solveig Eggerz: Oh, yeah. I've had that experience, too. But I do think also that the critique is a healthy thing for the critic or the reviewer. We learn so much from critiquing someone else's...

C.M. Mayo: Yes, I think that's it. People think that critique is valuable when it's their turn to have their story critiqued, and actually that's not when it's valuable.

Solveig Eggerz: Right.

C.M. Mayo: Absolutely. Oh, my God, it's so hard to see your own work. Oh, my God, it's like criticizing somebody's baby! Your baby is really ugly! Forget it. They're not going to listen.

Solveig Eggerz: I've been in classes where people have just burst into tears under heavy criticism. So people are so vulnerable and this is such a fragile, fragile thing that we want to encourage.

C.M. Mayo: Oh, well I want to take your class! But I'm in Mexico! I hope I get there soon.

Solveig Eggerz: Well, don't let me sort of dump it on you, but just in casual conversation.

C.M. Mayo: Well, I hope our…

Solveig Eggerz: We've got to stop talking about this.

C.M. Mayo: Well I hope our paths can cross again soon. I'm sure they will.

Solveig Eggerz: I hope to see you soon, and I've got to commend you for this very original approach.

C.M. Mayo: Well thank you. Well, I enjoy this.

Solveig Eggerz: This is such fun.

C.M. Mayo: Oh, it is. It is!

Well, I'll do an official sign-off in a moment, but Solveig, I think that we can learn so much from just speaking to other writers and sharing our experiences with other writers. And I think so often for so many people writing is very lonely. But I think also that for people who are beginning writing, they'll look at writers who have published and they kind of feel…I think all of us do at some point, that you're like the kid with their nose pressed up against the glass of the candy store, there's candy in there. You get to be a published writer and you get to be interviewed and you get to be on radio and TV and get your stuff reviewed. And it seems like when you're a beginning writer, it sometimes seems like you can't get past that glass. You can see all the goodies in there, you can't get in there.

And the reality is for those of us who have been published, it's wonderful, but it's kind of ordinary, too. And then once you're in there there's other stores and other things you want you don't have, and it's just unnecessarily mysterious.

I kind of feel like let's just take the mystery away from that and let's talk about what we're really doing. And I think it was very important what you said about how, you know, focus on doing a good book.

And I remember when I was starting, so many people said that and I thought oh, they're just saying that because they're published. [Laughs] But now that I am published, I do understand that, that you can waste a lot of time with worrying about getting published, and at some point you get perspective and you say, you know, what really does matter is the work.

And now that we're in this world where physical book stores and newspapers don't play the same preponderant role that they used to—they're still very important, but they're not the only show in town.

It is a very real thing that people can pick up and talk about a book that's a few years old much more easily than they used to.

So the ones that are really worth reading are still going to be around, so you don't want to rush something out the door just to get published.

Solveig Eggerz: No, and you don't want to short cut, take any short cuts on your writing, to short cut it into commercialism was the point I was trying to make.

C.M. Mayo: And what commercial is really— who really knows what's commercial?

I mean, I can tell you, War and Peace, that book would not get past an agent in 2011. They would say, it's too long, you need to cut it, there are too many characters. [Laughs]

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah. Right. Right.

C.M. Mayo: Another War and Peace, you know! That's the most famous novel ever! So go figure.

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah. The person we know who would never be published today is Thomas Wolfe with all that extra verbosity, he goes on and on and on.

C.M. Mayo: Yeah. So you just have to do what's right for you and…

Solveig Eggerz: He had a following. He was very popular.

Another thing here, though, is that I'm in a writer's group that…well, I haven't been with them now for a long time because they're very different from me, but this group that I have tangentially been with is very oriented to publishing e-books and self-publishing. And some of them have been very successful, and this really is being viewed as competition for the traditional publishers. So I will not knock that at all. I'm not into that, but I find it very interesting and a very worthwhile competition.There are reviewers who will only review books that appear online, so this is a world of its own, that kind of publishing.

C.M. Mayo: I sometimes think more people look at Facebook than the New York Times, and if you have the right friends on Facebook, they might recommend some really good books for you.

Solveig Eggerz: Yeah. I'm spending a bit too much time on Facebook.

C.M. Mayo: Who isn't? [Laughs] Now it's 2011. Let's see what happens in 2012. Maybe it'll be something else.

[UPDATE: Adios Facebook: Six Reasons Why I Deactivated My Account]

Solveig Eggerz: They'll have something else.

C.M. Mayo: Solveig, thank you so much for giving your time and your thoughts.

Solveig Eggerz: Well you're very welcome, Catherine.


Announcer: Visit again for more conversations with other writers, as well as other podcasts with your host, C.M. Mayo at cmmayo.com/podcasts.