“Much More Joy”: Karl Ove Knausgaard on Writing Beyond the Struggle

The first time I met Karl Ove Knausgaard, it was in June 2014, while he was on book tour for the third volume of My Struggle. At the time, I was the events coordinator at a bookstore in Brooklyn. After the event, John Williams of the New York Times said that “people packed the entire space in a scene more reminiscent of the calm before an indie-rock storm than an author appearance.”

This time around, I met him in a calmer setting: for breakfast in the Salon at the Soho Grand Hotel. Knausgaard was in town to promote his new book, Autumn, the first in a seasonal series made up of pieces he wrote for his fourth child. “I want to show you our world as it is now: the door, the floor, the water tap and the sink, the garden chair close to the wall beneath the kitchen window, the sun, the water, the trees,” Knausgaard writes. “You will come to see it in your own way, you will experience things for yourself and live a life of your own, so of course it is primarily for my own sake that I am doing this: showing you the world, little one, makes my life worth living.”

In person, Knausgaard sported a brown leather jacket over a blue button-down shirt and a pair of jeans. He speaks softly, so I had to lean in to catch everything he said. I interviewed him for nearly an hour, and after we finished, the author excused himself so he could go smoke a cigarette. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation. –- Michele Filgate

The Barnes & Noble Review: Liesl Schillinger interviewed you in 2015 for the Wall Street Journal magazine, and in that profile you told her, “I’m not looking for something to write about, ever. If it is valuable, it will be inside of me, so I’ll write about it one day.” But I also know that part of the reason you started writing My Struggle was to deal with writer’s block, and often when an author is blocked it’s because they have run out of ideas. It sounds like the ideas are always there inside of you. You just don’t know what they are until you start writing.

Karl Ove Knausgaard: No, I don’t think writer’s block has anything to do with lack of ideas, at least that is not my experience. There is something else that is going on. I have never had ideas; I’ve never had an idea in my whole life as a writer. When I had ideas they never turn out and I can’t use them. So what I have to do is start to write no matter what, no matter, and the form will give itself in the end; the novel will give itself or the text will give itself. That is what I was meaning when I said it was inside. I mean, you could start to write about that glass of water and something will come, but it’s relevant, and then you will have that book or a text.

The thing is if you do that for a long time you start to repeat yourself and that’s my concern. I can’t write more text like that, and I can’t write more novels like My Struggle, I have to go somewhere else. So I have to find a way of moving away from what I’m writing, but still, I can’t escape myself . . .

BNR: I’m glad you brought up that glass of water. As I read Autumn, I was impressed by the variety of subjects that you meditate on, everything from Juicy Fruit gum to piss to Flaubert to lice. Is there any topic you consider off-limits or that you are bored by?

KOK: No. I had to push myself a little bit when I wrote about sex or sexual related things, but I had to. It’s part of life in the world. There is nothing I couldn’t write about, I think.

BNR: Did you always feel that way? Before you wrote My Struggle, for instance, did you feel more limited in what you could say about your own life on the page?

KOK: Yeah, that was some of the difficulty about writing, was that I had to confront some things I really didn’t think were good to write about. I’m talking about more moral or ethical things, that was very hard. But about myself, there were no limits.

BNR: Autumn is the first in a series of books of essays written for your youngest daughter, and I’m wondering why you decided to write books that are centered on the different seasons.

KOK: All of the parts of the book came gradually, so for a long time it wasn’t a book really, it was just a manuscript I wrote to my daughter that I never intended to publish. I started to write texts for the New Republic. And then the editor quit, and nobody contacted me ever again, but then I had found a kind of form — short text — and I really, really wanted to continue. So I just continued, but there was no shape to it — there was no book. And then these two things merged, and then it was more like a book but then I wanted — this is very static, the text, so I wanted movement through it and the obvious movement is time, but I didn’t want it epic or something like that. So it was natural to do it for a year — and also I was writing every day, and it would also give a kind of time to the text somehow.

BNR: At what point did you decide the books would be illustrated?

KOK: This project is a way of moving away from my inner self and writing about the world. And then I thought it would be nice with someone else in each book, and their approach on the seasons. And also because I felt it still sticks out to me very much, what I think of art because it is, you know, you go in a gallery and see that one painting will move to the next, move to the next, and maybe you stand there a few minutes, and it’s the same kind of gallery in this book. And then I have to write.

And when we came to the third book I thought it was too static, so the third book became a novel. It’s very different than the others, but it’s a novel with my daughter, it’s a day in our life but then there is a back-story that comes in over everything, which changed the two past books, kind of. And then book four is summer, and to me summer is something bustling with lots of different things — it’s a diary in there, it’s a fiction story in there, lots of different texts; that’s the four seasons. It wasn’t planned, it just came about as I was doing.

BNR: As I read this book, it read like essays to me. Is that how you’d define the work?

KOK: I don’t know what it is. Essays — maybe. When I aspired to be a writer in the early ’90s, the thing in Norway then was short texts. Short prose, prose poems; the poets did write that and novelists did write that and went off to greatness and we can write this form. You can’t really say what it is, so that’s in my blood somehow. I don’t care what it is, if it is essays. Some of them have fictional elements, some of them are about people, some of them are about things, some of them are very dramatic, some of them are very prosaic.

BNR: I love that, and I love that we are moving away from having to identify a short story as a short story, or an essay as an essay, that there are more of these hybrids that a lot of people are writing these days. The reason I ask about the essays, though, is because I couldn’t help but thinking of Montaigne while reading Autumn, and I wondered if you were channeling him at all while you were writing.

KOK: Yeah, he’s in there. But just as a bearer of giving confidence to the form, you know . . . some of the text has this shortness to form, so he is there. And Francis Ponge, he’s a French poet, he did write texts about objects. I read him in the ’90s when I was an apprentice. And what was amazing with him to me is that he wrote the whole book without a single person in it. But he’s writing about muscles or ribs or rain. There is a book about soap that he did. So he is fantastic. But I am writing about much more mundane things somehow, [and] with that it is much more personal, somehow. Because it is objects around me and it is my personal take on them.

BNR: Can you talk about the process of writing My Struggle versus the process of writing this new series. Was more joy involved? Parts of the book are very playful.

KOK: Yeah, there was very much more joy, and that was one of the reasons I think I did it, was to have fun and to enjoy it. And it was also more challenging in a different way, I mean I had to write one text a day and there had to be something there, you know. In one sense it was harder to write My Struggle, but it was completely different, a completely different process, and you are kind of, it’s the river and you are diving inside and you go in and you go out and it’s very slow. But these texts are not, and I have to finish them every day, which makes me have to start a new text every day also and starting things is very hard. In the end I felt: Oh, do I have to look something up again this morning. Every day I had to do something. In My Struggle you get automatic help, you just go in and you can write ten pages or fifteen pages and you don’t really think, it’s just kind of a flow, a movement. There, I had to start a novel almost every day.

So that was very tiring. And when Summer was finishing we had a deadline. I desperately wanted it to come out in August, so I wrote two or three or four texts a day just to pour in; yeah, that was not fun. And we missed it. We published the fourth of September, or second of September, so that was a failure.

BNR: I listened to an NPR interview you did recently, and you said you didn’t revise the book at all. Why didn’t you feel the need to revise it? Did you want to have a more spontaneous feel to the prose?

KOK: Yeah. I wanted the text to be written in one sitting, and I wanted the reader to feel that, that you could see the thoughts coming in — you could see it happening, almost. That’s what I wanted. I wanted a kind of freshness to it. That means that some of the texts are not very good, and some are very good, and some of them are meaningless — there are a lot of quality levels in this book. But I think that is okay; what I am looking for is how the text works together in the whole of it. So if you read just one text nothing much really happens, but if you read a hundred texts something else would happen.

BNR: The cumulative effect of it.

KOK: Yes, exactly. When I was writing, things appeared that I didn’t intend, or didn’t know that was happening.

BNR: Do you think Autumn would be a very different book if you wrote it before you became a father, as opposed to when your fourth child was on the way?

KOK: Yeah, it would be completely different. It wouldn’t even occur to me that I could do it, I think. It was more than enough just to expect someone. Do you have children?

BNR: I don’t, no.

KOK: Okay, so when you are expecting a child for the first time, at least it was like that with me, there was no — that took everything, when she was born that was everything, there wasn’t room for anything else. Not only because she was born, because you were afraid and didn’t know what to do and didn’t have a daughter before and those kinds of things . . . so there was a lot of room with mother, father, and child. But this — she is born into a completely different room, she is born in a room that is relaxed and . . . also I probably think about life and her, that it is robust, that things will go well, it kind of has that feeling to it. And then there was a huge crisis in that period, that book three is about and relates very much to that attitude that things will go well, that life is strong and so on and so on.

I wouldn’t be able to write so easily [before]. I was much more uptight. I did write when my first daughter was born, and that was very, very much my own project. And I remember I left them just to finish the book that I had been trying to write for five years I think, and just couldn’t. And when she was pregnant with our first daughter I could write, so it was much more of a double life I had. I am much more integrated in the family and the children and the writing, and it goes from there to there, they are coming in and out. Before my writing was like a tower, there is no access to the life around, it was like something very much locked around itself. This writing is much freer and less ambitious somehow and that’s a consequence of life with children, I think.

BNR: In the first letter that you write to your daughter before she was born you say, “I want to show you the world, as it is, all around us, all the time. Only by doing so will I myself be able to glimpse it.” Do you feel like you only truly see the world when you write about it?

KOK: Yeah. When I write about it, or when I look at paintings, or when I read. That’s very much the case, and it’s an ironic thing because writing is turning away from the world, and only then can it appear. But it’s very much so, it’s very true.

BNR: You spend a lot of time reading in addition to writing. It seems like you are a voracious reader.

KOK: I did very much when I was in my twenties, but when I had children I ran out of time. I read much less now. So when I’m writing, I say it’s always books I read a long time ago that I use. My dream is I want to take one year off and just read.

BNR: That sounds heavenly.

KOK: But I can’t. And I feel guilty when I’m reading because it’s not work. And I’m a Protestant, so I have to work. It means that I read in the evening when I’m tired. Or like now, when I’m traveling.

BNR: What’s your writing process like right now, while you are touring? Do you get to write while you are on the road, or is it just too much?

KOK: No, I can’t do that. But I have an essay I have to do, and then I’m going to Washington today, and tomorrow I’m coming back from Washington, I will have the whole day off, and then I can write that essay.

BNR: So much of what you write about is your interior life, yet you’ve become an extremely public figure. How do you protect your own writing time and separate your public self from your private self?

KOK: I do live in the countryside, and it isn’t isolated but it is still in a way, there is no public life there. I’m there with my children most of the time. So from there, I can go out on book tours, but not very often anymore, and I will stop as much as I can just because I have to write. And I also learned to write in between; I couldn’t do that before, I needed two years ahead of me to be able to write. Now I can write in between everything, but still I want that out of my life, and I want a stretch of two years just to write; that’s what I want, to make something very different than this.

But it was very difficult in the beginning, to separate my private life from my public life. It really fucked up my life and myself, just to deal with these very different ideas of who I am and what my life is and so on. But now it is like I have one life and I am who I am there, and I then have this public [one]. It’s me but it is still detached from me somehow, it is much more like a performance. Yesterday, for instance, I was talking about pompous things about the self, and I can’t do that in a conversation with anybody, it is impossible for me to take that place and talk with someone and say, “This is like that.” I don’t have that authority. So when I’m with people, I seldom say anything; I can’t speak with people very well outside of these kinds of situations. That’s also something that separates my public from my private life.

BNR: Why do you feel you can’t say something?

KOK: I have no self-confidence. But when you are on a stage you are given that, that’s what you are meant to do, so you will fail if you didn’t. I feel terrible after, always, because I feel I am not entitled to say these things, but they give me the position, so okay, I will do that. And I like it; it has become more and more like writing. But the point is I just talk and if it is stupid, okay it is stupid, and I try not to think about the next day. But it is strange, because it is so remote from my own personality really, but writing is too, so maybe it isn’t that remote, maybe it is closer to me. I mean, who knows?

BNR: Is it weird when strangers act like they know you because they have read your work?

KOK: Yeah, it is. But the hardest thing is that I can’t really meet their expectations, because I don’t know them, I have no relation, it’s a very one-sided issue. But I don’t feel that’s a problem. It is strange. But I do know the feeling; I have had those kinds of experiences myself with writers. Occasionally if you read something and you want to write to the writer and just say, that happens not very often but it does happen sometimes. And I know I get those kinds of letters, which is amazing, but also a bit threatening, because I feel it is hard to meet expectations. So that’s hard. And it’s the same yesterday in Brooklyn, those expectations, I have to be something, I have to say something now to them, that kind of thing. That is hard but it is fantastic. That’s what you dream of as a writer, you want to write something that people care for and that means something to their own life, that is the core of this.

BNR: And that’s the reason I think a lot of readers respond to your work, because they find something universal in your own experiences.

KOK: There was one guy I think that was in Chicago that came up to me and said he comes from a place with 19 million people or something, and he said I was writing about his youth, and it was the same thing where I grew up.

BNR: And where did he come from?

KOK: I think it was India. But my point was it was a completely different place in the world with lots and lots of people, very different everything, and he said he related to what I was writing, it was the same thing growing up there as where I grew up. And that is insane but also very logical somehow. But I didn’t know that before this book made it visible to me, that it is the same to be thirteen — which is my daughter’s age — that it is basically the same all over the world, in all cultures, it doesn’t matter if it is New York or Greenland or India or China. And seeing your child being born for the first time, that’s an experience similar all over, or having your father die, all those kinds of things.

BNR: I really love the essay where you talk about Flaubert, and you end it by saying, “Flaubert’s sentences are like a rag rubbed across a windowpane encrusted with smoke and dirt which you have long since grown accustomed to seeing the world through. The feeling you get then, when for the first time in a long while the world shines brightly again.” That’s such a beautiful sentiment. What other authors have had that kind of effect on you?

KOK: Very much Turgenev, the Russian author. Not so much his novels, which I don’t like much, but his A Sportsman’s Sketches. Have you read them? It’s just short pieces, they are kind of nonfictional somehow. He describes people he meets and nature, the world. I love Tolstoy; I think War and Peace is one of my favorite books, but if you read Tolstoy it is very much a novel so inside a novelistic world, so another world, and if you then read Turgenev, I think I’d compare it not with washing but with opening plastic and then the real stuff comes out, because he has no ambition to make it into art. So the person is not doing a job for the novel; they are not doing anything, it’s just there. And I’d rather have that feeling very much of “Oh, this is what it was like in Russia in the 1860s,” because there you could feel them and almost touch them, and it’s like the whole world opened up. So very much him.

And then you have the German poet that I can read only when I’m in love because it is high-strung, somehow, it is inaccessible in daily life. Hölderlin. But then I read him years ago when I was in love, and then I could read him and he really opened the world, it was magical.

BNR: But he’s off limits when you are not in love?

KOK: Yes, because then I can’t relate to it. And there is this great book, Pond, by Claire-Louise Bennett, that is also that kind of book that offers up something.

BNR: Her writing reminds me of yours, a little bit.

KOK: Yeah, I relate to it a little bit. Because you can see that she didn’t plan anything, when something starts she doesn’t know where she is going. And she starts in seemingly random, insignificant places, and she writes long about something that is not really important, but it is important in that text, and I love that.

BNR: Same here. And you have your own publishing company, right?

KOK: Yeah we are publishing her. I read her and I thought we had to publish her.

BNR: Who else are you publishing?

KOK: We are publishing two Americans this fall. Maggie Nelson, The Argonauts. I’m meeting her in Oslo when the book comes out next week and I meet her, I’ll talk to her. And Rebecca Solnit.

BNR: She’s one of my favorite writers. Which one are you publishing by her?

KOK: Men Explain Things to Me, but we will publish more of her. We have other Americans, we have Ben Marcus, he’s my favorite, in fact. Then we published Denis Johnson, Train Dreams. He wasn’t published in Norway. There are a lot of those very, very good writers that aren’t published and that’s our niche- we just take them.

BNR: In Autumn, whether you are writing about riding in the car with your children or a plastic bag or flies, all of these essays are meditative. We talked about the joy in writing, but I’m wondering if you find it calming to examine the world the way you do under a microscope in this book, in these bursts of writing.

KOK: No it’s not calming to do it, no. It’s something else. I think it’s exciting. That’s what it is. Because as I said, I don’t know what I’m going to say about these things. And it’s also very much about creating. It’s hard, if you have a thing and you write about the thing, it’s hard to see that you really create something other than a thing, but I had a feeling all the time that if you go into an area that people rarely write about, that is the perfect place to be as a writer because it’s all new and you are making something out of it that has value in itself, completely unrelated to what you are writing about.

BNR: Now that these four books are done, what is your next project?

KOK: It will be a novel, it will be fiction and it will have a plot. Because I need to challenge my writing and I need rules. I haven’t had many rules for these books, and now I’m following and [will] see what happens. If it’s terrible, I’ll just start to write. I do have a sense there is something I want to write about. There is something that makes me very angry in the world that I want to write about, but I don’t know how to make it into a good book, that’s the hard thing.

BNR: What is it that makes you angry?

KOK: The whole thing with DNA, genes, everything that is going on now that has to do with our biological matter. And I have an inner moral, this is very irrational, it’s just a very intense feeling of: this is wrong, this is bad. So that is something that I have no idea how to find a way and access that. I can’t just make it into a story about it, it must be on a different level. But I’m very interested in bodies and in the biological in these books, too. And I wrote a book about angels, where angels are our physical bodies, so I’m very interested in the reality of the world and where those two elements, the abstract and all those kinds of things, also moral, meet . . . And it helps if you are angry about something to write about it. That’s maybe not the next book, but the book after. But that’s just something that goes on in my head. I want to write about it.



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