An Interview with Thomas Enger

copyright Ingrid Basso
copyright Ingrid Basso

You were writing for 15 years before publishing your first novel. Tell me about some of your earliest writing.

A lot of people ask me how it started for me. The honest answer is: I don’t know. Or rather: I don’t recall specifically, I just know that it was a long time ago, and that it started somewhere around the age of 16-17-18.

One thing I do recall, however, was a school assignment where we were asked to write about a dream. Yeah, I know, very original. In any case, and for some strange reason, I had dreamt that I was playing a part in the Michael Jackson movie Moonwalker. I don’t remember anything about the movie now, except that big mouth banging up and down to the rhythm of ”Leave me alone,” and I don’t even recall what the heck I was doing in the movie in the first place. But I do remember, vividly, the feeling I experienced as I was retelling that story in writing. I was excited. My hand (these were in the days of the pencil) couldn’t write quickly enough. Maybe that’s where the first spark was ignited, I don’t know.

It took me a while to build the courage to write something outside school assignments, and I have to admit, it began rather childishly. This was long before the days of Facebook and e-mail, and while I was in the military service for about a year, I was trying to stay in touch with my best friend from school through letters. In those letters we wrote stories about each other in various humiliating circumstances that involved girls, all fictional of course, and yes, it contained a certain sexual content. In them I was always the Super Stallion Sex God, and my friend was forever getting the short end of the stick, and vice versa when he wrote me. Yes, it was lame, but God, that was fun. And yes, we’re still the best of friends, would you believe it.

But the serious writing started when I was about 20 years old. I had been thinking about trying for some time, but the kick in the butt (or in the groin, depending on how you look at it) came after this all-consuming relationship with my first true love ended in shatters (she cheated on me). I was heartbroken and depressed out of my mind, and for a long period of time I needed a reason to get out of bed. One day I just sat down, or up, and started writing.

In retrospect I made all the rookie mistakes you can possibly think of in that book. The story was about a woman in her forties living in New York with a husband that she would soon discover was keeping deadly secrets from her. My goal was first and foremost to see if I could finish the story, write something that consisted of 200 pages, not four — as we used to in school. But of course, I didn’t know anything about New York (I had never been there), and I wasn’t a woman in her forties either. Needless to say it was difficult even for me to believe what I was writing.

But I somehow managed to complete the task and goal I had set for myself, and even though my heart didn’t quite heal during that process, it made me realize how much I loved to write. I loved creating characters, plots, plot devices, twists, dramatic scenes, and I submitted the book to various publishers in Norway, and I even got a decent response from a few of them. So I knew that I wasn’t too far off. It encouraged me to continue writing.

In 1995 I moved to Stavanger, Norway, to study journalism, and there I made another attempt at writing a novel. It was about a man living in Stavanger (yeah, original) who got beat up while standing in a junk food line late one night and, by a stroke of bad luck, got paralyzed from the neck down. The book was mainly about his recovery, the journey from absolute devastation to a glimpse of hope for the future (some smart ass with a degree in psychology would probably submit that I might have been writing a little bit about my broken heart again), and, contrary to what the topic might suggest, I had a blast writing it. I tried to put as much humor into this unfortunate young man’s head as I could, as a way of dealing with the tragedy, and I think it worked pretty good. But, as one editor told me after reading it, if you want to know whether or not my main character finds that glimmer of hope or not, all you have to that is go to the last page, and there your answer would be. He was right, of course, even though, for me, it was the journey to that point that made the book, not its conclusion.

Anyway, and once again, the process of writing that book, however naive it was, made me realize even more how badly I wanted to become a writer. So I went about looking for more stories to tell, and when I moved back to Oslo another one came to mind. It was about a young boy who got kidnapped by a religious mad man, and it was, by far, the best thing I had written up until that point. I could tell. I submitted it once again to different publishers in Norway, and one of them (Cappelen Damm) thought it was really good. It just needed some rewriting.

I was hugely encouraged, of course, by such a response, and I tried very hard to get my head around how I needed to tell the story. Over the course of the next two and a half years I rewrote it four times, and each time I got the same reply. “Thomas, this is good, but…”

So I needed to put that story away for a while, I was just too exhausted. In the mean time I had gotten a job as a journalist, and I figured I needed to focus on that for a while.

The need to write something for myself, however, stayed with me, and when I got this idea for a young adult novel back in 2003, I decided to give it another go. At that point I hadn’t written anything for about two years, and it was like removing a lid from the top of a kettle that was boiling ferociously underneath. The pages just flew out of me, it was so much fun, and I realized how badly I had missed writing.

The story needed some rewriting as well, but I was confident that the story was so good that I just needed to keep on going, then eventually it would turn into a novel and my dream would come true. So firm was my belief that I actually quit my job in order to pursue that dream.

But, sadly, it didn’t amount to anything that time around either. I remember getting that e-mail (yes, we’re in the day and age of the e-mails now) from Aschehoug, one of the other big publishers in Norway, telling me that ”Thomas, this is really good, but it just isn’t good enough for us.”

I was heartbroken and deeply discouraged. Four novels. None of which had made it past the threshold into the wonderful world of literature. Not to mention the fact that I had given up my job in order to pursue this selfish dream of mine. By that time I had become a father. How was I going to support my kids now?

I applied for jobs, didn’t get them. The financial reserves I had saved up were rapidly vanishing. But, I guess, there really is something about that ”necessity is the mother of invention” proverb, because it was at that moment in time, when things really couldn’t be worse, the idea for this brand new character popped into my head and I instantly knew that this was such a strong character that I couldn’t let him be. I had to write him.

One of the reasons I actually did write him, despite being broke, was something the editor at Aschehoug said to me in that letter of rejection. She said: ”Thomas, I can tell that you can write. It’s just a matter of not stopping.”

So what I did, even though I didn’t have a job and a steady income, was to sit down and analyze what I had done wrong over those 15 years of trying, and I quickly learned three truths.

  1. I had written stories about people I didn’t know.
  2. They were set in cities I had never been to. And
  3. After I got my ideas, I had simply started writing, I hadn’t planned or outlined what I was going to write.

So I decided to write about someone I knew (me, although Henning Juul isn’t ALL me). I put him in a city I had lived in for many years (Oslo), and I spent quite a long time thinking about him and trying to figure out what his story was. Then I started to write.

And here we are. Five novels later.

Man am I glad I listened to that editor.

covers

So, evidently, behind your calm Norwegian exterior there is clearly a tremendous reserve of good old-fashioned stubborn. What did you think of your own tenacity at the time? After all, it can lead a person to great success. However, it can lead to destruction and madness.  

I have always been quite competitive. From very early on when I was playing soccer we were always taught to fight till the bitter end, no matter what. I think that mentality has stayed with me ever since, and I have never been afraid of thinking big, of setting huge goals for myself. For instance, I’ve been working on a musical for about 15 years now, and it still isn’t finished. Talk about stubborn…

I knew it was going to be difficult to write a novel, let alone get it published, so it wasn’t something I really expected to happen, at least not early on. Don’t get me wrong, I wanted it and thought, with each submission, that this time it is going to work. I guess if you want something really bad, then you have to be willing to fight for it. It sounds simple, but there really isn’t any other way.

During those 15 years of trying there certainly were moments of doubt. I remember taking quite a few long, hard looks at myself in the mirror, thinking: Maybe this isn’t for you, Thomas. Maybe you just aren’t good enough.

I have to admit, I’ve always been drawn to the darkness a little bit. I’m probably most content when I’m feeling a little bit down, when I can succumb to melancholy and listen to sad music all day long. Even now I still get those moments. But I guess I wanted this so badly that I simply couldn’t let go of it. Besides, I knew that I was getting closer with each attempt, and it was with writing as it was when I was playing soccer. I knew I just had to practice more. A boxer once said: “If you get knocked down seven times, you get up eight.” I couldn’t agree more.

And now, after having accomplished my dream goal, what’s next you might ask. Well, the answer is simple. I want to write better novels. And finishing that damn musical of mine, of course…

Interesting phrase there, “it was with writing as it was when I was playing soccer.” What indicated real progress in soccer, and what indicated it in writing? 

Mainly that I was plucking away and practicing really hard, and then the results inevitably followed. In soccer it had a lot to do with aging and experience, just realizing what I needed to do in this or that situation, but I think this also applies to writing. You learn from your mistakes, you gain experience from trying, from getting feedback from your readers or your coaches, and if you are smart enough to listen to those who know better, or at least are supposed to, then you stand a better chance of reaching your goals. Wow, that sounded a lot like life coaching. Good to know I have something to fall back on.

Anyway, when it comes to writing you need something to write about before you can sit down and actually write. You have to live a little. You need to experience things such as love and loss, you need to go places in order to open your eyes to other ways of life, you need to read and read and read if you want to find out what makes a good book. And then you have to go back to the basics, which is practicing, trying to implement the bits and pieces you pick up along the way.

For me becoming a father played a huge part in the improvement of my writing, not only because I am writing about a man who has lost his child, but also because fatherhood, to say it a bit pompously, has provided me with a lot more clarity and attentiveness to all kinds of things around me.

Before I was chasing girls and having fun and playing soccer and trying to chase this other dream I had about becoming an author. I didn’t pay close attention to trees and forests and clouds and the tastes and the smells of everything. I see and feel a lot more than I used to, I am more focused on being a good father, a good husband and a good human being who is nice to his friends and the world around him. The things that really matter. And because of that I also think that I have become a better writer.

Let’s talk about that reading-to-writing relationship. Most writers say that they are also readers and you’re not the first to say that writers need to read. But readers are readers too, and that doesn’t make them writers. In fact, since entering the publishing universe myself I’ve met people — agents, editors, reviews, booksellers — who have already read more books than I probably ever will. As a writer, how did your experience of being a reader actually impact and affect your writing?

Once I understood, for real, that writing was something I wanted to do for the rest of my life, I started to read differently. I went about it a lot more analytically than I had done before, searching for clues and techniques, trying to figure out what my favorite authors did and what made their books so thrilling and intriguing. How they built their characters, how they built their stories, how they ended them (cliffhangers, no cliffhangers?) and so forth.

I did read books just for the fun of it as well, but even today I’m still searching for ways to improve my writing. So I read a lot to get inspired. And I still haven’t found the perfect way to go about writing a novel. I’m starting to believe there isn’t one, that it’s just a matter of finding the right way to write the novel you are currently writing.

What writing has inspired you? 

Oh, a lot, I don’t even know where to begin. As I write crime fiction I think I have to mention Henning Mankell as the one that really got me hooked into the genre back in the day. I remember reading a novel of his on the plane from London to Mexico City, and I didn’t want the plane to land. I’m not talking about the actual writing here, I don’t remember the prose as particularly brilliant, but the plot certainly was. Those cliffhangers. Oh, man.

As I grew older and got more and more preoccupied with the actual writing, searching for techniques and ways of building characters and stories, my focus shifted more towards non-Scandinavian authors such as John Irving, Dennis Lehane, Linwood Barclay, Harlan Coben – to name but a few. Nowadays I have found myself deeply impressed by Gillian Flynn and John Hart, but I’m also going searching for authors outside of the crime genre. I recently read a Kurt Vonnegut novel (my first), and I loved his prose. Sebastian Barry, who I met in Edinburgh, is also a brilliant storyteller. Neil Gaiman. Oh my God. I could go on and on. Hemingway. Per Petterson. Somebody please stop me.

Let’s turn back to something you mentioned earlier in passing, namely the musical you’ve been writing for fifteen years. Before getting into the details of that, I’d like you to introduce us to what role making music plays in your life.

First of all, music in itself is very important to me. I listen to music all the time, even when I’m writing. It’s such a big part of my DNA, and to be able to write a piece of music myself makes my connection to it even stronger. It’s just the greatest feeling in the world to listen to something I have written, especially if I’m liking it.

After I quit my job back in 2008 I was going as much for my music as I was for my writing. I made contact with all kinds of people in the music business, sent them tapes, told them I could do scores for short films for free, just to get something to show for. But once I got published as an author my books kind of took control over me. I didn’t and couldn’t spend that much time making music when I all of a sudden had novels to write. That’s why I haven’t done that a lot over the last four-five years, but I do miss it. A lot.

I know it’s stupid of me to say this after five novels, since I don’t have a single album, radio hit or a score for a block buster movie to my name, but I actually think that I have a stronger talent for making music than writing novels. Music comes more naturally to me, it’s more instinct, whereas writing is more about the craft and putting in the hours; It takes so much more effort. I can easily write a musical theme in ten minutes, or at least have a draft for it. And who knows, maybe in time I will get to finish that musical of mine or get a phone call from Steven saying ”Hey, Thomas. John Williams isn’t available for me this time around. You up for it?”

In English we use the same term — writing — for composing a piece of music and composing a story in words. Do you use the same word in Norwegian? And what do you make of that?

Yes, we use the same word, and to me it always feels a bit wrong or strange to say that I’m writing music, because I’m not doing any physical writing, I am simply playing my piano and thereby creating music. So to me creating is a better word for composing music. The term ”writing music” is probably a relic from the olden days when composers really did write their notes and scores with a pencil. Nowadays it’s all computerized. And thank God for that, because I don’t know how to read notes. It’s like a foreign language to me. I just play and compose by ear.

liveinberlin 

What were some of your biggest fears as a writer that, in retrospect, were holding you back from growing?

To be honest I don’t think I had any fears per se, at least not fears that were holding me back. I think I grew with each book I tried to write, and I also think that still applies five novels in. Now it’s more a fear of repeating myself, of writing something people have read before or, if you will, the fear of not growing. But I don’t think that holds me back in any way. Quite the opposite, in fact. The fact that I’m aware of it and conscious about it makes me push myself even harder, so that I can grow.

Casting your mind ahead to the future after you finish the current series, which is coming to an end, tell me what growing as a writer will mean to you?

I’m on a little quest here. My goal is to become a better author with each novel I write, and I think and hope I have achieved that so far. To me it means that I’m becoming more and more aware of the tools I have at my disposal and how I can use them to tell the story as best I can. I am nowhere near finished when it comes to learning, which is fine. It’s a constant process, and I don’t think there is such a thing as a perfect novel. But somewhere down the line I firmly believe that I will write something that will come damn close. Then I can die a happy man.

For the writer’s out there, can you be more specific? An example from my own writing — just to frame this — might help. My novels have generally been set over a period of a few days or few weeks at the most. I’m therefore interesting in exploring longer periods of time while maintaining dramatic tension. What’s on your list?

My series with Henning Juul is set over the course over one autumn, with a few glimpses into the past here and there, especially in the fifth and final installment. So to be able to write stories with a longer time span is definitely on my list as well.

I think I’m also going to write something that’s not crime fiction one day. I have a story in mind which is set in the Middle Ages, and while people die there as well, it’s not a crime mystery. So to be able to mix a historically-correct story with deep portraits of the people of that time is something I see as a great challenge and also an enormously time-consuming one. I hope I will be able to have the time and energy to explore that universe one day.

I have also written a few short stories over the last few years, and that is definitely something I would like to do more. It’s a great writing exercise. I have been commissioned to do two short stories for next year, and I would love to do a crime fiction short story compilation one day. Not to mention write a crime novel that consists of short stories, telling each character’s story and role in that novel in the form of a short story. That, I think, would be really cool.

I would love to do more books for children or young adults as well, and while I have a few ideas for the kids between the age of 12 and 18, I’m still waiting for the good stuff for the youngest ones to appear.

Enough banter. Here are the real questions:

Tell me three movies you’re embarrassed to admit that you like so much.

  1. Mamma Mia. It has such a good vibe to it. The scene where Meryl Streep is preparing her daughter on her wedding day almost tears me up every time. I guess I’m envisioning myself giving away my own daughter at some point in life – with all that implies. Pathetic, I know.
  1. Catwoman. For obvious reasons.
  1. Under Siege. I just love Steven Seagal. The scene where he, as an on board chef, beats the crap out of a bad guy in the kitchen, is just hilarious. “Nobody beats me in the kitchen”. Cracks me up every time. He’s also the best close encounter fighter in the movies. Not a single expression on his face even when he’s in grave danger.

Name one writer — living or dead — everyone says is brilliant but you simply cannot understand why. 

Paolo Coelho. Sorry, Mr. Coelho. I’m sure you’re a nice guy but I just don’t get you.

Tell us three young-adult stories (in English or Norwegian) you want people to know about and enjoy.

It’s impossible not to mention the Harry Potter series or the Hunger Games novels. Great stuff.

Here in Norway there is a beautiful story written by Marianne Kaurin which is called “Nærmere Høst.” In English it translates roughly into “Closer To Fall” or something like that. Magnificent story about Oslo in 1942 when the police one day knock on a Jewish family’s door and the 15 year old daughter, by chance, isn’t home. It’s a story about fear, sorrow and exhaustion, but also a story about love, courage and cohesion. A beautiful book.

Finally, what is the most annoying question you’re regularly asked as a crime writer and what’s the answer?

Ah, where should I begin…

Well, I think the question I get the most is “why is Scandinavian Crime Fiction so popular around the world these days?” The answer is: I don’t know. Except maybe … the books are good?

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