INTERVIEW: Tessa Gratton Talks About the United States of Asgard
Tessa Gratton didn’t grow up to be a necromantic wizard resurrecting dinosaur bones into animated skeletons as she expected, but she has become a fantasy author, and after a childhood spent around the world, settled in the midwest. She’s the author of four novels, including the forthcoming The Strange Maid, second in her United States of Asgard series. Tessa was kind enough to answer some questions about her and her work.
PW: Tell me about Tessa Gratton.
TG: I’m a quadruple Scorpio, Navy brat, prairie girl, feminist (or as my dad used to say before I got a degree in it, a Pinko Liberal). Does that about cover it? My fourth novel comes out this June, and all my books so far have been YA fantasies from Random House Children’s Books. I love tumblr and twitter but am extremely glad they didn’t exist when I was in high school.
PW: A fantasy is what you write, so why YA Fantasy?
TG: I will always write fantasy – monsters and magic have inhabited all the stories I’ve loved to read and tell since I was about ten years old. I honestly can’t imagine writing anything else. As for the YA: I write about characters who change over the course of the story, and though of course we can always change, it’s sort of the purpose of our young adult years to figure out who we want to be. That transformation from child to adult is so fascinating to me because of all the ways it can happen – epically or intimately, or sometimes if we’re lucky, both. To me, YA fantasy is everything I love: magic, monsters, and growing up to be the heroes of our own stories.
PW: You have two series, Blood Magic, and the United States of Asgard (most pertinently the latter). What was the genesis of the idea for the United States of Asgard series?
TG: From 2008-2012 I was actively posting short stories with my two critique partners at MerryFates.com. We posted a story once a week for the first year, twice a month for the middle years, and once a month for the final year, and that meant over the course of the website’s life I wrote about 75 short stories (some were great, some were terrible, most were experimental and somewhere in between). Practically, that meant I spent hours at a time toward the end scraping the barrel for ideas, wondering if I could write a story about a sentient desk or attacking pencils.
Sometime in 2009 I was laying on my floor in a panic that I needed a story to post in 3 hours, and I had a vision of a temple full of reporters and television cameras and celebrities there to witness the annual death of a dying god and broadcast it to the entire USA. For several years I’d been investigating Norse mythology and Anglo-Saxon literature, and been toying with the idea of how to use the nationalism and violence in such stories to write a book about US religion and politics, and suddenly BLAMMO there it was. Years of subconscious thought distilled into a single image of a god being sacrificed on live TV. That’s how the United States of Asgard was born. I spent several months playing with the world before I found the right story to begin with for a full-length novel. All three novels in the series come at the in-world-iconic image of Baldur the Beautiful dying and being reborn every year on television – but from different angles, of course.
PW: So let’s talk about your three novels. The Lost Sun is the first in your trilogy. Tell me about Soren and Astrid’s story.
TG: The United States of Asgard isn’t a trilogy in the traditional sense: it’s really just a series that happens to have three books in it. Every book stands alone and has a different narrator/hero, though the stories weave together and affect each other and will be most impacting if read in order. The overarching question of the series is: when the gods walk among us, what is there to have faith in?
That technicality aside, The Lost Sun is really more Soren’s story – Astrid’s comes later. He’s a young berserker struggling with his power for two main reasons: first of all his father went berserk in a shopping mall and murdered thirteen innocent people, and second, Soren’s mother wasn’t white, making Soren’ the first officially recognized “impure” berserker in the country’s history. He carries the weight of his father’s infamy heavily, and has a lot of anger directed at Odin Alfather the patron of berserkers. More than anything he wants to NOT be a berserker, and when Baldur the Beautiful, god of hope and light, doesn’t rise from the dead, Odin offers a boon to whomever finds him. Soren wants to ask for the berserker rage to be stripped away. The story of him (and Astrid) crossing the country on a search for Baldur is – as most road trip novels are – really Soren’s journey to figure out who he IS, not just who he wants to be. Plus trickster caravans, undead magic, and creepy trolls. And kissing of course.
TG: The Strange Maid is about Signy, an angry, violent girl chosen by Odin to become the first new Valkyrie of the Tree in a hundred years. But first she has to solve a riddle for him. The riddle sends her on a journey across Canadian ice past the ruins of the Montreal Troll Wars, and down south through the US of Asgard to Port Orleans in the company of a mysterious troll hunter who speaks in poetry and the famous berserker Soren Bearstar. They’re on the trail of the oldest, most dangerous troll mother whose stone heart may have the answers Signy’s looking for.
PW: Soren is from The Lost Sun, of course. Any other familiar characters for readers of The Lost Sun show up? How did you grow and change the United States of Asgard in writing this second novel in the world?
TG: My favorite thing about writing a sequel was being able to deepen my own understanding of particular aspects of the world. Soren was angry at Odin Alfather, and avoided looking too hard at anything related to him. But Signy is fascinated with the god of poetry and death, so I had ample opportunity to delve into how modern people in an alternate-America might worship those things together. Odin was a god of the elites – of kings and warriors – in Norse mythology, not a god of the people like Thor. I wanted to explore the Alfather’s position at the top, and how his most close followers – the Valkyrie and berserkers – might be viewed as important parts of life and politics but also how they hold very privileged positions that ALLOW them to love and worship very dark things like death and madness. What is that line they walk between holding dangerous, liminal space, and being accessible to the other – shall we say – 99%. Signy herself struggles with it to varying degrees of success.
And on a personal note, since the moment I started learning more about the character of Odin, I’ve been fascinated by the connections between death, madness, and poetry. I think because of it, he’d make any writer an excellent patron god.
PW: With The Strange Maid coming out soon, then, with that rich stew enriching the world of The United States of Asgard, what’s next for you and your writing?
TG: Directly next is the third book in the series (it’s not a traditional trilogy, so much as a series that happens to have three books in it) and a couple of in-world novellas I’m working on for fun. Then I hope to have a couple of stand alone YA fantasies, because I need a break from the traumatic world building of series! Hopefully there will be news on that front soon, and maybe, possibly, *gasp* even an adult novel.
PW: So what do you do when you turn off the writer brain? What sort of hobbies and interests occupy your time?
TG: Is there a switch to turn off the writer brain? I haven’t found one inside this skull yet! And if I did find that switch, I’m not sure I’d flip it. I love that everything I experience feeds my art. That said: my go-to hobby is reading, of course. I also love to watch great TV, and am a fan of my city’s professional soccer team. I love theater and arguing about Shakespeare, and am a semi-recovering political junkie. I read everything I can about dinosaurs and the role of death in various religions, love Avengers fanfic, and when I need a break sometimes I flip through one of my amazing twenty volume set of the OED.
PW: Where can readers find out more about you and your work?
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