‘We Seek to Know the Needful’

Dale Stromberg on magic, bravery, and the four main characters in ‘Mæj’

Tucker Lieberman

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I talked with Dale Stromberg about his stunning debut high fantasy novel, Mæj. You can’t buy it quite yet, but that time will come. You can keep up with Dale seldomly by adding your name to his email list, The Seldom, and that is how you will choose Mæj as part of your fate.

Update, May 2024: If you’d like to write a review, you can request an ebook ARC. The book will go on sale September 23.

Does mæj (magical energy) exist in our world, at least figuratively?

woman in white dress on a green leafy background with sweeping white clouds
White dress by Matthew Henry on Unsplash

Dale Stromberg: If we ask ourselves, are there energies or forces originating in our bodies, energies which can be employed creatively or destructively, or which can even be alienated from us (voluntarily or involuntarily) and transformed into some fungible commodity? — then yes, things exist in our world which could figuratively be thought of as analogous to mæj. Labour? Creativity? Emotion? Life itself?

Whether or not real magic exists is a question on which I am agnostic. As much as I enjoy reading and writing stories about the fantastical, my outlook on the so-called real world is rather mundane. Part of me hopes that magic exists, or wishes that it could.

Did you have a real-life political conflict in mind when you came up with this story?

army raising swords against a bright red fog
War by Hasan Almasi on Unsplash

DS: I did not, nor would I have been the right writer to approach such a task. Sadly, the world in which we live furnishes innumerable examples of political conflict, exploitation, apartheid, cruelty, and xenophobic hatred, so that the scenario in this book could probably be seen as a rough parallel to any number of real-world situations.

For me as an author, it makes more sense to approach things that way, taking inspiration from varied tragic sources to create something more ambiguous in its relationship to reality; there are people out there who can write excellent political allegories, but I would never be able to pull off something like that.

To which character do you feel closest?

hand writing in fountain pen in a notebook
Notebook by Eugene Chystiakov on Unsplash

DS: When I create a character, I try to give them admirable traits which I wish I possessed, as well as flaws or shortcomings which I find in myself. The merits help me admire the character, while the demerits help me understand them. In this sense, I feel some closeness to each of the four principal characters in Mæj.

• Madenhere possesses an internal ethical compass and does not hesitate to act when she feels she must; I wish I were as unhesitating to do as my conscience prompts me. But a shortcoming I share with her is a tendency to rely on others to make decisions for me, rather than being responsibly self-determining. She works to overcome this; I’m not sure I can thrust my chest out and brag I’ve done the same…

• Taræntlere is like me in that she tends to become so immersed in her own projects, her own interests, that what others want or need from her gets crammed to the periphery. But what I admire in her is her panache, her savoir faire — she never fails to produce a witty/devastating phrase, a lightning-quick gambit to get out of a jam, a canny decision under pressure; in this sense, she’s my polar opposite.

• Aunhma Cairnhand is a proud fighter who uses a self-congratulatory notion of “noble loneliness” to convince herself she needs no one else; really, she is insulating herself from the anxieties of human relationships. I have been guilty of similar self-deceptions. But she also has a strength I can only dream of possessing: fearlessness. She is perpetually ready to face her fate, and with no nonsense either.

• Ænkenere Gaitmoth has an uncomplicated view of romantic love which, in my crusty middle-aged cynicism, I can only wish I were able to recover. She is also a kindly naïf (her personality being what we might call “liberal”) whose surface empathy for the downtrodden veils a set of prejudices she is quite uncomfortable being made to confront. I have been startled and distressed at times to find similar shortcomings in myself.

What makes a witwife brave: a new situation to which she must respond, or something enduring inside herself?

wrinkled old hands clasped in lap on a pleated skirt
Clasped hands by Danie Franco on Unsplash

DS:

“Do nothing because it is righteous or praiseworthy or noble to do so; do nothing because it seems good to do so; do only that which you must do and which you cannot do in any other way.”

I take inspiration from this quote from Ursula K Le Guin, and I crib from it in the novel when a certain character says, “Do the needful.” When we must respond to a situation, whether it is new or long-standing (and do long-standing situations require even more bravery to confront?), I believe bravery consists in doing the needful, while wisdom consists in knowing the needful.

But how can we know it? There is an apparent contradiction in the quote from Le Guin: if we eliminate the righteous, the praiseworthy, the noble, and even the good from the criteria used to determine whether we must do something, then what do we have left by which to know what we “must” do? When we are left unguided by such things, isn’t there an insurmountable unknowableness about what “must” be done and whether it “cannot” be done “in any other way”?

I think the meaning which lurks within her words has to do with the elimination of the ego from considerations of what is right.

From this viewpoint, the thing which “endures inside ourselves” may rather be a set of impediments to bravery — egoistic desires to see ourselves as righteous, to bask in praise, to exult in our own nobility, to be viewed by the world as good — impediments which warp our perceptions as we seek to know the needful. Putting aside egoistic considerations is certainly a component of bravery.

Will cede, Wyrd heed. When you were writing Mæj, where did you bend to fate, and where did you feel you (or a character) had to intervene?

autumn leaves illuminated in sun
Leaves by Timothy Eberly on Unsplash

DS: There is a certain metafictional irony in writing a story about characters who worship the Fates, for I as the author am perfectly aware that the fates of many of my characters are predetermined in my head before I write a single word about them. And at any moment in the process of drafting, I can set or reset a character’s fate — for example, by backtracking in the story to change past events in order to funnel the character into whatever new fate has flitted into my head. If you don’t believe in fate, you don’t really believe life is a “story”, do you?

But one example of where this was not true pertains to the two “quests” my protagonists have: a gaolbreak and an assassination. As I drafted the novel, a question began to bother me: “Should these quests succeed or fail?”

It may seem a little precious for an author to pretend to have ethical responsibilities towards their made-up characters, but we ask readers to take these characters as “real” as they read, so should authors not also? As the process of drafting the manuscript made the characters more real for me and I began to develop notions of responsibility to them, I was forced to consider what sort of outcomes for each of the two quests would be “needful”. No spoilers, but I will say that I originally planned for the assassination quest to end in one way, but my sense of obligation to the humanity of my characters showed me it needed to end in another.

Perhaps this course correction resulted from an imperceptible intervention of the Wyrd. They practice Happenstance upon us in ways as subtle as the settling of windblown leaves into a corner, and I (an unbeliever) would be dully insensible to their machinations upon me. Who can say?

Mæj is coming in 2024

For updates on the forthcoming September 23 tRaum Books release of Mæj, fate would have you sign up for Dale Stromberg’s mailing list, The Seldom. If you’d like to write an early review, you can request an ebook ARC.

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Tucker Lieberman

Editor for Prism & Pen. Author of the novel "Most Famous Short Film of All Time." https://tuckerlieberman.com/