Sunday, October 26, 2008
Wednesday October 22
Whatever happened to Denmark?
I look around the souvenir shop at Garfield's Book Company at Pacific Lutheran University. I'm in Tacoma, Washington, about thirty miles south of Seattle. And I'm looking at hundreds of Norwegian and Swedish flags - something that's always painful for a Dane. There's an onslaught of Christmas decorations plus an obscene amount of Norwegian kitch that would make Ola Nordmann proud.
But what happened to Denmark? The only thing I see in the shop is a few Danish flags. Were we thrown out of Scandinavia? Is it because we don't have any mountains? Well, our lack of mountains bothers me as well, but flat is beautiful when you have sore hamstrings.
My host is Norwegian, too and a wonderful one at that. Troy Storfjell has invited me to talk about The Tsar's Dwarf. His small class is at my reading. They have studied the book and Troy claims everybody loves it. Always trust a Norwegian who praises your book. Those people know a good novel when they see one!
I start babbling at 6 pm.
Attendance is pretty good at Garfield Book Company, at least for a small time writer as myself. Let's face it, I'm not Knut Hamsun. I'm not even James Frey, so 20 people are definitely a nice crowd for me on this beautiful evening.
Afterwards, Troy, a colleague of his, and I go out for gnocchi. Later, Troy drives me back to my excellent hotel overlooking the beautiful Puget sound. My room is so great that I refuse to go to sleep. I feel like King of Tacoma. That would actually be a good title for a novel.
Minneapolis, Minnesota on a beautiful fall day. That's the Mississippi in the foreground.
Thursday October 23.
I'm sitting on the plane to Minneapolis. Next to me is a dentist looking at teeth on his computer. Huge pictures of white teeth flash in front of my eyes, followed by red gums and cavities the size of potholes. I find it obscene. Couldn't the man look at porno instead? That's a much more healthy activity. I hate pictures of teeth, especially when I'm flying over the Rockies. I feel like screaming, why don't you get a life instead of looking at gums from people you don't even know?
In Minneapolis I'm picked up by Erik Bruhn, the ex-president of the Danish-American center. He drives me to Danbo, the center of everything Danish in the Twin Cities. The center has graciously invited me to stay there the four days I'm in town.
It's an incredible place surrounded by squirrels and the Mississippi. I'm greeted by Bing & Grøndahl plates in the elevator, Danish paintings of village churches in the hallway, and a statue of The Little Mermaid in my bedroom. There's even a picture of Queen Margrethe and her French sidekick from 1972. Oh yes, those were the days when Denmark was Danish - when ducklings crossed the street without being maimed by foreigners.
Yes, it's true, you Danish patriots out there. Today our country has changed. Now we're viciously being accused of being the happiest nation on earth - a filthy lie if I ever heard one. I mean, have you ever been to Bogense in January? Happy, who?
No, forgive me, Danes are not happy. We're just grateful we weren't born in Alabama.
Friday October 23
I'm at University of Minnesota to talk to a class called Introduction to Scandinavia. Fellow Dane Søren Vestergaard Riis has invited me. 34 freshmen are sitting in front of me listening like thieves. Students are nice in Minnesota. They don't yawn much, they laugh at your jokes, and they only storm out of class when you've promised not to give them a D.
Later in the day, I meet up with a local novelist, Sarah Stonich. We know each other from a writer's colony in New York state, Ledig House. Sarah wrote a very successful novel, These Granite Islands about nine years ago. It was sold to thirteen countries. It's great seeing her again. We reminisce about old times at Ledig House with Somalian novelist Nuruddin Farah and Canadian poet Sarah Venart. And let's not forget the deers on the lawn. The great Italian food. And hey, we even did a bit of writing.
Sarah drives me around the Twin Cities swearing at the other drivers in that lovely Minnesotan way of hers. It's beautiful around the river and the lakes, but apart from that I'm not a big fan of Minneapolis. It's one big suburb like most American cities. However, I like the people here. Maybe it's because some are descendants of the "happiest" people on earth?
Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Saturday October 24
I gaze out at the audience at Magers & Quinn Booksellers, the finest independent book store in the Twin Cities.
It's easy done. Three people are waiting for me to start. I know it's to be expected but I'm a little disappointed. The lowest attendance I ever had was at the library in Varde, Denmark. Five people came, so now I'm looking at an all time low. What's wrong with you, Minneapolis? Just because it's 7 pm. on a Saturday evening, you don't want to listen to an obscure Danish novelist? Who needs dinner and Chardonnay, anyway?
However, ten minutes into my presentation, fourteen people have shown up, even a family from Omaha, Nebraska who came to see me. Well, maybe that wasn't the only reason they came. However, they did come from Omaha, Nebraska and that's an accomplishment in itself.
The Danish-American center is beautifully located in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Initially, it was meant as nursery home. Perhaps that's why I felt right at home.
Sunday October 25
The weather has turned Danish. Rainy, windy, miserable - the kind of weather where you have two choices. Either you play Monopoly or you throw yourself under a truck.
At 3 pm. I'm doing my last reading here in Minneapolis, at Danbo, the Danish-American center where I'm staying. I love the place, it's kinky in a good way. Danbo is a piece of ancient Danish history. Every time I walk in, I start missing my grand mother. The furniture is like hers. Maybe they actually went to Lolland and stole it. The place reeks of æbleskiver (small Danish pancakes) and a deep love of the old country - a country that only exists in our imagination.
But don't get me wrong. I think it's great that the Danish Americans remember their roots. And I'm more than thrilled that they want to entertain scum like me. We Danes are a tolerant people after all.
In the living room I find a few Se & Hør magazines from 1989, and no less than 30 wet Scandinavians show up for my presentation. Afterwards we drink coffee and eat kringle. Hey, how more Danish can it get?
On my way out I kiss the Little Mermaid goodbye. It's important to be grateful for the small things in life ...
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!