The Author At Foyles
Where did the idea for the book come from?
A lot of the artefacts and 'decorum' in the book – old cars, sporting guns, forests, bleak islands, boats – as well as the setting at the Shetland Isles and wartime mysteries – has been a fascination for me since teenage years. But they were loose bubbles, and I wrote three other books before the framework of this story evolved – tracing the story of a lost family member who is presumed dead and still is (perhaps) alive, someone who holds the key to a secret that has been kept hidden, perhaps for good reasons. On a deeper level, and something I did not realise before I was well into the writing, was that perhaps this framework was inspired by my own recollection of my grandfather. He had been a furniture maker, but died when I was very young, and I often tried to imagine who he had been through the furniture he left behind - trying to picture and understand a person through the objects he made.
You were a journalist and an editor before you wrote your first novel; what were the challenges of writing fiction?
Writing that first page took days. It was really hard to trust my own imagination, create something out of nothing. Finally I realised: what is written on the page, is what happens. Meaning of course, that the fiction sets a premise and I can expect – within limits – that the reader accepts this imaginary world and indulges in it. Also I needed to shift to a less concluding language, more headroom. Finding the right degree of inaccuracy, if you like. Daring to use 'maybe' in a description without losing narrative authority.
At the heart of the book is the mystery of what happened to Edvard’s parents. Did you know the answer to this from the outset?
No, at first this incident was very cloudy to me and other sub-stories in the book were clearer and easier to write. I think it was two full years into the writing before this central element matured fully and became interconnected with the other incidents. The nice thing at that stage of the writing, where I go back and rewrite and insert new chapters, is that it does not feel like scheming or inventing. It is more like I finally have understood the story myself, discovered the truth. I have the notion that the events actually happened, and I have to understand how.
Photography and photographs play an important role in the book, as well as the distinction between what is real and what is not. Are you saddened by the age of digital photography and the airbrushed image?
I love digital photography for its instant results and quality – I take better photos now. But I deeply miss that tactile, clicky, smelly, mysterious world of precision mechanics, chemistry, various film types, the red light in the darkroom – everything with huge room for error and reward for skill. When I did the research at Shetland I brought both a digital camera as well as my old Nikon FM, a completely mechanical camera that will work without batteries. Bringing a camera helped me the same way as it helps the main character in the book – you always have a slight excuse for trespassing – usually people will nod and accept a stranger with a serious camera. But for storytelling this old school photography is also more interesting because it is not synthetic – the light of the sun has actually etched an image into a coat of emulsion and it is left as a physical engraving of what happened. Also with film you have to wait, and there is just one original, a genuine, tactile, fragile object. I guess it is part of my own fascination with small sacred objects – like finding an old film roll and wondering why it never was developed.
You describe the desolation and bleakness of the Somme, whose landscape still bears the scars of the battle that occurred there a hundred years ago. Can you describe the impact your first visit there had on you?
The first visit was strange, because the events were too big to grasp for me - out of scale for a modern day human being. So I had to go back one year later and then I was deeply moved. I went to most of the battlefields and the woods, was at Thiepval at sunrise, crawled a slope in a foggy morning in Blighty Valley. I am not superstitious, but I maintain that there is a ghost of history in the Somme, a remnant. Because I think if I had come there and not known anything of it history, I would still have had a sense that something happened there, something grossly horrific. It gave me an odd mental shiver; I felt a resonance of the war 100 years ago. I went there three times in total; the last time because I still felt insecure if the story was true to its own premise – so I went there and followed the route of the main character and the events in the end. I did not change more than a few lines and then I knew the story was finished.
How common would it have been for brothers to find themselves on opposite sides during the German Occupation of Norway in World War Two as Bestefar and Einar did?
There were around 5000 men enlisting for the eastern front, and one in five would die. So it happened in quite a few families. Most often it was a matter of one boy enlisting for the Germans, in fear of a Bolchevik regime. Many of them were just 16 or 17. The rest of the family either agreed or stayed passive, but in many cases other brothers disagreed strongly and joined the resistance, and the survivors on the eastern front faced harsh trials after 1945. It of course left deep scars both in society and in families, which is why it felt natural to include it in this novel for retelling the story of that generation.
Was Haaf Gruney modelled on a particular place? What research did you have to do to get the Shetlands setting just right?
It is an actual island, located as described in the book, but inhabited. I went to Shetland for a good few days to find the inspiration for it and was lucky enough to be there during one of the worst storms in years. And in Shetland, that means something. I got soaked in the rain, felt the storms and got familiar with that wonderful expression "furious gale". Also I had to feel the loneliness and insecurity of looking for something and not really knowing what it is - typical for early research. I utterly loved Shetland, the people and the landscape and the history. And strange, nice things happened - in Scalloway I bought a small tourist guide from the early 1950s, and was intrigued by an advertisement from a hairdresser with the telephone number "Lerwick 118". I was fascinated by it and it grew in my imagination and blossomed into perhaps the most important sub-story of all, the most fatal love story in the novel – just from an old phone number that had a certain resonance.
I didn’t really know about the links between Norway and the Shetlands before reading your book. When you first visited the Shetlands were you struck by the commonalities?
I was stunned. Lots of the signs are in Norwegian, one on the ferry terminal that tells you to drive on the left, for example. And the way Shetlanders salute you is 'hei' - which sounds exactly like the Norwegian form of 'Hello'. Also, there are hundreds of place names where the Norse ancestry is so present. All along the coast many places are named from the sea, from a sailor’s perspective, and they are often very easy for a Norwegian to understand. Lerwick, for example, means 'Leirete vik' in Norwegian, a harbour where the bay was muddy. That is also why I was fascinated by the Island Haaf Gruney, which in Norwegian means the green island farthest out in the sea.
In fiction, secrets have a way of coming to light eventually. Are you aware of there having been secrets in your own past?
It has always been very transparent, but I have always been intrigued by my first clear memory - I am sitting on a chair, so short that my feet did not reach the floor, and I remember I longed for growing larger so they would touch it. But I was often thinking - what happened in the darkness earlier? I have a large scar on my left arm after an accident with scalding hot water, but cannot remember anything of it. Maybe it did not happen in the kitchen after all?
Einar leaves a very particular legacy, crafted with his own hands. Would you prefer to be remembered for something you’d written or a physical object you’d made?
With books I am lucky because it is both. I will leave a set of my battered first editions, those I have brought to readings. Patina should not be underestimated.
Lars Mytting Celebrates the Many Virtues of the Woodpile
You Know Where You Are With a Woodpile
You know exactly where you are with a woodpile. Its share price doesn’t fall on the stock market. It won’t rust. It won’t sue for divorce. It just stands there and does one thing: it waits for winter. An investment account reminding you of all the hard work you’ve put into it. On bitterly cold January mornings it will bring back memories of those spring days when you sawed, split and stacked as you worked to insure yourself against the cold. There’s that twisted knot that just wouldn’t surrender to your axe. And isn’t that the log you pushed in at the wrong angle, making the whole pile collapse? Yes, that’s the one all right. Well, winter’s here, and now it’s your turn to feed the flames.
Here is the majestic result of all your hard work. And the sight of a woodpile is the sight of security itself. A lot of people like to build it on a spot where it can be seen from the kitchen window. It makes a marvellous view. Like a geological layer on a mountainside, the pile is a reminder of the work you did last year, with the colours of the rarer sorts of wood showing up in lateral stripes, and unsplit wood from small trees tracing small, circular patterns within the expanse of wood chopped from the more common trees the previous year.
Good to look at a woodpile may well be, but its primary purpose is the essentially practical one of ensuring that the wood dries, and remains as dry as possible. In the final analysis it is the stacking of wood that dictates its quality, in regard both to moisture content and to appearance. For this reason many enthusiasts ready their wood in two distinct stages, first drying it in the open air and then, sometime in the autumn, moving it to the woodshed. Whichever it is, the lapse of time between the standing tree and the chopped and split logs in the woodpile should be as short as possible.
Stacking is an aesthetic and a practical challenge, so much so that in the late nineteenth century, in the heavily forested state of Maine, young American women considering a potential husband were advised first to consult a piece of folksy wisdom that revealed the young man’s character based on the way he stacked his wood. In all Scandinavia it is also common wisdom that you can tell a lot about a person from his woodpile. For those looking to marry, the following list may be used as a rule of thumb.
Upright and solid pile: Upright and solid man
Low pile: Cautious man, could be shy or weak
Tall pile: Big ambitions, but watch out for sagging and collapse
Unusual shape: Freethinking, open spirit, again, the construction may be weak
Flamboyant pile, widely visible: Extroverted, but possibly a bluffer
A lot of wood: A man of foresight, loyal
Not much wood: A life lived from hand to mouth
Logs from big trees: Has a big appetite for life, but can be rash and extravagant
Pedantic pile: Perfectionist; may be introverted
Collapsed pile: Weak will, poor judge of priorities
Unfinished pile, some logs lying on the ground: Unstable, lazy, prone to drunkenness
Everything in a pile on the ground: Ignorance, decadence, laziness, drunkenness, possibly all of these
Old and new wood piled together: Be suspicious: might be stolen wood added to his own
Large and small logs piled together: Frugal. Kindling sneaked in among the logs suggests a considerate man
Rough, gnarled logs, hard to chop: Persistent and strong willed, or else bowed down by his burdens
No woodpile: No husband