How Travel Made Me a Writer, Part II: An Interview with Barbara Sjoholm

Centrum: In your most recent book, Incognito Street: How Travel Made Me a Writer, you explore the three Barbara_sjoholm years you spent in Europe, particularly Spain and Norway. Could talk a little bit about the themes you explore in that book? As a young, developing writer, how did your travels affect you?

Barbara Sjoholm: In this memoir I wanted to recapture the sense of what Barcelona and London and Granada and the Norwegian mountains all felt like to a young woman escaping her country and her past. The theme is very much about self-discovery. I think those travels and particularly living in countries for which I had a strong affinity enabled me to exist in a larger world than what I’d known growing up. To come in contact with people from other cultures, to study German, Spanish, and Norwegian, to read foreign authors, to learn about other political and social systems—to taste, to hear, to smell—and just to look at wildly different foods, music, and landscapes—all that shaped me into a more discerning human being and eventually writer.

I was passionate about reading and writing and believed that Europe would give me the subject matter I craved. All the same I found it a great struggle to learn to write well while I lived abroad and was never completely sure what to do with the exotic quality of my life there, which often seemed hackneyed when I wrote it down (lots of stories about gypsies and flamenco, for example). In fact, my subject matter, when I returned home in 1973 to find feminism in full swing, turned out to hinge more on women’s changing lives in the US—particularly in Seattle. But I always kept the connection to Europe. I became a Norwegian translator, went to a lot of conferences abroad, and found ways to publish foreign writers through Seal Press and Women in Translation, two publishing companies I co-founded. Most of my own books appeared in Britain, and they’ve also been translated into Finnish, Italian, Spanish, German, and Japanese. I ended up spending quite a lot of time  in England and Germany, as part of the publishing process there.

Barbara_sjoholm_incognito_street And eventually, when I was a bit more seasoned as a writer, I found the means to write about characters who lived and traveled in Europe and who spoke other languages. I also eventually found my way back to being able to write about my own experiences in Spain and Norway, the way I hadn’t very easily been able to do when I actually lived there. 

C: What advice about travel do you give to those developing writers who study with you?

BS: A good start would be to take a notebook everywhere, and find ways to pause in the midst of life and scribble down notes, even if it’s just fifteen or twenty minutes a day. Take note of your fears and curiosity, but don’t just fill pages (as I once did!) about your inner confusion. In five or ten years it won’t seem all that riveting, believe me. Learn to observe. Write down what things taste like, what they smell like. Write down conversations, incidents on the street, newspaper headlines, funny signs, weird menu items, misunderstandings, what it feels like to try/fail to speak another language. When I look back at early journals, I’m delighted when I find paragraphs of great description or the fragments of a conversation. Even if it’s not much, it can still jog your memory and provide an image or emotional snapshot you can use later to write a story or essay.

C: Speaking of travel, could you talk a little bit about your upcoming book, The Palace of the Snow Queen: Winter Travels in Lapland, a nonfiction account of several winters spent in northern Scandinavia?

BS: I went to Lapland in northern Scandinavia in November of 2001, and spent the winter there. I was so enchanted by the experience of the dark polar winter that I went back two more winters. I’d been to Scandinavia, particularly Norway, quite a lot, but I didn’t know the far north well and in early and mid winter not at all. I’d been very taken with the story of the “Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen as a child growing up in California (and unsure of what snow felt or looked like). I took as my starting point the building of the Ice Hotel outside Kiruna Sweden. I watched the construction and went back to the hotel at various times over the winter months to observe it in all its touristy glory, until I finally watched it start to melt one April. On my first trip I ranged very widely around the north, trying to retrace some of the steps of earlier travelers and to understand winter tourism and the way the north was being sold as “Untouched Lapland” or “Europe’s Last Remaining Wilderness” when it clearly wasn’t untouched or a wilderness at all.

That first journey I went up to the North Cape by ship, crossed the Finnmark Plateau by dogsled, spent time in Finland, Sweden, and Norway. I grew intrigued with the small mining town of Kiruna and began to write about its history. My second and third visits were mainly focused on Sweden. I also began to understand that the landscape was more contested than was apparent on my first visits. In fact, the indigenous Sami people had been living up there for several thousand years, and still were very much part of the picture, whether they were grazing reindeer in the traditional way or exploring new forms, like film festivals and literature, to express their culture. I got to know Lillemor Baer, a woman reindeer herder, and Jorma Lehtola, the artistic director of an indigenous people’s film festival. In the end I came to see the North as a kind of home for me, with a more lively and challenging culture than I could have imagined.

C: In addition to your own travels, you have explored and documented the travels of others. Your book Pirate_queen2 about seafaring women (as well as your own travels in the North Atlantic), The Pirate Queen: In Search of Grace O’Malley and Other Legendary Women of the Sea, was a finalist for the PEN USA award in Creative Nonfiction. What attracted you to research and write about the lives of  seafaring women?

BS: I grew up in the port city of Long Beach, California, and have always been drawn to salt water, and to stories of ships and the sea. Years ago I worked one summer on the Norwegian coastal steamer, and I’ve been very attracted to the maritime culture of northern Europe. I rarely heard anything about women captains or sailors though—the common knowledge was that women never went to sea. But some time ago, after reading a book about women pirates, including a chapter on Grace O’Malley, the sixteenth century Irish captain and chieftain, I decided there must be many hidden stories of maritime women in history, specifically in the North Atlantic.

I started my journey in Ireland, because Grace O’Malley, a contemporary of Queen Elizabeth I, was such a fantastic subject, and because so many of her castles still stood around Clew Bay, near Westport.

In the end I spent three years of research, including four months of traveling from Ireland to Iceland, looking for folklore and true tales of women and the sea. I had always wanted to visit the Orkneys, the Shetlands, and the Faroes, and to approach Iceland from the sea. I found all sorts of intriguing, sometimes little-known material about storm goddesses, sea witches, and mermaids, along with tales of women fishing captains, cross-dressing sailors, and bold Viking explorers.

Iceland was particularly rich in stories of women skippers and sailors., I was interested to discover that Leif Eiriksson had a sister, Freydis, who also made an expedition from Greenland to Newfoundland. Iceland is an amazing country full of people passionate about genealogy and they have kept the old stories alive.

In the end I think the book is as much the story of how women’s deeds are remembered—and mostly forgotten—as about the travels or the seafaring women themselves. It’s a travel book but also a meditation on history. [For more on the book, including a podcast of ballads about women who passed as male sailors, see]

C: You will be giving a reading on Monday, July 16, at 7:30 pm and an afternoon lecture on Tuesday, July 17, at 2 pm. What can we look forward to hearing at the reading, and Wheelertheater_2 what current passions and interests will you discuss at the lecture?

BS: I’ll be reading from my travel memoir, Incognito Street, and my lecture will focus on travel writing—its many manifestations in literature and the craft of learning to observe and select details. I’ll also speak a bit about my own experiences as a traveler who writes about her travels.

For tickets to the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference Readings and Lectures series, call Centrum at 360.385.3102, x117. Tickets are also available starting thirty minutes before each reading or lecture. For a complete list of the readings and lectures schedule, follow this link.