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The story of a man dealing with divorce, a dying parent and lost identity at the end of the cold war. Best-selling Norwegian author Per Petterson on a son’s attempt to finally connect with the mother he adores.
- Per Petterson Author of six novels, including "Out Stealing Horses," which received the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award. His latest novel is "I Curse the River of Time."
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Per Petterson was not well known outside his native Norway until 2007, when he gained international fame for his novel "Out Stealing Horses." Petterson's narratives have to do with the complex relationships between parents and children. His latest novel, "I Curse the River of Time," is about a son's desperate attempt to get closer to his dying mother. The narrator of this story is Arvid, a character Petterson has written about before. Per Petterson joins me in the studio. We'll invite your comments, your questions throughout the hour. Join us on 800-433-8850. Send us your e-mail to email@example.com. It's a pleasure to meet you.
MR. PER PETTERSONIt's a pleasure to be here. I am honored.
REHMWell, I am honored as well. The narrator of this book is desperately seeking a relationship with his mother and yet at the very start of the novel, we learn that she is going to die. She has cancer.
REHMAnd she leaves.
PETTERSONYes. She does. I indicate in the first chapter that she -- she's Danish and now she's been living in Norway for 40 years, married to this Norwegian man, worker, and when she learns that she has cancer, she wants to go home and she's still -- Denmark, this town that she's coming from, is still home for her. She always says home and I just guessed that she wanted to do that, so I let her go home. And the son, Arvid, of course he's -- he goes after her, to seek her out, in a way. And I just thought that he had to. It's something that -- you don't -- I mean, I write on intuition. I really didn't know -- I thought this book is probably just going to be about her, the boy telling the story of his mother and I -- after one chapter, I realized that this was going to be about him and his relationship with the mother, so he's not telling only the story about her, he's telling the story about himself.
REHMWhat's stunning in that first chapter is that she not only is leaving her son, she thinks, she's leaving her husband.
PETTERSONIn a way, she is. It seems like she's always kind of been alone in Norway and the first things she thinks about is not her husband. She just thinks about home, like the 40 years, in a way, didn't exist, perhaps. This is my thoughts about -- I just wrote the book. It's very difficult for me to interpret the book. I look at it from the inside, whereas you look at it from the outside.
REHMSo you were saying as you begin the book, you thought it was going to be a son writing about his mother and then somehow, as you went along, it developed that it was about a son seeking his mother.
PETTERSONThat's true. I didn’t know that when I began the book that it was going to be about that at all. Then I never know about my books what they're going to be about. You have to find out. That's the -- you know, that's why you read and I write it, you know, so -- and I always work on intuition, so when -- after the first chapter, I kind of figure out, this is perhaps a little different than you thought. And I say, okay. Let's do that because the other book that I might have planned, nobody's seen that book. I haven't seen that book. Who cares? So I write the book that comes, so always trust your intuition.
REHMArvid is 37...
REHM...at the opening of the book. You were 37 when your mother, your father, your brother and a nephew...
REHMTell us about that.
PETTERSONHow can I? You know, like Arvid in the book, my family, we have this place, my mother's home in Denmark, we always went there in the -- when I was a kid, we were there for two months each year, so I'm very familiar with the place. And this time was Easter and we were going to go there, my daughters and me and my brother and my mother and my nephew and this was on a Saturday and -- but then my wife's mother, whom I had divorced, she's was going to have a 60 birthday, so my daughters were going to go there, so we had -- we went to wait until Monday for me and my daughters to go, which was, well, I wouldn't call it lucky, but we would've died, too, but we didn't. So there was this fire on the boat and they -- the security was like, well, not very good, so it all took fire, even to the -- where the air system just brought the fire everywhere in the boat, so well, 159 people died.
PETTERSONIncluding my family, yes. I just have the one brother, my elder brother back, you know.
REHMYou've said that your writing changed after that fire. Can you describe, from the inside out, how it changed?
PETTERSONThe most important thing that -- were the changes, of course, that after that -- the books I have written after that are books I couldn't have written when my mother was alive, for example. I couldn't have written the book called "To Siberia" when she was alive because it's -- she would recognize it as being, in part, about her and everybody else would think it was about her, that her life, but of course, I couldn't know what she was thinking, doing, when she was 13 years old or something, so -- but I couldn't, of course, not written it when she was alive. And most of my books after that is like that. I have one called "In The Wake" which kind of starts with that fire and I just leave it and it tells about Arvid Johnson, the same man, when he -- you know, the aftermath of that. He's in the wake of that fire and how he tries to, well, cope with his life which is very difficult. He's under very hard pressure and well, it's a kind of bleak book that's also quite funny because if you're under very hard pressure, you get a little slapstick like. You know, the small muscles doesn't work that well anymore, so he becomes a little Chaplinesqe, if you could say it like that and I think that's pretty funny.
REHMArvid's mother is not very happy with him.
PETTERSONNo. She – no, no.
PETTERSONBecause life didn't turn out the way she hoped it would, which is very common (laugh), of course. I think she was thinking that she -- this is a very intelligent woman also, you know, by -- she's kind of intellectual, though she never went to schools, really, and she read a lot and I think that she -- you know, when you're pretty young and you read a lot and you have this kind of world inside your head, you think that this is the way you're going, that this room that you have, this space is going to expand and then she goes to Norway and gets pregnant. And this is like, you know, the late 40s and they don't -- abortion is not an option and you marry the man and so she did.
REHMShe married the man...
PETTERSONShe married the man.
REHM...and this is the same man she is about to leave as soon as she finds out that she is dying.
PETTERSONYes. But she says that she's -- she feels sorry for him, too, so she says, I'm gonna come back, of course. I may need an operation, which hopes would fix the troubles, but we don’t know that because the book stops before that. I don't really say she's dying, you know. It's a little open there, you know. My mother had cancer. She survived the cancer, but she didn't survive the fire.
REHMThe fact of the matter is, however, when Arvid's mother goes back to her home.
REHMShe's going to meet another man, Hanson.
REHMWho is an old and dear friend.
PETTERSONYes. Yes, that's true.
REHMHe understands her and...
PETTERSONThey have much more in common than she has with her -- with her husband and they kind of -- he's over there working, you know, he's a railway worker, pension and I think they have a way of thinking about things. I wouldn't say intellectual, but they have a broader space, a thinking space around their lives that perhaps her husband doesn't have. This is also guessing, you know? Because I haven't got really into that, but I feel it's a little like that. Yeah, you know, some of this stuff in this book's are autobiographical in a way that the persons could be the living persons that I had around me, but what happens isn't really what happened, it was could've happened, so Hanson is really based a little on a man we knew in Denmark and my mother is a little like that and sometimes, when I talk about the books, I tend to talk about my own life and I don't really know when I cross the line. And people say, is this in your book? It doesn’t matter, I say (laugh). But it's not autobiographical in a sense that on the -- what's happening on the page happened in real life, but it could have happened, maybe.
REHMIt could have happened that she had a better relationship with Hanson than with her own husband?
PETTERSONOh, definitely. I think my mother had -- she liked men in the way that she thought they were easier to talk to. They didn't -- as she thought about it, they didn't talk so much rubbish (laugh). They were more to the point and she liked that. She was a very -- this man is very -- well, he's where she is and he doesn't talk rubbish.
REHMBut her husband didn't talk very much at all.
PETTERSONDidn't talk very much. It wasn't rubbish, perhaps, but it wasn't much, so I think she wanted to talk more about, you know, broader things, yeah.
REHMShe lived in...
PETTERSONShe's a very political person, too. She really -- you know, she follows what's happening in the world and I guess her husband doesn't talk much about that, so she needs that.
REHMPer Petterson, he's the author of six novels, including "Out Stealing Horses," which received the International Impact Dublin Literary Award. His latest novel, "I Curse the River of Time."
REHMIn Per Petterson's new novel, "I Curse the River of Time," his central character, Arvid, looks nothing like his brothers. His brothers are all blond-haired, fair-skinned. Arvid has dark hair. Everyone says how much he looks like his father, but Arvid doesn't want to look like his father.
PETTERSONNo he doesn't.
REHMWould you read for us, Per Petterson, from a portion of the book where he talks about his father?
PETTERSONI will. Okay. "Wherever she went, my brother went, too, the eldest, for he was the unwanted child. A child born in secrecy and shame off the coast of Denmark among the marram grass and the grazing sheep on an island called Laeso. She had trouble there in haste with my brothers like a shimmering fish in her belly and it bound them to each other with an ease which did not embrace me. He had sunshine and pain in his body inside the foamy blue and glittering room where he was so safe and so unwanted, like an outlaw. And the first thing he saw in his life was a sheepdog roaming the heath and gouse soaring above the port and the vault of blue sky above the island."
PETTERSON"The first thing I saw was my father's face and three gray, scrawny pigeons on the dusty windowsill behind the dangling blinds and the trim on (foreign language). I was the only one of four sons who was planned, who was wanted by them both and they told me this time after time and each time as good news. As something to celebrate. And it gave me a legitimacy I could have done without. I longed to be an outlaw like my mother was and my brother, to be with them and share their pain and in secret, wander the dark streets at night in search of a place where I could belong. I would open the door to strangers and hide behind the mask like Zoro because it did not come easily to me, what the two of them shared. It scared me."
PETTERSON"So as the years passed, I became the Lone Ranger, hunting for unsafe ground and I clung to her, did tricks for her, performed for her, pulled laughter out of her with my silly jokes, whose punch lines were lost in linguistic confusion. As soon as I opened my mouth, the sentences came tumbling out at a shocking speed. I stayed in nappies longer than other children to tie myself to her. I could spell before I was out of nappies, but no matter how hard I tried, I was still like my father."
REHMWas he like his father, not only in looks, but in his behavior?
PETTERSONHe fears that, I think. He doesn't want to. I think his fears are a little unfounded. I think he's pretty much like his mother, really, but his -- because he senses that his mother is that -- not that close to his father, he fears that he will be like his father because he looks like his father and perhaps he thinks that it works from the outside in or something because the more he looks like his father, he fears will be like his father, which I don't think is true. I think he's very like his mother, really, but the problem is, of course, that they don't recognize that in each other, I think, so they don't see it themselves.
REHMShe dismisses him greatly.
PETTERSONShe does. She does.
REHMShe gets very angry with him because he decides to drop out of the university, he's squandering the money he has. He comes home, he says, I'm gonna go to work, I'm dropping out of university. She slaps him...
REHM---across the face. You dropped out of university.
PETTERSONWell, I dropped out of everything (laugh). I always burned my bridges in a way, but it's true, of this time. This was in the '70s. I was very political, as Arvin was, and there was this movement, you know, get out of university, get out of college, go to work in a factory because that's much more what we want to do. This is the future, to be there and, you know, for some reason then and do political work, which was not so important to do at the university, we felt at the time. And I decided to do that and to go to work in a factory and, you know, my mother, who always wanted to make something out of her life, to go further on and suddenly, her son, who was (word?) had all the reason in the world to go on and he's allowed to do that and this was -- in the history of Norway, this was really -- was happening, all the working children -- the worker's children could go to university.
PETTERSONYou could be whatever you liked if you sort of set your mind to it and then I do the opposite of what she's always wanted for herself. And this is, you know, was like an insult to her, she felt.
REHMHow did she react?
PETTERSONWell, I wrote this book and I talked with my elder brother and he said -- well, at least she didn't slap me, I said. And he said, very close to, you know, but you didn't know that.
PETTERSONVery close to it. She didn’t have the opportunity. I think she would have slapped me.
REHMShe was very disappointed in you.
PETTERSONShe was very disappointed. She was very angry and she -- I didn’t see her for some months. She just left the place where I lived and like in the book, like after two, three months, she came at the door with Napoleon cakes, as they say. It's just a cream cake, but you call it Napoleon cakes in Norway. I don't think the French ever heard of it, but -- and she did that, but the scene in the book is not what happened in reality, although -- but she didn’t make peace, though. She came because she was my mother. See, it's not like she forgave me or said that, well, I can see now that you can do what you want. She didn't say that at all. Just because she's my mother, she have to have contact with me, so we came to this, not to make peace, just to eat cake (laugh).
REHMAnd you sat and ate cake?
REHMI like Napoleon cakes (laugh).
REHMAnd she did not say anything further about your dropping out of the university?
PETTERSONDidn't talk about it after that. Never mentioned it.
REHMWhat about your other brothers?
PETTERSONWell, at this -- well, my eldest brother is an architect and he -- because he did what he should do.
REHMHe went to university.
PETTERSONHe was doing it and he went to England to go to school, did a lot of those things which we were supposed to do and my family had -- you know, the -- we had this street working class, street that we lived in and my brother and I was the first to go to, you know, what we call the gymnasium when you're 16 years 'til you're 19. We were the first kids on the block, as they say, who did that and my mother was proud and my brother knew that he was expected to go further, as we say in Norway. And he did. Never gave it a second thought. He was not as political as I was, so he just did it, which I think she was very happy about, although she could snub him a little if you thought -- if he was like kind of haughty about it; who do you think you are, she would say to him. So he pulled him and knocked him a little down again.
REHMWhat about your father?
PETTERSONHe never talked about -- he was a very silent man and when I quit college and went to work -- and actually, I went to work where he was, so we're at the same machine, this huge printing shop, you know, where they make newspapers and we worked at the same machine for four years and then I moved to another part of the factory and he never said anything against it. I think he liked it, you know, because he had like eight brothers and they all worked in the same shoe factory when he was young and his father worked there and I think enjoy -- he was a kind of a man -- collector man. He was a man who liked to have people around him, to be one of the group.
PETTERSONWhereas my mother was more of an anarchist, you see? Like being alone. When she rebelled, she did it for herself. (unintelligible) liked the collective things and so I think he liked it that I was working with him.
REHMTell me where the title of the book "I Curse the River of Time" comes from.
PETTERSONIt comes from a poem that Marisa Tomb wrote. I took it from the even Norwegian translation. If should go to the English translation of poem, you won't find the lines because I took it from the Norwegian and I took it into English. But I remember that poem. I read it in the early '70s and when I wrote the book, I hadn't seen it since, but, you know, if you trust your subconscious, it always comes to you what you want. When you're a writer, you have to trust your subconscious. So I just remembered the poem because I was writing this chapter, I just went to -- I found the book and I open it and there was the title. Always happens.
REHMBut, you know, here you were, working as a machinist, same machine as your father.
REHMSame area. Where and when did that writing urge begin?
PETTERSONBeing exposed to books. My father, who never read, he mostly --as I saw him, he read cowboy books, you know, and Nick Carter spy novels -- easy spy novels. When I was a kid, I saw him read those.
REHMSpinals, what are...
PETTERSONSpy novels, you know, like...
REHMOh, spy novels. Forgive me.
PETTERSONYeah, like the cold war and stuff, you know.
PETTERSONBut he had -- in the '30s, he bought this bookcase, very beautiful with carvings along the sides and in that bookcase there was a lot of really classics, like Tolstoy, Dausleyisk, Henry Gibson. Everything was in that bookcase, but he never touched the books. I never saw him touch the -- they were his books. And I asked my aunt once and she said, oh, he always talked about Arthur and his books, but I never saw him read them. And my mother didn't read them, although she was a voracious reader, but it looked like just a piece of furniture with colors.
PETTERSONAnd when I was, like, 13 years old, I just took one book out by accident and opened it and I could read it. I mean, it was obvious I could understand what was in the sentences, so I just started to read and I read them all. And I was exposed to books, which is important, I think. We talked about it yesterday with some friends and they said, if you have more than 500 books in a home, your boy will read. It doesn't -- you don't have to read for them again, I mean, you just -- he will read.
REHMBut you may read without writing.
PETTERSONSure, yeah, at some point, not everybody then, I guess, it says, click.
REHMWhen did it click for you?
PETTERSONWhen I was 18, I think.
REHMAlready working at...
PETTERSONNo, no, no. I was just--I was going to gymnasiums before I dropped out of that, too. I always drop out and I was -- you know, the same week, I was reading Hemmingway's Nick Adam stories and I read a book by the Swedish writer, Par Lagerkvist. He had the Nobel Prize, "Guests by Reality" or something the book was called in English. And another book by a Danish Norwegian writer called Aksel Sandemose. And all this comprised in one week and something happened. I want to do that. I want to do what they do. I want to make people feel the way they make me feel. And after that thought, there was no return. I mean, I couldn't go back. So whatever I did after that was temporary.
PETTERSONSee, I didn't want to go more to school. I tried, but I couldn't because I don't want to be academic. I don't want to be anything like that, so I just burnt the bridges and I did that for, like, 15 years. And I had nothing left. I just -- I've worked in a factory, I've worked there, I dropped out of another school because I thought if I'm going to be an architect or a teacher, I have to devote myself to that, of course. But I didn't want to. I wanted to be a writer, although I was not writing very much, in fact. Strange position to be in, so when I was 34, I finished my first story, although I wanted to be a writer for 17 years or something before that.
REHMHow were you supporting yourself?
PETTERSONWell, odd jobs.
PETTERSONAnd I started to work in a book shop in Oslo, which was my university, you could say, because I was the one who imported books, was my position. I got it at once and I could import any book I liked as long as I sold it.
REHMPer Petterson. The book is titled "I Curse the River of Time." Do join us, 800-433-8850. You're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." That first work that you sold, to whom and how?
PETTERSONYou mean in Norway publishing? It was, you know -- I had written -- I knew all these people, I knew my publisher who is sitting in the control room here, I knew him from before because this -- well, he lived some of the places that I lived and I knew about him. And I published two short stories and his editor, not him, he had written – he read those and he called me and said, do you have more? And I said, of course I do, but I hadn't. So he said, well, if you have more, you know where to send them. Okay, I said. And so I ran home, I said, I have to write more, so I -- just in desperation, I wrote two more stories and I sent them to him and said, okay, if you have, like, six more, we have a book. Can you write six more? Sure, I said. And it all happens in a few months.
PETTERSONWhereas I didn't succeed writing anything -- finish anything in the 17 years before.
REHMSo it just poured out.
PETTERSONYeah, suddenly. It was like, you know, (word?) is just a click that time too. It was a really strange -- it's because I always wanted to write the black dirty big American novel, there'd be a Norwegian novel, the working class novel, whatever. I tried to -- I was very good at beginnings, the first 15 pages were brilliant and then it died (laugh). And suddenly, I -- it was Arvid Johnson that saved me because the two first books are about him, too, in the third person and suddenly I realized, hey, you have a project and it's Arvid Johnson. Well, at the time being, it is. And it just opened up to me and it was my own home that was my subject.
REHMAnd, of course, we haven't talked very much about the fact that Arvid Johnson's wife wants nothing more to do with him.
REHMShe leaves him.
PETTERSONShe leaves him.
REHMShe asks him to leave her and two girls.
PETTERSONAnd two girls.
PETTERSONIt's pretty sad that because it's -- I think -- well, obviously, you see from the book that when they were very young they loved each other really. And they had a very great time together. It was very tender, in a way. And I wrote this chapter that let me -- have one chapter without pain, you see. And I try to do that in all the books I write that where I call a pastoral. I want to have a pastoral here. I have to have one chapter where it's very quiet and very, you know, tender, so...
PETTERSON...I wrote this about the two young people. But the last sentence -- I had to crush it, you know, so I -- the last sentence there, I crushed it.
REHMWhat was that last sentence?
PETTERSONWhat was it? It was like, how strange that something so fine can be grounded to dust and just disappear. And it's time that happens because time is the crook here, so he curses the river of time that has done this to his marriage, but of course, he's done it himself. Time doesn't do anything.
REHMNow, is that similar to your own marriage?
PETTERSONNot quite. I was divorced around the same time, but in not that way, not that way.
PETTERSONTwo girls I have, yes. And we did drive looking at fields singing Beatle's songs.
REHMThat was a wonderful scene in the book.
PETTERSONYeah, I liked writing it because...
PETTERSON...it was -- and I read it to my daughters and they said, yeah, it's just like we did, didn't we?
REHM...the Beatle's songs.
PETTERSONThey love Beatles.
REHMPer Petterson, he is, of course, the author of the award winning "Out Stealing Horses." His latest, "I Curse the River of Time."
REHMAnd welcome back. If you've just joined us, award-winning author Per Petterson is with me. His newest novel "I Curse the River of Time." Of course on our Reader's Review, we talked about the book "Out Stealing Horses," which is why I so wanted to invite Per Petterson in person to be on this program. Here's an e-mail from Barbara who's in Illinois, who says, "As I listen to your guest discuss his mother and the mother in his book, I feel he's describing my own mother who was born in Norway in 1917. The same strength and pride, same lack of formal education, immense intellect. She was the greatest influence in my life, passed away in 2006. Her sisters and other members of her family are still in Norway and much the same. Do you think this is a typical description of a Norwegian woman?"
PETTERSONWell, I don't know, really, but where I grew up, in the house -- in the (word?) house, like, eight apartments in that house and what I did notice was that the women were the strongest, I mean, in each flat, always. There was one strong man, but he was just strong by muscles. He beat up his family, but the woman sort of kept it all going. And always, when I was very little, you know, the mothers visited each other because they had to stay at home. They had, like, four or five kids and it was much more interesting to listen to them talk to each other than the man always sort of bragging and trying to show who was the strongest and stuff like that. And which was interesting for a boy, of course, but it was very interesting to listen to the mothers talk. And they were strong, yes. I think she is, in a way, typical. Not every woman where I grew up was kind of an intellectual, you know, type. My mother was the one who read books. I don't think so many others read so immensely like she did, but they kinda liked it that she did.
REHMIs Arvid an alcoholic?
PETTERSONNo, I don't think so. Everybody thinks that...
REHMHe drinks a lot.
PETTERSONHe gets drunk. He's 37 years...
REHMHe gets drunk a lot.
REHMDon't you think?
PETTERSONI don't think -- I'm not quite sure, I mean...
REHMI mean, to get drunk at his mother's birthday party, so drunk that he is not able to give her a toast.
PETTERSONWell, you know, when you write a book, it's -- you realize if it's a tragedy or a comedy. I just saw this film when it described the difference between a tragedy and something tragic. Tragic things happen accidentally, whereas a tragedy has to go wrong, like in Shakespeare, has to end with death. It has to end not on the upbeat, but on the downbeat. And I kind of realized that -- I realized that when I write the book, he cannot give that speech. So how can I write this chapter without him giving the speech at the same time expect himself to do it and the others expect him to do it? So I just had to wait that chapter out. I was not quite sure what to write. Will he give the speech? What will he say? I was very nervous about that, so I just didn't write it just until it came to me naturally that this was the way it's going to be. And this -- you know, this speech, he goes to talk about the Rio Grande, this river that is sort of as an image of how he was separated from his mother. And the Rio Grande was -- the big news was that it had dried up, so there was not water there, so they could, you know, they could walk across and meet each other in the middle of that river, which was just rubbish, of course, but he forgets, the speech is in his jacket. The jacket's in...
PETTERSONYeah, forgets the speech. And he doesn't remember, because he's drunk, what it was about the Rio Grande that was so important. So what he says to his mother when he's drunk, I don’t remember anything about you. And she says, that's just as well. Yeah, it was a little embarrassing that -- it was painful, but I heard that, you know, the Nobel Prize, winning it, Coetzee, the writer, he said something that I heard very recently. And he says, well, you write books, always move towards pain. And I was very relieved to hear that because that's what I've always been doing intuitively because that's what interesting stuff is. Comedy, you can watch on film. I don't want to read comical books. Tragedies.
REHMLet's take a caller in Syracuse, N.Y. Good morning, Van, you're on the air.
VANThis is very serendipitous because I was going on vacation this summer and I never heard of your author and I was in the library and I looked in the book club's favorites and I picked it out and I really enjoyed it. And so then I'm listening to the radio today and I'm hearing the author and then I'm hearing who it is. And I just finished the book "Out Stealing Horses." And my question is, I was confused by the ending and I was just wondering what you were thinking when you wrote the ending and why you wrote it the way you did.
PETTERSONWell, the ending is in this Swedish town, Karlstad. They're going to pick up the money that the father of the boy has earned in his logging business. And it turns out that the money's not much because most of the logs have been sort of drowned in the river and never got there. And so it's much less money than they thought. And the mother decides she's going to buy a suit for the boy, which is just about what the money is. And she does. And it looks like the mother is almost falling in love with her boy because he looks suddenly so grown up. And for a moment there, she has her 15 minutes in the book. She's not very important in the book, but suddenly she gets, you know, at the end there she's important for awhile. And then she sort of recedes back into anonymity after that. It's just when I wrote that scene, it just stopped. This is where it stops. Let it hang in a way. I had nothing to say after that. That's why it ended there.
VANOkay. I see. I...
PETTERSONI don't think that's a good answer.
VANNo, that's fine. I expected to flashback to the boy when he's older...
VAN...living in the house, you know. And so I was expecting something, but I guess, you know, I just finished it yesterday, so I'll...
VAN...have to think about it some more. I was...
VAN...expecting something different.
VANOr I don't know what I was expecting, to be honest with you, but it was -- it surprised me 'cause it -- kinda like it ended in the past with this memory...
VAN...and so anyway. Thanks.
PETTERSONIt begins with the ending, you know (laugh) .
REHMIt begins with the ending indeed. Van, thanks for calling. There are some similarities in the dialogue you use in this latest book "I Curse the River of Time" from similarities to what your mother said to you before she died on that boat. You gave her -- she read your first novel.
REHMAnd what did she say to you after she read it?
PETTERSONWell, really, I had -- this was my second book. I had short stories first and then this small novel. And both of them were more or less about my family in a fictional way. And my father never mentioned the books -- the two books. And my mother never mentioned the two books. They didn't speak about it, so I didn't really knew if they had read them at all, so...
REHMYou had, of course, sent them to them, had you not?
PETTERSONSure. But they never said anything. And I want -- I didn't know if they liked it or they were embarrassed by it or whatever. And then she rang -- I was freshly divorced, not very happy. And she called me and she said something about she had kind of a reason to call me and talk about that. And then she said, well, let's hope the next book won't be so childish as that. And I was, hey, what's this? And she just, you know, hung up.
REHMThat was it?
PETTERSONThat was it. That was the last thing she said to me. And, like, two weeks after, she was dead, so I never spoke to her again and was sort -- everything sort of hanging in the air and it was...
REHMSo you did not have the opportunity to ask her, well, what do you mean childish, why do you think it was childish or perhaps you were reluctant or even afraid to ask?
PETTERSONYou could say that, but...
PETTERSONYeah, and -- but I didn't get the opportunity. I had to swallow that one first. But the next one didn't come because she was dead. And it always bothered me that.
REHMI understand that.
PETTERSONNot just about the book, because it was kinda negative. The last thing we said to each other was -- I was a little irritated by it, that she said that. And it also hurt because that's what the book scored good -- very good reviews, but she was kinda expecting something else from me, something bigger, something more ambitious I think, which I may have done now, but she would never have read that.
REHMAnd then Arvid's wife says something to him in the book.
PETTERSONYes. He's been on this drive with his daughters. He knows that he's going to be divorced, although she hadn't -- they hadn't sorta agreed on when. And they come home to the flat after the driving. His wife is there and he feels very bad. And then she's at the bathroom coming out and he closes his eyes. He doesn't want to look at her. And she said, hey, stop that. It's so childish, she says, but he doesn't want to open his eyes because he knows how she looks. She looks like the girl who doesn't want him anymore, so that is childish. That's what a child do when they don't wanna face the things in front of them, they close their eyes and because they are children, we understand them, but this man is 37 years old, so we can understand him, but it's -- it is true, it is a childish reaction.
REHMWhy has Arvid had such a hard time growing up?
PETTERSONI really don't know. It's -- one of the chapters is when he's very little from where the family lived in the working class district inside Oslo. And I really thought about it myself. I have to write myself back to there, I thought, you know, just to see if there's something there to find that would explain this to me because I just wrote it, you know. I didn't think really much about it, why. And I wrote that chapter because to try to find out. And it really didn't. The part that I read is part of that chapter. What I found is what -- it was already there, in a way, this distance between them. Although she was early also diagnosed with cancer. And it may be that if you are really ill and you have small children and you have to do something about your illness, there will be a distance between you and the outside world. It includes your children, maybe. And maybe this is where this sort of gap between them starts. It may be like that. I don't have the answer, really. I don't know if I found that out.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Of course finding out is such an extraordinary thing for an author to say about his own character, that he doesn't quite understand why this most wanted child was so childish as an adult.
PETTERSONYeah, well, I don't know if there's a direct link between the two, but it's really -- what you do when you write books like I do, you don't know things. I don't plan or plot or anything. I just...
REHMYou don't do any of that?
REHMYou just begin to write?
PETTERSONDon't even like to do, you know, research. I hate research because it destroys the flow (laugh). Check afterwards, I say (laugh).
PETTERSONSo, no, I just -- I don't know this already when I start to write the book. That's the reason I write the book because to find out what this is and things come. And if the book -- if I get, you know, distracted, I can't go back until I find the mood that I was in when I start. I just can't go on with my plot.
REHMWhat about rewriting?
PETTERSONI don't do that. I write a chapter and then I work on the chapter. When it's finished, it's finished. And then when the book is finished, the book is finished. I don't do, like, full drafts. How could I, because I don't know what's going to happen. And I'm very tired when I'm finished the books because I have this hard time finding out what it is about and writing it as well as I can, which I think is a good thing. I think you write more -- you're sharp when you try to find out things because you have to be very precise. If you have a plot, you can always follow the plot and the sentences can be good, not so good, doesn't so much matter. But if you write like I have, you have to have good sentences sorta to pin down what this is.
REHMWill we learn more about Arvid?
PETTERSONMaybe. He will be in another book, I'm sure.
REHMIs he already in your mind? Have you begun another book?
PETTERSONI've begun another book, but not about Arvid Johnson. I can't write about him now.
PETTERSONI have to wait.
PETTERSONI don't know how he is -- what he's like now.
REHMWe don't know whether his mother dies?
PETTERSONYou don't really know. If Arvid Johnson is the same Arvid Johnson as in the book, in the wake his mother does die in that fire like my mother did, but here maybe she dies -- I chose the year 1989 for this novel because it was the year before my mother died. So it just gave me someplace in time. And I didn't realize when I started to write the book that 1989 was, of course, a big year in European history and also in China, you know, with the -- what happened in the Tiananmen Square where they shot the students there when -- who was rebelling. And the wall fell.
REHMThe wall. Of course.
PETTERSONThe wall and the Soviet Union sort of started to disintegrate. And my mother was very, you know, she was really following that. And I did of course and we all did. And -- but I didn't choose the year because of that, not for political reasons, just because it was the day before my mother -- the year before my mother died. So your intuition works for you. Your subconscious chooses things.
REHMIf you're a writer.
PETTERSONAnd if you trust it.
REHMPer Petterson, his latest novel "I Curse the River of Time." Congratulations.
PETTERSONThank you so much.
REHMIt's a beautiful novel. Thanks for listening, all. I'm Diane Rehm.
ANNOUNCER"The Diane Rehm Show" is produced by Sandra Pinkard, Nancy Robertson, Susan Nabors, Denise Couture and Monique Nazareth. The engineer is Tobey Schreiner. Dorie Anisman answers the phones. Visit drshow.org for audio archives, transcripts, Podcasts and CD sales. Call 202-885-1200 for more information. Our e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org and we're on Facebook and Twitter. This program comes to you from American University in Washington. This is NPR.
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