PEN WORLD VOICES - INTERVIEW - PER PETTERSON: Language Within Silence
For a person who has never visited Scandinavia, it’s easy to imagine a land of farm and field and sea, where pine trees thickly forest the deep, narrow inlets of countless fjords, and where history happens discreetly.
We could be lulled into believing all this is true, and we would be partially right. Until we read the work of Norwegian writer, Per Petterson.
Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses was chosen as one of the ten best books of 2007 by the New York Times Book Review, and received the 2006 Independent London Foreign Fiction Prize. Winner of the Nordic Council’s Literary Prize for To Siberia, The Norwegian Critic’s Prize for Literature, and the 2007 IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, Petterson gives substance to silence, creating characters who reveal personal history within the larger context of commerce and world politics.
“If you consider it,” says Petterson. “What you say has less importance in your life compared to what you think. The words you say are also outnumbered by your thoughts.”
In Petterson’s hands, words become spare, gorgeous prose, casting a spell over the reader, luring us into the forest, into silence, until we hear the clear voices of his characters.
Trond, the main character in Out Stealing Horses, sits at his desk in his cabin in the woods listening to the news, and thinking, “Maybe there is something wrong with the news, the way it is reported, maybe there’s too much of it. The good thing about the BBC’s World Service...is that everything sounds foreign, that nothing is said about Norway, and that I can get updated on the position of countries like Jamaica, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka in a sport such as Cricket; a game I have never played...”
When, in the novel To Siberia a young Danish girl—in the wake of her grandfather’s suicide and the Nazi occupation—dreams of the cool beauty of the tundra as a place of refuge, Petterson allows her story to unfold as though it is happening within the limits of real time.
Petterson, who participated in the third annual PEN American Center’s World Voices Festival, spoke with Wild River Review about writing, nature, and what shapes him and his characters.
WRR: When did you know you would become a writer?
When I was eighteen. But I did not know that I was going be a writer. Until then I had only read books, heaps of them, all kinds; I was reading all the time, and never gave a thought to why it was so important or what a writer was, really.
But then, when I read Hemingway’s early stories I realized a writer did something special to make me feel the way I did when I read a book.
I discovered style. For the first time, there was a difference in quality between the books I read. And then I suddenly wanted to be a writer, desperately. I wanted to do what the good writers did, and I knew that if I didn’t succeed, I would become an unhappy person.
So then I was a part-time, unhappy person for seventeen years because my first book was published when I was thirty-five.
WRR: You were a bookseller before you sold your first book. What did you learn about writing and publishing during those years?
During my twelve years as a bookseller I did not learn much about publishing apart from it being a risky business. The publishers would constantly buy and sell each other. I was head of import, especially from British and American publishers, and each time I had a rep coming, he or she would probably not be the same as the one that came the last time. Also, they did not quite represent the same conglomerate because each time the conglomerates grew bigger.
When it came to writing, it was two-sided. In one way, being a bookseller postponed my debut as a writer. I was awestruck by all the quality literature that was written, especially in the US at the time. It was the eighties, and it did scare me a little.
By I can also say it was a great inspiration. I was reading Raymond Carver, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff, Grace Paley, and especially, Jayne Anne Philips. She has the voice.
And I read people like Paul Bowles and his Moroccan protégés. I read the classics. I made a point of not recommending a book I had not read myself. That took a lot of reading.
WRR: In your work, nature is as much a character as your human creations. Given Norway’s striking geography, how did your relationship with nature evolve?
It is true that in several of my books, the landscape is very important. And that, of course, is because it is very important to me. It always has been.
When I was a boy, each Sunday, my father would take my brothers and me into the woods. Sometimes we hated it, of course. But I learned to love it eventually. We became great observers of the changing seasons. You must realize that each big or small city in Norway is surrounded by forests or mountains or the sea. There is no escaping nature.
So, when some reviewers suggest that I use the forest or the sea (as in To Siberia) as symbols, that is not so. It is simply there. I never consciously used a symbol in my life. What I really do not want to do when I write is what the romantics did, and that is to infuse the human soul into nature. You know, the sky is crying and all that stuff. I think it is the other way around. Nature seeps into us, changing the way we observe life. Humankind tries to avoid this, of course, by destroying nature.
WRR: You create characters who are engaged in daily life, but remain very much alone. You lost your mother, father, brother, and your niece in a ferry accident in 1990. You had already established yourself as a writer before that event. How has that loss shaped your work since then?
Well, daily life, that means work. And it seems to me that work has become almost extinct in modern novels, as if a wall has fallen out of the house of literature, a wall that should mirror all parts of the human experience.
Work is, of course, important to all of us—good or bad—and therefore ought to play a part in literature. Myself, I love physical work, and I love to write about it, although perhaps some of it belongs to yesteryear’s way of life.
I know about being alone. But I would not always call it loneliness. Solitude is as good a word, sometimes. I think talk is a little overestimated in books.
What happened in 1990 was so massive that it is a little difficult to explain and measure its influence on my life as a writer. I had published two books before that, and death was present in both of them, mostly because the existence of death always did worry me as a boy, the knowledge that everybody I loved one day should die.
And then, when they prematurely did die, it was mind-blowing. I don’t think I could have written any of my books after 1990 ignoring the things that happened. They would have been different books, lighter, perhaps. I don’t know.
WRR: Where and how do you write?
I have written everywhere: beside my bed, at the kitchen table, in the living room with my children crawling around my legs.
Now I work in a cabin 100 meters from my house. Living in the forest, I have the space I did not have before.
Usually I sit at my computer (a Mac, always) and start with a notion of something, a few sentences that I feel have some sort of substance. I never plan anything; never plot my books. In fact I do not know how to do that. I write when I can, hoping for the best and try to take things as they come.
WRR: The title of your book, Out Stealing Horses, carries a double meaning, whose significance is revealed as the story unfolds. How did the Nazi Occupation of Norway translate into the plot of your novel?
Well, like I said, I do not plan, so that double meaning came up when I needed it. That is disappointing to some readers, I know. But for me it shows the strength of art. It is like carving out a sculpture from some material. You have to go with the quality of the material and not force upon it a form that it will not yield to anyway. That will only look awkward.
Early in the book, in the 1948 part, I let the two fathers (of my main characters, Jon and Trond) have a problem with looking at each other. And I wondered, why is that?
So I thought, well, it’s 1948, only three years after the Germans left Norway. It has to be something with the war. And then I thought, shit, I have to write about the war. You see, I hate research.
Well, take it easy, I thought, something will eventually turn up. And it did.
When you are of my generation, you have heard stories about the German occupation most of your life.
WRR: At the age of sixty-seven, Trond, the main character in Out Stealing Horses, has gone to the forest in an effort to reconstruct the story of his life. To reconstruct that story, he must do so in the context of his father’s story. Your portrait of father and son was poignant and compelling. What were you aiming to achieve in creating that relationship?
I don’t think Trond really wants to reconstruct his life. I think he wants to get away from it all, and just live in some Buddhist way, doing ritual things to mark the passing of time. But then, when he meets his new neighbor, he cannot avoid it because a blast from the past hits him.
In my previous book, In the Wake, there was a father-son relationship full of misunderstandings, a shyness, and general unwillingness to understand, at least on the part of the son. And then, in the new book, I wanted it to be clear from the first page that the father and the son loved each other, clear to us, and clear to them, too. And that when the book ended, it would still be so.
I did not know at the time how the book was going to develop. And of course neither did I know what kind of price would be paid to sustain this kind of love.
WRR: The father is never given a name.
I do that often. In To Siberia, my female heroine has no name. Some characters just resist being named. They are who they are, not what they’re called. Trond’s father is the father. Although he is a full man, maybe even a beautiful man to many others. He is here simply in the capacity of a father, not “Frank,” or “Johnny,” or whatever.
WRR: You portray two sets of twins. One set are the sons of the father’s lover. One set are the brothers of Trond’s mother. In each set, one brother dies. Can you talk about those relationships?
I cannot really. In a way those two sets of twins are there to make the book symmetrical. Early in my life, I was very grateful for not being a twin, because I knew that one of us would have to die, and it probably would be me. It was my firm belief. I don’t know where I got it from.
WRR: Trond’s mother does not appear as a character until the very end of the book. And yet she is much stronger than one might think. Why did you wait until the end to introduce her?
It was not her book. I mean it.
But then, when I knew I was close to the end, I realized that she too, of course, had been so badly and unexpectedly betrayed. I thought it was unfair not to let her have her fifteen minutes. And I don’t mean in the Andy Warhol way. I mean to really be there, to make some difference, to be somebody. And she did, I think.
WRR: You have won numerous awards for your work. In 2006, Out Stealing Horses won the British Independent Foreign Fiction Prize, which gained you a wider audience. You’ve been traveling the globe lately. How has that affected your writing schedule?
It has been very damaging, to tell you the truth! It has been hard to concentrate for any length of time. My only excuse is that I didn’t know it would come to this, when I started to say yes to so many requests. Of course, it has been an honor, and a lot of fun, too.
WRR: Your writing has reached an English-speaking audience through the translations of Anne Born. What is the process you use to bring your work into English?
Well, Anne starts with a first draft of the book. And then I use my machete on it, because, although I could not have translated it myself, I have a clear opinion of how it should no sound in English.
Then it goes on to our editor and publisher Christopher MacLehose (the best there is) who will try to make some peace. Anne has been very generous to me, letting me have full access. Not all translators would have, I know.
WRR: What are you writing now?
Well, the proper question would perhaps be: What am I trying to write now. What has happened with and around Out Stealing Horses has taken me quite by surprise and has repeatedly thrown me out of my new manuscript.
Last year, I was hardly able to write anything at all. I just gave up. I am not so good at drawing the line around me. BUT, I am writing a new novel, and am more than halfway through, I think. It’s about a son and a mother’s relationship.
Sons and fathers is not my only theme, you know. I return to my “hero” from the novel In the Wake, Arvid Jansen. Nervous as always, not in harmony with the world, and far from the Norwegian version of Buddhism I think one can find in Out Stealing Horses. I love writing it. When I am allowed to.