Interview with Genevieve Gornichec (THE WEAVER AND THE WITCH QUEEN)
Genevieve Gornichec earned her degree in history from The Ohio State University, but she got as close to majoring in Vikings as she possibly could, and her study of the Norse myths and Icelandic sagas became her writing inspiration. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio. The Witch’s Heart is her debut novel, and she tweets @gengornichec.
Welcome to the Hive, Genevieve. Let’s start with the basics: tell us about your novel The Weaver and the Witch Queen – why should readers check it out?
Thank you so much; it’s great to be here! The Weaver and the Witch Queen is my sophomore novel, and it’s a fantasy reimagining of the origin story of Gunnhild, Mother of Kings, who was a powerful queen of Norway during the Viking Age and had a reputation for being ruthless, conniving, and also a witch. The novel is about her early years, her first fights and first enemies, and her relationships with her two sworn sisters (who I made up because I decided that if there was one thing this woman needed, it’s friends).
What is it about Icelandic sagas that inspired you?
The medieval Icelandic family sagas have fascinated me ever since I studied them at university. They’re such a unique genre, especially for the time period in which they were written (that is, hundreds of years after the Viking Age events they describe by the descendants of the protagonists). You’ve got so much happening in them: a lot of lawsuits about things like sheep grazing rights and honour killings, but you’ve also got ghosts and zombies and sorcerers and all kinds of other supernatural happenings. Some of the sagas are more realistic than others, but at the end of the day most scholars agree they’re more historical fiction than “real” history, but if you take the supernatural stuff at face value and accept that magic was an intrinsic part of these peoples’ worlds, well—all the makings of a historical fantasy novel are already there!
Give us an insight into your characters, who can we expect to meet? Do you have a favourite child?
Gunnhild I mentioned already, and of course we’ve got other quasi-historical figures like the hot-headed (and murderous) Eirik Blood-axe, his father King Harald Fine-hair (the first king of Norway), and a bunch of other saga characters like Thorolf Skallagrimsson, the brother of the title character of Egil’s Saga (Egil later becomes Gunnhild’s lifelong nemesis). And in terms of characters I invented, we’ve got Oddny and Signy, Gunnhild’s sworn sisters, who are total opposites, and then the side characters, who unfortunately I had to cut a lot of in edits; Runfrid, the tattooist and archer, has got to be my favourite of those, while her partner Arinbjorn is my favourite of the quasi-historical gang. In Egil’s Saga he’s something of a mediator, so in this novel I made him a likeable guy who often uses humour to diffuse tense situations, and he got some of my favourite lines in the book.
The theme of sisterhood is a strong one throughout The Weaver and the Witch Queen, what made you want to tackle this particular theme?
The sagas are unique for their time period in that they feature women who are strong and fierce in their own ways, but they also struggle for agency in a hypermasculine, heavily patriarchal society. Yet at the same time, you also rarely see them interact with other women, and the few times I can think of women talking to each other, it’s about men. So I wanted to focus on the relationships between women during this time period and give them the rich inner lives they deserve.
If you were transported into your own fictional world, how do you think you would fare?
I do Viking Age living history, so I think I’d be good for about three or four days, tops, but then I’d definitely want to go back to the present where there’s indoor plumbing!
What can you tell us about the magic system, the witches and wise women, of The Weaver and the Witch Queen?
The magic system in Weaver was inspired by research, but I sort of put my own spin on things, too (pun intended). Like, in the book, we have these witches who leave their bodies to go do stuff, but are attached by a thread that they spun to keep their minds tethered to their bodies; they either go out into the waking world as animals, or go down to the void to speak with the dead. In both instances, their staff is an important tool of the trade, and it’s no coincidence that these staffs resemble distaffs used in spinning. In our sources, there’s this very strong correlation between women’s textile work and fate—from the Norns, who spin the threads of fate in Norse mythology, to this poem from Njal’s Saga called Darraðarljóð where the valkyries are weaving the fates of warriors using weapons as weaving tools and men’s severed heads as loom weights. And the idea that a practitioner of magic could speak with the dead, and that the dead had knowledge the living didn’t, is pretty prevalent in the Norse myths, so I sort of ran with that idea. We’ve also got a lot of witches shape-shifting in the sagas. Gunnhild’s mind taking the form of a swallow, for example, was inspired by a specific episode from Egil’s Saga that happens decades after this book ends.
We always appreciate a beautiful book cover! How involved in the process were you? Was there a particular aesthetic you hoped the artist would portray?
Thank you—I have been very lucky with both my books in terms of covers! For the US version of Weaver, I did have some suggestions in terms of colour and imagery, but mostly I only told them things I didn’t want. We were on a bit of a tight timeline and the UK cover just appeared in my inbox one day, and my jaw dropped! I could not have asked for better. I think it’s absolutely perfect and gives exactly the impression I wanted for the book. It just positively screams “Norse fantasy novel.”
Just for fun, how would you pitch your book as a 1-star review?
“historically unlikeable female protagonist continues to be unlikeable, 1 star”
Can you tell us anything about any upcoming projects? Or can you tell us a few teasers for your sequel?
I wish I could, but I don’t know what’s next for me. There is so much more to tell about the characters in Weaver that I really hope I get a sequel!
Who are the most significant women in SFF who have shaped and influenced your work?
I recently (finally) started reading Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series, which I would have made my entire personality if they had been around when I was a kid. I am in love with Becky Chambers’ A Psalm for the Wild Built, which I have bought as a gift for friends who are going through bad times; it’s so comforting and inspiring and I can’t wait to read the rest of her books. And of course I’ve got to say Tamsyn Muir because the Locked Tomb series is one of my favourites ever, and I may or may not be on the edge of my metaphorical seat waiting for the fourth book even though I know it’s going to cause me great emotional pain.
Who is a great woman in SFF who we should be reading? Any hidden gems?
I will never shut up about Dark Water Daughter by fellow Titan author H.M. Long. It’s a pirate fantasy, so if you liked Pirates of the Caribbean but add more magic and make it winter, this book is for you. I also highly recommend the first three books in H.M. Long’s Hall of Smoke series (the fourth is forthcoming I believe!).
Finally, what is the one thing you hope readers take away from your writing?
There’s a lot of focus on Viking Age “women warriors” right now, and I think it’s great that women today are finding this so empowering; I think that anyone of any gender should be able to live authentically without fear of being harassed or bullied in 2023. But I made the decision to have my main characters not be warriors because women’s contributions have been overlooked and devalued for hundreds of years, and women in the Viking Age had other means of determining their own fates that didn’t involve going to battle. So I hope that people take away that there is room for all of us at the table! You can walk your own path no matter what, but you don’t have to pick up a sword to win the day.
Thank you so much for joining us for Women in SFF!
Thank you for having me! It was my pleasure.
The Weaver and the Witch Queen is available now from Titan Books. You can order your copy on Bookshop.org