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A Northern Light
Per Petterson's Poignant Family Tales Have Placed Him on the Literary Map

By Bob Thompson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 26, 2007

NEW YORK

Per Petterson wasn't content to simply thank his mother and father as he accepted one of the world's richest book prizes. He kept on talking about them until he was nearly halfway through his seven-page speech.

Petterson was little known outside his native Norway before his novel "Out Stealing Horses" won the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in June. The 55-year-old writer had beaten out finalists Cormac McCarthy, J.M. Coetzee, Julian Barnes and Jonathan Safran Foer for the 2007 prize, which comes with a 100,000-euro purse (then around $130,000) and goes to the best single work of fiction published in English anywhere in the world. Now there he was in Ireland, at the center of a pomp-filled ceremony in Dublin's city hall.

"Lord mayor, members of the jury, dear friends," Petterson began. "This is not meant to be sentimental, not even nostalgic, but I do want to tell you something about my parents."

"Out Stealing Horses" is hitting a number of best-of-the-year lists in the United States this month, but it is still not on the radar of most readers here. It is the story of a 67-year-old man, living alone, who is haunted by the memory of a boyhood summer with his father. Described by one judge as "a wonderfully subtle book," it was not directly inspired by Petterson's own family history. Yet family is its focus, as it is in all Petterson's work, and his two previous novels hit so close to home that he couldn't have published them if his mother and father were still alive.

Their end was shocking. On April 7, 1990, Petterson got a phone call from his ex-wife, who told him to turn on the TV. He saw images of a ferryboat in flames. One hundred fifty-nine people died, among them his parents and two of his three brothers, who had been traveling to a vacation cabin in Denmark.

At one point, the plan had been for Petterson to be on the ferry with them. But he did not mention that -- or even the fire itself -- in his Dublin speech.

Instead, he talked about the beautifully carved bookcase his father once bought, its shelves stocked with the previous owner's books. His father never got around to reading those books, but Petterson did.

And he talked about his mother, who owned not a single book herself but borrowed all kinds from the library and read so constantly "that I never saw her sleep."

* * *

He is a short, wiry man with an easy grin and the kind of weather-beaten face that might make you think "sailor" or "forest ranger" if you didn't know he was an Oslo-bred writer of prose. In Manhattan for a quick visit this fall -- a couple of readings, a reception at the Norwegian consulate -- he sips a Coke in the courtyard of his small hotel and talks, in excellent English, about books and writing and how he came to be who he is.

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."

Petterson went home and finished a story.

It won a contest.

"You got more?" the editor asked.

Within a year, he had published his first collection. The stories featured a character named Arvid Jansen, a version of himself Petterson calls his "soul mate," to whom he would return again and again.

* * *

Petterson was a published writer now, and he kept writing. But there was no reason to think a book of his would ever be noticed in English-speaking countries, much less contend for an international prize.

"If you're a Norwegian writer, you are not visible in the world," he says. "The door of the English language is very hard to open for a Norwegian writer."

Yet after the ferry fire -- and the books he wrote as a result -- a crack appeared in that door.

It's not easy to prove cause and effect here. After his IMPAC Dublin win, a journalist Petterson respects wrote that "the tragedy changed the way he was writing," but the author himself isn't so sure.

"It was a very, very hard blow, but I do not think that it changed me as a writer," he says. He had already made a crucial artistic choice -- to write in the first person -- before the accident occurred.

Yet there's no question, he says, that he "wouldn't have written the same books" if it hadn't happened.

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."

* * *

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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