Renowned for creating the likes of Chocolat and her Rune series, Joanne Harris is a name well recognised and respected within the worlds of fiction. Following the release of The Gospel of Loki, Starburst was given the opportunity to discuss her latest novel exploring the gods and realms of Norse mythology…
Starburst: Given your success with Runemarks and Runelight, was The Gospel of Loki something you had always planned? Or did the idea develop as you wrote the aforementioned novels?
Joanne Harris: No, the idea came to me as I realized that a lot of my readers weren’t as familiar with Norse myth as I’d imagined. I found myself getting requests for more details of what happened before Ragnarók, and it occurred to me that it might be fun to re-invent those stories and to give them a different angle...
What about Loki’s character and those around him? As noted very early on in Gospel, the reader is encouraged to “take it with a pinch of salt.” Did you consider specifically exaggerating or intentionally embellish certain personality traits to account for this?
I don’t think there was much need for exaggeration. In the original Eddas, Loki comes across as a very plausible character. He’s charismatic; self-serving; a liar; a quick thinker who is equally capable of using his intelligence for good or evil purposes. He’s profoundly selfish and amoral, a narcissist who rationalizes his misbehaviour at every turn. He’s the ultimate unreliable narrator, and as such his voice is very contemporary.
What keeps drawing you back to writing about the Norse deities, and this world in particular?
It’s a wonderful source of material. In spite of the fact that Norse myth is sparse, in comparison with the wealth of material about, let’s say, Greek or Roman, the stories seem to have a fresh and strangely contemporary appeal. Part of this comes from the characters, which are lively and well-drawn, with very believable human flaws and complex interrelationships. I’m particularly drawn to the small community of gods in Asgard, their understandable tensions, their rivalries. And of course, the world picture is so very different from our own; I love the challenge of trying to work within a universe that was basically licked out of a block of ice by a giant cow...
How did you find writing a character of very unusual origins from a first person perspective?
Actually, most of my characters are outsiders, freaks or outcasts in one way or another. Perhaps it’s because of my dual-national background, but I enjoy those perspectives best.
Were there any unique difficulties which came from writing events through the eyes of a single individual?
Not really. As far as Loki’s concerned, he’s always the centre of attention, anyway...
Are there any other Æsir you feel you may wish to revisit in a similar manner to this book or expand upon? Perhaps even simply figures that were not given a great deal of focus?
Quite possibly. The Gospel of Loki, though standing alone as a retelling of Norse myths, also works as a prequel to my Rune books, and I’d like to explore some of the less-developed characters a little more in the next book (although I suspect Loki will always be there at the forefront of the action).
What of the language used by the characters. Loki himself uses more than a few rather modern terms such as “chillax” and “oh crap!” Was this an intentional addition to try and distance the characters from certain previous interpretations, or were there other reasons?
Firstly, for fun, and as an indicator that this re-telling isn’t meant to be taken as an entirely serious commentary on Old Icelandic literature. Second, because I wanted to re-create the irreverence of Loki’s voice in the original texts. In Lokasenna, Loki swears, uses insults, makes fart jokes, uses slang. The only way I could recreate that was to have him speak in a contemporary, self-mocking idiom. True, it’s not very authentic. But short of writing the whole thing in Old Icelandic, like Voluspá, or Latin, like the Prose Edda, it wouldn’t have been authentic anyway. What I was trying for was a style that went beyond linguistic authenticity and directly into the spirit of the story.
How extensively did you research Norse mythology and its myths before starting on this novel?
In some ways I’ve been researching Norse myths since I was seven years old. I started writing stories about Norse gods when I was nine; my first (unpublished) novel, Witchlight, was an early version of Runemarks. Since then, I’ve been trying to learn Old Icelandic (very slowly, online), and reading some texts in the original. A lot of the information I’ve collected has found its way into my books, but I’ve never thought of it as research, simply exploration.
And finally, going from The Gospel of Loki’s Goodreads page your book seems to have drawn in a lot of Tom Hiddleston’s fans. Do you have any thoughts on readers being attracted to your book thanks to the Marvel films?
I don’t mind how readers come to my books – that’s the beauty of reading, you never know quite where it will lead. And so many writers, artists and filmmakers have used aspects of Norse myth to create art. I don’t claim ownership of Norse myth any more than Marvel could, or Wagner, or Tennyson, or Tolkien. I think it’s a testimony to the versatility of the myths that so many people have found so many different ways to approach them and make them their own.
THE GOSPEL OF LOKI is available now from Orion Books.