Susan Örnbratt (née Beck) was born in 1964 in London, Ontario, but met the other London when growing up, having visited the UK for family reasons (father from Ascot and mother from Paisley, Scotland). A graduate of the University of Western Ontario (French) and the University of Manitoba (elementary education), she attended L’Université Blaise Pascal Clermont-Ferrand II in France while she worked as a fille au pair (1988-89). Having taught and lived in six countries, her home is now in Gothenburg, Sweden, where she lives with her husband and two children and neighbourhood moose. Her first novel publication, The Particular Appeal of Gillian Pugsley, is a historical romance set on the Isle of Man and in Canada, switching narratives in time between the Second World War and its aftermath to the present. It arrives in bookstores on April 23.
What took you to Sweden?
When I was travelling through Europe in the summer of 1997, I went to Sweden to visit a friend, who like me had been a leader of a delegation for CISV (formerly Children’s International Summer Villages). My friend introduced me to a fellow Swedish colleague, Staffan Örnbratt. Within a year, I had moved to Oslo, Norway, where we decided to begin our life together. We were married in the summer of 1998. We stayed in Norway for approximately 16 months then moved to Sweden. I lived in Sweden for 13 years before we took an expat contract to the United States for three years. We returned to Sweden in 2014.
Is there a Swedish word or phrase so apt that it can’t be replaced with an English one?
If you speak English, you can manage quite well in Sweden, though it is critical to learn Swedish if you want to be truly accepted and feel a part of society. Lagom is a word that very much describes Swedish culture/thinking. It is a word that does not have a direct translation into English but essentially means: just right or in moderation. It is a word that carries a connotation of appropriateness although not necessarily perfect or ideal. Nothing should be exaggerated otherwise you might be seen as showing off or needlessly excessive. It is very hard to impress a Swede. It is a word that a newcomer to Sweden should bear in mind at all times, whether in describing one’s occupation, house, ordering food, etc. No one should be seen as any better or more important than anyone else. If lagom and practicality are at the root of everything, then you will get along just fine in Sweden. There is actually an unwritten law in Scandinavia for this, called Jantelagen (the law of Jante).
What do you see from the window of the room in which you write?
My living room has large windows that overlook the town of Kållered in the distance. I see hills and forest, always a perfect view of the sunrise. My deck outside overlooks a green area with a spectacular oak tree right in the middle. I often see deer or moose grazing in my garden or in my neighbour’s. It is the reason, combined with the hope of sunshine, that I have propped my little desk right in front of those windows.
What is your daily routine like where you live now?
I have been a full-time teacher for most of my married life. However, while living in the United States, I was able to write full-time, as I am currently. My most creative time of the day is in the early morning. I am usually up around 5:00 a.m. enjoying the serenity before the family stirs up the morning. Once everyone is off to school and work, I continue to write throughout the day. A few times each week, I like to take a walk in the forest by our small lake or through the neighbourhood, especially when I need inspiration. The best is to think of nothing and let the tiniest bits of nature inspire me. A single drop hanging from a leaf inspired a whole scene in my writing one day. Generally, I sit working without noticing time pass – even lunch has been known to disappear on too many occasions. In the U.S., I probably wrote half of my novel in car pool while waiting for the children. In Sweden, I pick up my daughter, come home and continue writing until it’s time to prepare dinner. My stories never really leave me. Research is time consuming but never for a moment dull. Writing is there for me seven days a week. I try my best to keep a routine but when a moment of inspiration comes, I grab it.
What helps your work, what hinders it?
The sun. Living in North Carolina, I learned how the sun directly affects my writing. It makes me more creative. I am certain of it. Lack of sun is my greatest hindrance. Living in Sweden can be difficult in that regard, since it is dark for many months during the winter. This is why I try to get as much light as possible by working next to a window.
How does living abroad affect your sense of self?
Living abroad has affected the very core of me. My journey as an individual keeps evolving and surprising me. That’s the wonderful part of it. It never bores me to see the changes that travel brings out in me, sometimes crushing myths or preconceived notions I had about a place and its people before living there. I came to realize that visiting a country is quite another thing from living there. It’s also an entirely different experience if you immerse yourself in the local culture rather than living primarily among other expats.
I have learned that other ways of thinking and doing are simply that – different – no better, no worse, just different. Living abroad has broadened my thinking. I empathize with others in their challenge to learn a new language. I know what it’s like to feel alone in a sea of Swedes, when at a party, where everyone is speaking at once. I know how it feels to drift off into my own world when it all becomes too much. Those experiences have strengthened my sense of self. They have made me dig deep, to realize that it’s okay to have moments of doubt and insecurity. It builds character. There is nothing like that moment when you realize you understand everything that is being said and that you are a part of the conversation, not on the sidelines.
Do you participate in the local cultural activities?
I always attend Bokmässan, which is the large, annual Swedish book fair held in Gothenburg. It is a wonderful event at which to get to know other writers in this country. I am a good friend of a local writer in Fjärås, just south of Gothenburg: Lille-Mor Arnäs is a retired teacher and author of the children’s series, Fyrklövern och Häxringens Hemlighet, Fyrklövern och Silverelixiret. Her third book will be released shortly. I enjoy attending readings and interviews with local authors and I am hoping to present my book at some book clubs and women’s organizations here in Gothenburg. I will also be holding my book launch at a local art gallery, which I believe is a wonderful way to celebrate the two art forms, making it a more interesting cultural event.
Can you tell us an amusing story about cross-cultural misunderstanding?
Perhaps my most common experience in Sweden has been to answer questions in a way that has nothing to do with the actual question being asked. When I misunderstand what is being said, rather than ask for the question to be clarified, I have been known on occasion, to answer what I “think” was asked. The worst is being at a dinner party surrounded by Swedes with everyone chatting at once. By the time I have digested what has been said and I want to comment, the conversation has moved to a completely different subject, and there I am, commenting on the previous conversation. Very frustrating indeed!
I remember a very embarrassing cross-cultural misunderstanding many years ago when I was living in Australia. The guest at dinner was the ambassador of a country that will go unnamed. When I was asked if I would like any more to eat, I replied, “No thank you, I was really stuffed last night.” I was a teenager at the time, hence the vocabulary. Needless to say, the word I used had another meaning altogether in the land down under. Despite the faces around me, I didn’t know what I had said that was so wrong. Now I know!
Is your Canadian identity affected by living abroad and does that affect your work?
My Canadian identity is definitely affected. Recently, I met a French Canadian abroad who couldn’t detect where I was from. I was surprised and asked him, “Can’t you tell that I’m Canadian?” He said that I had lost my Canadian accent. It saddened me although I already knew that my accent has changed a little over the years – to what? – I’m not sure. More profoundly, the more I live away from Canada, the more I am unsure of where home is. I thought it had become Sweden until we returned after three years in the United States. Quickly I questioned, “Is this home?” It’s where my children were born and raised, but is it really home? Then when I visit Canada, I’m not sure that it’s home anymore, though I know Canada is always in my heart, always a part of me and my identity. Home is where my family is. Canada is also a part of my writing as it works its way into every story I write.
Do you keep up with or read new Canadian literature?
I would like to read more Canadian literature, which is one reason why I am so pleased to have been introduced to Canadian Writers Abroad. My time in North Carolina introduced me to many local writers. I hope this website will have that same effect on me.
- Read more about the inspiration for her novel on Susan’s site: susanornbratt.com
- About Light Messages publishing: lightmessages.com
- Review at Historical Novel Society: historicalnovelsociety.org