Michael Z. Williamson
  • Interview with Lars Walker

    Q: First of all, tell us about your books.

    A: My first novel was Erling’s Word, published, like all my books, by Baen. You can still get it but it’s redundant now, since Baen republished it with its sequel in a double volume called The Year Of the Warrior. The Erling books are a series of historical fantasies about a genuine historical figure named Erling Skjalgsson. He was the most powerful man in Norway between the reigns of Olaf Trygvesson and St. Olaf Haraldsson. He’s an intriguing character who lived in a time of change and conflict, and writing his story gives me a chance to unload my opinions on lots of ethical, political and religious matters.

    My other published novel is Wolf Time, a near-future fantasy set in a Minnesota town a lot like the one where I grew up. It involves a man possessed by the spirit of Odin who tries to re-establish the old ways in the modern world. Just as a warning to any Asatru reading this – he’s the villain. Blood and Judgment, which is coming this December, is a prequel to Wolf Time, but only by virtue of being set in the same town. It involves an amateur theater company that gets sucked into an alternate universe where the Hamlet play is real, and they’re all positioned to play their parts out – which means of course that they have to die. At the same time the guy in the Hamlet role turns out to have switched souls with the real Hamlet in 6th Century Denmark – so the actor is inhabiting “Amlodd’s” body in the past, while the real Amlodd’s soul is in the actor’s body in the Hamlet world. (Try saying that three times fast.)

    Q: You’re a re-enactor?

    A: Depends on your definition of “re-enactor.” I’m an active member of the Viking Age Club of the Sons of Norway in Minneapolis. We do a number of encampments and exhibitions each year, mostly at ethnic festivals. We were privileged to be part of the hands-on Viking Village when the Smithsonian Vikings exhibit came to St. Paul last year. One place where we’re lacking, though, is fighting. We had some fighters in our group, but they split off from us recently. I have a full battle rig including riveted brynje and gambeson (purchased from Crazy Einar), but I confess to my shame that I’m no warrior. I do leather tooling mostly, and we have wood carvers and card-weavers, and… thunder and lightning – we’re a bunch of hippies! Somebody beat me up, quick!

    Q: Do you speak Norwegian?

    A: I speak it badly. I read it pretty well. When I go to Norway they understand me when I talk, but I don’t understand them very well when they talk back. That’s what comes of learning a language from books.

    Q: Walker isn’t a Scandinavian name, is it?

    A: No, my great-grandfather Jan Olson Kvalevaag took the name Walker shortly after getting off the boat from Norway. I’m ¾ Norwegian and ¼ Dane.

    Q: The Year Of the Warrior is narrated by an Irish priest. Why did you choose that point of view?

    A: When I think of the Viking novels I’ve read and the Viking movies I’ve seen, it seems to me there’s something “clunky” about them. The Viking world-view and ethos were very different from ours, and that makes it hard for us to understand their motivations (we have the same problem understanding the Muslim world today). The fact that Father Aillil is Irish isn’t as important as the fact that he’s been a slave. He’s gotten something knocked out of him – something he was born with and every free Northman or Irishman was born with – a prickly sense of honor. He’s learned to laugh at himself, which neither Irishmen nor Vikings did much back then. This makes him more like a modern man than most of the people around him, and it helps me bridge the cultural gap for the reader.

    Q: Do you think you understand the Viking mind?

    A: I like to think I do, so far as a modern American can. It’s an outsider’s understanding though. I’m a little like Aillil. I’m nothing like Erling.

    I’m not a Viking partisan. I have friends who’ll tell you the Vikings had the greatest civilization the world has ever seen, with perfect freedom and equality for all; that they were the victims of a smear campaign waged by those awful monks. I don’t buy that. I think the Vikings were especially violent people in a violent time. They combined exceptional ruthlessness with superior shipbuilding technology, and seriously threatened European civilization for a time (in my world-view threatening European civilization is a bad thing). They were also the foremost slave merchants of Europe in their day. In my books, as in the sagas, “Viking” is used in its technical sense – meaning pirate – and has a negative connotation. But the Vikings fascinate me. I like their style, and I appreciate the positive contributions they made to Europe. They certainly did make positive contributions, such as giving us the jury system and the Saturday night bath. The whole period is full of complications and ambivalence, which makes it fertile ground for fiction.

    And there’s one more thing – romance. If adventure has a name, it’s not Indiana Jones for me. It’s “Viking.” If you want to know where my heart is, it’s on a long ship in the North Sea.

    Q: What kind of research have you done?

    A: I’ve read almost everything I could get my hands on about Vikings since I was ten years old. Learning Norwegian made some material available to me that pure Anglophones can’t get. I don’t pretend that makes me an expert, but I consider myself a pretty fair amateur historian in a limited field.

    Q: You’ve been to Norway?

    A: I’ve gone to Norway twice. I’ve visited most of the places I write about in The Year Of the Warrior, since I have family roots there. I recently finished a new novel called West Oversea that takes Erling and his friends to Iceland, Greenland and Vinland. I made a short visit to Iceland to lay the foundation for that.

    Q: What’s your present project?

    A: I’m nearly finished with another near-future book, where I bring Jarl Haakon of Hladir forward in time. I’m having fun with that. I’m afraid my Haakon doesn’t have a very high opinion of re-enactors (imagine R. Lee Ermey reviewing Civil War re-enactors). But he loves the Three Stooges.

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