Today, I’m interviewing Berit Ellingsen, author of The Empty City. Berit lives in
Norway with two fine Burmese cats, Dotty and Chloe.
Also a prolific writer of short stories, Berit has contributed to two anthologies and a number of literary magazines, online and in print.
Berit, just for fun, let’s begin with a few things about you that aren’t in your bio, and then we’ll move on to your writing, some questions about non-duality, and your book.
1. If you were struck by lightning and suddenly morphed into a super-hero, or a super-villain, what would your special power(s) be?
I used to think that flying would be the ultimate super power, but flying is cold and takes time, even if you fly as fast as a jet. So I would prefer safe and immediate teleportation instead. That way I could visit friends all over the world, without polluting and the long journey. I wouldn’t be much of a crime fighter, though.
2. What’s your favourite snack food?
Norwegian mild dry cured ham and mineral water and lemon caramels. Can’t say no to that.
3. If you find a spider or a bee in your home, do you shriek and try to kill it, ignore it, admire it, or try to trap it and put it outside?
With the current bee crisis, I would try and get the bee outside. Since they are flying, it’s usually not that hard. If I can easily get the spider out, such as if it’s by the door, I chase it outside. But very insistent spiders and wasps get the shoe!
4. What do you like to do when you aren’t writing?
When I’m not working or writing or reading, I like to spend time with friends or family or my two cats. Burmese cats are very social pets and need some attention every day to be happy. I also like to watch tv documentaries, tv-series or game when I need a break from the world of text.
5. On your author’s profile page on Fictionaut, you mention that you “tried not to write for two years and it didn’t work at all.” Why did you do that?
I wrote and submitted some stories a few years ago. They were not very good and I got all rejections. It was discouraging so I gave up writing. But it was too tempting to get back to it and now I’m very glad I did.
6. Are there any books or authors that have particularly influenced you or your writing?
Right now some great writers that I have met on Twitter and on Fictionaut have been very inspiring because they play and experiment with form and content and style. Seeing that artistic freedom has been influential and inspiring, as well as learning.
These writers include Marcus Speh, Sam Rasnake, Stephen Hasting- King, Foster Trecost, Robert Vaughn, Fabio Fernandes, Paul Jessup, Ben Loory and many, many
Other influences are classics such as Lautreamont, Huysmans, Poe, Ibsen, Kielland, Bradbury, Camus, LeGuin, Jansson, Lilius, Wilde, Camus, Shengtan, Basho, Shonagon,
7. When writing, do you make lots of notes and outlines first, or do you just let the words flow?
I just write what appears then and there and edit a lot afterwards. I rarely plot anything, except in retrospect, but things do have a way of falling into place by themselves.
Whenever I try to plot and outline first, I always move away from the original plan and it almost always turns out to be the right choice. I might start outlining again in the future, but right now that method is less useful for me.
8. At the center of your book, The Empty City, is the philosophy of non-duality. Could you say something about non-duality, for readers who are not familiar with the term?
Non-duality goes to the core of existence and addresses the big questions such as the meaning of life, suffering, human nature etc that we all ask ourselves. It shares aspects with philosophies such as Zen and contemplative Taoism, Sufism and Christianity, but goes beyond the system of teachers and teachings. To me it’s not an intellectual exercise or a philosophy, but observation and seeing what’s right in front of one’s eyes, how the mind and body works and what it really is. Non-duality can fundamentally change one’s life and make things very clear, but it can also be difficult to know who to listen to. There’s a lot of teachers and books out there.
9. What were the specific difficulties you faced, writing the novel with non-duality as a central theme?
Most writing that touches on such themes are either non-fiction, teachings, dialogues, personal accounts or stories such as Paul Coelho’s novels. I wanted to try something different, but at first it was hard to know what “style” to go for. But when I started to
write, the form and plot really found itself. It was just a question of keeping at it.
10. Do you practice meditation on your own, or are you a member of a sangha (Buddhist community)?
I was a member of an online satsangh for a while, it was more like a circle of friends, and I still have contact with some of the other members and the founder. I also read Ramana
Maharshi, Bob Adamson, Douglas Harding, Eckhart Tolle, some of the basic zen works such as Zen Mind, Zen Bones, the Tao Te Ching etc, and found it to be inspiring and valuable. Simple observation and self-inquiry was more useful than meditation for me.
11. You’ve posted much of The Empty City on your blog. How did you choose which chapters to post?
Due to various reasons, the print version was very delayed, so I decided to post the chapters online. I posted the chapters until the print version was done. Most people wanted the print or Kindle version and some stopped reading the chapters because they preferred reading on Kindle or print. I was surprised people preferred print or Kindle.
12. Did you have a particular chapter in the book that you enjoyed writing the most?
I don’t think I can select a favourite chapter. I had a lot of fun writing all of them. Some went slower than others and I cut a lot, but it was definitely a labour of love.
13. If The Empty City were made into a movie, who would you want to play Brandon? Beanie?
There’s a lot of very talented actors that could have done the job, such as Tadanobu Asano, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Jae-Young Jung etc. Maggie Gyllenhaal is one of the female actors that could have played Beanie.
14. Do you have characters that you like to return to in other works? I noticed that Brandon pops up in some of your short stories, such as The Anatomy of Infatuation and Boyfriend and Shark. Do you have specific plans for Brandon in any upcoming projects?
I think of it more like having different writing modes or writing voices than set, concrete characters, but a new version of Brandon appears in the longer story I’m working on now. He seem to have several different versions.
15. If you could go back and do it over, is there anything you would change about the process of writing The Empty City, or getting it published?
I might have queried a few publishers I have discovered since finishing The Empty City. But working directly with an editor and a designer, formatting the book and doing the whole publication process myself was very useful and learning and I’m not sure if I would have wanted to miss that.
16. How are you marketing your work?
I enjoy connecting with readers and other writers a lot and do that on Twitter as it’s great for informal dialogue and spontaneous contact.
Tom Brierley, the designer who made the cover of The Empty City, also created a very nice and functional site for The Empty City, http://emptycitynovel.com, plusI’m maintaining a blog at http://beritellingsen.com .
I haven’t been good at asking for reviews and I find that to be the most difficult part of the marketing process. I have just left it up to readers to post reviews on Amazon or Goodreads if they wish.
Marketing and “tooting my own horn” is the aspect about publishing I like the least. I would have loved to leave that to a publisher, agent or publicist, but it seems that these days a writer has to do marketing, no matter how they are published.
Therefore, I try to view it as connecting with people and editors and try to make it fun and informative, instead of something pushy and spam-like and fear-driven, like some author advertising seems to be. I also have an ad up in a literary journal, so it’ll be interesting to see if that has an effect.
17. What is the most difficult criticism you’ve received about your writing? And the best compliment?
Some of the beta readers for The Empty City made suggestions that would not have been effective for the work at all. I decided to use my gut feeling and changed the chapters they found problematic, but not in the direction of the suggestions. These were places I
felt needed changes too, so it was fairly easy to implement.
The best compliments have been from someone who said it was the best non-dual fiction work they had read and when someone said one of my short stories was the best political thriller they had read in ages. Also New Weird writer Jeff Vandermeer liked Boyfriend and Shark and that was very nice to hear.
18. What writing projects are you working on now?
I’m working on a new long work that for now is sprawling and strange and I have no idea how I can glue it all together. I might split it up into several longer stories, but don’t know how many or how long until they are finished.
I also have a short story collection in the works. Most of those stories are published or will be published at the end of 2011 and in 2012. But it’s a year since the first draft of The Empty City was finished and I felt it was time to start on a longer work.
I wish to query the short story collection with some publishers as it’s more accessible than The Empty City. Querying will take time. In the meanwhile I will work on the longer story.
I also have a light-hearted fantasy novel from last year’s NaNoWriMo that I will polish up and either query or publish myself.
19. Is there anything I’ve missed asking? Anything you would like your readers to know about you?
I can’t think of anything more. Thank you very much for the interview and the fun and interesting questions! Best of luck with your new book and stories!
Thanks so much for dropping by, Berit, and for answering so many questions. I’ll be sure to have some lemon caramels on hand next time! And thanks too for interviewing me on your blog, and discussing my upcoming book. I’m so honoured to appear there!