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.

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