Hanne Ørstavik
Picture Credit: John Trygve Tollefsen

Hanne Ørstavik Love

In 1997, Hanne Ørstavik wrote Kjærlighet, which became her first book to be translated and published in America as Love last year. The sheer literary brilliance of the book got it shortlisted for National Book Awards in the category of Translated literature, making Hanne Ørstavik a name to be reckoned with not just in the world of Norwegian literature, but World literature, in its entirety. A hauntingly beautiful prose about a mother-son relationship, Love has been garnering critical acclaim ever since its translation was released. As the novel progresses, not just the narrative of the book gets consumed in a kind of fear, but the reader is also made to confront this deep seated fear and the author herself tells us what that fear is at the end of our engaging conversation with her.

How were you lead to the world of writing ? 
Actually my dream was to become a psychologist, but in Norway, at that time, about 28 years ago, you had to finish one year at the university and then you had to wait in line for several years before you could proceed. I also waited in this line and while I was waiting I actually started to write and I got a letter from a publishing house wanting to publish my novel, at the same time I also got the acceptance letter from the university. I really had to choose and I chose to write because the novel/writing opened a whole different universe for me, one that put me in contact with all my being. So, I couldn’t not do it again.

“The way the novel expands the room of life in me is what makes it so crucial for me to write but also that which was not possible to reach, gets a form and becomes sharable through writing.”

Your journey as a writer has been a long one, tell us more about it and about your relationship with writing?
Yes its been quite a long one. I published my first book 25 years ago, in 1994. I’ve so far published 13 novels and a collection of essays and there is a new novel coming out in 2019. For me, all these novels and works are connected. I cannot say that I prefer one to another because to me one novel leads to the other. One novel opens the questions that I have to explore in a new novel in a way which is not always obvious but in some ways it is like that. So, when I look back at my novels they all sort of look like a part of one big piece of work to me.
Writing for me is deeply connected to my own life. Writing is for me a way of exploring the deep existential questions that I am fighting in my own life, but exploring them in this other room, in this other universe which is the novel. Also with the novel what is hidden, unclear and unaccessible is kind of transformed to a work that is in a way visible and also shareable. And the way the novel expands the room of life in me is what makes it so crucial for me to write but also that which was not possible to reach, gets a form and becomes sharable through writing. 

What was the main inspiration behind writing your book Love
Actually, as I see it now, it was three things. Its a book that I started to write when my daughter was born, 24 years ago and when she was born, I had this cruel feeling or fear that I can never be sure that she knows that I loved her. Because you can say and say and say I love you, but you can never really be sure that the other person feels that love. For example, someone can come and say to you that I love you and you feel that it is so true and world expanding but another time exactly the same person and come to you and say exactly the same thing and it feels so empty and like a lie. So, I wanted to kind of explore and write a novel to find out something in that area, a feeling of language not being enough and then what else really is enough if not language.
And then also having a child sort of opened me to my own childhood. So, not only to look forward to her but also to look back at my own childhood. Yet again I was confronted with the loneliness and also the landscape of my childhood. The far north of Norway, north of the polar circle where the winter is just snow, and cold and full of this wonderful winter light which is actually light in the darkness because the Sun comes from below and not from above.  

Hanne Ørstavik

And then I had also been rejected by the Writers’ Union and that was the third kind of vein that runs into the novel. They had rejected me as a member and I had only written two novels. This rejection kind of really strengthened that feeling of loneliness because I had left my dream to become a writer and then to get rejected also made me very angry. I felt that really, I will not stop writing now, I will show them and then I really felt free because that rejection meant that I did not have to please anyone and I could do exactly what I wanted to
But the novel is really written, and I didn’t plan it, but it is written in present tense and I wrote it with a great feeling of fear. That feeling of fear, I think you can feel it when you read the novel and I didn’t know what that fear was about but I know it now though I won’t say it because I don’t want to spoil the novel for you. (She reveals this fear at the end of the interview)

While in most books the plot is driven by jumping from one viewpoint to another, Love finds itself in a space that has the viewpoints of the characters closely packed together and which rapidly shift from one to another. Why did you use such narrative technique in your book and what are the implications of such narrative on the thematic intentions of your book? 
Its really by accident that it became like that and it is more a result of the two novels I had written before, that were short prose novels wherein the texts were very short and were almost poetic. So, when I started writing Love, I did not think I could write in any other way and thus I started writing one picture from the mother’s view point and one picture from the son’s and I shifted between them and continued to do so for a very long time. Overtime I realised that it didn’t work out to have each perspective on each separate page and then as a coincidence I just tried to put the pictures together and then I saw that it really kind of worked because I think the closeness of their perspectives underlines the distance between them on a deeper level. It kind of makes it more striking because you question how they can be so close in text but so far away from each other at the same time.

“I wanted to kind of explore and write a novel to find out something in that area, a feeling of language not being enough and then what else really is enough if not language.”

How important was the topology of Norway to the narrative of the book?
I never thought about that but of course when you read the ending of the book you will realise that the ending could not have taken place in a warm place. To me the landscape of Love is my childhood’s landscape so it was more to kind of go to the kind of a stylistic version of where I grew up.

Lastly, what’s next for you? 
That is such a good question because to be honest I just sent my new novel to my editor two weeks ago and I really don’t know what’s next from here.

But I wanted to add a little thing at the end of this interview, you know the fear that I was talking about in the novel, I just think that maybe I can say it without spoiling the reading of the novel. That deep fear is always the fear of not being loved.

Text Nidhi Verma