Knausgård’s Welcome to America (World Editions, Sept.) is the story of a girl who stops speaking after her prayer for her father to die comes true.
You’re working in a shorter form, about 120 pages. What advantages do you find in this length?
Well, to this time, I seem to only have this short form inside me. It makes the language compact, rhythmical. I have never written anything long in my life. If you write a big novel, the language would have to spread out more. Maybe it's because I come from poetry.
And what inspired the plot of Welcome to America?
Like Ellen, I followed my mother to the theater almost every night when I was a child. I started as a four-year-old. Some critics in Sweden called this book a chamber play. And the inspiration for this book is my mother, and this huge apartment that we lived in that I'm missing, always. The lost paradise. One day I wrote the first sentence, and the book came quite easily after that. Ellen, who is me, became completely silent, and my brother just stayed in his room, and then I put in a stage for it: this apartment.
My mom's a dance critic, so I had to go to a lot of modern dance when I was a child, and there is something about seeing those things every single night—it changes how your mind works.
Yes, absolutely. I started to fantasize. I had this grand imagination, and I was writing my own plays in my head while I was sitting there. When I wrote this book, I longed for this time, and I was even longing after my father. He was much like the father in this book. Sort of violent and scary and horrifying. But also a very nice man, when he was at his best.
I was intrigued by how you dealt with having a silent lead character. When she's standing in the corner of the kitchen, she's almost like a narrator in a novel who's not even in the scene.
Yes. That's well put. When I was a child, I used non-speaking sometimes as a weapon, when I was angry with my mother, but it didn't last for more than a few days. I discovered it was a very good way to get power over her. Because they were always so worried about me: "What can I do for you?" "Are you good now?" and "Please don't do that."
I was wondering if your experience with writing radio plays informed your process?
Yeah, maybe, because I did almost three years in a radio documentary school, and those were the best years of my life, because I had to learn everything: how to cut, and Pro Tools, and to really learn to interview. That school changed a lot for me. Because I had writer's block. It was 13 years between my first book and my second. But in that school, you were constantly working with others, and it took my writer's block away, because it wasn't that dangerous to do something. It didn’t have to be so good. I did a radio documentary: I Could Be the President of the United States. It was about my first contact with bipolar disorder. I interviewed the doctors, my friends, my mother, and it taught me a great deal about writing. The whole school was about narrative. I don't do radio much now, and I miss it. I really miss it.
You touched on bipolar disorder—I was struck when reading your earlier book, The Helios Saga, by your depiction of psychiatric hospitals. Bipolar disorder, which is very present in Welcome to America, and other kinds of mental illnesses are so often invisible and misunderstood. I was moved to see you take it on and explore it from within.
It became very natural for me, because I lived it with my father being many different persons. And I was never ashamed of him. Mental illness has been in my blood since I was a baby. I had to write about my father, absolutely. And now I'm a little bit critical of myself because I didn’t write about him when everything was fine. But it's not in the story.
But there are little moments of his in the novel that are very beautiful.
I'm glad you said that.
Welcome to America and The Helios Disaster are similar in some ways. They both deal with mental illness; they both have a religious backdrop. Dd you find yourself consciously making connections between those two books? Or thinking of them as totally separate projects?
I definitely think about them as totally different books. But they both have this young girl as the biggest character. And they both have silence as a theme. In The Helios Disaster, shock and deep depression is why she doesn't speak. And then in Welcome to America, it's the big, strong decision she makes to be silent. As a child, I was really inspired by Greek mythology. When I was small, they had Greek mythology plays. My mother saw that I really loved them. So, she gave me a book of Greek mythology—not for children—and I fell in love with the tale of Athena. I used to just look at her picture, almost every day. She was my favorite. I felt like I was similar to her because I was my father's daughter, more than my mother's daughter. Both my parents are from the north in Sweden. It's so much snow, so much darkness. I brought that story of Athena into this small village community.
Then, in Welcome to America, it's not so tangible, but the child has a dark relationship with God. She thinks she has willed her father to die.
Yes. And she really thinks that. I don't believe in God, but when I was a child, I actually prayed to God to kill my father, because sometimes he was so scary, and I was afraid that my mother would die, and then everything would be total chaos. Welcome to America's not a self-biography, but almost everything in it happened in real life. So, for instance, one day he opened the gas. We'd come home from a trip. It was like he had destroyed everything. So, I know the characters. The mother, the father. Ellen's a little bit different. She's stronger than I was.
I thought the moment when she writes in her notebook about the fire at school was fabulous. And then the way the book doesn't linger in that hope of communication too long, but turns back towards the darkness of her silence.
Fire is something fascinating. It’s violent and beautiful. The fire itself was something Ellen really wanted to tell her mother, so she just did it, like from the force of the fire. She had it in herself and wrote it, and the mother is so thankful. So happy. Now everything's different, she thinks. Because when you see something burn down, in reality, it’s like you're in a fiction. When the barn burns down, it's so beautiful. It's the landscape mixed with fire, and it does something with you. It changes something.