Q: How did you decide on the topic for The Sea of Trolls?
A: The idea for the book actually came from the nursery rhyme "Jack and Jill." I wrote part of the novel fifteen years ago, when I still lived in Africa. It was never finished. The original had a bad-tempered cat called Grendelyn who fell into Mimir's Well while trying to catch fish.
Q: Both you and J. R. R. Tolkien have drawn inspiration from Norse mythology. What about Norse folklore makes it such a rich source text?
A: I didn't realize, until I started studying it, how important it was to American culture. Think of movies like Sergeant York or High Noon. Think of To Kill a Mockingbird or One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. These are all stories about solitary heroes who would rather die than give up their ideals or individualism. The heroes come straight out of Beowulf.
Q: Have you always been interested in Norse mythology?
A: No. As a child I was immersed in Greek mythology so deeply I would dream about the Greek gods. In comparison, the Norse religion seemed crude. It wasn't until I was an adult that I discovered what a rich, complicated culture the Norsemen had.
Q: Schools today focus on ancient Greek mythology as an introduction to Western civilization. What do you think we can learn from ancient Norse mythology?
A: I have nothing against studying the Greeks. They created logical reasoning. But some of our most important ideas come from elsewhere. The Celts gave us a love of nature and a feeling that we are part of it. The Norsemen gave us a sense of individuality, a love of freedom, and a respect for courage and loyalty.
Q: What classic texts can you recommend to learn more about Norse mythology?
A: Ingri and Edgar D'Aulaire's Norse Gods and Giants is a good place to start. Gods and Myths of Northern Europe by H. R. Ellis Davidson is more difficult, but worth it. Look up The Prose Edda or The Elder Edda in the library. Edda is Icelandic for "epic poem."
Q: How long did you research the historical aspects of The Sea of Trolls?
A: For the entire year and a half it took me to write it.
Q: What made you decide to have the Bard take the form of a crow?
A: I originally wanted to use a raven because it was the sacred bird of Odin, but a raven was much too heavy for a twelve-year-old to carry on his shoulder.
Q: Jack comes from a Christian family, and throughout the book as he is becoming a bard, he seems to maintain a belief in the Christian god and the Isle of the Blessed. How does Jack reconcile his Christian upbringing with the fantastic things he's seen and done on his adventure?
A: Jack lived at a time when the Celtic and Norse religions were giving way to Christianity. Christianity absorbed these other cultures and kept many of their ideas. Early saints talked to animals, fought dragons, and called up fog. Saint Patrick shape-shifted himself and his friends into a herd of deer, to escape danger. Christians renamed pagan holidays and still celebrate them. The fertility festival of the goddess Oestra was changed into Easter. Yule was changed into Christmas and so forth.
Q: What similarities, if any, might you draw between The House of the Scorpion and The Sea of Trolls?
A: Offhand, I can't think of any similarities.
Q: Is the diagram of High Heaven that's illustrated at the front of the book based on folklore, or is it completely original?
A: The tree Yggdrassil, with its branches reaching to the nine worlds, is from Norse mythology, and the drawing is derived from the D'Aulaires' book. Some parts of the Norse religion seem to echo Christianity, and it's difficult to tell whether they're a more recent addition.
Q: What would you like young readers to learn from Jack?
A: I'd rather they made up their own minds about Jack.
Q: How did you discover the recipe for graffisk?
A: Ah, graffisk! It's based on gravlax, a good old Swedish dish that means, literally, "grave salmon." The Icelanders used to pig out on hákarl, or rotten Greenland shark. My favorite in this category is oogruk (seal) flippers from my Eskimo cookbook. Wrap the oogruk flippers in blubber for two weeks until the fur falls off. Then cut into small pieces and eat.