Like we did last year, we thought it might be fun to compare the U.S. and U.K. book cover designs of this year’s Morning News Tournament of Books contenders. Book cover design never seems to garner much discussion in the literary world, but, as readers, we are undoubtedly swayed by the little billboard that is the cover of every book we read. Even in the age of the Kindle, we are clicking through the images as we impulsively download this book or that one. I’ve always found it especially interesting that the U.K. and U.S. covers often differ from one another, suggesting that certain layouts and imagery will better appeal to readers on one side of the Atlantic rather than the other. These differences are especially striking when we look at the covers side by side. The American covers are on the left, and clicking through takes you to a page where you can get a larger image. Your equally inexpert analysis is encouraged in the comments.
Michel De Montaigne owned 900 books, which he kept on shelves arranged in a semi-circle. Immanuel Kant owned about 400 books. Virginia Woolf: 4,000. Qin Shi Huang, the Chinese emperor who built the Great Wall, ordered the destruction of all books written before his reign. According to the Han-era historian Sima Qian, the Qin burned only those works held in private libraries, while the court erudites and government archives were permitted to retain and expand their collections. During the Qin era, anyone caught discussing The Classic of Poetry in public would be executed. Under Qin Shi Huang it was a capital offence to discuss the past as being preferable to the present. Many of those books spared by the emperor were destroyed when the warlord Xiang Yu entered the city of Xiangyang, four years after Qin Shi Huang’s death, and razed the Qin palace and its library to the ground. John Dee, mathematician, astrologer, and adviser to Elizabeth I, kept a collection of 2,337 books and 378 manuscripts in his house on Mortlake-on-Thames. When he died, in 1608, the land around his home was bought by the antiquarian Robert Cotton, who suspected -- correctly -- that Dee had buried a cache of valuable manuscripts in a nearby field. Gustave Flaubert possessed more books by George Sand than any other author. Emily Dickinson owned a copy of Elizabeth Cleghorn Gaskell’s The Life of Charlotte Brontë. F. Scott Fitzgerald owned the 1926 edition of The Paris That’s Not in the Guidebooks by Basil Woon. James Joyce owned the guidebook In and About Paris by Sisley Huddleston. Joseph Roth, it appears, possessed very few books. Franz Kafka owned all of Max Brod’s books. In a diary entry from 1911, Kafka writes: “November 11. All afternoon at Max’s. Decided on the sequence of the essays for (Brod’s latest collection) On the Beauty of Ugly Pictures. Not good feeling.” Every few years, Willa Cather re-read her favourite novels. By 1945 she had read Huckleberry Finn 20 times, and Flaubert’s Salammbo 13 times. Socrates said the written word represented “no true wisdom.” He preferred a dialogue. He claimed written words “seem to talk to you as though they were intelligent, but if you ask them anything about what they say, from a desire to be instructed, they go on telling you the same thing for ever.” In her copy of Emmanuel Mounier’s The Character of Man, Flannery O’Connor underlined the following sentences: “When we say that thought is dialogue, we mean this quite strictly. We never think alone. The unspoken thought is a dialogue with someone who questions, contradicts, or spurs one on.” In chapter seven of Eugene Onegin, the heroine Tatiana visits the country estate of Onegin, where she is let in by the housekeeper. The chapter is framed as a digression by the narrator: Tatiana does not meet Onegin at the villa, instead she encounters his collection of books, and reads his marginalia, and the scrapbook into which he copied his favorite passages. For the first time, Tatiana encounters what she considers to be the real Onegin -- in the marginal notations his mind “declares itself in ways unwitting.” Then what is the true Onegin like? Tatiana begins to see him as a composite of fictional characters from his favorite books. On a page of Charles Darwin’s The Voyage of the HMS Beagle Round the World, Mark Twain wrote: "Can any plausible excuse be furnished for the crime of creating the human race?” In the margins of Howards End, Penelope Fitzgerald complains of the author: “He is lecturing us”. Fitzgerald’s biographer, Hermione Lee, finds this observation about Lady Russell in a copy of Persuasion: “A right-feeling but wrong-judging parent, who does as much harm as an unfeeling one.” About Fanny’s mother in Mansfield Park, Fitzgerald writes: “We see relentlessly what a difference some money makes.” About Elizabeth in Pride and Prejudice: "She punishes herself too much.” In a copy of Waiting for Godot: “An attempt to show how man bears his own company.” In her copy of The Good Soldier, Fitzgerald writes: “A short enough book to contain 2 suicides, 2 ruined lives, a death, a girl driven insane -- it may seem odd to find that the key note of the book is restraint.” Among Djuna Barnes’s personal library, now kept at the University of Maryland, is the 1963 edition of Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews. As a young writer, on commission for magazines, Barnes interviewed other novelists, including James Joyce. She herself was never interviewed by The Paris Review. Jeff Buckley owned the book Addiction Recovery for Beginners by David Brizer. Tupac Shakur owned In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose by Alice Walker. Katherine Anne Porter’s library comprised 4,000 books -- rounded up by librarians -- now preserved at the University of Maryland. Doris Lessing donated her collection of 3,000 titles to Harare City Library, Zimbabwe. Five years after her death, Iris Murdoch’s books were sold to the Kingston University Library, London, for the sum of £120,000. Her husband John Bayley said: "Her mind seemed to work independently of her precious library, but at the same time she depended for inspiration on the presence of her books, a silent living presence whose company sustained and reassured her." Late in his career, David Markson wrote novels that he constructed, for the most part, out of hundreds of anecdotes and factoids about writers and other artists. Nested amid these catalogues of biographical facts are brief statements by an unnamed narrator, which relate his or her circumstances or distressed frame of mind. All these components are united by two themes: the life of an artist and death. At a reading of his final novel, titled The Last Novel, Markson introduced the work by stating that his book featured no dramatic scenes, no incidents, no chapters, but was “98.5 per cent -- and that’s not really a guess” composed of anecdotes and quotes sourced from other books. Markson’s novels are enormous collages full of fragments from his private library. After his death in 2010, his collection was donated to The Strand in New York, where, presumably, he bought most of the books that contained the anecdotes and quotes and facts that comprised his novels. As if completing a perfect ritual, Markson’s library was sorted and integrated into the Strand’s floor stock, and sold and dispersed again. Image Credit: Flickr/Michael D Beckwith.
As Upworthy-style headlines sweep the internet, aiming to snag as many clicks as possible by pandering to as many whims and obsessions as possible, the dignified mystery of the great book title stands in stark contrast. The Upworthy headline had been widely satirized on other websites and social media, including some folks applying them to book titles, so my Millions colleague Nick Moran and I were inspired to muse as well — what if books were whorishly titled, optimizing our search engines rather than our imaginations, rather than leaving us to discover who Oliver Twist was or who was proud and who was prejudiced? Leave your own optimized book titles in the comments or on twitter with the hashtag #litworthy. The Shiniest Guy In School Had Her at “You’re My Particular Brand of Heroin” He Didn’t Want to Dance with Her When They First Met. Now He Really, Really Does. Watch This Kid Burst Into Tears When He’s Refused Some More Porridge They Told Him White Whales Were Impossible to Hunt. That’s When He Went Literally Crazy. You Thought Millennials Were Bad? Watch These British Kids Totally Nail Chaos Theory. Some Guy With Two First Names Proves That “Nymphet” Is The Grossest Word In English. You’ll Never Guess Which of the Four Sisters the Hot Neighbor Kid Ends Up Married To This Guy Didn’t Tell His New Governess About His Secret Ex-Wife In The Attic. What Happened Next Really Burned Him Up. Watch How Complicated This Guy’s Road Trip Gets When He Lets A Group of Dwarves Plan It. The Most Powerful Dark Wizard in the World Tried to Kill Him When He Was a Baby. On Page 4,305 You’ll Find Out Why. We Thought We Could Beat On Against The Current Without Being Borne Back Ceaselessly Into The Past. Boy, Were We Wrong. You Know How You’ve Been Looking for the Secret to Eternal Youth? This Guy With a Really Ugly Painting in His Attic May Have Found It. Here's One Weird Trick To Get Out of Paying Your Rent Forever He Paid For A Prostitute But The Pimp Punched Him Anyway. What A Phony.
Ah, 1999... We laughed along with Chandler and Phoebe, invested our surplus Benjamins with Lehman Brothers, danced a national macarena. Those days seem like the distant past now, and in many ways, the first decade of the 21st Century has been quite different from the giddy future we might have projected. In one way, though, the new millennium has delivered: we've gotten great fiction, often from unexpected quarters. When The New York Times named "The Best Work of American Fiction of the Last 25 Years" in 2006, none of the finalists was younger than 69, and the most recent publication date was 1997. But the '00s have introduced us to new voices, spurred others to new levels of achievement, and ushered in the late masterworks that have capped distinguished careers. It's a bit early, of course, to pass definitive judgment on the literary legacy of the '00s, or how it stacks up against that of the 1930s, or 1850s. Who knows what will be read 50 years from now? But, with the end of the decade just a few months away, it seemed to us at The Millions a good time to pause and take stock, to call your attention to books worthy of it, and perhaps to begin a conversation. To that end, we've conducted a poll of our regular contributors and 48 of our favorite writers, editors, and critics (listed below), asking a single question: "What are the best books of fiction of the millennium, so far?" The results were robust, diverse, and surprising. We've finished tabulating them, and this week, we'll be counting down the Top 20 vote-getters, at a rate of five per day. Each book will be introduced by one of the panelists who voted for it. On Friday, we'll reveal Number One, along with the results of a parallel reader poll conducted via our Facebook group. And next week, we'll run follow-up posts including Honorable Mention and "Best of the Rest" lists. This page, updated as we post the list, will become an index. You can use it to navigate the series, or can check back at our home page; we also invite you to consider subscribing to The Millions via RSS feed or Kindle. We hope you'll share your thoughts here or on the entries for the individual books throughout the week as our list is revealed. The List #20: Gilead by Marilynne Robinson #19: American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman #18: Stranger Things Happen by Kelly Link #17: The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem #16: Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides #15: Varieties of Disturbance by Lydia Davis #14: Atonement by Ian McEwan #13: Mortals by Norman Rush #12: Twilight of the Superheroes by Deborah Eisenberg #11: The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz #10: Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro #9: Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage by Alice Munro #8: Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson #7: Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald #6: The Road by Cormac McCarthy #5: Pastoralia by George Saunders #4: 2666 by Roberto Bolaño #3: Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell #2: The Known World by Edward P. Jones #1: The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen The Panel Sam Anderson is the book critic for New York Magazine. Rosecrans Baldwin is the author of the forthcoming You Lost Me There and a founding editor of The Morning News. Elif Batuman is the author of the forthcoming The Possessed: Adventures With Russian Books and the People Who Read Them Mark Binelli is the author of Sacco and Vanzetti Must Die and is a contributor to Rolling Stone. Elise Blackwell is the author of Hunger and other books Patrick Brown is a contributor to The Millions. Sonya Chung is the author of Long for This World and is a contributor to The Millions. Elizabeth Crane is the author of You Must Be This Happy to Enter and other works of fiction. Ben Dolnick is the author of Zoology. Ben Ehrenreich is the author of The Suitors. Stephen Elliot is the author of The Adderall Diaries and other books and is founding editor of The Rumpus. Scott Esposito is the founding editor of Conversational Reading and The Quarterly Conversation. Joshua Ferris is the author of Then We Came to the End and the forthcoming The Unnamed. Rivka Galchen is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances. Lauren Groff is the author of Delicate Edible Birds and The Monsters of Templeton. Garth Risk Hallberg is the author of A Field Guide to the North American Family and is a contributor to The Millions. John Haskell is the author of Out of My Skin and American Purgatorio. Jeff Hobbs is the author of The Tourists. Michelle Huneven is the author of Blame and other novels. Samantha Hunt is the author of The Invention of Everything Else and The Seas. Sara Ivry is a senior editor of Tablet. Bret Anthony Johston is the author of Corpus Christi: Stories and is director of the Creative Writing Program at Harvard University. Porochista Khakpour is the author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects. Lydia Kiesling is a contributor to The Millions. Benjamin Kunkel is the author of Indecision and is a founding editor of N+1. Paul La Farge is the author of Haussmann, or The Distinction. Reif Larsen is the author of The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. Dorothea Lasky is the author of Awe and other books. Edan Lepucki is a contributor to The Millions. Yiyun Li is the author of The Vagrants Margot Livesey is the author of The House on Fortune Street and other books. Fiona Maazel is the author of Last Last Chance. C. Max Magee is the founding editor of The Millions. Sarah Manguso is the author of the memoir The Two Kinds of Decay and other books. Laura Miller is the author of The Magician's Book and is the book critic at Salon. Meghan O'Rourke is the author of Halflife: Poems and is a founding editor of DoubleX. Ed Park is the author of Personal Days and is a founding editor of The Believer. Emre Peker is a contributor emeritus to The Millions. Arthur Phillips is the author of The Song is You and three other novels. Nathaniel Rich is the author of The Mayor's Tongue and is a senior editor at The Paris Review. Marco Roth is a founding editor of N+1. Andrew Saikali is a contributor to The Millions. Mark Sarvas is the author of Harry, Revised and is the proprietor of The Elegant Variation. Matthew Sharpe is the author of Jamestown and other works of fiction. Gary Shteyngart is the author of Absurdistan and The Russian Debutante's Handbook. Joan Silber is the author of The Size of the World. Martha Southgate is the author of Third Girl From the Left and other books. Lorin Stein is a senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Felicia Sullivan is the author of The Sky Isn't Visible from Here and is the founding editor of Small Spiral Notebook. Jean Thompson is the author of Do Not Deny Me and other books. David Ulin is book editor of the Los Angeles Times Amanda Eyre Ward is the author of Love Stories in This Town and other books. Dan Wickett is executive director and publisher of Dzanc Books. John Williams is founding editor of The Second Pass Anne K. Yoder is a contributor to The Millions. Todd Zuniga is the founding editor of Opium Magazine Methodology Each panelist could name up to five books available in English with an original-language publication date no earlier than Jan. 1, 2000. We then tabulated the votes of our panelists, along with those of our contributors. Books were ranked according to number of votes received. In the few cases where more than one book received the same number of votes, our contributors, believing firmly that ties are like "kissing your sister," voted to break them. Best of the Millennium, Pros Versus Readers
Recently, I took a train to Princeton University in search of two lost J.D. Salinger stories about Holden Caulfield’s family. “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans” and “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” have never been published in the nearly sixty years since Salinger wrote them. Princeton’s Firestone Library now protects the only known copies. The librarian at the front desk had me pegged as a Salinger fan before I even opened my mouth. I suspect it is a meek and eternal frustration in my eyes, one otherwise known only by members of the Green Party and Mets fans. My colleagues have been known to laugh out loud when I say that Salinger is my favorite author. The literary criticisms I’ve brought into my classroom are almost universally negative and thirty years out-of-date. Only my students ever seem to love Nine Stories and The Catcher in the Rye half as much as I do. Yes, they see Holden as superior, obnoxious, and immature – but they respect that he holds nothing back. He does not simply wear his heart on his sleeve, Holden’s heart is his sleeve. His whole self is enveloped in this bloody but still beating muscle. But, perhaps like Holden, I fear they will soon grow out of it. They will soon hear the same dismissive slights as I have – that Salinger is overly precious, terribly smug, and above all, not serious. Just a minor, young adult writer. For fifteen years, I dreamed of the discovery of a massive treasure trove of brilliant novels upon Salinger’s death. But months after his obituary had been printed, I’d gotten tired of waiting for something to appear. I’d come to Princeton to find proof of Salinger’s early genius and write some essays that would settle the matter for good. The Princeton librarian had my photograph taken for an ID badge and I signed a form promising not to damage the rarities. I was instructed to lock up my bag and wash my hands. Off-handedly, the librarian added, “You can bring your laptop in if you want.” I could hardly believe my ears but I did not stop to ask questions. Inside, I was given a sharpened pencil and three sheets of bright orange paper. Another librarian pulled Box 14 out of a cabinet. Inside was Folder 26. All that distinguished Salinger’s folder from the others was a red label along the edge, reading: NO PHOTOCOPYING. Anxiously I flipped through dozens of old issues of Story and Collier’s. These were hard to find online but most I had read before. Then, at last, I found what I’d come for: two typewritten manuscripts, complete with typos and smudges. “The Last and Best of the Peter Pans”, the earliest known Caulfield story, features Vincent (Holden’s brother “DB” in Catcher) and his mother arguing after he discovers she has childishly hidden his Army draft survey in a silverware drawer. At one point, Vincent yells that it is as if she is trying to stop a child from falling off a cliff by asking a man without legs to catch him, a line which, for any Catcher fan, is a delight. Vincent soon realizes that his mother can’t help the way that she is - like Peter Pan, she cannot grow up, and so he finally forgives her. The title of the second story, “The Ocean Full of Bowling Balls” refers to a short story written by Vincent and read aloud to his brother Kenneth (Allie), who dislikes the unnecessary meanness of his ending: a bowling ball is thrown through a window by an angry, cuckolded wife. Kenneth reminds Vincent that he can write stories where good things happen, so why not? Vincent rips up the story and takes Kenneth out for steamers. The little brother goes swimming in the ocean, but the waves batter the boy like so many bowling balls. The next part is beautiful but I can’t do it justice in paraphrase. I will confess that I found myself tearing up, hoping the other researchers wouldn’t notice. Inspired, I cracked my laptop open, intending to begin writing a brilliant defense of my favorite writer. It took a moment before I realized that no alarm bells had sounded. What if I began to retype just a few scattered lines from “Peter Pans”? If anyone came to yell at me, couldn’t I easily claim to just be taking down a few quotes? Could I copy whole paragraphs, then pages? If I swallowed my thumb drive, would the files survive a little internal digestion? I envisioned angry librarians smashing my laptop to pieces. I’d have to hit “save” every ten seconds. Some time passed before a new librarian arrived and made a beeline for me. “You’re not allowed to use your laptop with the Salinger,” she informed me. Heart pounding, I closed it up. How much, I wondered, could I manage by hand? By the time I lost my nerve and fled, I was checking over my shoulder all the way to the train for trailing Princeton Security. On the way home I stared unhappily at the gaping holes in my notes. I called Salinger’s literary agents and asked them what sort of permissions I would need to write some essays about the unpublished stories. “I have to say no,” said the man on the other end of the phone, “to anything involving the Salinger estate.” No matter what I asked, this was all he would say. Then, just to be sure I’d gotten the point, the man apparently called Princeton, got my contact information from the forms I’d signed, and e-mailed me again, just to be sure I knew that he had to say no to anything involving J.D. Salinger. That night, my wife asked me what old J.D. would think about my adventures. How would he feel about a fan travelling across state lines to get ahold of his work? He’d be on my side, I insisted. I have been a lifelong defender of his name and a studier of his craft. I’ve read and reread, notated and underlined, interpreted and reinterpreted. But I was not some joyless, phony, unpleasable critic! I’d always stuck up for Salinger – a man who had hardly ever stuck up for himself. She didn’t buy it and, really, neither did I. Salinger wouldn’t have given me a pass just because I knew the name of the short story collection that Vincent/DB wrote (The Secret Goldfish), or what Ginnie Maddox kept in her pocket for three days (a dead Easter chick), or what Esmé sent Sergeant X in the mail (a broken wristwatch). Salinger never wanted or needed me to stick up for him. Still I wished I could show my colleagues what I’d seen. If they could just read those stories, I thought, they would understand why Salinger will always be a major writer to me. In the Princeton folder I’d also found a letter from Salinger to an editor, explaining that he was tired of writing stories where his characters lay broken apart at the end. He wished he could write stories that put their pieces back together again. It is the same urging that Kenneth delivered to Vincent in the story. It is one I would make to my fellow writers. We can write anything, so why write that which delights only in misery? Yes, maybe pretending that this world is anything other than miserable is futile, but like hiding your son’s draft card in a silverware drawer, this pretending is an act of love. It is impossible to save children from falling out of the rye, but that doesn’t keep Holden from wishing that he could. You have to dive into the ocean, Salinger tells us, precisely because it is full of bowling balls. It is having hope which requires real guts. So wear your heart on your sleeve and if it bleeds, let it, so long as it still beats. A week later I was back on a Princeton-bound train. Again, the librarian needed no indication of what I’d come for. My compromise with old J.D. has been this: as much as I’d love to prove his genius, I haven’t written any of the essays about the stories that I’d hoped to. Only this, which contains no information which is not already available in Salinger’s few biographies. The stories are there for whoever wants to go and read them. Whatever I did or did not save on my laptop, I’ve shown to no one. Not my colleagues or my students. Those stories are my Secret Goldfish, my dead Easter Chick, my busted wristwatch… and they are safe with me. Bonus Links: J.D. Salinger, 1919-2010, Salinger in Vienna (Image: D.B. was here from sevenhungrybadgers's photostream)
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Even a slight familiarity with pop culture provides the awareness that Scandinavian crime stories are ascendant -- due in part to Swedish writer Stieg Larsson's internationally bestselling trilogy. There are, of course, numerous other practitioners of the crime genre from ice-bound precincts -- Åke Edwardson, Karin Fossum, Anne Holt, Camilla Läckberg, Henning Mankell, husband and wife team Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö and Arnaldur Indriðason, and so on. Norwegian Jo Nesbø, whose CV includes stints as a stock trader, cab driver, musician, and soccer player, has seen six novels featuring his driven and single minded Oslo homicide detective, Harry Hole, published in English translation. Harry likes jazz, '80s rock, booze, and solving crimes. And, naturally, Hole resents and resists authority -- a burdensome characteristic for a big city policeman. All of which produces entertaining and, dare I offer, suspenseful reading. In our face-to-face chat we talked about American crime writers, Nesbø's ineptitude as a taxi driver, who is making a movie from his book, Lord of the Flies, his reading habits and more: Robert Birnbaum: How do you pronounce your name? Jo Nesbø: Ah, well. Outside Norway I prefer Jo Nesbø (both laugh). It’s the simple version. The Norwegian version is Ug Nespa. RB: Say it again. JN: Ug Nespa. RB: Is there a “g” at the end of your first name? JN: No there’s not. RB: Sound’s like it. There’s a hard sound at the end. And Harry Hole is pronounced how? JN: Same thing -- outside Norway I am happy with Harry Hole and so is he, but in Norway it’s Hahree Whoule. RB: Since your book is translated, it must be first written in Norwegian, yes? JN: Absolutely. RB: When you think about American crime fiction, there are a number of icons that people around the world refer to -- Chandler, Hammett, Cain, and Thomson. Is there someone like that in Norway? JN: Yeah, you have [Henrik] Wergeland. [He] is recognized as the godfather of Norwegian crime literature. In Scandinavian crime you have to go to the '70s -- Maj Sjöwall andPer Wahlöö founded the modern Scandinavian crime novel based on social criticism. RB: And more procedural. JN: It was. So everyone in Scandinavia who writes a crime novel, whether they l know it or not, they are influenced by Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. RB: You have a varied CV -- how did you come to writing? JN: Um. RB: You were a stockbroker, a rock and roller, soccer player, taxi driver. JN: I was a really bad taxi driver. I was famous for it. RB: Bad sense of direction or poor driving? JN: Just bad driving. Lack of concentration. But I come from a book reading home. My mother was a librarian. My father was a book collector. And so he would always be reading. So I started reading as soon as I could tell the letters [of the alphabet]. The first novel that I made my father read to me was Lord of The Flies by William Golding. A Nobel Prize winner. I wish I could say I chose that book because I have good taste, but I liked the cover. It was a pig’s head on a stake. Actually, when I wrote my first novel at the age of 37, none of my friends were surprised that I had finally written a novel. They were more like, “What took you so long?” It took some time, but it came very naturally. RB: I am a little confused. There are eight novels in the Harry Hole series and four have been published in the U.S. [there are actually six available, with a seventh on the way in fall 2012]? JN: I’m a bit confused myself. Because the first two novels feature Harry Hole in Australia and then in Bangkok, Thailand. And when we started selling the rights abroad we decided we would not sell the rights to the first two novels because they were a bit far-fetched -- a Norwegian detective in Australia and Thailand. So we started with the third novel, but then the U.K. and later on the U.S. decided they would publish them out of order. So it is a bit confusing. Not only are they out of order, but also they are in different print sequences in different countries. RB: And Headhunters? JN: That’s a stand-alone. RB: And Harry Hole is not in it at all? JN: No, he is not mentioned and he is not there. RB: Headhunters has been made into a movie in Norway -- will it play in the U.S? JN: Yes, which is rare. I just came back from Cannes and we showed it to distributors and the American distributor was so happy with it that it will be shown in at least 15 cities. RB: Is Working Title the distributor? JN: No, they bought the rights for one of the Harry Hole stories. RB: Which means they effectively bought them all. JN: Yah, yah. RB: Working Title is the Coen Brothers? JN: That’s right. That was their opening line when they phoned me. Because I had turned down offers for the Harry Hole series for a long time. Not that I don’t love movies, but they’re so strong compared to novels, so I wanted to keep that universe untouched. But they phoned me with a great opening line -- “Hi, we are Working Title and we made Fargo.” (both laugh) And so I said, "OK, I’m listening.” RB: Why did they mention Fargo, of all their films? JN: I think they had a hunch that I liked that movie. It was probably on my top 10 list of movies ever. RB: That’s great. I always have liked them, but I gained a lot of respect for them in the way they re-made True Grit. JN: I just saw the first part of True Grit on the plane -- I hadn’t seen it. And the dialogue was great. And I was curious because I hadn’t seen the original and it was really whippy great dialogue. It reminded me of Deadwood. Different, but still with great attention to dialogue. RB: I recommend the novel Deadwood by Pete Dexter. JN: I didn’t know there was a novel. Is it written in the same, almost Shakespearean way? RB: Dexter is a great American writer, most well known for Paris Trout. JN: I’m so ignorant. RB: Is this your first visit here? JN: No, I was here two years ago [for a book tour] and I was here before that. My father grew up in New York, in Brooklyn, with my grandparents. So I have some ties and bonds with the U.S. RB: Besides gruesome deaths, what would define and distinguish Scandinavian crime literature? As opposed to American? JN: Hopefully, Scandinavian crime has -- the quality is good. You do have bad Scandinavian crime lit -- but I think what separates it from not only American, but the rest of Europe also, is there is a tradition stemming from the '70s that it was OK to write crime literature. It was prestigious. Sjöwall and Wahlöö sort of moved the crime novel from the kiosks into the bookstores, meaning that young talented writers would use the crime novel as vehicles for their storytelling talents. And so you have had good crime novelists, good writers, who would, from time to time, write so-called serious literature and almost all the well-known, established serious writers in Scandinavia have at one time written a crime novel. It’s sort of a thing that you do. You must have a go at genre. RB: Here it seems acceptance of genre fiction as legitimate has come later. Elmore Leonard is championed, by among others Martin Amis, Michael Connelly, and George Pelecanos. JN: James Lee Burke. RB: I have read three of your books -- and you have avoided what I think is the reason I don’t read series. Harry Hole is not predictable and clichéd. You know some of his habits, but the plots aren’t cookie cutter. What’s on your mind when you write the next Hole story? When are you done with him -- how old does he get to be? JN: That’s a secret. RB: You know? JN: I know -- I have a storyline for him. He is not going to have eternal life. And he is not going to rise from the dead. So after the second novel, I sat down and wrote his story -- I am not 100 percent sure how many books there will be, but if we are not near the end, we are nearer the end. RB: Philip Kerr, who has written seven Bernie Gunther novels, says that the problem with writing a series is that the author usually writes one or two too many. They don’t know when to stop. Will you know when to stop? JN: I don’t know. (laughs) I have no idea. Hopefully somebody will tell me. As long as the books sell, probably they won’t. RB: Sales and quality don’t necessarily correspond. JN: Actually, I think that -- I am reading Jim Thompson on the plane. He had to write to pay the rent. I am so lucky I don’t have to write. I don’t have to sell books. So I can focus on what I want to do -- what’s interesting. Do I know when to stop? Yes. It will not be decided by sales numbers. From the start I wrote for myself and two friends that I wanted to impress -- two friends that had more or less the same taste in culture. And it’s still the same. Those are the two guys I am writing for -- they don’t know this. If they say, “I read the last book and it was OK, then I am over the moon.” RB: OK is good? JN: OK is great. RB: Do you have first readers? JN: Yah, at the publishing house. RB: But not friends? JN: No, nothing like that. I have four or five people at the publisher. They coordinate their opinions and we sit down and have a meeting. RB: Chandler was in the same situation as Thompson -- so it goes. So, there is a limit to the Harry Hole. Are you already thinking about other fiction that you want to write? JN: I am. RB: How far ahead are you in your aspirations and goals? JN: Other series or novels? I don’t like to think that long term. The problem is that I have more ideas than I have time. So I have -- I am 51 now. I probably won’t be able to read all the books I want to read. And I won’t have the time to write all the books I want to write. So I try to give them the right priority, meaning that— -- I have a children’s book series that I am working on now. There will be one more book in that series. And then a stand-alone children’s book. And then I will finish the Harry Hole series. I have some ideas for maybe a new series. I haven’t quite decided yet because I want to write this stand-alone thriller. When you write, it’s important to do it while you have the enthusiasm for the idea. Maybe the most important period of your writing is when you are convinced that your idea is the best idea any writer ever has had. So you have to use that energy, because the time will come when you wake up in the morning and you will doubt your idea. And then it’s good that you have already more than half-- RB: That doesn’t happen when you start something? JN: Not when I start. And it doesn’t really happen that often. I wake up in the morning unsure. It did happen two years ago. I had been working on a novel for a long time and I started doubting. I went to my publishers and they were quite happy with it. But they had some suggestions and I immediately knew that they read it the way I read it myself. And what I did was delete the whole novel. Two years’ work out the window. Like I said, I am in the fortunate situation that I don’t have to publish books to pay the rent. RB: It sounds like you don’t encounter writer’s block. JN: No, I never experienced writer’s block, no. RB: Do you have to write every day? JN: I try to write every day, and I can write almost anywhere. I have been writing on the plane coming here. I thought our meeting was at four o'clock, so I was planning to write for an hour. When we are done here, I am going to write for two hours before my next meeting. RB: Sounds like you love it. JN: I love it. I started writing so late in life. I was 37 -- I had worked, as you said, as a taxi driver, a stockbroker. A fishing trawler. I had many kinds of jobs. And I know this is the greatest job that you can have. To actually get up in the morning and people are paying you to do what you really want to do. To come up with these stories. It’s unbelievable having that as a job. RB: Do you go for periods without writing? JN: I don’t. Not really. Like I said I have more ideas than I have time. When I am going on vacation with my daughter for a week, she says, “Daddy, don’t bring the laptop, ok?.” I say, “No, no, no, I won’t.” Like an alcoholic, I will have it hidden somewhere. No, I have one week a year that is sort of sacred, that I don’t write. RB: Can you imagine not writing? JN: I can. I had a long life not writing, so I can imagine. But it would a poor life, that’s for sure. RB: What is life like for a successful writer in Norway -- do you live in Oslo? Is there a literary circle? JN: I live in Oslo and there is a literary circle. I guess I am not part of it. I never was. I have my friends before I started writing and I stick with them. We hang out and do things. RB: No publishing parties and movie openings? JN: Not really. I probably did that more when I was a musician. And you get tired of it -- talking about books, talking about writing. I do that enough when I am traveling. It’s good to go back home and go rock climbing or just talk about Bob Dylan -- anybody but me. When I first started talking about myself at interviews like this, I though this must be the best job ever. To have people absolutely listening to you, talking about yourself for hours and hours. So I was a bit surprised when after a couple of years I felt I was getting tired of myself. Listening to my own voice, retelling the story of my life. RB: Answering the same questions-- JN: You know this interview is a bit better than most-- RB: Well, thank you. Is there a big boom in writing programs, MFA programs in Scandinavia as in the U.S? JN: Ah, yah. Something happened in the '90s that suddenly writers became pop stars. They started being interviewed on talk shows and they started having their own shows called Book Box -- there was an old building in Oslo where they had an indoor pool. They started interviewing writers there. They were like rock concerts. Actually, they had rock concerts in the same arena. It would be sold out -- just for a writer being interviewed for 45 minutes. Ever since that, all the young talented people, they want to become famous writers because they would be treated like pop stars. RB: What is the book business like in your part of the world? Is it prospering? JN: It is. Norway -- I am not sure about Sweden and Denmark, but Norway is one of the best countries in the world to be a writer. Both economically and artistically. I just went to France and I asked a bookseller there, "How many writers can write full time?” He said, “Probably, 50 or 60.” In Norway there are probably 200. Which has a smaller population -- smaller than Massachusetts -- 4 or 5 million. RB: Which Americans do you try to read? How do they filter into Norway? JN: I guess European literature has traditionally been more important in Norway than American. But myself, maybe because my father grew up here, I was influenced by American literature from a young age. Mark Twain, who I still regard as one of the great American writers. And Ernest Hemingway. Later on I read the Beatniks -- Jack Kerouac. I was a great fan of Charles Bukowski. RB: And contemporary novelists? JN: Michael Connelly. James Lee Burke. There are so many greats. I didn’t read that much crime fiction before I started writing it myself. I can remember reading Lawrence Block. Dennis Lehane, of course. His Mystic River. I went to Asia and I bought 10 crime novels that were supposed to be good. Out of the 10, I found one good book -- which was Mystic River. RB: There is another Bostonian, Chuck Hogan [The Town] who is excellent. And there is [the late great] George Higgins who wrote The Friends of Eddie Coyle. Do you know it? JN: No. RB: It’s also a great movie with Robert Mitchum. You are here for an extensive charm initiative? JN: I will be here for nine days, trying to charm as many [people] as I can. Toronto, NYC, and the West Coast. RB: By the way, how is it that your father grew up here? JN: My grandmother left Norway for the U.S. when she was 16 and then she went back and met my grandfather. They made my daddy. And they went back to Brooklyn. To a part of Brooklyn where you had many Scandinavians in the '20s and '30s. RB: Do you watch crime movies? JN: I do. When I started writing I was probably more influenced by crime movies based on novels than the original novel. In some cases the films are better than the novels. The Godfather is probably a better movie-- RB: Someone is actually writing a prequel. What a god-awful idea. JN: Yah. RB: Did the HBO series The Wire make it to Norway? JN: Yes. I have seen it and it’s great. The most interesting thing happening in storytelling right now is probably in American TV series. Breaking Bad-- RB: Justified based on an Elmore Leonard character -- pretty funny. Are there original serials like that in Norway? JN: We do, but with a small population and limited resources -- there is a Danish series that made its way at least to the U.K. It’s called The Crime. RB: It’s called The Killing here. A female cop tries to solve the killing of a young girl-- JN: That’s it. Are you seeing the original series? RB: No, it must be made for the U.S. It’s in English and set in Seattle using American actors. JN: Yah, the original is shot in Copenhagen. It’s great, if you can get it. It has subtitles. RB: When I saw The Wire, I never saw it in episodes -- I got the DVD and watched four or five hours at a time. It seems counterintuitive to watch these long stories a piece at a time. JN: I agree. Watching the DVDs is like books, you decide when to consume the story. But don’t forget Charles Dickens would serialize his stories. RB: Who knew the difference then? What is it, a new phenomenon? JN: I think he was the first one who did it -- if not, it was unusual to do that. I heard he would receive letters from his readers advising him how the story should go. And he would actually listen to them. RB: Dickens was fascinating character. I’ve read a few novels where he actually appears as a character -- Richard Flanagan’s Wanting and Joseph O Connor’s Star of the Sea. What kind of music do you like -- jazz appears a lot in the Hole books? JN: Jazz and American rock from the '80s. I still play about 50 to 60 gigs a year. I play guitar and I sing. So most of the gigs are with my bass player. We also go touring with my old band. We are going touring this summer -- just for a few festivals. Just for fun. We keep the tour short enough so we don’t kill each other (laughs). So we are having fun. RB: Do you tour outside Norway? JN: No, the lyrics are in Norwegian and I don’t think the music makes sense outside Norway. RB: Who comes to Norway to play? Anyone big? JN: Most of them -- either to Oslo or Stockholm or to Copenhagen -- which is not so far from where I live in Oslo. RB: Do you travel in Scandinavia? JN: The land is more or less the same -- just different dialects. RB: Danish is understandable? JN: No you have to read Danish. They speak funny. Actually, and I love Danes, but Danish is difficult. Children all over the world learn their mother tongue at the same age except for one country -- Denmark. It takes a little longer. RB: Apparently Dutch is unpronounceable by anyone except the Dutch. That’s how the Dutch Resistance tripped up spies in World War II. So will you participate in the making of the Harry Hole movie? JN: The deal is done. I am an executive producer. I have a veto when it comes to the director and screenwriter. And that was what was important to me. I wasn’t too eager to sell the rights for the books as long as I was writing the series. So that was a condition -- that I would have veto. The first time we met they said, “We can’t do it like that. We can’t go to Martin Scorsese and ask him to write a screenplay for this unknown Norwegian writer and if he likes it then maybe this unknown Norwegian writer will say yes. And have you direct the movie.” I said, “I completely understand but that is my condition. I am happy not to have the series filmed, yet.” RB: Is it difficult that once the film is made there will be a tangible character and so when you write-- JN: That was one of the reasons I wasn’t eager to have it filmed, you know. I‘d rather there be a 1,000 Harry Holes in the heads of my readers than one character defining him. RB: Having said that, who do you think may be a good Harry Hole? JN: I have no idea. RB: Norwegian or American? JN: I have been thinking hard -- Nick Nolte is probably too old. But I have no idea. RB: Do you like Harry Hole? JN: I do. He is a bit annoying at times. But most of the time I like him. RB: Because he comes through -- for truth, justice, and the Norwegian way? JN: I mean he is irritating. He always has to do things the difficult way. He can’t ever -- he has this problem with authority. And in my opinion he should try to avoid authority more, instead of always picking a fight. He’s a bit annoying in that sense. He is not the kind of guy I would like to hang out with -- he is a bit too intense. RB: He doesn’t really have any friends. One guy -- his tech guy; he is sort of a friend. Even his colleagues who seem to respect him don’t gravitate to him. He is a tough cookie. His girlfriend obviously has problems with him. JN: I think women want to save him more than that he is pleasant to be around. But he has one childhood friend -- the hard drinking taxi driver. Apart from that, a psychologist and women. RB: Often in crime stories, the crimes are not that important. Certainly in Raymond Chandler, in The Big Sleep who could figure that one out. Or in Chinatown where you are told not to try to understand “because it’s Chinatown.” In the Harry Hole stories, you do plot out a crime and have surprising solutions and endings. It’s something you care about? JN: Yes. I like the dialogue you have with the reader -- I am going to give you a chance to sort out the riddle. And I will give you enough information to solve it. I am not going to give you all the vital information from the last 30 pages. But before that, at least you have a chance. That was what Dennis Lehane did in Mystic River -- there was a bit of information in the middle of the book and an experienced reader or writer -- you could probably tell, okay, here is the killer. RB: I liked his standalone novel about the 1919 Boston Police strike, Any Given Day. JN: Yah, yah. RB: It mentioned the Great Molasses Flood where a big vat of molasses escaped killing 19 or 20 people and wreaking untold havoc. Robert Parker also wrote a number of series and I thought his best work was a standalone, All Our Yesterdays. Did you read Parker? JN: No. One American writer I read recently was Richard Matheson’s I am Legend. A great novel -- short and to the point. It reminded me of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. RB: When The Road came out, I wasn’t in the mood to read it. But I did read a post-apocalyptic novel by Jim Crace called Pesthouse. Twenty years hence, most of America has been destroyed and survivors are searching for safe areas and viable communities. And of course they encounter obstacles. It came out around the same time as McCarthy’s book and was overshadowed by it. Do you know of Jim Crace? JN: No. There are so many writers. We been sitting here almost an hour now and you are mentioning well-known writers and I don’t know about them. I probably should be embarrassed, but I am not. There are so many books and we don’t have time to read them all. RB: It is frustrating. If you read 200 books a year, you still don’t scratch the surface. JN: How many do you read a year? RB: I may complete 150. JN: 150! RB: I start a lot more. I used to feel bad about not finishing a book. I’m better at that. JN: I ‘m a slow reader. I read more like 30 a year. It’s a crazy thing -- there so many talented writers that you are not going to hear about. That’s why I feel so privileged and lucky to be able to come here after years of writing and have a name in Europe and hopefully some day in the United States. It’s not enough to be good. RB: Is your backlist available here now? Harper has four, Knopf as two. The others? JN: The first novels will translated to English next year. Harper will probably keep the backlist. RB: Which one will be made into a movie? JN: The Snowman. RB: The new one. JN: Actually that’s the previous one -- the next one is called The Leopard. RB: All right, thank you JN: Thank you. Image courtesy of Robert Birnbaum.
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