Monday, April 1, 2024

Q&A with C.M. Surrisi




C.M. Surrisi is the author of the young adult book The Bones of Birka: Unraveling the Mystery of a Female Viking Warrior. Her other books include the middle grade novel The Unofficial Lola Bay Fan Club. She lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Q: What inspired you to write The Bones of Birka?


A: I have always had an interest in Vikings and Scandinavian culture. This fascination led me to a membership in the American Swedish Institute (ASI) in Minneapolis where I regularly attend exhibits and events. 


So it happened that I attended a lecture at ASI in 2019 that featured two archaeologists, Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson and Neil Price, who are leading experts on the Vikings.


They described the Viking town of Birka and how they had overseen the DNA testing of bones found in graves, with the result that the most well-established Viking warrior grave (Bj 581) was shown to be female, not male as always assumed. 


My immediate reaction was: mind blown … Sploosh. I wanted to write about this for kids. I was thinking, “female Viking warrior. COOL!”


This sent me on a three-year journey of learning everything about Vikings, archeology, Ancient DNA, academic research methodology, the peer review process, research bias, and so much more. And the people I met!! Oh, my goodness! 


But, definitely, it was the shocking reveal at the lecture that started it all. 


Q: How did you research the book, and what did you learn that especially surprised you?


A: I practiced law for many years, and I approach writing nonfiction the same way I would write a brief. I deep dive into everything and follow all tributaries and side issues. Joyfully, I might add.  


In this case, I started with the archeologists Hedenstierna-Jonson and Price. I read all their papers and communicated with them initially by email. They were extraordinarily gracious and zoomed several times with me, helping me focus my research so it could best serve readers 12 and up. 


I learned that the events following the reveal of the DNA results turned out to be surprisingly fraught. By that I mean, when the research results were published, the archeological community went a little berserk. There was a vast wave of support for the results and an equal amount of rejection of their publications.

This, in and of itself, was odd since the results were straightforward scientific data. The bones of the sole person in the grave with all those weapons were XX, not XY. 


Those who refused to believe that a woman could have been a warrior were harsh critics. They felt that the role of Viking women was in the home and around the farm. They asserted that there had to have been a male body in the grave who owned the weapons, or that the lab results were incorrect.


Some challenged Hedenstierna-Jonson and Price by saying, “You can’t prove there wasn’t a second body in the grave at some point.” Price replied, “No, we can’t, but only in the same way that we can’t prove there was never a second female body there either. Or three of them in a pile, or an ostrich, or anything else for which there is no evidence whatsoever.”


These criticisms led the team to publish an in-depth, follow-up paper rebutting the contrary theories that had been advanced. The follow-up paper was filled with the details of the excavation of the grave in the late 1800s and all the research that transpired since, which included two different osteological examinations that concluded the bones were female. 


During the course of my research, I learned about ancient DNA, osteology, the original excavator, Hjalmar Stolpe, peer review, research bias and so much more.  


The thing that most surprised me was that people were willing to reject scientific results because they couldn’t or didn’t want to believe a woman could have been a warrior. 


Q: The writer Caren Stelson said of the book, “Surrisi’s in-depth and timely research turns Viking narratives into questions and doing so challenges our own biases about our history and ourselves.” What do you think of that description?


A: I’m delighted by Caren Stelson’s comment. I carefully laid out the history of the dig, the science that accompanies archaeology, and all of the literature and research that is amassed to weigh facts and form interpretations.


I hope that readers will come to appreciate how this particular finding illustrates the challenge of evaluating ancient people without inserting our own biases into the interpretation.


Q: Can you say more about what you hope readers take away from the book?


A: Charlotte Hedenstierna-Jonson and Neil Price participated in a panel discussion with me at ASI to launch the book. Neil was asked what he hoped readers would take from the book and he answered, “that certainty is the enemy of science.”  


That is what I learned and what I have worked to deliver to readers through my book. 


Q: What are you working on now?


A: I’m working on a nonfiction book about the London Necropolis Railway, which alleviated the massive congestion of dead bodies in London during the Victorian era by transporting them to a vast cemetery several miles away.


It’s filled with gory details about the inception of public health reform, the politics around it, and the power of the Church of England over corpses. 


Q: Anything else we should know?


A: Evaluating the people of the past is not the only time we should check our bias. It’s a worthy endeavor every day. 


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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