Dorthe Nors is one of the brightest names in Danish literary fiction. Her novel, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal was shortlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize; her previous works Karate Chop and Minna Needs Rehearsal Space were also received to high acclaim.
Wild Swims, Nors’ elegant and incisive short story collection, published last week. From her home in rural Jutland, Dorthe spoke to Laura Macaulay, editor and Deputy Publisher at Pushkin, about living alone in isolation, the process of writing the human psyche, and what it’s like to publish to international success.
LM: You open Wild Swims with an intriguing epigraph: ‘You can always withdraw a little further’. Can you explain where it comes from, and why you’ve used it here?
DN: The sentence echoes a line in the story Manitoba and touches upon a theme that runs throughout the book. That you can distance yourself. Withdraw. All the characters in these stories are dislocated from where they seem to belong to. They are hiding in deer stands, in hotel rooms, on planes – or hiding within their inner selves. That’s where we meet them. That’s where I love to meet my characters, because that is where I as a writer – and you as a reader – gain access to their thoughts, ideas, moral shortcomings and fears. And their memories.
LM: From the opening story ‘In a Deer Stand’, in which a man shelters in a lonely deer stand as night is falling in the forest, solitude, or isolation, is a theme in these stories. How is solitude important to your work?
DN: Because I’m such an existentialist I believe we are all somewhat alone – constantly. The stories you have inside, the memories, the experiences you carry with you through life are yours to deal with. You can share them with others, but they are yours and you have thousands of memories that you’ll never share with anyone. Maybe they’re unshareable. Maybe they are only in your consciousness as a glimpse. Maybe you don’t have the language to carry them out into the open. This is a circumstance that all humans share. And that’s the room I enter in my stories: I visit the place where people have to deal with life on their own. That doesn’t necessarily mean that a person is lonely. Some of the loneliest moments in life take place in the middle of a crowd; in a family, in a religious community, in a marriage, in a circle of friends. Solitude – and the ability to be with yourself and be open to the life that you carry with you is important to all people, I think. To a writer it’s absolutely key: I can’t write with anyone in my office. It’s hard enough when the cat walks in on me!
LM: Where do you work? View from your desk? Writing routine?
DN: I write from my office at home. And sometimes I write in residences. Last fall I stayed in a lovely residency in Amsterdam for 6 weeks. In June I’ll be writing in a little cottage at The Danish Writers & Translators Centre. So it’s important for me to move around a little bit. Quite important actually. When I write from home, I face the wall in my office. There’s a narrow shelf over my desk on which I place important images or items to keep me focussed on what I’m currently writing on. When I look to my left I see the garden and beyond the garden the endless plain that leads to the North Sea. If I press my face against the window and wave you might be able to see me with binoculars from Aberdeen!
LM: The characters in these stories are haunted by memories – from the ‘The Freezer Chest’ to ‘Wild Swims’. What role does memory, or the past, play in your stories?
DN: The first sentence in the book is: It’s a question of time. I wanted to spotlight what I always do in my writing right there in the beginning of this book. My writing is always circling around time as a very basic theme. To say it in a more flashy way: I’m always exploring the existential structure of time. How do you navigate in your life? How do you see and estimate your future? And do you have access to your own experiences, your past? The question of time is not only essential on a big scale – it’s there every minute of your life. You’re doing laundry, longing for someone to call – and while you have this longing for something in the future, your past presents itself in your mind. We are constant mediators between the place we want to go, and the place we came from. What’s interesting, is that some people are disconnected from either future or past. That spills into the moment where we meet them. So, time is important in my writing. Very important. Which is why memory is important.
LM: You seem very attuned to power dynamics within relationships, particularly between men and women. I’m thinking of ‘In a Deer Stand’, ‘Honeysuckle’ and ‘Hygge’ particularly. Can you say more about this?
DN: Oh, it’s a huge topic, ha ha. I chose seven female protagonists and seven male protagonists for this book. Keep it fair! And it became quite interesting to see how voices and memories changed – or didn’t change – due to different genders. I’m always interested in the power dynamics between people in my writing, and therefore of course also between genders. Who deposits the responsibility of the relationship? And where is this responsibility deposited? And who steals the power. Who easily takes on the role of underdog? It’s very interesting. I believe the male protagonist in ‘Honeysuckle’ might be the nastiest bloke I’ve ever written. But even this horrible man is struggling with the burdens of past experiences. Even he is very far from being a “free” human being. He’s stuck in structures that were handed down to him. No matter the gender of the characters, there’s always some kind of struggle going on over life lived in time.
LM: You’re critically acclaimed at home in Denmark, and also around the world, what is it like being published internationally? Any anecdotes about the translation process, or from the book tours you do?
DN: It’s such a privilege to be published internationally. I get to have my books read through the lenses of different literary traditions – and still talk about the essential themes. I meet other cultures, I see the world, I’m a lucky little bastard. Right now, however, I’m in self-isolation because of the corona crisis. I miss having access to the world. Truly. Last year I did a smaller tour in the US and decided to travel between the different cities by train. That was amazing, I’m dreaming of a long book tour on a slow train! Books in the suitcase! Exotic languages! My notebook! Meeting other writers! Hanging out with readers and book people! One of the biggest experiences I’ve had was the 2017 Man Booker International Prize. I’ll never forget that (the centrepieces on the tables were huge!) – and I’ll never forget the e-mail I once received from George Saunders. What he wrote is a secret, but it didn’t only make my day. It made my year.