Linn Ullmann is an award-winning Norwegian author, journalist and literary critic. Daughter of film legends Liv Ullman and Ingmar Bergman, she has been heralded for the complex, vulnerable characters that populate her genre-bending novels. Ullmann’s fifth and latest work, “The Cold Song,” has just been released in the U.S. It centers on the murder of a young au pair in a Norwegian seaside town. The novel’s true intrigue, however, lies not in the crime, but in the constellation of players whose memories, secrets, and insecurities are unearthed by the young woman’s death. A conversation with author Linn Ullmann about her latest novel, her writing career and how her parents’ work influenced her own creative identity.


  • Linn Ullmann Author of five novels, including "The Cold Song."

Read An Excerpt

Read an excerpt from “The Cold Song” by Linn Ullmann. Copyright 2014 by Linn Ullmann. Published by Other Press. All rights reserved.

The Cold Song


  • 11:06:54

    MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. Linn Ullmann is the acclaimed Norwegian author of five novels, including "Grace" and "A Blessed Child." Her latest work, "The Cold Song," reads at once like a thriller and an intimate family portrait. Following a mysterious death, her characters struggle with issues of guilt and atonement. Here in the studio to talk about her latest book, her writing career, and her remarkable upbringing, Linn Ullmann.

  • 11:07:28

    MS. DIANE REHMI hope you'll join the conversation. Give us a call at 800-433-8850. Send us an email to Follow us on Facebook or send us a tweet. And welcome to you, Linn Ullmann.

  • 11:07:47

    MS. LINN ULLMANNThank you so much. It's wonderful being here.

  • 11:07:50

    REHMThank you, and just to remind you and our listeners, I talked with your mother at least 10 years ago. I hope she is well.

  • 11:08:05

    ULLMANNShe's very well, and she sends her regards to you.

  • 11:08:08

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:08:09

    ULLMANNShe's a great admirer.

  • 11:08:10

    REHMThank you. You've said that you began this as a love story. What happened? It turned into something else, a very powerful mystery as well as this portrait of a family.

  • 11:08:30

    ULLMANNWell, I wanted to write a love story, but not a story about falling in love or the beginning of love. And I didn't really want to write about the end of love, either. I wanted to go in right in the middle, with two people who have lived together, who are married, who have children, as John and Siri in this book have, who have struggles with parents, struggle with secrets. Who have made some unwise choices, who have started slipping a little bit in how they relate to each other, in terms of telling truths and keeping secrets and something that might be innocent is not as innocent anymore.

  • 11:09:15

    ULLMANNSo, I wanted to go into the middle of that. The middle of life and the middle of love, where it's broken, and look at all the pieces and see what's happening here. And that, in itself, is a mystery. I wrote the book at a time when I had just lost my father, and I was in the middle of life and dealing with loss and that question of how to proceed became very relevant for me. And I think that is also a question in the novel. How do these characters proceed when something is broken? Is there a way on?

  • 11:10:03

    REHMThere is an opening portion of the book, one of two openings, that I'd like you to read. And this is, indeed, both about a beginning and an ending.

  • 11:10:24

    ULLMANN"Milla, or what was left of her, was found by Siri and two of his friends when they were digging for buried treasure in the woods. They didn't know what it was they had found, but they knew it wasn't the treasure. It was the opposite of treasure. Later, when asked to explain to the police and their parents why they had been in the woods, Siri found this hard to do. Why had they started digging in that particular clearing, under that particular tree? And what exactly had they been looking for?

  • 11:11:01

    ULLMANNTwo years earlier, in July, 2008, everyone had been out searching for Milla. Far and wide, over land and sea, in ditches and trenches, in the Sand Hills out on the point and all around the forbidding cliffs, in the pile of rubble behind the old school, and in the empty tumble down houses at the end of (word?) Road. Where grass grew out of the windows and no child was allowed to go. Siri remembered scouring every inch of town, thinking she might just be hiding somewhere, waiting to be found.

  • 11:11:33

    ULLMANNAnd that maybe, if you looked really hard, he'd be the one to find her. Everyone had searched for Milla, even the boy known as KB, the one who was later arrested and charged with her murder, searched for her. And for two years, she had lain buried under that tree in the woods, unfound, covered by dirt and grass and moss and twigs and stones, until she had almost turned to dirt herself, all except for her skull and bits of bones and her teeth and the long dark hair, which was no longer long and dark, but wispy and withered, as if it had been yanked up of the ditch, roots and all.

  • 11:12:14

    ULLMANNThat summer, when she went missing, Siri thought he had seen her everywhere. She was the face in the shop window, the head bobbing in the waves, the long dark hair of some unknown woman fluttering in the breeze. Once, Milla had looked at him and laughed. She had been real, like him, like his bike. But then, she was a veil of night and frost that sometimes slipped through him and swept happiness away. He never forgot her. In the two years she had laid buried, he'd think about her when he couldn't sleep or when autumn was coming and the air smelled of cordite, damp and withered leaves.

  • 11:12:54

    ULLMANNBut at some point, he had stopped looking for her and no longer believed that he would be the one to find her."

  • 11:13:00

    REHMLinn Ullmann, reading from her new book, it's titled, "The Cold Song." And if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Disappearance is another theme. Disappearance of Milla, disappearance in the sense that marriage come together and then disappear. On this same day that Milla dies, there is a birthday celebration for a 75-year-old woman, and she has, in one sense, disappeared from herself. So, that notion of disappearance is throughout the novel.

  • 11:14:04

    ULLMANNAbsolutely. It was one of the first words that chimed with me, if you can say that in English, when I was starting to write this book. I had this idea of the girl appearing in this family. The husband, the wife, the children and the matriarch, the one who turns 75. And that her presence causes all kinds of different reactions. This family reacts to her in different ways, and Milla is there, as a babysitter. But then she disappears, and it's really her disappearance that triggers the story to unfold, or the different stories to unfold. The mysteries of this family, so this is not so much a mystery of what happened to Milla, although that's there too.

  • 11:14:56

    REHMBecause we've just heard what happened to Milla.

  • 11:15:00

    ULLMANNThat kind of clears up in the beginning, but the real mystery is about the people who she touched, both by her presence, and then by her disappearance. And then, once I started getting into writing about these characters, this family, they -- I thought about all the ways that we do disappear, in small and big ways. Milla, obviously, disappears in a very violent way. John and Siri, who are the married couple in this, the love story, they disappear from each other because he's having writer's block. He's a novelist, he can't...

  • 11:15:44

    REHMHe's having writer's block.

  • 11:15:47

    ULLMANNYes, and the thing with writer's block is once you give into it, and you don't write, because that's the only thing that will writer's block is writing anyway, even if everything you write is horrible, but he gives into it. He starts creating shadow worlds for himself. He starts contacting a host of different women that he imagines having these wonderful love affairs with, and, of course, when he meets them, he's quite bored with them. So, but in doing that and little betrayals turning into greater betrayals, that is a kind of a disappearance for both of them.

  • 11:16:23

    ULLMANNAnd of course, then there is this party, because Siri, the woman in the marriage, she feels -- she has great guilt toward her mother. Because there are stories that go way back in the book.

  • 11:16:41

    REHMWay back.

  • 11:16:42

    ULLMANNOf guilt and disappearance. And that she feels responsible for. And I recognize myself in Siri, in the way that sometimes you want to do something and you want to do one thing that's gonna make everything OK. It's going to make it good again. So, she decides to throw this birthday party for her mother. But her mother really doesn't want it.

  • 11:17:07

    REHMShe doesn't want it.

  • 11:17:07

    ULLMANNHer mother is a stubborn, angry, stylish, very independent matriarch. She would rather just take a walk on her 75th birthday. She certainly doesn't want a party. She's a bit of an anarchist. And this is the last thing she wants. And nobody wants the party, but Siri insists on planning and throwing this huge party.

  • 11:17:35

    REHMAnd the one thing you neglected to say is that Siri's mother is an alcoholic, who has not touched a drink in years and years, until...

  • 11:17:50

    ULLMANNThe night of the party. And so, rather than coming down to greet her guests, as Siri has planned, she sits in her room drinking. And she has decided very, you know, not as a mistake, that she has decided and she has willed it now, that she will start drinking again, because she can't stand what's going on. So, she's sitting up in her room, angry and drinking and getting -- and trying to write some kind of speech. But that's working out too good.

  • 11:18:21

    REHMTotally drunk. Linn Ullmann. Her new book is titled, "The Cold Song." We'll take a short break here. I look forward to hearing your questions and comments.

  • 11:20:00

    REHMAnd if you're just joined us, Linn Ullman is here. This is her fifth novel just published in the United States. It's titled "The Cold Song" and you may recognize her last name. She is of course the daughter of Norwegian actress Liv Ullman. Her father...

  • 11:20:32

    ULLMANN...was Ingmar Bergman.

  • 11:20:35

    REHMNow I've always been told that his last name was to be pronounced Berryman.

  • 11:20:43


  • 11:20:44

    REHMAh, and that is that pronunciation. How long did you spend with the two of them?

  • 11:20:56

    ULLMANNWell, the two of them together my three first years at the Island of Faro. So it was -- that island was my first home. I don't remember much from these three first years. I remember some very kind island women who were very brown and very -- had big bellies and big breasts and just big arms taking care of me because they were out -- my mother and father obviously were out working on set. But this island, which was a place my father decided to stay for the rest of his life and where he made most of his films and wrote most of his scripts, became a place where I would return until the summer that he died, every year, every summer.

  • 11:21:55

    ULLMANNSo that was -- and that's an island that I -- it's very barren, it's quite beautiful but in an uncharming kind of way. It's not -- it doesn't try to charm you. It’s not one of those places that says, oh come here, be here, look how beautiful I am. It's a very strict and almost forbidding place in its beauty. And I think that that's what appealed to my father and that is where he got the scenery and -- which was important to him and the visions for his films. But I think it also became important in my work.

  • 11:22:42

    ULLMANNSo there's always say -- there's always a little hello to that island or a little, you know, something to that -- a conversation with both the place and the surroundings of that atmosphere in my writing.

  • 11:22:55

    REHMAnd place is so strong in this book, a sense of place, a sense of this quiet area, largely wooded, a few houses, a few neighborhoods. But it feels lonely.

  • 11:23:20

    ULLMANNThe place where "The Cold Song" takes -- or happens, it's a fictional place but I did take a little bit of the spirit or the atmosphere of Faro where I grew up. And also someplace that resonates with probably the characters and maybe a little bit the way I was -- where I was when I was writing it. A kind of solitary or lonely place where it's -- where you both feel that this is the place like Siri feels in the book. She feels that this is her place, Milla and the house, the big beautiful white house and the area around it.

  • 11:24:01

    ULLMANNBut it is also a forbidding place. It's a lonely place and that's a little bit where all of the characters are. I mean, it's a book -- because of the secrets that these characters have to deal with and the brokenness and that they have -- that they've messed up and that they want to make it all right again. That point in life can be quite lonely, just that exact place where you just want to make it all right but you don't know if it's too late or if it's -- if that's actually going to happen.

  • 11:24:44

    REHMJohn, the husband, has promised his reading public and his publisher a trilogy. He has completed two very successful portions of that but he is absolutely stuck. So he goes to one room, the attic in the house day after day after day and does nothing. And his wife knows he's doing nothing. That sense of blockage is almost palpable because they both know and they both lie. And I wondered whether you had ever experienced that yourself.

  • 11:25:49

    ULLMANNYes, a little bit when writing this book. I think every writer -- and I certainly do at times -- will have light bouts of writer's block, which is okay because you need to sort of -- you need resistance and you need the struggle.

  • 11:26:03


  • 11:26:06

    ULLMANNAnd if there's all flow and inspiration and -- you know, it's probably not very good writing. But then once if you start giving in to the writer's block as John does, my father used to say that if you give into writer's block and don't write, your creativity is going to turn against you and it's going to become demoness. So it becomes very destructive, which obviously happens in the book. And I -- my writer's block maybe wasn't as bad the time I had it when writing this book as John's. But it was that feeling of, you know, going everyday and just wanting to do everything but write. And the dog looking at me saying, you're never going to write that book, are you?

  • 11:26:55

    ULLMANNAnd just feeling, you know, awful and wanting to do everything but write. You know, clean the house and have family meetings and, you know, annoy my children and my husband with new rules in the family. You know, being very creative but in the wrong place. So I finally looked at the dog there at my computer and thought of John. And I thought, okay, so let's -- you know, let's give the block to John now and see -- you know, blow it up and see what happens. And that was ...

  • 11:27:34

    REHMSo you transferred your own writer's block to your character.

  • 11:27:40

    ULLMANNYes. And that was very good because then I could blow it up and I could make it worse and I could...

  • 11:27:47

    REHMYou could really look at it.

  • 11:27:48

    ULLMANN...and I had a lot of fun writing John because I have a lot of sympathy for him, even though, I mean, he makes some very unwise choices and he's -- you know, he cheats on his wife. But he's -- he is just so stuck. And it was fun -- it's fun to write -- it was fund to write a male character and to go into that whole head of his and what's going on.

  • 11:28:22

    REHMThe other element you're playing with in this novel is time. You take the reader from Milla's death immediately to her -- these young boys playing prior to the time they found her grave. And then you go totally elsewhere and you back up in time and you move forward in time. And you repeat a sequence from another's point of view. Was that playful for you or was it something that you just had to do?

  • 11:29:19

    ULLMANNWell, it was both. It was both playful, because that's how this story had to be told. It had to go back and forth in time because part of what's going on here is that everyone -- well, they're partly trying to figure out what happened when Milla disappeared. But then they're trying to figure out what happened when -- how did we get here, exactly here in our lives and how are we going to proceed? So, you know, I think of this in my own life. I think, well, how did I get exactly -- you know, how did I end up making this choice or end up here?

  • 11:29:57

    ULLMANNAnd, well, it was probably because of that. But maybe it wasn't that. Maybe it was something before that again. Or maybe it was if I put a different light on it or hear a different story on it or a take on it, it was maybe something to the left or something to the right or even further back in time. So that way of viewing life more from the center than just simply looking back, but looking all around became a necessity to write and to deal with time in that way in this book.

  • 11:30:32

    ULLMANNAnd also because there's so many different characters...

  • 11:30:34


  • 11:30:36

    ULLMANN...that when -- you know, when Siri looks at a story and -- her story and her and John's story, she will see one thing. But then when John or their daughter Alma looks at it, she'll see something else. it's almost as if each of the characters has, you know, a kind of inner camera. And the camera will catch different things. Some will go close up -- and I like to do this when I write too, you know. If you go and you do a close up of someone, you'll see something very specific.

  • 11:31:09

    REHM...very specific.

  • 11:31:11

    ULLMANNBut then of course if you go further away, I mean, you'll see a lot of other things but there are specifics you won't see. So working visually like that and with lighting and almost with a camera is what makes writing both playful and relevant.

  • 11:31:32

    REHMAll right. We're going to open the phones now. Questions, comments for Linn Ullman. Her new book is titled "The Cold Song." Let's go to Matt in Edwardsville, Ill. You're on the air.

  • 11:31:52

    MATTHi, Diane. Hi, Linn.

  • 11:31:53


  • 11:31:54

    MATTWhen -- I was wondering how you would compare "The Cold Song" to your father's film "The Virgin Spring."

  • 11:32:04

    ULLMANNOh goodness, that's one of the films I haven't thought that much about while writing this book. It's strange to think about how influences come about.

  • 11:32:18


  • 11:32:19

    ULLMANNI think that all my books, in one way or another, are conversations with certain of my father's films or with my father's work.

  • 11:32:30


  • 11:32:33

    ULLMANNBut then I think all books really are -- or the books I like to read are conversations with other works as well. I mean, I can say that there -- I had some elements of maybe finding an Alexandra in this book, that I thought I had some elements of persona that I, you know, a little bit thought of . "The Virgin Spring" wasn't its presence though -- it's interesting that you bring that film up -- in my mind. But then, you know, I can say -- honestly say that the TV series "The Wire" was just as important as -- when writing this book and creating, for example, the character Alma and when writing this book as maybe one of my father's films.

  • 11:33:19

    MATTWell, thank you. It sounds like a great book and I'm definitely going to pick it up. So...

  • 11:33:23

    ULLMANNThank you.

  • 11:33:23

    REHMAll right. Thanks for calling. And let's go to Cam in Hyattsville, Md., after I remind you you are listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Cam, you're on the air.

  • 11:33:40


  • 11:33:41

    REHMHi there. Go right ahead.

  • 11:33:44

    CAMI'm so happy to be talking with y'all. My question for Linn is that speaking from a different perspective, do you feel that being kind of outside of the box, kind of different improves your ability to connect with readers, especially here in America, especially here in the United States that comes from the perspective of...

  • 11:34:09

    REHMWriting from, in fact, the Norwegian perspective how does that help you to connect with readers here in the United States?

  • 11:34:23

    ULLMANNWell, to me it's especially fun. I've always felt a little outside the box because I moved so much when I was a child. I grew up partly in Norway, partly in Sweden, partly in New York City. Was always reading both English and -- or American literature and Scandinavian literature. And so I feel a little outside the box at home in Norway too because, well, first and foremost because I can't ski. And that sometimes is a problem in Norway during the winters.

  • 11:34:57

    ULLMANNBut I think that having a little bit of a placeness-ness (sic) or feeling out of the box, which was the phrase that the listener used, I think that is -- has been a good thing for me as a writer. Because I remember ever since I was a child and I was, you know, always the new kid in class, I went to a lot of different schools, and I wasn't in the middle of stuff because I didn't, you know, know anybody yet.

  • 11:35:25

    ULLMANNSo there's -- you know, you have to look, that's the thing, to figure out how am I going to survive here when you're, you know, eight years old or ten years old in the new class. How am I going to survive? Who has the power? Who -- what's going on. What is the secret language going on here? So very early I guess I was fascinated and felt that almost as a matter of survival to figure out, you know, what's going on. What's the secret languages. Who has the power? Who's in charge? Who are the...

  • 11:35:55

    REHMHow many different schools did you attend?

  • 11:36:00

    ULLMANNWell, by the time I graduated high school, which I did in New York City, which is 12th grade, I had gone to 13 different schools. So -- and a lot of those schools were, you know -- some of them were fun, some of them were weird, some of them were strict private schools, girl schools. Some of them were regular public schools. You know, there were American schools, Swedish schools, Norwegian schools.

  • 11:36:26

    REHMAnd this was because your parents kept moving around.

  • 11:36:30

    ULLMANNMy mother -- since I lived with my mother. My father was very fine living on this island, you know, writing his scripts. And he had carved out his life where he could -- as a man, he could sit and work and do only that. And his five wives and nine children took care of the nine children. And that, you know, so that was the way it was.

  • 11:36:51

    REHMFive wives and nine children.

  • 11:36:53


  • 11:36:55

    REHMWere you the first?

  • 11:36:56

    ULLMANNNo, I was the last.

  • 11:36:58

    REHMYou were the last.

  • 11:36:59


  • 11:37:00

    REHMAnd so you chose to stay with your mother.

  • 11:37:07

    ULLMANNWell, I don't think that I choose -- I'm very happy that I did, but I don't think at that time that that was a choice. He chose that...

  • 11:37:16

    REHMThe novel is titled "The Song." (sic) Linn Ullman is my guest. We have a short break here. And when we come back, more of your calls, your email. I look forward to hearing from you.

  • 11:39:59

    REHMAnd welcome back. My guest is our Linn Ullmann. Her new novel, "The Cold Song." She is, of course, the daughter of actress Liv Ullmann. Her father, director Ingmar Bergman. And if you'd like to join us, 800-433-8850. Send us your email to Next to Nick in Louisville, Kentucky. Hi Nick. You're on the air.

  • 11:40:39

    NICKHi Diane. I am a huge fan of yours.

  • 11:40:41

    REHMThank you.

  • 11:40:42

    NICKAnd Linn, you sound lovely. I've never read your books. But I love your parents a lot.

  • 11:40:48

    ULLMANNWell, thank you.

  • 11:40:49

    NICKSo, I was -- I plan on reading the book. I was curious, though, because you had such marvelously talented, respected parents in their own creative field, so distinct, what it was like for you, finding your creative outlet. If that was ever a struggle and how you came upon novels and writing.

  • 11:41:14

    ULLMANNWell, I grew up in an artistic family, and I think what my -- what both my parents gave me, very early, was the sense that being an artist was very much about being a professional, about getting up every morning and doing your job. My father used to misquote Gertrude Stein, saying that to write is 99 percent discipline and one percent inspiration. When I eventually started reading Gertrude Stein on my own, I found out that the quote is to write is 99 percent elimination and one percent inspiration.

  • 11:42:01

    ULLMANNAnd I think they both -- they're both good quotes.

  • 11:42:05


  • 11:42:06

    ULLMANNBut, I think that my -- I never had any wish to go into movies or director or...

  • 11:42:14

    REHMNone. Absolutely none?

  • 11:42:15

    ULLMANNNone. No. I had a long standing love affair with classical ballet and danced. Until I was 16, I was almost really good, but not really good. Which means that they, you know, you basically are told, at that age, but I think I took my dancing into my work, because, you know, the movement of the body, the physicality, the vulnerability of the body and how they move across the page, if I can say it like that. And how they move together. So the whole choreography of dance has become very important to me in my work.

  • 11:42:53

    ULLMANNBut I think that you're asking me, you know, how did I become a writer? Well, I think -- that, I have to say, if it's a childhood thing, I have to say it's my grandmother. My maternal grandmother. She was a book seller. She was a very sassy woman, very stylish woman. She worked -- she was -- her -- she also did a lot of writing. Language was very important to me, and she very, very early said, you know, don't say anything if you don't mean it. Language comes with responsibility, so think about something before you say it. And if you write it, you have to mean it even more.

  • 11:43:34

    ULLMANNSo, she instilled in me this respect for language and she gave me books. I used to -- she took care of me a lot, so I would, you know, I would come down to the bookstore where she worked and where she was responsible for the Foreign Literature Department, and, you know, she let me sit and the children's -- cause I was a little kid -- she'd let me sit there, you know...

  • 11:43:55

    REHMSure. Sure.

  • 11:43:55

    ULLMANNReading books and I even pretended as a nine, 10 year old that I worked there, and they would all, in the bookstore, sort of let me work there and help out to recommend, you know, children's books.

  • 11:44:07


  • 11:44:08

    ULLMANNAnd she would -- and since I moved around so much, she'd always send me these packages of books. And so she gave me books, and she was the one -- I think I became, you know, before you become a writer, always, this is for every writer, you are a reader.

  • 11:44:27

    REHMYou are a reader. Absolutely.

  • 11:44:28

    ULLMANNSo she was the one who gave me reading. And I dedicated my third book to her, "Grace," because without her, there wouldn't have been any reading, and I just still remember being in a new place and those packages at that post office -- always the same brown paper and the handwriting from my grandma, and knowing that, you know, school day or being the new kid in class might be hard, but when I came home, I sure had a great book that, you know, that she would have picked out for me.

  • 11:45:00

    REHMThat's lovely. Nick, I hope that answers it.

  • 11:45:04

    NICKYes. Thank you both, so much.

  • 11:45:05

    REHMAnd thank you for calling. I wonder, Linn, whether you ever found yourself somewhat resentful of your parents, because you were always the new kid on the block. Because you didn't have a place of permanence or a place where you could say, I'm home. I'm home for good.

  • 11:45:36

    ULLMANNI don't think it made me resentful, because I was -- I mean, all those fun things I got to do. You know, travel and go, you know, you know, be the new kid in class is, you know, I got to experience a lot and, you know, I could tell my friends about it. I think the other part of your question -- that sort of feeling of now I'm home. This is my home. Here I am safe. That is very deep in me, and I think that's very -- a force or something that's a theme in all my books. People, you know, trying to figure out where's home. Certainly in this last book, but in all the books.

  • 11:46:32

    ULLMANNYou know, where can I come, at the day's end and say, OK, this is where I belong. And I think that's probably why I write about characters who are slightly, you know, they're a little off.

  • 11:46:46

    REHMThat they're off.

  • 11:46:47

    ULLMANNThey're not feeling right at home or they're feeling a bit displaced. And, so writing is a constant -- and reading, is a constant, you know...

  • 11:46:59

    REHMComing home.

  • 11:47:00

    ULLMANNComing home. Or trying to come home.

  • 11:47:04

    REHMThe character Milla, who dies, at the beginning, or the end of the novel, has a mother who is a photographer, who has photographed Milla practically since the day she was born. Taken photographs of her in every single situation, as she's growing up. And has exhibited these photographs, has become famous for exhibiting these photographs. Milla can no longer stand to have her photograph taken. She's now 19 when she becomes the au pair to John and Siri. I wondered what it was about that sense of pulling away from the passion of the mother to photograph that child.

  • 11:48:20

    REHMI wondered if you identified with Milla at all.

  • 11:48:27

    ULLMANNWell, I think that I certainly have an understanding for Milla. Her mother, who is a minor, but important character in the book. As you say, is an artist and one of her favorite subjects to photograph is her daughter. And I think, as a child, or I know, as a child, Milla cannot, you know, she can't defend herself against the lens. And of being seen. And what children want, and that's a theme in the book too, because the children are very important in the book. Both the children of John and Siri, but also Milla's story as a child.

  • 11:49:10

    ULLMANNI mean, it's to be simply to be seen. This book is all about seeing and not seeing, and seeing the wrong thing and trying to figure out what they're supposed to see. But just to see the other is so difficult, and when you got a lens there, you're not being seen. You're being seen through a lens and through the eyes and being interpreted and being used in some way. And I can understand that Milla, or the way I created Milla, that she just becomes very, very angry at these pictures, because also, she grows up so -- confronting, as a young girl, these childhood pictures of herself.

  • 11:49:59

    ULLMANNChild -- being a child -- being a vulnerable child, sleeping child. A child in her dotted underpants. You know, all these vulnerable situations that you are in a child, and being exposed in that way, feels to her as a betrayal and she even tries to go to all the libraries and borrow all the books and she never returns them. Because, of course, the lens is -- it exposes you. And you're asking, do I identify with that? Well, I've certainly grown up with, you know, in a world where both celebrity, or being well known, but also where lenses, where ways of seeing have been very important.

  • 11:50:47

    ULLMANNAnd, you know, as a kid, sure. I just wanted to, you know, be just a kid who was just seen, maybe not, through lenses and interpretations.

  • 11:51:02

    REHMDid your father turn the lens on you?

  • 11:51:05

    ULLMANNNot really so much. But I hated, I hated being photographed, and I...

  • 11:51:10

    REHMDid you?

  • 11:51:10

    ULLMANNSo, that's very much like Milla. I mean, I hated being photographed, I hated being in any kind of, you know, mother/daughter type of portraits and things, because I wanted to do my own thing. This is when I was a kid. But, again, you take something that's yours and you blow it up. You make it a little different, so the relationship with Milla and her mother is not autobiographical, or at least not exactly in the way one always thinks. Because the whole book is about ways of seeing and trying to see the other person, which I think is one of the hardest things to do.

  • 11:51:58

    ULLMANNAnd I, Siri even asks her husband, at one point in the book, is that the point of writing? Is it actually to try to understand the other? To go out of yourself and to be the other, which, I guess, is what's called empathy. I mean, and empathy is just one of the hardest things in the world, because there are so many things shadowing our vision.

  • 11:52:27

    REHMYou live in Oslo. You do your work. Your husband, your children are there. Your mother is here in the United States. How often do you see her?

  • 11:52:45

    ULLMANNOh, I see her. She -- you know, I have kids, and she's a proud grandma. So, I see her as much as, I guess, anyone who lives on two different continents, sees each other. But, you know, she's a very busy woman, and I am too. And we're both artists, and we know that that's the way it goes. So, we don't get to see each other that much, but we see each other plenty.

  • 11:53:16

    REHMYou're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." How are your children? How old are they?

  • 11:53:24

    ULLMANNI have a 10-year-old daughter with the husband that I have now and we have been married to for 17 years, who's also a writer and a poet. And then I have a 23-year-old son from an earlier marriage, a budding filmmaker. And, you know, you ask me about my parents and things, and I understand that, but, of course, I'm first and foremost, you know...

  • 11:53:49

    REHMA mother.

  • 11:53:49

    ULLMANNA mother. At a certain time, you know, your roles switch, or you become -- well, you become all of those things, and that's really, I guess, what I write about too. Because you become so many roles. You try to work, you want to be a writer, you're a mother, you're a daughter. And, yeah, I'm very proud of my kids.

  • 11:54:07

    REHMTell me about the translation by Barbara Havelan. To what extent did you play a part in that? Because I gather you continue to write in your home language.

  • 11:54:22

    ULLMANNI write in Norwegian, but since I'm almost bilingual, or I -- Barbara Havelan, who's a wonderful translator from the Norwegian, she and I worked together on books before, and we work very, very closely together on the translation. And after the translation was finished, I have a wonderful editor and publisher at Other Press. Her name is Judith Gurewich. She also gave me the opportunity to go back, revisit the text and to actually take it back into the cutting room and write it as I would have written it if it was in English.

  • 11:55:02

    ULLMANNAnd then that was two years later, when the book had been published all over Europe, basically, and, you know, you start tweaking a little there. You think, well, there are 20 different words for this word in Norwegian.

  • 11:55:15


  • 11:55:16

    ULLMANNYou know, and then I started a little there and then I started, you know, writing a little there, and then I had to change something a little later. So, it became -- well, it was like taking the book back into the cutting room, and that was fun process.

  • 11:55:29

    REHMAnd tell me about the title, "The Cold Song," because I gather that is not an exact translation of the Norwegian.

  • 11:55:39

    ULLMANNNo. It's a completely different title in Norwegian. "The Cold Song" is from a song by Purcell, from many hundred years ago, about waking up. It's from the opera "King Arthur," and it's about a very cold man waking up and seeing everything as it is. And I heard that song, sung by Klaus Nomi, who's a strange little, strange artist, and I thought, can you take that sort of shivering, waking up, trying to see everything exactly as it is. Can you put that into a book and sort of stretch it out into a book? This song. So, that's the story behind "The Cold Song."

  • 11:56:24

    ULLMANNThe Norwegian title, "The Dierbaar," simply means precious, valuable, the thing you cannot lose. And in the beginning, there's a discussion, in the beginning of the book, there is a discussion between three boys burying treasure about what they should put in the treasure when they bury it. And it has to be something dierbaar. It has to be something really valuable, because it's not a treasure if you don't -- if, you know, if it's just anything. It need to be.

  • 11:56:54

    ULLMANNSo, the book then discusses what is the most valuable to all those characters.

  • 11:57:01

    REHMAnd the book is titled, in English, "The Cold Song." Linn Ullmann is the author. This is her fifth novel, and just published here in the US. Congratulations.

  • 11:57:19

    ULLMANNThank you very much.

  • 11:57:20

    REHMAnd thank you for being here.

  • 11:57:23

    ULLMANNThank you for having me.

  • 11:57:24

    REHMAnd thanks all for listening. I'm Diane Rehm.

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