Last month, I reviewed the grimdark historical fantasy book The Wolf in the Whale, which combines Inuit and Norse mythology and stars a gender non-binary character. This week, I got to interview the author, Jordanna Max Brodsky.
Interview with Jordanna Max Brodsky
You’ve written a lot of stories based on ancient mythology. What inspired your interest in that?
Like so many people, my first exposure to mythology came with D’Aulaires Greek Myths when I was a kid. One of the last pages shows a nighttime scene of broken columns and toppled statues and reads, “All things must come to an end. So too did the reign of the Olympians.” I always found that heartbreaking. But the beauty of writing is that you can create the world you want, not the one you have, so I decided to imagine a universe in which the gods hadn’t all died out after all. That became the Olympus Bound series.
Once you start writing about mythology, it’s hard to stop. Most fantasy authors have to construct their worlds from scratch, but myth provides settings, costumes, ancient languages, poetry, legends, and religions. I didn’t need to invent places like Nunavut or Iceland or Athens—I could actually visit them. Yet, myths that exist in so many different versions that there’s plenty of room to find your own stories as well.
The gods themselves, whether or Inuit or Norse or Greek, are quite different from our amorphous modern conceptions of the divine. They’re capable of supernatural feats but still profoundly human: full of rage, despair, love, jealousy, and laughter. It’s a fascinating paradox, the same one that draws us to superhero movies. At the same time, there’s a reason humanity has retold myths for so long. They touch on themes as compelling today as they were a thousand years ago: loyalty and betrayal, metamorphoses and murder, family and exile.
Can you tell us about what you’re currently working on?
I’m experiencing an authorial evolution. The Olympus Bound series is contemporary fantasy, a Percy-Jackson-for-adults thriller about the Greek goddess Artemis in the modern day. The Wolf in the Whale moved into historical fantasy, exploring both Inuit and Norse myth in their ancient context. Now I’m embarking on my first purely historical fiction project, with no fantasy in sight. But I’m still focusing on the challenges that women face when they defy their culture’s norms. The new book is set during the Civil War, and it follows an Irish immigrant who disguises her gender to enlist in the Union Army. It’s inspired by the true stories of hundreds of women who did the same thing, the vast majority of whom have been forgotten by history.
There are unfortunately very, very few SFF stories that star a trans/non-binary character. Was making Omat, the main character in The Wolf in the Whale, trans/non-binary a conscious decision to combat this, or was it just a natural happenstance?
Omat’s gender was actually one of the reasons I chose to write about Inuit culture in the first place. In the historical record, most of the conflicts during the Viking expeditions to North America occurred between Norsemen and the Beothuk Indians. There’s only a brief reference in one saga to a group who were likely Inuit. But that one evocative verse led me to start researching Inuit culture, and as soon as I learned about their conception of what scholars call the “Third Sex,” I knew I had my protagonist. It’s an identity that is not exactly the same as what we call transgender. Instead, Inuit children in traditional culture possess the name-soul of an ancestor. In rare occasions, the child was then raised in that ancestor’s gender, even if it didn’t correlate to their biological sex. This is something decided at birth by the shaman and the community, not an understanding that the child themselves comes to at some point later in life.
To me, The Wolf in the Whale is more a story about an individual who wants to defy gender roles—the same way strong women have been doing forever—than it is about being specifically transgender. Perhaps gender non-binary is a more appropriate term for my protagonist, as Omat definitely lives in both genders, but it, too, implies a modern conception that isn’t entirely applicable to this ancient story. At the end of the day, I simply hope that The Wolf in the Whale can serve as yet another reminder that our understanding of gender and sexuality is infinitely varied and constantly evolving.
Inuit and Norse mythology are two things that usually don’t mix. Why did you decide to bring them together in The Wolf in the Whale?
I’m always fascinated by the forgotten moments in history. Too often, we only learn the same few fundamental stories in school—America’s founding myths, you might say—and we forget that other cultures lived in this land long before our own. Few people even remember that the Norse “discovered” America five hundred years before Columbus. Even fewer know that one of the leaders of those Norse expeditions was a woman—Leif Eriksson’s sister, Freydis Eriksdottir. And almost no one talks about the fact that the Norse settlement eventually failed in part because the indigenous people, including Inuit hunters, successfully fought them off.
Once I knew I wanted to write about the Norse and the Inuit, pairing their mythologies seemed only natural. Because both cultures evolved in similar maritime Arctic environments, their stories have some striking similarities. Both see the Sun as female and the Moon as male, an inversion of the Classical tropes. And both are full of ravens, wolves, and sea monsters. One fought with iron, the other with bone and slate, but these two parallel cultures make both well-matched adversaries and surprising allies.
You’ve done a lot of traveling in order to research for your stories. What are some of the favorite places you’ve visited?
For pure, unadulterated pleasure, I’d have to pick Crete, which I visited when researching Artemis’s ancient sacred sites for The Immortals and the Olympus Bound series. It’s hard to beat crystalline lagoons, pine-scented gorges, and the original Labyrinth.
But for sheer awe, I’d go with Nunavut in subarctic Canada, where I traveled last year for The Wolf in the Whale. Granted, the temperature was near forty below with the wind chill, but watching the Northern Lights shimmer overhead in a psychedelic ballet of orange and purple and green made me forget the cold. I learned things on that trip that I didn’t realize I didn’t know. The Internet can show you how to construct an iglu, but it’s not until I actually snowmobiled onto the sea ice to build one with an Inuit elder that I appreciated the view from inside—like a perfect spiraled sea shell, with each snow block limned in sunlight. I’d watched half a dozen videos on lighting a traditional Inuit oil lamp, but never smelled the nutty, soothing scent of the burning moss wick, nor known the pleasure of staring into the steady mountain peaks of flame.
The Wolf in the Whale examines sexual violence, but not just from the survivor’s side, it also explores the guilt and impact of the perpetrators of sexual violence. Why is that?
I know many readers would prefer not to read about sexual violence, and I completely respect that position. For this particular book, however, I wanted to acknowledge that sexual violence was (and is) very much a part of many women’s lives—especially in the medieval world when their bodies and rights were even less valued than they are today. The fundamental Inuit myth I explore in the book—the formation of the Sun and the Moon—centers on an incestuous rape, so sexual violence necessarily plays a role in the larger story.
When creating my male Viking protagonist, I definitely toyed with the idea of making him a pure soul who completely defied the stereotype of a raping marauder. But it simply didn’t ring true. Not all Norsemen were Vikings (a point I make clear in the book), but those that were certainly showed little mercy to the villages they attacked. They regularly took women as slaves and concubines. To ignore that fact was to ignore reality. So I decided the more interesting choice was to try to understand how a culture can teach a man to be a predator—and then to explore how he can come back from that.
If you could have one (real life) skill that you don’t currently have, what would it be? Why? How would you use it?
The ability to type for more than two hours at a time. Since writing my thesis in college, I’ve been plagued by tendonitis in my hands and wrists, making typing for long periods quite painful. I would write far faster if I could write for longer each day. So a note for aspiring authors: get yourself an ergonomic typing setup and keep stretching! You don’t want to wind up like me!
Who in your life has truly inspired you?
Juliet Marillier. Her Daughter of the Forest is what made me become a writer in the first place. I found that book so profoundly engrossing and emotionally gut-wrenching that I knew I had to try my hand at creating a world that could do the same for other readers.
What creature is better: dragons, zombies, or aliens?
Definitely aliens. Dragons and zombies, I’m afraid, just don’t exist. The fact that aliens actually might makes them infinitely more fascinating to me. I prefer to work reality into my fantasy. Also, since there’s nothing to say that aliens can’t take the form of zombies or dragons, you can have your cake and eat it too!
A big thank-you to Jordanna for coming onto my blog for this interview! Check out my review for her book The Wolf in the Whale. And I don't know about you guys, but I'm adding the Olympus Bound series to my Amazon wish list.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!