Berit Ellingsen - a surreal, unpredictable work bringing together environmental devastation, a nuanced portrayal of a relationship, and questions of space exploration
Berit Ellingsen, Not Dark Yet, Two Dollar Radio, 2015.
Brandon leaves his boyfriend in the city for a quiet life in the mountains, after an affair with a professor ends with Brandon being forced to kill a research animal. It is a violent, unfortunate episode that conjures memories from his military background.
In the mountains, his new neighbors are using the increased temperatures to stage an agricultural project in an effort to combat globally heightened food prices and shortages. Brandon gets swept along with their optimism, while simultaneously applying to a new astronaut training program. However, he learns that these changes—internal, external—are irreversible.
A sublime love story coupled with the universal struggle for personal understanding, Not Dark Yet is an informed novel of consequences with an ever-tightening emotional grip on the reader.
"I cannot remember the last time a writer impressed me so quickly." —InDigest Magazine
"Fascinating, surreal, gorgeously written, and like nothing you’ve ever read before, Not Dark Yet is the book we all need to read right now. It is art about science, climate change, and activism, and it vitally explores how we as people deal with a world that is transforming in terrifying ways." —BuzzFeed
One might describe the novel as set in the “near future,” but it would be better to say its world is just a half-degree warmer, or its sea levels only a fraction of an inch higher. What obtains from this change? In the unnamed northern country of Not Dark Yet, experimental agronomists till the soil in winter, a land once snowed under now laid bare by a warming climate. But the novel’s world is otherwise indistinguishable from our own. Of the emergent disasters cataloged by the novel—“droughts, forest fires, crop failures . . . flooding, storms, loss of drinking water and arable land”—every one of them has already begun in our own world. Before Not Dark Yet even begins, futurity has undergone a swift and silent collapse: every environmental calamity we were once warned of, every baleful but distant eventuality, is already underway. Somehow, without anyone’s having noticed, “the troubling, uncertain future ha[s] become the volatile, menacing present.”
But Ellingsen has not written an On the Beach or On the Road; she presents no hellscape and no descent into atavism. Brandon and his friends and family live in a world of functioning cell phones and laptops and automobiles; they eat steak dinners with green salad and they prudently stint on the carbs; they inhabit a world of modern university campuses and convenient trams and nicely appointed condominiums. Cosseted or at least comfortable, they nonetheless subject themselves to the television news: “floods to the north, crop failures on the eastern continent, hurricanes on the western continent, drought on the entire southern continent, demonstrations, riots, war.” But as with recent wars and storms in our own world, these harbingers of catastrophe function almost as public secrets: known but unnoticed, publicly announced but not yet fully apprehended.
Had Ellingsen further heightened the catastrophe, she could have drawn on the eerie talents she has exhibited in previous writings. In a short story called “Vessel and Solsvart,” a man who is scarcely more than an animate corpse staggers through a post-apocalyptic world of burnt-out cities and boiling oceans; her prose is restrained but her vision excoriating. The stories in the collection Beneath the Liquid Skin, too, are far from realism. That Ellingsen has not further upped the ante much beyond our present-day reality in Not Dark Yet means that readers are deprived of a certain hypocritical pleasure, that of self-satisfiedly tutting over the ruin its characters have made of their fictional Earth. The German critic Walter Benjamin once wrote of the modern novel genre—disparagingly—that “what draws the reader to the novel is the hope of warming his shivering life with a death he reads about.” How much more warmly might fiction’s fire blaze when we read about deaths on a planetary scale. But that isn’t the novel Ellingsen has written; it’s not a spectacle of the world’s end, served up for our complacent delectation. Midway through the novel, Brandon has a dream about just this kind of hypocritical enjoyment: In an ocean-liners’ graveyard, ships arrive under their own power, still carrying passengers, and then slowly begin to sink in the gelid water. The dream’s sublime moment is a blinding white light; flashbulbs go off on one of the ships, where passengers crowd the rails, “eager to watch the sinking of the others while taking [o]n water themselves.”
Not Dark Yet is ultimately a Robinsonade, its Crusoe, Brandon, willingly isolated in a cabin in the woods. Even the novel’s first line harkens back to Crusoe the world-traveler: “Sometimes, in Brandon Minamoto’s dreams, he found a globe or a map of the world with a continent he hadn’t seen before.” But unlike Crusoe, Brandon doesn’t save himself and his isolate world through deep-sea salvaging and strict accounting. Standing before his cabin for the very first time, Brandon has a yielding, melting, anonymous experience that sharply separates him from Defoe’s energetic and autonomous Crusoe: “He closed his eyes and there was no body, and no world either, only the simple, singular nothingness he recognized as himself.”
The cabin was nevertheless just as isolated, and the nights and days as silent, as before. No additional road had been built, nor had any of the neighbors erected new buildings or created any constructions that imposed on his land. Worse yet, he had willingly accepted the tilling and sowing, and signed the farmers’ agricultural project. As when the plans had first been presented to him, he couldn’t see any drawbacks to it, only advantages. It would bring food, security and the possibility for a steady income. But he disliked looking at the now cultivated land so much that he turned the sofa, the mattress, and the treadmill away from the panorama window and towards the deck and the forest and the sky that was visible through the glass in the kitchen and the front door.
Berit Ellingsen, Beneath the Liquid Skin, firthFORTH Books, 2012.
Immerse yourself in what has long enraptured both the sensualist and the scientist—the natural world. Seismic in its permeable temporal and geographic states, Beneath the Liquid Skin examines humankind’s response to the environment: our pursuit of milder emotional, political, social, and cultural climes; our flight from ecological catastrophe; and our refuge in safer mythical domains. Although her habitat is exotic, Berit Ellingsen saturates—with humanistic and preternatural harmony—a remarkably vulnerable yet enduring surface.
I met Berit Ellingsen on Twitter, where she shares photos of her two Burmese cats, Chloe and Dotty and where she frequently talks about the beauty of video game characters. I love a good cat photo like the rest of the Internet crowd, but it’s the way Ellingsen talked about the video game world that made me ask her to tell me more. I know nothing about video games (I’m plagued with heavy duty motion sickness which makes me vomit). Still, I found myself laughing at a video she posted in which one of her avatars dances to Up All Night To Get Lucky. I wondered if I was missing out by being unable to participate in the gaming universe. Five seconds into a video game, I confirmed that, until a magic pill is invented to keep my stomach settled, five seconds is my limit. I also discovered that Ellingsen is a compelling and extraordinary writer. Her story collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin is mesmerizing.
First, I must explain how I don’t usually read books like Ellingsen’s. The closest I’ve come is Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams in which there are short passages of true and fantastical renderings of the concept of time. In contrast, Beneath the Liquid Skin offers a much more varied range of stories in style and content. Each story is different from the last in tone, subject matter, and point of view. Usually, I read books where reality is pretty standard, there are no truffles growing on my lover’s leg (from “The Love Decay Has for the Living”) and the laws of gravity apply (“The light swells and swells inside us until we are ready to come off the ground like scabs from the skin,” from “Sliding”) or I’m asked to accept there’s order even when there doesn’t seem to be order in this fictional world (“0 is for wholeness and emptiness at once…”).
Ellingsen says, “When I wrote the stories I didn’t want to be constrained by ideas of literary genre or tradition. I just wrote what I felt like doing…There is currently a lot of interesting things going with some people writing in the cross sections between the literary genres, as hybrids, even between fiction and non-fiction and that’s great.” She says her “stories originate from dreams, some by photographs or images, others are inspired by various media or entertainment, but most originate from that empty space between thoughts where all stories come from.”
One image I find particularly relentless is in “The Tale that Wrote Itself”: “It was as if the buildings had tried to consume one another, each larger and more imposing than the next, but had bitten off more than they could chew and were now decomposing with their opponent in their jaw.”
Hard to forget that one, right? In fact, the story itself points to Ellingsen’s idea of storytelling:
“Can you decide what to think and when?” the farmer said, and looked directly at the king.Another memorable passage is from “The White”: “While you sleep your dreams are sampled like ancient water, your hair touched and your breath frozen. Someone thinks the foxtail is yours, others point out that it’s attached to your fur hood with metal and that the rest of your body is organic. This makes everyone laugh and want to touch you instead. You are petted like a cat, and your memories of the curious penguins and the professor with ice for eyes and the price of your funny hat are passed on like buckets of water to a fire.”
“Of course I can,” the king said. “I can think of whatever I wish, whenever I wish.”
“Can you decide how the thoughts make you feel?”
“Yes, of course,” the king was about to say, but then he realized he was less certain that he desired. “No,” the king finally said. “Sometimes the thoughts make me happy, other times sad, often when it is the least convenient, and I would’ve liked to have felt differently. The moods appear when they choose.”
“That’s how it was with the tale,” the farmer said. “The words came to the farmer like the wind and rain and the seasons. The farmer did not select them—they found him.”
“Of course I can,” the king said. “I can think of whatever I wish, whenever I wish.”
“Can you decide how the thoughts make you feel?”
“Yes, of course,” the king was about to say, but then he realized he was less certain that he desired. “No,” the king finally said. “Sometimes the thoughts make me happy, other times sad, often when it is the least convenient, and I would’ve liked to have felt differently. The moods appear when they choose.”
“That’s how it was with the tale,” the farmer said. “The words came to the farmer like the wind and rain and the seasons. The farmer did not select them—they found him.”
Ellingsen’s stories are like beautiful crystals, the kind that flashes prismatic colors. In them, you see yourself, you see the entirety of existence, you see how small you are and also how large. You’re acted upon by extremes of weather (“The White”), at the mercy of fate (“The Story that Tells Itself”), your own desires (“The Love Decay Has for the Living.”). She points to humankind’s impact on our planet (“Anthropocene”) and the violence we perpetrate on each other (“Sovetskoye Shampanskoye”). The ideas are grand, shocking, recriminating and redemptive.
Because of the particularly deliberate way she uses language and the format of the words on the page (she uses white space in short bursts of prose in “Crane Legs,” for example), I ask her about her choice to write in English as a Korean-Norwegian woman living in Norway.
She says she studied life sciences and neurosciences at the university level where all the textbooks and lab manuals were in English. It was too expensive to translate specialized materials for graduate courses. She noticed that English afforded her more range in her writing. The English words ‘lend’ and ‘borrow’ for example have only one counterpart in Norwegian.
I also ask her about a comment she’d made about how she could relate to Korean-Americans. She says, “In particular the part about growing up in a race other than ‘your own,’ and supposedly belonging to that race and culture in some respects, but also very clearly not being a part of it, because it’s not really your heritage or your background. Then, on the other hand, you don’t belong to your ‘root culture’ either, and can’t go back to it, because you’d be even more of stranger there since you grew up in that other culture…This becomes a definite dilemma and contradiction. I think many Korean diaspora share this, and it fascinates me that this displacement and ‘in-between-ness’ may be a part of the Korean diaspora’s ‘home culture.’” - Jimin Han
The disparate pieces that make up Berit Ellingsen’s new anthology Beneath the Liquid Skin seem to bear little relation to one another. This collection of flash fiction, prose poems, short observations, fragments of tales and a few more fully developed stories has been drawn together from pieces that have appeared in various online journals. Length varies from a few lines to a few pages; genre veers wildly from cold war thriller to science fiction to ‘transgressive fantasy satire’ (Ellingsen’s own description of the wonderful story “The Glory of Glormorsel”).
Certainly there are recurring themes in the collection: the desire for freedom; personal identity and the mutability of form; physical decay and its relationship to the living; the purity of the countryside versus the complicated and duplicitous city. But it’s difficult to say one or the other is the overriding theme of Ellingsen’s writing. Instead, unhindered by the need to yoke her writings to one unifying idea, Ellingsen is free to explore, experiment, play, create, test and move on.
“A June Defection” is probably the most conventional of the stories, a clever piece that seems to comment on the collection itself and the reader’s approach to it. In the story, the narrator and a boyfriend discuss the mystery of a body found in their area years previously—a woman, unidentifiable but with multiple passports scattered around her. Clearly, says the boyfriend, an Eastern Bloc intelligence agent, killed in the process of defecting. But the narrator embellishes this story—the dead woman was another woman entirely, killed and robbed of her identity by the defector, the latter desperate to escape a life of “secrecy and betrayal.” The narrator leaves the boyfriend shortly after this discussion and the reader understands that the embellished story is the narrator’s projection—the bare bones of the actual story padded with the narrator’s own motivations and desire for escape.
This fleshing out is something the reader has to do a fair amount of, in this collection. Ellingsen does not provide us with much information about characters—no backstory, no insight into their thoughts or feelings. We aren’t even told what they look like. Instead, we must infer what we can from their words and actions. In “The Celtic Itch,” Ellingsen provides us with a skeleton of a story and demands that, if we want meaning, we go and get it ourselves. And of course, just as with the narrator of “A June Defection,” we readers might very well be projecting our own needs and desires onto the story, creating meaning rather than uncovering it, and in the process revealing more about ourselves than we do about the tale.
Not that Ellingsen is entirely unhelpful. She may not provide much in the way of physical description of character, but her descriptions of things: landscapes, interiors, even the slow decomposition of dead animals, are loaded with meaning and an absolute delight to read. In these two passages from the Cold War thriller-style “Sovetskoye Shampanskoye,” Ellingsen’s intensely visual descriptions are both beautifully written and useful in providing clues to the mood of the scene and character. Here, from an interior setting:
Unfertilized sturgeon eggs from the warm and muddy waters of the Black Sea, in a leaded crystal bowl with a wide-handled silver spoon, along with sparkling Belarusian Chardonnay—Sovetskoye Shampanskoye—Soviet champagne, warm the teak wood. In the light from the living room candles, the serving cart burns golden. He smiles.
And some time later, outside:
Years of warm smiles and cold handshakes, while ice shrouds and flays the Moskva River and clouds rush across the sky like time.
However, as carefully crafted as the language is, a number of the stories don’t give the impression of having been thought about too finely. Ellingsen says of the collection, “Most of the stories appeared by themselves …” and many do have that sort of natural, unstructured and flowing feel to them.
There’s a sweet, gentle optimism evident in many of the pieces. Characters are generally kind and treat each other well; lovers are generous and open-hearted, happy to make sacrifices for one another. As the narrator says in “The Glory of Glormorsel,”perhaps the most thematically challenging of the pieces in this collection, “We are nothing but kind to each other, because without kindness we are nothing.”
This optimism is evident also in the way Ellingsen explores the twin themes of mutability and decay. In her hands, nothing is repulsive. In “The Love Decay Has for the Living,” a man sprouts mushrooms from an open wound, which serve as a magical ingredient in his lover-chef’s cooking. It’s not difficult to see how this could make a reader queasy. But in fact this is a sweet love story filled with generosity, self-sacrifice and gentle regret.
Similarly, “Still Life of Hypnos,” is ostensibly a tale of rot and decay, yet Ellingsen’s language is lush and “alive” as she describes the gradual decomposition, in their various ways, of fruit, flowers, insects and animals. But the decay is neither repugnant nor negative—it’s actually rather lovely and it seems such a natural end point to life, that it’s almost a part of it.
While not all the stories in Beneath the Liquid Skin are completely successful—some are quite baffling and likely to leave the reader struggling to find some clue to hang meaning on—overall, this is a collection of playful, brave, complex and exquisitely written pieces. A real treasure trove. - Robyn Goss
Towards the end of this collection’s first story, Berit Ellingsen writes, “We need to be something else again.” We begin in uncertainty at the point of dissolve, as things change, and it is this unease, this perpetual state of transition that drives Ellingsen’s brilliant, undulating and mysterious first short story collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin.
The book begins with the aforementioned “Sliding,” the inevitable drift into winter, and ends in a duet, “The White,” which chronicles the journey of “you,” a logistics assistant who treks from a research base into the vast, shifting whiteness of the Antarctic landscape, and finds wholeness and home, the universality of everything in the ice and snow. This is followed by “Anthropocene,” describing, in fierce, poetic language, a frigid apocalypse on our age, dragging everything into the center, when “you” and “I” are torn apart in fire and ice, only to begin again:
This is where it ends: in a concrete hall between reticent, snow-burdened mountains, under a mute sky the color of forgetfulness, snow falling like soot, and the air so frigid that every metal object tears the skin from your fingers. The lashing nettle-wind shrieks and tries every door and hollow window frame, like a burglar at night, clinking across the floor’s lake of glass shards. The red-rusted ley lines with rows of disc-shaped insulators curve into the sky and sing of legacies misspent and lost, of eternal life squandered.
(These, these are the places, the ways we are drawn to follow the cold; Ellingsen, a Korean-Norwegian writer who lives and works in Norway but writes in English, is known to pine for the fjords when abroad.)
The variety and ordering of the stories throughout Beneath the Liquid Skin has a terrific fluidity to it, balancing straightforward tales with more abstract works—short, textural pieces that hover between prose and poetry. The combination situates the book in an atmosphere all its own. “The Love Decay Has for the Living”—a fable-like story of two male lovers in a drowned city, where one, the Chef, harvests the mushrooms growing from an infected wound in his Lover’s arm—sits alongside satirical fantasy like “The Glory of Glormorsel,” bizarre dream sequences like “Sexual Dimorphism – A Nightmare Transcribed from Sanskrit,” and interstellar set-pieces (“A Catalog of Planets”). In this diversity of landscapes we find a world of color and current stretching from peak to plain, marked with mountainside villages, kingdoms scraping the sky, and cities floating in the waters from endless monsoons. The characters populating these stories are both named and unnamed, collective and singular, with nationalities and homelands both real and imagined, from the Ural Mountains to a kingdom built entirely of mother of pearl, history and not-history.
These are stories that subvert themselves, restless in their bodies and heedless to the constraints of genre, blurring at the edges. Stories oscillate between the modern and seemingly ancient, with and without the markers of our modern, technological experience. Yet the pieces in this collection feel like they all come from the same world, utterly expansive in its breadth and experience.
And yet, all of them seem to explore something fundamental, journeys outward but never back, into the mountains or out into the snow to find new versions of ourselves. Ellingsen’s writing, most of all, speaks to the mutability of all things, the search for something stable: “Still Life of Hypnos” depicts preservation and decay in a series of time-lapse photographs, while “Sovetskoye Shampanskoye” depicts the life, flight, and reinvention of a Soviet agent during the Cold War, in the numbers 0 to 9. She writes:
7 are the years that follow, when he gathers information like eiderdown. Years of warm smiles and cold handshakes, while ice shrouds and flays the Moskva River and clouds rush across the sky like time.
8 is the number of days it takes for the cosmos to entropy into chaos in the pewter sunlight off the river. Assets are lost, intentions intercepted. They take him back to the white tiles and ask him again, this time more insistently. The information he transmitted was tailored to distract. Now he is no longer useful and his employer has been notified. He expects to be killed, desires it almost.
Time is palpable; new identities are assumed. In comparison to this, in the second series of “Still Life of Hypnos,” life decays before our eyes, before the lovers even enter the frame:
The flowers open slowly, tremble in the flow of time like the lips of a shy lover. Finally, they reveal themselves in full, many-hued splendor. This state lasts for less than twelve hours before the blossoms sag, crumple, and lose their petals. Long stamen bow, dusting the steel with pollen in a final attempt at procreating before death. The plants wilt in individual tempo, but the end point is always the same.
Berit Ellingsen has the meticulousness of a painter. These are wonderfully ornate stories—populated with food, rare mushrooms, exotic seasonings, sturgeon eggs and pomegranates; with flora, the heather and chestnut trees; with animals and landscapes, from fjords and mountaintops, farmer’s fields to the white plains of Antarctica. And they are all painted in such beautiful colors, using language so precise and acute as to convince us that the mythical world Ellingsen describes could just as well be our own, a peculiar geography we’ve never seen before. Or perhaps it’s meant to make us realize the intricacy of our daily lives; the ways we eat, sleep, walk, and transform. The purpose and intent of these things.
But if Berit Ellingsen is a fabulist, she is a fabulist devoid of cliché—she presents no easy truths, no tidily-wrapped endings. As she writes in “Anthropocene,”
The world was an epic poem, but it became a dirge. The firstborn illness took everything, as hungry as its name. We wrung the air and the water and the soil like a rag, until everything became yellow and drained. When that was done, we turned on one another.
If there is a moral lesson to be learned here, it is that the world is just as strange, arbitrary and self-devouring as we’ve always believed it to be. - Simon Jacobs
The 23 stories in Beneath the Liquid Skin offer a balanced mix of longer fiction and flash, with many of the stories weighing in at two or three pages. Berit Ellingsen combines elements of the universe, the self, folk tales, history, nonduality, and classical literature, which work together in alchemical synergy to produce gold. The author’s background as a science writer informs many of the pieces, but none are weighted with jargon. I never know where her stories will take me next, but I’m always pleased with the destination.
Ellingsen shines at packing punch with brevity in her flash pieces. “Hostage Situation,” the shortest story in the book, condenses timeless social commentary with a dash of humour into just a few lines. Prose poem “Sliding” reads like a zen koan in luscious autumn shades.
A personal favourite, “Sovetskoye Shampanskoye” is a spy story-by-numbers. Within the confines of three pages, the author tells the tale of half of a man’s life, framing it within the wider universe in which the man’s smaller story plays out. The tale proceeds at a measured pace like a documentary filmed through a neutral lens. Outdoor environments and indoor architectures all are important details within the man’s experience, but the external and the internal also meld to form a greater whole. Ellingsen’s lens zooms in on the main character and pulls out for long shots. This is perhaps the first spy-story ever told from a nondual perspective.
Some of the stories are non-plot-driven vignettes, mindful meditations and ponderings inhabiting a fuzzy borderland between prose and poetry, yet they do have subtle plots, with outcomes, futures and pasts implied. The haunting “Sexual Dimorphism – A Nightmare Transcribed from Sanskrit,” with its references to both Hindu mythology and Japanese film, has a rhythmic feel to its short verses. “Crane Legs” is a light-hearted piece that begins like a review of a TV show, but the painterly language turns it into a prose poem. The sudden ending leaves the reader with both the gut reaction of the (re)viewer and a clear aural and visual image of the show. The more serious “Polaris” takes a chilling look at exploitation, perceived lack, and doing things for all the wrong reasons.
The dream-like elements of some of the pieces conjure Borges or Kafka at times. “The Love Decay Has for the Living,” one of the longer stories, opens like a waking from a nightmare, the line between the dream and real life unclear. The tale shape-shifts between humour and horror, while borrowing lightly from Marguerite Duras’ The Lover. It delves into the balancing act of give-and-take in a relationship, and the need for nourishment on both a physical and philosophical level.
The beautiful folk tale-like “The Tale that Wrote Itself,” the longest story in the book, questions the possibility of altering the course of reality. “Still Life of Hypnos” is rich with references to Greek mythology and a surreal procession of decaying flora and fauna. “The Astronomer and the King,” a speculative fiction vignette, revolves around a real historical figure who served as both astronomer and astrologer to Louis XIV. The tale addresses the age-old search for the reasons for human suffering and for the existence of a god.
With its rich, evocative descriptions, “A June Defection” is one of my favourites. Set in natural surroundings that are at once beautiful and oppressive, this is a story about people doing what they must to escape. The writing in “Down the River” is rich with sensory details, the adrenaline rush of gaming and the need to be the best. Stendhal Syndrome, a whimsical imagining of a character suffering the strange and disputed tourist disease of the same name, made me laugh out loud.
“In All the Best Places, Lightning Strikes Twice” is a bizarre tale that offers a wry look at some of the unfortunate consequences of monoculture. Not all of Ellingsen’s stories are surreal. The very realistic “Autumn Story” takes a critical look at food safety, questionable production practices and how our business and purchase choices affect the quality of life for ourselves, our livestock and pets. Many of Ellingsen’s stories deal with environmental, economic, ethical and social issues, but she deftly tempers the heavier topics with light or wry humour without softening the punch.
Boyfriend and Shark, a twisty tale tinged with both humour and melancholy, ponders the way we hold onto things, and the way attachment can cause us to hold back or imprison others, be they human or animal.
While the philosophy of nonduality informs many of the stories in the collection indirectly, it comes to the forefront in the final three. Characters and situations from Ellingsen’s first book, The Empty City, return in “From Inside His Sleep.” Reminiscent of a Kundalini awakening, main character Yukihiro struggles with lucid dreams.
Science meets silence in the far north in The White. The most overtly nondual story, it raises questions about the nature of awareness and being. “There is no way to argue with the present. You can only be here,” and “Everywhere is here.”
“Anthropocene” also combines science and nonduality. The last lines of the story and the book leave us with a new beginning and hope in the face of hopelessness. It is in this story that we discover the heart of the book’s title, and in the final lines that Ellingsen puts forth the immutable beauty of the universe, regardless of how ugly the situation may get.
While most of the stories in Beneath the Liquid Skin are very short, they condense whole worlds, some fantastic and some quite plausible, into polished gems. Ellingsen’s writing invites a new way of reading and thinking about fiction, but her style and voice keep the stories from becoming mired in obscurity. Though I had read most of these stories before, (all but three have appeared previously), it was a pleasure to read them again and to have them all in one place. Best of all, I like being able to pick out a story to read according to my mood, like a chocolate truffle from this gourmet box. - Chris Galvin
Beneath The Liquid Skin is a collection the defies categorisation. Ranging from whimsical fairy tales to freeze frames of eerie experiments, the stories take the reader on a journey of beautifully spare prose, astoundingly original thoughts and images that remain alive long after the last page.
No perspective is safe from Ellingsen’s exploration; in Sexual Diamorphism – a Nightmare transcribed from Sanskrit, she writes with the voice of a character who is both male and female, while in The White, the protagonist finds himself receiving unexpected answers from the snow that surrounds him. With a voice that varies wildly, and yet retains a comforting level of familiarity, Ellingsen creates worlds in just a few sentences, and ends them just as quickly.
This is the kind of book that inspires jealousy – both of Ellingsen’s talent, and of the other readers who will be lucky enough to discover and enjoy this anthology. I couldn’t recommend it more highly.
- circles under streetlights
Video review by Peter Tieryas Liu
Flash Frontier: Your book has been said to embrace both the sensual and scientific world. Tell us about your relationship to the environment and how these stories reflect your own experience with geography, climate and culture. How does writing fiction bring you to new worlds and root you more to this one? How does the relationship between myth and reality impact the way you go about writing short stories? And tell us a little about the marvellous title of this collection, too.
Berit Ellingsen: I wrote the stories without planning a common theme. But when I started to put the collection together, I saw that many of the stories revolved around our relationship to the natural world and the ecological environment. It’s a personal interest as well as a professional one since I’m educated as a biologist.
Because of the theme I initially called the collection Anthropocene, the word some scientists use for the current geological era. It means “the age of humankind”, ie the age where human activity affects the planet more than any of the natural large scale processes.
But this is not a very common word. Moreover, the publisher loved the line “beneath the liquid skin”, which was used to describe the surface of water in the story Gold-Flecked Water. We then realized that many of the stories had water or the ocean as image or part of the plot, such as “Boyfriend and Shark”, and “The Love Decay Has for the Living”. From then on there was no other choice for the title. Instead we used “Anthropocene” as title for the last story in the collection, which describes one of the outcomes of the age of humankind.
Our generation is the first that is truly aware that we are making our planet’s environments less habitable, for many other species, but also for ourselves, yet we are so addicted to the way our societies work that we seem unable and unwilling to change them. I think much of my writing comes out of an indignation and guilt over that. Some of the stories that deal with this are” A Catalog of Planets”, “Polaris”, and “In all the Best Places, Lightning Strikes Twice”.
To me, our destruction of the habitability of the planet is also caused by the narratives we tell ourselves about what we are and what we need in our lives. I address some of these myths in the collection, particularly in “The White” and “The Story That Wrote Itself”.
Excerpt from “Sliding”
When we are sliding fast toward winter, daylight narrows to silver as the eaves of the wooden houses and the corners of the hedge-bounded gardens grow dark.
Leaves slap yellow and orange and green against the bare birches and the moist cobbles in the courtyard, and aim for the mountains across the bay.
The light swells and swells inside us until we are ready to come off the ground like scabs from the skin, and the sky pulls us quickly apart.
But we can’t stay in this moment for long; we yearn for it to pass. We need to be something else again.
Denser clouds drift in and the sun sets unseen.
Berit Ellingsen, The Empty City, Jnana Press, 2011.
The Empty City is a story about awakening to universal truths and one’s true self. It is told in short episodes that describe a place, a dream, a question, a memory, a fantasy or an event. Urban explorer and lucid dreamer Brandon Minamoto discovers that outside his thoughts and emotions exists a world that is silent and open, surrounding him and everyone else. The silence starts picking him apart and makes him question his sense of self and his past. But behind all the noise and the stories, there is something constant and unchanging.
most of the books about zen are non-fiction: biographies, introductions, collected lectures - but recently i arrived at a zen-novel, writen by Berit Ellingsen. It was an interview in Nonduality Magazine that made me curious for it, in it, Berit explains:
"The Empty City is a short novel about nondual awakening, becoming comfortable with silence and letting go of the past. Connected themes are questioning your own beliefs and what you regard as yourself. .. I wanted to write a novel about nondual awakening, where that was central to the story. There's a lot of nondual nonfiction and poetry, but little fiction. I was curious to see if it was possible to write at all." (interview link)
reading this, of course, made me curious for the narrative of Empty City. i finished it a week ago - it's a thought-provoking, vivid read, with short chapters that move through to different level of consciousness - there are dream sequences, past memories, the present - together, the chapters form a larger mosaic. it was one of the books that i didn't want to end yet, to move on, and on. i looked for a quote to put here, but like with physical mosaics, pulling out a single piece only hints briefly at the larger image.
reading through it also points out how used we are to the established forms of narrative, and it's both refreshing and at the same time perplexing in the best of senses to follow another format - the concept of the Koan comes to mind, the riddle-like stories or notes used in Zen-pracitce to provoke the mind. It also made me think of reading "Open City" by Teju Cole earlier this year, and the line i wrote back then refers to "Empty City," too: "It isn't the typical novel, it's more on the experimental side. While reading it, i looked for interviews with the author.." (here's the Open City blog post)
the book is available both as printed book and as e-book. i picked the e-book version, which makes it my second novel read on the kindle, the first was Wild - and i guess the intro picture shows it: it's too bad that e-books don't come with the cover image - especially that in this case, the cover feels like a physical part of the story mosaic, a part of the narrative almost.
summed up, i would definitely recommend it for readers who are a) into zen / yoga and/or b) into experimental writing. if you want to read an excerpt, the first chapters are online on the book website: Empty City.
What does one do when faced with silence? Brandon Minamoto faces this question as he trudges through the daily grind of day to day living. Living alone in an apartment building located on the reclaimed marshlands of the city, there are days when he feels suffocated, numb and empty. He seeks to fill this void with different activities and sometimes goes to the extreme to bring back a sense of feeling into his life. The crisis comes when Brandon suffers a hand injury, forcing him to take a leave of absence. Decisions must be made as Brandon comes face to the face with the silence that has been waiting for him.
Ellingsen’s book was an interesting read. I must admit that there were parts that were difficult to understand. Parts of the story seemed to have no connection with each other. However, as the story progressed things became clear. The disjointedness is deliberate, for it is a reflection of the turmoil that Brandon feels as he tries to bring together the pieces of his life into a single whole. The chapter titles also act as clues that reveal to us the what Brandon undergoes as he tries to deal with who he is and what he wishes to become.
The theme of silence underlies this work. In a way, it acts as challenge. What is our reaction when we come face to face with silence? Brandon’s feels off balance when he becomes conscious of its presence. He does not ignore it but neither does he actively seek it. We too may have the same reaction because in a world that becomes increasing smaller, the cacophony and clamour of new challenges and changes seem to fill our lives. Yet the silence is neutral. It merely waits for us to come to terms with it. Some may look at silence as a friend. Others view it as a foe to be conquered. The reality however, is that silence is one of nature’s helping hands. When we face it unafraid, silence helps us to gain perspective, shift through our lives to see what is important, helps us to resolve issues and prepares us to be ready for the challenges that lie ahead. - Rowena C. Ruiz
I was wondering if you were thinking of a particular city when you wrote the Empty City. What city or what cities would you say resemble the city in your book the most?
I had several cities, from Berlin to Seoul to Vancouver, or the essence of the modern city, in mind when I started writing. Most cities do have characteristic landmarks or buildings, and even a special atmosphere or flavor, but with globalization and modernization, they also become more and more similar to one another, with similar type of stores, apartment buildings, business high rises, industrial areas in the periphery, and such.
For The Empty City I wanted a nameless city so the reader would identify as much as possible with the location and the setting.
There’s a quiet energy to the writing in this novel. It’s the same thing that I’d observed in your collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin as well. Who would you say are your major influences?
I’m very glad you see some similarities between The Empty City and the stories in Beneath the Liquid Skin!
The influences are so many, Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges, JK Huysmans, Comte de Lautreamont, Edgar Allan Poe, to haiku writers such as Matsuo Basho, Kobayashi Issa and Yosa Buson, and more current writers such as Albert Camus, Ursula LeGuin, the Japanese writer Naoyuki Ii, the Finnish-Swedish writer Irmelin Sandman Lilius, and the films by Terrence Malick, Hirokazu Kore-Eda, Michael Haneke, and Andrei Tarkovsky.
Current writers such as Kathy Fish, Ethel Rohan, Tania Hershman, Kristine Ong Muslim, Sam Rasnake, Matthew Salesses, Jeff Vandermeer, Paul Jessup, and many others, have been influential.
What was the inspiration or the seed from which The Empty City grew?
Before I started The Empty City I really wanted to write something longer. My life situation changed and it was time to start writing what had been brewing at the back of my mind for a while. It was probably inspired by many different sources and the new opportunity to actually sit down and just write. I wrote the first draft with as few constraints as possible, then cut much of it and tweaked and edited a lot. It was a long, but fascinating process.
One reason why it’s not talked about so much is that I self-published it. I wasn’t good at finding reviewers or sending it to book blogs for review. I didn’t think many people would enjoy it.
How much do you plan when you write your stories? Would you say you’re a pantser or a plotter?
I’m very much a pantser. I can plot a little, but the story usually changes while I write it, sometimes drastically, and I just follow those changes as they happen. I make notes to keep track of events, but usually quite few, or only after the first draft is done. It might have be nice to plot more, but it doesn’t seem to be the right method for me now.
There are many lovely lines in this novel, but one of the ones that captivated me was this where you write: Now the world played out inside him…He was completely and irrevocably real.
Would you like to talk a little bit more about how your protagonist reached this point in the novel? Is it reflective of a personal epiphany?
Oh yeah, like in the story, when someone first notices the gap between thoughts and that there is a difference between events and our perception of them, this discovery tends to become clearer and clearer over time, just through whatever happens in their everyday lives.
It is the recognition of a part of oneself that is there all the time and which all humans share, and which our everyday culture has little knowledge of and religions tend to ascribe something mythological or unattainable to, but is an accessible and an integral part of everyone, even if we don’t always notice it.
Another thing that fascinated me about The Empty City is that feeling of space—there’s also that feeling of solitariness despite of the fact that your protagonist interacts with other people in the story. Would you like to say something about that? (Was it intentional or did it happen organically?)
Part of the reason for that may be that the story plays out more on the inner plane than in outer events, so it seems more solitary. And I do think the protagonist is alone for most of the time in the various sequences. It seemed the most straightforward thing to do in the story.
What is your own take on genre and genre boundaries?
As you can probably guess I don’t like the genre boundaries at all. They’re small and restrictive and keep writers and readers in their comfort zones, and worse, make people reluctant to try something outside the boundaries. The genre “limits” are also artificial and pretty arbitrary, but I guess they make things easier for marketing and audience targeting, and hence are difficult to change.
I try not to worry too much about the genre boundaries and assumptions when I write, but it’s hard to shake them.
What is it like to be an sff writer in Norway?
There are a few SFF writers working and publishing in Norway, but because there are only a couple of literary journals (no creative-writing MFA “track” with university-backed journals, like in the US), I assume that Norwegian writers in all genres publish their work directly in books with the Norwegian publishing companies. Maybe some also publish online on their own websites or as ebooks. I’m not sure since I have not submitted anything to a Norwegian journal or publisher.
You’ve written about your feelings regarding genre boundaries, is this reflective of the attitude in Norway towards genre boundaries?
I don’t think it is. There was talk a few years back that Norwegian publishers were looking for SFF young adult, paranormal romance, and fantasy manuscripts. I see that a few homegrown SFF books are published each year, but I suspect that the translations of the biggest fantasy books are more popular.
Here the big genre is crime fiction, and it seems to have very clear boundaries towards for example literary fiction. I assume other genres have equally strong boundaries.
I’ve read a good bit of your work in English. I was wondering if you also wrote in Norwegian and if there’s a difference in dynamics when you write in English as when you write in Norwegian.
I usually don’t write fiction in Norwegian, but I do write non-fiction (popular science articles) in Norwegian. Which I’m glad I do, otherwise I might lose even more Norwegian words than I already have. Learning more in one writing styles does influence the other form, which is a good thing.
What was your compelling reason with regards to choice of language to write your fiction in?
It wasn’t a decision that was really planned, it mostly just happened. For years I had been reading almost exclusively in English, both fiction and textbooks at university, so I was using English a lot.
I wrote a few stories in Norwegian, but thought I’d try to write in English, and it made writing “click” much better. One reason for that may be that English is a more specific language than Norwegian, and has a wider vocabulary, and I prefer that for writing.
What are some of the things you struggle with as a writer? How do you deal with those things?
My biggest difficulty as a writer is to set aside time and energy to actually write or edit. Life is busy and also has many fun and some not so fun distractions. I’ve found that the best way to deal with this is to write, and especially edit, during the day, whenever that’s at all possible. I’m most awake then and that makes it less difficult to write or edit my way through a challenging story or part of the manuscript.
I usually get slightly obsessed with the stories I’m working on, and just let the “obsession” work itself out by writing, without exhausting myself or getting too obsessed. That makes finding the time and energy to write much easier, almost effortless at times, but difficult parts that I know will require a lot of work or several rewrites, can still feel like a chore.
My other biggest challenge is to trust my own instincts in how a story should read and play out. Therefore, I always try to follow the story itself and worry less about how it “ought to be” or how I want it to be, and just write and keep in mind that things can always be changed once the first draft is done. As with writing itself, learning to do this is a work in progress.
What are you working on right now? Would you like to talk a little bit about it?
I’m currently working on a novel that is a sort of follow-up to The Empty City. It has the same protagonist, but a different structure, setting, and plot. It’s about climate change, environmental activism, personal agency and responsibility, and cabins. - Rowena C. Ruiz
39: A Dream In The Forest
In his dreams he followed a path of exposed bone through a snow-dusted forest surrounded by winter mountains. The forest’s heart hid a white city that reflected the sun. The light reminded him of the few winters when they had snow in December, and of the rarified, high-altitude illumination he had seen in pictures from the mountain ranges in the east.
He decided to enter the city with impunity. Its pale outer wall was clasped shut with a gate of solid brass. The defenses were high and smooth, with no handholds for intruders. Standing before them, he felt like a little boy who tried to get a glimpse through a high window.
But why not try the direct approach and use the door instead? He took hold of the bottom edge of the gate and pulled hard. A deep boom rang through the structure. The metal moved, just far enough for him to slip inside.
A long boulevard pointed towards the city center. The wide thoroughfare was lined with tall statues that wore stern stone faces and white marble robes. An icy wind blew from the snow-covered mountains.
The boulevards, statues and buildings were smooth and whole, but covered in fine dust. His shoes left faint prints. The city’s walls, doors, pilasters, colonnades, domes, benches, fountains and agorae were decorated with graceful, intricate curves and curls. At first, the design looked beautiful and his eyes followed the patterns willingly. But there was no variation, and even beauty repeated was monotonous to watch, like a person dressed in all designer plaid.
Research Notes about The Empty City in Necessary Fiction – December 2011.
About colors – in Pure Slush – November 2011.
Interview excerpt in writer Marcus Speh’s communal blog Kaffe in Katmandu – October 2011.
About writing and publishing – in writer Chris Galvin Nguyen’s blog – October 2011.
About writing Gothic – at Innsmouth Free Press – October 2011.
About writing and inspiration – in writer Magen Toole’s blog – July 2011.
About nonduality and writing – in Non-Duality Magazine – March 2011.
Berit Ellingsen is a Korean-Norwegian writer who lives in Norway and writes in English. Her stories combine the realistic and the imaginary, prose and poetry, and are inspired by, among others, science, history, philosophy, music and film. Berit’s fiction has appeared or will appear in literary journals such as Unstuck, SmokeLong Quarterly, elimae, Metazen and decomP magazinE. She’s also had haiku poems and creative non-fiction work published, as well as popular science articles in Norwegian. Berit was a semi-finalist in the Rose Metal Press Chapbook Competition in 2011 and two of her stories received an honorable mention by Ellen Datlow for Best Horror of the Year vol. 4. In September 2011 Berit’s novel, The Empty City, a story about silence, was released, and in February 2012 Turtleneck Press published Berit’s chapbook What Girls Really Think. Berit’s collection of short stories, Beneath the Liquid Skin, was published by firthFORTH Books in November 2012. You can find her online at her personal website.
I recently interviewed Ellingsen via email about her writing, weird and unclassifiable literature, and the link between science and fabulism, among other things.
Weirdfictionreview.com: What kinds of stories did you read growing up? Do you remember reading anything especially unusual, weird, or out of the ordinary?
Berit Ellingsen: The first book I can remember reading with a passion was Cosmos, Carl Sagan’s popular science book about the universe. I didn’t understand all of it, but I loved it.
Later on I enjoyed Swedish-speaking Finnish writer Irmelin Sandman Lilius’s Sola Trilogy, Ursula LeGuin’s Earthsea series, the books by Norwegian fabulists Tore Hansen, Jon Bing and Tor-Åge Bringsværd, Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles and short story collections, and Edgar Allan Poe’s work, as well as Norwegian, Danish and German folk tales and the Norse sagas and mythology. Living in Scandinavia, you don’t get away from those.
As a science student I read a variety of literature and genres, such as the plays by classical Norwegian writers Henrik Ibsen and Alexander Kielland, Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, William Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, J.G. Ballard’s Crash, Clive Barker’s Books of Blood, Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler’s crime stories, P.G. Wodehouse’s 20th century farces, the French SF comics by Moebius, Enki Bilal, Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mezieres, and classical haiku by Matsuo Basho and Kobayashi Issa.
WFR.com: Which writers or stories have been most influential to you, as a writer?
Ellingsen: Most recently, Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities. I remembered the end passage from my teen years, but didn’t know which book it was from, so it was fantastic to find it again and finally read the entire book. The same with J.K. Huysman’s decadent and surreal novel Against Nature, and Jorge Luis Borges’s “The Aleph,” which felt like stories I should have read a long time ago, but didn’t know about.
Ursula LeGuin’s Orsinian Tales, a collection of short stories set in a fictional Eastern European country, has also been a large influence. The same goes for Irmelin Sandman Lilius’s Sola Trilogy, which also mixes realism with fabulist elements.
I’ve also recently read short stories by many contemporary writers (some of them do not write weird fiction), such as Kathy Fish, Paul Jessup, Kristine Ong Muslim, Tania Hershman, Jeff VanderMeer, Matthew Salesses, Ethel Rohan, Jennifer DuBois, Paul Griner, and Aliette de Bodard, as well as essays by the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, and they have been influential as well.
WFR.com: What about some of these stories or writers do you find so influential or inspirational to you? Why do they impact you?
Ellingsen: What I think all these writers have in common is the ability to make accurate and relevant observations about our world and the way we live and act, and to communicate this in eloquent ways, via both the content and form of their stories. By doing so they also question our ways of living and I find that important and a source for hope.
WFR.com: What do you want to see more of, in regards to literature and art?
Ellingsen: I would like to see a higher degree of freedom from commercial constraints and the current expectations of entertainment value and value-for-money for literature and all art forms.
Every genre has its conventions and expectations to theme, length, characterization, setting and so on, and if the artist strays too far away from it, it doesn’t belong to that genre any longer and can’t be marketed as such. These conventions and rules tend to make things repetitive, simple, and easily digested, and well suited for consumption. But the question is, do we really want more of the same, or something new or more complex that may surprise, challenge, change us, or show the world in a different light?
Therefore, I’d like to see more experimentation, more playfulness, more hybrid forms, more questioning of the conventions and traditions of genres and art forms, and by extension, questioning our current ways of life and civilization, which aren’t working that well anymore.
Weird, surrealist, experimental, and cross-genre literature’s willingness to consider the unusual and the unexpected and to try new avenues is probably why it has a special place in my heart.
WFR.com: There’s definitely an element of playfulness and experimentation in your writing, especially formal experimentation, that’s present in many of the stories in Beneath the Liquid Skin, like “A Catalog of Planets,” which is essentially what the title would indicate, and “Still Life in Hypnos, which takes the form of a series of time-lapse photographs. What do you consider as successful or failed experiments in your own writing?
Ellingsen: I really enjoy playing with forms and styles, and as with any experimentation there are failed attempts, where I can’t express what I want to, or can’t shape or edit the story into what I envisioned it to be like, or work I lose interest in before it’s finished, or pieces that lose interest in me before they are finished, stories that just don’t work.
I have gone back to a few of them after a while and then they have transformed into something else and unexpected, which is great fun, or become what I hoped, but it’s rare. I do think of these stories as maybe meant just for me, and for testing the waters, and that’s all right.
A successful experiment is like a puzzle: all (or most) of the pieces will be there and just need to be assembled and polished, and comes to life like a little Frankenstein creation, almost all by itself.
WFR.com: What kind of impact does science have on your writing overall? You’ve mentioned your affection for literature like Cosmos, as well as your experience as a science student. How does this admiration for science and scientific literature impact, or possibly conflict with, your affection for fabulist or surrealist literature?
Ellingsen: One might think there would be a conflict there, but I suspect my liking for science expresses itself more as a desire for even fabulist literature to have a clear connection to the world and be somewhat analytical as well as imaginative, instead of dismissing the imaginary outright.
The background in science is probably also why I like describing the landscape and ecology of a setting, and how the people there sustain themselves. It also makes me enjoy satirizing systems of hierarchy or taxonomy, as in “The Tale That Wrote Itself” (one of the stories in Beneath the Liquid Skin) .
The science background may also make me more open to experimentation and playing with form and content, but as words and images, rather than in a lab.
WFR.com: What inspires you the most in your writing? Where do you most frequently find catalysts for your stories?
Ellingsen: What I find most inspiring in writing is the writing process itself, when the story almost seems to write itself, when you find ways to express what you want, both linguistically and plot-wise, in exactly the tone and style you wish, and seeing the story take shape from tentative tries and sketches to the finished version.
I find the catalysts for stories in everything from phrases, ideas, questions, memories, dreams, indignation, science, philosophy, paintings, photography, film, music, games, design, to other people’s literary work. It can be everything from a great phrase, to an interesting character, to certain colors or a tone of light.
For example, a recent shot from one of Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s movies, which are known for slow panning into or out of scenes, and a masterful cinematography of water, made me realize that his films have influenced my writing a lot. It’s a while since I watched them, so I didn’t realize how much of an influence they are.
A montage of images from Stalker:
WFR.com: How about your story “The White,” which we’ve reprinted elsewhere on this site? What inspired you to write that story in particular? Please walk us through the process of the story from inception to completion, if you like.
Ellingsen: “The White” was written for literary magazine The Medulla Review’s call for “lucid fiction”. They wanted fiction that experimented with and presented new ways of regarding the world, the self and how we tell stories, point of views, characterization etc. I therefore wanted to write a first contact story, since extraterrestrials might have a very different view of themselves, their minds and bodies and where they belong, than we do.
One of the most challenging and alien settings on Earth is Antarctica. I had read blog posts and descriptions from scientists that spent the winter in bases in the Antarctic and it sounded like being on another planet, so that became the setting for the story.
In my work I’ve also interviewed scientists who have, like Professor Johansen in the story, what they themselves describe as “polar sickness”. They’ve been to the Arctic or the Antarctic and constantly want to go back. I’ve been to the Arctic myself, it’s a fantastically beautiful place despite the harsh conditions, and I can really understand why some people are eager to live there. All of that made up the inspiration for “The White” and found its way into the story.
I also wanted the reader to be a part of the narrative and have a sense that it’s about them, or a different part of them, and therefore wrote it in second person present tense. The text itself was straightforward to write and revisions consisted mostly of polishing the dialogue and do line editing.
WFR.com: In addition to your short story collections, you also have a novel that was published last year, The Empty City. How does your novel fit into your overall body of work, in terms of the themes you choose to explore and the style you develop? What lessons did you learn from writing your novel that you can now apply to your short fiction? And what might readers of weird fiction find really fascinating about your novel?
Ellingsen: The Empty City shares some of the themes of “The White,” but takes place in an everyday setting rather than the Antarctic. The novel is written as a series of vignettes, each ranging from a few hundred to several thousand words long.
During the course of the story, the protagonist starts questioning the objectivity of the individual experience, the accuracy of personal memory, and in particular the continuity of the personality. It seemed pertinent to make the form of the narrative reflect this as well, and writing the novel as separate but interconnected vignettes therefore seemed to be the best form.
I learned a lot about developing a story, both the short form and longer structures, as well as revising, and working with an editor, something I hadn’t done before. Maybe the biggest lesson was the freedom to choose approaches and themes that were previously new to me.
The Empty City is about encountering the strange and the unexpected, but also about turning inward and finding what’s there. It uses some science fiction and fantasy imagery to explore the protagonist’s past and present.
WFR.com: Do you have any other projects that you’re currently working on?
Ellingsen: I’m working on a novella which mixes existential themes with imaginary elements. Among other things, it’s about how the past is a very fluid narrative that tends to change according to our present, even without any conscious lying or glossing over. But when we know this is the case, what is really true and objective? The first draft of the story is almost done, and I hope I will like it well enough to start editing, which for me is a long process. I’m also usually working on a short story or two, of flash fiction length and longer.
WFR.com: Finally, what’s the weirdest piece of fiction, story or novel, that you’ve ever read? Why?
Ellingsen: Comte de Lautreamont/Isidore Ducasse’s long and surreal prose poem Les Chants des Maldoror was an eye– and mind-opener when I read it a few years ago. I loved the non-linearity of it, the lack of a solid plot or storyline, a central character who is willful and unusual, the dark and sometimes disturbing descriptions, the striding poetry and play with words and images, and the unapologetic and uncensored voice of the writer.
It’s one of the most unsettling and weird pieces of fiction I have read so far. It felt like what I imagine taking a peek into insanity would be like, but with a high degree of expression and accuracy and control of language. The author died at a young age, it would have been very interesting to have seen what he would have written, had he lived. - Adam Mills
SHELDON LEE COMPTON: You have died and need to decide the place you want to haunt and the form you want to take as a spirit. Tell me what you decide.
BERIT ELLINGSEN: I’d find a really old and run down cemetery of the type you’d expect or even want to be haunted. A cemetery full of ancient headstones and crumbling mausolea and tall grass and trees. Then I’d start haunting, moving things and making sounds and creating cold spots and such. I’d try to have the word about it spread to attract some fun and bumbling ghost hunters and scientists so they could actually get some measurements and pictures. I’d probably be a Lady in White type of ghost, or a tiny will o’ the wisp.
When the ghost hunters and scientists had gotten the recordings they wanted, I’d probably go to Venice and haunt an old palazzo there and scare some tourists. Unless ghosts are tied to one place, I’d go to Chernobyl since as a ghost radiation won’t be an issue. If possible, I’d travel the world as a ghost and see places I didn’t see while alive.
Maybe that’s what ghosts do when they’re not angry or bound to a certain place; they travel the world still. This makes me wonder if Facebook memorial pages can be haunted. I don’t think I would have bothered haunting a Facebook page. That would have been a terrible afterlife.
SLC: Full facial tattoo or painlessly losing your lips. One has to happen. What’s it going to be?
BE: I once wrote a story about a man whose lips had rotted off so it looked like he was always smiling, but he was dead so there was a reason for the lack of lips.
For someone living, I think that having no lips might make it harder to eat and drink, which would not be a good thing. It would also be so scary for others; it would be hard to have neutral interactions with just about everyone. Sad to think that that is the reality for burn patients and victims of acid attacks. The surface of our bodies has been given way too much importance in our culture, beyond skin’s basic function.
Full facial tattoos are also problematic. I don’t have any tattoos because I know I’d get tired of them after a certain while. I’ve seen pictures of some bad full facial tattoos and some that looked scary but were very detailed and well made. My issue with them though is that they do look as if the person is wearing a mask, and I keep thinking that it is not their true face, even though the tattoos are supposed to express what they look like on the inside
The best facial tattoos I’ve seen have been mostly Maori, so I’d have to go with that. Although I don’t think Maori tattoos are given to non-Maori, so it would have to be a Maori-inspired tattoo instead.
SLC: You’ve somehow recovered the innocence of your childhood while still retaining your general adult knowledge. How will you best take advantage of this, if at all?
BE: I think some of that innocence, at least the capacity for wonder and surprise, if not naivete, must be present in order to write fiction. If one has no sense of innocence or wonder, how can one then write about the world, even if the world has many sides that are not innocent or wondrous.
The ability to wonder and have a childlike curiosity is probably also quite important to keep learning throughout life. When I graduated from university I thought my time of learning was over and that I’d never again be learning as much as I did then. But that’s been completely wrong and I’m still learning something new every day, whether it’s in writing or reading, or about science or current affairs. I think this continual learning is a good thing.
SLC: You can be shown every secret the Catholic Church may have to offer or every secret the Freemasons might have to offer. Which do you choose?
BE: Definitely the secrets of the Catholic Church hands down.
I don’t think the Freemasons have that many interesting secrets beyond some intricate rituals and perhaps some intriguing books. Maybe the most interesting thing about the Freemasons is who is and has been members throughout history, and what advantages or not that has given the members.
The Catholic Church on the other hand, has existed for many centuries, amassed an enormous amount of wealth and store of ancient tomes, relics, artifacts, letters, and other pieces of information. I’m sure the Catholic Church’s objects of historical and cultural significance would take life times to catalog and analyze, even if you had no interest in the purely religious side of those objects.
I’m also sure some of their secrets would change the way we look at certain historical figures or events if they were made public, so I wish there would be more transparency. It would also have been interesting to see more information about the few female popes the church has had. - enclave.entropymag.org/chaos-questions-17-berit-ellingsen/
Meet Me At The Fountain In Caras Galadhon – a virtual journey. Nominated for Best of the Net by Atticus Review.
Summer Dusk, Winter Moon – a fairy tale tribute to JK Huysmans. First published in Transactions Of The Flesh – A Homage to JK Huysmans.
Midsummer Murders – a homage to the TV series Midsomer Murders – in Wyvern Lit. Read here by Georgia Bellas.
Natura Dominatur – or: How the Arctic Gets Under Your Skin – a visit to the northernmost abandoned town – in Litro Magazine’s Blog.
Towards a Virtual Terroir: Architecture and Games – in games, architecture is more than buildings – in Litro Magazine’s Blog.
Grains of Sand in Blue Fifth Review Winter 2014 – excerpt from the new novel – Not Dark Yet.
Vessel and Solsvart – a fairy tale of decay – in Birkensnake 6.
Isabelle’s Pictures in ESC. A collaboration with French philosopher, writer and photographer Isabelle Pariente-Butterlin.
The Love Decay Has for the Living in Unstuck #2. (Only in print so far.)
The White (Dans le Blanc) in Weird Fiction Review. A storm in Antarctica.
Dans le Blanc (The White) in Publie.net’s Ouvrez series.
Sexual Dimorphism — A Nightmare Transcribed From Sanskrit – in Elimae.
Poison Ore Heart in Everyday Genius. “We wrung the air and the water and the soil like a rag.”
Sliding in Thunderclap! Magazine’s Blog and Thunderclap’s National Poetry Month 2012.
Hostage Situation in Safety Pin Review.
The Glory of Glormorsel in Metazen. Glory Hound.
The Celtic Itch in decomP magazinE. “… an itch you can’t scratch…”