Per Petterson does not map out his novels in advance, the Norwegian author told a crowd at Macalester College on Tuesday night. Nor does he work with drafts. He writes slowly and straightforwardly, sentence by sentence, trusting his hard work to lead him to the next sentence, the next idea. He does not know what's going to happen in the end; he often does not know what's going to happen on the next page. "I trust my subconscious," he said.
If you've read his novels --- "Out Stealing Horses," for instance, winner of the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, or his new one, "I Refuse," published this month by Graywolf Press --- you will have noticed his gorgeous complicated prose, "run-on sentences, tripping over their own dropped clauses, pricked with intermittence, properly punctuated but curiously unpunctual," as James Wood said in the New Yorker.
Petterson said that he works hard on these sentences, works on the rhythm and the meaning. Maybe the sentence ends with a two-syllable word and it really needs three syllables, so he digs around in his brain and finds the right three-syllable word, but that word has a slightly different meaning than the two syllable word, so then he has to go back and rework the rest of the sentence. And when it's done, when it's right, he moves on.
Even a complex novel like "I Refuse," a beautifully braided story that alternates between two time periods (the 1970s, and present day) and two main narrators (but there is a third narrator, and, twice, a third time period), and between first person and third person--even that book, he says, he wrote straight through. He did not map it, did not cut it into pieces and move sections around. Except for one section--he moved one of the sections about the protagonist's mother. "And it felt like cheating," he said. He doesn't normally write that way.
"Out Stealing Horses," also published in the United States by Graywolf, was a world-wide best seller, translated into 50 languages. Petterson admitted to being difficult to work with when it comes to translation. The English version, in particular, was important to him. "I love the English language," he said, and he used to work in translation himself. So once the translator was done, Petterson jumped in, rewriting, changing, working with his editor via Skype. Where was the translator during this? He is over here somewhere, he said, waving his hand to indicate, well, Siberia, maybe, or the boonies.
(When it comes to working on translations, Petterson said in an interview last year with writer Tasja Dorkofikis, "I guess I am a little more than average involved.")
The title of "Out Stealing Horses" was originally translated as, "Out to Steal Horses," which Petterson could not live with. It was wrong, he said. "What does that mean, Out to Steal Horses? Nothing, it means nothing," he said. No worries. He fixed it.
So what of the 49 other translations? The two Chinese-language editions, the Italian, the Spanish? Did he worry about the quality of those translations too? "Of course," he said. But he can only do so much.
An audience member, noting the lyricism of Petterson's prose, asked him if he also wrote poetry. "No," Petterson said. "I read a lot of poetry. All fiction writers should, I think. What I have of poetry in me goes into the prose."
When he began writing "I Refuse," he had the opening scene--a well-known bridge in Oslo---and he had a character: an unhappy man who had lost nearly everything and who had come to the bridge to fish.
What would happen next? Petterson had no idea. He trusted his subconscious, he said. And sure enough, along the bridge came a big fancy car and a rich man in a purple coat. Who was the man? Petterson let his subconscious figure that out. For his part, he just kept writing, one sentence at a time.
The shortlists for the PEN Literary Awards were announced today, and there's Graywolf Press (Leslie Jamison and Claudia Rankine) as well as books published by other small presses--a growing force in the world of publishing. Tin House, Sarabande, Princeton University Press, Soho.
The winners will be announced May 13, with an awards ceremony in June.
Here are the lists, with links to Star Tribune reviews when available.
PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction ($25,000): To an author whose debut work—a first novel or collection of short stories published in 2014—represents distinguished literary achievement and suggests great promise.
The UnAmericans (W. W. Norton & Company), Molly Antopol
Ruby (Hogarth), Cynthia Bond
Redeployment (Penguin Press), Phil Klay
The Dog (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), Jack Livings
Love Me Back (Doubleday), Merritt Tierce
PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay ($10,000): For a book of essays published in 2014 that exemplifies the dignity and esteem that the essay form imparts to literature.
Moral Imagination (Princeton University Press), David Bromwich
Theater of Cruelty (New York Review Books), Ian Buruma
Loitering (Tin House Books), Charles D’Ambrosio
The Empathy Exams (Graywolf Press), Leslie Jamison
Limber (Sarabande Books), Angela Pelster
PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award ($10,000): For a book of literary nonfiction on the subject of the physical or biological sciences published in 2014.
War of the Whales (Simon & Schuster), Joshua Horwitz
How We Got to Now (Riverhead Books), Steven Johnson
The Sixth Extinction (Henry Holt and Co.), Elizabeth Kolbert
The Age of Radiance (Scribner), Craig Nelson
Proof (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), Adam Rogers
PEN/John Kenneth Galbraith Award for Nonfiction ($10,000): To an author of a distinguished book of general nonfiction possessing notable literary merit and critical perspective and illuminating important contemporary issues which has been published in 2013 or 2014.
Our Declaration (Liveright), Danielle Allen
League of Denial (Crown Archetype), Mark Fainaru-Wada and Steve Fainaru
Five Days at Memorial (Crown), Sheri Fink
The Big Truck That Went By (Palgrave Macmillan), Jonathan M. Katz
This Changes Everything (Simon & Schuster), Naomi Klein
PEN Open Book Award ($5,000): For an exceptional book-length work of literature by an author of color published in 2014.
An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press), Rabih Alameddine
Every Day Is for the Thief (Random House), Teju Cole
An Untamed State (Black Cat/ Grove Atlantic), Roxane Gay
Citizen (Graywolf Press), Claudia Rankine
The City Son (Soho Press), Samrat Upadhyay
PEN/Jacqueline Bograd Weld Award for Biography ($5,000): For a distinguished biography published in 2014.
Rebel Yell (Scribner), S. C. Gwynne
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace (Scribner), Jeff Hobbs
Strange Glory (Alfred A. Knopf), Charles Marsh
The Queen's Bed (Sarah Crichton Books), Anna Whitelock
Piero's Light (Pegasus Books), Larry Witham
PEN/ESPN Award for Literary Sports Writing ($5,000): To honor a nonfiction book on the subject of sports published in 2014.
Boy on Ice (W. W. Norton & Company), John Branch
Black Noon (Thomas Dunne Books), Art Garner
All Fishermen are Liars (Simon & Schuster), John Gierach
Ping-Pong Diplomacy (Scribner), Nicholas Griffin
Deep (Eamon Dolan Books), James Nestor
PEN Award for Poetry in Translation ($3,000): For a book-length translation of poetry into English published in 2014.
Sorrowtoothpaste Mirrorcream by Kim Hyesoon (Action Books), translated from the Korean by Don Mee Choi
I Am the Beggar of the World (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), translated from the Pashto by Eliza Griswold
Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Juana Inés de la Cruz (W. W. Norton & Company), translated from the Spanish by Edith Grossman
Breathturn into Timestead by Paul Celan (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), translated from the German by Pierre Joris
Guantanamo by Frank Smith (Les Figues Press), translated from the Spanish by Vanessa Place
PEN Translation Prize ($3,000): For a book-length translation of prose into English published in 2014.
The Gray Notebook by Josep Pla (New York Review Books), translated from the Catalan by Peter Bush
The Symmetry Teacher by Andrei Bitov (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), translated from the Russian by Polly Gannon
Baboon by Naja Marie Aidt (Two Lines Press), translated from the Danish by Denise Newman
Texas: The Great Theft by Carmen Boullosa (Deep Vellum Publishing), translated from the Spanish by Samantha Schnee
Self-Portrait in Green by Marie NDiaye (Two Lines Press), translated from the French by Jordan Stump
The five finalists for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction were announced today. The winner will be named on May 2. Among the finalists are Jeffery Renard Allen, whose novel, "Song of the Shank," was published by Graywolf Press of Minneapolis.
Here's the list:
Jeffery Renard Allen, "Song of the Shank."
Jennifer Clement, "Prayers for the Stolen."
Atticus Lish, "Preparation for the Next Life."
Emily St. John Mandel, "Station Eleven."
Jenny Offill, "Department of Speculation."
The finalists for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize were announced today, and the list includes several books published by Minnesota publishers. Graywolf is represented in poetry (not surprising); Lerner Publications' Carolrhoda Lab imprint in young-adult (ditto); Uncivilized Books in Graphic Novels and Comics (ditto, given that they were a finalist last year, too) and Milkweed and Coffee House Press in fiction (ditto ditto ditto).
Here's the list, with links to our reviews when available. Winenrs will be announced on April 18:
Adam Begley, Updike, HarperCollins
Robert M. Dowling, Eugene O’Neill: A Life in Four Acts, Yale University Press
Kirstin Downey, Isabella: The Warrior Queen, Nan A. Talese/Doubleday
Stephen Kotkin, Stalin: Volume 1 – Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928, The Penguin Press
Andrew Roberts, Napoleon: A Life, Viking
Atul Gawande, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Metropolitan Books
Jeff Hobbs, The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League, Scribner
Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, Spiegel & Grau
Matt Taibbi, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, Spiegel & Grau
Héctor Tobar, Deep Down Dark: The Untold Stories of 33 Men Buried in a Chilean Mine, and the Miracle That Set Them Free, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Donald Antrim, The Emerald Light in the Air: Stories, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Jesse Ball, Silence Once Begun, Pantheon
Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World, Simon & Schuster
Jenny Offill, Dept. of Speculation, Knopf
Helen Oyeyemi, Boy, Snow, Bird, Riverhead
THE ART SEIDENBAUM AWARD FOR FIRST FICTION
Diane Cook, Man V. Nature: Stories, HarperCollins
John Darnielle, Wolf in White Van, Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Valeria Luiselli, Christina Macsweeney (Translator), Faces in the Crowd, Coffee House Press
Eimear McBride, A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, Coffee House Press
David James Poissant, The Heaven of Animals: Stories, Simon & Schuster
Roz Chast, Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? A Memoir, Bloomsbury
Jaime Hernandez, The Love Bunglers, Fantagraphics
Mana Neyestani, An Iranian Metamorphosis, Uncivilized Books
Olivier Schrauwen, Arsène Schrauwen, Fantagraphics
Mariko Tamaki (Author), Jillian Tamaki (Illustrator), This One Summer, First Second
Judith Flanders, The Victorian City: Everyday Life in Dickens’ London, Thomas Dunne Books
Mark Harris, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, The Penguin Press
Walter Isaacson, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution , Simon & Schuster
Adam Tooze, The Deluge: The Great War, America and the Remaking of the Global Order, 1916-1931, Viking
Lawrence Wright, Thirteen Days in September: Carter, Begin, and Sadat at Camp David, Knopf
Tom Bouman, Dry Bones in the Valley, W. W. Norton & Company
Peter Heller, The Painter, Knopf
Laura Lippman, After I’m Gone, William Morrow
Shawn Lawrence Otto, Sins of Our Fathers , Milkweed Editions
Peter Swanson, The Girl With a Clock for a Heart, William Morrow
Gillian Conoley, Peace, Omnidawn
Katie Ford, Blood Lyrics: Poems, Graywolf Press
Peter Gizzi, In Defense of Nothing: Selected Poems, 1987-2011 , Wesleyan University Press
Fred Moten, The Feel Trio, Letter Machine Editions
Claudia Rankine, Citizen: An American Lyric, Graywolf Press
SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
Michael Benson, Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time, Abrams
Martin J. Blaser, MD, Missing Microbes, How the overuse of antibiotics is fueling our modern plagues, Henry Holt and Co.
Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate, Simon & Schuster
Elizabeth Kolbert, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Henry Holt and Co.
Christian Rudder, Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One’s Looking), Crown Publishers
YOUNG ADULT LITERATURE
Paul Fleischman, Eyes Wide Open: Going Behind the Environmental Headlines, Candlewick
Candace Fleming, The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion, and the Fall of Imperial Russia , Schwartz & Wade/Random House Children’s
E.K. Johnston, The Story of Owen: Dragon Slayer of Trondheim , Carolrhoda Lab/Lerner Publishing
Andrew Smith, Grasshopper Jungle, Dutton Children’s Books
Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming, Nancy Paulsen Books
The crush of people started early: in the foyer of Open Book, through the lobby, up the famous winding staircase to the second floor. Graywolf Press folks hustled past the line, privileged, no need to wait--they were the publishers, after all, of the evening's poet, and they had a lot to do.
"I feel like I'm at a rock concert," one young woman said as the crowd inched up the stairs.
And she wasn't far wrong; poet Claudia Rankine is a literary rock star. Her newest collection, "Citizen: An American Lyric," was a finalist for a National Book Award and is a finalist in two categories (poetry, and criticism) for a National Book Critics Circle award.
Rankine, who teaches at Pomona College, was in Minneapolis on Friday night after spending most of the week at the College of St. Benedict in Collegeville, doing readings and talking to students.
The performance hall at the Loft was at capacity (about 200 people); three overflow rooms held a couple hundred more, hooked up by video and not always reliable audio. Macalester College professor Marlon James, author of "A Brief History of Seven Killings," introduced Rankine.
"I can't tell you how quickly I responded to that e-mail that said did I want to introduce Claudia Rankine," James said, chuckling, calling himself one of her biggest fanboys. "Even at its most boldly confrontational, 'Citizen' grabs us with its big heart. It's the pre-Ferguson book that feels post."
Rankine, quiet, thoughtful, measured, talked about the beginnings of her book. "I went to friends and asked them, 'Will you tell me a story where race entered the room?'" she said. They did, and she listened. These stories found their way into the first section of "Citizen," story after story, written in the second person the more to involve the reader, written plainly and nearly without emotion, but story after story, one building on another to devastating effect.
A friend ("you" in the piece) went to her first therapy appointment at the therapist's house, and the therapist screamed at her to get out of her yard.
Rankine ("you" in the piece) asked a friend to babysit while she went to the movies. On her way home she got a call from a neighbor, warning her about a "menacing black guy" in front of her house, casing the joint. Don't worry, the neighbor says; he's already called the police.
And when the menacing black guy turned out to be Rankine's friend who had stepped outside to make a phone call while babysitting her children, she suggests to the man that in future, he stay in the back yard. "He looks at you a long minute before saying he can speak on the phone wherever he wants. Yes, of course, you say. Yes, of course."
The crowd at the Loft was perfectly silent as she read this piece, and then Rankine looked up and said, "That's the tortuorous and complicated and sick thing about racism. I want to protect you from my neighbor, and my way of protecting you is to curtail your rights. It's insidious."
For another part of "Citizen," Rankine asked her friend Rupert, an attorney in Los Angeles, to tell her about the times he had been pulled over by the cops. Rupert and his wife came over to Rankine's house, and "one of the things that surprised me was that she had never heard any of his stories," she said. "And as he told them I could see him getting angrier and angrier."
She read some of Rupert's stories in her quiet, strong voice: "Get on the ground. Get on the ground now. I must have been speeding. No, you weren't speeding. I wasn't speeding? You didn't do anything wrong. Then why are you pulling me over? Why am I pulled over? Put your hands where they can be seen. Put your hands in the air. Put your hands up."
After the reading, the audience questions came slowly at first, as though everyone needed some time to absorb the words they had just heard. One man had no question but merely wanted to thank her for reminding him that he is not alone.
A woman asked about Rankine's emotions as she was writing the book. "There were things that distressed me," Rankine said. "The piece about the therapist really shocked me." But when she was writing, she was concentrating more on the language than the feelings behind them. "Sometimes it takes weeks to figure out the right order of the words, or the words themselves," she said.
A teacher asked how to respond to white students who read "Citizen" and feel defensive. Rankine suggested that defensiveness is only one way a person can respond, and that the teacher might consider asking her students to look for other ways, too.
"We are all struggling around this," she said. "The only chance we have is engagement."
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