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.