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)

Friday, November 28, 2008

In Monaco Even The Seagulls Are Wearing Prada.

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. Bella Italia is only ten miles away, so the snobs from Liguria love to hang out with the rich and the famous. 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 any dictator drool. The common 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 probably 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 appearance and bella figura.

When I leave the Principality to go to Spain, I admire Monaco from the distance. That's where Monaco looks the greatest: from the train, the highway, from France. 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.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Please Don't Be Cruel to Robert Mugabe. He Is Such a Sensitive Dictator.

 Christopher Mlalazi is one of many writers who had to escape Zimbabwe during the last decade.

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

Scandinavia House, New York: The Nostalgic End to a Beautiful Book Tour

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 live and 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 700 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?


Saturday, October 18, 2008

Seattle, Washington: The Second Stop On My American Tour

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 Norway and I love Sweden and Norway, 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.

At UW I'm presenting The Tsar's Dwarf in a class called Masterpieces in Scandinavian Literature. 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.

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

Look At All Those Silly Believers (A Film Review of Bill Maher's Documentary Religulous)

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 but are cut off and scorned by a host who seems friendly at first but slowly comes across as a 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. 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 always gets the last word. The wisdom of others 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. Why? 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.

But as far as I'm concerned, 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 were unpredictable masterpieces.

Religulous is definitely not 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? Religulous is a long dogmatic cheap shot from a brilliant comedian. Yawn!

Monday, September 29, 2008

Excerpt From My First American Interview (and Most Likely the Last)

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 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

Was Peter The Great a Psychopath?

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!

PS 2.
The Tsar's Dwarf is coming out in Ukraine in the fall of 2017. More about that later.


Sunday, June 15, 2008

Denmark for Dummies: A Superficial Introduction to the Happiest Country in the World

This is the original version that won's blog prize, but you may want to go to the updated versions. The latest is from 2024.

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 smart.

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!


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.

Language: Danish.

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.

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.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

PEN World Voices in New York (Now With Condoms?)

Nuruddin Farah and your bloghead outside Brooklyn library after a PEN World Voices event in New York, May 2008.

They hand out free condoms in Housing Works Used Book Café in Soho, New York. Maybe it's because they expect the audience to have sex with the writers. What do I know? I'm just a novelist from Denmark and we're much more naive than you think.

I've taken the trip from Oregon to New York to write an article about PEN World Voices for Danish PEN. PEN is an international organization of writers who fight for imprisoned wordsmiths around the globe - for freedom of speech and the right to write.

Here in New York there are more than 75 events with authors from the whole world, among others Salman Rushdie, Umberto Eco, Annie Proulx, and Michael Ondatje. In the book café, we're about fifty people listening to three authors discussing the theme of the festival, Public Lives/Private Lives - and the world as one large family. As Rick Moody from American PEN puts it: "I'm from the Nation of Fiction, not from America. I often feel I have much more in common with writers than I do with my own countrymen."

I talk to Rick Moody after one of the events because I want to tell him how much we enjoyed his visit in Copenhagen last winter. Moody was one of four American writers who visited Danish PEN. He even brought his wife and an old guitar. "God, I loved it over there," he tells me. Rick Moody better say that - Danes demand compliments from our visitors or we'll hold them in contempt forever.

I talk with the author of The Ice Storm for another 22 seconds, then he's off to one of the other events that includes 160 writers with 160 different accents ...

I move through New York like Hamlet's ghost, down narrow streets in funky West Village, to 59th Street where stressed out business men hunt down taxis like they were lions in the jungle. New York is a wonderful melting pot of nerds and neurotics; it's full of surprises ... a Sikh here, a closet Republican there ... a city so divinely diverse that you just have to love it. Walking around Manhattan is like being slapped in the face with a baseball bat, but it's the kind of pain you can't get enough of.

The many World Voice arrangements are scattered all over town - everywhere from the Irish Institute to Jewish museums, to Joe's Pub and Scandinavia House on Park Avenue. This year I'm just a spectator, but in 2009 I hope I'll be invited to participate, since my novel The Tsar's Dwarf is coming out in English and French in a few months.

In 2008 Denmark is represented by Christian Jungersen, the author of the thriller The Exception. Christian Jungersen got a rave review in New York Times for the book. He is on panel with the Dutch writer Lieve Joris to discuss evil - not in himself, but in the world. That becomes clear when a member of the audience asks why the two writers have chosen to write about the subject - if they worked through their own dark sides when they wrote the books. Interestingly enough, none of the two seem to understand the question but are more comfortable discussing genocide in Congo and mobbing in Danish work places ...

One of many great events at PEN World Voices in New York. This one is moderated by Rick Moody in the middle.

The next day I meet up with Nuruddin Farah, the Somali author who everybody thinks will win the Nobel Prize one day - everybody but himself, that is. Nuruddin is a humble man, so when people tell him he's Africa's greatest writer, he usually looks away or up some one's nostrils. I'm happy to see him again. We know each other from Ledig House, an international writers' colony in Omi in upstate New York. We were both residents there in the spring of 2002 where we spent time walking through the forest and playing croquet on the lawn. Back then we laughed a lot when we were together. At one point, Nuruddin named me Pierre The Dane - a name that turned out to be prophetic, since I now have three novels out in France and won a French literary award in 2005.

Nuruddin Farah is part of an event called Writing Place, Finding Refuge with Fatou Diome from Senegal, Etgar Keret from Israel, and Xiaolu Guo from China. They turn out to be a wonderful panel - wise, charming, and witty, and all four of them have interesting things to say about living and writing.

"I'm dead tired of being called a Chinese writer," Xiaolu Guo says. "I refuse to represent any country. In China I have to consider who is chairman before I can write. That's why I'm here to do my books and make my films the way I want."

Nuruddin Farah adds: "I know w hat you mean. To me you can't say about a writer that he or she is from Africa or Europe. Those concepts are too vague. A writer doesn't need a continent. He just needs a quiet room and a computer."

Fatou Diome laughs out loud: "A quiet room? There are no quiet rooms in Senegal. That's why I had to move to Paris or else I would never have written a word. France is a ladder from where the African writer sees her continent. Furthermore, in Dakar no one leaves me alone. In our culture people come to your house and talk, talk, talk, so I would have to kill a lot of people before I could write a word ..."

Fatou Diome laughs heartily. She doesn't look like some one who'd be able to wipe out an entire population. But then again, who knows? Writers are made of powerful stuff ...

Nuruddin Farah from Somalia, Fatou Diome from Senegal, and Peter H. Fogtdal from Denmark. The honor is totally mine ...

The theme of killing is also evident at another discussion two days later. African Wars is the name of the event. It takes place in the French institute and ironically, it turns out to be the most dysfunctional panel of all. Three writers are on, and the talk is dominated by Chenjerai Hove from Zimbabwe. He keeps on interrupting his colleagues, much to the annoyance of the moderator and most of the audience. However, Hove has interesting things to say:

"You know, I'm so tired of Westerners who go to Kenya for three months and come back calling themselves experts on Africa. How can you be an expert on Africa when you've only lived in one country? It's totally absurd."

The big man from Zimbabwe continues: "Right now I live in Norway. A few months back a Norwegian kid came up to me and asked, "Mr. Hove, is Africa as large as Norway?" That is a typical question from a Westerner. Most people only know Africa for three things: starvation, wild animals, and tribal wars. Why doesn't any one write about how beautiful our continent is?"

I love listening to Chenjerai Hove, but a few minutes later he starts to fight with Nuruddin Farah. "I never agree with him on anything," he says with pride. We sure believe him!

On my way back from one of the events, Nuruddin Farah gives me a ride. We're driving to his hotel on Lexington Avenue. Nuruddin is tired because everybody wants something from him. After the latest event, two students came up to him. They were writing a PhD about his writings. One of them asked him a question that was so academic and so overly intellectual that he looked tired at her and said, "was that in English?"

But now we're sitting in the taxi. The lights of New York are glowing, the whole city is so hyper active that you can't sit still. Manhattan is electric, I'm happy to be here, but after a few moments I discover I've lost my cell phone. I look everywhere, in every pocket known to mankind, but it's gone.

"Well, you may have lost your phone but you found an old friend," Nuruddin tells me.

"That's a high prize to pay," I sigh and continue to go through my pockets. Nuruddin smiles, but when we let him off at his hotel, I've recovered from my loss and feel great to be a part of Rick Moody's Nation of Fiction.

A few days later, the literature festival is over. I return to Oregon and when I'm sitting on the plane I contemplate what has made the biggest impression on me. Apart from meeting my Somali friend, I think it was a comment from the Israeli writer Etgar Keret. At an event, he told the audience that a few years ago he'd been at a conference with Palestinian writers. Things hadn't gone too well, but suddenly a Palestinian had turned to him and said:

"Do you know what? We Palestinians and you Israeli might not like each other very much, but if the characters in our books met, I think they would have a great time. Actually, I'm totally convinced that they would ..."

Every writer on earth should support International PEN in its fight for imprisoned writers around the globe. Go to American PEN on or find your local chapter online. PEN has hard working chapters in most countries, including Denmark, Bulgaria, Switzerland, and Slovakia.

Monday, March 31, 2008

I'm Deeply Honored, Your Majesty, But Please Forgive Me for Wearing an Orange Shirt at your Fabulous Reception.

I'm sweating like a short order cook. So would you, if you were at the Royal Castle of Copenhagen waiting to shake hands with the Queen, the Prince Consort, the Crown Prince, and the Crown Princess. Yes, you would sweat as well. Even if you're not a snob, your arm pits would itch, your deodorant would fail, you might even giggle like a retard.

"Monsieur Peter H. Fogtdal, Ecrivain e Madame Fogtdal," shouts a man who probably has a fancy title I can't pronounce.

"Oh my God," sighs My Pale Girlfriend who's even paler than usual. As a true American, she has never met anything as exotic as a queen or a prince. She has only run into Laura Bush at Safeway, so right now she's out of her league. But she does look great in her black dress and the Syrian scarf I've given her. However, Madame Fogtdal she ain't. There is no one with that dubious title. She is, however, my gorgeous girlfriend, so she definitely belongs at my side at this defining moment in space and time.

I walk up to the Queen. She is dressed in a beautiful gown in the same color as a forest fire. She smiles and for a second we shake hands. Then on to the Prince Consort followed by Crown Prince Frederik and Princess Mary who looks even better than in the tabloids. Oh yes, my heart is beating fast, my nose is running. Does this make me a snob, or is it all right to be in awe of this Scandinavian Versailles with paintings of perfumed kings and effeminate barons?

Why do I deserve the honor of being invited to Amalienborg, you rudely ask? Well, the reason is simple. This is a reception for the French speaking countries and everything French - and I won the Francophone literature prize in 2005 (or Le Prix Litteraire de la Francophonie, if you will) - a prize given to the best Danish book to come out in the nineteen Francophone countries. (Yes, technically my prize winner Le Front Chantilly (Flødeskumsfronten) is out in nineteen countries, even though I doubt you can get a copy of it in the book stores in Tunisia).

Some of the other prize winners are here as well. Michael Larsen who won in 2007, Leif Davidsen who took the honors in 2004, and Jens Christian Grøndahl who triumphed back in 2003. We form a writers' circle before we enter the palace to mingle with ambassadors, Oscar winning directors, and socialites from the suburbs.

Before entering the palace: Three proud writers and a pale girlfriend getting ready for royal handshakes, some great Flora Danica, Mozart, and a huge Gin and Tonic on the house.

I don't know what's wrong with me but I have this thing for castles and royal intrigue.

In school I loved to study our kings. I knew everything about them - I knew when they ruled, what they wore, and how they were murdered. I even had a few kings on my wall where they watched me fall asleep with royal indifference.

Actually, I've always been a Frederik IV fan. Frederik IV of Denmark-Norway, Slesvig-Holsten, Dittmarsken, Iceland, Greenland, and Lolland-Falster (I don't think I got that title right) ruled from 1699 to 1728 and wore powdered wings. He loved everything Italian, including a nun or two. In 2002 I wrote a novel about him called Lystrejsen. I've brought it along for the Queen. I'm sure Her Majesty is dying for a signed copy. But how do you give her the book? I know you can't walk up and hand it to her. You just can't shove a book into her royal hands and start babbling about it, so I ask a waiter if I can talk to Her Majesty's lady-in-waiting.

"It's so kind of you to bring a gift for the Queen," the lady-in-waiting tells me. "What is it, may I ask?"

I tell her about Lystrejsen. She interrupts me: "Oh, I read that. It's wonderful."

I beam like a toddler and start telling her about the research I did for the book - how I traveled to Italy and saw the places where Frederik IV stayed on his Italian tours - how his palace in Rome has become a bank where good folk exchange their Euros. After a while I'm boring the poor lady to tears, but she listens graciously and promises me that the Queen will be pleased.

But how pleased, I think? Will she actually read it? Or perhaps she did when Lystrejsen came out? Maybe Margrethe hates it with a vengeance. And maybe I'll never be invited again, since I'm using a four letter word on page 71.

No, it's not easy being a guest at the Royal Castle. But I must admit, I could get used to it. I could definitely get used to the lazy champagne and the gilded frames! Just give me a few incarnations and my upper lip will be as stiff as Prince Philip's.

We continue our walk through the castle. In the background some musicians plays Mozart - I guess he's been invited as well. Guests mingle, a few counts raid the bar in search of cognac.

At the end of a long hall there's a wonderful exhibition of Flora Danica, 18th century china that covers every inch of the walls. We admire the plates - the engravings of rare flowers and common seaweed. In the same instant we're approached by Leif Davidsen, thriller writer per excellence. He says to Choul:

"These rooms aren't open to the public. You're probably the third American to see this exhibition after George Bush and Bill Clinton."

Choul looks pleased and we continue talking to interesting people while drinking ourselves silly in spring water. From the room there's a great view of the Amalienborg square. A few tourists are taking snap shots of the Royal guard. I wave at them hoping they think I'm a disturbed duke.

"I don't know why they serve cauliflower at a reception like this," a South European ambassador complains. He also tells us that his wife hates Denmark. "The weather is s o gloomy here."

The Mexican ambassador is more fun. She is introduced to me and tells me she enjoyed Le Front Chantilly. "That was the first Danish novel I ever read." For the next few minutes she talks about it like a true connoisseur.

"Take that, Peter Høeg," I smirk and feel like kissing the Mexican, but I'm not sure you're allowed to kiss an ambassador - it could be against the Geneva convention.

My Pale Girlfriend, Leif Davidsen, Jens Christian Grøndahl and wife.

Two and a half hours later the reception is over. The Queen and the Prince Consort leave the ballroom. This is an indicator that we should get the hell out as well, but my beauty and I want to stay. For a second, I try to chain myself to a French butler but decide against it. I want this day to be without scandals. After all, I'm a Royalist at heart, I admit it.

And next time I'll wear a white shirt and a tie, I promise.

Monday, March 17, 2008

The Secret Confessions of a Moose Lover (Happily Lost in Fairbanks, Alaska)

Let's face it. I'm a moose lover.

But the moose don't want my love. This is the second time I'm in Alaska and the moose never show themselves. I only see them on tacky t-shirts and street signs. After a few days I'm so desperate I buy a pair of moose socks at Fred Meyer, so I don't walk around feeling so cheated.

"Actually, you're as likely to see a moose in the parking lot as you are in the wilderness," a local tells me. "The moose are so huge that they don't give a damn about humans," she continues.

So every morning I get up and look out of my hotel window hoping to see a moose licking a Volvo.

Talking about Volvos, I'm in Fairbanks to attend the annual SASS conference. SASS stands for the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study. It's always a great bunch of people who show up, most of them are scholars worn out by their PhDs, but there are also a few weirdos like me. There's even a Bulgarian grad student who studies Per Olov Enquist and a Romanian from Transylvania who has psychoanalyzed Elling - the famous Norwegian film.

"Norwegian films are preoccupied with the mentally ill," she tells us. All Danes, Swedes, and Finns in the audience nod happily. We're from the sane part of Scandinavia after all - at least that's what we think, which just goes to show how delusional we are.

No don't get me wrong. The SASS conference is pure bliss. We all get along. There's no nasty teasing, just laughter and heavy drinking as you would expect. After all, Scandinavians have a reputation to live up to, especially if you're Finnish or Danish. We eat muffins, too, and have a craving for Northern lights. Actually, the receptionist offers to wake us up if the sky becomes clear.

"Could you also wake me up if you see a moose?" I beg.

The receptionist nods. Moose alerts are included in the price at Princess hotel. So are the fancy ice sculptures in the parking lot that melt when you look at them.

From my room I see a beaver. Or maybe I just want it to be a beaver. It's probably a rat.

On the second day of the conference, we go on an excursion. Two yellow school buses pick us up and we head for the Ice Sculpture Exhibition. It's Fairbank's version of Knots Berry Farm with joy rides made from ice blocks. There's even a phone booth made of the cold stuff - I'm sure the Sami of the group feel right at home. The exhibition also has icy advertisements for ATM and other ridiculous companies.

Then again you shouldn't be surprised. Alaskans are Americans after all, and if Heaven were run by Yankees, there would be advertisement boards there as well: Welcome to Paradise -brought to you by Praise The Lord Sneakers. Now You Too Can Walk on Water.

For Alaskans it's a warm evening, 3 degrees Fahrenheit or about minus 17 Celsius. It's a tricky cold. It creeps up on you like a bag lady. Fist, you actually feel great. "Minus 17 degrees is a piece of cake," you brag. "I'm a fucking Eskimo."

But after fifteen minutes the cold cuts into you like a knife. You start to feel like a walking ice cube. Your face goes numb, your legs start to hurt, your face goes blue quicker than your balls.

I run back to the warm school bus in the parking lot, but it's gone. Thirty ice cold Scandinavians are waiting like impatient toddlers. It isn't a pretty sight, but what a relief when we find ourselves back inside the bus. The fact that there's no leg room doesn't mean a thing. Most of us don't feel our legs, anyway.

Papers, papers, papers. Academics adore papers. That's all they live for. Everybody at SASS is an expert on something useless - that's why it's so much fun being here. In another universe, people would be committed for obsessing about Karen Blixen's syphilis or the gorgeous adverbs in the Icelandic sagas. But at SASS everybody pretends they're normal. We run around with name tags, we flash cards with pretentious titles, we spill coffee on each other. It's all theatre, but you don't have to be Shakespeare to feel that the world is a stage. Just visit SASS and listen to papers like The Boredom Paradox and the Aesthetic Responses to Freudian Slips in the Late 17th Century Scanian Poets of Southern Landskrona. Then you know why we're driven to drink. Fast.

I've been at SASS conferences several times without much of a purpose, but this time I actually have an agenda. I want the Scandinavian-American community to know that a novel of mine is coming out in English. It's my eleventh Danish work The Tsar's Dwarf (Hawthorne Books), beautifully translated by Tiina Nunnally. It's out in the fall and I'm going on a book tour of Seattle, Tacoma, Portland, San Francisco, L.A., Fullerton, Chicago, Madison, Des Moines, New York, West Chester, and a lot of places I don't know yet. The book has blurbs by Sebastian Berry, Irish Man Booker finalist and Joanna Scott, American Pulitzer finalist. Yes, I'm nauseatingly proud of this and will write more about it later.

So I'm here at SASS hoping that the Scandinavian professors will use the book in their classes. As everybody knows, it's a teacher's finest obligation to make their students suffer. Well, come October I'll make that easier for every one.

At SASS I give a paper called The Novelist and His Translations: The Art of Finding the Writer's Voice. It's actually not a paper. It's just me babbling away as usual. Before I came I had grand visions of a full lecture hall - of avid readers hanging on to every word; of beautiful women adoring my insights, but only six people show up. Well, size doesn't count. Isn't that what Linda Lovelace used to say?

At the farewell party I shake my booty with a few scholars. But come 11 I sneak back to bed. I have to get up at 4.30 and catch my plane. Outside it's pitch dark and beavers are looking for food. But there's no doubt: The SASS conference has been a huge success. Everybody has enjoyed themselves immensely, and people are still dancing as if there's no tomorrow. The organizers have done an excellent job and deserve a vacation somewhere warm. Even the weather has behaved and the salmon wasn't as overcooked as in Oregon.

When I take the plane back to civilization (Denmark? Starbuck's?), I only have one complaint: The good people in Fairbanks should have hired some moose to stare into our windows. And produced a few Northern lights. I know they're just gasses, but they're so damn pretty, anyway.