Tova Näslund comes from the outskirts of Luleå in Norrbotten county, Sweden, and graduated from Roehampton with a BA in Creative Writing. During Tova's degree, she published a role-playing game scenario with Pelgrane Press in an anthology titled "Seven Wonders", and a short film script, "The Birthday Party", published in "Purple Lights" (Fincham Press, 2017). Her novel extract "The Month of Rot" has been published in Fincham Press' latest anthology "The Unseen" (Dec, 2017).
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HJ: Thank you for agreeing to speak with me about your wonderful success of getting into ‘The Unseen’ (Fincham Press, 2017). So tell me a little bit about yourself, what you do and what piece made it into the anthology.
TN: Alright so right now I’m living in Sweden, because I just finished my bachelor’s at Roehampton, so I am taking a break from my studies and trying to get writing projects happening here in Sweden. Next week for example, in a place called Umeå, we’re hosting a series of workshops for kids and trying to get them started with creative writing. It’s really cool and it’s a paid job, which is always nice!
HJ: That is really nice, writers don’t often get paid unless they hit a bestseller, so it’s quite the luxury!
TN: I know, I know the struggle now! Well we are doing that and it’s been a work-in-progress, but now we have managed to get something sorted out so I’ll be going to do that next week.
HJ: Excellent! Now from our previous communications, you have told me the piece that was accepted was called ‘The Month of Rot’ and it was an extract from your on-going novel. Could you tell us a little bit about that?
TN: That is an excerpt from the novel I’m writing at the moment, also titled ‘The Moth of Rot’ and it is based here in Sweden. It started with this image of one of the rural areas here that I have visited for a while, and I kind of worked my way from these little images and the kind of atmosphere they conveyed to me, and from that I managed to come up with this crime story about a young boy who has done something terrible and ever since he’s done that, his whole life has been through this perspective where his world is filled with dead animals and unpleasantness. It is quite dark, but we have such dark winters here in Sweden that I get a lot of inspiration from that!
HJ: Yes of course, is it night all the time there now or is it too early still?
TN: Yes it is pitch black outside and we don’t have any snow at the moment, so there is nothing to reflect the moonlight. So it is just really dark. In the summer is it similar, the sun doesn’t go down, so that inspired me as well. In this run-down little village you have the sun always in the sky and when you are trying to escape from something you’ve done, there is really nowhere to hide as the sun is always shining, and you will always be watched and judged. It gave me a lot to base my ideas off of, so it is a very thematic piece.
HJ: And how did you go about creating your main character? Is there a main character or are there multiple characters?
TN: Well there is one main character. I wanted to the story to be a bit surreal and I wanted it to be seen through the eyes of someone who has a skewed perspective on things. That made me want to make the main character very young. Not only does he have a different perspective on the things he sees but also on other people and those he lives with. His older brother for example, he is someone he admires and looks up to a lot, but perhaps from an adult’s perspective his brother may not necessarily be someone you would look up to, he’s a bit of a fuck up. He’s not the biggest idol. So it’s a lot about having this kid, his perspective on things and his inability to cope with what he’s done.
HJ: How old is he?
TN: About 12.
HJ: So it’s about how a child struggles with guilt in this landscape that is quite exposing. Is it quite a close community in the story?
TN: Yes it is a run-down tourist area, which has always been there. It’s not up kept anymore, so it’s basically falling apart, which goes to further show the internal struggle of the character.
HJ: He’s reflected in the landscape a little bit as well. So when did you realize, not only that you wanted to write this novel, but that you wanted to write and take it to degree level?
TN: I’ve always been writing and I don’t know, I never really saw any other option. I think I’m different in that way, as when I talk to people they are unsure of what they want to do and I can’t relate to that, because I’ve always known that I wanted to work with writing in some capacity. But I didn’t really see any obvious possibility for me and I kind of wanted to get a lot of experience, so I could see where it was possible to take my creative diversity. Roehampton I found very unique because you can do novel writing, but also games and interactive narratives. You could really get a broad perspective of the creative written media and see where you could go from there and find what worked for you.
HJ: Yes I found that with Roehampton, it allows you to progress in the area you originally wanted to pursue but open you up to a whole load of other areas and encourages you out of your comfort zone, which is really wonderful.
TN: It is really useful and it’s in London, so you have a lot of stuff going on as well. It helps you to get inspired. It’s really great, especially as I come from the north of Sweden where there were a lot of forests around me, so it’s quite a bit change going to London. I think it’s great because moving to England made me realize my area of interest and what I wanted to write about were things that related to Sweden and the place I grew up.
HJ: Sometimes we have to remove ourselves from our familiar settings in order to realize their value. So you say you are writing this crime story, is crime always been a genre you’ve been drawn towards, something you’ve always read about and that has captured your attention?
TN: It’s interesting, because in Sweden we have a lot of crime novels and I had never really been that fascinated with it. I think this idea started drawing me to crime drama and the motifs that were used. I think that is what I like about writing crime, because it makes you notice the things you maybe took for granted before. I don’t know if there is any other form that enables you to do that in the same way. It’s quite incredible.
HJ: It exposes the ordinary in the extraordinary. It makes it new.
TN: I think one of the most important experiences I’ve had in a while is reading a book and seeing someone write a thing that I’ve always been talking about but I have never been able to put into words. To see that written down in a very clear precise way was very awe-inspiring, and I think as a writer that is what you do all the time, you are trying to convey these things that are in the back of your head, even an image or an idea, it’s something you are trying to get out into the world.
HJ: Do your ideas for the novel, as well as short stories, usually start with an image or something else? What is the initial spark?
TN: It’s very often an image that I can’t get out of my head. Someone I keep getting back to that same image and I know there is something worth saying about it because I keep getting it back in my mind. So I go from there and see where it leads me. I go into this image and work from it and find out what happens. I think that is an important process: starting out and seeing what comes naturally from that image in terms of story.
Sometimes someone will say something and I can’t get over what they said. I also published a role-playing game scenario called “Acceptable Losses” by Pelgrane Press in an anthology titled "Seven Wonders". The whole basis of that idea came from my stepdad just tossing out a comment like “oh someday we are all going to live in this one house our whole life and we will never leave, because it is going to be so convenient for us as everything we need will be there!”. I froze in the middle of what I was doing and couldn’t get over that sentence, that idea. Then I kind of went from that and discovered the whole setting-core, from that it became a role-playing game. So that was also very cool, though it isn’t my usual style.
HJ: But it’s wonderful when that one comment on that one day leads to something so creative and something you have had success with as well! Do you find that happens often or is that a now-and-again opportunity?
TN: A little bit like that, maybe it’s about me being stubborn. I get obsessed with that idea. I will spend an evening listening to music and just thinking about that idea, that image, and trying to see the different components. Where do they lead? Do they lead anywhere? Does it lead to something fucking up as a result? I always get so pleased when I manage to put it down into writing and it doesn’t matter what way I do it, if it’s a role playing game or novel writing, it will always be very good to get something I’ve had in my head for a while down onto paper.
HJ: And getting it into existence. Does it take you more than one draft or do you find you get it pretty near perfect that first time?
TN: I always get very frustrated writing the first draft. It’s a struggle for me, because my inner critic tries to have a lot of opinions and I find it easier to prepare my thoughts in advance, so I know exactly what I want to write when I sit down to do it. Once I am sitting and writing, I make sure I end my writing where I have started something, but haven’t really finished it, so that I have something to start from the next day. If I sit down to a blank piece of paper, I feel more or less panicked. So I need somewhere to start. And it’s one thing when it’s a blank piece of paper, it’s another when it’s a word document, that’s the absolute terror for me. Not only do you have a blank page but you also have this little cursor blinking at you and I’ve always found it very unnerving. I know when I move this cursor, when I write something down, it has be perfect. You can’t scribble around it or over it, you don’t have that freedom. Am I alone in this?
HJ: No absolutely not, I’m the same! I usually write a few lines down first in my notebook because I can scribble and play around with it, as I know it’s an area where I can make mistakes. I can draw out of the lines, I can write in the margins, I can write upside down if I like! Whereas I know when it goes into the word document its more concrete and more final, it’s there and it’s not something I can casually cross out and rewrite in the same way I can in a notebook.
TN: And you can’t draw arrows between paragraphs! That is something I miss in a word document as my writing tends to come out in a disarranged way. When I am the most self-critical, I’ll find a shitty piece of paper like an old receipt, and I feel I can write whatever.
HJ: It gives you permission not to be perfect! My favourite one is napkins at restaurants, usually because I’m ear-wigging and listening to other people’s conversations. I’ll just write it down. I don’t know why I like napkins, but I find them really cool to write on because they are made to be thrown away. It’s almost like “this object is already destined for the bin, I can’t make it any worse!” So do you have any favourite authors you like to read, who is it that inspires you?
TN: Hah it’s funny, because once I got to England I started reading so many Swedish authors! Like when I was in class and we were asked what books we had read, no one understood what I was talking about because they were all very Swedish names. One author in particular has always inspired me a lot and I always carry one of her books with me is Kerstin Ekman. The book I am thinking about is called Blackwater in English, so it’s been translated and I’ve read both versions. She’s phenomenal.
HJ: What is it about her writing that particularly draws you to her?
TN: It’s really her style and her the sophistication of her language. When it comes to her writing, it is her simple use of language that is most impressive. It’s not a fancy way of writing, full of complex sentences, it’s just very good ideas conveyed very clearly. When you flip open a page of the book and just read one sentence, you can’t stop because they lead onto each other in such an interesting way and the ideas are always fascinating. She’s a favourite, I don’t even need to think about it!
HJ: So since starting at Roehampton and now having graduated, do you find your writing process has changed over time?
TN: If anything I’ve written more since graduating. When you are at University there is so much going on at the same time and you are constantly having information thrown at you, which can be quite rattling in a way. It makes you not exactly question what you are doing, but look at things in another way and re-evaluate your process. That can be a good thing as it can make you work better but it can be less cohesive. So once I graduated I found I could take everything I learned and actually put it into practice in a different way. So I have written quite a lot and it really feels like I’ve discovered something that works for me during my time at Roehampton, which pushes me to keep writing, especially now I am back at place that most inspires me. I went back to the place that originally inspired the novel and I did some writing on the novel while I was there, it was one of the most bizarre experiences and felt very meta!
HJ: I suppose now you are back in Sweden, you can visit these places and really put yourself in your story. You can go to that café where a character sits or that street where you are setting a scene in your mind. You are there with the characters, there is more of a realness to what is going on in your head.
HJ: Are you more of a morning writer or an evening writer? When is it you tend to write?
TN: I used to always write in the evenings before, but I have actually started writing in the morning now, because I find my mind is the most clear in the morning. It also makes sure I get the writing done, as if I hold it off for the evening anything can happen during that day can throw me off and give me an excuse not to do it, rather than get it done straight away before my daily routine. Then it’s done for the day. If I get inspiration during the day, I’ll do more writing, but I try to make sure I get somewhere that day. I need a block of time to write, I have to make the time rather than just stumble upon it.
HJ: And do you have to have anything while you write? A cup of tea? Silence? Music? That kind of thing?
TN: Not really, I try to challenge myself a bit and just make it happen without preparing myself beforehand. I will tell myself I can do it, it’s not rocket science, but I start building this checklist before I start then I’ll never get to it. I want to get to it by myself and show myself that I can do it.
HJ: I have to have a cup of tea, something to hold while I rock back and forth saying “why won’t the ideas come?” And do you find generally that writing exhausts you or energizes you?
TN: It depends actually, because sometimes you feel you have got that perfect sentence down and you can live off that for days. Or I can at least. It can really give me a boost. But it can also be very challenging and since I’ve started to sit down and write each day now, I find it’s a really good way of checking how good I’m feeling that day. The harder it is to write, the foggier my mind seems to be and it helps me put expectations on my day. So it is always different depending on my mood. On a day you feel you can’t do the writing, it can really help you to see the space you were in before. You can put more emotion into the writing than you otherwise might have and it can enhance the content. It’s funny as it’s something I keep telling myself, but sitting down and seeing that you can do the writing and that everyone can write, that you can just sit down and do it.
HJ: It’s the getting to sit down and write bit that is the hardest. Once you are there it is okay, but getting yourself to sit down at that desk, hammock, bed, aeroplane, and actually just put the words on the page, that is the hardest bit and which has personally been quite a struggle for me at times.
TN: It can be struggle, some days are easier than others, but I try to make it happen each day. If I spend an hour preparing myself to sit down and write, then maybe that is not the best day. I always try to get myself down and write. It all amounts to something and it is something to build on the next day.
HJ: And how did you find the experience at Roehampton of writing in groups and bouncing ideas off each other? Did you like that experience of being in a community of writers or are you more of a solo writer?
TN: I definitely feel most comfortable in a workshop environment. I really find I can get inspired by having others around me and pick up on their creativity, the things they are saying and their ideas, as well as giving feedback on each other. When I had the Novel Writing class, we would have these three hour workshop sessions, then straight after me and some others would go and have another workshop session in the library and do three more hours of workshopping! I got really into that aspect of the writing process, I really liked it and it was really fun! You could have these arguments of the word-ordering of a sentence and I love it!
HJ: Have you been able to build that kind of support network now you have returned home?
TN: Yes, I am in a role-playing game community and there are a lot of creative people around me who I can always go to and do some writing with and get feedback from. Also I do have contact with the people from the UK, who also give me feedback, although I won’t be able to shake my fist in front of their faces and shout about a paragraph that shouldn’t be there! I really love collaborative storytelling and I feel as writers you are too close to the writing sometimes, so you need someone to tell you what is going on as you can be blind to your own writing. As I am Swedish, when I get really into my writing I sometimes make up words, which is always very fun for my peers to spot. I take a Swedish word and write it in sort of an English way, sometimes I get away with it but it also confuses people. So it’s good to have peer reviews!
HJ: So how do you feel about promoting your own work and promoting yourself as a writer? Have you thought about what angle you are going to take with your novel once you’ve finished it, either indie, mainstream, self-publishing etc.? There is also social-networking and promotion to consider, how do you feel about that side of the writer’s life?
TN: The dream is to get published via the traditional route, so find someone to represent my work and then someone to publish it. But when I’m writing like right now, I’m not thinking of the commercial side of it. It’s going to come eventually, in the branding and packaging of things, but right now I’m just trying to write something as if it is really important. This is going to be the most important thing I ever write and because I have put so much of myself into it, I hope someone can relate to the text and the emotions that are conveyed. So right now I prefer not to think of the novel in those publishing terms. I’m going to write to the end and then see what I can do with it.
HJ: I think that is a wise move. You are getting the work down and finished without getting distracted by the publishing aspects that will take place after. To finish up, other than the novel, do you have any other creative projects going on at the moment or is the novel taking up your attention?
TN: It is the thing I would consider most important. But I am also trying to organise workshops and also trying to get paid for it. So I’m trying to stick to my writing and share it with those around me to the best of my ability.
HJ: How have you found the experience of doing workshops with children?
TN: I find it very, very gratifying in a sense, because people at the age have all these ideas and they don’t have a way of putting it down on paper, and all they really need is someone to help them get started. It’s great to see them starting to write and trying to encourage them at this stage feels really important to me, it helps them continue on with it. Writing can be quite isolating. I’ve always been writing and found it isolating growing up, because when I wanted to have these workshops and meet other people who did the same thing, I found there was no space for that to happen. The only workshops around were for adults. Once I came to this workshop thing and there were only the librarians there who organised the event, so I became a pal of the librarians. So I wanted to give kids now that opportunity, which I felt so lacking when I was that age, and it’s felt really, really good to do that.
HJ: And you never know, they might be going off to The University of Roehampton one day too! They might be fellow alumni’s!