Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)

Read The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books)
"A curious and wonderful work of great human value by a Danish master." Sebastian Barry, Man Booker finalist (Click on the picture to go to the book's Amazon page)

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

In Portland Everybody Is a Writer (Including the Squirrel On My Porch)

A week ago I had the pleasure of being interviewed by Reading Local, a West Coast website that highlights local writers. Since I'm just a visitor with a visa, I'm happy to be considered part of the Portland scene - especially since everybody is a writer in the Rose City.

I'm actually deeply suspicious of Portlanders who don't write. I figure there has to be something wrong with them, a mental sickness perhaps because Portland is an artsy and trendy town - it's one of those place where you don't just work at McDonalds, you're also a Haiku poet.

So Portland, Oregon is bursting with talent, readings, writer workshops, literary journals, and naked poetry slams. You could call it a Heaven for wordsmiths

Here's an excerpt of the interview with me by Teresa Bergen.

By the way, please take words like "handsome" and "talented" with a grain of salt. I'm neither.


The handsome Danish author Peter H. Fogtdal took a break Friday to let me snoop around his apartment and ask nosy questions. He deserves a break, and a better one than I provided, after the fifteen months since his novel The Tsar’s Dwarf came out from Portland’s own Hawthorne Books.

In that time he has done forty events in ten states to promote his book, taught at PSU, and accomplished the amazing international feat of simultaneously writing one novel in Danish and a different novel in English. I caught him in the midst of editing the Danish novel, which he had just finished writing two days earlier.

Amidst his décor of beautifully misty Portland paintings and a collection of delicate old teacups, we talked about his life of travel and writing.

While Fogtdal has a long and distinguished writing career with twelve books to his credit, The Tsar’s Dwarf is the first to be translated into English. It tells the story of Sørine, a dwarf whom the king of Denmark gave to the Russian tsar in 1716. She is foul-mouthed, foul-tempered, and much smarter than anybody else in the book.

When I asked a question about traditions in what I stupidly termed “dwarf literature,” Fogtdal nipped that line of questioning in the bud.

“I don’t know anything about dwarf literature,” he said, “because I’m not interested in dwarves at all.” It turned out that Sorine was an accidental dwarf. Fogtdal was writing a book about Peter the Great and the Danish king Frederik IV, and their fractious 1716 meeting in Copenhagen ...

“I got so bored writing that,” Fogtdal said. He put the first fifty or sixty pages away for a year. “When I came back to it, it suddenly dawned on me that I’d read several times that Peter the Great kept dwarves like other people collect stamps. So I figured oh my God, the protagonist has to be a dwarf.”

After that, the novel became easy to write. Fogtdal was able to tap into his inner dwarf, the part of him that is angry at the world.

Many historical novels are dense and ponderous, but The Tsar’s Dwarf is a sparsely written page turner. “It’s my fourth historical novel, and you learn one thing,” Fogtdal said, “that all the info you find interesting is not interesting for the reader. And sometimes you wish that other historical novelists would realize that.” In his last drafts of novels, Fogtdal trims ten to thirty pages of extraneous details.

Fogtdal said it would be no fun to translate his own novels. “And my English wouldn’t be good enough. That’s the weird thing. My English, I think, is sufficient to write a novel in English, at least if I use a first-person persona that’s close to me. But it’s not good enough to translate my own novel.”

His first novel written in English is set in India and tells the story of a man who blames his guru for his life not turning out better. Fogtdal has been to India eight times and knows a thing or two about gurus. He has lots of material for his book and is very excited about it.

Fogtdal has long lived a nomadic lifestyle. He is a writer-in-residence in Portland, and doesn’t know where he will go next. Perhaps Hong Kong.

One of his best travel experiences was in 2005, which was the bicentennial of the birth of famous Danish writer Hans Christian Andersen. Danish embassies all over the world commemorated Andersen in different ways. The Vietnamese embassy invited Fogtdal to talk to youngsters about Andersen.

“And then we made the very logical assumption why should I do that, why not play him?” Fogtdal said. He traveled to six Vietnamese cities, performing as Andersen, along with a Vietnamese actress who read two of Andersen’s fairy tales, an emcee/translator and a tech man.

“It’s definitely one of the best experiences I’ve had in my whole life,” Fogtdal said. “And I mean, we were treated like rock stars.” The shows were a smashing success, except with the sophisticated kids in Saigon. “Those were the kind of kids that listened for ten minutes and then they were on their cell phones,” Fogtdal recalled. “They were too Western. That was a struggle.”

Portland has been good to Fogtdal. A dedicated bicyclist, he appreciates the emphasis on biking here, although he said there are four times as many bicyclists in Copenhagen. The bike paths in his home country are also better. “Here you call it a bike path when you paint a yellow color on the street where the cars are driving as well.”

Bikes are especially important to Fogtdal because he has made it into his fifties without ever having a driver’s license. “I don’t drive,” he said. “And I never even tried.”

Since he was an adolescent, Fogtdal said he knew there were two things he should never do. “And that was have a gun in my hand and drive a car. And none of the two I’ve ever done. And I never will. It’s never going to happen. Never.”

If you haven't had enough, read the full interview here
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