A Certain Way of Singing: Talking with Dorthe Nors

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I was first introduced to the startling, confident work of acclaimed Danish writer Dorthe Nors through her short novel Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. The book follows Minna, a struggling female composer, and is written entirely in one-liners akin to status updates. These staccato headlines are stacked upon one another and express a dark humor that can be found throughout Nors’s work, which often experiments with form. Her ability to express the worldview of a struggling composer in rhythmic one-liners makes sense; writing is a particularly musical process for her. This can be evidenced in the work itself, as her sentences often contain a unique cadence alongside a taut wit.

Nors’s work consistently reveals her ability to focus on how everyday situations give rise to scenarios fraught with questions related to selfhood. The inability for escape while enduring driving lessons creates the core existential dilemma in Nors’s most recent novel, Mirror, Shoulder, Signal (2016). A finalist for the Man Booker International Prize 2017 and expertly translated by Misha Hoekstra, the book focuses on Sonja, a translator of misogynistic Scandinavian crime fiction. Like Minna the composer, Sonja is looking for a way to find her own voice—the search for identity constitutes a theme within Nors’s work.

Another story focused on a conflicted writer protagonist is the beautiful piece of flash fiction, “Sun Dogs,“ published by the New Yorker. Nors’s latest short story collection, Map of Canada, was published in Danish by Gyldendal in August 2018. English readers without Danish language skills are fortunate, however, since both Pushkin Press in the UK and Graywolf Press in the US have English language versions forthcoming.

Nors currently lives near the rough North Sea shoreline in Denmark, away from big cities. This interview took place via email, in its very warmest of forms, where we discussed her long and short form works, Danish culture, and the psychology of translation.

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The Rumpus: I’ve read that while you enjoy cities, you don’t like living in them. How do you think your surroundings directly impact your writing life?

Dorthe Nors: I’ve lived in big cities quite a lot. When I’ve lived in them, I desperately try to find places with solitude. I seek out pseudo landscapes like parks and cemeteries. I need nature. I love the diversity in big cities: the many faces, places, voices, colors. The art museums! The book stores! The cafés! My friends! Yet after a while, I need to be where nobody else is. I guess I am an introvert extrovert. I moved out of Copenhagen some years ago and currently live near the vast and raw North Sea shoreline. But every month I go to Copenhagen or I travel outside of Denmark: London, Bruxelles, Stockholm, New York. I do think that where you are has an impact on the writing, which is also why I have a tendency to move around or write while traveling. I write at home. Or in airports. Or in residencies. I like to sharpen my senses by changing my surroundings. Next fall, I’ll be living in Amsterdam for a while. It will be interesting to see what marks that will leave on the text.

Rumpus: What is your process for establishing the tone or voice for a given piece of writing? For example, in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, Sonja’s voice contains a unique sense of complicity with the reader. Was her voice there from the start, or did it emerge with later drafts?

Nors: It takes a while to establish the voice, I think. Perhaps I write a few sentences that have a certain tone or attitude. A certain way of singing. If the voice works, I feel curious and entertained on a deeper level. I proceed to investigate what the voice can do. It’s a very musical process for me. How do I know when the voice is there? When I stop questioning it and just let it play the way it wants to play. As far as I can remember, I wrote ten pages of Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, and then stopped. I couldn’t feel whether it was going anywhere or not. It took me about six months of waiting. Meanwhile, the part of my soul where I mull over stuff like this processed the whole thing. Finally, Sonja emerged and took over the scene. It’s always such a relief when that happens.

Rumpus: Sonja is learning how to drive in the book. As a non-driver myself, the idea of granting one’s free will to a driving instructor being a large dilemma resonated with me. Did you experience your own driving lessons as such an existential moment?

Nors: Oh, yes, it was a very existential experience. It made me see that all relationships, not only the one you have with your driving instructor, are a matter of whether or not you grant your free will to someone. In the beginning of learning how to drive, you have to deposit your free will and let the instructor decide where to go and how to get there. People will get killed otherwise. But do you also have to grant your free will to a lover? To your best friend? To your hairdresser? To your sister? And if yes, how do you know when to retract your free will from a relationship and act on your own? I found that dilemma interesting and I do believe the “car theme” helped me elaborate on how Sonja has never really decided for herself in life.

Rumpus: Sonja struggles with writing and communication in the book, as demonstrated with her letters to her sister. She thinks a lot about her voice and whether or not the letters sound like her. I think most people can relate to this, but I also thought it was an interesting detail because much of your work contains such a strong awareness of a reader. To what extent do you think about audience during your writing process? Do you ever feel unaware of your own writing voice?

Nors: The reader is extremely important. This doesn’t mean that the writer has to please the reader, but you certainly have to be aware of her or his presence. I want to make a connection. I want complex existential structures. No matter what: I want to connect. Why write if you don’t want to connect? It would, however, be wrong to assume that Sonja is my alter ego. There’s a big difference between Sonja and me. For starters: Sonja isn’t a writer. Her voice is caught inside herself (or donated to a Swedish crime fiction writer with questionable morals.) She doesn’t know how to use her voice. On top of that, her voice—when used—reveals a gap between who she is, who she was, and who she wants to be. Her voice reveals the complications of living in time. If I send you back to your old high school, you will probably try to adapt to the voice you had when you went to school there. Or you’ll try to escape that voice and invent a third voice for yourself. But will you sound like yourself? And if you miss your sister but have left her ages ago, how do you communicate with her? Like the child you once were or like the misfit that you currently feel like? And oh yes, I do feel unaware of my own writing voice. I’m not trying to manipulate my way in to the consciousness of the reader.

Rumpus: Denmark was the first country to make pornography freely available in the 1960s. I had to think of Halldis’s husband in your short story “Sun Dogs,” published July 2018 in the New Yorker. Her husband’s choice to hang a photo of a naked woman with her legs spread above the door where Halldis works reveals so much about the couple’s dynamic. How did you begin writing this story?

Nors: I circled around this story for a couple of years. The more I was being read by people, the more I had people suggest to me that I write their story or had them admit that they were scared I would write about them. I found it interesting since it rarely works in that way. I write about existential themes. So if a person points to a theme that interests me, I might write about that theme, but not about that person. What made me curious was that the people who were scared of me writing about them at the same time seemed to have a longing for me to truly see them., i.e. to write about them. I created this ambivalence within Halldis, and I created a writer who feels evil because she’s regarded by Halldis as threatening. When I finally started writing the story, I wrote it in one sitting. That often happens when I write short stories. The naked woman above the door is interesting, because yes, it makes it seem as if we know a lot about the relationship between Halldis and her husband. In reality, however, the writer could have focused on something else in the house, and the reader wouldn’t have had these suspicions. The writer and her threatening sun dogs, you see.

Rumpus: How does your approach to short fiction like “Sun Dogs” differ from your longer work?

Nors: When writing short stories, you’re very dependent on voice, on precision, accuracy, musicality, and more than anything, presence. You can’t leave the stage while writing a short story. You have to sing, till you’re done! Writing a novel is different. You have to leave the novel now and then. Have a cup of coffee. Earn some money. Let it rest. A novel has to have different levels of presence and intensity. I love to work in both forms, but I use “the instrument” in different ways.

Rumpus: Your novella Minna Needs Rehearsal Space is minimalistic, pared down to staccato sentences. How did composing a book inspired by writing in headlines impact the way you approached your longer work afterwards? I found it interesting how much of your work contains a similar, almost deadpan humor, despite using such a variety of means to express that humor. I don’t know if you agree with that, or if you would characterize your humor in a similar way.

Nors: I believe I was born with a sense of humor, so I don’t know how I use it. Not really. It’s instinct. Humor should never be calculated, never explained. If it’s in my literature, it’s because it’s in me. I see a lot of heartache, sorrow, loss, loneliness in my characters. They are at times so dislocated. But they’re also so human and the reader gets to feel that when laughing, when crying. At university, we weren’t allowed to have any emotional reaction towards literature. Literature was apparently all a matter of theory. What a bore! After nine years of that (yes, nine years,) I swore that literature should be able to make people both sob, laugh, and think. Literature should be playful. I do think that every book creates a path to the next book. The training Minna Needs Rehearsal Space gave me in saying quite a lot in one sentence probably did influence my writing in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. Who knows.

Rumpus: I’m curious about your relationship with translations of your own work. Do you read them, when possible?

Nors: Yes, I read them. I read English, Norwegian, Swedish and German, but the only translation I participate in is the English translation.

Rumpus: Is your collaboration with English translator Misha Hoekstra one that involves much correspondence back and forth, meetings in person, or disagreements?

Nors: The manuscript goes back and forth a lot. I participate in the translation in the beginning. When it comes to the English language, Misha Hoekstra always has the final call. When it comes to the Danish language, its dialects, and at times very subtle and slightly hidden meanings, I always have the final call. These two levels of language have to merge. After the first drafts of the manuscript, I leave the work to Misha. We started working like this five years ago when my books weren’t sold to that many countries. I had the time to dwell on the process back then. I learned a lot from that. Now I have translators working on my books in all kinds of languages. Even Chinese! And Catalan! My writing life has really changed.

Rumpus: Since Sonja is a translator of bad Scandinavian crime fiction in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, I was wondering if that particular book led to any conversations on the state of translation in Denmark?

Nors: No, there have been no wider conversations about the state of translation or the psychology of translation in connection to the book. The psychology of translation is really interesting, though. What happens when you live through the work and voice of someone else? But I was never asked about that in Denmark. Thank you for asking. There is an interesting translation theme waiting to be excavated from that book.

Rumpus: What are some of the challenges that come with being a Danish writer translated into many different languages, if any? I’m wondering primarily about linguistic challenges, but any challenges would be interesting to me.

Nors: Danish and English are quite related. I’m from the region Jutland in Denmark, and it was the Jutlandic Vikings that conquered the British islands. When I’m in Scotland, I constantly hear words or a certain way of “singing the language” that sounds like home. What is difficult, I believe, is translating my short form work, because I’m minimalistic and therefore very subtle. There’s a lot going on between the lines, and even a small misunderstanding of a word causes problems for the understanding of the entire text. In the novel, these misunderstandings quite often will be cleared up over time. In the short story, you can’t get it wrong. It has to be spot-on. I don’t know how my literature works in Polish or how it will work in Chinese. Translation is, in that regard, a leap of faith.

Rumpus: I’ve read previously that as a writer you aim to “wreck hygge.” Does hygge as an internationally exported concept have a large representation within Danish literature, or is it a concept exported via other sources?

Nors: I don’t want to wreck hygge. I just try to do hygge justice. And hygge is much more than the coziness of interior decoration, a laid-back lifestyle, and a happy-go-lucky approach to life. “Hygge” is also a social control mechanism. It’s a way Danes keep unpleasant things at bay and make sure that nobody ”spoils the fun.” Hygge depends so much on consensus that it can be difficult to deal with for outsiders. At times hygge can even be dangerous. But I don’t want to wreck hygge. It’s lovely (and a bit weird) to walk through life in knitted socks.

Rumpus: In an interview with the Paris Review, you comment that Danish culture makes it “nearly impossible to appear on the international stage.” Could you expand on what you mean by that? Why has your own experience as a writer been different?

Nors: It’s difficult because Denmark is such a small country. 5.6 million people. We’re a tribe. We’ve learned since we were children that we’re small and weak compared to big neighbors like Germany, but we’ve also learned that the best thing about us is that we’re Danish. We’re so proud of being Danish. That pride makes it hard to be international. Danes are very proud of other Danes doing well in the world. Danes doing well in the world should however only talk about Denmark in certain ways, when outside Denmark. You should never say anything controversial about the Danes, even though you are a Dane yourself. If you get international success, you are both elevated back home and excluded. “You are no longer one of us!” It’s hard to balance, if not impossible. But I am Danish, and I am international. I love my country, I love the landscape, the language, the humor—but I couldn’t live without having access to other regions of the world. It works for me because I was blessed to find homes for my literature in the US and the UK (and after that in many other countries). I have a great editor in Denmark who supports me both at home and abroad. It works because of the literature in itself and because of the people who read it.

Rumpus: Any hints as to what English readers of your work have to look forward to next?

Nors: My new short story collection Map of Canada which contains, for example, the story “Sun Dogs,” has been bought by the great Pushkin Press in the UK. It will be published January 2020 in the UK. In the US my beloved Graywolf Press has bought the book and will publish it in 2020 or 2021. I can’t wait.

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Photograph of Dorthe Nors © Petra Kleis.


Nina Moog currently lives in Cairo, Egypt. More from this author →