Language as Pure Magic: Karin Tidbeck Interviewed by Lincoln Michel

The Swedish writer on their bloody, darkly comedic speculative fiction.

Memory Theater7

At a time when more and more people are interested in “genre-bending” literature, the Swedish author Karin Tidbeck doesn’t bend genres so much as slip between them. Their works are elusive and impossible to pigeonhole. Tidbeck’s first collection, Jagannath, includes a man who falls in love with an airship, a woman creating a child in a tin can with menstrual blood and a carrot, and strange birthing machines. Their first novel, Amatka, sits somewhere between science fiction and Kafkaesque dream and follow colonists who farm mushrooms in a world where language transforms matter.

When you open a Tidbeck book, you truly don’t know what you are going to get.

Their new novel, The Memory Theater (Pantheon), might be more easily classified as fantasy but is no less original. The novel opens in a magical place called “the gardens” in which time doesn’t exist and rich immortals relax by murdering their servants. (This is a fairy tale in the tradition of the original blood-soaked Brothers Grimm tales, if the hourglass filled with blood on the cover didn’t tip you off.) Two of these servants, Thistle and Dora, manage to escape but must track down their tormenter who holds Thistle’s true name. The journey takes them across dimensions and time where they encounter a host of wondrous, grotesque, and strange creatures. It’s a wild and original ride.

I spoke to Tidbeck over email about the power of names, speculative fiction, and “folkloric background radiation.” 

—Lincoln Michel


Lincoln Michel Several characters and elements of The Memory Theater appeared in short stories in your fantastic 2012 collection Jagannath, and you’ve said that those stories had their origins in a Nordic Live Action Role Play (LARP) game you co-wrote in 2005. What was the process of turning these ideas into a novel? Did you always plan for the short stories to be expanded upon?

Karin TidbeckI didn’t have a plan—I never have a plan. I submit to the story and see what happens. I wrote the first drafts of “Augusta Prima,” “Aunts,” and what became the opening to the novel back in about 2006. Then they just sat in a folder on my computer for a long time, until I put my first short story collection in Swedish together—Vem är Arvid Pekon?—that was published in 2010. The editor cut all the fantasy stories from the collection, and I put them back in when I translated them and published Jagannath. 

At some point, I started writing other stories that seemed loosely connected to this world. One of them, “A Fine Show on the Abyssal Plain,” ended up in Lightspeed. Some others were just scraps. And then I slowly started piecing them together and realized that this was a novel. It was a long, long process, much like Amatka which started out as a poetry collection. It wasn’t until well into the work that I finally believed that it was a novel. There’s this concept of writers being either “plotters” or “pantsers”: plotting a story out before they start, or flying by the seat of their pants. I’m definitely a pantser, and always have been. 

LM Names have a special power in the world(s) of The Memory Theater, and the characters have a wide array of names drawn from different languages and mythologies: Thistle, Augusta Prima, Mnemosyne, Walpurgis, Nils Nilsson. Could you talk about naming your characters and perhaps more generally how language informs your world-building? 

KT The names come from a wide range of places. The servants in the novel are all named for flowers, because that’s how the masters dehumanize them. Thistle, Calla, Yarrow, and so on. I picked flowers that grow in Scandinavia. The masters all have fanciful names that mirror their origin, which I shouldn’t spoil. And Nils Nilsson, well, I actually stole that from my great-grandfather who came from the north and was an almost mythical character. He had five fingers total because he shot three of them off (supporting himself on his rifle while climbing over a fence) and lost two to a wood-turning machine. Not that he let that stop him; he continued on as a very gifted woodworker and built an organ out of a sofa. It’s also a very Swedish name. Back in those days, in villages, there wasn’t a huge variety of names. As for language, I have always been enamored with different languages and the musical sound of words. Language is what makes the world, it changes how we see the world; in the novel, language and sound are pure magic. I’ve studied six languages all in all, so the love for languages will always be threaded through my writing.

Portrait of Karin Tidbeck

Photo of Karin Tidbeck by Patrik Åkervinda.

LM Trauma informs a lot of the characters in The Memory Theater, and many of your short stories such as “I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You”—a favorite of mine—deal with mental health and mental illness through a speculative fiction lens. Is there a way that fantasy and science fiction are uniquely capable of dealing with these topics? 

KT I think so. Fantastic fiction allows us to enact and realize ideas and concepts in a completely different way than social realist fiction does. I can not only speak about, say, mental illness—I can visualize it. I don’t think about it as writing an allegory, though. What I write about is what you see on the page. But the lens of fantastic fiction lets me tell the story on a different level. I don’t think I know any other way to do it. It’s the way I have written stories ever since I was a child. “I Have Placed My Sickness Upon You,” by the way, rose out of my frustration over the poor health care I was given at the time. It’s an imagining of what would happen if the Swedish health care system resorted to magic. They wouldn’t handle it very well. 

LM The novel hops through multiple realities, most of which feel unmoored from time. When the characters entire our world, WWII hangs in the background. Why did you decide to set part of the novel in that specific historical time period?  

KT It was somewhat of an accident, in a way, but then again maybe not. Like I said previously, the novel was pieced together by different pieces that I realized could share a space. When I grew up, my mother and grandmother would tell stories about what it was like during the war. My grandmother came from up north, close to the Norwegian border. She moved south in the 1930s but continued to correspond with my great-grandmother, and I have the letters. I was deeply moved by the depictions of everyday life during those times. WWII has been present in my life because my family often spoke of those times. Sweden wasn’t in the war but was deeply affected in many ways. So, I started writing a story set in that time period, and I realized that it could be connected to the other stories. And so, Nils Nilsson was born.

LM There is a darkly comedic bloodiness to The Memory Theater that recalls the original Grimm fairy tales, and there are also references to the fae and the vittra. Were fairy tales a formulative influence for you as a writer and reader? What else influenced you when writing this novel?

KT I grew up reading all kinds of fairy tales, and have always been fascinated by them, especially when I went outside of the cutesy children’s books and discovered the real and often frightening stories of Nordic supernatural creatures. They’re not nice people. So, I’ve been sort of imbued by the folkloric background radiation. It later led to an interest in Forteana and paranormal phenomena. The idea that there is more to this world than what we can perceive with our senses, that we share this space with other intelligent lifeforms.

As for being influenced by other things, it’s hard to pinpoint what that might be. The whole thing took years to write, and I’ve read and experienced a lot of things during that time. But the theater troupe in the story are essentially method actors, and I took inspiration both from Nordic LARP (which is closer to improvisational theater than the kind you might think of) and the stage. I also spoke a lot with a close friend, Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom, who is an adoption activist, about the experience of having been stolen from your family. Her graphic novel Palimpsest informed my understanding of Thistle’s situation as a stolen child. And then there is the correspondence between my great-grandmother and my grandmother. And some library science. 

LM In addition to co-writing an experimental LARP, you’ve written for video games and have talked before about enjoying board games. Do games inform your novels and stories? Your sense of what fiction can do?

KT Yes, games definitely inform what I do. I have played video games since I was a child, and played roleplaying games and LARP since my teens. I still do all those things. When I was writing characters for a LARP about humans and angels I discovered that I was good at the craft, that I had something to say. I went on to create and co-write for several other LARPs over the years. Cooperative storytelling is an essential part of how I think about stories; it’s an old art that has been around for as long as humans have been telling stories. 

Writing characters for LARP for so many years has made me very conscious of the psychology and makeup of a person, and the narrative of a story often springs entirely from who a character is rather than the worldbuilding. The person comes first, the world later, and the narrative is controlled by what the characters want and do. I also tend to draw maps and accumulate vast amounts of material about the world, much like a game master. I have a binder of information about Amatka somewhere, and the amount of material about The Memory Theater could fill another book. But only the parts directly relevant to the story go into the actual book. I’m not an info dump person.

LM Your work is described with many different labels: fantasy, science fiction, surrealism, fabulism, weird fiction. Do you have an affinity to any of those labels in particular? Is “genre” something you think about when you write a story?

KT I don’t care about genre when writing. The story is what it is; someone else can label it whatever they like. I don’t have a particular affinity to any of the genres. I just do what feels right. 

LM Any chance of more stories set in any of the worlds that appear in The Memory Theater?

KT I have no idea! I’m working on a completely different project now, but there’s a short story rattling around about urban gnomes stealing cars that might have some connection.  

The Memory Theater is available for purchase here.

Lincoln Michel is the author of the story collection Upright Beasts and the novel The Body Scout, forthcoming from Orbit this October. He is also the co-editor of the anthologies Tiny Crimes and Tiny Nightmares. His work appears in The Paris Review, The New York Times, Granta, Strange Horizons, and elsewhere. You can find him online at and @thelincoln.

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