Today I am delighted to welcome Nicolai Houm, author of The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland, to my blog. Nicolai has published two novels, both critically acclaimed in Norway where he currently lives. Pushkin Press have just published the first English translation of his work – you may read my review here. In this interview Nicolai tells of how he coped during a life threatening situation, and what he has in common with David Foster Wallace.
Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?
I was born in Norway, but spent part of my childhood in the States. By the time I was twelve I had decided to try to become either an author or a marine biologist. The second alternative had a lot to do with the French explorer Jacques Cousteau, who seemed to be on TV in America just about every day. Who wouldn’t want to travel the seven seas on a yacht, swim with dolphins, revolutionize underwater exploration AND get to wear a funny red knit hat all the time? Anyway, in the end I chose writing. I guess I can still wear a funny red knit hat if I want to.
Can you tell us about your book and what inspired you to write it?
The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is a story of immense grief. Not the most alluring topic, some might say, but I think the way Jane the protagonist deals with her loss makes for a plot driven story with several layers. She’s lost in a foreign country, strung out on alcohol and pills, and at times it’s up to the reader to puzzle the story together.
It’s hard to answer the second part of the question without including a big spoiler. Let’s just say that every parent fears what Jane has experienced, myself included. And the novel came about as my way of dealing with that fear.
The story is set in both America and Norway with the characters in each place depicted with very different personalities. Do you believe place shapes personality, and willingness to adhere to differing societal expectations? How does this affect those who live in multiple countries during their formative years?
Growing up in two different countries certainly shaped my personality. The language difference alone affects a child, since you realize at an early age that the connection between form and meaning is arbitrary. It’s a basic linguistic fact, but for a child it’s an eye opener. You learn to see how diverse humans are, and you understand that what you consider to be the truth is not necessarily universal. In the process of adhering to differing societal expectations, a child becomes a keen observer. It’s impossible to adapt without observing closely and to a certain degree mimicking what you observe. Some of that has stuck with me, and I think it helps me in my writing.
The depiction of grief in the story is raw and movingly authentic. Did you find this challenging to write?
In one way it’s like other subjects you deal with as a novelist. You have to rely on empathy, and there has to be some kind of truth to what you write, even though it’s not your personal experience. And meticulous research goes a long way. On the other hand, I felt there was more at stake than usual. Knowing that many people have experienced a loss similar to Jane’s was sobering, humbling and often made it hard to write freely. If a reader lets me know that the book’s depiction of for example rhythmic gymnastics or mountaineering is off, it would make me cringe and I would promise myself to do better research next time. If I was told that Jane’s sorrow doesn’t ring true at all, it would make me doubt the whole project.
Jane is lost and alone in a tent in a storm, physically and metaphorically. Have you ever felt endangered by weather or threatened by wildlife in remote locations?
Ha ha. Great question. No, luckily I have not felt threatened by wildlife. I did go live in a tent in the mountain region where the musk oxen roam. Unlike Jane I respected the advised safety distance. They’re magnificent beasts, but you do not want to irritate them.
I have felt endangered by weather on several occasions. We Norwegians spend a lot of time in the outdoors. The depiction of Jane getting lost in a storm is inspired by personal experiences. One time a surf buddy and I tried to hike over a mountain on the west coast of Norway, to reach a secluded beach on the other side. It was the 1st of May and the sun was beaming through scattered clouds. When we reached the summit, we made the ill decision to leave the backpacks behind for a moment (they were stupidly heavy with the surfboards and wetsuits attached) and have a quick peak over the ridge to see if we could spot the beach. The vantage point was of course a lot further along than we thought. By the time we got there, fog had drifted in from the sea and the visibility was close to zero. While we were trying to find the backpacks, the weather changed dramatically. The temperature plummeted and the wind picked up. Soon we were in the middle of a late season snowstorm … wearing t-shirts and board shorts! There was no cell phone reception, and the map and compass were stashed away in the backpacks we could not find.
We ran around in the blizzard for close to an hour trying to beat hypothermia and find our gear. When we finally stumbled upon the backpacks pitching a tent was out of the question, but we managed to weigh down the canvas with some boulders. The rest of the day and the following night we laid on our surfboard bags under the frantically fluttering canvas. I have to admit that the surfboards and wetsuits where not the only thing that had been weighing us down. I had also brought a 3.5 liter box wine. We were so happy to have made it, that we downed it.
Can you share with us any significant changes between first draft and last? Was the story published as initially conceived?
I actually rewrote large segments of the manuscript. I had two editors at the time, and though they didn’t agree on everything, it was clear that I had to make changes. The zoologist Ulf, who ended up being an important character, was initially just a random guy Jane bumped in to at the beginning of the story and never met again. I knew that introducing a character early on, close to the initiating event, and then just dropping this character without notice, is a no-no. Readers would of course wonder what happened to Ulf, and why he showed up in the first case. I guess I wanted a loose form, so things would just happen to Jane, like they do in real life. The lack of constraint would contribute to a feeling of realism. But it rarely works that way. A novel needs certain formal traits. There were a number of other revisions. To mention a few: Jane was unfaithful to her husband in the first draft and the cut up technique was less prominent. The important thing to me starting out was Jane’s inner life, the raw grief. The plot and structure seemed secondary, but I knew I would have to deal with it at some point.
What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?
I chew tobacco. To be precise, I use snus, which according to Wikipedia is “a moist powder tobacco product originating from a variant of dry snuff in early 18th-century Sweden.” It’s a thing in Scandinavia, a bit gross and not healthy, but I seek comfort in the fact that the late David Foster Wallace also was an avid tobacco chewer. At least I have one thing in common with the most innovative writer of our time.
What books have you read and enjoyed recently?
At the moment I’m half way through Donna Tartt’s highly enjoyable The Goldfinch, and I’m submersed in the harrowing but beautiful depiction of reckless, deprived teenagers trying to survive on the outskirts of Las Vegas. At the same time I’m ploughing through old nonfiction books on Norwegian immigrants to the US. The latter is research, but I don’t know if it will lead to anything.
Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?
Honestly … my Dad. It’s his birthday on Monday and I haven’t seen him for a while.
And finally, what question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?
Well, the “Have you ever been threatened by wildlife” question definitely felt fresh in an interview with an author. Kind of hard to beat that one.
The Gradual Disappearance of Jane Ashland is published in English by Pushkin Press and is available to buy now.