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April Witchby Majgull Axelsson
Author Q & A
A Conversation with Majgull Axelsson, author of April Witch
Desirée, the central character and narrator, is (or believes herself to be) an April witch. There are also references to benandanti. Would you explain what these are?
An April witch is not a benandante; she is only appearing among them in my story. An April witch always has a weak and disabled body, but a very strong mind. Benandanti however, are not that strong although they can leave their bodies the same way she can. On the other hand they have healthy bodies and live ordinary lives. Some of them don’t even know that they are benandanti, they think that they are dreaming.
In real life, the stories of Benandanti first showed up in medieval Italy, where (before the Inquisition) they were considered to be good witches. They had two tasks: to protect the harvest against attacks from the evil witches and to help dead people in the Procession of the Dead. One can read more about them in a book by Carlo Ginzburg, called Benandanti–The Good Witches. (Original Title: Benandanti. Stregoneria e culti agrari tra Cinquecentio e Seicento.)
April witches are–as far as I have been able to find out–of pure American origin. When I did my research I could find no other April witch than the one that had fascinated me in one of Ray Bradbury’s short stories.
When I wrote my story of my April witch, I saw the similarities between her and the benandanti and decided to let them meet in a small Swedish town.
The novel has been an immensely successful bestseller in Sweden, and has been published in 17 other countries. What do you think is the cause of its enormous appeal?
As a Swede I am not supposed to answer questions like that, since we are expected to be very shy and humble and pretend not to notice if something turned out very well. If--on the other hand--I do it the American way, I think the answer is that my book has many different levels and that it is possible to read in many different ways. I have met people who have enjoyed it as pure entertainment, while others have seen it as an allegory of science and modern times, while others yet have focused on the issues of dignity and compassion or of motherhood and abandonment.
Do you think it will be read differently by Americans?
Maybe. There are great similarities between Sweden and the US in terms of life styles, but also great differences in attitudes and ways of thinking. I hope that will mean that the American readers will find new levels in my story–and help me to see them, too.
An article about the Swedish publication said that the title is taken from Ray Bradbury, and the book includes epigraphs from Bradbury, Margaret Atwood, and Stephen Hawking, and Stephen King, all of whose work the story occasionally echoes. Would you comment on the relation of April Witch to the work of these writers?
As a teenager one of my teachers introduced me to Ray Bradbury and I became an enthusiastic reader of his short stories. I still think that many of them are little masterpieces and very often I have found myself sitting on my couch reading one or two of them again and again. It was in such a moment I realized that I had found the solution to the problem I had had for a long time with the idea of writing a novel about a disabled person. That idea turned into a reality when first my father, then my sister and finally my mother turned very ill [and I consoled myself re-reading Bradbury’s work]. It was a great relief to feel that in the back of my head a Swedish cousin to Bradbury’s April Witch suddenly had been born.
In my book there are also a couple of references to Stephen Hawking, whose book A Brief History of Time has made a great impression on me. I do not claim to understand it all, but the way he describes the universe and time is very exciting. The fact that Stephen Hawking in many ways is living under the same conditions as my main character Desirée has of course also been important to me.
Margaret Atwood is one of the contemporary writers I admire the most (the other one is Joyce Carol Oates) and I was delighted when I found that one of her poems in a way was describing Christina, one of my characters.
I laughed when I found the quotation from Stephen King: “Sometimes, being a bitch is the only thing a woman has to hold on to.” Did he already know my character Birgitta?
Desirée narrates the story from a state hospital bed, where she lies almost completely incapacitated due to neurological damage suffered at birth. The evocation of her condition and her inner life is tremendously vivid and real. How were you able to evoke this so authentically? And how important is her disability to the novel overall?
Her disability is very important to the novel, since her condition makes a lot of questions very acute. But I really don’t know how I could describe her so authentically. All I know is that when I wrote about her, I was her. The fact that I had recently spent many hours sitting by hospital beds was of course also important.
Science figures prominently in the story–Margareta is a physicist, Christina a physician, and Desiree has an acute understanding of the vagaries of her own condition. Would you comment on the significance of science to the novel?
One of the best things of being a writer is that it is possible to approach anything human. I have always been very interested in science, but as I am also a total idiot when it comes to mathematics I have never been able to study it. The science theme in my novel started as a purely egoistic project where I wanted to learn more, but developed and deepened when I realized that modern physics has a language that is very useful to a writer. It is rich in metaphors and often very beautiful. So I embraced it.
The story is a complex portrait of relationships between women, yet can also be read as an allegory of life in post-war Sweden. What was the initial inspiration for the novel–the women, the allegory, or something else?
The existential issues were most important to me when I started writing, then Desirée herself and her foster-sisters grew more important during the time I wrote.
The allegorical aspect was not very important to me, even though it seems to have been very important to many of my readers.
Would you explain the allegorical aspect for American readers who might not be fluent with modern Swedish history and culture?
During the years 1950 - 1990 Sweden was involved in a political project which was presented as the Middle-Way Society. That meant that great emphasis was put on democracy, social security and equal opportunities. The result was of course very high taxes, which during a very long time was willingly accepted by the voters. It was easy for Swedes to see what they got in return: free education, excellent health care and so on. The fact that children, old people and disabled persons were very well taken care of by their families and that those families got a lot of support (financial and other) from the government was also a source of pride to most Swedes. And yet we couldn’t really understand why everything was not perfect in our perfect little country. Why didn’t people always behave the way they were expected? Why were some people not sensible at all?
Aunt Ellen in my book represents in many ways that society. She is an extremely good mother to two of the girls. But the other two? Desirée is left in government care (which was unusual but still happened in the 50´s). And Birgitta–the one who refuses to be sensible–turns into a drug addict and outcast.
I think that many Americans will recognize both her and her foster-sisters. I may add that one allegorical aspect of the book may be invisible to most American readers if not pointed out, since they of course don’t know that the names of the four sisters–Christina, Margareta, Birgitta and Desirée–are the same names as those of the four sisters of the Swedish king.
At one point Margareta identifies herself as a class traveler, a term that may not ring familiar for American readers. Would you explain this term and its significance in the story?
A class traveler is usually a person like myself, who was born in a working class family but who lives his or her life as an adult in the upper middle class. Class travelling is in many ways the European way of living “The American Dream.”
Many readers are quick to assume fiction is autobiographical. Yet the characters here have a tremendously wide variety of identities and experiences–a physician, a physicist, a severely disabled woman, a homeless derelict. Do you identify strongly with any of them? Are there autobiographical elements in their stories?
No, there are no autobiographical elements in any of those stories. However I don’t think that I would have been able to write it without the experiences that I made during the years when my parents and my sister were very ill. Having said that, it is easy to understand that I identified the most with Desirée.
From the Hardcover edition.
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