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Nouvelles Pod #14 Genevieve Gornichec

Nouvelles Nouvelles Podcast 14: Genevieve Gornichec

Interviewer: Elise Robbins (ER); Interviewee: Genevieve Gornichec (GG)

Time: April 5, 2024; Location: Hagerty Hall 142 (ASCTech Academic Technologies Studio)

Interview Transcript: 

ER: Hello, this is Elise Robbins with the Center for Medieval and Renaissance Studies. Today, we are super excited to welcome our guest Genevieve Gornichec, who will be giving the Barbara A. Hanawalt Public Lecture later today for CMRS. Genevieve has her BA in history from Ohio State, so she is an Ohio State alum, and we're super excited to have her back. She is a bestselling author of The Witch's Heart, which was released in 2021. And that's been translated into over a dozen languages, so, people are reading it and loving it. And then her second novel came out in 2023. It is called The Weaver and the Witch Queen. We're super excited to have you here Genevieve, and we're excited to have you on the podcast. 

GG: Thank you so much for having me. It is the honor of my life so far, truly. I love this university, and I cannot believe that I am back in this capacity. It's very emotional. 

ER: I love that so much. Well, let's just dive right into that because I would love for our listeners to be able to hear what you experienced at Ohio State that really led you on this path to writing these novels?

GG: Yeah, so honestly it started with my decision to take a Swedish language class here at the university, even though I had already fulfilled my language requirement for my history degree with German. I saw that Swedish was an offering, and I decided to go for it because my grandfather is from Sweden. He had moved over in his youth. He had kind of lost his Swedish along the way as he assimilated into American culture, didn't really have a lot of ties back home. So, by the time I was in college, he had kind of forgotten it. And I kind of wanted to jog his memory a little bit. So, I took the class. I ended up studying abroad in Uppsala, Sweden for a semester. And while I was over there, I decided, “I'm in Sweden, I might as well do a Scandinavian Studies minor.”

ER: Of course!

GG: Right! I'm walking around Uppsala, or Stockholm, mostly Uppsala, there's rune stones everywhere around the town, just standing there. I'm like, “Huh...anyway.” And just moving on. I couldn't have told you a darn thing about Vikings at that point in my life. But, I was looking at the course offerings for the winter when I returned to Ohio State (so, January), and one of the classes that was on the docket for the Scandinavian Studies Department was Old Norse and Modern Icelandic, but in translation, mostly Old Norse. So, I was like, “Interesting…” but it was a higher-level class. So, I emailed the professor and I was like, “Can I take this class even though I'm only a junior?” And she was like, “Absolutely, no prereqs, come on down. The fact that you are in Sweden learning Swedish right now is probably going to benefit you more than anything.” Then when I tell you, my first day walking out of that class, I was like, “Oh, this is about to be my whole personality. This is gonna be my whole thing.” Because I had read the myths as a kid, but I hadn't revisited them since my childhood. I was more of a Greek myth girlie growing up. Not that I ever read the ancient Greek sources or anything. But it was just so cool to read the Norse myths, some of them in their original language, and translate them and talk about what the language looked like. And inevitably, discussions of the language led to discussions of culture in the Nordic countries at that time, so the Vikings and all that stuff. So, I just got really, really into this stuff really fast. 

I ended up taking a Norse mythology class that fall with Professor Kaplan as well, the same professor, then her Sagas of Icelanders class in the spring. And then I decided to add on a Medieval and Renaissance studies minor and a folklore studies minor, and I ended up staying through OSU's transition into semesters in 2012. I graduated in December of 2012. And then I worked in food service a couple years before deciding to apply for grad school. Got into the Viking Medieval North Studies program at the University of Iceland, sadly couldn't go, and then ended up becoming a Viking reenactor. So...

ER: What a journey. 

GG: Yes, yes. But OSU was really where I got my start on this, in the classroom, in academia. A lot of people these days, it's interesting to hear how different people get into like Norse mythology and like the Viking Age and stuff because it's like a growing thing. It's because of all the media, which I'm giving the Hanawalt Lecture tonight about modern receptions of the Vikings in media. But people come to it through music, whether it's metal or Nordic folk bands or whatever, or Nordic ambient. I don't even know how you would classify bands like Heilung and Wardruna, but that's something I still am pondering, I need to Google that. But music or spirituality or an interest in, I don't know, in Iceland geology. 

ER: Yeah, yeah.

GG: Like I know there's a geology, there was when I was a student, a geology two week study abroad program. 

ER: To Iceland? Yeah, that makes sense. 

GG: Yes, to Iceland. Because the geology there is super interesting. It's like, how is this place even real? So, the university is where I got my start. It's because of Professor Kaplan that I'm like this and that I'm here today. 

ER: You majored in Professor Kaplan, is what I'm hearing. 

GG: Listen, listen. I got as close to majoring in Viking stuff as I possibly could. 

ER: That's the way to do it. You just got to find that thing that lights up your soul and you're like, “How do I find the classes that make this happen?”

GG: Yeah, it was very much like that. I often, often wonder, what would have happened if I had been like, “No, I'm not going to take Old Norse that semester.” Like literally my life would be totally different. So, it's just weird to think about sometimes. 

ER: Yeah. Well, so obviously you have a passion for the Norse mythologies, these Icelandic sagas. And I loved what you said about the fact that people also, there is a large contingent of people out there that find them compelling, some aspect of the culture compelling. So, I'm wondering for you, what was it that really grabbed your attention? And then what do you think is, if you had to guess or hypothesize, what is it about these cultures that grabs others' attention as well?

GG: For me, it was the fact that they're, initially at least (my Old Norse is very rusty now), but while I was in class, all the things that could be extrapolated from a poem if you read it in its original language, and the translation bias, and even the transcription biases from the manuscripts to the rendition of it and then translation of it. So, I actually, while I was a student at OSU, I was one of the co-founders and officers in the short-lived Icelandic Saga Club and Scandinavian Studies Club. And one of the things that we did in Saga Club (and it was me and one other undergrad and then a bunch of grad students), we were trying to transcribe just one page of this manuscript. And the Icelandic manuscripts in particular because—I don't even get into this in the Hanawalt, so we're like in a new ground. 

ER: Let's go. I'm all about translation and transcription, so we can do this. 

GG: Okay, awesome. I actually, I took a manuscripts course my last semester (OSU's first semester, but my last semester at OSU) on manuscript studies. So, while the other students in my class were mostly like doing Latin manuscripts, or like these beautiful illuminated pieces, I chose the Codex Regius, how do you say it, I don't speak Latin. 

ER: I don't speak Latin either. Regius? 

GG: Regius. Yes. So, it is this tiny little manuscript because—I don't know if anybody who's listening like knows anything about manuscripts but anyway—our modern size of the sheet of paper comes from how many times you fold the sheepskin to make the paper or the vellum or whatever, so this is like sheep in Iceland were smaller. So, like this book was like very small.

ER: Aww, itty sheep.

GG: Yes, and like highly abbreviated. And there are like so many pages of this manuscript that have been sewn shut in places because the skin must have ripped, but they couldn't waste the vellum because it was such a commodity. And so, this weathered little book like made it through the ages, and it has so much of what we know of Norse mythology just in this little one. If it had been lost, there are so many poems that we just wouldn't have because they don't exist in any other version. And since it is so highly abbreviated, it's really hard to read, especially if you don't know Old Norse. You would never know what some of these words said if you weren't familiar with the language. So, there were many times where our club would meet, and we would just like be staring at a projection of this page of the manuscript, being like, “What could this word be?” So yes, that was how I got interested in it, just being like, how much can we rely on one translation versus another? And that was a problem so many times in the writing of my books as well, so many times where I would read these different versions and be like, “Which one is right? Let's go to the Old Norse version.” But I have yet to walk any of them back to the manuscripts because I'm that rusty, because I'd go to look at it and be like, “I don't even know.” 

But for other people who aren't giant nerds and had the privilege of studying this stuff like at university, there's just something that connects them. For a lot of people, it is the fact that maybe they have Scandinavian heritage or Nordic heritage somewhere along the line. And that's like a whole other thing. A lot of people that I talk to at Renaissance fairs and stuff that my Viking group goes to will say things like, “Well, I did a DNA test, and it turns out I'm 1% Viking.” It's like, “Viking is a job title, it's an activity, it's not an ethnicity, so maybe you're 1% Scandinavian, but the Vikings went a lot of places.” 

So, there's that, some people come at it from that angle. Some people, like I said, they get really into the music. I remember when I was in Professor Kaplan's Norse mythology class, she asked at one point, “How many of you signed up for this class because you listen to metal?” And I turn around because I'm in the front row—because I'm a total geek, and I'm like, “It's 8 a.m. and I'm there, I'm an undergrad”—and I look behind me and there's like all these dudes in like these black metal t-shirts with the beards and the hair, and they're just like raising their hands. I'm like, “I didn't even know you guys were back there. I don't even know who else is in this class.” I wonder if though today, if she were to ask that same question, if it would be like the Vikings TV show, or I really like this band named Týr, and I decided to learn more. So there's so many different ways that people come into this. And just for me, it's just cause I'm a big nerd, and I like sources and old things and making them new again, which is overall the theme of my talk tonight. 

ER: Well, I love this. One of the things I study in my dissertation and my research is translation, and it was actually when I was translating stuff as an undergrad that I was like, “Wait a minute, this is wild.” And I think there's something that what you were saying reminded me of was that there are so many choices available in translation and so many uncertainties that when we read a modern edition or whatever, the labor of the translator and the editor and whatever has kind of erased those choices for us, or we think it has. But then when you go back and you're like, “Wait a minute, at any number of points, this could have gone in a different direction and has gone in different directions based on choice.”

GG: Yes! 

ER: I think it just really invites the interpretive acts of you in your authorship being like, “OK, I want to bust this open and explore these possibilities.” Which I think is really cool. 

GG: Right, yeah. Thanks. 

ER: No, I love it. 

GG: Translation bias for sure is something that influenced me because I would read these retellings of the Norse myths, and I would see how these—and particularly the giantesses, that was my big thing—these “monstrous” quote-unquote women: How were they described? What words are being used in Old Norse to describe them and why? This was also a thing with the new translation of Beowulf by Maria Dahvana Headley. That was her whole thing, and this is like a very modern sounding translation, no shade at all, but it is pretty modern sounding But her whole basis of wanting to do it, I heard in an interview once—and don't quote me on this; I'm not an expert in Old English by any means—

ER: That’s OK!

GG: …but she found that the same word is used to describe Beowulf And also Grendel's mother. But the word when used with Beowulf in translations is usually “brave,” “strong,” “heroic,” and for whatever reason, the same word in relation to Grendel's mother is “monstrous.” Why? 

ER: Oooh, yeah.

GG: Yeah. I love it.

ER: Well it’s just fascinating right? We have so many years of the same choices being made.

GG: Yes!

ER: They just get ingrained right into our understanding of the text. But, that's not the text. That doesn't have to be the text. It maybe shouldn't be the text. It reminds me—and I have not read that translation; I’m telling on myself right now because I'm a pre-modern scholar and I haven't read it—but it reminds me of when I read Emily Wilson's translation of The Odyssey


ER: Similar work that was just like, mind-blowing.

GG: The first woman to translate it in however many years, so many thousands.

ER: Like, how long has The Odyssey been around? Exactly. 

GG: Right, exactly. And her Iliad translation came out recently, too. And I need to pick that up badly. 

ER: I do as well. And I think it's amazing when we get these different people in on the conversation, the possibilities that are opened. And I think that needs to happen even more. 

GG: Yes. 

ER: Well, OK, so let's go back to these giantesses. I would love the listeners to hear, because I got to hear it yesterday, a little bit of the story of The Witch's Heart coming about. 

GG: So, The Witch's Heart is a reimagining of Norse mythology centering the giantess Angrboda, who is best known, actually only known, by her relationship to Loki and their three children together. And that's the only time we see her name once in the Prose Edda and once in the Poetic Edda. And those are the two main sources that we use for Norse mythology, more or less. When I was in class, I started to get really interested in her because it seemed to me that these different giantesses in the myths had similar associations or things attributed to them. Angrboda has a son who's a wolf, a son who's a snake, and a daughter who is half dead. There's another giantess in the mythology named Hyndla, who when Freya goes to her for this prophetic knowledge that she is seeking that she somehow can't get herself despite being a prophetess, she says something to her along the lines of, “Grab your wolf from the stables, and we will go to Asgard and you will give me this knowledge” (for some reason). So, indicating that this giantess, Hyndla, rides wolves. Interesting. There's another giantess in the mythology named Hyrrokkin, and she rides a wolf with snakes for reins. 

ER: Wild.

GG: And since Hyndla has the power of prophecy... In my mind, I'm like, “OK, so let's just say, for kicks, all of these three women are actually the same person, just with different names.” It happens, there are different names for the same god, all over Norse mythology. Nowhere is this more evident than with Odin and his own self, who has like 150 names, literally. So, we have those three giantesses. And then we have this very mysterious figure from the quote unquote “beginning” of the mythology named Gullveig, who has this power of prophecy. And in one of the poems, it is said that Loki eats her half-burned heart and spawns the race of trolls, or ogres, or whatever. I forget what the original word is in Old Norse. But, so I was like, “OK, relation with Loki, prophetic power…” because Gullveig is said to have done or said something that ended the golden age of the gods in the beginning. She is so mysterious. Most scholars think that she's Freya. I'm not the first one to have said, “But what if she's not?” And it’s because of this tie to Loki. Like, what if there's a there's more there? So, I combined all of these figures into Angrboda and wrote her that way in The Witch's Heart. Because I, as a total academic nerd, couldn't just make up Angrboda's entire story. I do not have it in me to just be like... to have no basis for anything that I was saying. So, I'm like, “OK, but what if she was a bunch of other people too?” And that kind of filled out the whole chronology. It fleshed out the myths more to be like, “What if we have her in all of these different places at all of these different times?”

In class, though, when I was a student in 2011, taking Professor Kaplan's Norse mythology course, I asked her in class, “Is it possible that all of these giantesses are the same person?” Or some variation of that. And she more or less said, “Sure, it's possible. It's a good term paper topic. You can't really take it past that.” And I really didn't. I did write my term paper on that. But her exact words, I remember because I wrote them down in my notebook, and they were like, “Yes, what if there is one big scary lady lurking behind all of the other scary ladies in this mythology? That would be really interesting!” And then she moved on with the lecture. But it stuck in my head that she validated this little teeny little kernel of an idea. And so, yes, I did decide to write my term paper this topic, but first I wrote a book for National Novel Writing Month. 

ER: As one does. 

GG: Yes, yes. Before my term paper, I just wrote an entire novel in three weeks for NaNoWriMo, which is National Novel Writing Month, which is where a bunch of writers who hate ourselves get together and write 50,000 words in one month. And so that's what I did. And that is how The Witch's Heart, the first draft of The Witch's Heart came to be. The first half of the book has remained largely unchanged since then, and it's very evident to me personally. It's like a little time capsule to little 21-year-old me who wrote it. But yeah, it literally was born in the classroom. 

ER: That's so cool. And just that what you were learning in the classroom sparked the creative impulse. And then you married those two things and made this really cool book. I love that. And I appreciate how... We talked about this at other times, we've been together for a couple days now. I appreciate how you are so attentive to the history and the scholarship. while still using that as a jumping off point to do something imaginative and creative and to bring this—and something that you've talked about is making it legible and accessible to anyone who would pick up The Witch's Heart or The Weaver and the Witch Queen. So, I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about—because obviously, we think public facing work is important because we're doing the public lecture today, right, the Hanawalt Public Lecture—but I'm wondering if you could speak more to why do you think that access to this material and this knowledge is so important for the public? Why is that something that we should prioritize? 

GG: I think in this day and age, a lot of it is because of social media and the spread of misinformation on platforms like TikTok especially, where news travels like wildfire, even if it's bad news, or actually factually incorrect. And it's less so because I am bothered by people being misinformed. I mean, I am, but I don't sit up and be like, “I'm mad when people are wrong about things on the internet.” It's the fact that sometimes, especially in Viking Age studies, this stuff is sometimes misused. It is used to further ideologies that harm people in real life today. And that is why it is important to cite your sources and to be informed of this. I mean, there are people literally who base their whole spiritualities on these myths, right? Their whole worldviews and outlooks. And they've never been in a classroom studying it. They're just like, “I liked History's Vikings, and now I worship Thor.” You know what, more power to them. I'm not knocking that at all. But it's when you turn around and then try to use that and be like, “But you can't worship Thor because you don't have Nordic heritage or whatever.” So, I feel like just talking about this stuff and being cognizant of the fact that there are a lot of people talking about this stuff in different spaces. But sometimes, the internet, a lot of the times, is an echo chamber when it comes to stuff like that. But sometimes it does have an impact on real life. It's not a vacuum. We've seen these same people who aim to use this stuff to harm others like on the march being very proud of what they're doing And that's gross, and I think it's irresponsible to talk about the Vikings in a public forum without mentioning this misuse and this harm that this could cause and the further that we could separate these two things, Viking studies from the bad place, the bad stuff, the better.

ER: Yes, I absolutely agree with you and I'm so glad you said it. Because it just continues to... I don't know, shock, horrify, me, the way that history is appropriated. And history, of course, we say “history” like it’s some static thing, but it's not. It is interpretive and evolving, our understandings of it. So, I appreciate you speaking to that, and how there are a number of histories, right? And there's a number of histories that people will use for all sorts of ends. And yes, I agree, separating, I mean, just objectively bad and wrong from this more explorative study of what it could be and what it was, what we do know, what we don't know. But also, we definitely know that we shouldn't be using it for hateful purposes. So how do we get that responsibly and ethically be able to explore history through these means? And I really, I... Yeah.

GG: And as a Viking reenactor, that is something that I run into a lot in my hobby. Because we are front lines with the public, learning about people's conceptions about the Viking Age and the Norse gods, and then having to gently like, “OK, let's course correct this a little bit.” And sometimes people don't want to listen, but sometimes they're genuinely grateful to be like, “OK, cool. I'll learn more about that. Thank you.” So yeah. 

ER: Well, because I think there are a lot of people who, in good faith, want to learn.

GG: Absolutely. 

ER: And be like, “Oh, OK, I did not realize that this.” I think we were talking at lunch about the idea that all Vikings wear browns and blacks. No, that's not what it is. And then people can be like, “Oh, I have not seen history and these people in this way before. I can course correct, but I can also just imagine different possibilities for the past.”

GG: Right. One of my favorite interactions that I've had with somebody in public, and I'm sorry if this man, I don't think he would ever listen to the podcast that we're recording right now. But I ran into somebody. Somebody came up to my booth at the Renaissance fair once, and he was like, “You know, I can trace my ancestry all the way back to Harold Finehair.” We were like, “Wow that's great.” He's like, 
“Yeah all the way back to the 1700s.”

ER: Oh, no.

GG: I'm like, “Buddy, you are about you are about 900 years off. You're gonna have to go back a little bit further than that, Sir, I’m sorry.”

ER: All the way to the 1700s: the Golden Age of the Vikings.

GG: And we tried to gently explain, but no, he just kept going, and we're like, “All right, have a great day, enjoy your day at the festival.” You know, I don't want to assume that ignorance is built of bad intentions. Sometimes it's just ignorance. 

ER: But if we listen and realize history…1700, like for people, I mean, and people in the Classics Department would be like, “Girl. We go back way farther.” I study the Renaissance, and I'm like, “Oh, this, 1700 is young, right?” But I think if we realize history is long, the course of human civilization and culture and society, is long, and that can make us feel small, but that can also I think make us feel wonder and excitement. I wonder if that's why people are, in some way like really interested in these historical retellings and adaptations and fantasy adaptations.

GG: Yes, absolutely.

ER: I love it; I think it’s fun. Wow, we’ve already been talking for like... 

GG: Oh my gosh, half an hour. Ah, okay! 

ER: I'm going to do one more question. 

GG: Okay. 

ER: So we alluded to and talked about kind of how there are ways that these histories can be used for ill, right?

GG: Yes.

ER: But what is one way that you can see, you have seen or can imagine these myths, these histories being used really positively? I mean, obviously for enjoyment through novels like yours. But what are ways that we think it can actually really be a positive influence?

GG: Oh my gosh. So, this is also a whole other thing, so I'm going to keep it brief.

ER: We'll just invite you back. We'll have a series. 

GG: OK, great. I would love to. Women in the Viking Age has been a huge topic lately, especially since in 2017, one of the richest Viking burials, Viking Age burials at Birka in Sweden, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, because there was a Viking Age town there, there are hundreds of graves, and if not thousands, actually. And one of the richest graves from this island was buried with all of this war gear and all of the trappings of a grave that would traditionally be gendered as a male grave. And they tested the bones, and in 2017, they came out with this study that these bones are actually biologically female. So there was a female bodied person buried in this grave. Now. Do we know for 100% certain that this was someone who identified as a woman? We don't know. But they're calling this person the Birka Warrior Woman. And they have been calling this person that. And that has been so empowering for so many women, especially in reenactment. They're like, “Oh, look, we have this grave of this person who fought. Didn't just stay home and watch the farm.” And so, there's that aspect of it as women's empowerment, but also the fact that women in the Viking Age, one of their main things that they did was they did the textile work. They were doing the weaving. They were making the clothes for the whole household and the sails for the ships. The Vikings would not have gotten very far without the sails for their ships. So, this idea that women's work, while different than men's work, gendered differently, is not less valuable. It's not less important. Cloth was currency back then. It was one of Iceland's main exports, if not the main export. So, women did have power in that they were producing something that was being exported. So that did give them considerable agency compared to their counterparts in the rest of Europe. This is my first time talking about this all weekend, or all week. 

ER: Oh, I love it. Yes. 

GG: But yeah, I mean that is a whole other thing, but just reevaluating gender roles because that could be very validating for people today. So that is a positive thing that comes out of revisiting this stuff. 

ER: I love that. And that kind of thing, I think, is a key reason I love historical studies, to realize that many of the things that we have today are not inevitable, and they have not always, and in every place, been this way. 

GG: Yes, and they also come to us through many filters, especially with the Viking Age, because a lot of our conception of the Viking Age comes from the Victorians. 

ER: Uh-huh. Oh, the Victorians.

GG: And their own, they had their own thing. They were so special. Bless their hearts. So being able to continuously question that translations especially that were passed down to us and why they were rendered the way that they were. Like every translator, every writer, every person who creates something has an agenda, whether they are cognizant of it or not. And us too, we can't be objective either. So, it's just, oh, there's so much to unpack. I love it. It's like a little puzzle that you can never, ever, ever solve, but you're going to keep trying. 

ER: Right, well, and we can be open to that, and recognize it and say it. Or we can believe that, no, we're going to shut that up because we're afraid of it. But if we're honest and real about it, like it just means that. Yeah. It's a constant puzzle that we constantly get to do, and we constantly get to evaluate and reevaluate as new information and new waves of culture become relevant to us. 

GG: Absolutely. Yes.

ER: This has been an excellent conversation, Genevieve. 

GG: Thank you so much.

ER: Thank you so much for being on this podcast. I'm so excited for your talk later today. 

GG: Thank you. 

ER: It will be so great. And just thank you again for being with us here these couple days. It's been a great time.

GG: Absolutely. Thanks for having me.