Photo: Simon Klein Knudsen
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. Read More