Author Interview

Book cover of Vestmen's Gale, featuring Viking ship Islendingur upon stormy seas.Book Giveaway: Win 1 of 100 Kindle Copies during August. If you’ve already read it, kindly consider leaving a review wherever you purchase books (Amazon or other). All the best! – David McCaleb

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Question 1: Famous Viking Lineage

Q: In your story you mention Matok’s (main character) Viking lineage, which may slip by those less familiar with Viking history. Can you explain the significance of it?

A: Absolutely. In the book I mention Matok’s lineage but don’t expound upon it or drop names because it would’ve come off like a history lecture. But most Viking history buffs catch it. Matok’s lineage is significant because it includes some of the most famous Vikings ever to live and supplies us with the background, setting, and heightened tensions that carry throughout.

Basically, Thorvald Asvaldsson was Matok’s great grandfather. Thorvald was born in Norway and exiled to Iceland “due to some killings”. Much of today’s Viking pop culture is simply untrue or fantastically stereotyped. They weren’t all berserkergang warriors. However, I still have to wonder how rough Thorvald must’ve been to be exiled from his Viking homeland. Thorvald’s son was Eric the Red who was an explorer and founded the first settlement in Greenland. Eric’s son, Leif Erickson, is a well-known Norse explorer as well and discovered North America almost 500 years before Christopher Columbus. He named the area “Vineland” because of grapes discovered there. Vineland is believed to be Newfoundland, Canada. Initially he enjoyed good relations with the natives, but that soured (no pun intended), and a certain amount of violence ensued. Matok’s lineage thus provides a historical context upon which the story is built as well as many of the underlying tensions.

Question 2: Shaman Inspiration

Q: In Vestmen’s Gale, a couple characters are shaman. How did you write from their perspective so convincingly?

A: An interview. The tale takes place in Maine around 1000 AD, making the native inhabitants Algonquin. I studied their culture and religious beliefs, and discovered they practiced shamanism. In most early cultures a tribe’s spiritual guide was highly esteemed. There was not the question we wrestle with today of whether a spiritual realm exists and whether it interacts with our physical realm. It was an assumed fact that it did. Thus, the guidance and protection of a shaman was critical to tribes. And since our main character was drawn back to this time by spiritual forces, there would naturally be conflict with the local shaman. To write their contribution to the story, I needed to get inside their head and understand their culture, beliefs, and motivations.

So, since I couldn’t interview a shaman from 1000 AD, I did the next best thing. I observed a lengthy interview with a shaman from a previously unreached people group in South America. This dear man converted to Christianity later in life and described his previous experiences in detail as he grew to become a shaman from a young age. His stories were told with such authenticity, such sensitivity, and with such trepidation, it chilled me. This man interacted with spiritual beings constantly, saw their forms, heard their words, and experienced their inhabitation. But his heart was to truly serve his tribe, and over time his spirits stopped helping his people and began destroying them. For my novel, I built upon his experiences and applied them to the Algonquin, carrying over the spiritual conflict. Thus, in Vestmen’s Gale, not only does conflict abound between the characters, but also in the spiritual realm. It’s a peek into what is going on behind the scenes as our hero moves through the story.

Question 3: Oysters As Large as Dinner Plates?

Q: Vestmen’s Gale portrays the New World of North America in an way we’re not used to seeing in a novel. From towering virgin forests to oyster rocks crowding the mouths of rivers, where did it all come from?

A: Growing up on the East Coast, my family would sometimes find arrowheads in plowed fields or on the beach. Once my father even discovered a perfect tomahawk head. But what relics can’t communicate is what the land was like before Europeans settled it. The unmolested woodlands of the New World were massive. Pines and hardwoods could reach hundreds of feet into the air and form a canopy so thick, it choked out much below it. In places, natives routinely burned the undergrowth to aid in movement and hunting.

In the first chapter of Vestmen’s Gale, we see the forest surrounding Michael’s family’s vacation bungalow in Maine as it would be today, common northern hardwoods. However, once he is pulled back in time, he sees that exact same forest as towering virgin pine. And since the story takes place in the far northeast, not many tree-felling hurricanes make it up that far. So, I described the scene as it likely was, with thick trunks stretching even to the very coastline.

Oyster rocks and fish also abounded to a degree our minds cannot rightly fathom today. Early explorers described rivers and estuaries of the New World as having fish so thick you could walk across them from one side of a river to the other. Though clearly an exaggeration, the point is clear. Some gave accounts of fishing simply by reaching in and scooping up prey with hands. Natives even caught waterfowl by throwing nets over them. Think about that for a second. Today we lure geese and ducks with decoys and bird calls, not to mention taking them with shotguns. Yet, these were so abundant the natives hunted them along a shoreline with nets. Oysters were no different. Shells as large as dinner plates were reported. Local oysters grew in clumps and, over time, formed their own land masses called oyster rocks. They often stretched into rivers, narrowing channels such that the tidal waters rushed through at an astounding rate. Navigating these shoals was a challenge.

Much of this came from simply talking with history buffs as well as research of my own. But the challenge in describing the New World in Vestmen’s Gale was larger than that. This unmolested glory needed to be portrayed through the eyes and mind of a nineteen-year-old protagonist while also providing insight into his thoughts, emptions, and personality. To do that, I made him a waterman from North Carolina. I know many watermen and most are conservation-minded, so our main character observing and appreciating the nature about him did not appear forced. In the end, it worked beautifully.

Question 4: How Much Of This Are We Supposed To Believe?

MiKmaq State Flag

Q: In Vestmen’s Gale the story is told through the eyes of two characters, a Viking and a native Algonquin (from Mi’kmaq tribe). What part of the Algonquin perspective is factually based?

A: The Algonquin point of view is portrayed as accurately as possible. My goal was to cast their culture upon the scene and build upon it in a truthful manner. The details aren’t forced upon the reader, but revealed as they walk through the story and observe the world through the eyes of an Kiona, the kindhearted daughter of an evil shaman.

To me, the most interesting facet of Algonquin culture revealed were their legends. I created one fable, but the remainder are original to the people. Their history and beliefs were passed down in the oral tradition and significantly influenced their lives. Through the story, we learn about Tabaldak, their creator or God, plus Gluskabe and Malsumis. Gluskabe is benevolent and helps Kiona, albeit behind the scenes, whereas Malsumis is evil and is present in the form of a magnificent black panther. The conflict within the Algonquin legends between Gluskabe and Malsumis is reflected between Kiona and the Viking “invaders”, as well as fantastically in the spirit realm which gives certain chapters a paranormal twist.

Algonquin believed in The Three Truths and tribes made judgements based upon them. Peace: Is this preserved? Righteousness: Is it moral? Power: Does it preserve the integrity of the group? Today we could take a lesson from these ancient people. Kiona sees that her mother, a powerful and feared shaman, does not adhere to The Three Truths and begins to doubt her mother’s guidance provided to the tribe.

Also planted throughout the story are sensory details such as the construction of Algonquin wetuom (wigwams), what they ate, the river banks where they lived, migration patterns that followed food sources, and even hairstyles that differentiated married versus unmarried men.

Characters are called by authentic Algonquin names, carefully selected for their meaning. For the curious reader that looks them up, they can enjoy each name’s appropriateness. Tuurngat, another Algonquin shaman, means “spirits”. Huritt, an ally of Kiona and love interest of Astrid (Viking prisoner) means “handsome”. Kiona, our Algonquin hero, means “brown hills”. I did the same for the Viking names.

In short, I made the historical context as accurate as possible and left the fiction up to the story. That still leaves lots of freedom for the plot to roam. As anyone who’s read the story will tell you, it’s nothing like most historical fiction.

Question 5: So, What Genre is Vestmen’s Gale?

Viking axes

Q: The story flows naturally. But when asked, I have a hard time classifying your book. So, what genre is Vestmen’s Gale?

A: Ninety-five percent of Vestmen’s Gale takes place around 1000 AD when Vikings first land upon North America, so the primary genre is definitely historical fiction. However, the tale contains spiritual/paranormal elements as well. In fact, Michael is drawn back in time to this age by the spirit of his dead twin sister. She then appears to him periodically in visions to steer him on his way, lending elements of paranormal fiction.

When I pitched Vestmen’s Gale to my agent, she said, “I love it. The Vikings, the native Americans, it all fits together beautifully.” Then her smile curled devilishly. “But it will be hard to land a publisher because in addition to historical fiction, it contains elements of other genres.”

I get it. Publishers need to sell books, and books are classed by genre. Even as I wrote the novel, I realized it could be a challenge to interest a publisher because the book unapologetically tells a unique and powerful story that goes where it demands. Many authors write what they know will sell. But writing is my passion, not my bread and butter. I am free to write what the story wants to be, not what I force it to become. Genre classifies a story, but should not restrict it.

Finally, I write thrillers. My stories are high suspense, high stakes, with the characters usually running for their lives or making someone else do the same. Because of all this, I call Vestmen’s Gale a “historical fiction paranormal thriller”. I realize you won’t find that genre listed in Amazon…but it should be.

Question 6: What’s Your Favorite Part of the Story?

Chestnuts with prickly petals partially peeled back.

Q: What is your favorite part of Vestmen’s Gale? Will you share it?

A: I have many, but one is the story of where chestnuts came from. These nuts were a vital source of food for all Algonquin tribes. The story is told during a brief reprieve in the action, but holds great meaning, both to the immediate situation as well as the moral behind the novel. Before I share it, we need to set the scene. Kiona is a kindhearted Mi’kmaq (native American) and their tribe is keeping Astrid, the daughter of the Viking chieftain, as a hostage to guarantee their protection. The entire tribe is migrating to their summer quarters, dragging Astrid (literally) along the trail with them. Kiona had previously lived among the Vestmen long enough to learn their language, and the two had become close. Now here’s the chestnut story:

***

Kiona picked up the prickly ball the size of a small sea urchin. She wedged her fingers between the sharp petals of shell and peeled them back. Three shiny brown pebbles dropped into her palm. “Have I told you the story of the chestnut?” She glanced at Astrid, then continued without waiting for an answer. “One day, Malsumis attacked Gluskabe and pelted him with rocks of fire stolen from beneath the earth. But Gluskabe made himself big as a mountain and blew on them as they fell. They chilled into ice that smacked upon the ground. The next spring, tiny saplings with leaves the shape of spear heads grew from the earth where they’d fallen. The braves thought them a gift, that the shape of the leaves meant they should make weapons from the wood. But the wood grew slowly, and it split too easily. After many years of trying, they gave up. Then, the next fall, the young trees dropped these.” Kiona scooped another prickly ball from the ground. “All the children cried when they stepped on them. Their fathers burned with anger and began to chop at the trunks shouting, ‘Gluskabe gave these as a blessing, but the curse of Malsumis’s fire still lies within.’“

Astrid stood still, eyes locked with hers.

“But an old woman who’d birthed twenty-one braves stepped forward. ‘Don’t cut them down. Gather the needle-rocks into a pile. Clear other trees, but not these. Bring water from the river, so they’ll grow strong. Wait one more year and see if, with that care, they give us real fruit.’ The men grumbled, but did as she ordered, for she was highly esteemed.

“That winter was the hardest ever. The tribe ate all their dried fish and corn. No deer or bison could be found. The pecan harvest had been poor, and families began to starve. The tribe’s children cried with hunger. While searching for firewood, a young brave came upon the mounds of needle-rocks and threw some angrily into his fire. ‘I will use the curse of Malsumis to keep us warm,’ he said. But soon, pop! Then again, crack! pop!” Kiona snapped her fingers to mimic the sound.

Crooked-Eye gave her an irritated glace, but Astrid raised her eyebrows and bounced with excitement. “The pops were the chestnuts!”

Kiona reached out and tucked a lock of Astrid’s hair behind one ear. “Yes. Soon, all the wigwams were filled with the sweet scent of their roasting. No animals had eaten the chestnuts because of the spiky petals. The hard shells inside had preserved the tender meat. The tribe survived on them for three months, until the snow melted.”

Astrid shrugged. “So, what does it mean?”

Kiona smirked. The Vestmen, like the Mi’kmaq, held a passion for stories. The foreigners even had a man who did nothing but tell fables of gods and wars and heroes. But Astrid’s excitement suggested she’d learned from the Mi’kmaq traditions while living among them. All tales hid a moral. Kiona continued, “It means you can take what one intends to be a curse, and turn it into a blessing. Just like Gluskabe with the fire from Malsumis.” She held out one of the prickly balls in her fingers and Astrid gingerly accepted it. Kiona whispered, “And to be patient. That sometimes even curses are blessings in disguise. You may feel a prisoner today. But somehow your life is being preserved.”

Question 7: Viking Time Travel Explained

Aged runestone with Celtic letters in field with tree in background.

Q: Michael is drawn back in time and finds himself in the body of a Vestman (Viking). How does that work? Why not just draw his own body back in time?

A: Michael finds himself in the body a young Viking his same age in a longship and on a mission to rescue their chieftain’s daughter who’s been kidnapped by a native tribe of Indians. He discovers certain skills and instincts of this new body remain, as if portions of its prior owner linger within. For example, Michael discovers he’s a strong rower, though he’s never crewed a vessel. And he’s skilled with a battle axe, though he’s never wielded one before. By the end of the novel, he’s fought in a Viking shield wall, killed a panther with his bare hands, and grown in confidence to the point he doesn’t recognize his former self.

Moving a character along too quickly can make the story less relatable and distance a reader. By Michael being inside the body of another propels his character development and makes it more believable. As an example, one of my favorite scenes is where Michael comes into his own during an ambush by Mi’kmaq warriors hidden along a streamside trail. Michael and the other Vikings are standing, anticipating the attack. It’s here that he begins to use those skills and instincts previously dormant and sense something (or someone) unknow compelling him to action. As a forewarning, this scene is a bit violent. Here it is:

***

My grip tightened on the axe handle. A bitterness filled my mouth, coating my tongue. I hunched my shoulders and a snarl rose from my belly. Anger filled my chest and stiffened my spine. A raw, primal hate warmed my legs, a feeling I’d never experienced before. As if a spirit – or demon even – stood behind me, clutching my forearms, urging me to do its bidding. All fear died away. I was light, as if just released from a burden. In that instant, I knew with certainty how to wield axe and shield. In fact, I’d done so many times before. In a past life, maybe this one. Or one yet to come.

Suddenly, the forest exploded. Green leaves thrashed and shot toward us, as if blown in a squall. Ashen-skinned warriors lept onto the trail, reaching back like a baseball pitcher winding up, gripping short spears whose blackened points hovered just beside their faces, sighting down their shafts. Naked except for loincloths, the Indians had coated themselves with a gloppy gray paint, or maybe mud, the exact color of maple tree bark. But faces were colored in dull hues of blue and green. Even purple. War paint.

They charged in pairs, one directly behind the other.

Time seemed to slow, then.

The first warriors struck low, thrusting their weapons beneath our shields. I lowered mine to deflect the attack and threw my axe at the same time. A spear splintered one of my shield boards. I stumbled backwards beneath the shuddering blow, but my axe caught the attacker’s partner behind him in the throat. He doubled over and convulsed. Vomit and blood spilled through the gash in his neck as he collapsed to his knees.

Our entire line had dropped shields as well. But a second wave of warriors’ spears flew immediately after the first, the entire rank synchronized, quick and precise as a drill team. Only I had managed to take out the second attacker. The forest echoed with the thuds of lances piercing leather and striking bone, the pained screams of our wounded, and the gurgle of air sucking through gashed chests. Vestmen fell and our line opened like cracks in a splintered hull. In seconds they would overrun us completely.

But now came the cleavered hack of steel upon skulls, the wet thud of swords into flesh. The same noise a butcher’s knife makes de-heading trout. Curly still stood next to me unharmed, but a short Indian leaned upon the thick shaft impaling his shield, straining to expose him to the attack of his partner. Curly slashed his sword at a downward angle. The air filled with the stench of excrement as the Indian’s bowels spilled onto mud.

The one in front of me abandoned his spear stuck in my shield and reached down to yank the axe from his partner’s body. A mistake. I drew another from my belt and hacked off the back of his skull like pruning a tree with a hatchet.

Downhill, half our number writhed upon the ground or leaned gasping and bleeding against rocks. One-Eye thrust a sword through the gray belly of a warrior with a blue-ringed eye socket, the same as in my vision. Two others turned toward him, rushing at his blind side. I hurled my axe and it flew straight into the spine of the first. He screamed as he fell, and One-Eye turned in time to deflect the spear-point of the other. A strong slash across his attacker’s forearm sent the Indian stumbling back into the woods. One-Eye glanced at the hatchet in the fallen Indian’s back, grinned, and winked his empty socket at me. Even with death all around, the gesture still raised the hair on my neck.

For a second the world seemed to fall silent again, except for the rush of air through leaves and the wind of my own breathing. As if no battle had just taken place. A dozen of us remained on our feet, while twenty or thirty gray corpses splattered in crimson, stained with mud, lay scattered upon the earth. But their attack had been sudden and precise, with a practiced coordination. Obviously not the first time they’d studied Vestman defenses.

The forest rumbled like a stampede of cattle. “Shield wall!” Halfdan yelled. We closed ranks, standing upon bodies piled like rocks. As I found footing a scream gurgled beneath my boots, but I dared not risk even a fleeting glance to see whether it was one of our own.

The edge of forest erupted again. More soot-gray warriors charged, wielding black-tipped javelins, stone-headed tomahawks, and drawn bows. The archers stood back near the trees while the others charged forward. A warrior gripping a club in one hand, spear in the other, glared at me, howled like a tomcat, and rushed. I hurled a hatchet but he batted it away. I drew another, my last. But he was already upon me, hammering my shield. He raised the spear and jabbed it over its rim. I ducked, but the point sliced down my back. I hacked at his ankle and he toppled into the warrior attacking Curly.

My thigh seared, as if stung by a giant hornet. A short-shafted arrow stuck out above my knee…

***

The action continues, but I don’t want to give away too much. But you get the point. There would be no way for Michael to act skillfully under these circumstances without explanation. However, being in the body of a Viking and aided by forces and instincts outside himself, makes it all happen.

Question 8: The Story Beneath the Story

Tree along water's edge reflecting clearly in water.

Q: When you say there is a “story beneath the story”, what do you mean?

A: Every good book has at least two story layers. Some have more. The first is the one we all enjoy the most and is what is happening on the page. But ultimately, that isn’t the story at all. The real story lies in the meaning of the tale. It could be a simple moral such as in Aesop’s The Tortoise and the Hare, or a complex allegory such as in The Lion Witch and Wardrobe or The Wizard of Oz.

On the page, Vestmen’s Gale is about a young man drawn back in time by the spirit of his dead twin sister to when Vikings settled in North America. But behind the scenes it is an allegory of the Christian walk; of struggle, discovery, and coming of age; of one’s awakening. The veil between the two is heavy enough that many readers miss it, but the curious are rewarded. My writing style is to trust the reader to be inquisitive and intelligent. I don’t tell them what the characters are feeling, but allow them to experience it by walking in the character’s skin. In the same way, I don’t spoon-feed the allegory, but trust them to look deeper.

The metaphor starts as Michael is drawn back in time and placed into a different body and given a new name. Notice the parallel yet? He is disoriented, confused, and finds himself embroiled in a conflict he didn’t know existed. He’s trying to figure out why he’s there and how to use the skills of this new body, all the while being pursued by forces of evil, some physical and some spiritual. When explained this way, the allegory is clear: he’s a new Christian. A pastor once said, “Most new Christians think they’re stepping onto a cruise ship and are soon shocked to learn it’s a battleship, and general quarters is being sounded.”

Throughout the story, Michael’s dead twin sister, Gabby, shows up in the form of a spirit when he least expects it, her communications are cryptic, but she loves him dearly and helps him along the way. She’s a metaphor for–.  No, I’d insult your intelligence if I gave it away plainly. Her symbolic nature is obvious, especially to those Christians who’ve managed to retain a sense of humor.

All the other characters hold significant meaning as well. Kiona, both shamans, Stryker, and Malsumis are primary examples. The stag that appears fleetingly a few times is of particular interest, while also holding special meaning to both Native American and Celtic cultures. I can’t detail them all – that is what the book is for!

SPOILER ALERT. In the end, Michael gives his life to save Kiona, but that act is exactly what allows him to live again. To do so, he discovers something worth dying for and that death is only a beginning. His sacrifice makes the spiritual amends alluded to in the prophesy of the Abenaki shaman. Michael learns the whole experience, though intensely personal and purposeful, may have had nothing to do with him at all. Christians can relate.

Recognition of the allegory has been mixed. My copy editor, with whom I’ve never had a spiritual conversation, caught on to the parallel without any prompting. However, another Christian author whom I admire greatly missed it altogether. Make no mistake, the book is no devotional. It is suspenseful, intense, and at times violent. It contains no sex or foul language, but the reader is inside the head of a nineteen-year-old male (and female in Kiona’s chapters), so I do not shield them unnecessarily from experiencing the world through the mind of a good-hearted but hormone-fueled young man. Enjoy the book!

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