Author. Screenwriter. Cyclist. Brother. Father to Three Boys
Interviewed by Sergej Timofejev 28/02/2013
The above is the Twitter bio of Erlend Loe, the Norwegian author whose books have been translated into 30 languages. He (along with Haruki Murakami) has long since gained cult status in Russia, and is becoming evermore well-known in Latvia, where his novel “Doppler” came out in 2011, and before then, the novels “Naive. Super” and “Kurt – A Four Book Series”. In the last decade, Loe's name has been closely linked to the term “the new sincerity”, which described a new wave of cultural phenomena that had come to take the place of confusing postmodernism games. In a sense, “the new sincerity” was like an observant child that is wandering around in an adult world, and then describes it without preconceptions, ideologies and stylistic layering – things are described as “what they are”. Short sentences, an upward view from below, the small (and universal) problems of the small man... “It is obvious that in such a situation, memoirs and novels – written in the first person and using simple sincerity as their selling point – will become the main literary genre. In the visual arts, “the new sincerity” can be seen in a return to the painting of objects; in the theatrical arts – in the shocking directness of verbatim in both the 'new dramas' and social theater,” wrote Alexander Burenkov in 2007, in the life-style magazine BE-IN.
It seems that “the new sincerity” still prevails. But has it become the guideline for the cultural processes of the last decade? Probably not – because it never laid claim to that. That would be like a child suddenly wanting to become old. Why would he want that? Except, maybe, to play at “being grandpa”. But what does the writer himself think about this? It was exactly this question that I wanted to put to Loe as, at nine in the morning, I walked through the doors of the Radisson Hotel on Elizabetes Street. (Loe had come to Riga in March 2012 for a public meeting, organized by the publishing house Nordic and held in the offices of the Nordic Council of Ministers – which, during the event, was literally overflowing with fans of the author.) Erlend has just finished breakfast and is sitting in front of his laptop in the hotel's cafe; he is dressed in jeans, sensible boots and one of his plaid shirts. Yes, he is exactly the type of writer that J.D. Salinger wrote about in “Catcher in the Rye”, when Holden Caulfield says: “ ...you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.”
But I'm not going to ask him about his favorite bicycle brand, nor how is he managing with raising three boys. No – I put on a serious face, pull out my recorder and begin:
Erlend Loe in Riga. Photo: Daiga Kalniņa
Your book, “Naive. Super”, is looked upon as one of the most important works representing “the new sincerity”, or “the new sentimentality”. And now some time has passed. What is happening in literature today? Are there any new trends? And overall – where is it all leading to?
A complicated question... I always just follow my instincts. I've never tried putting myself into some sort of unified scene in which my books, with the aid of some sort of imagined threads, are linked to those of other authors
But are there any contemporary writers that seem close to you?
I like a lot of them, but there aren't that many that are really close to me. One of them is Douglas Coupland. Just a couple of years before “Naive. Super” came out in 1996, he published his “Life After God”, which had many similar things and feelings. And, after I had read it, I worked on forgetting all of it, because a lot of what was in there was close to what I also wanted to say. But before then, I really liked his Generation X... However, I think that what we're talking about is more complex than “the new sentimentality” or “the new sincerity”. I too, truthfully, don't completely understand what these terms mean.
Yes, of course “Naive. Super” was a sort of reaction to the 90's, at least to the 90's in Scandinavia, where the youth culture of the time was very precocious, cynical, cold, and even nihilistic. And I was also part of it all. Which I'm happy about. Because my sense of humor is from there; at the base of it is a sense of irony towards the world. The feeling that you are above everything, and can make commentary on it in a not-so-serious way.
At the same time, I wanted to write something that would go against the current, because everything had become rather precocious and too cold. I simply wanted to say that we are still the same human and vulnerable beings; perhaps, even more vulnerable than usual, because this lauded “coldness” – it is the symptom of some sort of problem, after all.
I wanted to write something warmer, “rounder” and more sincere. Although the novel, “Naive. Super”, does have its share of irony. It doesn't contain sincerity in some absolute proportion...
Yes, it really isn't a manifesto.
Not at all. But, in terms of the literature that is being written and published right now, then my encounters with it are actually quite random. You see, I follow the movie industry well enough, but when it comes to reading, I don't read everything as it comes out – I'm not that interested. I want to read only really good things, which is why I first read “about the books” in several Danish and Norwegian magazines. That's how I learn about some authors, and then afterward, I head to the bookstore. In any case, it's very hard to define some sort of definite trend. There are some sort of movements and directions appearing all the time in the cultural history; they become established, but after ten years, a new revolution begins – a new change, a new direction. It's like a tree that is growing in all directions at once. And we've already climbed pretty high up this tree. And everything that is under us and around us – it all exists, it is all possible, we can pick a fruit from any branch.
That is, it is an absolutely individualistic choice...
Yes, at least in our part of the world. Because it used to be that the development of literature was, in many ways, on the same road as the development of society. There was a lot of politics here. A lot of questions on realism; about how to influence people – how to make them better. And, when society puts pressure on a writer, he, of course, answers. But currently in Scandinavia, the system isn't driving the writer to any certain kind of reaction. Because the system is functioning well enough. It's not too repressive. Our press is free. If I want to write that our prime minister is childish and silly, and even use his real name – I can do that. No one is going to become too upset about it, and most likely, neither will the prime minister. Only your imagination and skills dictate how far you can go.
But the characters in your books frequently try to get out of the system – stop being a hamster on a wheel, try to change the regular order of things. That is, a certain social subtext does exist, right?
That's true. But I wouldn't call it political thinking. That's not my model. Yes, even in a wonderfully functioning society, it is possible to be afraid of something – something's not in order here, it's not quite right. However, I can't affirm that I'm describing some sort of societal symptoms. Of course, in this sense, “Doppler” does hold to a slightly straighter course than the other books. Gently, but insistently, society pushes each one of us onto the “right track” – so that everything is done “as it should be”. And the main character in “Doppler” suddenly comes to that realization. And then the rebellion begins.
Not a rebellion against a certain system, but against all of the systems at once...
In my opinion, what you said about the “cold” and “warm” culture is very interesting to us as well. Because our world is northern, through and through. In which relationships between people maybe don't form as quickly as they do in the South, but these relationships do have, possibly, more worth. What sort of Scandinavian cultural characteristics – not just books – come to mind when speaking about the “warm” culture – the one that defends the warmth of human relationships?
Frequently, these are those so-called “feel-good films” and “feel-good books” – which the cultural elite look upon with a certain arrogant tolerance. All of these romantic comedies... But that's what the public so desperately wants. And I could even agree to saying that “Naive. Super” is a kind of feel-good book.
I, myself, am open to a variety of styles. And I haven't been looking down at these things for a long while now. They're really not that easy to make. If you give a director the assignment to film something that people will be able to love, and will even want to watch several times – that's a very difficult assignment. It's much simpler to go out on the street and, with a shaky hand-held camera, film a documentary about some problematic “sore spot” in society. That is very easy to do, because you can always find material for that sort of a film. Things like that are everywhere. But to give people a dose of hope or optimism – that, you see, is much harder to do. That's why I respect films and books like that.
Of course, it's possible to step over the line and create the complete opposite effect. But, if you do it with humor, warmth and love, and in the right proportions – I'm completely for it.
Are there good comedies in Scandinavia?
They appear every once in a while. For instance, the Swedish TV series “The Sunny Side”, which is set in a very rich neighborhood of Stockholm. The story is about several families – their materialism, their pointlessness... It's pretty funny. Or, there's the very childish Danish film, “The Clown”.
Have you tried writing a screenplay for a comedy?
Yes, but not an outright comedy. That's a very complex art. But I'd like to try it sometime. It's not enough if there are just a few funny scenes in a comedy – the film must be funny throughout.
I've written the screenplay for the film “The North”; it is, in a sense, a comedy – with a slightly dark humor. Overall, I like American comedies that are made by your NOT-run-of-the-mill Hollywood directors: Woody Allen, Wes Anderson. I recently saw this unbelievably funny teenage comedy, Superbad.
It's interesting that movies are dramas, but comedic movies are also a full-fledged genre of their own. Have you been to any contemporary art exhibitions that have made you smile?
I don't know if I should comment on art. I used to go to the Art Academy, so, yes – I have an interest, in principle. I seems to me that many artists believe that making the viewer laugh – that's too simple. It looks as if many writers also think that laughter is a rather superficial emotion. I don't agree. And at the same time, the funny and the dramatic often go hand in hand. And that's probably exactly what I'm trying to combine in my writing.
In terms of an exhibition that made me smile... there's this Icelandic artist, Olafur Eliasson, who plays a lot with light. I went to his show at the Tate Modern, in London. I'm not sure if I laughed, but I definitely was smiling. Because it was just mind-shattering.
Can you – being a professional writer who is consistently observing human beings – answer the question: Do we change? Or are we just the same as our ancestors who lived two thousand years ago?
Good question. I think that everything around us is changing, the system changes, the objects change, but the human heart and mind – they are still the same. And we are still the victims of our instincts, even though we try to escape them, and try to be rational and find explanations for everything. But one level lower, something more automatic and instinctive happens, and we do a bunch of strange things – we get married, but then get divorced, loose contact with our children... There are many things that we don't control. And, if you sit down and try to map out your life, then later, things just aren't going to fall into place. For instance, you want to sit down and talk to your girlfriend or boyfriend, or your wife, and you do talk, but you just don't understand what your real motive is. And the conversation turns out like a game of ping-pong. And then you say something that you'll regret the next day. So you try to fix it, and then you end up saying something even worse. And so on... It's impossible to control it. And it was probably the same way two thousand years ago. And in some way, knowing this gives me comfort. We can develop as much as we want, but we're still animals with instincts. I like that.
Yesterday, you said that in your books, you try to avoid sex scenes and scenes that deal with violence. But aren't they parts of the same instinctive life?
Yes, of course. And that doesn't mean that I'm not interested in sex myself. But to read about it, or see it in the movies – that's usually a very boring thing. All of those poetic plots, all those sheets, ocean breezes...
Exactly. I simply don't want to see that. It would be much simpler to use a montage here. And in the next scene, you show what happens afterward. The same goes for literature. It can be exciting to read about sex, but I'd rather leave that to pornography. It's fairer that way – then you're completely sure of what's going on.
Yes; in this field, it's very easy to become pathetic. But sex and violence really are an important part of life and popular culture. Nevertheless, it's not interesting for me to write about them. I've never written detective novels. If I'd want to, then I'd have to sit and think: “I could kill somebody off like that, or, maybe better this way...” But I don't have any ideas in this direction. In terms of sex, essentially – it's interesting if you're taking part in it, not just reading about it.
But all of these technologies... And other ways in which we use our bodies. All of this endless sitting in front of a screen. Now that's something completely new to civilization...
Yes, and we become nervous when we don't have internet access. But I don't worry too much about that. At work, I spend a lot of time in front of a computer screen. Then I come home and play Play Station with the kids for a while, but later, when the kids have already gone to bed, my wife and I watch a film. So – screens, screens, screens... But at the same time, as a family we spend a lot of time riding bikes or skiing – simply in the forest. These things don't have to be mutually exclusive. If you read the newspaper on an iPad instead of paper, then in principle, there's nothing new here. It's just that simply before, you read a pile of printed newspapers – at the moment of reading, you were still just as removed from your wife or kids.
On one hand, everything becomes more accessible and controllable, but on the other – anxiety keeps on increasing...
When I'm writing, even if I'm writing something that completely consumes me, I always check my e-mail or Twitter a couple of times an hour. And that, of course, pulls me out of the moment. And my inner voice is warning me: “Don't do it!” But I do it anyway. And it ruins my concentration. Things like this happen twenty times a day. I've even tried working with having deliberately gone off-line. But it's impossible. It's only possible if you really don't have an internet connection – in some backwoods place, where you're simply out of range. At the same time, I'm constantly using the internet to check on how a word is written in English, or to see when this person was born, or what does this place that I'm writing about look like. The internet is indispensable to me, even though it weighs me down with unnecessary things. And nevertheless, this way or that, I get my work done. But Twitter has allowed me to meet a lot of people; it's let me feel that I have colleagues. Even though I've never met these people, nor will I ever, I get an immediate reaction from them – some sort of answer – in just a matter of seconds. And it's just like working together with a lot of people in one large room, even though I really always work alone. It's a good feeling.
Do you always write on the computer, never using a pen and paper?
I take notes by hand when I'm traveling, or when I'm already in bed. It's quicker than writing on an iPad or mobile phone. It's still the easiest way. But I've never written a manuscript by hand. Even when I was writing my first novel. Back then, I sold my bass guitar – my most valuable possession – to buy a Macintosh.
You're a popular and sought-after writer. Do you end up traveling a lot?
I have a family and a family-life. And we both, my wife and I, have to be there for everything to go smoothly. That's why I don't travel all that much, and I decline a lot of offers. But, on the other hand, I, truthfully, simply give the upper hand to my daily routine. I do what I have to do, then I go to my office to write, and then I go home. It's the best life that I could imagine for myself.
Routine allows one to look at things in more detail...
When you travel, you widen your horizons and you meet new people all the time. You see new places. But at the same time, just getting by with the daily routine, doing it year after year – I really like that. Why must one definitely travel? Sometimes I desperately want to go away somewhere, but after two or three days, I just as desperately want to go back.
But then there's the main character in “Doppler”, who flees to the forest and lives in a tent. Have you had that experience – of removing yourself completely from the system, cutting yourself off?
When I was writing “Doppler”, I went to the same area where he was supposed to be living, and I put up a tent. A pretty big tent. And it stood there for about a year. I'd go there every once in a while to sit, look around, listen. So I could write about it all afterward. But I never lived there.
I am a very laid-back person by nature. I don't have this dream to drop everything, leave my family and begin everything from the start. That's not me. That's just my literary character.
I like to go on long hikes or bike rides, or to go down a river by boat. But really, I am doing in life what I want to do. I don't have secret, repressed desires. I can write, and make a living from my writing. And that is much more than I ever could have imagined – even in my most wildest dreams, when I was 18 or 20. But, if I hadn't been able to do what I want to do, then the urge to dismantle everything and start anew would be much stronger.