Dorthe Nors. Photo: Astrid Dalum.
The Danish writer Dorthe Nors lives alone with a black cat in a house so far west on the Jutland peninsula that she’s practically in Scotland. It’s not far from the rural parish community where she was born, in 1970, and raised by a carpenter father and a hairdresser-turned-art-teacher mother. She spent years poring over Swedish literature and art history at Aarhus University, harnessing a lifelong adoration for Ingmar Bergman’s The Magic Lantern and his workbooks. Early on, Nors had hoped to infiltrate Copenhagen’s cliquey literati, but she soon realized this endeavor was a waste of time—time taken away from her writing.
Scouted by Brigid Hughes, the former Paris Review editor and founder of A Public Space, Nors’s alarmingly succinct short-story collection Karate Chop—published to acclaim in Denmark in 2008—was received rapturously when it was published in English in 2014. A story from Karate Chop, “The Heron,” was the first by a Danish writer to be published in The New Yorker. Her staccato novella Minna Needs Rehearsal Space—which was published in the States alongside another of Nors’s novellas, So Much for That Winter—cemented Nors as an author who is able to thoughtfully admonish our digital generation. In it, Minna is a struggling musician who would be producing more work if she weren’t so taken with monitoring online activity. Minna’s staccato thoughts read like status updates. In 2014, Nors received the Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize. Her novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal was a finalist for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize.
Being alone is not something that feels particularly natural in Denmark, a small, cozy country imbued with the national concept of hygge. Yet solitude is a recurring motif in Nors’s work. She often returns to lonely flaneuses who wander the shiny streets of Copenhagen, a city renowned for its happiness. Her protagonists navigate the locales they’ve outgrown, unfriend ex-lovers, reference long-dead Scandinavian writers, and gaze out onto the Øresund strait. Like Lorrie Moore, Nors writes heartrending and compact stories, though they’re punctuated with satire. Her tone is pensive, sardonic, and sometimes macabre.
This interview took place while Nors was just up the coast from Copenhagen—where she lived for seven years—for the Louisiana Literature Festival. We met early on a Saturday, and the award-winning author guided me to a no-frills café. Bossa nova Muzak was playing. “The music and the food are terrible,” she told me, but this is where she found a writing sanctuary free of pretense or distractions and created some of the curiously existential, semiautobiographical characters who color her four novels and countless novellas and short stories. In person, Nors is as unfussy as her prose. She is undramatic, typically Nordic, and matter-of-fact, with a tendency to laugh and smile often. She seemed genuinely surprised and delighted that I’d read much of her work in preparation for our conversation. Her utterances are gentle. They lack the usual harsh Danish eeehhh—instead, she intersperses a soft om here and there among otherwise clear, direct phrases.
When did you decide to live somewhere so remote?
I have never been tempted to leave Europe, though I spent a lot of time in New York in my early thirties. This was around the time I began carrying out “the plan”—my attempt to align with the Copenhagen literary scene. I had had a few of my stories translated into English. I knew writers like Rick Moody and Junot Díaz. They were pen pals more than anything else. They gave me lists of magazines to submit to. Soon, Brigid Hughes published my work in A Public Space. After I’d had some success in the U.S., I realized Copenhagen’s scene wasn’t right for me—nor was the city in general. I learned to drive and began assembling a sedate life back in Jutland, this time in a modest house, alone, near the beach. In between, I traveled and created work at different residencies.
A lot of your characters seem to be rebelling against their urban locales, seeking solace in nature, however grisly. They seem to long to escape the city and restrictive territories.
I think I house big contradictions when it comes to that because I love big cities. I love the diversity, the noise, the multitudes, the anonymity. However, I don’t like living in them. I need the landscape, the horizon, the absolute solitude. I think I may be a strange combination of extrovert and introvert. I love to talk onstage, I’m happy talking to you now, and then I withdraw. I’m always dislocated. I’m from the moors. My town was maybe a bit like Manchester in its new industrial American mind-set. There was a liberal sky’s-the-limit attitude. Not much history but a lot of faith in the future. One of the reasons I became so verbal is that I had two older brothers, two big logs. For girls in a group of boys, you’re either pampered or you have to fight every step of the way. When it came to language, I found a way to win.
Do you need a place without distractions to write?
I worked here, right where we’re sitting now, when I lived in Copenhagen. Like that woman in the corner over there—me, seven years ago. I also like being completely alone in my office on the west coast, three kilometers from the coastline. I quite often move or go somewhere else to write, which prompts people to say, Oh, you’re restless! But I don’t have children or anything else that requires that I stay, and I can just follow my natural urges. I do have a cat, Potluck. Oh, how I love that black cat.
What do you make of the Danish literary scene?
I’m completely outside of it still. My career is strange compared to those of other Danish writers. Danish culture makes it nearly impossible to appear on the international stage. We’re such a tiny country, and we’re taught from a young age not to think too much of ourselves—see the Law of Jante, the Nordic code of conduct—and that our nationality is the most important thing about us. That makes it difficult, in some ways, to break out.
Your work pokes fun at the stereotypes of Danishness—familiarity, noir. And of course, there’s your suspiciously titled, rather dark short story “Hygge.”
Most Danes are so immensely proud. When you’re an artist working outside the country, you’re not supposed to criticize Denmark. Don’t foul the nest, don’t piss the nest, is what they say.
Denmark’s a cult.
It’s tribal for sure. And yet when I make fun of Denmark, it’s with great love and pride for my country.
The narrator in “Hygge” says of another character, “Lilly’s one of those who could easily fall asleep with a cigarette in her hand. I could see her doing that on the couch, beneath the sun-faded pictures of her relatives.” The Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector lost all her work, and nearly her life, in 1966 when she fell asleep with a cigarette in bed. Who, to you, is the Danish equivalent?
In Denmark, it would be this working-class woman who dozes off while playing bingo at her private table. She’s burned to death, midbingo, with the radio on. She’s a woman who gives in to her sweets, her alcohol, her smokes, her comforts. Her basic needs.
In your story “The Heron,” the male protagonist obsesses over the decay of corpses, female ones in particular, as he strolls through Frederiksberg Gardens. In mass-market Danish noir, it seems like women are either in love, and therefore safe, or else they’re brutalized, murdered, and damned. Why do you think there’s still such a thirst for reading about the mutilation of women’s bodies?
It’s about male sexuality, sadly. Murder is often sexual—there are already women writing to Peter Madsen, the Dane convicted of murdering the journalist Kim Wall on his submarine in 2017, in jail as if he were some kind of sexual conductor. It says something about how profoundly mutilated by society some women are, how accustomed we are to seeing sexuality in that light. I’m too much of a feminist to say anything other than puke, barf, vomit when this stuff is glamorized, honestly. Private consensual play is fine, of course, but sexual violence, no. My second novel has a male protagonist. Lots of my stories do. I love men, and I love to write men and enter their minds. But it’s like a hit-and-run.
There’s something so violently honest about saying, “I really don’t like you,” as one character says to another in your short story “The Freezer Chest.” Do you think that degree of coldness can, in a way, make the reader trust the character more?
Yes, maybe, because I truly believe that what people tell you bluntly about themselves—especially men in the beginning of a relationship, if they go, Well, I’m an asshole—they’re not confessing or asking to be saved. They simply don’t want the responsibility of your hurt heart when they fuck you up.
Danish men seem the frankest of all.
They can be brutal. Beware. They really mean what they say!
The narrator in “The Freezer Chest” becomes “clearer in a way” once she’s privy to this violent verbal treatment.
I don’t think she enjoys the way the other characters are talking. The way they’re playing her—especially her female friend—is the most disturbing, alarming thing. To become clearer, sure, it makes her less unsettled, but she can’t get off that ferry. She’s trapped, and very claustrophobic, on that social ferry.
You’re a big fan of Ingmar Bergman. You’ve written about him often. What is the fascination he holds for you?
The thing about him is the way in which he discusses the creative process. I just love the The Magic Lantern. I would say to all writers and artists, if you’re ever feeling uncertain, don’t go take some stupid class—read The Magic Lantern and Bergman’s workbooks. This year, he would have turned a hundred, so I’ve been involved in the Swedish celebration of that.
What’s the most valuable takeaway from The Magic Lantern, for you?
There’s that whole idea of being a bohemian, to “live yourself out” with drink, drugs, excess, all that. He writes about an actress he once knew who teased him that he was too controlled, that he tamed his demons too much, and who encouraged him to just let it all out. Then he goes on to say how she died. She ended up in the psychiatric ward at the age of fifty-two, on drugs, from “living herself out.” Bergman was shady in real life, a bit of a liar, but his work is so true and blunt.
What’s the most truthful Scandinavian literature to you, besides Bergman?
I love a lot of Swedish writing from his era. There are many dark and brave stories. I love reading the case studies of the German Swiss Austrian psychiatrist and existential psychologist Ludwig Binswanger—they’re more like short stories informed by his early interests in Kierkegaard and Heidegger. Binswanger coined the term daseinsanalysis, which is based on existentialism—it’s the analysis of being in the world, you could say. Sometimes I feel like part of my writing is like analysis, trying to unfold the psyches of my characters in a limited amount of time.
Especially after your international breakthrough, you must have come to study a lot of American writers.
I fell in love with Flannery O’Connor. She has that Southern gothic macabre. And Rebecca Solnit, who I think is astonishing. And James Baldwin.
Your novel Mirror, Shoulder, Signal has just been published in the U.S. The book is loosely based on your own learning to drive after your thirties and the subsequent existential crisis of being trapped.
The story is about being physically trapped in a situation, trapped in a relationship. You’re afraid of saying shut up to this person you’re forced to spend time with because you can’t drive the damn car yourself. On a literal level, with driving lessons, you can’t possibly spend all those hours in a tiny space with someone and not build up a relationship with them. Getting your driver’s license in Copenhagen just is a very existential experience.
In your story “The Buddhist,” the corrupt monk drives a Citroën Berlingo, which is such an unsexy car.
It’s the do-gooders choice. That’s why the devil drives it.
My mother drove one for years.
I swear to God, so many people came up to me after reading that story and said, Look, I drive a Berlingo. I said, deadpan, Yeah, and I’m sure you’re a very sweet person. It’s like the old story of the wolf in sheep’s clothing, right? If you really want to cover up the fact that you’re a bastard, drive a Berlingo, and nobody will feel alarmed.
Alexandra Pereira is a British writer whose work has appeared in Playboy, Vice, Condé Nast Traveler, and Stride. She is an editor at Pariah Press and lives in Copenhagen.
Last / Next Article