When a Danish colleague claimed about ten years ago that he thought I’d make a good short story writer, I shook my head and went: No way! But he insisted, and said that there was something in the precision and the forcefulness of the way that I spoke that might match the short form perfectly. I repeated: No way!
My resistance had its origin in fear and lack of experience, I guess. I was afraid that I wasn’t a good enough writer, and I considered the short story the hardest form of them all. Why? Well, because you can’t screw up in a short story. You must be aware of what you’re doing every second. Almost each sentence has to have the ability to build a character and burn down a village – and make it look easy. Only writers with a certain talent for precision master that, and I was afraid to fail.
I published my first novel, a long one, right after I finished university. I had studied Swedish literature, and my thesis was on the writer Kerstin Ekman. She writes big existential novels and Swedish literary history is full of writers like her. Selma Lagerlöf is another heroine of mine. I found them courageous. They were like Ingmar Bergman: unafraid of the material you find when you dig deep into the soul, and always exploring the more painful and unseen realms of civilisation. These writers taught me how to write. Or they gave me the courage to try, and because they wrote big books I thought I should write big books too.
Then came this Danish writer who claimed that I would marvel in a short form. No way! Forget it I frowned.
Unlike our beloved siblings in Sweden, we Danes don’t have a particular wish to dig deep into the darkness of humanity. Oh yes, we might murder a few people in a Nordic Noir TV show, but in literature we’re more into irony and style. On top of that the Danish language is cursed – or perhaps blessed – with a lack of words. Compared to, for instance, English, we only have about half the words to do something good with. That calls for creativity. Some words mean a number of different things. The meaning of the word depends on its context. I’m told that the Swedes envy us for the way we have to make ends meet. It forces us to be playful with our language.
So here’s the deal: the Swedes have that big, fearless, existential approach to literature. The Danes have an elastic, playful, anarchistic and ironic way of using language. And here was this dude telling me – the closet Swede – that I should make use of the strengths of my own language.
I said: No way! Never!
But then I heard of a short story contest. There was money in it and I needed money. So I wrote a story. It didn’t win, no. But it got a second prize and a lot of praise, and even though I was still struggling with writing fat books, the fear of the short form started to let go. In 2008 I wrote the story collection Karate Chop. Writing it was wonderful, because I finally got it! The material was deep, dark and Swedish. But the language and the style were Danish. I finally understood how I could combine the big epic with an aesthetic form closer to home. It’s a kind of minimalism under attack from within by something bigger, and I think I know what it is: it’s a Swede expressing herself as a Dane, or a Dane exploring Swedish material.
On second thought: my professors at the university literary department always stressed that we should NEVER believe what a writer had to say about his or her own work. Writers were not to be trusted.
So maybe I’m not to be trusted.
I know this, though: since writing Karate Chop I have written two very tight novellas – the newest of them being Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. It’s a book about a composer who has lost her voice (and her rehearsal space). I wrote it using only headlines – yep, only headlines. Karate Chop and Minna Needs Rehearsal Space have been translated into other languages, and they have given me an international name for the short form. And yes, I know. I ought to call that writer who claimed I would be good at it. I ought to tell him: Sorry I frowned. You were right.
Readers in the UK can buy the book from Foyles.