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A Northern Light
Both his parents worked in factories, he says, "my mother in a chocolate factory and my father in a shoe factory. Best chocolate in the world. It's been bought up by Americans now, of course."
His mother, the tough-minded daughter of a Danish carpenter, was the family intellectual. "She wanted to go to college, gymnasium as we call it, and she wasn't allowed to do that by her parents," Petterson says, partly for lack of money "but also because girls shouldn't go, they thought." Nonetheless, she grew up to be someone who read absolutely everything, from Guenter Grass and James Joyce to more popular writers such as Victoria Holt.
His father was an athletic man with diverse interests -- football, his labor union, singing in a choir -- that did not include reading. Father and son had a hard time understanding each other. Petterson's first book was a collection of autobiographical stories "about this father and this boy," but though it was published three years before the ferry fire, his father never mentioned it.
Still, there was that bookcase.
In it were "Leo Tolstoy, Dostoevski, Sigrid Undset, the Norwegian -- all kinds of books," Petterson says. On a whim, when he was 12 or 13, "I just sat down on the stairs behind the bookcase and I just took a book out. I didn't know why. And I opened it." Eventually, he read most of what was there, including "Gone With the Wind" in a Norwegian translation.
"I thought it was fabulous," he says, laughing. "Wow, passion!"
A few years later, he read Jack London's "Martin Eden." The story of "this man sort of raising himself up by his own hair almost, and trying to break through the wall of culture," he says, "made me want to be a writer." So did works by the Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose and by Ernest Hemingway, who made Petterson wonder how such simple writing could have so much impact.
"I'm going to crack that code," he thought.
By the time he was 18, he knew that all he wanted was to write. There was a problem, though: He couldn't finish anything. "I was a coward," he says. "If I finished a story, I could see it was no good. I didn't want that."
Instead, he trained as a librarian, worked in a printing plant and finally got a job at an Oslo bookstore, where he became the foreign book buyer. "As long as I could sell it, I could do anything I liked," he says.
But he was miserable not writing.
One day in 1986, a regular customer -- an editor at the publishing house Oktober -- gave Petterson a push. "You are halfway in your life now," he remembers the editor telling him. "If you don't really take this seriously, you're going to die before you get a book out."