Getting Slapped Around: An Interview with Dorthe Nors
March 18, 2014 | by Dwyer Murphy
This month marks the release of Dorthe Nors’s Karate Chop, the Danish author’s first work to be translated into English and her only collection of short stories. Karate Chop is a small, dark collection. It consists of fifteen stories, most only a few pages long. Nors’s work often sounds like a parable relayed by one of the wryer, more fatalistic disciples, the one who doesn’t particularly care about our moral edification. But beneath the droll delivery, there tends to be a quiet heartbreak. In Karate Chop, parents disappoint, animals suffer, and certain boyfriends or husbands simply need killing. That heartbreak seems to belong as much to Nors as to her characters. We’re left with the impression that she would spare her creations all the sordid hurt and discord if the world were somehow different or she were a little less clear-eyed. Things as they are, she can only encourage them to laugh off what they can, to bear the rest, and to remember that certain dark corners of the world are “vast and beautiful and desolate.”
I spoke with Nors on her final day in the U.S. following the book’s launch. She is warm and confiding and possessed of a Northern European glamour that favors dark sweaters and disdains what most New Yorkers would consider a major and ongoing snowstorm. Throughout the hour we spent together, she drank trucker-strength coffee and held her chin in her hand. She told me about bucking tradition with new forms, the finer points of Danish comedy, and how life finds a way of slashing us all.
After four novels, it’s a short story collection—your first—giving you a breakthrough into the U.S. market. Why do you think that form did it?
Without me realizing it, I found that the short story—this compact, intensive way of writing—suited my voice. The short story isn’t really part of our tradition in Denmark. This is the country of Hans Christian Anderson and Karen Blixen, but for some reason there’s this sense that we don’t want to dirty our hands with the short story. That’s why it’s such a blessing that this is happening for me in America, where there’s such a strong tradition for the form. I feel like I’m presenting my work to a nation without having to explain what I’m doing.
How did you first step outside that tradition and decide to give the short story a try?
I always thought that writing short stories would be too difficult, but I knew this teacher who worked with at-risk teenagers and he asked me to come write a story about his class. So I spent some time with these kids and cooked something up. Afterward, the teacher assembled the entire school to hear me read this story, and when I was done, the kids were actually cheering. They could see themselves in it and they loved it. That experience boosted my confidence.
I’ve heard that you wrote this collection in a two-week binge. That’s pretty crushing news to other writers. Tell me it’s not true.
I went up the west coast of Denmark, to the dunes, to stay in a cottage that belongs to the poet Knud Sørensen. And yes, I was there for two weeks, alone, and the stories just poured out of me. At the time, I was in love. That’s part of what brought those stories out of me like crazy—that energy and openness you have when you think you just met the love of your life. There was a joy in writing these stories, even though I was writing about battered women and such very bad things. You know, Johann Sebastian Bach, after his wife and kids died, wrote in his diary that he hoped their deaths wouldn’t take away his joy. What he meant was the joy of creation. He could write the most dark and beautiful things, but there was a joy in being able to do it. I felt that during those two weeks. It was a creative happiness.
The succinctness of these stories—I think the longest is about six pages—is striking. Is that how they came to you, or was it a process of chiseling them down?
Other things I’ve written were much more structured and planned, but with this book, the stories just came to me. For instance, with the story “She Frequents Cemeteries,” I remember I had just come home from an evening walk, sat down at my desk, and started writing. It took me thirty minutes and I had that story and realized that it just worked.
Once you’ve had the stories write themselves, how do you go back to working any other way? It must be addictive.
I went for very different experiences with my next books. They use the same language, the same precision that I found writing the short stories, but I needed to do something a bit more experimental, so that I could find out how to use this style to write longer pieces. These are kind of crazy books. The first was written like a diary. The love I felt when I was writing the Karate Chop stories didn’t work out. I decided that I would write these lists every day for one hundred days and post each entry onto the Internet—because people like to peep under the covers, you know?—and then later I’d edit them into a novel. After that, I did my latest book, which is written entirely in headlines. I wanted to see if you could write a deep, vivid story using the language of modern communication, the language of the Internet—headlines. It seemed to crack people up. It was a success in Denmark.
Let’s talk about your sense of humor, because there’s a deadpan comedy in all your stories, applied to some very dark subjects. Is there something peculiarly Danish about that contrast, or is it all yours?
There’s a certain amount of Danish irony in it. Danish is an easily bended and toyed-with language. The Danes love a good punch line, a good dry sense of humor that’s almost British, and we enjoy telling people stinging truths with a smile. There’s a nurturing kindness to it, but it still stings. There’s a line in the story “The Buddhist” that captures it. “He wishes both of them well. Yet he also wants to do them harm.” When you use that kind humor up against the darker themes, you spare yourself a lot of chapters, because you can say both things at the same time. And it’s the darker themes that always draw us. We don’t want to read a book about how bleeding easy things are. We like the complicated stuff. I hear from people that they read Karate Chop fast. They say it’s a page-turner. I think it’s this darkness that entertains them and pushes them to read on.
Your stories don’t tend to use much dialogue, but there’s a distinct and human voice in each one. How do you find and hone those voices?
I hear them when I’m writing. For me, if a short story works well, it has to have a very specific voice and a specific presence, and you have to stay with that presence or it loses tension. Writing a short story, I can only describe it as standing on a stage and singing without stopping. You have to just be there. That’s what it’s like to write a good short story, anyway. A bad one, you’re still on the stage but people are all over the place, standing in the corridors, drinking coffee, talking to one another, and you still have to stand there.
It would be tough to read this collection without wondering what’s haunting the author. Did writing these stories feel like a way of exorcising demons, so to speak?
It’s a way of dealing with them, or at least trying to process them. Writers who don’t have demons will find some, or they won’t be writing. There was a period, over a couple years, when I was living in artists’ housing so that I wouldn’t have to pay rent, but I had to move around all the time—in 2006, I had six addresses and also lived in New York. It was a stressful time. I met all these angels and devils. Eventually I just decided that I needed to stay in one place. I felt too full, too much had happened. I needed to process it all. And these stories were a part of that. They’re very personal.
I think that writers who don’t deal with those personal things, those demons, are a little cheap. That’s the problem with minimalist writing sometimes. It doesn’t have the content beneath it. Some minimalist writers, they want to have the literary language, but they don’t want to have the passion or they don’t want to risk too much. That kind of writing is cheap. It doesn’t dare to stand out there naked. When I see that kind of writing, I always wonder, as a reader, Am I not worth it? Why don’t you want to give me any of your skin?
Do you ever worry about overcompensating, putting too much passion, too many demons in?
There was a review of Karate Chop in the Los Angeles Times that explained it nicely. The reviewer said that if the emotions contained in my stories—enormous emotions—were allowed to take up more space, it would be too much. But they’re contained in this small form. They’re squeezed in so that they don’t overflow, so that the emotions don’t drown. But really, I don’t think I could be melodramatic. If I were, there might be a housewife on the outskirts who found it interesting, but everyone else would run away, including me. To write like that would be talking down to people. My characters get messed up because that’s what life is about. Literature should express that human condition—we’re all gonna get slapped around.
Several of these stories focus on relationships between parents and children. Is there something about that moment when a child first sees a parent as a real person—or even weak, bad—that you find particularly poignant?
Don’t we all remember that moment when our parents stopped being heroes? I do. I love my parents but I figured out they were human beings and that not everyone in the world saw them as the wonderful people I perceived them to be. But some of these stories didn’t start out with a parent-child relationship. The story “Duckling,” for example, was based on a man I knew. I was riding with him on the subway in New York, and we saw a homeless guy twitching across from us. He pointed and said, “This is how you can tell that humankind are actually beasts.” That was just the worst thing I’d ever heard said about a human being. And I thought, God, I hope this man doesn’t have daughters. How bad would that be? So I imagined him saying this horrible thing about his child’s mother, as he does in the story.
The men in your stories seem to be especially, and casually, cruel to women—wives, girlfriends, daughters. There’s an idea in the story “Karate Chop” that to be alive is to be careless of others. I found that very chilling and wondered how it came to you.
In “Karate Chop,” that idea comes from the character, Annelise, who’s telling us the story. She strives to see the good in everyone. She looks at the hand of the man who’s been beating her, and she sees that it’s soft and a little red over the knuckles, from the beating, and that it was once a child’s hand. Many of my characters are like that. They’re innocent, unaware of how bad the world can be. They fixate on how they want to see the world and get slashed about by what it really is. I have a lot of faith in humankind, but I’m aware of how screwed up we are and how we’re not good to each other and how we come with agendas and scars and dreams. We involve one another in these things. People get hurt by the human relationship. It’s our paradox—how much we need each other and how much we batter each other.
Do you set out to push your characters toward the line between normal life and something terrible? Are you trying to find out how far they’ll go and where they’ll break?
The Danish title of this book, Kantslag, actually means four different things. First, it means a karate chop. Second, it means a rimshot against a drum. Third, it is the chip that breaks off a piece of porcelain. And fourth, it means the battle that you experience on the brink of something new. That’s where I always put my characters, and it’s why I gave the book this title. They’re on the brink of revelation, or being pushed over the edge. I find that it’s when we’re on these borderlines that we start to think for ourselves.
Animals in Karate Chop don’t often get off too easily either. Is there something about that kind of violence that you find especially telling about a person, or a character?
It has a way of involving the reader. Look at the story of this giraffe in Denmark right now. Everybody’s talking about it. Meanwhile, there are thousands of people being killed in Rwanda again, but we’re talking about the giraffe. We relate to these animals for some reason. We find them innocent and pure. It’s crazy, but when we really want to feel empathy for something, it’s easier with animals, because they’ve never betrayed us, never forgotten to pick us up at school, never done any of the things that human beings do to each other. In the story “Mother, Grandmother, and Aunt Ellen,” the mother squeezes a rabbit to death—basically it’s the same thing she’s doing to her girls—but the rabbit gets to us much harder, because of this weird thing between humankind and animals.
There’s an eponymous heron in the book that seems like it might be an exception to all this supposed empathetic connection between man and beast.
I saw that heron once. That animal wasn’t innocent. I used to see it when I was walking in the Frederiksberg Gardens, in the gray weather, the sleet. This heron looked like death. That image was so specific, and I matched it up with an image of an older man I used to see, standing at the lake where they feed the birds, in the middle of all this shit and this army of herons. They seemed right together.
The sequence of the stories in Karate Chop feels deliberate and meaningful, more so than a typical collection. Was the right arrangement something you worked hard to find?
It was very hard. My very good editor and I spread all the stories out on the floor and just pored over them. You have to make sure that people enter the book in a certain way. It’s almost like a novel. The first story has to be a peek, and then with the second story you really grab them. That’s why “The Buddhist” is second in this collection. It keeps people reading. And you have to close the book right, too. The last line of the Wadden Sea was perfect for that: “She said the Wadden Sea was an image in the mind’s eye, and that she was glad I wanted to go with her into it.” It had to be the end. It’s a puzzle.
Two of the stories are set in New York, both of them looking at characters from the economic fringes. Is that the New York that stayed with you from your time here?
The poverty of some people in New York is so enormous compared to the richness of others. There are worlds next to worlds next to worlds. In my story “The Big Tomato,” for example, some people have the problem of their tomatoes being too big and other people have the problem of delivering these giant tomatoes on bicycles with no brakes. It’s like we’re not living in the same New York. But at the same time, it’s what I love about the city. It has a bowel and intestines. And drama. Although I’ll admit that sometimes I see things a bit wrong here. When I lived in New York before, it was summer. I haven’t been back in years, and when I got here on Sunday, I saw all these people wrapped up in big coats, looking miserable, and I thought, Wow, look at all the homeless people. The financial crisis has really crippled this city. But my friend pointed out that it’s winter, and that this is just how New Yorkers dress in the winter.
Has this experience—publishing in the U.S.—been very different from what you’re used to in Denmark?
Denmark is such a small country and the literary community is small, too. Everyone’s been married to each other or they’re someone’s kid. It’s extremely claustrophobic. And because it’s such a small country, we’re told to always keep our expectations low. We have this thing in Denmark called Jantelaw—this idea from the writer Aksel Sandemose—that says you should never think that you’re better than anyone, and if you step outside this small circle, this community, we’re gonna get you. But here, in the U.S., it’s been completely different. The generosity here is so much bigger. Fellow writers have been so good to me. There was Junot Diaz, and Fiona Maazel has helped me so much. I’m awestruck by it. There’s also a professionalism about the industry. Working with Graywolf Press and with Brigid Hughes at A Public Space, it’s been incredible. These people aren’t afraid to think big, to fly a little.
I’d be curious to hear your take, getting thrown into the American publishing world, on the future of the book. In the U.S., we seem to be in another period of deep anxiety. Are things any more optimistic in Europe?
It’s the same. They’re all scared of digitalization. They think it’s going to kill everything, but of course it won’t. That’s bullshit. People have always told stories. Writers just need to find a way to express their stories in the new language. That’s why I tried to write a whole book only in headlines, because that’s how we communicate now. You’ve got to get with the times and find a way to be creative with this, instead of crying in a corner. As a medium, the book is having a hard time now because it has to change its form, but it won’t disappear. I still want to read books and I know a lot of people who want to read books.
One problem I see is that the big publishers here are extremely keen on only doing the safe thing and therefore only dealing with books that can sell so many copies that they have to buy storehouses just to hold them. But there’s a market for good literary fiction. I don’t want to write the storehouse books. I don’t want to read them. I want the good stuff and I know a lot of people who want the good stuff. I don’t understand why the big publishers don’t take care of that market. There’s so little of it in translation, for instance. The ones that have the money don’t have the courage. They make their money on Fifty Shades, the big ones, so they don’t do anything for writers who write other kind of fiction. That’s just a pathetic attitude toward art.