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A Northern Light

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You could say it snuck up on Petterson, too. "I hate plots," he says, explaining that he never, ever plans out his novels in advance.

The spark for "Out Stealing Horses" came from a story Petterson's father-in-law told about spending time with his father, shortly after World War II, at a cabin near the Swedish border. "I could see in his face that this was a very important memory for him," Petterson says.

That fragment, and another about a boy and his mother buying a suit, were all he says he had to work with when he started writing.

Well, maybe not quite.

" 'In the Wake' was a very bleak book," Petterson says. "This relationship was not too good, the father and son." This time around, "I wanted a father and a son who really loved each other, which would be visible on the first page and would still be there on the last page."

This is not to say there's no drama in between. Explosive events in the father-son narrative merge with reverberations from the father's wartime past to alter the connection irrevocably. The tension builds as Petterson's narrative circles expertly back on itself.

"It turned out to have a plot, didn't it?" he says, grinning that easy grin again.

It also turned out to have legs. Petterson says that "Out Stealing Horses" has sold something like 200,000 copies in Norway, a nation of fewer than 5 million people. (A U.S. author would have to sell more than 12 million books to reach the same percentage of fellow citizens.) It has sold very well in Europe, according to MacLehose, and in this country, Graywolf has printed 40,000 copies so far -- not exactly Dan Brown numbers, but very good for a novel in translation from a tiny press.

Meanwhile, the book has been showing up on best-of-the-year lists, among them Time magazine's and a new one compiled by the National Book Critics Circle, which rated it one of 2007's top five works of fiction. Earlier this month, the New York Times also picked it as one of fiction's top five. "A spacious and powerful book," the Times reviewer, novelist Thomas McGuane, called it when the Graywolf edition first appeared, and one original enough "to expand the reader's own experience of life."

Graywolf will publish "To Siberia" next year. Petterson is already 200 pages into another Arvid Jansen book. This time, he says, "it's not about fathers and sons. It's about him and his mother."

A change of pace, perhaps, but not a big one: Per Petterson is a writer who has accepted the hand fate dealt and embraced the lifelong project it implies.

"All I ever think about," he says, "is families."

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