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A Northern Light
He started thinking about "To Siberia" right after his parents died. In it, he imagined his mother's early life: growing up in Denmark under the German occupation, having her education cut short, traveling to Norway and meeting a man who worked in a shoe factory. The book is fiction, of course -- "I don't know what she was thinking when she was 13; how could I?" -- but essential elements are real, especially the heroine's deep bond with a brother who died young.
"When my mother talked about her brother," Petterson says, "there was this light in her eyes" that wasn't there when she talked about her husband. "I thought, 'This is the basis of a novel.' "
"In the Wake," the book that followed, is autobiography fictionalized and condensed. Its protagonist, once more called Arvid Jansen, has worked in a bookstore, is trying to be a writer and has serious issues with his father. At a family gathering, the father gets uncharacteristically drunk:
"He stared into the glass in his hand, then rose unsteadily and said: 'Well, well, Hemningway, so you're a writer.' He didn't look at me but past me at something on the wall, or maybe he looked through the wall, and he smiled with his mouth only. I didn't like that smile. . . . I wanted my father to say Hemingway, not Hemningway."
Later, Jansen gets the call Petterson got, telling him to switch on the TV. He sees the same boat on a calm blue sea, the same smoke, the same leaping flames.
"I am not Arvid Jansen," Petterson says. "In two weeks, he goes through what I did in two years." Still, author and character faced the same horrific loss: "To put it cruelly, it gave me material."
It also helped him get noticed overseas.
Christopher MacLehose, who was then running England's Harvill Press, says he learned of "To Siberia" from people he knew at Petterson's Norwegian publisher. "It's a stunning introduction to a writer," says MacLehose, who published an English translation by Anne Born.
He bought "In the Wake" as well. With that book, Petterson also found his first American publisher, St. Martin's Press. But by the time he'd written "Out Stealing Horses," his editor had left and he was homeless in the United States again. A passel of New York publishers had a chance to pick him up. None did.
Enter a small, Minnesota-based nonprofit. "Thank God there is Fiona McRae," MacLehose says.
McRae is the publisher of Graywolf Press. She bought American rights to "Out Stealing Horses" for what she calls a "modest," four-figure sum. Petterson's novel seems quiet at first, she says, but it's not: Readers often use the word "stealth" to describe the way the narrative gathers momentum and pulls them in.
"It snuck up on individual readers," McRae says, "and it snuck up on the world."