Return to Sylver with Tone Almhjell and Thornghost

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A little over two years ago, we published our original recommendation of The Twistrose Key  by Tone Almhjell, along with an interview with the delightful author herself. Last summer, Penguin published the companion novel, Thornghost. It is a haunting, evocative story that will enchant younger readers, and those of us old enough to read fairy stories again, in very different ways. Like The Twistrose Key, Thornghost  follows a human child who travels to another world, a world populated by animals once loved by children in our own world. This novel, though, takes place in a different stretch of  alternate geography and has its own unique flavor, its own remarkable story and characters shaped by Ms. Almhjell, who most graciously agreed to another interview, sharing with us her thoughts and experiences around returning to this magical world. Come get better acquainted with this wonderful author and her enchanting book!

If you have not yet read The Twistrose Key (and what is stopping you? Get cracking!),  it follows Lin Rosenquist and the red-backed vole Rufus on their adventure through the snowy land of Sylver, a land of both great danger and delightful homey pleasures (including the most fabulous waffles found in literature). Thornghost, in many ways, is more a companion book than a sequel. Instead of continuing Lin’s story, it takes us to the community of Summerhill, the place about which Lin often reminisces in The Twistrose Key, home to her best friend Niklas, and the place where the children perfected their goblin-hunting games. Niklas himself is the focus of this tale, and his story, in most ways a sadder story than Lin’s, pulls in the reader at once. From his fascination with the lynx, Secret, to the eerie secrets swirling around his unstable late mother, Niklas’s life is woven with mysteries that he works to solve both in his own world, and on the other side of the magical gate that takes him to the land of Broken, where creatures from cats to raccoons are remarkable characters struggling to save their once-beautiful world.

Though Thornghost is, on the surface, a children’s book, it is a book that also tackles powerful themes and dangerous issues. Though these beautifully interwoven elements never spoil the story for younger readers, they give it a depth and resonance that make this novel one readers will continue to visit.

Tone Almhjell kindly answered these questions for us (the questions are in bold), though I had a dreadful time limiting myself and not pestering her for much more! If you have read Thornghost, these insights will add to your enjoyment, and we look forward to your thoughts. If Thornghost is still on your list, I hope these thoughts from the ever-thoughtful Ms. Almhjell will tempt you with what you have been missing, and you will get yourself to her magic kingdom post haste.

 

  1. It took you seven years to write The Twistrose Key. How was your composition process different for Thornghost? Did you have the story already outlined while you were working on The Twistrose Key or did it evolve later?

I wrote Thornghost in much less time than The Twistrose Key. Partly because I had to, being under contract with Penguin, but mostly because I knew what I was doing this time around. I didn’t have to teach myself how to write a novel in the process. But I didn’t know anything about Niklas’s story when I started out. I had the setting for the opening, the Summerhill farm, which Lin longs for in The Twistrose Key, and I knew that Niklas lived with his uncle and grandmother, and that he and Lin had invented the troll hunting game. But that was pretty much it. The ghostly mother, the talking lynx, the edible jewels – I had no idea they were going to be in the book.  I discover the story through writing it. It can be a slow and frustrating journey, but I just can’t make the magic happen on neat post-it notes before I begin. I wish I could!

 

  1. The Twistrose Key is a very atmospheric novel, with a wintery flavor that is evocative of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Thornghost has a different setting, seasonally, both at Summerhill and in Jewelgard. How does the season affect the story, and vice-versa? Did you choose the story or the season first? Or did they sort of choose themselves?

I always thought of Thornghost as “my summer book.” I wanted to imbue it with the flavor of a Nordic summer, which is a particular kind of magic. Nights are blue, not black, days are seemingly endless. Everything is desperately lush and vibrant, as if nature is very aware that it only has a few brief weeks to bloom and grow before it all turns dark and cold again. Growing up, those summer months meant adventure. I used to sneak out at night while my parents were sleeping, to steal vegetables and fruit. I filched apples, I snatched sweet peas, I tugged carrots out of the ground and wiped the dirt off on dewy grass. They were the best carrots I’ve ever had to this day. Not that this made me a juvenile delinquent. It was just something we all did back then. Nowadays kids have apples piled high on their kitchen counters, so fruit doesn’t even count as a treat anymore.

Niklas goes on nightly visits to the neighbour farms in search of thrills, but also because he wants to annoy the Willodalers. In the realm of Broken, it’s a different matter. The Brokeners steal because they must. Imagine that spice added to those carrots. *That* was the feeling I wanted to tap into when I made Broken. The feeling of racing through a field and rolling under a hedge to avoid being caught. The heart pounding, the danger, the sheer adventure of it all.

 

  1. Secret the Lynx is such a wonderful character, though very different from Lin’s companion Rufus. Since you are an animal lover with several pets, the Petling characters certainly draw from your own observations and experiences. How was that different with Secret, a wild animal?

I have many feline friends, and it was a lot of fun giving Secret all the annoying, yet endearing characteristics I love so much in them. But she also had to be different from domestic cats. I wanted her to have a noble quality, a feline poise coupled with the savvy and wisdom that comes from eking out a living alone in the woods. I talked to a good friend of mine whose mother raised lynxes as a part of a research program at the University of Oslo. I picked her brain on certain lynx traits and habits, such as going deadly still when getting ready to flee or attack.

As for how Secret found her way into my story, one winter, my uncle discovered a set of huge paw prints beneath an apple tree in the orchard. A lynx had perched there, probably for some time, only a few yards away from his living room. He figured she must have been either very hungry, very curious, or very brave to come so close to a human house. Probably all those things. We never found out why she came or what happened to her, but I don’t think I’ve ever felt a more powerful “what if” ignite in my writer head.

  1. The rose symbolism in Thornghost is just brilliant, drawing on literary and cultural touchstones while still remaining unique and distinct to this story and this world. How did you light upon the rose as a central symbol in these stories, and how did that change as you shifted from Lin’s story to Niklas’s? Can we expect the rose to remain a potent symbol as Lin and Niklas continue on their adventures?

Thank you! I do love the idea of a plant as a god-like creature. The Rosa Torquata is the being that weaves our worlds together. It is at once a bridge, a border, a connecter, and bringer of hope. I wanted that connection to be a living thing that needs care and sustenance to thrive, just as our relationship to other humans and to the world we share requires care and attention.

As for future stories – actually, I’m taking a break from this world to write something completely new. It will still be fantasy and still Northern in inspiration, but for slightly older readers. I’m not saying I will never return to Lin and Niklas and their further adventures, but it’s not in the cards right now.

  1. One of the many wonderful elements of this novel is how some very adult issues (such as Niklas’s parentage and his mother’s psychological issues) are handled in ways that are age appropriate for younger readers, but that are nonetheless extremely profound for older readers who understand these issues from a different perspective. Was that a challenge for you as an author? Or did that balance develop naturally?

Coming from a Nordic background, I’m used to difficult themes such as death and illness being part of children’s literature, as they are part of life. Astrid Lindgren wrote about death in many of her books. Her approach was an impressive mix of no-nonsense and mythical, for instance in “The Brothers Lionheart,” which features an afterlife of beauty and danger that in some ways has inspired my fantasy world.

Thus, the painful aspects of Niklas’s background were a natural part of the weave. Thornghost is a journey of growth and acceptance, of loss and loneliness, but with joy on the horizon. My wish is that this insight into the wending ways of life – yes, there will be loss, but you will also be loved – is something the readers can pluck from the book and carry with them like a nugget of hope.

  1. You are a voracious reader of the great books that we often study here at Hogwarts Professor, reading that has undoubtedly influenced you as an author. Were there particular texts that you found yourself connecting with as you wrote Thornghost? What are you reading now?

I’ve mentioned Lindgren’s “The Brothers Lionheart,” and that is perhaps the most important one along with Ronia the Robber’s Daughter. But I’ve also drawn inspiration from books that feature animals as heroes in a non-cutesy way, such as Watership Down, Redwall, and David Petersen’s outstanding graphic novels, Mouse Guard. Right now, I have three books on my nightstand: Nicole Krauss’ The History of Love, a good one that I missed when it came out, Ringelihorn, a book of fairy tales from Northern Norway, and Torbjørn Øverland Amundsens’s new novel Kelestriel, which I’m beta reading for him.

 

I expect that, like me, you find Ms. Almhjell’s responses inspiring you to not only read her books, but to visit some of her favorites as well, along with visiting Norway the first chance you get! I hope you’ll enjoy her work as much as I and my family have, as we look forward to the next adventure on which she takes us.  Thank you again, Tone Almhjell for your time and for your lovely books!Image result

Comments

  1. Emily Strand says:

    Oh wow, what a treasure trove of new (Nordic) books to discover! Thank you for that, and for sharing the author’s very thoughtful responses to your excellent questions.

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