Wednesday, December 17, 2008
Look closely at this picture. It's a rare picture indeed.
Here you have A Not So Important Writer From an Obscure Country with one of his only fans in Strasbourg, France.
Well, maybe I'm being too hard on myself. Maybe I have two fans in Strasbourg, but I bet you won't find many who have read all my novels in French. But this woman has. This avid book seller has swallowed every translated word in La Naine du Tsar, Le Reveur de Palestine, and Le Front Chantilly. She deserves an award, a kiss, a statue.
So what were you doing in France, dear Pierre, you might want to ask?
Well, first of all, my name is Peter, not Pierre, but to answer your question, I was attending a literary festival called 27 Moments de litterérature européenne, thus representing Danemark, Gaia Editions e lui-meme.
And I was treated very well by everybody. They took me to a lavish lunch where I drowned in sauerkraut, they invited me to dinner, they forced their costumers to buy my books. And I was courteous enough to sign them.
Actually courteous is not the word I was looking for. I basically forced myself on people. Yes, at one point I got so desperate I would have signed anything, even novels by Ken Follet. He's always next to me on the book shelves, anyway ... Fogtdal, Follet, you get my point.
Don't get me wrong. Even though the masses didn't line up, I enjoyed every minute of it. France has been good to me. I've been invited to literary festivals in Cognac, Caen, Arles, and Paris before this - all of them great experiences I wouldn't have been without. Not just because of the honor, but because the French suffer from fabulous food fetish. The second they meet you, they want to stuff you with food. They force you to sit at a lavish table, they pour vintage wine down your throat - it gets very ugly and all you can do is ... eat.
To my surprise Strasbourg was as cold as Copenhagen and Portland.
It was 28 Fahrenheit in the morning and I wasn´t dressed for it. Come to think of it, I´m never dressed for cold weather. My blood doesn´t like the cold; it prefers 78 and blue skies.
However, Strasbourg is a beautiful city, full of green canals, 16th century houses, and a cathedral that's one of the finest on the continent. Its surface is knee deep in saints and the place is so big you could host a soccer game under its roof.
Oh yes, there´s no doubt about it, Strasbourg is definitely one of the nicest cities in Central Europe. It's home of the European Parliament and it's known for its huge Christmas market as well - the kind of place where you run into five hundred incarnations of Santa Claus, or where you get wasted on glühwein. Monsieur et Madame Kitch definitely go shopping here. And you wouldn't be surprised if you ran into Germans in lederhosen. After all, Deutchland is only two miles away - we're definitely in the heart of Europe as any Alsacian will tell you.
A lot of the city names of Alsace are German as well, but unless you want to be beheaded in front of the cathedral, don't insult the locals by mixing them up with their neighbor. Alsace is Alsace, a rich, fascinating region that is extremely proud of its origin. For a good reason. But let me give you some advice: If you´re not fond of pork, you should go to other French regions. In Alsace they sure know how to mutilate the pigs.
I also did a book signing at Totem, another fine book store I would recommend to any one who happens to drop by Strasbourg.
The city had been kind enough to supply me with a translator who was half Scottish. She usually works for the European Court of Human Rights which is situated in Strasbourg. I didn't need her when I communicated with the owner of Totem though. We both spoke Italian - a relief for me, since I only know how to say "je ne regrette rien" and "soixante douze" in French.
I actually had French in high school. but I didn´t care much for my French teacher. She used to hit me with a hard copy of Le Petit Prince. I still have bruises on my forehead from her violence against me. I bet she knocked thousands of verbs loose - something I haven´t recovered from to this day.
The main reason why I was invited to Strasbourg was not the book signings, however. It was to present La naine du tsar (The Tsar's Dwarf) at Strasbourg's new library, the impressive Mediatheque André Malraux. A huge crowd came out to see me. When we started we were five but we ended up with fourteen, including the highly esteemed mayor of Strasbourg himself, Ronald Ries.
The mayor is a socialist. I could tell because he was wearing a red scarf. Monsieur Ries seemed like a very nice man. He shook my hand and talked about how important it was for Strasbourg to host a literary festival. He also said it was a thrill to welcome important writers as your truly. However, I don't think I was any one's first choice. They probably tried to get Salman Rushdie, but rumors had it that he was on a book tour of Afghanistan.
The festival 27 moments de litterérature européenne is supposed to be an annual event to showcase European literature and I was proud to be part of this first incarnation.
What made the biggest impression on me, however, was something different. That was a 10 year old girl in the audience. She had brought her Dad - and after my presentation they came up to me. Her Dad said that the girl loved to write and that she'd never been to a book presentation before.
"Well, in that case I hope you'll borrow La Naine du Tsar from the library," I said.
"No." Her father shook his head. "She wants me to buy all three of your books for Christmas."
The cute French girl blushed and made my heart melt. (Yes, I DO have a heart, I just don´t brag about it)
The rest of the evening I thought about how fortunate I am. During the last two years I've presented my books in France, Portugal, Denmark, and the US. The books might be rare guests on best seller lists or people´s coffee tables, but they're out there in the world and I've gotten wonderful reactions from readers in New York, Lisbon, Paris, Milwaukee, Portland, Sheffield, and Aalborg. Plus a lot of nice reviews as well.
So I'm not going to complain about anything for a while.
If only I could get started on my new novel. However, right now I think it's much more fun writing silly blogs ...
**Also, check out my French website (no one else does) http://www.peter-fogtdal.com**
Tuesday, December 9, 2008
It’s true, I’m a bit of an art colony slut.
I’ve received grants to quite a few residencies in my time. Yaddo and Ledig House in New York State, Vermont Studio Center in Vermont, Chateau Lavigny in Switzerland, For Julia and David in Costa Rica, and two Scandinavian residencies in Italy. I love spending time with other artists and then “escape” into my room where I can work on my novels without being disturbed by anything but scorpions. I couldn’t have been as productive if it weren’t for those wonderful residencies where people look after you like you were a spoiled toddler.
Right now I’m at Fundacion Valparaiso in Mojácar, Spain. It’s the second time I’m here and luckily, it lives up to my expectations. The place is still gorgeous with wild rabbits in the garden and a poetic view of a dry riverbed. The Fundacion is situated in an old olive mill that has been turned into a haven for international weirdoes. There’s a wonderful library, a cute garden with a cemetery, and free sun sets almost every evening.
Andalusia is like a combination of Arizona and Florida, just without the Taco Bells. Cacti grow next to orange groves, the locals say hola, and the coffee is black as poisonous ink. We’re eight artists from Japan, Moldova, Lithuania, Canada, Belarus, Spain, Israel, and Denmark. And we get along fine. We wake up, eat our yoghurt with granola - and around noon most of us walk up the hill to the library in Mojácar Pueblo to go online. It takes about 25 minutes – the walk, that is, not to get online.
This is a picture of a Danish novelist " working". What is wrong with him, drinking coffee, staring into space pretending to get ideas? After all, some one gave this parasite a Spanish grant. Shouldn't we demand at least a novel, a poem, a three-penny opera from this man?
Yes, how can you live without computers in this day and age? Everybody at the Fundacion needs their emails. We’re all addicted to the outside world, even though we want to escape it. I communicate with the French literary festival I’m going to next – and with my girlfriend who always thinks I’m being gang raped when she doesn’t hear from me.
Yes, indeed, the real world refuses to go away. Mira Cedar, our Israeli painter, is writing on an application in Hebrew and English. She is from Tel Aviv and has never stayed a place that’s as quiet as the Fundacion. I guess she can’t hear the rest of us snoring.
Sachiko Hamada, our Japanese novelist, wants to get a profile on goodreads.com because I’ve told her to. GoodReads is like Facebook for writers, a site where you can promote yourself and trash talk other people’s books – how much closer to Heaven can you get?
All of us here get into weird habits. I buy a British newspaper every day and read about unemployment rates in Swansea. I also try to get started on my novel but I hate it after two pages. The theme and the idea are both fine, but the voice doesn’t work.
Nothing feels right. It’s as if my ego wants to write but my soul doesn’t. “Don’t push it,” my soul whispers. “Don’t push it or I’m going to blow up your computer.”
“No, come on, Peter,” my ego demands. “You need to write a best seller that Oprah will adore.”
Luckily, my soul wins the battle so I throw out my novel. Two months of research seems “wasted”. My whole purpose for being here is gone. So what am I supposed to do? I’m a novelist without a novel. That’s like being a goal keeper without a goal. Should I just write on my blog? Or walk some one’s dog?
Yes, life isn't easy in Andalucia.
Every morning I wake up staring into hills and cacti the shape of monsters. Perhaps Fundacion Valparaiso has an art police that checks if you’re working? Maybe they've hired Nazis to beat you up if you don't write: “Veee haff vayzzz of making you vorkkk, Herr Voigtal … vee gave you a grantttt and you arrrrre juzt lying in bettt like a Schweinhund …”
Yes, my life has become a nightmare. I’m now a parasite with a grant. But I keep on getting good reviews for The Tsar’s Dwarf in the US, so maybe I should forgive myself a little …? After all, you can force yourself to write a blog or an email, but not a novel. Novels have to come from within or they just become ... blogs or emails.
Valeriu Buev, our Russian born painter, is a citizen of Moldova – one of the few countries in the world that is smaller than Denmark. He has a good sense of humor and I like his art, too. Valeriu has traveled 72 hours on bus from his country that is squeezed in between Romania and Russia. Valeriu tells me that you can actually get from Moldova to Mojácar without changing bus a single time, something I find truly amazing. However, Valeriu doesn’t.
“No, no, not strange,” he says. “A lot of Moldovans work in Southern Spain. But the bus trip was pure Hell.”
Valeriu has brought some souvenirs from Moldova that he will try to sell at the flea market along with some of his own art work. After the stay at the Fundacion, he is going to Brisbane for an exhibition. “I leave for Australia December 23 on a plane and arrive December 25 on the same plane. There will be no Christmas for me this year, only stewardesses.”
One of the people I hang out with the most is the Canadian poet Oana Avasilichioaei. If you don’t think her name sounds Canadian, you’re absolutely right. She is as Romanian as Ceaucescu, but a much nicer person. We talk about Montreal, our North American book tours, and the joy of Gin and Tonic.
But as I said, everybody is great at Fundacion Valparaiso. That goes for Andry Miakchilo as well who starts telling us writers that he doesn’t consider us artists.
“But I’m a poet,” Oana says, “and I do think of myself ...”
“No,” Andry says flatly.
Andry is not unfriendly at all, so maybe something was lost in translation. His own art is inspired by computer games. He is from Belarus, has gone to art school in Poland and is working at sculptures at the Fundacion. The rocks he uses he finds in the garden and on the hillside outside his studio. And the vegetables we get for dinner is from the garden as well.
Great times at the Fundacion Valparaiso. Everybody there was blessed with impossible last names, so let's just mention the origins of the artists: Spanish dog, Japanese filmmaker and novelist, Moldavian painter and anarchist, visual artist from Belarus, Canadian-Romanian poet, and our Lithuanian translator. Mira Cedar, Juan Casado and your Danish bloghead were missing in action.
Even though we’re all in paradise at Valparaiso, we do miss certain things from the real world. Sichiko Hamada wish there was a bath tub in her bathroom.
“A Japanese needs a hot bath. I’m brought up with bath tubs,” she sighs. Today Sachiko lives in the US – a country with way too many showers as well. She is usually a celebrated filmmaker but is at the Fundacion for another reason, to translate her American novel into her native Japanese. No wonder she needs a hot tub.
Juan Casado, the sole Spaniard in the group, wishes there was someone to talk to. He only speaks his mother tongue but luckily has a cell phone to get him through the meals. At the Fundacion, he is inspired by the many rabbits in the garden. They turn up in all of his pictures like peeping toms. He has also made some beautiful pictures of bullfighting. I like his paintings 10.000 times more than I like bullfighting.
Mira Cedar from Tel Aviv is a gentle presence in the dining room, always smiling, watching people with curiousity. She has become a fan of Danish art books. Since the Fundacion was founded by my countrymen, there's an obscene amount of books from my Scandinavian homeland.
Laura Liubinaviciute, our Lithuanian translator, wishes there was less salt in the food. However, she has a great ear for languages and knows how to mutilate a pineapple. “I’m not an artist,” she keeps on saying. “I don’t know why I’m here.” Well, we’re happy she is. During her first ten days, she translates a Spanish play into Lithuanian while she’s hanging out with Moldovans, Israeli, Danes, and the stray cats.
We also have two official mothers who look after us, Pilar Parra and Marie-Laure Gonzales, the manager and assistant manager. They are warm, patient, and helpful. When there is no water, they call the mayor of Mojácar. When there is no sun, they call God of Andalusia. They want what’s best for us, so we can stay happy, creative, and fulfilled.
But there is a limit to their service. We still have to chew our own food.
Fundacion Valparaiso is situated between Mojacar Pueblo, a quaint historical hilltown and Mojacar Playa, a boring beach full of British ex-pats looking for a place to vomit.
I’m happy I’m not here in the summer. In semi-cool December, however, the playa is quiet subdued. You actually meet more Spaniards than Northern Europeans – a rare occurrence in sunny Andalusia. However, we’re damn close to the nitty-gritty of Costa del Sol with its discos and sudden outbreaks of herpes - but luckily the Mojacar area hasn’t been destroyed yet. The hilltown is still gorgeously Moorish. All houses are white. The town is full of picturesque alleys, and there’s a great view of the coastline from the main plaza.
However, a new highway is cutting through the desert-like surroundings. It wasn’t there eight years ago, but I choose not to be disappointed. A few power cuts won’t bring me down either. I just feel grateful that writers, visual artists, and musicians can get grants to wonderful places like Fundacion Valparaiso.
“Artists are the people in the world with most freedom,” Mira Cedar says.
I’m not sure pilots, hobos, and Buddhist monks would agree, but one thing is for sure, life is wonderful right here, right now.
And hey, the food is great and the library is full of exotic books. Not bad when you remember that this used to be an old Spanish olive mill in the middle of nowhere.
If you’re interested in applying to art colonies around the world, including Fundacion Valparaiso, you can find some of them at www.resartis.org
I can recommend Yaddo in Saratoga Springs, New York and Chateau Lavigny outside Lausanne in Switzerland. The latter is only for writers. So is Ledig House in Omi, New York, half an hour from Hudson. All three are great places.
“For Julia and David” in Ciudad Colon, Costa Rica is a beautiful residency an hour outside San José, but I was there when the founder died (in 2005), so things were very unorganized. How things are now, I have no idea.
Circolo Scandinavo, Skandinavisk kunstnerkollegium, is for Scandinavian artists and is situated in Trastevere in Rome, Italy. Non male!
But San Cataldo on the Amalfi coast in Scala, Italy takes the prize for the most beautifully situated residency I’ve ever been to. However, it’s only for Danes or people living in Denmark. And it actually has more academics than artists in residence plus a few paying costumers as well.
Hey, maybe I should write a blog about my experiences all of these places …?
Perhaps I will if I don’t get started on my damn novel ...
Friday, November 28, 2008
Monaco is a beautiful pimple on the ass of France.
It's lying on the Cote d'Azur squeezed in between Nice and Italy. If you don't know any geography, Monaco is one of the smallest countries in the world. Basically, it's the size of a shopping mall. Come to think of it, Monaco is a shopping mall.
So what am I doing here in this posh Paradise? Well, I'm visiting people close to my heart who moved to this tax-free Heaven a few years back. Monaco is known for its Monte Carlo casino - and for those spectacular suicides people commit after losing at the roulette. In the old days, people shot themselves in the park outside the casino, but that's not fashionable any more. And Monaco is all about fashion. In Monte Carlo even the seagulls are wearing Prada. And no one is caught dead in shorts from WallMart.
Yes, you guessed it. I'm totally out of place. I've always been the loser of my family, preferring Italy from France, but actually you hear a lot of Italians in Monaco. I mean, l'Italia is only ten miles away, so the snobs from Liguria love to hang out with the rich and the beautiful. This Principality is the kind of place where you run into your favorite arms dealer at the bakery. And when you walk down the street, you rub shoulders with ex-models looking for a face lift. But the celebrities have left. Twenty years ago this was the home of Bjorn Borg and Ringo Starr, but now they're probably banging their drums in different luxury resorts.
Perhaps it all went downhill after Grace Kelly died. When the Hollywood star married Prince Rainier, she made Monaco famous all over the world. Now it's her son, Prince Albert who is the benign ruler of this picturesque police state. In Monaco everybody is monitored 24/7. You have so many cameras that Monte Carlo would make George Bush drool. The criminals don't stand a chance in this lecherous Legoland. Neither do non-whites.
Actually, it wouldn't be fair to call the local police racist. They're just suspicious of everybody who isn't the proud owner of fourteen credit cards - and of people with knapsacks. If you're carrying a knapsack, you're either a terrorist or a backpacker - and the police definitely prefers the former.
The greatest thing about Monaco is the mountains and the sea. The Principality looks like a stupendous postcard - the kind of place where you want to marry some one or get a spectacular divorce. Another endearing quality is that Monaco has the same climate as Santa Barbara, California. It's only "cold" one or two months a year. And hey, you can't beat all those palm trees and cacti.
Still, it's not a favorite hang out of mine. There are too many tall buildings and too many short people, but somehow Monaco appeals to my sense of humor. I always picture Americans getting heart attacks when they see the size of the elevators. In Monaco people aren't obese. How could they be? Monte Carlo is all about appearances.
When I leave the Principality to go to Spain, I admire Monaco from the distance. That's where Monaco looks the greatest: from the distance. But in a twisted way, I'm fascinated with this playground. After all, Monaco is one of those places where a kid will sue his parents if they don't give him a Ferrari for Christmas.
Hey, maybe I'm just jealous I wasn't brought up here?
Tuesday, November 18, 2008
Please don't be cruel to Robert Mugabe.
Robert Mugabe is such a sensitive dictator. And as we all know, sensitive dictators don't have any sense of humor. They are too busy torturing poets and worrying about their stool.
So have a heart, have a little compassion for this ageing dictator.
To tell you the truth, I feel sorry for Robert Mugabe. I wouldn't want to swap lives with that man. Too many power hungry spirits are building nests in his short hairs.
And most of all, too many vicious people are making fun of their leader.
Let me mention some of those people: Raisedon Baya, Christopher Mlalazi, Aleck Zulu, Lionel Nkusi. These scoundrels had the audacity of writing and producing a play called The Crocodile of Zambezi. It premiered May 29, 2008; the writers and actors had worked on it for two years.
The play took place in a fictional country, depicting a weak 94 year old dictator in the middle of a crisis.
Robert Mugabe in crisis?
Don't these artists understand that Robert Mugabe was appointed by God? Does God have a crisis? Of course not. God takes care of business as He sees fit. God is in perfect control. That's why He is so loved by His people.
By the way, Robert Mugabe didn't like the play. Actually, He never saw it. Dictators don't have time for the arts. Well, maybe they listen to Wagner or watch the odd rerun of the Sopranos, but satire, no, that's not their kind of thing.
So Robert Mugabe send some of his boys from the secret police. They rounded up the actor Aleck Zulu and the production manager Lionel Nkosi and gave them a ride in their car. They tortured them and put a gun in their mouths. Maybe they broke a few limbs as well because you shouldn't insult the man who has given so much to his subjects .... sorry, co-patriots.
The play, by the way, was closed down after one performance.
That's totally understandable, because who in their right mind would want to see a play making fun of the Supreme Savior of Zimbabwe? Instead these artists should lavish Mugabe with praise. They should write pompous poems to glorify His strength, they should construct endless bridges in His name, they should create religious cults instead of telling lies about this incarnation of Light.
As I said, Robert Mugabe is a sensitive dictator. And maybe He sleeps a little better after the play closed down.
After all, it's hard to sleep when people laugh at you.
Maybe that's why PEN should change its policy.
You see, I'm a member of the Danish chamber of PEN, an international organization of writers, poets, and novelists who fight for The Freedom to Write.
But perhaps PEN got it all wrong. Instead of fighting for The Freedom to Write, we should have more compassion for Mugabe. We should fight for The Freedom to Torture.
So I propose a new program that supports dictators' God-given right to educate their people. We should print Freedom to Torture t-shirts, arrange expensive conventions at Sheraton, and invite leaders from Belarus and Brunei.
I mean, why become a dictator if you can't torture the people you want? Isn't that part of the job description? Even George Bush had fun at Guantanamo Bay, so why can't Robert Mugabe?
So have a little compassion, have a little heart.
Support Robert Mugabe's Freedom to Torture. The poor man had a difficult childhood, anyway.
This blog entry is dedicated to the brave people of Zimbabwe who have the courage to laugh, especially Raisedon Baya, Christopher Mlalazi, Aleck Zulu, Lionel Nkusi, Petina Gappah, and many, many more.
Saturday, November 15, 2008
I'm sad, almost heartbroken.
My US book tour is over. What am I going to do with my pathetic life now? It's been such a joy traveling with The Tsar's Dwarf. I've had wonderful crowds, people have been supportive and enthusiastic. Everybody from Oregon to Illinois has laughed behind my back, and they've bought a lot of books - but now it's all over. Now I have to go back home and do my laundry like everybody else.
God, reality is so overrated. Maybe we should do away with it?
My last stop was Scandinavia House on Park Avenue in New York. Scandinavia House is the mecca for Scandinavian con artists coming to the US. It's owned by the governments of Denmark, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, and Finland. It's a stylish place in stylish concrete. Actually, it used to be the East German embassy, but when DDR ceased to exist, the Scandinavian countries bought it.
"Are there still hidden microphones in the ashtrays like in the good old days?" I ask my host.
Kyle shakes his head. He doesn't think so, but then again, what does he know? Well, maybe more than he wants to admit. Kyle's name is Reinhart, that sounds pretty East German to me.
I decide to pull down the shades and interrogate the man. "Who're you working for, anyway?" I demand to know. Kyle laughs. He is actually from Minnesota and has lived in Kulhuse in Denmark. If you've never heard of Kulhuse don't feel too bad; no one else has.
I'm extremely proud to do a reading at Scandinavia House, even if it's in the Volvo Hall. A nice crowd shows up - a nice crowd for a literary reading, that is. Only Henning Mankell, the crime writer, can pull them in. People adore those Swedes when they go on their killing sprees.
After my presentation I sign my novel and talk to the nice folks. The crowd is a mixture of Americans, Danes, and a few Slovaks who dropped by because of the booze. After ten minutes we run out of books which is a shame, but to tell you the truth, it's also á great feeling. I mean, if you can run out of books in New York, you can run out of books anywhere!
Luckily, I'm continuing my tour next year, going to California in February and Hongkong in October. And probably Texas as well. Then throw in some presentations in Portland, Oregon where I teach and some other places in the area.
Yes, I get around. I'm a bit of a book slut. And hey, I'm going to Strasbourg in a month's time to talk about La Naine du tsar, the French edition of the book. But right now I want to thank my wonderful American readers. About 500 of you showed up. A few were forced by gunpoint (I talked at three universities and one high school), but none of you feel asleep as far as I know. Well, that's not totally true. A lady in Milwaukee went into heavy "meditation" during my reading. And a great deal of the audience in Chicago was delightfully drunk.
But I failed to meet a single asshole on my tour. They probably went to the other 555 readings that competed with mine. My readers, on the other hand, are warm, intelligent, and fond of showboats. Who could ask for more?
Tuesday, November 4, 2008
Monday October 26th
It's a wet dream for any writer of the male persuasion.
I'm in Madison, Wisconsin at my only private gig on my book tour. Fourteen women are sitting at the dinner table with me. They have all read The Tsar's Dwarf and claim they love it. Since I know that my readers are going to accuse me of making this up, I'm putting a picture of them on my blog.
Look at them, just look at them. Fourteen wonderful women with exquisite taste in literature are holding up my book. Isn't that just the most beautiful thing you've ever seen? Who needs Taj Mahal or Grand Canyon when God has created American book clubs in Madison?
Downtown Madison, Wisconsin, the proud capital of the state. Hey, it's situated in Dane county. We Danes haven't lived in vain after all ...
Tuesday October 27.
I have a day off in Madison, Wisconsin walking aimlessly around campus, admiring the squirrels and the fall colors. It's a cold but beautiful day. The fraternities are preparing for Halloween and hangovers. You see skeletons everywhere - skeletons and John McCain.
I feel happy and content. The lakes are gorgeous in Madison. I want to bring one of them with me to Portland, Oregon, so I have something to look at when I'm writing. I have this thing for lakes. They always give me a kick.
In the evening I end up at the Danish table in the Ratskeller on campus. Every Tuesday night the Danish students meet up to practice their language skills. Most of them have Danish grandparents. Or maybe they got laid in Copenhagen and fell in love with the place for that reason. After an hour in their company, I feel deeply depressed. The American students speak better Danish than I do. And they look way better as well.
Wednesday October 28.
My hostess in Madison is Nete Schmidt. Nete is a Southern Scandinavian whirlwind from Aarhus, full of passion and initiative. At 6 pm we enjoy a meal at an Indian restaurant and then I do a reading on campus. 40 students show up. More chairs are brought out. They're one of the most quiet crowds I've had, but they listen attentively, ask good questions, and drink the wine. What more can you ask of any one?
And hey, they know how to "humiliate" a visiting novelist as well. "Do you have any idea why Scandinavian writers always write about the Outsider?" a professor asks me.
"We do?" I smile feebly. "I had no idea."
"So you're not aware that you're part of a great Scandinavian tradition?"
"I'm not aware of most things in life," I blush. "You're talking to a man who can't even make his iPod work."
After the reading I think of the Outsider. Is it truly a Scandinavian phenomena to write about people who are odd, different, and on the fringes of society? I think all novelist do that, for the simple reason that we feel like outsiders ourselves.
But what do I know? I'm not an academic, I don't know how to put literature into perspective. I just love writing, hoping that my novels will resonate with people in Madison, Marseilles, and Marstal.
At Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop at Downer Avenue in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Thursday October 29.
I meet up with my girlfriend in Milwaukee, an hour and a half west of Madison. She has flown in from Portland to spend some quality time with me - if you can use the words quality and me in the same sentence.
At night I do a reading at Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop on Downer Avenue. My hostess Stacie Williams is absolutely great. She has fallen in love with my book, creating a huge display in the window AND in the book store.
"I recommend it to everybody," she tells me. And I believe her. Stacie is by far the most passionate book seller I've met on my tour. I would hire her as my publicist any time. I can just picture her hunting down journalists, breathing down their necks like an aggressive, endearing terrier. My God, if everybody was like her, my book would be number one on The New York Times' bestseller list.
Needless to say, I enjoy my stay immensely, even though an older lady falls asleep two minutes and thirteen seconds into my presentation. Maybe it's because she has chosen the softest chair in the house. Or perhaps I'm just more boring than I think. At one point, I almost walk over and sit on her lap, but I decide against it. I don't want to be cruel, so I just kick her instead.
Chicago, Illinois on a cold Sunday in late October ...
Friday October 30
On to Chicago with my pale girlfriend who shall remain nameless until she gets a tan.
I've never been to The Windy City before. Luckily, it doesn't live up to its name. It's 68 degrees, the sun is out and it's Halloweeen. We keep on running into ghosts, pirates, and grown ups in ridiculous costumes. Are grown ups allowed to go trick or treating? Or are they just trying to upstage their own kids?
In the evening, we eat bad soup in our expensive hotel room. Outside a cold front moves in without asking my permission. Why do I hate cold weather so much? I'm Scandinavian, for Christ's sake!
At the hotel we run into two different conventions. One is for plastic surgeons, the other one for psychiatrists specializing in adolescence. "Can't you combine the two?" I ask a woman in the elevator. "There gotta be a lot of fourteen year olds with nervous disorders who need a nose job. Can't you exploit that?"
The lady ignores me. Later she stares at me in the lobby as if she wants to say, I'm putting you under the knife, buddy, you just wait.
Small time writer hits Chinaski's bar in Bucktown, Chicago. Watch the desolate street behind me. It was Halloween, but sixteen people showed up, anyway.
Saturday October 31.
I'm putting my teeth into a Norman Mailer burger.
I mean, why not? I'm at the most literary bar in Chicago, Chinaski's in the Bucktown neighborhood. The place is named after Charles Bukowski's famous alter ego - an alter ego so famous I've never heard of him. But the burger is good. So are the French fries, even though they should have been named after Camus.
It's a long time ago I've done a reading at a bar, but it turns out to be great. The people in the audience are gorgeously drunk. They must be, anyway because they laugh like crazy. I love every second of it. Man, I'm having the time of my life on this tour. Chinaski's even put my name on their billboard which makes me feel like a rock star.
"Your name has been out there for weeks," Matt, the owner of the bar tells me. I nod, liking the idea of everybody in Chicago going, "who the hell is Peter Fuckday ...?"
After my show I sign a few books and get a ride back to my hotel with the only Dane in the audience. Bucktown is a great neighborhood full of small shops and restaurants - it's much more exciting than the overrated Magnificent Mile downtown. I mean, what's the big deal cramming fashion shops next to each other? They even do that in Dubai. It's so old.
By the way, Tuesday November 11 I'll be at Scandinavia House, 58 Park Avenue in New York at 6.30 pm. The event is hosted by the American-Scandinavian Foundation and the Royal Danish Consulate. I probably have to clean up my act for that one (it's Park Avenue after all!), but if I work hard I know I can do it. I am, after all, a serious novelist who's written a serious book. There's nothing to laugh at. ...
Saturday, October 18, 2008
I'm in Seattle, Washington on my book tour.
I've been here several times before. The Seattle area is absolutely gorgeous. It looks a lot like Sweden and I love Sweden, even though you're not supposed to admit that when you're Danish.
I've done several lectures before at University of Washington and those semi-Scandinavians keep on inviting me back. I don't mind at all. I'm totally in love with the UW campus. It looks like a wet dream for any sophomore and God knows I'm a sophomore at heart. I still get excited about college football and iPods that don't work.
At UW I'm presenting The Tsar's Dwarf in a class called Masterpieces in Scandinavian Literature. That's my kind of class. The poor students are forced to read Hans Christian Andersen, Søren Kierkegaard, and Peter H. Fogtdal. But I'm the only one who has been invited. Hey, I might not be the best Scandinavian writer around but at least I'm not dead.
Yesterday I did a presentation of The Tsar's Dwarf at Elliott Bay Book Company, a wonderful independent book store in downtown Seattle. A lot of construction was going on outside, so traffic was a mess. The sun was shining, too - a rare occurrence in the state of Washington.
I would lie if I told you there were a lot of people there: I counted three friends from UW, an American couple who told me they had a thing for midgets, some nice Danes from Microsoft, a Norwegian from Wisconsin with a name I couldn't spell, and a few other people who escaped before I could force them to buy my book.
But what a great book store. Elliott Bay Book Company is the kind of place where you could get lost for days. And the great people at Elliott named The Tsar's Dwarf Book of the Week, so I'm not complaining about anything!
A few quotes from the two reviews in Seattle I'm aware of:
Seattle Times:: "This is the first novel to appear in English by Peter H. Fogtdal, a Danish writer who splits his time between Copenhagen and Portland. It shouldn't be his last; the guy has talent — especially in his rendering of his narrator's biting, contrarian, misanthropic voice ...
With an obvious fondness for the negative twists in his narrator's character, Fogtdal suggests how a vigorous, questioning, nihilistic mind can be a source of strength for a social pariah. And through Sørine he casts a steady eye on the more general whys and hows of existence. "Which," she asks, "is worse: when life stands still, or when it's pulled out from under you like a rug?" - Michael Upchurch.
Book of the Week review from Elliott Bay Book Co.: "Fogtdal's story is grotesque and sometimes brutal, but so richly imagined that it is captivating from the start. It is the story of Sorine, a Danish dwarf and self-described "curiosity cabinet" who is taken from the disease-ridden basement in which she lives to Tsar Peter the Great's court in Russia.
Here the lines are blurred between Sorine's world of filth and the comparative lavishness of the nobles, who treat dwarves both as "poppets," to be coddled and dressed up, and as brutish animals. Part historical fiction, part nightmare, The Tsar's Dwarf is a heart-wrenching tale of humanity." -M. Woolbright
Thank you, Seattle! I like you, too.
Last night I also did a reading at the Nordic Museum. It's an interesting place with a souvenir shop where you can get a year´s supply of Norwegian flags, Swedish napkins, and Danish toilet paper. The Nordic Museum also offer courses in Scandinavian weaving and how to throw herring after people you despise. (Well, almost)
"Why didn't the Scandinavian countries ever unite?" a gentleman asked me after my reading. "Your countries are totally the same."
People looked angrily at the man who needed police protection to get out of the museum afterwards.
"We actually were united in the 15th century," I offered. "It was under Danish rule. But Norway and Sweden didn't like it much."
Luckily, I also got to sign a few books, and it was a great audience, spirited and tolerant of my rantings.
Wednesday I'll be at Garfield Book Store, Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma before I continue to Minneapolis, St. Paul, Madison, Milwaukie, Chicago, and Scandinavia House on Park Avenue in New York.
Life is good and I'm enjoying myself immensely.
Thanks for stalking me on my blog. Please come back for more, you hear?
Ah, the life of a writer, going from one airport to the other. Please notice how my sweater doesn't match my suitcase. If only I could afford a publicist who would follow me around like a lap dog telling me where to go, what to say, how to dress.
Wednesday, October 15, 2008
I love satire on religion.
I've always loved satirical films about faith - not because I'm an atheist, but because I actually believe in God. God is very real to me but that doesn't mean I can't laugh at somebody who pulls down the pants on fundamentalists. On the contrary, they deserve it more than any one I know.
You see, I'm deeply suspicious of organized religion - and sometimes I suspect God is as well. Any belief system that claims it has all the answers is downright dangerous. As long as Christians claim you only can be saved by Jesus Christ, we'll never experience love for mankind, only saintly arrogance. And as long as Muslims believe that Hindus, Christians, Jews, and Buddhists are infidels, there won't be much peace on earth. We have to accept all religions as rivers flowing into the same sea. But even though a lot of people would agree on this, very few behave as if they do. The religious followers always "know" that their God is superior to all others.
However, Bill Maher doesn't have that problem. He thinks that every single religion is crazy and that makes for a good stand up routine, but not for a good movie. However, Religulous is a documentary and starts off by being very funny. Bill Maher interviews a bunch of Christians in "Jesusland". He is witty and irreverent without being too disrespectful. He asks good questions and provokes the church goers, but slowly, ever so slowly the interviews become tedious and repetitious.
It's easy to understand why. Religulous is basically one and a half hour of amusing cheap shots against Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Scientologists who aren't allowed to finish a sentence, who are cut off and scorned by a host who seems friendly at first but slowly comes across as a satirical scumbag. None of the victims of the film's editing have a chance of coming off as coherent or sane. Why? Because Bill Maher doesn't want them to be sane; he clearly thinks that all religious followers are nuts. They act as straight men to his punch lines; they're half wits who should know better than believe in fairy tales. And if you don't get the "truth" of this, the director Larry Charles puts funny subtitles on the screen to underscore how stupid and gullible the believers are.
So is all this amusing? Often, yes. Should we take it seriously as "proof" of religious insanity? Not at all, because Bill Maher wins all arguments. He always gets the last word. The wisdom of everybody else ends up on the cutting room floor and that makes for a predictable movie.
I read somewhere that a lot of people find Bill Maher courageous for taking up the subject. I sure don't. If the man were courageous he would have gone to Yemen to shoot the Muslim section of his film. Now he just flew to Amsterdam to smoke some weed and make fun of people whose English isn't good enough to understand his sarcasm.
Nice going, Bill. You suuuuure have a great job!
Excellent satire requires a warm heart. It requires cynical curiosity, a certain degree of rage, but not self righteous anger. Even though Bill Maher suffers from the latter, he seems like a nice guy. I'd drink a glass of Kool Aid with him any time, but to my mind Religulous was a major disappointment. Not only for the Bill Maher fan in me (I love him on HBO), but also because I admire Larry Charles who directed Borat and many episodes of Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm . Both are unpredictable and close to being masterpieces.
Religulous is definitely neither but could have been interesting if Bill Maher had been a tiny bit open minded. If his attitude had been, "this is weird, but let me see if I can make some sense of it", the film would have been more provocative. Now he just wants to poke a finger into the eyes of the non-scientific "morons" who have experienced God one way or another.
So would somebody please make a funny, warm, irreverent movie about God and religion - preferably somebody who doesn't have all the answers?
You see, Bill Maher is a hilarious man, but when it boils down to it, he's just as dogmatic as the people he criticizes. And that's what I found was the funniest thing about the clever cheap shots in Religulous!
Thursday, October 9, 2008
I'm so happy that the United States exist.
If the US didn't exist, the Art of Shameless Self Promotion would never have been so predominant. In the US, people aren't afraid of being entertaining. You Americans have turned showboating into an art form and I like that.
Yes, if it weren't for America, writers would stare into carpets when interviewed. Novelists and poets would be as introverted as cattle, taking themselves and their art too seriously. The US has taught the world that there is nothing wrong with a hint of Disneyland in the world of letters.
As my readers know, I'm a bit of a moron but I think literature is supposed to be fun. It should celebrate joy and tragedy with great stories, great prose, and a voice that hits you in the gut. I don't understand why literature has to give you hemorrhoids.
May I argue that all the best writers in history were entertaining? Read Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Moliere, Pinter, Fo, Kundera, Fowles, Hemmingway, Dumas, Pirandello, Wolf, Saramago. They're sad, funny, and mysterious. They create great characters and are innovative - they're fun to be around, even when they sulk.
I'm not God, but I bet that writers weren't put on earth to bore their readers to death.
53 people showed up for my reading at Powell's City of Books, even though it was my fifth presentation in Portland. Thanks, everybody! I sure had a great time reading, talking, joking around.
I've had a great start on my book tour, thank you for asking.
No less than five stops in Portland, Lincoln High School, Annie Bloom's Book Store, The Scandinavian Heritage Foundation, Portland State University, and Powell's City of Books, the biggest book store on the West Coast.
I had nice turn outs everywhere, especially at Powell's - I even sold a few books, so what more can you ask when you have a last name that no one can pronounce?
Actually, Portland has been incredibly nice to me since I arrived here. You rock my world, Oregon. Apart from the rain and the lousy weather nine months of the year, I love this part of the world.
I adore when women throw themselves at me. It doesn't happen often enough. This fan came all the way from Siracusa, Sicily to get a signed copy of The Tsar's Dwarf. You don't say no to a Sicilian. You just don't.
October 19 I continue on my book tour to Seattle and Tacoma in Washington, then on to Minneapolis and St. Paul in Minnesota, Madison and Milwaukee in Wisconsin, Chicago, Illinois, and I end up in Scandinavia House on Park Avenue in New York City.
Scandinavia House is probably the most prestigeous place for a Scandinavian to appear in the US. So this means I have to behave - I have to watch my language, and I probably should upgrade my after shave.
And hey, maybe it would be best if I did away with my Swedish and Norwegian jokes. I mean, I'm going to do my reading in the Volvo room.
That's right, the Volvo room.
When I heard that, I pleaded with the American-Scandinavian Foundation to move me to the Lego room. Lego is after all Danish, not Swedish and that room would be a much better fit for my juvenile personality.
Here are some quotes from the two first official reviews The Tsar's Dwarf has received:
The Believer, a magazine from San Francisco
"The brisk pace, flip tone, and confounding convictions of its seventeenth-century narrator make the novel, set in the distant past, feel contemporary ... Fogtdal widens the potentially narrow first-person point of view ... that allows the protagonist to relay and consider events she does not witness; this gives the novel a broader historical scope. Sørine’s internal life, however, her observations of behavior and investigations of belief, are the source of the novel’s zest and contemporary relevance ..."
"Just as I began to grow weary, wondering what might happen next to Sørine, she makes a bold move that leads the novel back to its compelling premise: people’s physical oddities are no match for the bizarre manifestations of their desire."
The Portland Fiction Project, an Oregonian website:
"There is no political correctness in Sørine’s world, no “Little People of America,” and The Tsar’s Dwarf is all the more darkly hilarious for it ..."
"Sørine serves as an anthropologist of the human condition – but not just from underneath; from outside as well ... In short, she is a complex character, and a welcome guide through this world of dachas and Russian Orthodox compounds and frightful museums with exhibits that wouldn’t be at all out of place at the Bates Motel."
"Sørine is not so bewitching because she is a dwarf, but because her dwarfism is a magnification of our own inadequacy, our own self-loathing, and eventually our own capacity to survive."
Reader and librarian reviews from amazon.com:
An amazing 55 people have reviewed the book on amazon.com. Most people give it four or five stars, but even though I love being praised, my favorite review is one of the non-favourable. This one is from a reader in Hibbing, Minnesota:
"WARNING PARENTS AND TEACHERS: This book contains the following that might be offensive - vulgar sexuality, infanticide, murder by poisoning, grotesque, graphic nudity, cruel prejudice against dwarves, anti-Christian, anti-God attitudes and rantings."
Thank you, Minnesota.
Read my novel, won't you?
It's a great moment for a small time writer seeing his book in an American book store for the first time. The Tsar's Dwarf is out in four languages now. I feel good, people. I feel goooooooood!
Monday, September 29, 2008
I just gave my first American interview. I hope it won't be the last. I always like giving interviews, the more ridiculous the better. And I want you to know that I always try not to take myself too seriously. Writers with huge egos have to appear humble and I'm very, very humble.
Also, I just received a great review in the October issue of The Believer, a very important literary journal in San Francisco.
I must admit I'd never heard of The Believer before it reviewed The Tsar's Dwarf but now I think it's the most insightful and brillant journal in the US.
But let's get on with it. Here is an excerpt from my interview with Jacob Aiello at The Portland Fiction Project.
What kind of personal meaning does The Tsar's Dwarf have for you?
I've written twelve novels, and The Tsar's Dwarf is one of my three favorites because I think it succeeds in being truly tragicomic. Maybe I'm mistaken but I hope I've succeeded and that my American audience will like it.
In my review of your The Tsar's Dwarf, I compare Sørine to Günter Grass' Oskar from The Tin Drum. What do you make of that comparison? Did you base Sørine's character on any other figure–either fictional or in real life? How much of your own life's experiences go into your writing?
I love being compared to Nobel prize winners. Frankly, it doesn't happen often enough.
No, all kidding aside, I never thought of The Tin Drum. Halfway through the book, however, some one told me about The Dwarf by Pär Lagerkvist, the Swedish nobel prize winner. I read it and copied about four lines from it. It's a great book but it's about evil, mine is not. I love my main character Sørine. She's troubled but like most people she's not evil!
In The Tsar's Dwarf, there's an argument between the tsar's envoy Vasily Dolgoruky and Rasmus Æreboe wherein the Russian Dolgoruky confronts the Danish Æreboe with a slew of insults about his homeland: "You have no proper artists, no proper artisans. You can't even produce any proper idiots! Everyone is equally mediocre in spirit." As a Dane, what was it like to write those words into one of your own character's mouth?
I loved it because it's so true. Denmark is probably the most mediocre country in the world - in the best sense of the word. We're the most equalitarian nation on earth - we're all very alike and suppose not to stand out. And what I find fascinating is that the rest of the world thought so too in the late 17th century. Back then Robert Molesworth, a cruel Englishman (aren't they all?) wrote a book about Denmark that insulted our King, our country, and our national traits. Wonderful stuff. And this is coming from a man, me, who's actually a Danish patriot!
Before The Tsar's Dwarf comes out this fall, the only way American audiences will have been able to read your writing (unless they can read French, Portuguese or Danish) is from your blog, Danish Accent. How does writing a blog affect your literary writing? Does it enhance or detract from your writing time? Does it inspire you at all? What role do you think sites like Facebook, Myspace, or blogs have in the literary world right now? Are they an advantage or a detraction?
I love writing my blog. It's actually my training ground for writing in English and my next novel will have the samme funny awkward voice I hope comes through in Danish Accent.
I don't really know what significance Facebook and My Space are going to have in the future. Maybe they're just going to be a fad. However, I think they're magic for artists promotion wise. But in terms of literary significance, I don't think they're gonna make much of a difference. I mean, I don't really consider it an art form when I show nude pictures from my vacation in Saudi Arabia.
What were you doing in Saudia Arabia? Research for some future book, perhaps?
I've never been to Saudia Arabia. That was totally a joke. I apologize!
What are you working on right now?
I just started on a novel that takes place in the 1800s in Portugal and the 1500s in Italy. It's about identity and I'm writing it in English and then in Danish. That has been my "secret" agenda all the time - to come over and teach in the US and totally abuse your language.
You can read the review of The Tsar's Dwarf at The Portland Fiction Project here.
So far 55 people have reviewed it on amazon.com and it's not even out untill October 1st.
You can see my book tour dates in the blog below. Thanks for wasting your time with me. You should know better!
Thursday, September 18, 2008
Peter the Great is one of the most fascinating rulers of all time.
The Russian Tsar was a visionary genius, a man who changed Russia from a backward country into a European powerhouse. He was also a master sailor, a shrewd politician, a delightful dentist, a stern educator, a monstruos manipulator, an ingenious inventor, and an avid amateur surgeon who practiced his art on his soldiers who routinely would bleed to death after being operated by His Highborn Sovereign.
But most important (for my novel, anyway), Peter Alexeyevich was a leading dwarf connoisseur. He collected dwarfs like others collect stamps. No wonder that this charismatic, enigmatic and brutal giant has fascinated historians for centuries.
But even though Peter the Great was one of the most ruthless rulers in world history, is it fair to call him a psychopath?
Probably yes, but actually we'll never know for sure. We can't go back and analyze him; we can't question him and observe him under a blue lamp. No matter what, Peter the Great was definitely a man who had "issues". He was unbelievably blood thirsty, he had his own son, Alexei killed because he didn't follow his orders. Only on rare occasions did Peter show compassion for others, and he suffered from seizures and convulsions that turned him into a raging monster - we know that from several sources written by the English and Danish ambassadors to St. Petersburg.
We also know that Peter Alexeyevich wasn't typical for his time - that's exactly why he is so fascinating. He was feared and respected in Russia, but he was also deeply hated because of his ruthlessness and his paranoia.
But Peter was a complex man. Every time you try to label him, he slips through your fingers. He defies description; he was everything rolled into one. That's what I experienced when I wrote about him in The Tsar's Dwarf.
But hey, in my own twisted way, I'm quite fond of the man. He is as fascinating as Russia - a country I've visited twice and hope to visit again.
When I did my research for The Tsar's Dwarf, I read three huge biographies about Peter Alexeyevich plus a few books and sources about life in Russia in the early 18th century.
All of these sources had a different take on Peter. The three biographies were well written and well researched, but that doesn't mean the writers "got" the man. I don't know if I do, either, but I think it's often through art, not science that you get closer to the truth of a human being.
However, as a novelist you have an obligation to be "loyal" to the historical persons you write about. You shouldn't make them do things they wouldn't have done in real life. You shouldn't have Ronald Reagan recite Soviet poetry or let Adolf Hitler cuddle a Jew; it just wouldn't be right.
There's another important historical figure in The Tsar's Dwarf, the Danish-Norwegian king Frederik IV (1671-1730). He's another monarch I love and respect, even though he didn't have a hint of psychopath in him. Frederik IV had less charisma than our Tsar. He was a romantic bureaucrat who was an ally of Peter's in The Great Nordic War against Sweden - a very complex man who fell in love with an Italian nun, but that's another story we won't get into here ...
The French version of my novel, La Naine du Tsar (Gaia Editions). It's out in four languages now and will be out in Ukrainian in the fall of 2017.
At the center of The Tsar's Dwarf is a character who is a total fabrication of mine, the Danish dwarf Sørine Bentsdatter who is given as a gift to Peter the Great during the Tsar's stay in Copenhagen in 1716. She has been hired to jump out of a cake by the Danish court - and she sure as hell doesn't want to. I invented Sørine because I wanted to write a novel about human dignity.
Actually, that's not true at all. I invented her because she wanted to be in my novel. You see, I used to carry this angry dwarf with me where ever I went. She was mad, raunchy, vulgar, and pretty sarcastic as well.
I still love this inner dwarf dearly. Sometimes she does show her face for a few minutes when some one insults me. She grows out of me at the speed of sound, but I prefer that my dwarf stays in my book and doesn't interfere with my personal life. Why? Because I'm a happy man today. I don't need to hate any one the way Sørine does - at least not for more than a few hours.
In The Tsar's Dwarf, I want to show that no matter how much you've been beaten up in life, no matter how many you've killed, no matter how horny and blaspemous you've been, no matter what minority you belong to, there's still an amazing amount of hope for you.
If that wasn't the case, God and religion wouldn't make sense at all. And it's Sørine's spirituality and Peter the Great's affection that keeps her alive.
If you read the Scandinavian languages, you should get hold of my novel Lystrejsen about Frederik IVs trip to Italy where he commits the gravest of sins - he falls in love with a Catholic!
The Tsar's Dwarf is coming out in Ukraine in the fall of 2017. More about that later.
Monday, July 14, 2008
I just gave birth to my first American child.
Now, some of you might think that I'm talking about something as unimportant as kids - you know, the ones who run around the house begging for Lego. But no, I'm talking about a thing of much more importance: my first novel in English.
Yes, I just got The Tsar's Dwarf in my hands. My translated novel comes out in the US and Canada October 1st, and since I'm the writer, my publisher was gracious enough to give me the first copy from the printer in China.
When I got it I started to cry. Yes, I'm not afraid to admit it, I wept like a moron, my tears flooding over the pages and the gorgeous cover. I started to browse through it, pretending I was an average American reader. You know, the type who walks into Barnes & Nobles to get the latest from Stephen King but walks out with a historical novel from Denmark.
The Tsar's Dwarf is the story of a Danish dwarf who is given to the Russian Tsar Peter The Great as a gift. She is brought to the Russian court where she falls in love, is humiliated, and treated like a toy. It's a funny but gruesome story about human dignity. At least, that's what it says on the cover, so it must be true.
"Oh my God," I suddenly thought, "I don't want to obsess about it, but I sure hope my book will do well. I mean, my countryman Peter Høeg sold 1.8 million of Smilla's Sense of Snow. I know I'm not as good, so I guess I'll settle for 1.7"
Then I started to get depressed (as we all do when faced with something as overrated as the real world). Why? Because I've read that the average Scandinavian novel sells about 822 copies in the US. So that's probably a more likely number for my book as well.
I mean, who in their right mind wants to buy a Danish novel anyway, except for Viggo Mortensen and a few farmers in Iowa?
You never know though.
Hans Christian Andersen's career wasn't too shappy and Hans Christian and I have the same translator. Tiina Nunnally translated Andersen's fairy tales for his bicentennial in 2005 and she did Høeg's Smilla as well, so maybe some of their success will rub off on this small time writer.
And hey, maybe Oprah will adore it.
Yes, maybe Oprah will ask me to come on her show, so I can talk about how you get in touch with your inner dwarf?
Yes, all these thoughts went through my head.
But since I'm in the US, I know it's important to dream big. Actually, one of the biggest gifts the US has given to the world is The Fine Art of Promoting Yourself to the Point Where It Becomes Almost Nauseating.
So I've started to practice this art - an art that's very un-Danish. In Denmark you're never allowed to tell any one you're good. If you do, you'll be executed in the main square by a red and white firing squad.
But since I've started to teach in Oregon, I've learned to think of myself as a genius with a weblog, even though everybody knows I'm a bumbling idiot.
Part of the problem is that I smile too much.
No one respects a writer with a sunny outlook. You have to be a tormented soul with a food fetish. And you have to brood when you look into the camera. If you don't, you're not an artist, just another TV anchor.
If you want to read The Tsar's Dwarf before October 1, you can buy the book directly from Hawthorne Books as early as September.
The book has wonderful blurbs from Pulitzer prize finalist Joanna Scott and Man Booker finalist Sebastian Barry etc. And hey, the novel is out in Danish, French and Portuguese as well.
A novelist is allowed to dream, isn't he? Even if it's only about fame, fortune, and fornication.
Sunday, June 29, 2008
Americans don't read foreign literature.
Why should they? All good writers in the world write in English. If you write in any other language, it's probably because there's something wrong with you. You must be sick or suffer from a slight retardation.
I should know because my retardation is called Danish. I can't help it, I was born this way, so being an endangered species myself it would be nice with a little compassion ...
What, am I being facetious? Maybe, but unfortunately it's a fact that Americans aren't interested in foreign literature. Less than 1%of the novels that come out in the US are translations. And most of them are published by small university presses, selling about 400 copies each. Thus, the American market is the hardest in the world to break into. You need luck, a great book, and a courageous publisher who has fallen in love with say, Hungarian haiku or Peruvian poetry.
One of my own novels, The Tsar's Dwarf is coming out in English in October, but let's forget about that for now (even though it's hard) and concentrate on four truly great writers from my neck of the woods - four books you simply have to read:
Three of the writers are Scandinavian and one is Polish. None of their books have broken any sales records in English. However, reading them will make you a better person. These books are original; they will entertain you and force you to think, and they'll show you that there actually is life outside the English speaking world, how strange that may seem to any Republican.
Here we go:
1. Tales of Protection by Erik Fosnes Hansen (Norway). One of the best books I ever read. A masterpiece of storytelling that mixes four stories from four different time periods: contemporary Norway, 19th century Sweden, 15th century Italy, and 20th century Africa. A novel about chance, coincidences, and how we humans are connected in the strangest ways.
This novel can be understood on many levels. Is its approach to life scientific, philosophical or religious? Fosnes Hansen's masterly novel is an interesting meditation on the word protection, whether its divine intervention, or ordinary people who support and help each other for no apparent reason.
No matter what your perspective is, Tales of Protection is an allegorical romp through the ages and is beautifully translated by Nadia Christensen. Read it, buy it, swallow it. I'm envious of those who haven't read it yet. They're in for a treat.
2. Prince by Ib Michael. (Denmark) Danish magical realism, any one? That sounds oddly contradictory, doesn't it? Ib Michael's novel takes place on a beach in Denmark in 1911. It's a lyrical, mysterious coming-of-age novel full of ghosts and ancient mariners that will blow you away if you're a lover of poetic language and writers like Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Denmark has never been more exotic than in this dreamy tale that will speak to the child and the poet in you. And hey, the sun shines every day on this Danish beach. Magical realism indeed.
Prince sold 14.000 copies in the US, a decent amount for an "unknown" Scandinavian writer. However, this wasn't enough for the big bad publisher in New York, so they haven't picked up more titles by this great Danish writer. A crying shame!
Barbara Haveland is the translator of Prince and she has done an excellent job capturing Ib Michael's lyrical style. Great translations are hard to come by, but this is definitely one of them.
3.Popular Music From Vittula by Mikael Niemi (Sweden). Hey, all Scandinavians know that Swedes aren't funny. Just ask any Norwegian or Dane about that. The Swedes are overly serious, overly disciplined, and overly organized to the point of being anal - they're the Germans of Scandinavia. But why is it that they fail to live up to our ugly prejudices? Actually, Swedes make funny films, Swedes even write funny books, and this is definitely one of the very best.
Popular Music from Vittula is a hilarious coming-of-age story that takes place in Northern Sweden among the Finnish minority. But the beauty of this book is that it isn't "just" funny. It's incredibly well written, the language is beautiful, and the novel keeps on taking you by surprise, mixing reality with dreams and the weird imagination of an adolescent.
Matti is a young kid who discovers Beatles, homosexuality, girls, and loss. And the reader is in for a funny ride in this book of sunny snapshots of religious fanaticism, sulky Finns, witches in the forest, and black Volvos.
Popular Music is the most sold novel in Sweden ever. It gave a voice to a minority in an isolated part of Sweden that was exotic to the Swedes themselves. And hey, if you ever had a dream of becoming a rock star - I take that back: If you ever were fifteen years old, felt out of place and struggled with puberty, this is the book for you.
4. House of Day, House of Night by Olga Tokarczuk (Poland).
The word masterpiece is overly used, but this book is a damn masterpiece. It's a post modern novel full of amazing stories that are poetic, funny, strange, and stay with you for years. Olga Tokarczuk's book is not really a novel; it sure as hell isn't a collection of short stories, either. So what is it? I have no idea, I just enjoy the hell out of it.
What I can say is that House of Day, House of Night doesn't have a traditional plot but is the collected history of Silesia, a region in Southern Poland where everything and everybody, from mushrooms to tourists, have a story that demands to be told.
I bet you'll never forget House of Day, House of Night . You only go wrong with this book if you demand a traditional plot and characters with traditional arcs. In Tokarczuk's world, characters show up and disappear into thin air. Some are drunks, others are lovers, astrologers or collectors of dreams. Silesia itself, however, is the main protagonist. It sits on the border with the Czech Republic and Germany - very symbolic indeed because this novel sits on the border between reality and dreams, between myth and the collective unconscious.
Needless to say, House of Day, House of Night hasn't sold well in the US, but it won the Günther Grass prize in Europe and Olga Tokarczuk is a big name in her native Poland.
That's it: Three Scandinavians and a Pole for you to savour. Obviously, a lot of great books are written in foreign languages. Most of them you'll never hear about. They die a slow and painful death in their own languages. They fade away like ghosts on their dark and sinister continents while the world choke on Dan Brown and John Grisham.
But perhaps there is a ray of hope.
In Great Britain, about 2% of the published books are translated from a foreign language. Compared to the rest of Europe, it's an appalling low number, but it's still four times better than good, old USA.
Embrace the world, you wonderful Yanks.
Buy a foreign novel today. It might become the best friend you ever had ...
Sunday, June 15, 2008
All Danes are blond and gorgeous. And all of us have a cabin with a view of a lake. No wonder the whole world wants to be Danish, but don't get your hopes up. We're very protective of our gene pool.
You're planning to go to Denmark.
You've always wanted to visit our country because you know that it's the most exciting nation in the world. You tell yourself, "Why would I want to go to Paris, Rome or Barcelona when I can go hiking in Djursland?"
"Yes," you continue, "I'm trendy. I want to go to Denmark because the Danes are green, they ride their bikes like there's no tomorrow, they're innovative with windmills and herring, and most important, they're the happiest people in the world."
Yes, that's right.
What we Danes have known for ages is now official: Denmark has been named the happiest nation on the planet. And I'm living proof of that. Right now this Danish novelist is sitting in the middle of happy Copenhagen staring at the happy rain, enjoying the 53 degrees of happy summer.
Come and visit us, will you?
And please bring all your money because you're going to need it!
YOUR GUIDE TO DENMARK
Here's a superficial introduction to my Southern Scandinavian Paradise. Everything you read here is the gospel truth and is not open for discussion:
Name: Denmark (Danmark)
Inhabitants: 5,5 million.
Capital: Copenhagen (1.5 million)
Ranking: Most livable city in the world (Monocle, British Magazine, 2008)
Other Top Rankings in the World That We Take Pride in Because We Should:
a) Commitment to foreign aid.
b) Pork consumption per capita.
Government: Constitutional monarchy.
Currency: Kroner. (5.5 DKK to a US dollar)
Religion: No, thank you.
Name of King: We don't have any.
Name of Queen: Margrethe II.
Name of Prime Minister: Always a Rasmussen.
Size: The 8th biggest country in the world if you count Greenland. (Always count Greenland).
Unemployment Rate: Always rising
Crime per Capita: Fourth lowest in the world.
Corruption: Second lowest in the world.
Average Consumption of Beer per Capita: Fourth highest in the world.
Great Danes Who Throw Up When They See George Bush on TV: 94, 3%
Great Danes Who Get an Erection When They See Obama: 53%
Big Boys Club: The European Union, NATO.
Famous Dead Danes: Hans Christian Andersen (fairy tale writer), Søren Kierkegaard (philosopher), King Canute (conquered England), Tycho Brahe (astronomer), Isak Dinesen/Karen Blixen (writer), Vitus Bering (explorer), Niels Bohr (physicist, Nobel prize winner), Jørn Utzon (architect), Carl Nielsen (composer), Hamlet (Shakespeare's boy toy).
Famous Living Danes: Lars Ulrich (founder of Metallica), Michael Laudrup (soccer), Helena Christensen (model), Peter Schmeichel (soccer), Lars von Trier (film director), Connie Nielsen (actress).
Danes Who Ought to Be Dead: Jante.
Famous Half Danes: Viggo Mortensen, Scarlett Johansson.
Danish Oscar Winners for Best Foreign Film: Gabriel Axel (Babette's Feast, 1987), Bille August (Pelle the Conqueror, 1988).
Biggest Danish Film Star of All Time: Asta Nielsen (from the Silent Age. Known as Die Asta by Germans, and other riff-raff)
Most Famous Danish Building: The Opera House in Sydney.
Famous Danish Companies You Probably Would Want to Boycot If You Were a Muslim: Arla, Lego, Maersk, Ecco, Bang and Olufsen, Danfoss, Carlsberg, Tuborg.
Daily Smokers: 10% of population. (All of them will be sitting in your outdoor café of choice)
Obesity Rate: 22% of population.
McDonalds Restaurants in Denmark: 25
Best Danish Food: Herring, herring (and hey, the herring is pretty good, too)
Denmark's Claim to Fame in Great Britain: Bacon.
Denmark's Claim to Fame in Spain, Greece, and Cyprus: Blond girls with herpes.
Denmark's Claim to Fame in the Far East: Badminton.
Most Important Danish Invention of All Time: The atomic bomb (Niels Bohr).
Denmark's Biggest Contribution to American Sports: Morten Andersen, the all-time leading scorer in the NFL.
Best Tourist Attraction If You're Into Knights in Shining Armour: 1. Frederiksborg castle, Hillerød. 2. Kronborg (Hamlet's castle), Elsinore. 3. Egeskov, Funen.
Best Tourist Attraction If You're Eight Years Old or Behaving Like It: Legoland.
Best Tourist Attraction If You're Eighty Years Old or Behaving Like It: Tivoli.
Most Overrated Tourist Attraction That You Shouldn't Waste Your Time With But God Knows You Will: The Little Mermaid.
Time of Glory I: When the Danish vikings conquered England in the 11th century.
Time Of Glory II: When Denmark won the European Championship in soccer in 1992 and the whole country behaved like we'd won the Third World War.
This is the kind of abuse we Danes have to tolerate every day: Foreigners who fondle our national treasure as if she were a common strumpet. Shameless, that's what it is.
Biggest International Danish Hit of All Time But Please Don't Listen to It: Barbie Girl by Aqua.
Most Sold Novel Since the Days of Hans Christian Andersen: Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Høeg.
Worst Danish Accent by Great Actress: Meryl Streep as Karen Blixen in Out of Africa.
Most Beautiful Cities in Denmark: Copenhagen, Helsingør (Elsinore), Ærøskøbing, Faaborg, Ribe, Skagen, Svaneke, Århus.
Places to Avoid at All Costs:Strøget after midnight.
Best Months to Visit: June, August.
Best Month to Commit Suicide Because It's Dark, Dreary, and Everybody Wish They Were in Thailand: January.
Best Danish Traits: Tolerance, sense of humor, informality.
Worst Danish Traits: Intolerance, rudeness, pettiness, self-satisfied melancholy.
What You'll Miss the Most If You're an American Visiting Denmark: TV anchors with perfect teeth.
What You'll Miss the Most If You're Italian: Bread and Berlusconi.
What You'll Miss the Most If You're Norwegian: Norway
Most Beautiful Area of Denmark: The Silkeborg lake district in Jutland.
Celebrities Who Adore Copenhagen Because We Force Them to: Danny Kaye, Woody Allen, Bryan Adams, Per-Olov Enquist, Gwyneth Paltrow, John Cleese.
Most Stupid Thing to Say to a Dane: Now, which part of Germany are you from again ...?
Second Most Stupid Thing to Say to a Dane: I've just been to Sweden. It's my favorite Scandinavian country.
Enjoy your stay, but do bring all your credit cards.
Copenhagen is the third most expensive capital in the world, but hey, we mean well.