Interviewing the Norwegian author Per Petterson is like stepping inside one of his books: the conversation swings between the present and the past, his own experiences and those of loved ones. Themes that recur in his six translated novels and his collection of short stories—the reverberations of parents’ lives on their children’s, regrets over lost opportunities, time’s passing, mortality—frequently enter our conversation. Petterson speaks to me via Skype from his writing cottage on a farm 60 km east of Oslo (his hometown). He lives there with his wife, a kindergarten teacher, as well as a dog, a cat, sheep, cows, and hens.
Though Ashes in My Mouth, Sand in My Shoes, a collection of 10 short stories, is Petterson’s first published work (originally released in Norwegian by Forlaget Oktober in 1987), it was only recently translated into English, and it’s being published in the U.S. in April by Graywolf Press. I Refuse, originally published by Oktober in 2012, is also being released stateside in April. Graywolf, which published Petterson’s Out Stealing Horses, the winner of the IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007, has also published the U.S. editions of his other translated works, including To Siberia (2008), I Curse the River of Time (2010), and It’s Fine by Me (2012).
What a difference 25 years of living and writing makes. While the short stories in Ashes in My Mouth are riffs on incidents in the childhood of Arvid Jansen, Petterson’s fictional alter ego, who appears as an adult in three novels, I Refuse tells a darker, more mature story. Jim and Tommy meet by chance one morning on an Oslo bridge, and the story that unfolds is of the continuing reverberations of decisions made years earlier, when the two were like brothers. As in all of Petterson’s tales, one’s choices ripple for decades, touching families and friends, even an entire community.
“When I look back, I see the family in some form has been my thing,” Petterson says of his writing. “It wasn’t planned.” It’s also a favorite topic of his in conversation, especially with regard to his parents. While Petterson calls his mother “my hero,” describing her as an intellectual who voraciously read books that she borrowed from the library, his feelings about his father, an outdoors type who bought books that he never read, are more ambivalent—which may explain the fraught relationships between fathers and sons in Petterson’s novels.
Petterson’s parents died in the 1990 Scandinavian Star ferry disaster, along with his brother, a niece, and 155 other passengers. He says that if it hadn’t been for a last-minute decision to take a later ferry, he would have died, too. “Small things can change lives and make them spin off in a strange direction sometimes,” he notes. This real-life tragedy has echoes in a pivotal scene in I Refuse, when one such “small thing” happens while Tommy and Jim are ice-skating, altering their friendship and ultimately bringing them both many years later to that bridge in Oslo.
Petterson says that since his parents’ death, he’s been able to “write about stuff that [he] couldn’t write about before,” because his parents quietly disapproved of what he published during their lifetimes. They never mentioned Ashes in My Mouth to him, he says, except once, when his mother told him during a phone call that she hoped his next book wouldn’t “be that childish.”
“I thought, wow, what does that mean? But I could never ask her. One week later, she died,” Petterson recalls with a heavy sigh.
After disclosing that To Siberia, originally published in 1996, was based on his mother’s relationship with her brother, Petterson notes, “She would have killed me if I’d tried to write that book before. She wouldn’t have accepted that. But she was dead: I could do what I wanted.” Subsequently, Petterson published In the Wake in 2002, in which Arvid Jansen, contending with his father’s antipathy toward his ambition to be a writer, loses both parents in the Scandinavian Star fire.
“In the Wake is primarily about things being too late,” Petterson says. “I always thought that one day, I would talk to my father and I didn’t. Then he died, so I couldn’t. So I wrote this book.”
Petterson, who is now 62, wasn’t published until he was 35 years old, but he says that he decided to become a writer after reading Ernest Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories when he was 18. Petterson marveled at Hemingway’s ability to craft deceptively simple sentences and knew he “couldn’t be a happy person” unless he wrote.
But Petterson was also overcome with a fear of failure—so much so that he didn’t finish any of his early efforts. “I didn’t dare. What if it was really bad? Then I’d have to stop dreaming,” he confesses. To this day, he admits, he harbors the fear that he won’t be able to write another book. He’s barely worked on his latest project for three months, he says, because he’s “so afraid,” despite having written 100 pages, “90% of [which] is really good.”
Dropping out of university in Oslo in 1970 after one class, Petterson trained as a librarian for two years before taking a job in a factory. I Curse the River of Time is based on those years. “That’s more or less me,” he says.
Petterson expresses no regrets for leaving the factory after five years because it was “so exhausting.” Having such a job is “very good for a writer,” he says. “You’re down with it then, but afterwards you are glad to have gone through it so that you can write about it.”
Petterson became serious about writing after a customer at Oslo’s Tronsmo Bokhandel, a bookstore where Petterson worked for 12 years, urged him to stop talking about writing and do it. And upon publishing It’s Fine By Me in 1992, his Oktober editor suggested that Petterson quit his day job and devote himself to writing full-time. He laughs as he recalls asking how he would support himself. The editor responded, “That will solve itself.”
Petterson does not plan out his novels in advance. “I don’t have plots,” he declares. “I wish I could do it, but I don’t know how to.” His stories begin with a scene or “a very good sentence” that’s inspired by “a photograph, a record, a dream, a memory, or something someone tells me.” For instance, he says, I Refuse, which opens with a character fishing alone from a bridge, was inspired by a story he’d heard from a friend.
“Let’s send [Tommy] to the bridge,” Petterson explains about the first chapter, in which Tommy drives by in a Mercedes. “His window goes down. Why did he do that? I have to find out. Maybe it takes a whole book to find that out. I don’t have to construct a big plot or anything. Things happen and they have consequences, so you have to follow those consequences. You feel your way, and if [there] is substance to what you’re writing, then you know this is the right way.”
Petterson points out that writing, like life, is all about making choices. He says that whenever he considers whether to include a given scene in a book, he tells himself: “Put it in, just put it in: it will change the book, but you haven’t written that other book, so who cares.”