It’s a glamorous life being an international author. For example, I got to go to Norway in the dead of winter when there was two feet of snow in the streets.
And I loved it.
You see, when your home is in the Middle East, experiencing some Arctic conditions are rather welcome. The Norwegians are a lovely people for whom books are a genuinely collective experience across society. And the reindeer meat is really good.
My second novel A Grave in Gaza appeared in Norwegian translation last month and my publisher Forlaget Press flew me to Oslo to do some interviews with local journalists. They timed the publication for a little before Easter, when all Norwegians traditionally buy a pile of crime novels and take them to their remote cabins in the forest for the holiday. Just to be sure that they’re isolated and feeling creeped out….
It’s my second publicity tour in Norway and I must say that the Israelis and Palestinians who reviled the Oslo Peace Process really blew it. Those Norwegians know what they’re about. Everything runs well. Everyone’s polite and interested. They laugh easily. They aren’t hypercritical.
It makes you wonder how they got involved with the prickly types who inhabit the Middle East in the first place.
I met Thomas Mala, my exuberant main man at Press, at Oslo’s central station. He walked me along the relaxed pedestrian street leading past the Parliament and the National Theater up to the Royal Palace. At the bookshop on the corner opposite the theater, he showed me a little surprise: a window filled with my books and two enlarged copies of the cover. I’m not the most egotistical man in the world, but this felt good.
In the lovely Continental Hotel the next morning, I met up with Thor Arvid, a good-natured and quietly intellectual fellow from Press, who introduced me to the journalists I’d be meeting. Not that the first one needed introduction. Last year I’d met Fredrik Wandrup, culture correspondent at Dagbladet, the country’s main newspaper. A new father, he exuded contentment. The previous night he’d been to see Bob Dylan perform in Oslo. “It takes a while to figure out which song he’s playing,” Fredrik said. “But I liked it.”
Next up was a very sympathetic reporter from Klassekampen, which means “class struggle.” Its circulation is rising due to disgust with the bankers who flushed the world economy down the toilet. It also has a reputation for a hard line on the Palestinians. Still, even though my books don’t blame everything on the Israelis, Guri Kulaas understood my aim – to put a human face on the Palestinians, who’re so often seen only as stereotypes -- and she wrote a warm article.
Of course one of the pleasures of traveling to promote my books is meeting the people who publish them. Håkon Harket is the chief of Press in Oslo and a more cultured, thoughtful fellow I can’t imagine. He was generous enough to take me out to the Munch Museum in an Oslo suburb.
Munch is one of my favorite artists. Last year I visited the National Gallery in the center of Oslo, where some of his great works are kept, including Madonna (the most astonishing work of art) and The Scream. There’s more than one Scream, but the one at the National Gallery is better than the version at the Munch Museum.
Håkon walked me through an exhibit of Munch sketches for a series called Alfa and Omega. He was able to place these marvelous works of art in fascinating context from the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard through the plays of Henrik Ibsen.
Alfa and Omega, in Munch’s telling, seemed personifications of Adam and Eve, though somehow even more doomed. He drew the series with elements of expressionism and of the ancient Nordic myths.
He failed to mention brown cheese, however. As a Norwegian he really ought to have done. It’s almost as important to Norway as Odin and Freya and Thor ever were.
So when I was asked what I’d like in return for speaking at the Norwegian Publishers Association about my experience working with publishers around the world, naturally I said: brown cheese.
My speech went down well (although when I made a joke about wearing a Viking helmet with two horns, a gentleman in the audience protested that the real Vikings didn’t wear such helmets: “The Vikings weren’t horny,” he said.). They gave me a kilo of brown cheese, which looks and tastes like caramel chocolate, although its aftertaste is like a cheddar. They also gave me an existential novel by Dag Solstad, which I hadn’t asked for. (They’re publishers, after all.) I’m looking forward to reading it.
The speech was at the Litteraturhuset (Literature House), a central venue for book events and a gathering place for Norwegian publishers. Also home to the best reindeer meat, courtesy of chef Tore Namstad. It’s a very succulent meat with a liver aftertaste. If you’re shocked that I ate an innocent reindeer: next time I’m in Norway, I plan to eat whale.
I went out to Håkon’s place in a beautiful Oslo suburb called Jar for dinner on another night. The snow there was four feet deep, which made me feel that I’d got off lightly with the blizzard that had dumped itself on me downtown that morning. We ate with Håkon’s old friend Henning Kramer Dahl, a fascinating poet and translator who has introduced some major modern writers to Norwegian.
Along the edge of the Royal park from my hotel is the Ibsen Museum. The great playwright returned to Oslo for the last 11 years of his life. You can see the desk where he wrote every morning, which – for a writer and a lover of Ibsen’s plays like me, at least – has an almost mystical fascination.
Ibsen fact: he was five-feet-three. At the Museum you can see his extremely tall top hat and his high-heeled shoes. Clearly little Henrik had a complex. I took it as a reminder that a writer can have all the success in the world, but happiness has to do with accepting oneself.
Two other people I met in Norway about whom I’ll be writing more soon:
Scott Pack. The most innovative man in publishing? I think so. He’s the editor in chief of The Friday Project, part of Harper Collins. Among other ideas he’s been scanning the blogosphere for blogs to turn into books. With Tama Janowitz’s latest, he issued a limited signed printing of 1,000 copies, the buyers of which can send off for a free weird doll photo from Tama’s collection.
Monica Kristensen. After 30 years of polar exploration, she’s eaten polar bears and eaten her dog teams. She’s confronted a macho world. She’s earned a Ph.d in glaciology from Cambridge. Now she’s written a series of crime novels, though they're not yet in English (UK and US publishers, take heed). More on her to come.