Thursday, September 30, 2010

Reading Beyond Our Borders: A Few Fresh Voices from Overseas

On this, International Translation Day, we have a timely post by guest blogger Tim Handorf. Take it away, Tim.

For whatever reason, we Americans have a tendency to stick to American music, American news sources, and, as I've found out by asking fellow writers about their reading material, American writers. There is, of course, no shortage of writing talent in America, and we have a rich literary tradition from which to draw inspiration.

Still, as writers, it behooves us to keep abreast of what's going on in the rest of the world. Different languages and cultural traditions enable different modes of expression, and so reading international authors helps diversify our pool of creative inspiration.  The following are a few contemporary authors who've gained an international reputation but who have not reached as many American audiences.

Although Believer Magazine helped to popularize Houellebecq in America, the French writer is still not as well-known as he is in European circles. Houellebecq has written several novels, The Possibility of an Island being his most recently translated title. In his novels, Houellebecq often explores the intersection of contemporary human sexuality and our free-market, globalized economy.

Although Lyudmila Petrushevskaya has been a firmly established contemporary voice in Russia for several decades, she was only recently rendered widely accessible to English speakers with the American publication of her short story collection, There Once Lived a Woman Who Tried to Kill Her Neighbor's Baby. Her bleak characters and mystical stories offer a fascinating insight into post-Soviet life.

Orhan Pamuk is Turkey's most noted contemporary author. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2006, Pamuk has written several novels, his most recent being The Museum of Innocence. Pamuk’s works are an interesting exploration of love, loss, alienation, and Turkey's historical East-West identity conflict.

Marias is a contemporary Spanish author whose works are noted for their exquisite lyricism, dark humor, and intelligent plots. His most recent novel trilogy, Your Face Tomorrow, is considered his most ambitious literary project. The Observer noted, "Your Face Tomorrow is already being compared to Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu, and rightly so."

These are just a few writers on the international scene who may not be as widely recognized among American readers. To get a glimpse of what's going on the wider world of literature, give these guys a shot. Reading international literary journals and magazines are also good places to start if you're looking to give your reading material a more cosmopolitan flavor.

Tim Handorf writes on the topics of online colleges. He welcomes your comments at his e-mail Id: 

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

An Interview with Translator Christopher Burawa

Christopher Burawa is a poet and translator. His book of poems, The Small Mystery of Lapses, was published by Cleveland State University Press in 2006. His translations of contemporary Icelandic poet Jóhann Hjálmarsson won the 2005 Toad Press International Chapbook Competition, and was published as Of the Same Mind in 2006. He was awarded a MacDowell Colony fellowship in 2003, and a 2006 Witter Bynner Translation Residency at the Santa Fe Art Institute, a 2007 Literature Fellowship for Translation from the National Endowment for the Arts, and most recently a 2008 American-Scandinavian Foundation Creative Writing Fellowship. He is the Director of the Center of Excellence for the Creative Arts at Austin Peay University in Clarksville, TN.

Since September 30 is International Translation Day, I thought it was fair to post this interview today. I admire Burawa's translations of Jóhann Hjálmarsson in Of the Same Mind. Want to learn a lot about Icelandic language and literature? Keep reading.

Can you tell us a little about the Icelandic language? I’ve always understood it—perhaps wrongly—to be a “modern” version of Old Scandinavian? What’s its story?

Well, Icelandic, like Faroese and dialects still spoken in isolated areas of Western Norway, is a part of what are called the Northwestern Germanic languages. It is an inflected language, which means it has tense, mood, voice, aspect, person, number, gender, and case. I think some people believe that if you learn Old Norse you can learn modern Icelandic, and that’s just not the case. Learning Old Norse might helpful in beginning to learn Icelandic, but it’s not equivalent. In fact, one of the issues in education in Iceland today is that young people studying the sagas in school have difficulty reading them.

Icelandic spoken today can be argued to be a product of 19th-century pan-nationalism—that is, political in its origins, but with its morphology already in place. All promising Icelandic students up to that time—and those who excelled at the Latin School at Bessastaðir, now the president’s residence—were sent to Denmark to be educated in Copenhagen. Iceland had been a commonwealth of Denmark for centuries and as for any colony of the era, the Danish rule had a lot of influence on Icelandic culture, especially in Reykjavik. For example, my great grandmother spoke a pidgin of Icelandic and Danish, something that I imagine was quite common for people who were on the periphery of the ruling class. This was a time when well-off Icelanders dropped their patrilineal last names (i.e., if the father’s first name was Jón, his son’s last name would be Jónsson and his daughter, Jónsdóttir) and adopted the Danish form (following my previous example, Jensen).

Many people believe that Icelandic is a pure language and Icelanders have certainly been a part of that perception. Even before independence from Denmark, there were nineteenth century Icelandic patriots living and studying in Denmark who looked to the “golden age” of Icelandic history—the Saga Age—as a means of establishing Icelandic identity. Needless to say, no nationalist movement is effective without the propaganda of a golden age—a time that reflects the glory of that nation’s past. So these students published a journal, Ný félagsrit, or New Society’s Journal. I did some research on this publication as part of a research fellowship from the American-Scandinavian Foundation a few years ago. The articles in the journal cover a variety of topics, but the articles relate to reclaiming Icelandic culture. One article I read and have a copy of was written by Jón Sigurðsson, often called the first president of Iceland (even though the seat of president wasn’t formed until Icelandic Independence on June 17, 1944), about the history of bloodletting in Iceland.

Halldor Laxness, Iceland’s Nobel Laureate of Literature, poked fun at Icelanders’ perception of their purity and romanticized notions of their history in an essay for the 1100 anniversary of the Settlement. But this perception of purity was a product of a concerted effort by the government and abetted by scholars. Committees to ensure the purity of the language from foreign loanwords have come and gone. The Icelandic Language Committee, Íslenzk málnefnd, has been around since the early 1960s and even with its efforts and the efforts of a popular newspaper column that has appeared in the Morgunblaðið newspaper on the use of language, Icelandic is like all languages—fluid and changeable.

That said, Icelanders are particular about how the language is spoken and expressed in written form. But what I discovered on my last trip back to Iceland is that young people are having difficulty writing essays in Icelandic. Several university professors I spoke to complained that many of their students couldn’t write a proper essay in Icelandic. I know that teachers in the United States complain about how poorly prepared students are coming into the university system, so the dynamics of this issue may reflect more on the deterioration of the educational system. I just can’t say for sure.

How did you get involved with it?

I was born in Reykjavik and was “involved” with Icelandic from the first. Icelandic was my first language, although I find that claim to be difficult to defend since I don’t “think” in Icelandic. My father’s employment had our family moving all over—Bermuda, Spain, and finally the States—but every summer my mother and I went back to Iceland. My family in Iceland are big readers and like to discuss what they are reading. My Uncle Jón is a translator in his own right but only for his own enjoyment. I was totally won over by his fascination of what is lost in translation, specifically in translating from English into Icelandic. He’s almost 90 years old now, and he’s still at it. Recently he’s been fascinated by the limerick and sends me his translations. He was instrumental in developing in me the sense of play in language and translation.

What particular challenges do you face while translating from the Icelandic?

I translate both poetry and fiction, but have been translating fiction only for the past two years. I encounter fewer challenges in translating poetry, which I attribute to the fact that my family in Iceland are great readers of poetry, and recited poetry and discussed exceptional poems (meter, word choice, et cetera). Inspired by their example, I memorized poems I enjoyed—and these poems would become my first forays into translation when I was a teenager. I have discovered in translating poetry that I draw upon a completely different lexicon than the one I use in my own poems. Forest Gander once asked me if I was able to devote myself to my own writing at the same time I was translating, and I answered that I found it impossible, that it was as if I was using a different set of skills and sensibility. Exciting things happen when you translate, but I resist the urge to try understanding what is happening and incorporate it into my own writing. The fine-tuning of the trot into a working poem is a wonderful act of creation and intuition, a place where I can clearly hear the voice of the poet; it becomes distinct and a style appears.

Translating fiction requires other skills from poetry. Being able to capture the voice within the story and being consistent over many pages is demanding. Icelandic is rife with the conditional, and past and present perfect verb forms and subjunctive. So the trot seems overburdened with words, of actions about to happen and having had happened, and so on. And for me that is where the challenge lies—revising to make the narrative more active and to make the sentences English friendly while being honest to the original and true to the writer.

Another challenge for me has been dialogue and characterization. Characters have their own voice outside of the narrative and so that requires a great deal of attention. I enjoy it but translating fiction requires a lot of energy.

And Jóhann Hjálmarsson: The poems in Of the Same Mind deal thematically with fish, the sea, death—things you might expect of an island nation. Where does Hjálmarsson fit in the grand picture of Icelandic literature? 

Jóhann was very much a bohemian, and was a significant player in the burgeoning arts scene in Reykjavik in the early 1960s. His friends were artists like Alfreð Flóki Nielsen and musicians like Jazz composer and performer Carl Möller, who were importing and infusing Icelandic arts with a new sensibility, creating new forms for expressing Icelandic subjects. What’s remarkable is that the generation of poets writing at this time are not all alike in style but each is actively redefining Icelandic prosody. This was a time when there were traditionalist voices (see my comment to your first question because the protests for traditional verse forms is very much a political reaction) arguing against the new forms. What a dynamic time it was. Jóhann continued translating and writing and, as he told me, with each book, he was reinventing himself as a poet. But so was everyone else. Matthías Jóhannessen, Nína Björk Árnadóttir (who was also playwrighting and a leading feminist voice), Þorri Jóhannsson, Una Margrét, and Ari Gísli Bragason. There aren’t too many translations of these poets. There is one volume, The Postwar Poetry of Iceland, edited by the writer Sigurdur Magnusson, an anthology he compiled, I believe when he was in residence at the University of Iowa. The selections are meager and probably not representative of these poets’ work. Also, in his introduction, he really says some disparaging things about Jóhann’s poetry that I believe are mean spirited and possibly politically motivated.

While some of the subjects Jóhann was exploring in his work, such as the ones you cite, are typically Icelandic, he was doing it in a new way. His mentor, the modernist poet Jón úr Vör, had instructed Jóhann to travel, to get an education outside of Iceland. And so Jóhann moved to Barcelona, Spain, where he enrolled at the university and began studying Romance languages. At the same time, Jóhann started translating the works of Lorca, Neruda, Vallejo, Quasimodo, Breton, Machado, among others. These poets had a profound impact on Jóhann and he began experimenting with writing surrealist poems in Icelandic. Now he wasn’t the first to do this, but he was a much better poet than the others who attempted it. And shortly after returning to Iceland he published two books of poetry. The reviewers, however, hadn’t any idea about how to read his poems let alone critique them. I wrote an essay a few years back for Hayden’s Ferry Review, “What’s Icelandic for Duende,” to accompany a few poems from this period. Anyhow, Jóhann was experimenting and, well, critics really were at a loss in trying to enter these poems. But as I said, anyone who was a traditionalist really would have had difficulty. Now, though, there are poets writing out of this poetics that Jóhann pioneered, like Sjón who has written lyrics for Björk or the very talented Kristín Omarsdóttir.

The collection draws poetry from throughout his career, and serves as a kind of map of his creative life. How did you determine which poems to use?

I tried to choose poems that represented his growth as a poet over time. He really is a remarkable talent, and wrote several book-length poems that dealt with family history in the context of national history, as well as one about his friends, a married couple who traveled to conflict areas in the world—the wife working as a United Nations nurse in the 1970s. This book in particular reflects how Jóhann’s vision took in the affairs of the world. And I included a few poems from a trilogy he wrote based on Eyrbyggja Saga, one of the Viking sagas that take place in an area that his father’s family came from. I drew from his selected poems, Með sverð í gegnum varir: úrval ljóða 1956-2000 (With a sword between the lips: selected poems 1956-2000) but I also made choices based on my own preferences in reading his 18 books. I should have probably just worked from the selected, and feel that I must return to that project in order to properly honor this great poet’s work.

In 2006 you published a collection of your own poetry: The Small Mystery of Lapses, winner of the Cleveland State University First Book Competition. How has the act of translating assisted you in your own creative work?

There is a certain freedom in translation, what I called earlier intuition, and many of the poems about Iceland I wrote in Small Mystery I wrote after I began translating Johann, not imitating the translations but inspired by them. I decided to explore my own family’s history and how the stories I grew up hearing fit into my life.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

An Interview with Naja Marie Aidt

Here is my third and final interview of Danish authors leading up to The Writer's Center's September 23rd reading "Out of Denmark." This remarkable, free event begins at 7:00. It is part of Fall for the Book, and it is sponsored by Fall for the Book, The Danish Arts Council, The Writer's Center, and the Embassy of Denmark. Click here to register for this event.

Naja Maria Aidt won the Nordic Council Literature Prize in 2008 for her short story collection Bavian (Baboon). The collection also earned the 2006 Danish Kritikerprisen (Critics’ Prize). In addition to her fiction, she has published eight collections of poetry, beginning with Sålænge jeg er ung (As Long as I’m Young) in 1991; several plays and children’s books; and the screenplay for the 2005 movie Strings. Her story “Bulbjerg” was included in the anthology Best European Fiction 2010. Visit her Web site.

You're a poet and a fiction writer. How do the two forms inform each other for you?

I really love both forms. In some ways I use the process of creating poetry when I write prose. I really rely on the language; language is everything to me, and it always comes first. Also, I think working in different forms - I also write plays - keeps me on my toes. I like the way the dialogue from a play suddenly turns up in a poem. The forms mix and give something to each other.

You now live in Brooklyn, NY. Why did you move to the United States?

I'd lived in Copenhagen since I was eight and really wanted to see the world. New York is the world - so many people and cultures living in the same city, it's really a melting pot. So I figured that would be the place to live, and I really enjoy being here. I think it is good for my writing, too. I now read more American and international literature and less Nordic, and I get a completely different inspiration from that.

How has the move affected your writing? Has it been difficult to continue writing in Danish?

Well, English words are really starting to pop up when I write in Danish. But I go to Denmark very frequently to prevent myself from losing the feeling of the Danish language, and I need to keep doing that. When I lived in Denmark, I was never aware of how quickly the language changes, but now I realize that in only 6 months people will stop saying this and that, and different words will slip into the language. I still read a lot in Danish and will continue to do so. And we do speak Danish at home, so I should be safe! But sometimes I wonder if I will start writing in English at some point if I stay here. I think I would at least try.

Your collection Bavian won the Nordic Prize. When can English-reading audiences expect to see it—or your other books—in English?

I wish I knew. I don't have an American publisher yet, but I do have marvelous translators. So hopefully soon.

What is it that most drives you as a writer?
That is a difficult question. But I think the major drive is the need to express myself. And writing is the way I can best do it. When I was young, I used to play music and paint and draw, and I remember knowing that I had to choose. It wasn't hard to choose. And I gave up everything else - music, art - when I made up my mind to write.

You were born in Greenland. Can you talk a little about growing up there and how it influenced your writing?

My latest collection of poetry, “Everything Shimmers,” does include Greenland, which used to be a Danish colony. Greenland is a very beautiful and very weird place. On this enormous island of ice only 50.000 people live. I grew up in a small town, and I think the intimacy and the beauty of the huge, untouched landscape influenced me a lot. I do have a need for space and I easily get restless and claustrophobic. I am sure it has to do with the feeling of growing up in such an open landscape. During the winter the town had no visitors. The ships couldn't sail because the ocean was frozen and the helicopters couldn't get in the air because of the snowstorms. We were very isolated, and we had to stick together. Sometimes we couldn't get out of the house for days. So I grew up between the freedom of the nature and the intimacy among the people. There was a lot of storytelling. People had to lift their spirits during those long, dark winter months.

What is Danish literature to you?

Danish literature is sharp, precise, and often sarcastic or hilarious. Mostly, it's not pompous. And, mostly, it's beautifully written. There is a tradition in Scandinavia of writing very precisely and exquisitely, very artfully. Even bestselling fiction is mostly characterized by its elegant and smooth language and great courage when it comes to what to write about and how to do it. Americans might know of the Norwegian writer Per Petterson. He is a good example of this. Norwegian literature and Danish literature are in many ways pretty similar.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

An Interview with Pia Tafdrup: A Poet on Novel Writing

I met Pia Tafdrup at a reading here in DC a few years back. It was thanks to her kindness that I got involved translating Danish literature. I'm pleased that she'll be reading at The Writer's Center next Thursday at the Out of Denmark event, alongside two other great Danish authors: Simon Fruelund (see this interview with Simon posted on FPP last week) and Naja Marie Aidt (look for an FPP interview with Naja next Tuesday).

About Pia: She has published more than 20 books, including the poetry collection Dronningeporten (Queen's Gate), which won the 1999 Nordic Council Literature Prize, Scandinavia’s most prestigious literary award. She was named a Knight of the Order of Dannebrog in 2001 and won the 2006 Nordic Prize from the Swedish Academy. In 2007, she appeared alongside writers Don DeLillo, Nadine Gordimer, and Salman Rushdie at the PEN American Center’s 2007 World Voices Festival. Her latest collection of poetry in English is Tarkovsky's Horses and Other Poems. Visit her Web site.


You’ve been publishing poetry for nearly three decades, and you have a long list of awards and honors to go along with your numerous books. But recently, you’ve turned to writing fiction and have published two novels in four years. What prompted you to begin writing fiction?

Many dream of writing a novel. I’d never had that dream, but one day I sat down with material that wouldn’t fit inside a poem. I was certain that, with the final poem in The Whales in Paris (2002), I’d begun a new book. This poem builds on, among other things, a Derrida lecture that was of monumental significance to me. Without his lecture at Ecole des hautes etudes en sciences sociales, I probably wouldn’t have written my first novel, Hengivelsen (Surrender). The poem was written in Copenhagen in May 2001, just as I put the finishing touches on The Whales in Paris. It’s about the poem “Sacrifier,” which includes the following lines:

In Danish one distinguishes between
to surrender oneself and to sacrifice oneself,
but it’s the same word in French,
                                          red and two-edged (trans. David McDuff, from Queen’s Gate)

Later I used these lines from the poem as a motto for Surrender. The novel explores both surrender and sacrifice. Of course, there are many more concrete starting points that form the base of an entire novel, but the decisive moment occurred when “Sacrifier” flooded its banks, so to speak. The material was too large, there was much more to say than what I managed to get out in the poem.

In a way, it wasn’t me who dove into the writing of the novel, but the novel that dove into me. It came to me in a flash! I wrote the first draft in 27 days—for the most part without sleeping, and at that point you could’ve fit me onto a teaspoon. I’d driven myself much harder than I physically was able and, for the first time in my life, had to go to the doctor and get sleeping pills. After that I began to work with prose just as I do poetry, weighing each and every sentence. Which is to say: I went through the text again and again for two whole years. I cut and polished and added, but never let go of my starting point. A part of my method was to put the manuscript aside for shorter and longer periods in order to see it with new eyes and be more critical. Surrender didn’t ask for permission—it just came. To write prose is, for me, like writing poetry: I disappear to myself during the process. Existentially, I found myself in a kind of “zero hour” of my life. To write the novel was incredible and moving at the same time, because so much was at stake both in my life and there on the page.

The novel sprang from a crosscurrent of events. I reread a lot of Camus as I wrote The Whales in Paris, including The Stranger. I thought about how the world would have looked if the girlfriend of the narrator in that novel, Marie, had been given a voice. Which in a way she does in Surrender. My novel is written from a woman’s point of view, from Marie’s point of view—and in this way is an answer to Camus. Marie is the narrator’s girlfriend in The Stranger, however small a role she plays. In Camus she is inarticulate. But how does a woman like Marie experience life? What does she long for? What does she want? Pascha, the female protagonist of Surrender, is a young woman in the first days of the 21st century. But even though she belongs to another age, her life can easily mirror that of Marie’s. Camus’ work was another important inspiration, and I often write in dialogue with the works of other writers, whether explicitly or not.

In Surrender, my goal is to connect erotic possession with terrorism, constructing from what’s near in our culture. I wanted to understand both tracks by connecting the individual’s life with the political-historical. That kind of thing is hard to do in a poem; it requires another type of construction. Vulnerability is there, both at the macro and micro level. The individual can be targeted, we know this. That society is equally vulnerable is probably not something we reflect on daily. But a society built up through centuries can be destroyed under a terrorist attack in just a few hours, as happened in September 2001 when I started the novel and when the novel is set.

Evil is found not only in tyrannical societies; it lives in us all—even though we may try our best. All that couldn’t work in a poem, but it wanted to be written. It’s still “me,” even if it’s a novel. I used other parts of my brain to write prose, and it was wonderful to open up to these other parts. It’s very empowering to let yourself go in a new genre. I had tried it once before. In 1988 and 1991 I didn’t write poems either—I wrote drama. The material finds its own form.

Prose and drama can create vast worlds and use language so that a story unfolds over a longer period, but poetry has got to be the most demanding genre—because it is the most condensed form.

You can compare a photograph with a poem, and a film with a novel. The photograph captures everything in one image, while the film creates a stream of images. With Surrender you’re never in doubt that what you’re holding is a novel. There’s a plot, dramatic actions occur. The same is true of [my recent novel] Stjerne Uden Land (Stars Without a Country), a love story about manipulation and control, conscious and unconscious. Stars Without a Country dramatizes attempts at re-creating or transforming people. Power and the making of boundaries are important themes. This kind of stuff also cannot be encompassed in a single poem.

What have you learned about the process of fiction writing vis-a-vis the process of poetry writing? What would you suggest for any poet interested in beginning a novel?

I’m not the one to tell a poet how he or she should begin a novel! I’ve never taught creative writing or anything like it, because it’s not for me to start anyone on a quest to write. If you don’t have the fire in your belly for it, then you shouldn’t write. And if you can’t handle being alone with yourself for long periods of time, then you shouldn’t venture into the realm of fiction.

It begins elsewhere: Either you have talent, or you don’t. If you have talent, you can greatly benefit from constructive criticism. But most important of all: it should be a necessity to write a novel…Me, I tackled my first novel absurdly by trying to write the first draft exactly as I write the first draft of a poem—in one movement—and because of that, my novel was enriched with an element of suspense that surprised me. The novel is typically read as it was written—in one long sitting.

After writing Surrender, I hardly dared move into the realm of fiction again. What I can tell poets who’re considering writing prose: You need to find a writing method where you don’t kill yourself.
Naturally, writing prose is an interesting experience. To a greater degree a writer lives inside a novel manuscript than inside a poetry manuscript. (One of my poems is called “The House in the Book” for good reason.) But when the poem is complete, you can do other things and maybe not until the following month write the next poem. It’s possible to have intervals between individual poems, but when it’s a novel, I can’t leave the building because the house will fall down—at least that’s how it feels to me. It’s as if you build different rooms of a house at one and the same time. If you leave the house, something collapses in one of the rooms. Or you forget something.

You’ve got to constantly remember what you do and know, constantly remember where you wrote what, and constantly balance the narrative arc so one part of the story isn’t too short and doesn’t unfold as it should, and on the other, so that it isn’t so stretched the momentum grinds to a halt. Gradually, as the novel takes shape, it closes further and further in on itself. All adjustments take place inside the text. The rooms of the house are valued in relation to one another. And of course it’s fantastic to have written a novel. I hear other kinds of reactions: “Did you know about my life?” “This is my story!” and that type of thing surprises me. Any writer has a life of her own which probably more or less forms the basis of the written story. Literature should smell of skin, right?

-questions & translation by Kyle Semmel (except where noted)

Thursday, September 9, 2010

An Interview with Simon Fruelund

I discovered the fiction of Simon Fruelund in a bookstore in the town of Skive, in Central Jutland. I'd been on the lookout for a Danish author to translate. Immediately after reading the first story of his collection Maelk (Milk), "Flod" (or "Tide"), I knew I'd found my author. Since then, I've translated a wide number of Fruelund's short stories, and many of them, including "Tide," have been published in the United States (with two being named as Pushcart nominees). On September 23rd, I'm pleased to say, Simon will be reading at The Writer's Center as part of "Out of Denmark." He'll be reading together with two other very accomplished Danes: Pia Tafdrup and Naja Marie Aidt. The event is part of the 2010 Fall for the Book Festival. The event is made possible by a grant from the Danish Arts Council’s Committee for Literature and support from the Embassy of Denmark.

In the run up to that event, I'll be posting interviews with each of these authors on three successive Tuesdays, beginning today with Simon Fruelund (his bio is listed below). You can also view this post on the version of First Person Plural.



I'd like to start by discussing the work you did prior to becoming a full-time writer. At Gyldendal, Denmark’s largest and oldest publisher, you were an editor. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Well, I was offered a job there right after my first book was published and since I was curious and flattered and out of money, I took it. I used to joke that they forced me to come and work for them because the book sold so poorly. I think the reason I came up with back then to rationalize my own slightly hasty decision was that by getting a job like that I wouldn’t have to compromise in my writing: I could go on writing books that no one would buy. I wasn’t actually that young but relatively naïve, as you can hear. And then actually I came to like the job. I was mostly working with translations and was lucky enough to publish a lot of remarkable writers: Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Cormac McCarthy, V.S. Naipaul, Gao Xingjian, Anne Carson, and many, many more, including new translations of classics by the likes of Faulkner, Musil, Homer, Ovid. Working with quality literature like that is deeply satisfying, as you can probably imagine. 

How did that job prepare you-or motivate you-to write?

It really didn’t, only in the sense that it made me constantly frustrated. I worked there for nine years and had very little time to write, since I was always reading, editing, going to meetings, sales conferences, etc. When my wife and I had our first child, I had to face it: I could not have two careers, I had to choose.

You must have been shocked when your first novel, Borgerligt tusmørke, hit the bestseller list.

Well, actually yes. I remember thinking that not even my friends would finish that book. I thought that the form would be too difficult, and yet I felt that I was on to something so I kept writing, alarmed, very, very careful and eager to make each little portrait something in its own right.

You have the rare distinction of having studied fiction both at UC Irvine and at the Danish School of Writing. What are the differences/similarities between teaching creative writing in the two countries?

I took an undergrad class at Irvine, because I was curious about the workshop idea, and since it worked for me, I applied to the school in Copenhagen. To compare the two traditions, based on that, is a bit frivolous, I fear, but anyway: One of them is firmly based in tradition, is craft oriented, polite and indirect in its teachings, the other is chaotic, experimental, impolite to the point of being abusive.

Which is which? If you mean the latter to be how it is in Denmark, you could be describing how some people perceive creative writing workshops here.

I am sure creative writing workshops in the U.S. differ a lot, depending on who runs them, but the one I attended at Irvine was much calmer and less experimental than the one in Copenhagen. I do remember, though, a poet at Irvine telling me that her professor threw a piece of chalk at her in class because she referred to Emily Dickinson by her first name.

In your earliest collection of stories, Maelk (Milk, 1997), your style might be best described as "realist." Which writers were most influential to you at that
point in your career?

That’s an easy one: Raymond Carver, the Norwegian short story writer Kjell Askildsen, the James Joyce of Dubliners, Chekhov.

What about today? How did you go from telling "straight," "traditional" stories
to the more experimental style of, say, "Civil Twilight" or "The World and Varvara"?

There are several possible explanations. Maybe it’s because I didn’t have the time for narrative? I sometimes joke that each little portrait in Civil Twilight has the size and form of a typical Danish blurb (we place them on the back of the cover, not on the flaps) and I indeed wrote quite a few of those. Maybe I was attracted to formal experiment because it seemed a challenge, maybe because it felt right. The most important decisions you make as a writer are based on intuition. I think that a more open and less linear form allowed me to be more realistic and more personal at the same time. It was like an implosion: All kinds of subject matter gravitated towards the page.

You're now translating Raymond Carver's Beginners into Danish. How’s that going?

I have only translated three stories so far, so it’s a bit early to say. So far it’s like meeting a friend from the past, one of those cases where a very rewarding and warm contact is immediately established again.

Besides the translation of Carver, what are you working on now?

I am working on a new novel and unfortunately I am not able to say much about it, since experience has taught me that I need to keep quiet. I am a fool for other people’s opinions, much too easy to influence. Judging one’s own writing is a difficult and necessary part of the trade. It has to feel right, and to ensure that I can actually feel it, I need to keep it to myself as long as possible.

Simon Fruelund is the author of two story collections, Mælk (Milk) and Planer for sommeren (Summer Plans), and two novels, Borgerligt tusmørke (Civil Twilight) and Verden og Varvara (The World and Varvara). For nine years he worked as an editor at Denmark’s largest publishing house, Gyldendal, but is now writing full time. In the U.S., his stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Brooklyn Review, The Bitter Oleander, A River and Sound Review, Redivider, Absinthe, and World Literature Today. Two of these stories have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize.