The thing about Linn Ullmann is that she is luminous—everything about her glows, and in the instant you meet her, you can feel this warmth. And it doesn’t take long to see in her eyes that same cavernous essence that is reflected in her work. Several weeks before the U.S. release of her fifth novel, The Cold Song, I met Ullmann at the Other Press office on Park Avenue, where we spoke about the metamorphosis of literature in translation, causality and consequence, and the “voices in her head” that influence in her work.
Tweed’s: How did you find out about the interview with Judith Gurewich in Issue Two of The Coffin Factory, and what about it made you interested in publishing The Cold Song with Other Press?
Linn Ullmann: I read it online—that’s mostly where I read The Coffin Factory and other US journals. I was so excited about how she spoke about editing and how she worked, and things she said; it seemed to be that old-fashioned editorial process. And that is what I was dreaming of. I thought: This is the kind of publisher that would be wonderful to have in the States.
Tweed’s: Because this is the American translation, I’m curious as to how involved you were in the editing process.
Linn Ullmann: The book had come out in Norway in 2011 and has been published around Europe, but since I grew up here in the US, the American edition meant something special to me. Like publishing in my home country—except it is not my home country. So first I worked with my brilliant English translator, Barbara Haveland and then Judith Gurewich gave me a chance to go through everything one more time. Revisiting the book in English—it’s my third language, but it’s a language that I feel close to because I studied English literature here at NYU and I have always been an avid reader of American literature—I felt that it was an opportunity. I wanted to do certain things. But strange things happen when you express things in another language. English is a richer language than Norwegian, so you always have a hundred different choices. It could be anything…I can only think of dirty words right now, but pretty much any word. And this is a book with many voices, and the rhythm and the temperament is so important to get right. I wanted the book to be the book I would have written if I had written it in English.
Tweed’s: Were there major changes for the English translation or was the language only tweaked?
Linn Ullmann: I made the choice to do some switching around. But mostly I thought about these characters again and how they interact and so I made one small adjustment here and then that affected what happened there. This was all part of a creative process that I’ve never been a part of before—actually taking a finished book back into the cutting room. I mean, it’s the same book. It’s just—I would know the nuances.
And now, with the book I am writing now, because Judith is such a hands-on editor, a different kind of editor than my Norwegian editor, who is a novelist himself and a poet, I have two voices in my head when I’m writing. Judith’s voice and my Norwegian editor’s voice. Usually I just have my one editor, but now I have two editors in my head.
Tweed’s: Are they arguing with each other?
Linn Ullmann: They have different approaches. My Norwegian editor is more quiet where Judith is more dialogue—they both have very distinct voices.
When I told Judith that she was in my head, she said, “You shouldn’t have any voices in your head! You should only have our own voice in your head!”—which is a very Judith type thing to say. Of course she’s right, but all writing is about conversations that you’ve had, real or imaginary. I can have my editors in my head, but I also sometimes have my father’s voice in my head, even though he is dead. I can have authors that I’ve read. I think writing is so connected to reading and those types of conversations that you’ve had in your life with people, with books.
Tweed’s: I want to talk about the categorization of your book; it has been referenced as a bit of Scandinavian Thriller.
Linn Ullmann: I don’t consider myself a thriller writer, although I like playing with the thriller genre and even just having fun with Nordic noir thrillers. I love the images and playing with the way the genre works, but this book, rather than asking, “Who did it?” asks “How did it happen? Why did it happen? Were there other people who were guilty, somehow, and what’s guilt and what’s innocence? What are the consequences of actions?” It was using the thriller genre a little bit to tell the story of atonement and consequence.
Tweed’s: Consequence. It’s interesting you say that, because I found that for so many of your characters, there is almost a lack of consequence. Alma leaves a slug in Milla’s bed, she cuts off her teacher’s hair; she is kind of a bad child—
Linn Ullmann: I wouldn’t say bad.
Tweed’s: How would you describe her?
Linn Ullmann: Anarchist. Truth-seeking, in a world where everything is kind of shadowy, where lies and secrets have made everybody unable to cope. And she wants something that’s real. And truthful. So she acts out. But also, sitting there in class, day after day, that braid, just dangling. It’s just so easy—to just do it. For Alma it wasn’t even that she hated the teacher, it was just that the hair was so long. But certainly she’s angry; she takes after her grandmother, who’s also a bit anarchistic. So I wouldn’t say she’s a bad child. I wouldn’t say anyone in that book is bad, except of course the very minor, minor character who is the one suspected of murder. But the other characters are not bad. They’re not very good. They’re not heroic. They’re broken.
Tweed’s: Let’s talk about internal guilt then. Is it supposed to play the biggest role for these characters? Jon, for example, is certainly one of the best characters, even though he cheats and he has secrets—
Linn Ullmann: I’m glad you say that. Some younger women, readers, or even journalists have been very upset with me that Siri doesn’t do that big I’m Leaving You Now, You Bastard thing. Jon was a fun character to write.
Tweed’s: Why is that?
Linn Ullmann: I loved writing about his infidelities, or about him not being able to write. Because I think writer’s block is pretty horrible. It is necessary in small doses, of course, because without some kind of resistance the writing probably isn’t any good. But writer’s block in large doses is scary. It’s like insomnia. You’re supposed to sleep and you can’t sleep, and then all the demons come and they dance on your pillow and they say things. When your job is to write and you don’t write, when you give in to writer’s block, something very destructive happens; it’s as if your creativity turns demonic. And that’s what happens to Jon. He continues to create stuff, but they’re shadow worlds. He doesn’t do anything on paper. He creates these scenes with different women that he texts and emails and sees, and he creates a lot of shadow worlds for himself that are destructive. He’s not even having fun being unfaithful.
Tweed’s: What it is that’s giving him writer’s block? Is it anxiety? Fear?
Linn Ullmann: We’re so taught to see the causality of things. I’m like this because I had this kind of childhood—that’s the archetype. I’m not sure that we always know when we break or when we break somebody. When you step over a line or when something happens and you go this way rather than that way, you don’t always know that it’s happening. They’re small movements. It’s not like the movies where you know: here is the big choice and you’re making it. It can seem silly at the moment. But innocent flirtation can turn into infidelity, which turns into betrayal, which turns into brokenness. Some playing can turn into bullying, which can turn into something worse—it can turn into death. You never know what that consequence is going to be. When Jenny starts drinking after twenty years, is it because she doesn’t want to have this birthday party? Or is it because she’s fed up with having a family there? Or is it because her husband left her many years ago? Is it because she lost a child? Is it because she let the children go out alone and play when she should have been with them, or is it even before that? Once you start looking at causality, you ask: Did it happen then? Well, maybe, but it could even go back and back and back. It could be many different things, and that’s how I like to tell stories. You look at it from this angle and that angle, you can go back in time and forward in time. It’s all how you place the camera and who’s looking and who’s thinking and who’s observing and who’s being looked at it. The story will always change. I think people are extremely complex, and it’s hard to understand reasons, one specific reason. And I think that’s true for all the characters in this book.
Tweed’s: Have you yourself ever experienced writer’s block?
Linn Ullmann: I’ve had normal writer’s block. While writing this book, I had it—I have children and a dog and a family—so I have to be very structured because I write when I can, during the day. I’m punctual, very Scandinavian that way, very boring. In the end, I started doing a little bit of what Jon does—I typed stuff that was just lying on my desk. But I was less destructive than Jon. I started cleaning the house and having ideas of renovating and painting rooms.
I always want to move when I’m writing a book. Not very far—just walking, sometimes. Rather than write, I can move or renovate or do some kind of project. So I’ve experienced it. But I tell students that the only way to get rid of any kind of writer’s block is you just have to sit down and write. There’s no other way to get rid of it. For every day you give into writer’s block—because it’s something that you actually give into—you give into doing what you’re not supposed to. You make that choice. The only way to beat it is to actually do your work. And inspiration, that word inspiration belongs to Dante’s seventh circle of hell because I think it ruins people—writers, non-writers—because you think you have to be inspired before you do something, that you have to feel this kind of race. Younger writers especially think they need to be inspired and they need to wait for inspiration and they can’t force it. Well of course you have to force it! You start by forcing it. If you’re very, very lucky, it’ll repay you a hundred times. It’ll be like dancing or kissing or falling in love—it’s just a wonderful feeling when it goes easily, which happens for short spurts of time.
Tweed’s: It seems like this book takes place between those short spurts of time, between the wonderful feelings.
Linn Ullmann: That’s interesting. I wanted to write a love story, but at the point in that story where it was broken, to say, Look at all the broken pieces. These people are not doing the right things and they have gotten themselves in a big mess, and that, to me, was more interesting to write about. People who screwed up.
I guess the question is: is there atonement for these people? Is there forgiveness? Can they fix it? Because everything that happened happened, and you can’t get away from things that you’ve done. It’s there, it’s your baggage. But is it possible to fix and go on?
The ending, of course, is ambiguous. Some people will read it one way and some people will read it in another way. This idea of atonement even if there isn’t closure—I don’t think I’ve written a single book where there’s closure, because closure is such a difficult thing. I’m more interested in exploring if they proceed, if they can proceed. Of course the book doesn’t answer that question, but those are the questions that I’m interested in.