Independent Author Bjørn Larssen tells us about his process for Storytellers and how it started out as one thing and ended up as something entirely different.
“Tell me about your family,” said Juana one evening. They were learning words that described family members. “Father, mother, brother, sister…”
“I have two brother.”
“Two brothers. Very good! Are they as good-looking as you?”
Arnar’s smile soured slightly. “I’ve got a twin brother, Ingvar. Definitely not as good-looking as me, though. Sticks his nose in the books all day. He’ll be a bishop one day. My other brother, Bjarni, he’s a constructor, he builds houses. Nobody’s better at it. One day, he’ll build wonders no human eye has seen before, but first he’ll build my house when I go back one day…”
“So, one is the smart one, one is the craftsman… and what about you?”
Arnar’s gaze met hers. “I’m the lucky one,” he said.
-Storytellers by Bjorn Larssen
Three brothers – a carpenter, a fisherman, a pastor – compete for the hand of a woman. As time passes, they become ready to use any ways and means to get their “prize”, her opinion on the matter irrelevant. This story is being told by a strange traveller, stuck because of an injury, impatiently waiting to recover so that he can settle the scores for the last time. This was the original outline for Storytellers. The book was supposed to be a crime novel set a hundred years ago.
This didn’t happen.
It would take me twenty-one complete rewrites and twenty-six months before I would understand what the novel was even about. It wouldn’t be until two months after the release that I would realise I wrote literary fiction disguised as historical suspense.
I knew that the book would take place in a tightly wound community, both claustrophobic and isolated, where everyone would whisper behind each other’s backs, yet remain convinced that their own secrets are the only ones remaining safe. As I continued working with my editor, rewrite after rewrite, I started paying more attention to the community itself and the roles within it. The lover, the hunter, the good guy, the bad guy, the outsider…
Names change, people die or depart, new ones are born or move over. But the roles must always be fulfilled, the unwritten rules followed. “Gunnar,” my protagonist hears, “it’s just not done.” It’s the most important sentence in the book, one that effectively changes the genre.
When the heroine, a young American named Juana, arrives in Iceland in 1885 she finds herself completely lost, dependent on the man who brought her there. Her role back home used to be “the third daughter who was meant to be a son”. She was promised freedom and adventure. Instead she finds herself being “the outsider” and “the prize”, lonely and unable to affect her own fate. Her new role is neither nice nor easy. But then – is it easy to be “the good one” forced on a pedestal, “the bad one” universally hated and despised, or even “the one who makes decisions” whether she wants to be in control or not? What if the pedestal crumbles, the decisions prove to be wrong, the prize decides to run away from its “owner”?
“Mark my words,” said Anna. “This is never going to help you accomplish anything. It is not the dress that’s the problem and it’s not the make-up or whatever it is that you have done to make your hair so shiny. You’re doing it all wrong.”
Brynhildur threw the remnants of the dress on the floor as two more angry tears flew down her face, smudging the eyeliner further. “What am I supposed to do then?! Tell me, Mother, how did you catch Father? What did you or Ásta do that I am not doing? Tell me!”
Thirty-five years later, Brynhildur wants to be the prize. She fails to understand that one of the requirements of this particular “job” is not seeking it. Frustrated, she becomes more and more assertive, not realising that the prize doesn’t get to pick its winner. Brynhildur berates Gunnar for not fighting for her hard enough. Finally she drops all pretences, screaming “You have no choice!”. But he does, we all do. It depends on how much pain we’re willing to take. Gunnar is used to pain – life rarely provided him with anything but.
The blacksmith didn’t understand how so many people managed to cope with each other, especially in the winter when they were stuck together under one roof with little to do. Stranger still, they seemed to enjoy it.
You’re broken, the darkness taunted him. You don’t know how to live like normal people. No wonder nobody loves you. When you die nobody will remember you. That will be your legacy, said the darkness, its disembodied voice filled with fake pity.
Only one of the people I wrote about is happy. There’s nothing particularly interesting about her life, which is exactly what she wants, very pleased with the confines of her grey box. During the blog tour for Storytellers I was asked which of my characters I would like to swap places with. “The dog,” I answered.
Gunnar is doomed from the start, because he is too human, therefore weak and defenceless. He is wrestling with one adversary already, one he carries inside. Now he has to deal with more and more as the community is reminded about his existence. Conservative Women of Iceland see him as an exemplary Christian – once they are done fixing him. Brynhildur sees him as an adequate husband – once she is done fixing him. As for Sigurd, the storyteller, he sees Gunnar as dead. Similarly as Juana thirty-five years earlier, Gunnar is never asked what his opinion is, just informed that the life he has built for himself is no longer considered acceptable. There are consequences to living outside a box, and they’re painful.
They say that truth is written by the winners, and Sigurd is determined to win, even if nobody else knows that a game is being played and scores kept. As he watches Gunnar struggle, he assures himself that once he is done and no longer dependent on his host, killing him will be an act of mercy. After all, nobody is a villain in their own story. Every action can be justified and every lie become the truth, if we try hard enough. if you don’t believe me, ask my characters – my editor and I had very little control over the book until they decided they were satisfied.
Ok, I’m going to be completely honest here – this story is amazing, and also very incredibly real. Sometimes too real. I have never read anything that has so perfectly embodied the issues faced when dealing with depression and anxiety: loneliness, denial, addiction, suicidal thoughts, doubt, an unwillingness to accept offered help simply because you feel you’re not worthy of it. While I went into Storytellers expecting one thing, I was presented with so much more. Yes, I got a story of blind faith and loyalty laced with treachery and heartbreak. Yes, I got a story of a downtrodden man who finally decides to change his life as he sees fit, unwilling to let others pave the path of his future for him. Yes, I got a little bit of mystery with a little bit of magic, followed by INSANE, jaw-dropping revelations. But at its heart, Storytellers is a tale of evading the darkness, bearing with the pain of tragedy, and living to see the sun rise another day.
Whispers and Wonders
Everything about Storytellers is unique. The book is told as a story within a story, moving back and forth between past and present, interweaving character’s lives to reveal the truth in the end. Bjørn Larssen skillfully and subtly leaves puzzle pieces of truth throughout the story, creating twists and turns that kept the pages turning for me. This is a bit of a slow burn, but the payoff is so worth it.
Storytellers, as I said, is unique in many ways. The characters aren’t particularly likeable, with so many secrets and frustrating behaviors. Gunnar is set on an interesting journey of character development. He starts off lonely, miserable to wanting to be the hero. Not many novels can pull off such an unlikable MC in the beginning. I love it about this one.
Gunnar’s tale is one of bleak isolation, loneliness, depression, addiction and grief. He desperately wants to change his life, but thwarts himself at every turn and recoils in horror from any offers of help. The story Sigurd tells is a saga of love and violence, temptation and betrayal, within a small community.
It very quickly becomes clear that the two threads are linked by more than just the teller. Both plots are driven in a large part by the setting: the bleak, cold beauty of Iceland and the darkness that can lurk in a small, closed community when isolated by such geographic wilderness.
Book Shine and Rainbows
Storytellers - A Novel
In March 1920 Icelandic days are short and cold, but the nights are long. For most, on those nights, funny, sad, and dramatic stories are told around the fire. But there is nothing dramatic about Gunnar, a hermit blacksmith who barely manages to make ends meet. He knows nobody will remember his existence – they already don’t. All he wants is peace, the company of his animals, and a steady supply of his medication. Sometimes he wonders what it would feel like to have a story of his own. He’s about to find out.
Sigurd – a man with a plan, a broken ankle, and shocking amounts of money – won’t talk about himself, but is happy to tell a story that just might get Gunnar killed. The blacksmith’s other “friends” are just as eager to write him into stories of their own – from Brynhildur who wants to fix Gunnar, then marry him, his doctor who is on the precipice of calling for an intervention, The Conservative Women of Iceland who want to rehabilitate Gunnar’s “heathen ways” – even that wicked elf has plans for the blacksmith.
As his defenses begin to crumble, Gunnar decides that perhaps his life is due for a change – on his own terms. But can he avoid the endings others have in mind for him, and forge his own?
The author is an ex-blacksmith, lover of all things Icelandic, physically located in Amsterdam, mentally living in a log cabin near Akureyri. He has published stories and essays in Polish and American magazines, both online and in print. This is his first novel.
Purchase link: https://getbook.at/storytellers
About The Author
Where to find Him
Amazon author page:https://www.amazon.com/Bj%C3%B8rn-Larssen/e/B07P5TQ6Q8/
Goodreads author page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/18916648.Bj_rn_Larssen
Chapter one excerpt: https://storytellers.is/storytellers-chapter-one-excerpt/