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.