Masses in Balance
Gunnhild Øyehaug has often been compared to Lydia Davis—a tall order, but one that Øyehaug certainly fills. Her short story collection, Knots (FSG, July 2017), originally published in Norway in 2004, marks her English-language debut. Lively and solemn, hilarious and gloomy, Øyehaug’s prose prods at the complexity of human relationships from all angles: a man remains troublingly attached to his mother by umbilical cord through life and death, but still finds great love; beings from another planet struggle to communicate just like people, even though they talk through photographs; characters appear across stories and exchange sexual partners, all while God orchestrates and observes. Sometimes taking the form of stage directions and often featuring real-life figures like Maurice Blanchot and Arthur Rimbaud, Øyehaug’s work always surprises and delights.
We spoke in person, on a hot summer morning at the lovely Jane Hotel in New York City, and over email, about everything from healthcare to Monty Python, from the importance of prepositions to the practice of walking in the mountains.
Michelle Hogmire: I’m curious how this book came about, in terms of the translation process. Knots was originally published in 2004. Here we are in 2017, and we finally have the English edition. How did that happen?
Gunnhild Øyehaug: It’s not very unusual for translated books to come out much later. One of my favorite Norwegian writers, Dag Solstad, who’s been publishing books since 1969, has just recently been translated into English. But still, what happened was that Lydia Davis read my book. I know she has this project of learning the language where she’s being translated, so she can translate something back as a favor. She’s a genius—she learns languages without a dictionary. And she was determined to read Dag Solstad’s book about his ancestors from Telemark, but his book was quite monumental and a tough starting point.
Frode Saugestad, who initiated the Norwegian American Festival in Oslo and New York, invited Lydia Davis to Norway several times. He gave her some books by Norwegian writers that he appreciated, including Knots, and when she was going on a trip, she decided to bring my short stories. I suppose that was the starting point. She liked them, Saugestad told me in an email, which for me was quite absurd because I’m a very big fan of hers. My husband said it’s like if you were a guitarist, and then Keith Richards suddenly called and said, “I like your guitar playing.” It felt very wonderful.
MH: That’s a crazy story.
GØ: It is a crazy story! In a great, surreal way.
MH: What was it like working with a translator?
GØ: My translator, Kari Dickson, is very good and welcoming. She sent me the stories as she finished them, and I read through to see if anything felt off, and commented here and there, and she’d revise them, always improving my suggestions. For instance, I love the way she translated a particular sentence about a lonely deer who wants to break free from being a deer—my original sentence reads something like, translated clumsily word by word, “I feel trapped in a deer pattern.” She translated this into “I’m trapped in deerness.” I just love that. It’s so in tune with the book’s tone.
MH: That’s a good transition into talking about tone in the book. One of the things that impressed me, and that I enjoyed the most, was how your stories use language to explore the feeling of anxiety. Could you talk about that? Maybe it’s our current political moment, but when I was reading, I felt like you captured an anxious character’s thoughts incredibly well, what it’s like to be in that state.
GØ: And now we’re in that anxious state all the time. What does it feel like, being American these days? I’m very curious about that.
MH: I have friends who tell people they’re from Canada when they go abroad, because they just don’t want to acknowledge they’re from the US. I have a strange relationship with being American, because I’m living in the city now, but I’m from the South. I’m from a place that was a very Trump-supporting area. It’s funny, I was coming up with questions for you and I thought, “Oh, what’s it like to live somewhere where you have free health care?”
GØ: It strikes me as very different. The welfare system—free medical—is something that most Norwegians take for granted. And I pay my taxes happily, knowing what it provides. From my perspective, it’s crazy that you have to pay if you’re hospitalized with an injury, or if you’re going to give birth.
MH: I agree. And this plays back into my anxiety question, but what is the sense about the Trump administration where you are? What is the feeling?
GØ: Well, I think we feel the same as you guys do. I was very shocked, of course. But at the same time, I don’t see it as an isolated moment in history. We had the same thing in Norway four years ago, when our strong rightwing party went into government. I think that was, to many people, terrible for the Norwegian sense of self. And you see the same things happening around Europe. It’s a tense situation.
MH: How do you find the motivation to write through that? I feel like now in America, the question for writers involves the necessity of addressing this in some way in your work. Or writers are having difficulty working through it.
GØ: That’s hard to answer, really. I think it’s necessary for writers to be concerned politically, one way or another, but you can do that in so many ways. It takes time to reflect. For instance, we had the terror attacks at Utoya in 2011, which was a very devastating moment in Norwegian history. And then writers also thought, how can we continue to write after this? In some way, you feel like there’s no way you can keep writing without touching on the subject. But how can you do it through fiction?
Fiction feels, in the face of the event, like the wrong answer. But now, six years after, it’s becoming a theme in both poetry and novels, and I think several writers have really shown the way here, for how to treat such a theme in literature. But it takes time, I think, to find a way to write about it. I don’t really have an answer to that question, but it’s important to ask. And, as a writer, to ask yourself.
MH: I guess for me it’s a weird question because sometimes when I read work that’s too directly politically critical, it feels too moralistic in a sense. But I don’t want to say, “Moral lessons aren’t the point of fiction.”
GØ: All the same, I don’t think we have to just fall down into gloominess and desperation and fear and anxiety. Literature and fiction are also places where you can see complexity, beauty, and hope. Those will be my last words. (laughs)
MH: That’s true, even about your collection. Because so many of the stories in Knots have an element of darkness, but there’s also light.
GØ: I hope so. I’ve been asked many times: how do you use humor? And I don’t know. It’s not something I’m deliberate about.
MH: But some of it is so funny!
GØ: Thank you! But it’s not something I decide, like “Oh it’s too gloomy now, I have to put in some humorous element here.” It’s just a way of thinking and a way of writing, and it’s also a play of dynamics. If it’s very dark, you have to have some light. If not, the story is drowned in darkness to me. And if it’s very light, the story will fly away because there’s nothing to it, really. But I don’t like to talk about humor as a tool, because I do feel it’s inherent in something else, springs out of something else, and into something else.
To try to wind back to your original question, on how I use language to explore the state of anxiety, I would say that humor is one of the ways. I’m not sure the characters themselves would agree that their situation is particularly amusing, for instance the man going to IKEA in a state of desperation to buy blinds for his son, or the deer wanting to be seen. It’s a matter of getting into the material of the character’s mind or even the material of the point of view, but at the same time keeping a distance—to see from the inside out and from the outside in at the same time.
The dynamic between light and dark is also important in how I edit the texts, in terms of what’s going to follow. I put a lot of weight on getting the balance right. I’ve always been fascinated by a passage from To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf, when the artist Lily Briscoe talks about composing her pictures. She says that shadow here needs light there, and she realizes in a sudden insight that she has to put the tree in the painting further to the middle. And that’s been my guideline, really, for how to compose: I have to put the masses in the correct balance, and there has to be a center.
The humor is also there to relieve pain, I think. I’ve always been interested in tragic comedy. And I like slapstick humor, so I have nothing against that! I love Monty Python, and have probably been more influenced by their “And now for something completely different” than I can grasp fully.
MH: In the book there are a lot of people falling down or tripping and knocking things over. And it’s simultaneously funny, but also sad. A repeating theme that I loved involves a couple. One person in the couple thinks their partner wants to be with someone else, or suspects their partner is always thinking about someone else. That felt like such a real dynamic in a relationship, where two people are together, but there’s always anxiety about what the relationship means or concern about another person intruding. Is that other person in the room? Or outside the window? That felt like a good representation of anxiety.
GØ: Thank you, that’s a good observation. I do think of some of the stories as variations of one another. It’s the same couple with different faces, really. My initial idea, which doesn’t show in the book because I took it away, was to write one short story for each preposition, like under, over, etc. I was fascinated by how prepositions convey movement.
There’s a wonderful Danish writer, Inger Christensen, who wrote about prepositions. She said that, as a writer, you have to love prepositions because they keep your mind in the same movement as the world. And I felt like that was exactly what I was trying to do. I wanted to try to capture that movement you were talking about, between relationships. You want to stretch out and reach another person, and then that person reaches out to somebody else. In the story called “Oh, Life,” sex is described like musical chairs, or as a sort of relay where you’re switching partners. As if God arranges things so that you have to have sex all the time, you just push away one partner for another. That’s of course the most extreme version of the theme of human beings as entities in motion, in the physical dimension.
But then the idea of prepositions became too formal. I had to remove it because it was too stressful to continue; too constraining. But the notion of that movement was very important, both in terms of identity and the search for another human being, and also how the texts relate to one another.
MH: Another thing you mentioned was the focus on the physical body in your work, which I also loved. Your characters always felt like they were solidly in their bodies. They’re feeling awkward with their bodies, with physicality, or they’re falling or constantly being sexual. And the bodily movements felt mechanical, in and out. I guess that’s prepositions!
GØ: Yeah, that’s very true. There’s a painting by the Norwegian painter Edvard Munch, of course everyone knows “The Scream,” but there’s another picture that has always haunted me. Which I think was quite important when I wrote Knots. In the painting, you see a mass of people coming toward you, they are walking down a street. There’s just this grayish white mass of people, and their faces are basically variations of “The Scream.” And that to me is anxiety, the idea that people are just bodies, and they don’t have unique singular features. The bodies and faces are abstract.
MH: Right, your bodies aren’t particularly described. When you take writing classes, your professor always says, “Now remember, your character is always a physical person with a body! Don’t lose sight of that. A character isn’t just thoughts. You have to think of this as an actual person taking up space, existing in space!” But sometimes it gets awkward when writing tips into so much physical description, but your work strikes a balance. It’s always very obvious that the person is in a body.
GØ: I think what I’m interested in is the body as a principle, maybe, to be very philosophical about it. But, yes, I always get those kinds of comments from my editor. For instance, when I was writing my novel which is coming out at FSG next year, Wait, Blink, I gave him the first draft, and I had decided that I would not have any bodies—they were just going to be minds and thoughts for the first half of the novel, and then gradually, in the second half, become physical entities with heads and hair and eyes and the normal stuff people are made of. He said, “Where are they?” And I said, “I don’t want them to be anywhere!” But then slowly I realized and accepted that it didn’t work the way I’d planned, and I had to transform that. The process was very funny, because I was kind of hitting my way through when I was writing, “Here you go, here’s her childhood” and “Here you go, she looks exactly like THIS,” and I actually think that shows in the style.
I’m not very good with either plot or characterization, but I do acknowledge the need for it. But I do hope there’s a way around it, also. (laughs) Maybe I haven’t found it yet. But in Knots, for instance, in the last short story, “Two by Two,” which is about this triangular relationship, the man reflects and thinks about himself as merely muscles and teeth—a skeleton. He thinks about himself as an x-ray. Maybe that reflects my view of these characters. I’m kind of x-raying them, and they’re appearing as bodies, but what I’m really interested in are their inner bones.
MH: That is an important question about writing: if you’re resistant to traditional characterization and plotting, how do you get around that?
GØ: That’s something I like about short stories; it’s easier to get around traditions. I think some of my short stories in this collection are quite classical narrative short stories, and I can recognize them as a genre. But then some of them are very short, in America you call it flash fiction, I’ve learned. They don’t have that short story outline. You’re more bound to plot in a novel. But writing a novel was an interesting learning process for me—figuring out how to move within a set structure without being overwhelmed by it.
MH: It’s the whole “Learning the rules in order to break them” idea. So why are you resistant to traditional characterizations and plot? I am too, but I don’t know how to answer that question. I think someone else should answer it!
GØ: Because, truthfully, I think it’s boring. I’m very skeptical. If a text says, “It was raining and she was walking down the street,” then I think, how do we know that? Why should I just accept that? Who am I as a writer to just claim these things? I solved that in my novel by using a “we” narrator, kind of an academic “We,” who just portrays the characters through her own vision, which I felt made it okay.
I decided to become a writer when I was quite young. And it was extremely important to me to know that what I had written was completely 100% mine and that I was original, because if not, there wouldn’t be any point, just to repeat what anyone else had written.
MH: That’s a lot of pressure!
GØ: And then I decided not to read anything, just to make sure that I was 100% original, which is, of course, very stupid. Eventually, I figured out there was no way around reading for me, because I wanted to study literature. So I had to read the classics. After a year of study, I just realized how stupid I’d been. And that everything that I had planned and thought that I would write was already written, because you see I’m a genius so…(laughs) Of course, I’m just kidding, but it was a year of shock and revelation to me.
I think I’m trying to explain why I hate structures that claim, “You’re supposed to do this or you’re supposed to do that,” and why I have this extreme sense that I want to do something else. There’s maybe a little psychological explanation, too.
MH: You just touched on this a little bit, discussing how you decided you wanted to be a writer when you were really young. Could you share either a moment or a person or a story—something from your past—that made you want to be a writer? Something that stands out to you in that regard, about realizing that’s what you wanted to do?
GØ: I think I’m going to have to give two answers to that one. I learned to read when I was four, and I started to write a diary when I was six. And I don’t think I decided when I was six that I was going to be a completely original writer, you know, but I realized quite early that I liked to write—that it gave me joy to write. It’s very funny to read that diary. It’s little short lines. For instance, I wrote, “I can see my uncle. He’s carrying a very heavy box.” Stop. Or “My great-uncle had a pacemaker operation today.” Stop. Or “I’m learning to ride a bicycle. It’s very difficult to get my feet on the peddles.” Stop. That sort of stuff.
I started writing poetry, also short, and I always ended my poems with a comment: “Nice poem.” Because I had an older cousin who started school one year ahead of me. And I was very envious of her, because when she’d show me her homework, it always said, “Nice work.” So I thought, “OK, I’ll be my own teacher and say, ‘Nice Poem.’” Just applauding myself. That’s probably why I became a writer—because I got so much applause from myself. (laughs)
I’ve always used language and writing as a way of playing and having fun. But I do remember one particular moment that showed me what a text could be. My younger brother, who is also a writer and a musician, one day he said, “You really have to come here and see this.” And he took me into my parents’ study room and showed me a very thick book written by the poet Jan Erik Vold, who was one of the people who introduced beat poetry to Norwegian readers. I remember reading a poem with my brother and just laughing because we thought it was so pointless and wonderful—wonderful because it was so pointless. Because at that time I was used to reading Ibsen and interpreting symbolism and I was so tired of it. Something like, in translation: “Are there stones in heaven? Yes, there is one. It’s flat. And on it sits Tarjei (which is the name of one of Norway’s most wonderful writers—Tarjei Vesaas). He listens. He smiles. We have to write good poems.” That’s the end of it! The feeling of intense freedom and play was decisive. I’m sure you’ve had one of those moments—when you read something and it liberates you from everything you ever thought a text should be. That was the moment for me.
MH: How do you maintain that sense of play and enjoyment while writing, as an adult?
GØ: I don’t think it’s something I maintain. I think it’s the reason why I write. And of course, it’s also by reading new material. For instance, I recently read Joy Williams’s Ninety-nine Stories of God, which was just a revelation.
MH: This relates to another question I was going to ask, which is what kind of writing excites you now?
GØ: Well she [Joy Williams] is one and Lydia Davis is another. And J.M. Coetzee’s novels. If there’s a literary Superman, I think it would be him. He can do anything. I love Jenny Offill. And I read poetry. I love Sharon Olds and Anne Carson. I don’t know if there’s a common denominator in all of those, but they’re very good I suppose. (laughs) Brilliant, actually. I think I’m drawn to writers who are, for instance in the case of Lydia Davis, concerned with the sentence itself as a very tiny structure of narration. I like that. And that’s definitely also the case with Joy Williams’s Ninety-nine Stories. And also a couple of Norwegian writers, and Swedish and Danish, the list could go on and on.
MH: Who would you say your literary heroes are, big figures who influenced you? Whether it’s someone current or an older author who was fundamental?
GØ: Well, I always feel very embarrassed when I mention my literary heroes because it’s like I’m putting on a badge that says, “I am inspired by Flaubert, and Kafka, and Joyce.” And another badge “Oh, I’m also inspired by Davis.” But I suppose it was crucial to read Madame Bovary because I think I learned about style. I love this sentence that Flaubert wrote in a letter to his mistress. He said, “When will all the farts be written from the point of view of a superior farce, that's to say, as the good God sees them, from on high.” And I love that because it says so much about perspective and trying to write and having that kind of distance, while at the same time trying to be as close to your characters’ feelings of desperation or whatever it is that they’re going through. But at the same time you can zoom out. So that book was very important, and also Virginia Woolf. I think she is probably the goddess in my universe.
MH: What are you working on now, if you want to talk about it?
GØ: I can say what I’ve just finished! I’ve just published a very small book of essays. It’s called Miniature Readings, which is nineteen small texts, where I read small passages from other work, other books. It came out in June. And I’ve also written a script for a short movie that’s been produced and will premiere in the autumn. But what I’m working on now is something that I really can’t talk about. Because I always feel like I destroy what I’m writing if I talk about it. I only have like 40 pages or so.
MH: So many people say that.
GØ: But some people never have that problem! They can tell you what they’re writing about. I’ve read interviews with writers and they’re saying, “Oh I’m writing about nuclear disaster and I’m doing a research trip.” I would never do that. I never know when I’m writing if I’m going to be able to finish it. And I never know if I’m going to stick to my theme or if it’s going to change. In my experience, I feel like I’m…are you used to walking in the mountains?
MH: Yes, when I was young! I grew up in a rural place.
GØ: Me too. I grew up in the northwest of Norway where there’s a lot of mountains. And I always feel like I’m walking in the mountains when I’m writing. You think, “I can see the top now,” but then you’re looking on and you realize, “Oh no it’s just a hill.” So you keep going, and you think, “I’m here now,” but no, you’re not. Because the mountain you set out to reach is still so far away. I think there was one writer who said that, I don’t remember his name, whoever he was, but I love what he said about writing a novel: to write a novel is to set a goal and then go there in your sleep. That’s very descriptive of how it is, to me. I know writers who like to have these outlines, but I don’t like to decide what’s going to happen. It takes all the fun out of it. And if I talked about it, I’m afraid I’ll wake up.
MH: Do you feel like you have to write, in order to figure out what you’re writing about?
GØ: Yes, very much so. Language is a fascinating tool. Entering into language is entering into a room where you think you know everything, and that you’re in control of, but which turns out to be a room of mirrors. Words come with luggage, and suddenly, put together in a sentence, words will start reflecting other meanings than you had intended, and you’re set off in a different direction. And there is also so much echo in narrating, if you for instance have used the word “flower,” you hear, in the back of your brain “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” or you hear a poem of Ted Hughes about poppies, or you see a color in a flower painting by Georgia O’ Keefe, or you remember a garden you visited when you were a child, and that, I think, is one of the most wonderful things about writing, when your text makes a surprising loop into a different field just because you’ve used a certain word or a certain phrase.
I like writing through other people’s language too, for instance in Knots, there is a text about Arthur Rimbaud, and that is inspired by a text I found on the internet on Arseny Tarkovsky, Andrei Tarkovsky’s father. It was called “My hero Arseny Tarkovsky” and was written by a young, Russian schoolboy, and I loved the simple and direct and school-like way of writing. I borrowed his style, so to speak. It was very amusing.
MH: This is a question I really like, and it’s my second to last question: if you could change anything about publishing, what would it be? My day job is in the publishing industry, and then I have my writing. And for me those are two incredibly different things. So what would you change about the process through which your work comes out into the world?
GØ: Well, the one thing I’m not so happy about is having to talk about my work, like I’m doing now. Because I think I always destroy it when I try to talk about it. I’m sorry, but that’s just the way I feel!
MH: No, that’s a good answer!
GØ: I write because I really don’t like to talk about these things. You know, my Norwegian hero Dag Solstad, he tends to say, “Oh no, but it’s in the book. You can read the book.” It’s a bit rude, but very inspirational.
MH: Last, a sort of cheesy question: what advice do you have for writers just starting out? What would you say to your students?
GØ: Read! Don’t do what I did. And also, don’t quit. It takes a little while to get noticed. Be prepared to do several revisions. Don’t be crushed by the response from your editor or your publisher. It’s very tough, and I think it’s like that for anybody who starts to write. So that would be my advice: read and don’t give up.