The Rumpus Book Club chats with Jensen Beach about his short story collection Swallowed by the Cold, suburbia in Sweden, quiet racism, and writing a series of connected short stories.
This is an edited transcript of the book club discussion. Every month The Rumpus Book Club hosts a discussion online with the book club members and the author, and we post an edited version online as an interview. To become a member of the Rumpus Book Club, click here.
This Rumpus Book Club interview was edited by Brian Spears.
Brian S: So first question from me, Jensen. Why Sweden? What was it about Stockholm and this little island town that made you want to write these stories?
Jensen Beach: Good question. I moved to Sweden back in 2002 with my then girlfriend, now wife. I loved it there. We lived there for six years. I think I started to write the book because I was a little homesick for Sweden when we moved back to the US. The island is one I know well. It’s where my father-in-law has a summer house.
Bill: I was struck by how clearly you communicated both the external landscape and the internal, mental landscapes of your characters. Vividly as well, but with a certain economy that I liked.
Brian S: I don’t want to assume stereotypes, but that economy is a big part of what I imagine Sweden to be like. I can’t speak from experience, I’m afraid, to know if that’s accurate.
Jensen Beach: Thanks so much, Bill! That was something I really aimed for. So I’m glad it worked well. I’m interested in those mental landscapes, how it looks to dramatize consciousness.
Jensen Beach: I think there’s something to that, actually. Sweden is a place that’s pretty sparse and clean somehow. from design to architecture, etc.
Brian S: I mean, it makes sense, given that one of the biggest companies to come out of Sweden is IKEA. 🙂
Jensen Beach: That’s right!
I lived in the city and later the suburbs so it wasn’t quiet, necessarily, but there’s a quiet to Sweden I’ve always admired. I find it here in VT too. Clean, simple, efficient.
Bill: I was in the midst of reading Stieg Larsson when your book arrived. So I was already in mental “Sweden mode.” But your prose is much more clean, simple, and efficient than Larsson’s (or his translator’s), IMO.
Jensen Beach: Oh thanks, Bill! I’ve only read one of those Larsson books. I liked it, but for sure it was less about the language than the ideas. I like letting language generate ideas.
Brian S: Since you mentioned the suburbs, let me ask—there’s a scene later in the book where Marie talks about moving in with Lennart and she’s happy because the schools will be better for Tove. That seems completely backward from the way it is in the US. What’s the difference?
Jensen Beach: Good catch, Brian. I was trying to comment on certain attitudes in Sweden currently. The city centers tend to be very white places and I think there’s a kind of xenophobia in Swedish culture to a certain degree that might cause a character like Marie to think that a school in the city is better than one in the suburbs. Certainly, it’s opposite from say New York or San Francisco, where often the suburbs are wealthy, predominately white spaces. That’s not 100% true; there are those suburbs outside Stockholm too, but generally speaking.
Bill: It seems like you were getting at some hypocritical political correctness as well—such as the story with the swastika painted on the wall of the hospital parking garage.
Betsy: The blurb on the back reads that the stories take place over “two eventful years.” Page 90, underwear with 9/3/67 on them; page 107, 5/26/89. The dates confused me. I LOVED how you connected the stories and characters. Just confused on time period.
Jensen Beach: There are a few stories that take place much farther back in history, that’s true. The main narrative arc of the stories—the bike crash, Lennart’s relationship with Marie, Henrik’s affair, etc.—all take place over two years. Bent, the character who is in the stories set in the 1940s and 1960s, is Lennart’s grandfather.
Brian S: I didn’t see that so much as hypocritical political correctness so much as I saw it as an indictment of the character. He was the kind of guy who was so self-absorbed that by the time he’d backed out of the parking space, he’d forgotten what he was going to do, but he was satisfied with himself just for having thought about it.
Betsy: I took a Scandinavian literature class in college. For a while, I really wanted to take a fjord tour in a mail boat.
Bill: True, Brian—he takes his wife’s visiting Henrik as a betrayal.
Betsy: Martin was certainly an interesting character. And again, the way you connected the stories blew my mind.
Jensen Beach: That’s what I like about Jacob’s character, Brian. He’s so pleased with himself for having thought that the swastika shouldn’t be there, but then he just drives off! It seemed real to me. For me anyway, something I might think. Look at that awful thing! I should do something about! Then two seconds later, I’m on to the next thing
Brian S: Did you first think of this as a novel or was it always a series of linked stories?
Jensen Beach: Thanks so much, Betsy. That took a lot of work! I didn’t really want to write a novel, but I was really loving making subtle connections.
Jensen Beach: Haha. It was stories. They started linking about three stories in and after that I pursued the connections.
Brian S: Was there ever any pressure from your agent or from editors to make it a novel? I know those sell much easier than story collections do.
Jensen Beach: I assumed there would be, but my agent was amazing about it. She was into the stories from the beginning, and has been so supportive of me the whole time. I think I just really believed in a book of stories. I’ve always loves stories so much.
Betsy: I love the scene with Lennart ignoring the calls from his sister as he speaks to the American woman on the terrace.
Jensen Beach: Thanks, Betsy! I liked that too. I feel sympathetic to Lennart, but he’s so awful in so many ways.
Brian S: God, I feel that so much, though it’s not my sister who calls. I want to use my phone for anything but a phone.
Jensen Beach: Same here! A phone call can cause me so much anxiety! Ha!
Bill: Death certainly looms in this collection of stories. I had in mind the “undertoad” from John Irving’s The World According to Garp—although death is a much more baroque presence in Irving’s writing. How did you come to focus on your characters’ varying senses of mortality?
Jensen Beach: That’s a good question. In part I think that death, or its suggestion, is pretty easy drama, right? Easy to infuse a story with tension with dead people all over the place; but also I think that as I kept going with the stories, I became interested in how these people dealt with loss, with death, with fear. It really fascinated me.
Brian S: By the time I finished the book, I just wanted Lennart to spend some time in therapy. He loses his father and grandfather in a short period of time, has a relationship get serious quicker than he wants, and is drinking too much.
Jensen Beach: I know! Lennart is a wreck. He was so fun to write. I’m really drawn to awkward characters who make terrible decisions. Again: easy drama. Haha.
Betsy: Dead plover.
Jensen Beach: That bird was so dead!
Betsy: I wish he’d left it. But not leaving it was more interesting.
Jensen Beach: I wrote that story on a dare. Someone told me that stories with dead birds were lame, so I tried.
Betsy: Nailed it.
Jensen Beach: I struggled with that. The idea of him dealing with that bird was so compelling to me. But it was hard to get right.
Oh, thanks so much!
Brian S: I want to backtrack a little. You hinted around in a couple of the stories about the internal debate Sweden has been having about Muslim immigrants—the swastika, the suburbs—but outside of the story “To God Belongs What He Has Taken” there aren’t any immigrants around, and even in that story, they’re not full characters. Was that deliberate?
Bill: There’s also “The Apartment.”
Brian S: Right. The woman that Louise thinks is the daughter of her former lover.
Jensen Beach: In part it was deliberate. I struggled with the fact that I was appropriating Swedish culture already. I mean, I have a passport, but I’m hardly Swedish, so it was hard to put non-European Swedish characters in there for me. I didn’t want to step on toes, so I stuck close to what I knew, which is predominantly white and white immigrant culture. But at the same time issues of integration, segregation, the rise of the right wing, xenophobic political impulses scares me and it’s a part of this culture I was writing about, so I tried to hint toward it a little bit, not to instruct, necessarily, but to get it right in terms of reality
Yes, Sara and Arman are Iranian.
Brian S: Were you tempted to write a character who fit in with the more xenophobic part of the population?
Jensen Beach: You know, I don’t know that I was. Though the quiet racism of some of the characters—Marie, Jacob—appealed to me, and I don’t mean to suggest that this is outright; they’re not hateful people, just prejudiced, like all of us are. I wasn’t drawn to, say, a neo-Nazi, partly because they seem like bad, flat characters, but a person who is otherwise a normal, forward thinking, accepting person, but who thinks about schools and suburbs (all enormously coded kinds of things, right) is more appealing. There’s more depth to that, which as a writer is more exciting.
Brian S: Coding is a great way to put that. Most of the point of view characters were, if not wealthy, comfortable, right? Not worried about where the next meal was coming from?
Jensen Beach: Yes, that’s right. My experience with Sweden is that it’s a relatively comfortable, rich place. And I recognize my own privilege in having experienced it this way. But it’s a place where a family name can mean something, an address likewise. That was new to me. I’m from a middle-class family in California, so I think running into a more traditional class system was jarring and weird. When I was writing these stories, I wanted to write about characters whose problems were mainly internal, mainly a result of bad decisions, etc. rather than circumstance. I wanted their choices to be free from situation a little bit, if that makes sense. They’re comfortable, idle sorts of people, whose misery is more or less their own. Wow, I sound like a really cheery person right now.
Betsy: Do you write on a computer, a typewriter or by hand?
Jensen Beach: I write on a computer. I often will take notes by hand. But I have terrible handwriting! What about you, Betsy?
Brian S: Speaking of notes—did you have to outline the relationships between these characters in order to keep them straight?
Jensen Beach: I did, but mainly after the fact. Dates were hard, and how characters would work their way in subtly to other stories was tricky. Lots of notes and lists!
Betsy: I tried writing ideas by hand in a Moleskine but I don’t always have it on me so I have scraps of paper EVERYWHERE. I mostly use a computer. But I’m not a writer—more of a wanna-be, clumsily dropping things onto paper.
Jensen Beach: I do that too! so many notes! I’m drowning in notes! I just wish I could understand half of them.
Betsy: Yes! I once transcribed hundreds of them into a single notebook to try to train myself but it’s no use. Once I have them on scraps, I just memorize where the scraps are.
Jensen Beach: I’m sure you’re more of a writer than you think, Betsy. There should be more stories in the world. Write yours!
Betsy: Gah! Shy! Run away! But truly, thank you for the encouragement.
Brian S: Are you working on anything new yet? Or are you the superstitious type who doesn’t like to talk about projects in the early going? (Totally fine if you are!)
Betsy: I was just going to ask that—working on anything new?
Jensen Beach: I’m working on a novel right now. I actually think it’s good to talk about. Keeps me honest. It’s slow going, but I’m enjoying it so far. It’s hard to explain but is set in CA, Miami, and Nigeria
Brian S: Who are you reading right now? Anyone we should keep an eye out for?
Jensen Beach: I just read Dan Torday‘s novel The Last Flight of Poxl West, which made me cry! Right now I’m reading Idra Novey‘s lovely novel Ways to Disappear, and Dorthe Nors’s new novella collection.
Betsy: Swallowed by the Cold is a beautiful book. I have already recommended it to reader friends and would buy it as a gift if I were to have an occasion. Thank you for writing it.
Brian S: Thanks for joining us tonight as well. Best of luck with the book!