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Per Petterson: A Family Approach To Fiction

Let's get one thing straight: Norwegian author Per Petterson is not Stieg Larsson -- the phenomenally successful author of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo series. They may both be Scandinavian, but Petterson's books are as quiet and contemplative as Larsson's are violent and action-packed.

Petterson is happy to leave crime novels to others. “I write about families," Petterson says. "That is who we are."

Petterson's last book, Out Stealing Horses, was a surprise hit in the U.S. In his new novel, I Curse the River of Time, he draws on tragedies in his own family to explore the thorny relationship between a mother and son.

Fiction Of Family

Petterson's own mother died in a ferry boat accident that also killed his father, a brother and a nephew. It was a devastating event. Some time afterward, Petterson realized his mother's death freed him to write fiction based on her life. He never would have done it when she was alive, he says.

“Everybody would have thought it was about her,” he explains, laughing. “Even she would. And she would be mad at me.”

Petterson's nervous laughter seems well founded if indeed his fictional creation is anything like his own mother. This character is not the kind of person who suffers fools gladly -- and her son Arvid seems determined to play the fool.

As the novel begins, Arvid's marriage is ending -- just as his mother learns that she is dying of cancer. She wants nothing more than to be alone, and so she heads out to the family's summer cottage in Denmark. Arvid, obsessed with his own problems, follows her, determined to repair their broken relationship.

The year is 1989, in the days before the fall of the Soviet Union. Petterson says he initially chose to set his novel in that time because it was the year before his own mother died -- but it was a politically pivotal year, as well.

“I realized this was big politics,” Petterson recalls. “1989 was such a very, very important year in Europe. The wall fell, the Soviet Union was crumbling, and so many things happened -- in 15 minutes the world changed.”

In Petterson’s novel, the fall of communism has a special significance for Arvid. As a young man he became a Maoist, and dropped out of college to work in a factory -- despite the fact that he was raised by working class parents. It was this decision that caused the rift between Arvid and his mother.

“It's not because he was a communist or a Maoist,” Petterson explains. “It was because he left school to work in a factory for idealistic reasons, whereas [his mother’s perspective is], ‘Hey, your family is a working family. The point is you should not be because you are our son.’”

“I think that's the clash,” he adds. “He really is insulting his mother and everything she hoped for.”

When Arvid tells his mother of his decision in a cafe, her first response is to slap him. Years later, as Arvid pursues her in the present, he is overtaken by memories of the past. His hoped for connection with his mother seems constantly beyond his reach.

'Stieg Larsson Is Stieg Larsson'

Though Petterson often returns to the same themes or concepts -- family, loss -- his books are never driven by plot. Petterson draws the reader in with his spare, eloquent use of language. Its rhythms force the reader to slow down, to pay attention.

“Making sentences is what I do,” he says. “I mean the story will come as I write. When you are a sentence-based writer they have to be good, they have to be really on the spot. Because when you don't have a plot what will you rely on? Just language.”

Petterson is a painstaking writer. He remembers when he was writing Out Stealing Horses -- he got to the last chapter, and everything just stopped.

“I was really looking forward to it, because this was downhill,” he remembers. “I really wanted to cherish the moment.  But I was so afraid of starting on the wrong foot I think I waited two months.”

Petterson was surprised and grateful that Out Stealing Horses did so well in the U.S.  And though his writing is nothing like Stieg Larsson's, he knows that the popularity of those books has created an interest in other Scandinavian writers.

“Stieg Larsson is Stieg Larsson,” Petterson says. “I think it is something different, but it may be that publishers look to Norway or Sweden or Denmark because of that. It's a good moment for us.  Norwegian literature is strong now. Stronger than it has been for a long time.”

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

BooksWeekend Edition Saturday
Lynn Neary is an NPR arts correspondent covering books and publishing.