Always on the way to Norway, in spirit
Rebecca Dinerstein’s debut novel, The Sunlit Night, explores the soul of Norway’s north
One wonders what would entice a young New Yorker to choose the Arctic archipelago of Northern Norway’s Lofoten Islands as a place to write. But that is exactly what Rebecca Dinerstein, a recent Yale graduate, did. Awarded the highly coveted Frederick Mortimer Clapp Fellowship, she chose to spend a year at the island of Vestvågøy. The result was a highly acclaimed bilingual English/Norwegian book of poetry, Lofoten, which was released in 2012. This from a woman who initially spoke no Norwegian.
Dinerstein was born and raised in Manhattan, but now resides in Brooklyn. I had the chance to ask her what had drawn her to the northernmost climes of Norway once again in her first novel, The Sunlit Night, available June 2, which is also situated in the Lofotens. It has been described as “By turns ravishing and hilarious. The Sunlit Night is more than a shining debut—it’s the work of a young master… Here’s an exciting new voice that sings perfectly in key,” by Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life.
Victoria Hofmo: Rebecca, can you speak a little bit about your background?
Rebecca Dinerstein: I grew up in Manhattan, and attended Stuyvesant High School, Yale University, and the NYU MFA program.
VH: When did your interest in writing begin?
RD: I wrote an essay titled “What Is Wonderful” when I was six years old; I think that was the beginning.
VH: Your book of poetry, Lofoten, was released in 2012. Can you speak about why you chose to write a poetry book?
RD: I had received a Yale poetry fellowship that encouraged me to write a complete book of poems—that fellowship collection turned into the book Lofoten.
VH: *What made you decide to write in and about Lofoten?
RD: I wanted to go north. The northern most I’d ever been was Dublin, and the Irish Sea had enchanted me with its mistiness, its history of arriving Viking ships, its pale light. I wanted to follow those ships’ paths even further—to the Far North. That’s all I knew. Some people yearn for motorcycle rides through South America, some yearn for northern climes full of sheep and fog. I am a sheep and fog girl. The rest came accidently: my favorite professor had been mountain climbing in Norway and met an elderly couple on a hiking path—the couple had a son, who had an uncle who lived in the Arctic. The uncle encouraged me to rent a room in a community building called Kunstkvarteret, on the Lofoten Islands, in the northern Norwegian Sea. I flew to Oslo and boarded an 18-hour, Arctic-bound train. When I got there, to those mountain-covered islands, ripped up by fjords, I didn’t want to leave.
VH: Not only have you traveled to and written two books about Lofoten, you wrote the first one in both English and Norwegian. Quite admirable. Did you know the Norwegian language before you went to Lofoten?
RD: I didn’t speak a word of Norwegian before I got there. But after a few years and many close Norwegian relationships, I picked it up.
VH: In the April 16, 2014, issue of Cosmopolitan your book Lofoten was noted as one of the “12 Collections of Poetry Every Woman Should Read,” because, “Dinerstein writes exquisitely about falling in love with a landscape and about finding herself far, far from home. This book is the perfect accompaniment for a summer abroad or backpacking across Europe.” Were you surprised?
RD: I was very grateful that Cosmo introduced my Norwegian publication to an American audience.
VH *What most pleasantly surprised you during your stay in Lofoten?
RD: I loved almost everything about Norway: the pure air and milk, the culture of trust and open doors (a friend once left some of her belongings by the side of a road, intending to pick it up hours later when there was more room in her car—hours later, there it all was, untouched), the open-faced sandwiches, the brown cheese, the wild berries, the national love of landscape and the outdoors, and perhaps most of all, kos, the Norwegian concept of “coziness” that pervades all Nordic homes—the recognition that the natural surroundings are harsh and rocky, and that it is important for us creatures to feel at ease.
Norwegians are extremely athletic (it’s completely true that children begin skiing in Norway as soon as they can stand up), and I often felt weak by comparison. I had no experience with rock climbing or mountaineering, having grown up in Manhattan, and Norway is mostly rocks—rocks one has to climb over to get anywhere. Simply put, I fell down a lot. But I found the Norwegians encouraging and supportive, and in return I tried to teach my rugged friends about physical arts that were less prevalent in Norway than they were in New York: ballet and tap dancing, for example. The most important thing I learned in Norway was the language: speaking Norwegian allowed me to develop real friendships that grew over hours of intimate conversations, to overcome potential misunderstandings, to feel a little less foreign.
VH: Are there any Norwegian words of phrases that you have come to love?
RD: Two, especially: Jo, which means yes even though you say no, and Kos, the Norwegian concept of coziness.
VH: Now you are about to embark on a book tour for your debut novel, which also takes place in Lofoten. What did you have to say in this novel that you hadn’t said in your poetry?
RD: My novel explores human relationships more actively than my poems could, since the speaker of the poems is largely solitary.
VH: *What was the impetus for this novel?
RD: The book began as the story of Yasha and his family: I’ve been working on those characters for ten years. I enjoyed studying them from a third-person perspective—the third person accommodated what was traditional and storybook-like about the Gregoriovs and their bakery—but when Yasha entered the sparkling Nordic landscape, I found that the narrative lacked an immediate, first-person energy. That’s where Frances came in: to keep Yasha company, and to give a voice to the more nuanced details of the world around them that a 17-year-old boy might not feel comfortable expressing.
Switching between their perspectives allowed me to capture more of the story’s setting than either character could have reasonably articulated on his or her own. The alternating chapters also give the reader an opportunity to view this wild place twice, a crucial double-take that reveals the landscape’s secrets, and shows how the characters see each other. The incongruities are a source of energy throughout the story.
VH: Can you speak about one of your favorite passages in your book?
RD: I’m fond of the scene where Sigbjørn communes with a French dog, following the Whale Meat Festival. It captures some of my feelings about the Norwegian language, and a mood of meditative tenderness.
VH: Your upcoming book tour will have you traveling across the country. Can you speak a little about the experience of touring the country to promote a book?
RD: I’ve never done a book tour before! I’m flabbergasted to have the opportunity to visit so many magnificent bookstores and cities.
VH: Any books in the works?
RD: Another novel, ASAP!
VH: Any plans to go back to Norway?
RD: I’m always on my way to Norway, at least in spirit! I hope to visit Norway this summer, and next spring when Aschehoug (the Norwegian company that published her book of poems) releases the Norwegian translation of The Sunlit Night.
Dinerstein begins her book tour in Brooklyn, journeys across a wide swath of the country and circles back for her last reading in Manhattan. Find more info at: www.rebeccadinerstein.com. I encourage you to hear her read and speak about her work. The perspective of a young woman experiencing an unknown ethereal environment, who speaks with the soul of a poet, is sure to be a delight that will open our eyes further to the beauty and idiosyncrasy that is Norway.
* The questions with an asterisk were taken from Dinerstein’s press kit, at her request.
Brooklyn, New York
June 2, 2015, 7:00 p.m.
The PowerHouse Arena
June 3, 2015, 12:00 p.m.
June 3, 2015, 7:00 p.m.
Harvard Bookstore with Leslie Parry
June 5, 2015, 7:00 p.m.
R. J. Julia’s Bookstore
June 7, 2015
Chicago Printer’s Row Festival
June 8, 2015, 6:00 p.m.
Copperfield’s Debut Brews at Hopmonk Tavern
June 9, 2015, 7:00 p.m.
Elliot Bay Bookstore
Los Angeles, California
June 10, 2015, 7:30 p.m.
June 11, 2015, 7:00 p.m.
Magers & Quinn Bookstore
Iowa City, Iowa
June 12, 2015, 7:00 p.m.
June 29, 2015, 6:30 p.m.
Busboys & Poets
New York, New York
July 15, 2015, 6:00 p.m.
The New York Public Library
This article originally appeared in the May 29, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.