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)

No comments: