If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.
To Americans, Scandinavian literature in recent years has been synonymous with crime novels. Incidentally, the popularity of books such as The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo introduced fiction in translation to thousands of readers who might not have otherwise encountered it. Writer Dorthe Nors found herself translating these novels before going on to publish her own work—fiction which is playful and dark in turn. But where Scandinavian crime fiction employs psychological strategy to probe a wide range of human depravity within the genre, Nors in no way conforms to this or any other literary standard. She experiments with form as a means to explore the rich inner lives of her characters. There’s great humor and unflinching pathos in her examination of modern life in all of its absurdity and loneliness. She skewers our relentless need to be connected. Her story collection Karate Chop was published in 2014, and a collection of her novellas, So Much for That Winter, is now available from Graywolf Books.
Lauren LeBlanc What brought you to the eloquent, sparse prose style in So Much for That Winter? Was there an incident or situation that lead you to play with the short-story form?
Dorthe Nors The two stories were published in Denmark as independent books. I wrote Days first, and then Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. They belong to an era when I found conceptual writing incredibly entertaining. Giving myself rules to write by was a way of forcing my language to take new directions. It also encouraged me to elaborate on new themes and formal aspects. How do you write a story in a formally interesting way without having the form overshadow the content, for instance? I loved to work with that problem.
Days was a strange project. For 100 days I would write a list every night, and I would post it directly on the Internet. I didn’t allow myself to use more than an hour on each text, and then zap, into the world it went. The project got a lot of readers. Then after 100 days I stopped, printed out the lists, and locked myself up with them in a little cottage in a forest far away from Copenhagen. I edited, rewrote, twisted and turned the lists, and ended up with these 39 days that together make a fictional story about spring, heartbreak, and fighting for visibility.
LL Was there anything about the content itself that lead to this condensed prose style?
DN Minna Needs Rehearsal Space had its point of departure in some very satirical, ironic, almost morose poems I made using only the Facebook update style. I was trying to express how difficult it was to show narrative depth if you’re only allowed to write in headlines. But suddenly it hit me:
1. It was incredibly funny only writing in headlines
2. Minna was a wonderful character to work with
3. Could it be possible to write a profound, deep, complex story using only headlines?
I plunged myself into the writing like a mermaid plunges herself into the sea. It was like playing a game with myself, the text, and Minna—and the reader.
LL In so many ways, you’ve distilled these fictional situations into the essence of what it means to be alienated or frustrated as a woman who is no longer young while not yet old. Writers such as Maggie Nelson have applied this thoughtful eye to explore topics such as gender, motherhood, sexuality, and death in nonfiction. What’s it about this form that allows you to get to the heart of emotion?
DN They’re about women on the brink of becoming invisible. In the no-man’s-land (no pun intended) between being a younger woman and a woman with no particular purpose, these women struggle to find their essence. I do think the distilled form of these texts prove very useful. These women are fighting for their voices to be heard, and the poetic, concentrated, and vocal form add to this theme. These texts are clearly protesting against “toning it down,” and “toning it down” is what many middle-aged and older women are often told they should do.
LL You inject this sense of humor and optimism into the work:
Minna’s heading away from what hurts.
No one’s going to inflict any more damage, Minna thinks.
Everything’s going to get sorted, Minna thinks, because
Minna wants to grow an asshole filter.
Minna thinks she can grow it quickly.
Minna’s broken heart dwells in the breast of an optimist.
Would you call this darker humor a coping mechanism, or is there something larger about seeking joy and humor during bleak times in one’s life?
DN There’s no doubt a good deal of coping mechanism in this, but more than anything it’s the way I see the world. The most hilarious things are found in the middle of grief and sorrow, and vice versa. Books that don’t engage the reader on an emotional level have a hard time staying with them, and if I want the reader to cry a little bit—and I do!—I also want them to laugh. The part of our brains where crying is controlled is also controlling laughter, and that’s why crying sometimes transforms into laughter, and why laughter often ends up in a good cry.
LL You’ve spoken about writing in headlines because “that’s how we communicate now,” but could you elaborate on how the shift in communication has affected your writing? What do you feel was the tipping point?
DN Again, the starting point for Minna Needs Rehearsal Spacewas a concern about how language has to restrain itself in modern communication. If you want to be heard on the social media—or in the press—you better learn to express yourself clearly. Nobody wants to read a Facebook update that rambles on and on. If you want to be read, write short and precise. That goes well with my writing style, but outside the writer’s lab I’m not sure it’s good for humanity and democracy.
What I set out to do was try and figure out how much depth, complexity, and emotion could be compressed into one liners. There’s no doubt the way we communicate on the social media has an impact on how language works, and Minna Needs Rehearsal Space was a way of exploring that change—while having fun. I think, however, it’s important to work with these linguistic changes in somewhat known forms. I’ve seen too many text-message novels, literature installations—and the worst thing I could imagine would be a “literature app.” It doesn’t make good literature. It just turns literature into a gimmick. Good writing, I think, incorporates linguistic changes in a recognizable form.
LL How do you use social media? And do you prefer text to telephone?
DN I’ve hardly ever met a writer who likes the telephone. The worst thing you can do to me in everyday life is call me up and start going on about your business. Also, I can postpone a phone call I have to make for days. I’d much rather text someone or email them. Why do many writers hate the telephone? It’s a puzzle. To me, it’s the blunt interruption and that the communication is faceless and yet very intimate.
I’m on Facebook and have a public profile. I’m also on Twitter, but still don’t understand how it works. Even though I have a public profile, I’m very aware of Facebook being a public platform for my writing and not a platform for my personal life. The other day I posted a photo of my garden (not of my house itself, not my house, never my house!), but the garden, and I had a strong urge to delete the photo. It was too private. So, all in all, social media is a professional tool for me.
LL This one passage dealing with Facebook struck me as a sharp commentary on the passive ways that people give up on one another in our society.
The unfriendings provide no relief.
Minna’s been unfriended herself.
The pain of being unfriended is unbearable…
Minna wants to be a human being, but
What does it mean to be expunged or expunge others in today’s society? Is this indirect abandonment more painful than direct confrontation?
DN If we’re not engaged in each other’s lives on a personal—and physical—level, it seems that many have a hard time experiencing other people as real. Deleting another human being—excluding them from a social sphere—can of course be necessary. It can also just be cruel.
Social media scares me, because it reveals the worst sides of what personal disconnection can do to people—and to democracy—but it’s also a reservoir of things to study when it comes to human behavior (and I love to study human behavior). I fear, however, that the awareness of always being read and watched when you express yourself cultivates a certain way of writing that is balancing on a weird edge between the naked and the armored. I do think Minna Needs Rehearsal Space and Days is also addressing and mirroring how we deal with that strange balance.
LL Could you talk about Minna’s work as a musician? How did you choose to give her this occupation? Does it inform the way she looks at relationships and work?
DN I needed to give her a job where “toning it down” wasn’t an option. Also, there’s this strong feminine relationship to the mermaid—an icon in Danish literature because of Hans Christian Andersen. The mermaid is a female creative force that manifests itself through music. While writing this book I often experienced it as a piece of vocal music.
LL There’s a moment where Minna reflects,
The song unites as it fades.
That’s not enough for Minna.
DN ”The song unites as it fades” is a line from an old Danish song that is often sung in Danish high schools, so it’s a very traditional. And “Minna is a tad avant-garde,” as it says in the beginning of the story. She doesn’t want to sing the songs that others have sung so many times because they have been emptied of content. Minna needs a rehearsal space, right? A place where she can cook up something else, something new.
LL Minna’s family is no source of solace, and she grows increasingly frustrated with her friends, yet clings to the idea of Lars [her ex-boyfriend]. How does one find satisfaction in relationships when they exist on a largely virtual realm? What is it about finding space for one’s self that is so crucial to Minna and people like her? Is this unique for women, or do you feel that men experience this as acutely as women do?
DN Society expects a man to be with a woman, and a woman to be on the lookout for a man. Constantly. The Man is part of the format we as women are taught to look for. But Minna is torn between the traditional way of conceiving female life and the life she really wants to live. The latter calls for a rehearsal space, i.e. a room where she can elaborate, express, experiment, and become who she wants to be, without being controlled by others. In this story, the search for the rehearsal space is the search for a Self liberated from what The Others and Tradition expects of womanhood. I won’t reveal how Minna Needs Rehearsal Spaceends, but pay attention to what it is that Minna scores in the end. Nudge, nudge, say no more.
I do think “a room of one’s own”—thanks Virginia Woolf—is crucial to people, men or women. It’s just that the suppression that women have been dealing with throughout history, and are still dealing with, calls for an ongoing struggle for the right to have one.
LL Days reminded me so profoundly of what I call “gratitude journals,” where one makes lists of the day’s most positive things or experiences in order to find meaning or happiness. While these self-help exercises feel overwrought, there’s satisfaction to be found in committing words to paper while struggling with, say, depression or great sadness. What about self-help models interests you? Are there other ways you considered telling this story?
DN We don’t have gratitude journals in Denmark, I think, and I don’t recall having “self-help” as a motor for this book. I was more toying with the attempt to spill over all the time. Breaking silence, being heard. The protagonist tries to contain herself in a firm and well structured form (the lists), but just like spring itself she spills over. The lists fall apart, they grow wild, they’re attacked from within by memories and longings, and she is—like nature around her—unable to contain herself in a fixed form. In a situation where she could just as easily disappear, she overflows.
It’s also important to add that she has lost someone she thought she was going to build a future with, and loss of love is the loss of being seen and noted as a special being in the world. The woman in Days fights that invisibility by tearing her lists apart every day, i.e.: on one hand the need to control the situation, on the other hand the need to let everything—life!—take its own course.
LL You say “a bird that doesn’t fly is no longer a bird,” and yet you subvert what we think of as a novella. How does this line speak to the condition of modern loneliness? In a world that praises innovation, why do we still conform to the same expectations?
DN If a bird has had its wings clipped, it has been violated and stripped from its essence. A bird without the freedom to take flight is no longer in sync with what makes it a bird. I also think this line refers to the sense of losing your right to be a woman in the world when you grow older. “A woman that is no longer young is no longer a woman.” There’s another line that resembles it in the book, actually one of my personal favorites: “A red elephant is still an elephant.” So why is this different? It is because the adjective here hasn’t anything to do with the essence of the elephant. The adjective is just something we put in front of beings or places to tie them to the ground or lift them to the sky. “An old woman is still a woman.”
But I do write a lot about isolated people. Part of it is due to urbanism. Big cities make us struggle with true connections to others. It’s also the person-on-a-threshold-situation that I love so much to describe, because I enjoy visiting characters in their inner selves. I listen to their monologues. And in there—in our secret chamber before anything is verbalized and shared—we are always alone.
LL Here, too, you work toward optimism in the face of honest pessimism, or what some might call “reality,” when you say “I sang because no one would be able to hear me anyway in all the happiness.” And again here:
10. and keep going, because it’s important
11. and keep going, because it’s alive
12. and keep going, because that’s what she believes
13. and that’s the way the future is,
14. keep going, because she loves it (I love it)
15. and keep going when she can’t do anything else (I dare to)
16. and keep going, because that’s the whole idea.
17. That’s the whole idea.
What is “the whole idea?” What is the heroine struggling to come to terms with in this novella?
DN I don’t know what she’s trying to come to terms with besides sticking to it and insisting on life and creation itself. This excerpt you’ve chosen is about not being scared of expressing yourself and about working up the courage to let people see you like you are. Live life when it feels good, when it feels bad, when it feels boring, when it feels like too much, no matter what, just keep going on. That is the whole idea. Isn’t it?
LL Ultimately, the heroine states:
11. and I felt humbled,
12. I felt listened to
13. and loved beneath the surface,
14. and bore in mind the thought that for God, a gravestone is just a scrap to make notes upon, the way the rest of us write our small concerns on the papers on the desk,
15. and one thing is inescapable: I write
She writes herself into existence. As a writer, but also as an individual, do you feel a certain kinship with this logic?
DN Oh, yes! Of course I do. Writing is at the core of who I am and who I have become. Apart from being a woman I consider writing the most essential part of my identity. But in this text it could have been something else. Had the main character been a nurse, it would have been: and one thing is inescapable: I nurse!
A native New Orleanian, Lauren LeBlanc is a nonfiction senior editor at Guernica magazine and a freelance book editor based in Brooklyn. She writes criticism for Electric Literature and The Minneapolis Star-Tribune. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle, Brooklyn Book Festival’s nonfiction committee and PEN’s membership committee. Follow her on Twitter @lequincampe.
If the soul and the ego were objects we could look at, the soul would be a translucent heart beating.