MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:
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Think of Norwegian author Per Petterson as the anti-Stieg Larsson. They may both be Scandinavian, but Petterson's books are as quiet and contemplative as Larsson's are violent and action-packed. Petterson's last book, "Out Stealing Horses," was a surprise hit in the U.S. In his new novel, titled "I Curse the River of Time," Petterson explores the thorny relationship between a mother and son.
NPR's Lynn Neary spoke with him about the book.
LYNN NEARY: Per Petterson's own mother died tragically in a ferry boat accident that also killed his father, a brother and a nephew. It was a devastating event, but some time afterwards Petterson realized his mother's death freed him to write fiction based on her life. He says he never would have done so when she was alive because...
Mr. PER PETTERSON (Author, "I Curse the River of Time"): Everybody would have thought it was about her, even she would. And she would be mad at me.
(Soundbite of laughter)
NEARY: Petterson's nervous laughter seems well-founded, if indeed his fictional creation is anything like his own mother. This character is not the kind of person who suffers fools gladly, and her son Arvid seems determined to play the fool. As the novel begins, Arvid's marriage is ending just as his mother learns that she is dying of cancer. She wants nothing more than to be alone and so heads out to the family's summer cottage in Denmark.
Arvid, obsessed with his own problems, follows her, determined to repair their broken relationship. The year is 1989, in the days just before the fall of Communism in Europe. Petterson says he chose that time because it was the year before his own mother died.
Mr. PETTERSON: So I thought that was - it's a sort of crucial year for myself. That's why I chose it. And suddenly I realized this is big politics, because 1989 was a very, very important year in Europe. Because, you know, the Wall fell, the Soviet Union was crumbling, and so many things happened. In 15 minutes the world was changed.
NEARY: The fall of communism has a special significance for Arvid, because as a young man he became a communist and dropped out of college to work in a factory; this despite the fact that he was raised by working class parents. It was this decision that caused the rift between Arvid and his mother.
Mr. PETTERSON: It's not because he was a communist, really, or a Maoist. It was because he left school to go to be - and work in a factory (unintelligible) reasons. Whereas, hey, your family is a working family, everybody is working class here. The point is, you should not be, because you are our son. We have worked for so you can to college and get an education. And he says, I think I'll be a worker like you. And that's an insult.
So I think that's the clash. He is really insulting his mother and everything she has sort of hoped for.
NEARY: Arvid tells his mother of his decision in a cafe and her first response is to slap him. Petterson picks up the scene from there.
Mr. PETTERSON: I stared down at the table. I stared at the counter. From the corner of my eye I saw my mother stand up from her chair. The room was completely silent, only the hum from the soft ice machine could be heard. And the lady with a tray froze halfway to our table before she came all the way over, carefully put down the tray and vanished. And then I remembered the hundred krone note. I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out the well-folded note. Here, I said, I guess you want this back. I felt the other cheek beginning to glow. I looked up. She stood with her coat over her arm. Her face was pale and her eyes were moist. You idiot, she said. And then she left.
NEARY: Arvid's hoped-for connection with his mother seems constantly beyond his reach. As he pursues her in the present, he is overtaken by memories of the past.
Petterson draws the reader in with his spare, eloquent use of language. Its rhythms force the reader to slow down, to pay attention. Petterson says his books are never driven by plot.
Mr. PETTERSON: Making sentences is what I do. I mean the story will come as I write. When you are a sentence-based writer, they have to be good. They have to be really on the spot. Because when you don't have a plot, really, what shall you rely on? Just language. And sometimes I am so afraid of writing the wrong thing, I just sit and wait for the right thing to come.
NEARY: Petterson remembers when he was writing "Out Stealing Horses," he got to the last chapter and everything just stopped.
Mr. PETTERSON: And I was really looking forward to it because this was downhill. Ah, it's soon over and I really wanted to cherish the moment in a way. But I was so afraid of starting on the wrong foot. I think I waited for two months.
NEARY: So what did you do in the meantime?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PETTERSON: I went to work 6:00 each morning, waiting. And nothing happens, you leave 10:00. When something happens, you leave at 2:00.
NEARY: Petterson was surprised and grateful that "Out Stealing Horses" did so well in this country. And though his writing is nothing like Stieg Larsson's, the phenomenally successful author of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo" series, he knows that the popularity of those books has created an interest in other Scandinavian writers.
Mr. PETTERSON: We have Stieg Larsson all over the place. We have him in Scandinavia and Europe too, so Stieg Larsson is Stieg Larsson. I think this is something different, but it may be that publishers look to Norway or Sweden or Denmark perhaps, because of that. It's a good moment for us. It is. I mean Norwegian literature as such is rather strong now, stronger than it's been for a long time.
NEARY: Petterson is happy to leave crime novels to others. I write about families, he says; that is who we are.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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