Larissa Brown’s novel, Beautiful Wreck, crosses genres and time periods to deliver a powerful story about love, identity and language. The book is speculative fiction with a time-travel twist and a strong, heady sweep of Viking romance. Despite this being her first novel, Larissa manipulates these genre conventions with confidence and her own sense of style.
At the beginning of Beautiful Wreck, Larissa’s protagonist Jen lives in an Iceland of the future, works for a company that creates artificial realities based on much-earlier eras, and yearns for a simpler time when people worked the land. The author renders those different time periods, and her protagonist’s identity in relation to each one, with a lyricism that feels perfectly organic, since Jen is a linguist by trade.
Beautiful Wreck’s futuristic Icelandic landscape evokes coldness and isolation, which resonates with how Jen feels disconnected from her contemporaries. Larissa has done a lot of research, including traveling to Iceland to experience the landscape and culture first-hand. As a renowned knitting pattern designer, she is attuned to the nuances of texture and construction. Her novel—with its ambitious, multi-genre scope—definitely benefits from her careful attention to detail and her commitment to research.
While working on the current draft of Beautiful Wreck, Larissa has been exploring Iceland through stitches by creating a series of six knitting patterns inspired by her research. She’s releasing the patterns over the course of a year and has published three since beginning the project last September. If you purchase her e-book collection, My Viking Love Story: six shawls and wraps, you’ll receive the new patterns as they are available. The three she has released so far—Into the Steam, Lítla and From the Fields—are also available individually.
Larissa’s two published knitting pattern collections are Knitalong: Celebrating the Tradition of Knitting Together and My Grandmother’s Knitting: Family Stories and Inspired Knits From Top Designers.
Welcome to the Seven Questions Series, Larissa!
1. Tell us about your novel, Beautiful Wreck. What’s it about, and where are you in the writing process?
It’s so nice to be able to say “I’m writing a love story.” As a lark, I set out to write a time travel romance book. A year later, it’s become more of speculative fiction love story. The book takes place both in a cold, flat future and in tenth century Iceland—a place of rugged danger and breathtaking beauty. My character, Jen/Ginn, accidentally travels to the early 900s and lives on a farm.
It started as a lark—an attempt to dash off what my husband and I now refer to as a pop-up castle romance. But the more I researched Viking Iceland, the more I started to love this book and treat it as a literary work. It’s become a novel about home and honor and the fluidity of time. The book still includes many of the tropes of time travel romance, which is so fun. There is still an epic love hero (more of an anti-hero, though he does have long, flowing hair and a big ax.)
I’m at the close-to-first-draft phase. Very close! I imagine “first draft” means something different to each author. In my case, it will be readable as a novel by anyone, even a stranger. In order, no gaps, the characters’ stories are all there. I’ve already done a first and second pass of very heavy slashing and world-changing. But it will need a lot of pruning and finishing to become a really good book. This is my first novel, and I’m excited to find out what comes next once I have the 150,000 words on the page and can dig back in.
2. Why did you decide to write about 10th century Iceland?
It turns out Iceland in the 900s is a singularly well-suited time and place for a love story.
Virtually all the hundreds of time travel and historical romances are about Scottish heroes romantically roaming the highlands in nothing but kilts. Though these can be wonderful, I wanted to do something else. Vikings sounded epic, so I started researching them and looking for a place and time period that could meet a lot of criteria. Unbelievably, it existed!
Settlement age Iceland had its own strangely logical violence, for sure, but compared to the rest of Europe, it was a relatively peaceful place where men stayed put long enough to be part of a real love story. It was a pre-Christian time, which allowed me to work with the Norse gods and ancestral spirits as a force in the book. Iceland’s natural hot pools and baths made it hygienic enough for romance, because, Medieval sex… ew…. Finally, there are some things known about daily life there and then, but not too much. It gave me lots of room to be creative with details.
2a. Where did you start in terms of research, and what has been your most effective research tool?
I started looking for anything that was known about daily life on a farm in that time and place. I think it was a human sized place to start, and I was already comfortable with fiber arts and natural dyeing, which comprised a lot of the women’s work. I moved out from the daily life on the farms to reading some of the Icelandic Sagas, stories that were written down a couple hundred years after the times they depicted. I researched anything that came up as I wrote. For example, how to cut up a beached whale with hand tools. (The librarians at Multnomah County Library will help you find the answer to any crazy question.)
I’ve tried to do things instead of just read about them. I went to a re-enactment society’s campout and tried living and cooking in a five-pound floor-length dress. I tried nalbiding, and I made Viking mouthwash from angelica root. I started learning just a little about Old Norse; I have a friend Dale who is a poet and knows that language! I’m going to shoot a bow and arrow and take some kickboxing classes over the next two months, since these figure into the story. I even traveled to Iceland this summer and went to the actual farm mine is based on. I spent (too short an amount of) time in the land there, feeling what it was like.
As for actual tools, my number one is Pinterest. I can keep any kind of image, video or resource there. An evocative photo of a woman immersed in the sea or a man in Viking clothing looking out over a valley can sit next to videos of how to sharpen a scythe or shear a sheep. They’re all in one place. I have certain pencils—the Paper Mate ones that look like wooden pencils, and I use Scrivener. My Nook and Kindle have been important tools. There are a lot of obscure and heavy books involved in my research!
3. You recently traveled to Iceland. Did experiencing the landscape deepen your knowledge of your characters? What were some of the highlights of your trip?
When I started writing the book, the time and place was so foreign to me, I needed a base from which I could explore. I chose a real Viking Age farm, called Stöng, in Southern Iceland. Excavation has turned up tons of everyday objects and the floor and walls of the actual house are there. Nearby, a turf house has been reconstructed based on the ruins.
I looked closely at that place on maps and in photographs, wishing I could reach through the screen. Like my character does, basically.
When I got a chance to visit Iceland, the highlight was visiting that actual farm. It was in some ways exactly like I thought it would be. In others it was like entering a completely unexpected fairytale world. Just a few minutes’ walk from the house, through a stand of twisted birch trees, there is a pretty ravine. Twin waterfalls fall down a rock face and join in a lovely pool. Having studied how hard frontier life was in the Icelandic wilderness, the real place struck me as surprisingly romantic. The experience gave a softness and real heart to the setting of my book.
Another highlight of that trip, which didn’t seem like one at the time, was being chased by plovers.
4. Your Kickstarter campaign, created to raise transportation money to get you to Erik the Red’s house, offered a really interesting reward: hand-written postcards sent from Iceland. What was your Kickstarter experience like? Would you recommend that kind of fund-raising effort to other writers who want to visit the places they’re writing about?
Kickstarter was great. Knowing that dozens of people out there cared enough to support my book was quite inspiring. I’d been sharing all kinds of photos of snippets or research on facebook, but I felt like Kickstarter was the first time I officially said to the world “I am writing a novel. A time travel love story.” It’s a very nerdy and bold thing to bring yourself to say. I got support from people I hadn’t seen in 20 years, and some I didn’t know and still don’t.
I made it low key by setting a tiny goal and a single kind of reward: a postcard from Erik the Red’s house in Iceland. The cards were surprisingly motivating for people. I had a few tell me they didn’t mind if I changed my research plans or even changed my whole book as long as they got a card with a stamp from Iceland!
In the end, the time I spent setting up and promoting my little campaign was well spent. One of the most valuable things Kickstarter does is force you to distill your project into a few paragraphs. Writing about my research for Kickstarter made me realize that I had already done so much—more than I realized. It made me feel very solid in what I’d accomplished so far.
5. Throughout the next twelve months, you’re releasing patterns from your e-book, My Viking Love Song: six shawls and wraps. How has your fiction writing informed your knitting? Has knitting informed your novel?
All the ingredients for anything creative in my head right now are Viking and Icelandic. An ax with particularly lovely lines made me think of an unusual shawl shape. A traditional sheep herding pen gave me thoughts on a round shawl with a radiating pattern. So when I think about knitting designs, that’s the stuff I have to draw on these days.
So I’m designing a collection of shawls and wraps. They are not things the characters would wear. Women in Viking Age Iceland probably had nothing so fine and lacy and detailed. But the designs are inspired by who my characters are, and in some cases important moments or objects in the story.
Fire is central to the story, whales and foxes are important. So is the house they live in; it’s almost like a living thing, a character of its own. Those subjects come out in designs. A richly cabled shawl is named for a character, Betta; a lace stole with a linear and twining pattern is called Melrakki, the Old Norse word for arctic fox; another shawl is called Heartstone, a fictional word I concocted for the main hearth in the house.
6. How is your approach to writing fiction similar to or different from how you write a knitting pattern? I’m particularly curious about whether you plan out your patterns in advance, or if they develop as you go, and whether you wrote an outline for your novel.
My approach, ha! That sounds so organized. In both cases I dive right into a new idea and am very impatient. I have to pace myself and make myself go through all the testing and refining that a good idea deserves.
Other than that, I approach them in almost opposite ways. For the book, I spent several months writing scenes that flowed freely whenever the mood struck me. I immersed myself in the character’s voice and the feel of the place. I wrote a ton, most of which will never be used. Now I’m fixing the bones of it, giving it the structure it needs.
For a knitting design, I create structure first and then try out the stitches. I’ve been doing this for a while now, and in many cases I’m able to complete and publish a design without even finishing my own prototype. I work with sample knitters who make the actual pieces shown in my design photos, and in many cases I’ve never made the project myself.
7. How long have you been designing knitwear?
I started around the time I wrote my first knitting book in 2006. As with most of my creative endeavors, I started without much experience. I created 20 patterns for the book having never designed anything before. During the week of the photo shoot, I was sitting up at night finishing things that would be shot the next day.
7a. What advice do you have for people who want to establish themselves in a creative field?
Be fearless about jumping in. Try to avoid overanalyzing the project or process. I see writers mess around with software and index cards for the longest time without picking up a pencil and writing even a thousand words.
I’d also suggest what almost every creative person does: Do things the way you know they should be. From your heart and taking into consideration craft. Don’t do anything that’s designed only to please others or sell. That’s a recipe for mediocrity if not disaster.
My husband, also a novelist, gave me the greatest advice to write a little manifesto for myself about why I loved my book and why I’m writing it just this way, so that when I start getting critiques I will have that touchstone. A tool for taking or leaving others’ advice. I’d pass that along as a great idea for people who are establishing themselves in any creative field. Write your manifesto. Have something formal to remember why you’re in this and what it means to you.
Thanks so much for participating in the Seven Questions Series, Larissa!