How place can inspire story – Michelle Sacks

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By Michelle Sacks

I never imagined that I’d set my first novel in Sweden. I’ve long been a confirmed Scandiphile, with a particular fondness for Sweden, its people, and its approach to many of the issues closest to my heart – from gender equality (480 days of paid parental leave!) to progressive environmental policies (they have literally run out of trash to recycle!) to the promotion of a balanced, well-rounded life (fika, anyone?). I am also an enormous fan of Scandi-noir, and have devoured more than a few books, TV series and films that delve into the grimmest, grittiest side of Nordic life. But still, I never thought about Sweden as a setting for any book that I might want to write myself – until I spent a few weeks in the idyllic Sigtuna countryside.♥

While Scandi-noir tends to focus on all things dark and deranged, what struck me about Sigtuna was its utter perfection. It was truly unlike anything I had ever seen. Fresh air, lush pine-filled woods, a shimmering lake – and most of all, a sense that life here was impervious to any darkness or despair. My partner and I had rented a small, simple cabin from a young Swedish family, and they were just as enchanting as the landscape. Warm and lovely and glowing with well-being; their house was immaculate, the children delightful. They foraged for berries at the weekend, and left the baby out on the lawn for his afternoon naps. One evening, they invited us over for organic, homemade blueberry pie in their cosy kitchen.

It was almost unbearably wonderful – and in fact, everyone and everything I encountered on that trip was the same: wholesome, happy, and outwardly perfect.

I have always been drawn to opposites and contrasts. Such a picture-perfect place, I imagined, must surely have another side, too. A basement full of horrors, a dark secret, a devastating truth lurking beneath that fairy-tale setting. At the time, I was busy researching developmental trauma, and the survival styles we develop as children to deal with it. I was particularly drawn to the idea of shame, where the impulse is to cover up, to keep the worst of ourselves exiled and out of sight. Sigtuna, I thought, would be an excellent place to hide from all manner of sins and shame; the ideal setting to reinvent oneself anew.

Suddenly, the idea for a novel was born. It would tell the story of a young couple who come to Sigtuna with the hope of building a better life. Hiding from their past, they embrace their new home and all the wholesomeness it offers, slipping into shiny new selves – and willing the illusion to hold.

I immediately imagined the characters as Americans. Firstly, because life in the USA is quite literally worlds apart from life in Sweden, and secondly, because I wanted their sense of alienation to be another force at play. For new mother Merry, her alienation and isolation is not simply due to place, but to the realities of motherhood itself, which became another important theme in the story. When Merry’s childhood friend Frank visits, she too is instantly beguiled by the surface perfection – but as the weeks pass, she begins to see that her friends’ carefully-constructed Swedish life is far more nightmare than fairy-tale.

The novel evolved many times over many, many drafts, but in the end it remained true to the original inspiration: a story about the power of illusions – and delusions, about the stories we tell ourselves in order to avoid facing the truth, and about the disconnect between the lives we perform for the world, and the ones that unfold behind closed doors.

Michelle Sacks is the author of the collection Stone Baby: Stories, and the novel, You Were Made For This, out June 19th in the USA, and June 28th in the UK. She currently lives in Switzerland.

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