By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
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By Bill Raden
Your novels are fairly traditional, and you obviously work hard to keep your prose clean and simple. Is this something you care deeply about? Which writers do you admire in this way, and emulate? And what is it specifically about their writing?
Are they? Traditional? Maybe they are. I haven’t thought about it in that way. But I do work hard to make my prose, not clean perhaps, but clear, precise; what’s going on precisely, how does it feel, what do things look like, which brand, which color, how does your body move, in which landscape, and so forth. Do not use the wrong size of words, do not underestimate the reader, trust her capacity for empathy, you don’t need to tell her everything. Sometimes people say, “You’re so good at writing between the lines.” It’s a popular way of trying to say something about the effect of fiction, but it has become a cliché, and turns the focus away from the point of what is on the lines. It’s what’s on the lines that causes the impact; that’s where the writer’s work is, and if the sentences are clear and have something important to tell, the reader may remember them forever, and they will make a difference.
I have mentioned Jayne Anne Phillips. Hemingway, if you read him very young. Poets: the Swede Tomas Tranströmer. I could mention Grace Paley, Richard Ford. And many European writers, of course, but I don’t think I would say that I emulate them. What I do carry with me are the voices and the clarity of their sentences and the strong desire to do what they do, to move, as I have been moved.
Harvill first published To Siberia in Britain some 10 years ago. Why did it take so long to be published here, do you think? (I don’t mean literally, but, rather, culturally.) And what do you think of the comments made by Horace Engdahl, the Nobel official, about the lack of translation in the U.S.?
But there is a lack of translation in the U.S.! Its door is not an easy one to open. And of course there must be a reason for this, whether it be some kind of self-satisfaction, ignorance or, the most obvious one, that English-language literature is so vast; USA, Canada, England, several African countries, literature from India, from New Zealand, Australia and so forth, so it would seem that you have no need for more. But you do. It is just difficult to see. But to go from that, and further on to say as Horace Engdahl did, that because of this “weakness,” you have no serious contenders for the Nobel Prize? That’s just rubbish.
I wonder about the power of fiction, not just on the reader but on the writer as well. I’m thinking about your novel In the Wake, and writing’s power to transcend, or at least to keep at bay demons and dangers.
Some say that there is a power in fiction that has a healing effect for the writer. I don’t know about that. It may, but that is not how I see it. In the novel In the Wake, Arvid Jansen, my “hero,” lost most of his family in a ship fire. Something similar happened to me, but the novel was published 10 years after the catastrophe (159 people died). The healing, if you could call it that, was already done. I was at peace with this. On the reader, fiction obviously can have such an effect, and that’s good. But fiction should also upset the reader, so that she does not fall asleep in her life; not only search for harmony but also friction. For the writer, I don’t believe in healing. I do believe you will find things you didn’t know were there and surprise yourself. But for me the power of fiction is the joy I experience when I am able to give form to my material, make art, and then the question of demons, whether you have them or not, feels a little beside the point.
TO SIBERIA | By Per Petterson | Graywolf Press | 256 pages | $22 hardcover