A probing author speaks: An interview with Siri Hustvedt
On March 16, 2015, author Siri Hustvedt spoke at the Danish Athletic Club in Brooklyn. She was a highlight of travel company Fotefartemareise’s literature and music tour of New York.
Born in Northfield, Minnesota, Norwegian was Hustvedt’s first language. She received her Doctorate from Columbia and her thesis was on Dickens. Hustvedt’s first novel The Blindfold was published in 1992. She has written several others, The Invisible Woman, The Enchantment of Lily Dahl, The Sorrows of an American, and The Blazing World. She is also a scribe of poems and essays.
Lona • media has even created a documentary about her, entitled, My Life: Siri Hustvedt. Their website beautifully explains why they chose to do a film about Siri and her work: “Step by step, Hustvedt has carved out a place for herself in the literary world as an author with a special feeling for the poetic, an almost tender concern for her protagonists, an exceptional capacity to strike nuanced tones, and most of all a sensitive perspective on all human spiritual states.”
In 2012 Hustvedt won the Gabarron International Award on Thought and Humanity. She was chosen from a final list of 17 international candidates, according to Gabarron, “For her tireless investigative work, that has allowed her to integrate with a single voice and highly original ideas of philosophy, neuroscience, psychology, or psychoanalysis in her literary, creative and documentary work. The Jury has also wanted to underscore her contribution to the understanding and discovery of Fine Arts, through her many essays and articles.”
She was interviewed by Ragnar Hovland, who accompanied the tour. According to Fotefartemareise, he is a well-known Norwegian author. He hails from Bergen, Norway, and has written essays, children’s books, novels, and lyrics.
Below are some highlights from the interview. Please note that the interview fluctuated between Norwegian and English, and, as I do not speak Norwegian, I have paraphrased some of the questions.
Ragnar Hovland: Where does your interest in the psyche come from?
Siri Hustvedt: I was a volunteer for four years with a psychiatric hospital as a writing instructor. Now I lecture in psychiatry at Weill Med School, which is part of Cornell.
RH: You grew up in two cultures and languages. How has this affected your writing?
SH: I grew up speaking two languages, I have to say that I spoke Norwegian first. When I was four we were in Norway for five months and I forgot my English. We returned to the U.S. and I forgot Norwegian. I went back when I was 17 to the Steiner School. Then I lived, thought, and kept both languages. There is a flexibility and fluidity in Norwegian, while English has a large vocabulary.
Language is a way into a culture. Every language has words that others don’t. English has a lot of words that are not in Norwegian and Norwegian not so many. But there are words in Norwegian that one does not have in English. There is an expression my mother used to say, which is not found in English. It is not talking about someone’s beauty or character. It is everything together. It is a beautiful word that cannot be experienced in English.
RH: What is interesting about writing in English?
SH: There is something about English grammar that has the power of elasticity.
RH: Do you feel you are identified as a Scandinavian writer?
SH: Yes, they identify me as a Scandinavian American. It is a little exotic.
RH: When did you begin writing?
SH: As a writer of novels, I was a later starter. I started writing at 13, lots and lots of poems and extremely short stories. At 23 I was living in New York and had a poem published in The Paris Review. I also had small book of poems published.
I had a professor tell me, “when I get stuck I do automatic writing.” I tried this and had 33 pages. I liked the movement of the prose. After I finished my dissertation I wrote my first novel and it took four years to write.
RH: I read a Hilary Mantel interview a few days ago. She said that it is hard for a publisher to work with a writer who doesn’t have a formula and stick to it. You don’t have a formula, but do you have a consistency?
SH: If you are writing literary fiction, you always want to do something new and try something else. At the same time there are underground currents in any writer, ambiguities that happen in the place between people.
RH: Do you have a structure in mind, when you write?
SH: I always have a kind of arc. My husband (who is also an author) says, “if nothing is on the horizon, you can always go sideways.” I usually have an ending, but it can change. It is not a blank slate.
RH: Can you speak about your interest in poetry?
SH: When I was 11, my mother gave me two little books of poetry: Blake and Dickenson. They were difficult, but I read them over and over—the music, something about them was life changing.
My father was a professor at St. Olaf’s, but it was my mother who chose books: Jane Austen, Dickens, and the abridged version of The Count of Monte Cristo. The summer I was in Iceland I read about 50 books. It was a turning point for me. If that’s what books can do, I wanted to do it.
RH: Your husband is also a writer, how do you manage in the same house?
SH: We have four floors. My husband is on the garden floor and I am on the top floor. There are two floors between us. My husband is a dinosaur and still writes on a manual typewriter. Clack, clack, clack—it can be distracting.
RH: Can you speak about the music, rhythms of your words?
SH: I have very deep feelings about this. I know when I am working well one of the most important things to me are the rhythms of the sentences. I wonder where they come from. I think very early in life—pre-lingual. It happens between the child and mother.
That cacophony—you need the rhythmic tensions in the prose. The greatest translations find rhythmic equivalents that sound beautiful. I often think prose in syllabic from my first language—Norwegian. When I write in Norwegian, I am attentive.
RH: My question is in regards to your interest in biology. I am an anthropologist. I haven’t found the direction of science fruitful, as artificial intelligence takes hegemony and is taking the upper hand.
SH: I so agree. I am working on a book now The Delusions of Certainty. I think those guys are wrong and they are mostly guys. The paradigm is wrong in that our minds are like computers. It is important to challenge that. … Why can’t a computer walk like a human? Why can’t computers translate? Language is not an endorsed symbolic system that comes under logic. You have to feel it.
Questions then came from the audience.
A: When did you decide to become an author?
SH: I was so young. It began with a ridiculous story that still amuses me. After we (my family and I) left Iceland, we went back to Minnesota. My father taught at St. Olaf’s.
They had a section in their paper that interviewed a “Teen of the Week.” I said that I was going to be an author. I am sure people thought, “What a pretentious little girl.”
Of course, I did start writing then. I didn’t get a lot of support. One of my English teachers said, “I don’t know what to do with her.” When I look back, they should have given me a little more help—encouragement. No, I was a freak. Kept writing. The first thing I sent out got published. It had a kind of enchantment.
RH: Can you speak about gender in your writing?
SH: Gender is difficult to overcome. Another interesting thought: art—women, science—men. A woman artist is doubly feminized. … There was an article in Slate about writer Karl Ove Knausgard’s project—sometimes boring and sometimes brilliant. If a woman had written this book no one would have touched it. The changing of diapers, peeling of potatoes. I am not commenting on the writer, but six volumes like that coming from a woman—impossible!
As Easter approaches, why not follow a contemporary Norwegian tradition and open a book. And why not indulge in a book by Siri Hustvedt—guaranteed to be a probing and enlightening read.
This article originally appeared in the April 3, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.