With Per Petterson | The Interview

The importance of being silent

By Anna Mundow
November 30, 2008
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"Over the sea in the east the weather that has passed lies in a dark line at the far end of the world and it is warm now and a big sky rises like a film of blue over the whole of Denmark and behind it no one knows what there is."

Per Petterson, best known for last year's novel "Out Stealing Horses," can paint a landscape in a single sentence and compress a saga into a couple of hundred pages. His near-perfect new novel, "To Siberia" (Graywolf, $22), is the story of a brother and sister in rural Denmark whose lives are transformed, first by the suicide of their grandfather, then by the Nazi occupation.

Petterson spoke from his home in Norway.

Q. Do you think of yourself as a Norwegian writer?

A. I do consider myself a Norwegian writer, or a Scandinavian writer, as my family tree reaches into both Denmark and Sweden. I don't think about it, of course, when I am writing. I admire American literature, both contemporary and classic - "Moby-Dick" is just about the best book in the world - and I admire British literature for its insistence on dealing with social class. It may have been an influence.

Q. How does translation affect your writing?

A. I have few problems with English, the tone of it, the nuances, and I know how my books should not sound when translated. When a translation is very good, it is fascinating to see how the book changes and yet stays the same. I think "Out Stealing Horses" sounds more American for Americans than it does in Norway, and still, it is all there, everything that I wrote. It's amazing.

Q. In your novels, do you describe rather than explain?

A. I think in scenes, and I follow them where they take me, which might be somewhere surprising. But the sentences go where they go. Wasn't it Picasso who said something like "If you know exactly where you're going, what's the point in going there?"

Q. Your descriptions are wonderfully plain, almost stark. Do you pare them down in editing?

A. To tell you the truth, I don't edit much at all. Most times, when I have finished the first draft, that's the book. Of course I work on the page I am on until I am happy with it. I might even say that I try to state the landscape. As it is. Not evaluate it (calling it "wonderful," for instance). It's an illusion, of course; you can't simply state the landscape. But you can try.

Q. Your novels are filled with silences - on the land, between characters. Is that deliberate?

A. Well, this is Norway, we have a lot of space per person, and between us there is a lot of silence. My characters are not talking heads, I agree. I think dialogue is overrated in fiction. What we do not say to each other outweighs what we actually say, and I think fiction should reflect that.

Q. Is "To Siberia" a political novel?

A. I don't know. I haven't thought about it. It is anti-fascist, of course. It might be a little feministic, the way I tell the story about a strong woman who ends up where she does.

Q. Did you have a fictional model in mind for her?

A. Not fictional. She is a little like my mother as I tried to imagine her before my birth. But I had no way of knowing that, no witnesses of significance; she was dead before I wrote the book, and so was my father. So she turned out to be a product of my imagination. It was very interesting to write in the first person about a woman. I didn't find it that difficult.

Q. Did you research the war and the occupation of Denmark?

A. I did. But if you are of my generation - I was born in 1952 - your parents lived through the occupation, were part of the resistance, perhaps, or just tried to make their way and were observers. We have heard the stories, over and over again. And for a novelist those stories are far more important than research that can bog you down. Just don't make any mistakes, because they will get you.

Q. What do you say to readers who find your work "desolate"?

A. I don't know what I could say. It is not a word that I would use myself. This goes back to your earlier question about descriptions. Someone asked me once why I use the ocean in "To Siberia" as a symbol, an image, what it really meant. But I don't use it as a symbol or an image. It is simply there. And when a character each day watches the ocean, because it is there, that person will not be the same as if she grew up in Brooklyn or on the steppes of Mongolia. It sounds like an obvious thing. And it is. But it is very difficult to describe it, to state it, in a novel if you don't want to explain it.

Anna Mundow, a freelance journalist living in Central Massachusetts, is a correspondent for the Irish Times. She can be reached via e-mail at

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