Snow is story. Snow can be an interruption and annoyance, but it is difficult to not appreciate a child’s awe for the white flakes. Snow clogs and closes roads, but it also turns lonely hills into slopes for sledding. Snow is the possibility of a new landscape, if only until for an hour, a day, or a week.
I was born during an Ash Wednesday snowstorm. My father rushed my mother to Morristown Memorial Hospital while white cloaked the streets. Growing up in suburban New Jersey, I scoped side roads for hills and banks. The best routes had speed and a smooth finish, and though I would drift to a stop, I would stare into the sky, and not care that I was cold. I listened for school closings on a Sansui, my face lit by the dial. Now I refresh the National Weather Service website as watches become warnings, and still pine for storms.
That white world has influenced my writing: my novella, This Darksome Burn, begins during an Oregon storm, and one of my poems, “The Mailman,” laments undelivered mail. Snow has also become a refrain in my reading. Snow fractures storylines and complicates characters. Snow forces writers to capture atmosphere and mood, and to uniquely describe a common event. Although we may experience many snowstorms in our lifetimes, each fall must be prepared for, dealt with, and, possibly, appreciated. I’ve noticed that writers often raise their descriptive bar when representing this winter world. What follows is a list of snow in poetry, fiction, and film. The usual suspects are mentioned, but my focus is on lesser-known gems. There’s enough reading and watching to keep you busy during the next polar vortex, blizzard, or even onion snow.
I. Snow in Poetry
“Antarctica” by James Hoch (2007)
Friends kneel on the dirt floor of a baseball dugout. They pop nitrous canisters “into the communion shapes / of our mouths, slipped inside where / everything seemed to be falling snow.” The poem continues with that steel-like chill, as some boys drift toward further abuse, and even death. Hoch never glorifies drug use, but, like the blur of side-falling snow, he muddies the space between regret and nostalgia. The grown narrator sees kids “running in the heat of a taillight / swirling behind them,” and recalls his own youth, when he and his friends “wanted only to quiet our bodies, their / unnatural hum, a vague pull inward, / some thin furrows gliding over the snow.” Hoch’s poem appeared in an issue of Painted Bride Quarterly, but I prefer the version that was included in his second book, Miscreants.
“A Winter’s Tale” by D.H. Lawrence (1916)
Snow and love are commonly intertwined, but Lawrence begins this poem in the “grey” past, where the woman’s footsteps document her existence. She is gone: “I cannot see her, since the mist’s white scarf / obscures the dark wood and the dull orange sky; / but she’s waiting, I know, impatient and cold, half / sobs struggling into her frosty sigh.” Yesterday, she had rushed to meet the narrator for their “inevitable farewell; / the hill is steep, on the snow my steps are slow– / why does she come, when she knows what I have to tell?” No warmth in this storm.
“Invocation” by Denise Levertov (1969)
In 1994, Levertov wrote “Swan in Falling Snow,” based on the photography of her friend, Mary Randlett. Although the title sounds pleasant, the poem is not: the swan is nearly dead, a “barrel-sized, heart-shaped snowball.” Levertov uses commas as knives: “splayed feet, balanced, / weary, immobile.” Yet Levertov had long been interested in snow’s ability to turn a narrative. “Invocation” is a sparer piece, resembling patches of dirt on a snowed page. The collective narrator is about to leave home, and each line in the first stanza is its own sentence, building the anticipation. Here, snow is not worried over, but wished for: “Deep snow shall block all entrances / and oppress the roof and darken / the windows.” Only snow can shutter a home and prevent entry. And that is fine, because the narrator hopes Lares will “guard” the “profound dreams” between the walls, so “that it return to us when we return.” It also contains my most favorite line in all of poetry: “The house yawns like a bear.”
“Early October Snow” by Robert Haight (2013)
A nor’easter slammed New Jersey the day before Halloween, 2011. Trees snapped power lines as some counties saw nearly 20 inches of accumulation. Haight’s poem brought me back to that moment: “this morning we wake to pale muslin / stretched across the grass.” The narrator knows the snow will not stay, but the blanched landscape still fascinates him. I love a poem that isn’t supposed to happen. Snow should wait its turn, but Haight makes this early fall so believable, from the pumpkins that look like “planets / shrouded by clouds” to “leaves, still soldered to their branches / by a frozen drop of dew, splash / apple and pear paint along the roadsides.”
“Ash-boughs” by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1885)
Hopkins’s final sonnet, “To R.B.,” is a lament about the narrator’s inability to experience “the fine delight that fathers thought:” inspiration to write poetry. “R.B.” is Robert Bridges, poet laureate of England, but more importantly, Hopkins’s friend and posthumous publisher. The pair met at Oxford, and agnostic Bridges was the perfect contrast to Hopkins, a Catholic convert who became a Jesuit priest. Bridges named this fragment “Ash-boughs” when he published Hopkins’s Collected Poems in 1918. A curtal sonnet, one of Hopkins’s idiosyncratic 12 line variations of the form, the poem begins with a narrator’s wonder at “a milk to the mind:” the branches of ash trees. He enjoys their shapes, reach, and color: “ May / mells blue and snowwhite through them, a fringe and fray / of greenery.” The tree reaches through the memory of snow to the promise of spring and light.
Hopkins had always connected snow and ash trees, and used their intersection to present his central poetic theory, inscape. Hopkins once explained to Bridges that “no doubt my poetry errs on the side of oddness.” His theory of inscape is equally unusual: “the essential and only lasting thing…species or individually-distinctive beauty of style.” The theory became the core paradox of Hopkins’s poetry and life, which Bridges observed as “the naked encounter of sensualism and asceticism,” and what W.H. Gardner calls the “tension between the inborn creative personality of the artist and the acquired religious character of the Jesuit priest.”
That one of our most inventive poets synthesized his poetic and personal theories using snow brings me joy. From his notebook, in February and April, 1873: “In the snow flat-topped hillocks and shoulders outline with wavy edges, ridge below ridge, very like the grain of wood in line and in projection like relief maps…All the world is full of inscape and chance left free to act falls into an order as well as purpose: looking out of my window I caught it in the random clods and broken heaps of snow made by the cast of a broom…[in April] the ashtree growing in the corner of the garden was felled. It was lopped first. I heard the sound and looking out and seeing it maimed there came at that moment a great pang and I wished to die and not to see the inscapes of the world destroyed any more.”
A great list of snow poems appears in the essay “Turning Up the Gravity” by Floyd Skloot. After a bad storm, Skloot heads inside and envelopes himself in winter verse: “Snow-Bound” by John Greenleaf Whittier, “Snowflakes” by Howard Nemerov, “Snow Light” by May Sarton, “SNO” by e.e. cummings, “The Snow on Saddle Mountain” by Gary Snyder, “Snow” by Charles Wright, “Driving to Town Late to Mail a Letter” by Robert Bly, “Snow” by Philip Levine, “Winter Poem” by Frederick Morgan, “Snow” by Louis MacNeice, and “Desert Places” by Robert Frost: “A blanker whiteness of benighted snow / With no expression, nothing to express.” I would also add “Snow” by Mary Ruefle, “A Winter Without Snow” by J.D. McClatchey, “[Like brooms of steel]” by Emily Dickinson, “February Snow” by Francisco Aragón, “The Snow-Storm” by Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Letter from the Ice Field, December” by Sara Eliza Johnson, and, of course, “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens, which ends: “For the listener, who listens in the snow, / And, nothing himself, beholds / Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.”
II. Snow in Fiction
The Pedersen Kid by William Gass (1961)
Gass wrote his novella “to entertain a toothache;” I first read it while sitting in the waiting room at the dentist. Within his plans for the story’s draft, he explains his goal to “present evil as a visitation –sudden, mysterious, violent, inexplicable,” bringing to life a line spoken in the text: “nobody’s ever ready for snow.” Gass’s cast is full of effective caricatures: drunken Pa, confused Ma, conniving farm-hand Big Hans, and young Jorge, the first person narrator. Snow appears in the second sentence: in the midst of a North Dakota blizzard, Big Hans discovers a child, the Pedersen kid. The child is resuscitated but delirious, and the family attempts to discover why he is there. Armed with shotguns, sandwiches, and coffee, the men of the home cross snow to hunt the man with mysterious “yellow gloves:” assumedly, someone who has killed the rest of the Pedersen family.
In a story that both parodies and praises the adventure genre, the men experience horse troubles and shudder from cold. Pa loses his whiskey bottle in the snow, and Gass spends several pages on Pa’s obsessive search, leading to Jorge’s conclusion: “It was frightening — the endless white space.” The horse ultimately shatters the bottle, and the “brown stain spread,” the “snow bubbling and sagging.” Big Hans laughs, and Jorge thought they “could melt and drink the snow.” Jorge hates Big Hans; would hate him “forever — as long as there was snow.” A Beckett-style scene unfolds. Snow and storm create a maniacal world that is equal parts caricature and deadly real. The men reach the Pedersen barn, and Jorge hears gunshots. In the novella’s final psychotropic pages, Jorge feels reborn in the abandoned Pedersen home, though the killer might near: “More and more, while we’d been coming, I’d been slipping out of myself, pushed out by the cold maybe.” His thoughts drift toward “a movie where the months had blown from the calendar like leaves. Girls in red peek-a-book BVDs were skiing out of sight.” He sees his motionless father being buried under new snowfall, and realizes there is nothing he can do until spring: “There was no need for me to grieve…The snow would keep me.” He accepts that the “winter time had finally got them all.”
“Wickedness” by Ron Hansen (1988)
From the introduction to Ted Kooser’s book of poems, The Blizzard Voices: “[these poems were] snagged…from actual reminiscences, recorded in old age, of people who survived the most talked about storm in American history, the Blizzard of 1888, also known as the Schoolchildren’s Blizzard because of the many children and their teachers who were trapped in rural schools on the bitterly cold days of January 12 and 13.” Hansen’s fictional dramatization of the blizzard is frightening. “Weather in Nebraska could be the wickedest thing she ever saw:” wicked suggests snowfall as sentient villain. The storm took most by surprise: “Weeds were being uprooted, sapling trees were bullwhipping, and the top inches of snow and prairie soil were being sucked up and stirred like the dirty flour that was called red dog.”
Animals are thrown about: “Cats died, dogs died, pigeons died.” Humans appear to lose their minds. “Ainslie Classen” (Hansen’s usage of proper names lends a dated census-like feel to the narrative) “work[ed] his hands into the pigs’ hot wastes, and smeared some onto his skin.” Mathias Aachen’s house is in disarray: “When a jar of apricots burst open that night and the iced orange syrup did not ooze out” the father of the house promises that “every one of us will be dying of cold before morning.” Aachen doesn’t wait for the storm: “he tilted hot candle wax into his right ear and then his left, until he could only hear his body drumming blood. And then Aachen got his Navy Colt and kissed his wife and killed her. And then walked under the green tent cloth and killed his seven children, stopping twice to capture a scuttling boy and stopping once more to reload.”
The wicked storm kills “a Harrington woman,” “an Omaha cigar maker,” “a cattle inspector,” “a Chicago boy,” “a forty year-old wife,” and many more. This is certainly no ordinary storm based on volume alone, but Hansen redoubles the almost mythical convention of snow through description: “Everything she knew was no longer there. She was in a book without descriptions. She could put her hand out and her hand would disappear.” Hansen makes snow a legend.
“Time and Again” by Breece Pancake (1977)
Although she deemed the story “relatively weak” and having a “sort of comic book Gothicism” in her 1983 review, Joyce Carol Oates anthologized Pancake’s morbid story in American Gothic Tales. I assume her appreciation increased with subsequent readings. I was sold on my first reading. Pancake’s story begins indoors: “Mr. Weeks called me out again tonight, and I look back down the hall of my house. I left the kitchen light burning. This is an empty old house since the old lady died.” The sentences lean forward; they are blinks of an eye, individual shots, appended with heavy periods.
The narrator’s son has been gone for years. This lonely man keeps hogs, “old hogs. Not good for anything,” but makes his money driving the plow for Mr. Weeks. Besides a loud clue — “the lug wrench is where it has always been beside my seat” — the narrator first seems more cantankerous than murderous: “The snow piles in a wall against the berm. No cars move. They are stranded at the side, and as I plow past them, a line falls in behind me, but they always drop back. They don’t know how long it takes the salt to work. They are common fools. They rush around in such weather and end up dead.” He soon picks up a hitchhiker, “a polite boy,” who reminds the narrator of his son. The talk reaches the man’s hogs, and he says they die hard, much harder than men in war. Death remains the topic of discussion: they talk of a serial killer who prays on local hitchhikers. The narrator then talks of snapping the necks of German soldiers in a French farmhouse during a World War II snowstorm. “People die so easy,” he thinks; unspoken words, but heard by the reader. He grips the lug wrench, and asks the boy to look under the seat for his flashlight. But the killing strike never comes. He spares the boy, and drives up the mountain. He tries to think about all the men he killed in France, but can’t think past that night in the storm. He returns home, and Pancake hints at what the narrator usually feeds the hogs. This time, they are unhappy.
“How to Talk to a Hunter” (pdf) by Pam Houston (1990)
Besides “Forever Overhead” by David Foster Wallace, I haven’t found better usage of second person narration. The unnamed main character has fallen for the hunter, who “won’t play back his messages while [she is] in the room.” She is attracted to him, but also to the comfort of a warm body in bed during the winter. She imagines that it will snow for “thirteen straight days,” and that they will spend the hours together.
She soon learns that those unchecked messages are from another woman. Houston’s second person narrator outlines a hypothetical storyline: the other woman will bridge the distance from Montana and bring heavy snow with her. Closed highways will snowbound them, and the main character will realize that this man is like all the others: he is his needs and wants, and nothing more. Although not a drop of this storm actually falls, Houston absolutely convinces the reader that this character can worry herself frozen. In fact, by the end of the story there is little discernment between past, present, and possibility, except the realization that the “nights are getting shorter now,” but no less painful.
“A Change of Season” by James Bond (1984)
Bond’s story was anthologized in Best American Short Stories, and he also published fiction in Willow Springs (“Whiskey Sunday Refusal” and “Fools Fall”), but has disappeared from the literary radar. This is both surprising and not. The story torques its authentic tension through a rotating first person narration, yet it feels somewhat provincial on a first read. Two logging families, the Yanceys and Davazs, are in the midst of a competition for timber and pride. Both think the other clan is unfit for this work, but both agree “if a man can last the winter here he’s got a chance; if he can beat the winter here, he’s somebody.” Buck Davaz claims the Yanceys are “scared of snow:” the second they see fall, they “grab up everything and run, axes, tractors, trucks, saws, and what they can’t carry they throw ahead of them.” Randall Yancey, one of the sons, says Buck “didn’t know winter.”
But Buck needs Bill Yancey’s help. His Snowcat is stuck up on the mountain, and he’s got forty to sixty thousand feet of timber that he’s willing to “pay a pretty penny for help hauling.” Yancey hates scaling the mountain during a fall, but money talks, so he agrees to help. Buck needs the help but revels in Bill’s poor driving in the snow. They load and chain the Snowcat to a truck, but Bill’s towing truck slides before getting stuck. The narrative shifts perspective but never relents, as each man criticizes the other, before Buck ultimately gets his own ride stuck. Angry and frustrated, Buck smashes the windshield with a maul, and strides toward the Yanceys, wielding an axe in his other hand. Each time I read this story, I expect the worst possible ending, but Buck only walks past them, echoing a maxim he speaks earlier in the story: “Knowing when to stop fighting, that’s a side of strength most never learn.”
“The Hermit’s Story” by Rick Bass (as well as his non-fiction, Winter: Notes from Montana), the haunting conclusion of “Master and Man” by Leo Tolstoy, the “Snow” chapter in The Magic Mountain by Thomas Mann, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, The Grace That Keeps This World by Tom Bailey; Snow by Orhan Pamuk, The Call of the Wild by Jack London, Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow by Peter Hoeg, “Hunters in the Snow” by Tobias Wolff, and, of course, “The Dead” by James Joyce (“And he [wrote the story] when he was twenty-five. The bastard.” — Mary Gordon).
III. Snow in Film
A horror movie about linguistics, radio stations, and snow? It exists, and begins with a riddle that includes Norman Mailer, the JFK assassination, and how “physical details spasm for a moment” after a tragic event. Shock-jock Grant Mazzy (Stephen McHattie) is unhappy with his new assignment in a small Ontario town: “These late winters I feel like I’m living in the basement of the world.” On his way to work on Valentine’s Day morning, Mazzy encounters a distraught woman who smacks against his window, says the word “blood,” and then disappears into the snow. And that fall is only beginning: the storm is about to last all day. Local news reports of a hostage situation and gunfire flame into a zombie attack. Their virus is language. The film’s director, Bruce McDonald, calls them “conversationalists.” Cult followers of the film (and its novel basis, by Tony Burgess) point to an essay by William S. Burroughs, “Ten Years and a Billion Dollars:” “the Word clearly bears the single identifying feature of virus: it is an organism with no internal function other than to replicate itself.”
This virus begins as a repetition of a word, like a broken record. The album is love: this is Valentine’s Day, so those infected repeat terms of endearment. The repetition devolves into fracture, and words break down. During the final stage, the medium swallows the message: “you become so distraught at your condition that the only way out of the situation you feel, as an infected person, is to try and chew your way through the mouth of another person.” Soon the entire town of Pontypool is placed under quarantine. Mazzy steps outside into the blizzard, but the snow pushes inside, just as the infected pound against doors and windows. Mazzy shifts from sarcastic to serious as he recounts obituaries for those killed and who kill each other, shown in a snow-white and black interlude that recalls Wisconsin Death Trip. Soon the infected smash their way into the studio, and the snow follows, blown like wavering lines of stereo sound.
The Shining (1980)
Disciples of Stanley Kubrick have been mining this film long before Room 237 (2013) made basement theories mainstream, but its depiction of snow also deserves mention. My first viewing was a version recorded from WPIX in the late 1980’s. There was no audio during the opening sequence (the Torrance family driving to the interview at the Overlook Hotel, with scrolling, aqua-colored credits breaking beautiful scenery), but the sound kicked-in like a shock. The film is suffused with snow. When Jack (Jack Nicholson) is being interviewed for the caretaker position, the window behind the manager beams light, as if the sun is burning off snow. The manager explains that the hotel closes until May, since the cost to plow the collected 20 feet of winter snow is prohibitive. A former schoolteacher and hopeful novelist, he longs for the isolation afforded by this job. He lives in Boulder, but is from Vermont, a place of snow, and claims his wife, Wendy (Shelley Duvall), and son, Danny (Danny Lloyd), will love the change. He also claims that his wife will be entertained, not frightened, by the manager’s revelation that a former caretaker murdered his family before committing suicide. The eccentricities of the Torrance family are nothing compared to Danny’s psychic powers.
Jack gets the job, and the snowfall doesn’t disappoint. Phone lines are down during a storm early in the film, so Wendy contacts the forest service on a radio. The ranger says it is one of the worst storms they’ve had in years. A shot of the heavy fall precedes Danny’s wandering into the forbidden room 237. The hotel’s cook, Dick Hallorann (Scatman Crothers) shares Danny’s psychic powers, and realizes that Jack’s eccentricities have descended into violence. Dick flies from Miami to Colorado, and then drives along a highway littered with overturned trucks and spun-out cars, a white graveyard. He is on the way to the hotel, but his well-intentioned help is not enough.
During the climactic scenes, Wendy has locked herself and Danny in the bedroom to hide from Jack’s wrath. She is only able to open the window halfway. She lifts Danny through, and he slides down a gentle hill of snow to the ground. Wendy can’t fit, so, knife in hand, she waits for Jack to reach her. He axes through one panel of the door, but stops when he hears Dick’s Snowcat nearing the hotel.
The film’s infamous final sequence occurs in the hedge maze, where Danny knows snow holds the key to his survival. The curious photograph at the film’s conclusion hints that, like snow, evil always returns.
Snow’s power as a visual backdrop makes it ubiquitous in film, but here are some particularly notable whiteouts: The Ice Storm (1997), based on the 1994 novel by Rick Moody; Ang Lee’s representation is beautiful, but Moody’s prose is tough to top: “The ice had built up on every surface, on roofs and shrubs and avenues and cars and waterways. It formed a glittering and immense cocoon on tree limbs and power lines, a cocoon of impossible mass. The sound of tree limbs giving out under this weight was like the crackling of gunfire. Mike Williams, who was wandering around in the earliest part of dawn, heard these explosions in the stillness and laughed giddily at them. He was up really late. The threat of heavy weather impelled him out into the elements. To watch.”); Fargo (1996), where snow is present in the first and climactic scenes, and almost everywhere in-between; The Thing (1982), Antarctica is the perfect place to have a showdown with shape-shifting aliens; The Virgin Spring (1960), where a soft snowfall pierces the viewer’s already wounded heart; Black Christmas (1974), watch it for Keir Dullea’s maniacal destruction of a piano, Olivia Hussey’s authentic screams, and Margot Kidder’s dirty-mouthed sarcasm, but snow completes this precedent for John Carpenter’s Halloween; Road to Perdition (2002), Sam Mendes’s dramatization of a former mafia hitman’s (Tom Hanks) revenge was renowned cinematographer Conrad Hall’s final film, and is marked by rain and snow; A Simple Plan (1998), an unusual film in Sam Raimi’s catalog, where friends discover a small plane that had crashed into a snowy forest, with 4 million dollars in tow; Antichrist (2009), the appeal of snow brings a child to an open window, leading to tragedy in the film’s opening minutes; Snow Angels (2007), based on the Stewart O’Nan novel, is an incredibly moving drama about a fractured family that cannot escape pain, and a girl’s wayward walk in snow; Frosty the Snowman (1969), because cinematic snow does not always need to equal sadness.
Image Credit: Wikipedia
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?
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?
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: 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.
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?
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.
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.