Interview with Hanne Ørstavik

Iubire Hanne ØrstavikNorwegian writer Hanne Ørstavik was in Bucharest between 18 and 20th of March 2014, invited by the Royal Norwegian Embassy and Univers publishing house, in the context of the exhibition Contemporary Norwegian Architecture #7, at the National Museum of Contemporary Art. Univers translated in 2012 the novel Love (Iubire), a story about a single mother (Vibeke) and her 9 years old son (Jon), in the lives of which there is one thing missing: love.

Interview by Simina Diaconu.

Photo by Traian Stanciu.

The interview took place on the 19th of March 2014, at Van Gogh cafe in Bucharest.

Romanian version of the interview: here.

People in northern European countries read a lot more than people in eastern European countries, show some studies. Why is reading more attractive in your region? Do you have effective cultural national programs or it runs in the families or you have better book design or…? 

Actually they are kind of fearing that the youth are reading less in our country. It matters also if books are available, are present and of course that it also has to do with welfare. Were there books in your house when you grew up? Did your family have such an educated level so that your parents took you to the library? There are social and economical questions. Can you afford to buy a book? As we are quite rich countries, I think that is one explanation that we have to take into account. But also it is colder so you stay more inside, on a warm sofa with blankets and read. Because, whenever in the summer when it’s good weather, all Norwegians are outdoors and not reading so much – if we didn’t have the winter maybe it would be different.

hanne orstavik romania

Hanne Ørstavik (Photo: Traian Stanciu)

What kind of literature do you take great pleasure in reading?

Whatever I feel like reading. To me, reading is like nutrition, like food, existential food. So whatever I feel I need is good to read. So it can really be very different stuff. When I started to write and also before I started to write, I read very much. Fiction, I mean novels, mostly novels and also poems, poetry. And then I started to study at the University sociology, psychology and French and in the latest years I’ve been reading more and more philosophy. And also sometimes I find biographies very intriguing.

I had a huge development in my own way of understanding the world, the existence, by reading psycho-analytical theory, going from Freudian theory via inner object relations theory (Melanie Klein and Ludvig Igra) and slowly going from that to Jungian analytical theory more recently. That was really mind-blowing for me because it opens an analytical framework that I can recognize my way of writing in, because it’s all about images. This Jungian way of thinking is like you can sink into a picture, because they use dream images and fairytales images, it is like going in a magic world where things get alive in your inner world. When I allow myself to plunge, to drown into this way of living with the images, it really changes my way of relating to other people. I got changed and it was really revolting in my life, because I’d always thought that change is hard work, you have to go to therapy or you really have to do something hard and then, on the other side, this kind of letting yourself melt and blow can really change something in you if you allow some images to become real and living in you. You evolve with the images inside. That was to me a huge revelation: having trust in our spirits’ potential and how huge we are inside and what a real force it is that we are embodying. I think that, in a more subtle way, this has influenced my writing because it makes me have even more trust in whatever there is in a picture or book.

Which side are you on: you write about what you know or you write about what excites your imagination?

I think my writing is an exploration, I never know what am I going to write, but I always start with an image. I always know where the novel takes place and the place is very important as it has an energy, an ambiance and of course very concrete traits as we are bodies moving in a concrete world. If this room was totally different it would change something.

And of course my novels also start with some kind of issue, some burning conflict or a problematic situation that I’m experiencing in my own life that I don’t overlook. So it’s simultaneous, there is this image that I don’t know what contains and there is some kind of pressure inside wanting to be resolved or investigated, so I abstract it in the novel. I make a kind of a model world where I send my characters and they are exploring for me this world and what I am experiencing. So I write really for myself to find out about things.

I read your book, Love, and I perceived it as, among other things, a book with a message: being self-centered and projecting fairy tales hopes on reality is dangerous. Do you think literature should have a message? Do you start with that, as a writer, or it just happens? Or is it just in the mind of the reader?

I think everything has messages. It would be wrong to say that I don’t have a message, but I don’t know what that message is when I start to write. They are not morally ignorant, they want something in the world, my books, they are stating something. But what they are going to state I don’t know when I start writing.

I’m not sure that I agree on your conception of it because, of course it’s true, but there are other things that are true as well, and I think in a good novel there are many ways to read it that are true in the same time. There are many truths to extract from the novel. It becomes interesting when yes, you can say that, but on the other hand you can say that. You can look at it this way but it’s also about that. What you say is of course important and a very relevant way to conceive the book but then, on the other hand, Vibeke is also longing for love, so you can go into that aspect and make that the important aspect for yourself and see the tragedy in both mother and son longing for love. The mother is longing for love so much that it kind of takes over and she cannot really be present for her son, because that urge in her is so strong that she forgets about him.

I started to write the novel when my daughter was just newly born and this question about feeling loved, “what is love?” was my starting point for the novel. And also because having a child made me plunge back into my own childhood, with my brothers, so it’s kind of a tribute to my brothers, too.
When I wrote it I was very focused on one way of conceiving it, whereas now, today, I see other aspects that are more interesting to me.

Reading your novel, Love, I had the impression that you associated love with dogs. Not only because of the actual dog in the book and its behavior and the way it relates to characters. But also the little boy is like a dog that his mother cannot stand the physical presence of – she is rather looking for a love that is esthetic, ideal, graceful. A Romanian writer I know once told me that almost all great prose writers had cats, rather than dogs. How do you comment on that and on what animals can tell about character(s)?

That’s a funny question. My first thought is that a cat person is a person who is afraid of attachment. So that makes sense that prose writers tend to have cats because they are afraid of attachment, they withdraw from the world and go into themselves instead of relating to other people and have cats because they don’t relate very closely either. I’ve always been a dog person. I had difficulties to relate to people but I had this longing for a loyal and happy friend: that was my childhood experience with having dogs, they were so loyal and warm and happy!

How do you work on your writing? You have the whole book in your head and then you start writing or it develops as you write it? Do you rewrite it? Who is your first reader?

I only have a subtle feeling that I’m going to this field. What I can tell you about the book that came out in Norway last fall, which is called There Is a Big Open Square in Bordeaux, is that I knew from the images that started the novel that it had to do with sexuality and that it would be painful, I knew some of these things but not how the action in the book would actually take place. But I knew about this place in Bordeaux, I knew I had to send a person there, an agent carrying the story, so I just sent her there. And then I found out that it must be a Norwegian woman, she will be an artist putting up a show, so I was slowly developing what the book is about.

But I start with this feeling that this time the novel is concerning this kind of dark sexuality thing. And then I suddenly start to get very interested in everything that’s related to that, I feel so attracted by striptease clubs and then I feel very attracted to pornography or exploring everything that I’ve been hiding away from before and I just follow this urge, because I know this is what I’m going to explore. And then, suddenly when the book is written, the tension is kind of gone because it is taken into the book and the excitement related to all these things is over. It is like waves in myself that I don’t overlook at all.

That’s the way I write and I don’t rewrite. I write very slowly so I just wait for things to come. And when they come they are the way I write, things are not something that I transmit through language, they are language. So when I have said it, it’s not something else, it is that way, it is very material. So what I do is as the storyline evolves (there’s not much stories in my book because it’s mostly inner journeys, but still there is something happening), after I’ve written half a book, I understand that if this is going to happen then I have to write a little piece in the preceding pages to make that probable. It is a kind of construction where I can go and fix things or write new things, mostly to make the bow clearer.

I am my first reader. I write for myself, I’m writing and then I’m reading. I write it because I need to write it but also I write it because I need to read it. But then of course, there is my editor. She is my first reader and she is wonderful. She is brilliant, so intelligent and such a sensitive reader. She has very good sense of musicality. And she knows exactly what kind of response to give so that I have faith and go on. If I show something to her very early in the process, as I sometimes do, just because I need some support, she can just say “go on” and nothing more, but when it starts to get finished she can say “I would like you to write one or two more scenes with those people because that would make them more visible to me, stronger for the action later on in the book”. She can say something like that and often is very useful for me because those are scenes that are, in a way, already in my head.

I thought that Love is written like a script (it is clean, it describes actions in detail, gestures, it’s visual), apart from the parts where we have access to the characters’ thoughts (though they are filmic too). And then I read that you taught or still teach scriptwriting. How do you think that a cinematographic education (formal or not) could help aspiring writers?

I didn’t teach scriptwriting. I think film is totally another way of thinking than literature but, on the other hand, it’s quite similar. Lately I’ve been working on writing scenes for theatre and it can look quite similar, because you work with images, but still it is very, very different. But you were talking about film. I think our generation is so immerged with images, with film. The film language is in our blood, we live in such a visual culture. So I think all this filmic clipping, or the way of putting all things together – the montage, close-ups, distance – I think we have it in our blood already. Many writers that I know are very much into watching movies, they have large collections of movies at home and watch small scenes over and over, like “oh, today I have to see those three clips to start writing”, so that’s very fruitful for their writing, they really use it. If you feel like watching movies will be useful, then I’m sure it will.

Don’t you hear often this opinion that your book is written like a script?

There are many people who have said it and also people who have been trying to make movies from it. But none has succeeded yet. There was a Polish director who came all the way to Norway and he wanted to make a film and he was really so eager but I haven’t heard from him since. He had such a clear plan about what he wanted to do so I told him “you just make your film, that’s wonderful”, I didn’t want to get involved because film is actually something very different. But now, today, if someone would contact me and want to collaborate, today I would find that very interesting so I would say yes.

There are millions of writers in the world. What do you think a young writer should do to stand out?

Not to think of standing out. Just to focus. I think if you want to write something good you must focus on the writing, focus on what you want to say and say it. You have to take the opportunities that are given and of course create opportunities. Opportunities come from connecting or being open for people, but sometimes it’s important to protect yourself, too. I’m really not a good person to ask because I’m not very good at promoting myself or doing that kind of work, not at all. I have never given that much thought at all, except doing interviews and being there if someone is interested, that’s a big pleasure for me, too. But I’m not proactive and I think I will start to be a little bit more. This trip to Romania opened some kind of doors for me, giving me some ideas about maybe making some small things on YouTube, be more open if people want to have a feel about me, about who I am as a writer. I’m not interesting, the text is interesting, but still, enabling more meetings through the new media, making more points of connection possible so that hopefully in the end they will point into the text, because I’m still a writer, not a blogger or something else.

Do you have in Norway book clubs, do writers meet and discuss with readers?

Yes, we have literary houses in Oslo that are really well visited; people are reading and debating there. But we also have reading circles – that’s quite popular, more and more people are gathering – either very big circles that are really organized or smaller circles with friends and people you don’t know that well, like 15-20 people meeting once a month. From time to time I’m invited to visit some of them and that’s always very interesting.

We also have commercial book clubs that are selling books. In Norway that would be what you call a “book club”. That’s more like a way of selling books, you are a member of this club and you have offers every month or something like that. In a way, it’s more like a members’ shop where you get offers, with special discounts.

That used to be big in Norway but now it pulverized, now everything has become not so centralized anymore. We had one big book club like this with different branches and for a writer to be picked out to be one of the twelve books in the year in that book club was really like winning the lottery. Because you sold so many books and you got so many readers. I had that once and it was a breakthrough to a large audience, I sold 30.000 copies of that book, in Norway that is really much and that was wonderful to be read by so many more people than the smaller literary circles.

How many copies do you publish?

For my latest book it was 5.000. In Norway, that is quite much for a literary book. So normally they do 1.000-1.500 or something like that. So I tend to have this loyal group of readers who follow my writings. Sometimes people are stopping me in the street and say “I just have to say that I love your books and they mean so much to me” and then I’m happy for the rest of the day, that’s wonderful!

Are you a member in Norway of some sort of Writers’ Union?

Yes, I am. They have meetings twice a year. You have to have written two books to get in, fiction books of any genre. And then there is this literary council consisting of members and they read these two books and they vote you in or not, so you can actually be refused. I was refused the first time I applied and that was a terrible feeling. Love is my third book and this is the book I wrote after being refused and after writing that I applied once more and I got in. They want to have a certain standard, I think I should’ve gotten in, my first two books are very good, they really are. Whenever I tell this story in Norway, people are just laughing, “haha, you didn’t get in”, but history is always from the other end.

Now that you are in, are there advantages to that?

Yes, of course. The first thing is being accepted by your owns: that was really hard – to be rejected by my own. This literary council they accept or refuse members, but they are also the institution that delivers the grants. So if you are refused by them, if they don’t think that your books are good enough to be a member, they won’t give you money to write. I was refused but I got a grant and then I’ve gotten more grants since then. So it’s the kind of institution that has a lot of power and it’s an important institution pointing out grants and some of the literary prizes and also the Union is quite alive and powerful in making political statements about literature in the society. Whenever there’s something about a library or the laws of publishing books, they have a say and they always interview the leader of the Writers’ Union. It’s an important union in the Norwegian cultural-political world.

Does this grant mean you have to write a book?

No, I don’t have to write a book, but if I’m not productive I will not get another grant. It is only for three years so, if during those three years I’ve written nothing and it doesn’t seem like I’m writing anything, then I don’t think I will get another grant. It’s not very much money, it’s half a low salary, but it’s still some money coming in every month – without it, it would mean nothing coming in every month so that’s a big difference.

My friend says he knew that in Norway there are more memberships in NGOs than people. That one person is member of more than one NGO. Is that true, do you have such a glorious civic life?

That’s true. I’m member of several NGOs.