Dreamy. Mystical. Raw.

Christina Sunley‘s debut novel, THE TRICKING OF FREYA, is one of those books that stays with you long after you’ve read it. Written with power, and with a supple narrative that weaves between the past and present, Sunley’s book blew me away. She’s now on my list of autobuys, and I impatiently wait for her next title.

In THE TRICKING OF FREYA, Sunley delves into the question of identity for immigrants — in this case, from Iceland (how cool is that?) — and takes the reader to a little-known county with one foot in firmly planted in the past while keeping another foot in the modern age. If you want an example of how a writer can evoke place and weave culture without letting it derail the narrative with the dreaded info dump, Sunley’s a master.

Sunley’s book is also an A+ example of how to draw on personal inspiration, which is her own Icelandic heritage, and use it to impart that prized level of authenticity that authors strive to accomplish. I was intrigued by the book because it had a different slant than other women’s fiction books (Iceland), and intrigue turned to admiration when Sunley was able to deliver a raw and often funny account of a woman’s struggle uncovering her past, which is entwined with her Icelandic identity.

Please enjoy part one of our two part interview with Christina Sunley.

Q: It took you eight years to write this book. What was the journey like for you, and how were you able to stay committed to the novel?

CS: On the one hand, it was a really epic, incredible immersion for me into a world I hardly knew when I started. Other times, I felt very frustrated and desperate: would I ever ever finish? Like many writers, I was trying to balance writing on a novel “on the side” with a full time job. I ended up with a computer-related repetitive stress injury that severely limited that time I could spend on the computer for several years. Honestly, though, I never considered giving up. I was just too invested in the world and characters I’d created. My biggest challenge was just finding a way to finish. I kept telling myself that was the goal – even if the book never got published, I would have finished it, I would have gone on this incredible journey into the world of my ancestors, and that alone would make it all worthwhile. I still believe that.

Q: THE TRICKING OF FREYA is a wonderful window into Icelandic culture, folklore and the country’s struggle with modernity set within a coming-of-age narrative. Could you tell us what your inspiration was for the setting, and how place informed your storytelling?

CS: My grandparents were part of the Icelandic diaspora of the late nineteenth century, so I grew up hearing a lot of stories from my mother about Iceland, the Icelanders, and “Our People” who emigrated to North America. But I grew up in New York, and never visited any of the places in the book until I began researching it, as an adult. I think I grew up with a longing for the places and people my mother talked about, and writing the book was a way to connect with my family history. I was especially inspired by the story of my grandfather’s immigration from Iceland as a boy. After a devastating volcanic eruption, his family set off on their Icelandic horses, crossing glacial rivers under the midnight sun…

Q: You cut 120 pages from the draft at the request of your agent. Agony! How did you approach the process? What did you have to let go of before you could accomplish the revisions?

CS: The reason I even agreed to do the cuts was because of the way my agent spun it for me. She said, “Christina, I’m not your editor. Once we get you an editor, you can talk to him or her about reintegrating this material back into the book, if you still want to. But this is how I can sell the book for you.” You have to keep in mind that at that point the book was nearly 600 pages and the manuscript had to be bound in two volumes. She thought that might be a hard sell from an unknown writer covering a very obscure topic. So I just rolled up my sleeves and started cutting. It was mostly whole chapters – no line editing. The first day I was in tears, I felt like I was amputating one of my own limbs without anesthesia. But interestingly enough, almost every chapter she picked to cut was from the earliest versions of the book – material I was very attached to but that didn’t really fit with the current structure and narrative flow. I think I only put about 5 pages of it back into the final version.

Q: And you re-wrote the novel three times to get the POV right. What made you go back to first person? Did you learn anything writing the story in two different POV’s that you can share?

CS: Oy! I have to start out by saying that I’m beginning my next book right now, and I’m struggling with this exact same issue! Which is a bit discouraging. This time I’m hoping I’ll make the right decision up front. It’s just so much easier for me to generate material in the first person – I can “become” the character and it really feels like channeling. But I’m very attracted to the expanded opportunities afforded by third person narration, so I’m trying to push myself in that direction now. We’ll see what happens…

Q: Since you’ve had such a long journey with this book, what would you do differently if you had to do it all over again?

CS: The main thing I would change is not trying to write it while working full time. It just tore me apart psychically and took a big toll on my health. I found that I really write best when I can write full time, even for short bursts, like a month at a time. I can get more done in a month of writing full time than in a year of trying to squeeze in a few hours here and there. I have a very intense attention span and seem to do best when I can just live in the world of the book 24/7.

Find part two HERE.

About Kathleen Bolton

Kathleen Bolton is co-founder of Writer Unboxed. She has written two novels under the pseudonym Cassidy Calloway: Confessions of a First Daughter, and Secrets of a First Daughter--both books in a YA series about the misadventures of the U.S. President's teen-aged daughter, published by HarperCollins. Her current project, Slumber, under the pen name Tamara Blake, released July of 2013 and is a dark suspense fantasy novel for teens.