The Bell in the Lake
CHRISTINE FOSTER MELONI
Christine Foster Meloni: What was your inspiration to write your book Norwegian Wood? Do you have any special childhood memories of trees or of wood, in particular?
Lars Mytting: I guess all Norwegians are intimate with forests and wood—almost all our houses, except in city centers, are wooden buildings, and we all have, to some extent, experience with wood heating. We do not think much about it, really. Forests are here, have always been here, and will be here. Norwegian Wood was first and foremost a desire to write a book about a skill that has been crucial for mankind from the earliest times. The true depth of this know-ledge surprised me, but for ages it meant life or death, and thus, the book became a practical guide as well as a hymn to self-sufficiency. I guess people enjoy the book because it is genuinely useful, but also conveys the dream of survival in a frozen, barren country.
CFM: I am really intrigued by your jump from a practical non-fiction book to a very powerful novel with wonderful characters and an absorbing plot. How did this novel about a stave church develop from Norwegian Wood? Do you see it as a logical progression for you? Or do you have separate special memories of stave churches in your childhood?
LM: Personally, I do not feel these books to be so connected. I had written three novels before this one, but these were not distributed in the United States. The Bell in the Lake comes from much deeper and older wells than the other books. Dreams, ancient stories, the respect for past generations. Here, wood represents a paradox. Since Norwegians do not build in stone, few of our buildings last very long, and stave churches are among the very few existing artifacts from early medieval times, and are, along with the Viking ships, perhaps the most impressive.
There is a stave church in my home village, one of the 29 still in existence. As a child, I was intrigued by the smell and the old, sacred spirit. Nowhere in the world will you find anything similar and, as part of a historical novel (that will become a trilogy), I found such an old building to be a very powerful component. It is a link to past generations, but a 700-year-old church also has a particular soul and spirit, almost like a human character, a silent Methuselah of the village.
CFM: Is Butangen a fictitious name for a real Norwegian village that served as your model?
LM: It is more a blend of actual places from Gudbrandsdalen and the mood of these places. There is a very small place called Butangen at home, near a small lake in a very remote valley, with seven or eight old houses. It literally means “a shore just big enough to build a cabin.” I have always enjoyed the inherent spirit of that name, and my imagination grew.
CFM: How much of this novel is based on research? For example, were any Norwegian stave churches taken to Germany? Were you aware of a legend about the sister bells?
LM: The main drama is my own fiction—Astrid’s fate, the family story, the love triangle—and the research was mostly about understanding the mentality of that period, plus details about their daily work, their beliefs in supernatural powers, and their connection to nature.
However, the novel is strongly inspired by one strange, actual event. In the 1840s, a church from Vang in Norway was moved to Germany and re-erected—not exactly like the original, but close—in the 1840s. (It is still there, but in today’s Poland. It is now called Wang Kirche and is open for services.)
Another main element is an old oral legend from home, which perhaps began around 1600, about the origins of the church bells in our stave church. Such legends are usually short and “closed” stories, but I wanted to expand it to a modern novel format. I did not want it to be “historical” in the sense that the characters come close to big events of world history but that the people feel the waves of big European events and the changes coming from the world outside. Thus, it is an extension of an old Norwegian storytelling tradition, but, first and foremost, I wanted it also to be an honest good read about the dreams and desires and sufferings of young people some 140 years ago—in a story grand enough for a trilogy.
CFM: Why did you decide to give one of the characters, Klara Mytting, your surname? You dedicated the book to your mother. Was her name Klara?
LM: No, Klara Mytting never lived, but she is inspired by a story that my grandmother told me. Klara is perhaps the character that gets the most horrifying fate in the novel. She freezes to death during a sermon in the old church, and, when they are to bury her, the ground is frozen, so the funeral is postponed until spring. Just to heighten the drama and fulfill the somewhat crazy, tragicomic potential of that event, I gave her my own surname to add curiosity and an eerie feeling whether it happened or not.
Another reason is that, throughout the book, I use actual surnames and farm names from my home village to add authenticity, and I wanted to share the burden by using our own surname for the strangest character of them all. If not, I would have been beaten up at the next local party, I guess!
CFM: Could you give us a hint of what your readers can expect in Book Two of the trilogy? I realize that you must be careful not to give away any of the important plot lines in Book One.
LM: Book Two will start some 20 years later, and we meet the next generation of the family as well as a character that will be important throughout the trilogy. (Yes, he will grow very old.) The village sees modern times coming—the telephone, the railroad, airplanes, and mechanical farming equipment. Still, this book tells the story of perhaps even harder struggles—of homesteading and women’s liberation.
Also, the quest to understand an age-old mystery outlined in Book One continues. It will read as a single novel like Book One, but there are elements whose full consequences cannot surface before Book Three, when we meet the third generation of the family. It will be a bit of a wait for readers, but that sense of revisiting the place when you finally get to the next volume has a quality of its own, and such grand circles of events can only be achieved in a trilogy or in a similar large format.
CFM: Thank you very much for agreeing to this interview and for your very interesting and informative answers.
This article originally appeared in the July 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.