Pub. Date:


by Karl Ove Knausgaard


View All Available Formats & Editions
Choose Expedited Shipping at checkout for delivery by Wednesday, September 29


The New York Times bestseller.

"This book is full of wonders...Loose teeth, chewing gum, it all becomes noble, almost holy, under Knausgaard’s patient, admiring gaze. The world feels repainted.”
The New York Times

From the author of the monumental My Struggle series, Karl Ove Knausgaard, one of the masters of contemporary literature and a genius of observation and introspection, comes the first in a new autobiographical quartet based on the four seasons.

28 August. Now, as I write this, you know nothing about anything, about what awaits you, the kind of world you will be born into. And I know nothing about you...

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. 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.

Autumn begins with a letter Karl Ove Knausgaard writes to his unborn daughter, showing her what to expect of the world. He writes one short piece per day, describing the material and natural world with the precision and mesmerising intensity that have become his trademark. He describes with acute sensitivity daily life with his wife and children in rural Sweden, drawing upon memories of his own childhood to give an inimitably tender perspective on the precious and unique bond between parent and child. The sun, wasps, jellyfish, eyes, lice—the stuff of everyday life is the fodder for his art. Nothing is too small or too vast to escape his attention. This beautifully illustrated book is a personal encyclopaedia on everything from chewing gum to the stars. Through close observation of the objects and phenomena around him, Knausgaard shows us how vast, unknowable and wondrous the world is.

Related collections and offers

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399563324
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/05/2019
Pages: 240
Sales rank: 715,603
Product dimensions: 5.00(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Karl Ove Knausgaard’s first novel, Out of the World, was the first ever debut novel to win the Norwegian Critics’ Prize and his second, A Time for Everything, was widely acclaimed. The My Struggle cycle of novels has been heralded as a masterpiece wherever it has appeared, and the first volume was awarded the prestigious Brage Prize.

Vanessa Baird was born in Oslo, where she now lives and works. She has an MA from the Royal College of Art, London, and in 2015 she won the Lorck Schive Art Prize, Norway’s biggest contemporary art prize.

Read an Excerpt

28 August. Now, as I write this, you know nothing about anything, about what awaits you, the kind of world you will be born into. And I know nothing about you. I have seen an ultrasound image and have laid my hand on the belly in which you are lying, that is all. Six months remain until you will be born, and anything at all can happen during that time, but I believe that life is strong and indomitable, I think you will be fine, and that you will be born sound and healthy and strong. See the light of day, the expression goes. It was night outside when your eldest sister, Vanja, was born, the darkness filled with swirling snow. Just before she came out, one of the midwives tugged at me, You catch, she said, and so I did, a tiny child slipped out into my hands, slippery as a seal. I was so happy I cried. When Heidi was born one and a half years later, it was autumn and overcast, cold and damp as October can be, she came out during the morning, labour was rapid, and when her head had emerged but not yet the rest of her body, she made a little sound with her lips, it was such a joyous moment. John, as your big brother is called, came out in a cascade of water and blood, the room had no windows, it felt like we were inside a bunker, and when I went out afterwards to call his two grandparents, I was surprised to see the light outside, and that life flowed on as if nothing in particular had happened. It was 15 August 2007, it may have been five or six o'clock in the afternoon, in Malmš, where we had moved the previous summer. Later that evening we drove to a patient hotel, and the day after I went to pick up your sisters, who amused themselves greatly by placing a green rubber lizard on top of John's head. They were three and a half and nearly two years old at the time. I took photos, one day I'll show them to you.


That's how they saw the light of day. Now they are big, now they are used to the world, and the strange thing is that they are so unalike, each of them has a personality entirely their own, and they always did, right from the start. I assume that's how it will be with you too, that you already are the person you will become.


Three siblings, a mother and a father, that's us. That's your family. I mention it first because it's what matters most. Good or bad, warm or cold, strict or indulgent, it doesn't matter, this is the most important thing, these are the relationships through which you will come to view your world, and which will shape your understanding of almost everything, directly or indirectly, both in the form of resistance and of support.


Just now, these past few days, we are fine. While the children were at school today, your mother and I went to Limhamn, and at a café there, in the late summer heat - today was absolutely marvellous, sun, blue sky, with the faintest hint of autumn in the air, and every colour seemed deep but also bright - we discussed what we are going to call you. I had suggested Anne, if you turn out to be a girl, and now Linda said she really liked the name, there is something light and sunny about it, and that is a quality we want to be associated with you. If you are a boy, your name, we suggested, will be Eirik. Then your name will have the same sound in it as the names of all your three siblings - y - for if you say

them out loud, they all have it - Vanja (Vanya), Heidi (Heydi), John (Yonn).


They are asleep now, all four of them. I am sitting in my study, which is actually a little house with two rooms and a loft, looking out across the lawn towards the house where they are lying, the dark windowpanes which would be invisible if not for the street lamps across the road and the light they cast, which fills the kitchen with a faint ghostly glow. The house is really three cottages in a row, converted into one. Two of them are of red-painted wood, one is of whitewashed brick and plaster. Once upon a time families who worked on one of the big farms in the area lived here. Between these two houses there is a guest house, which we call the summer house. Within the horseshoe shape the buildings form there is the garden, which extends for maybe thirty metres to a white wall. There are two plum trees there, an old one, one of the boughs of which has grown so long and so heavy that it has to be supported on two crutches, and a young one I planted last summer, now bearing fruit for the first time, and a pear tree too, also old, much taller than the houses, and three apple trees. One of the apple trees was in pretty bad shape, many of the branches were dead, it seemed stiff and lifeless, but then I pruned it earlier this summer, which I've never done before, and I grew so eager I kept cutting and cutting without stopping to look how it was turning out, until finally, late in the evening, I climbed down and took a few steps back to look at it. Maimed was the word that came to mind. But the branches have grown back, densely covered with leaves, and the tree is loaded with apples. That's the experience I've gained from working in the garden: there's no reason to be cautious or anxious about anything, life is so robust, it seems to come cascading, blind and green, and at times it is frightening, because we too are alive, but we live in what amounts to a controlled environment, which makes us fear whatever is blind, wild, chaotic, stretching towards the sun, but most often also beautiful, in a deeper way than the purely visual, for the soil smells of rot and darkness, teems with scuttling beetles and convulsing worms, the flower stalks are juicy, their petals brim with scents, and the air, cold and sharp, warm and humid, filled with sunrays or rain, lies against skin, accustomed to the indoors, like a soothing compress of hereness. Behind the main house lies the road, which ends some hundred metres further on, in a sort of abandoned little semi-industrial area, the buildings have corrugated tin roofs and the windows are broken, engines and axle shafts lie rusting outside, almost disappearing into the grass. On the other side, behind the house in which I am sitting, there is a large farm building made of red brick, it is beautiful to look at, towering up amid the green foliage.


Red and green.


They mean nothing to you, but to me those two colours contain so much, something within them exerts a powerful pull, and I think this is one of the reasons why I have become a writer, for I feel that pull so strongly, and I know that it's important, but I lack the words to express it, and therefore I don't know what it is. I have tried, and I have capitulated. My capitulation is the books I have published. You can read them some day, and maybe you will understand what I mean.


The blood flowing through the veins, the grass growing in the soil, the trees, oh the trees swaying in the wind.


These astounding things, which you will soon encounter and see for yourself, are so easy to lose sight of, and there are almost as many ways of doing that as there are people. That is why I am writing this book for you. 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.


What makes life worth living?


No child asks itself that question. To children life is self-evident. Life goes without saying: whether it is good or bad makes no difference. This is because children don't see the world, don't observe the world, don't contemplate the world, but are so deeply immersed in the world that they don't distinguish between it and their own selves. Not until that happens, until a distance appears between what they are and what the world is, does the question arise: what makes life worth living?


Is it the feeling of pressing down the door handle and pushing the door open, feeling it swing inward or outward on its hinges, always easily and willingly, and entering a new room?


Yes, the door opens, like a wing, and that alone makes life worth living.


To someone who has lived for many years, the door is obvious. The house is obvious, the garden is obvious, the sky and the sea are obvious, even the moon, suspended in the night sky and shining brightly above the rooftops, is obvious. The world expresses its being, but we are not listening, and since we are no longer immersed in it, experiencing it as a part of ourselves, it is as if it escapes us. We open the door, but it doesn't mean anything, it's nothing, just something we do to get from one room to another.


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. 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.







For some reason or other, the fruits that grow in the Nordic countries are easily accessible, with only a thin skin that yields readily covering their flesh, this is true for pears and apples as well as for plums, all one needs to do is bite into them and gobble them down, while the fruits that grow further south, like oranges, mandarins, bananas, pomegranates, mangoes and passion fruit, are often covered with thick, inedible skins. Normally, in accordance with my other preferences in life, I prefer the latter, both because the notion that pleasure must be deserved through prior effort is so strong in me, and because I have always been drawn towards the hidden and the secret. To bite a piece of the peel from the top of an orange in order to work one's thumb in between the peel and the flesh of the orange, and feel the bitter taste spurting into one's mouth for a brief second, and then to loosen piece after piece, sometimes, if the peel is thin, in tiny scraps, other times, when the peel is thick and loosely connected to the flesh, in one long piece, also has a ritual aspect to it. It is almost as if first one is in the temple colonnade and moving slowly towards the innermost room, but there the teeth pierce the thin, shiny membrane and the fruit juice runs into the mouth and fills it with sweetness. Both the labour involved and the fruit's secretive nature, by which I mean its inaccessibility, increase the value of the pleasure one experiences. The apple is an exception to this. All one has to do is reach up a hand, grab the apple and sink one's teeth into it. No work, no secret, just straight into pleasure, the almost explosive release of the apple's sharp, fresh and tart yet always sweet taste into the mouth, which may cause the nerves to twinge and maybe also the facial muscles to contract, as if the distance between man and fruit is just big enough for this shock on a miniature scale to never quite disappear, regardless of how many apples one has eaten in one's life.


When I was a fairly small child, I began to eat the whole apple. Not just the flesh, but the core with all the pips in it, even the stem. Not because it tasted good, I don't think, nor because of any idea I might have had that I shouldn't be wasteful, but because eating the core and the stem presented an obstacle to pleasure. It was work of a kind, even if in reverse order: first the reward, then the effort. It is still unthinkable for me to throw away an apple core, and when I see my children doing it - sometimes they even throw away half-eaten apples - I am filled with indignation, but I don't say anything, because I want them to relish life and to have a sense of its abundance. I want them to feel that living is easy. And this is why I've changed my attitude towards apples, not through an act of will, but as a result of having seen and understood more, I think, and now I know that it is never really about the world in itself, merely about our way of relating to it. Against secrecy stands openness, against work stands freedom. Last Sunday we went to the beach about ten kilometres from here, it was one of those early autumn days which summer had stretched into and saturated almost completely with its warmth and calm, yet the tourists had gone home long ago and the beach lay deserted. I took the children for a walk in the forest, which grows all the way down to the edge of the sand, and which for the most part consists of deciduous trees, with the occasional red-trunked pine. The air was warm and still, the sun hung heavy with light on the faintly dark blue sky. We followed a path in between the trees, and there, in the middle of the wood, stood an apple tree laden with apples. The children were as astonished as I was, apple trees are supposed to grow in gardens, not wild out in the forest. Can we eat them, they asked. I said yes, go ahead, take as many as you want. In a sudden glimpse, as full of joy as it was of sorrow, I understood what freedom is.





The body of a wasp is divided into two parts, of which the hindmost is shaped something like a faintly rounded cone, with a smooth and shiny surface, while the front part is more spherical and only a third of the length of the hind part, and yet the legs, the wings and the antennae all extend from the front. With its yellow and black pattern, shiny surface and rounded conical shape, the hind part resembles a tiny Easter egg, or maybe a miniature Fabergé egg, for if one looks closely, it is striking how regular and beautiful the pattern is; the black stripes divide up the field of yellow like slender ribbons, and where the black dots lie adjacent to the stripes, they resemble painstakingly painted decorative borders. Its hardness - which to us seems not very great, it takes no more than a slight pressure of the fingers for the shell to crack and the soft innards to ooze out, but which must seem like armour plating in the world of the wasp - brings to mind a suit of armour, and when the wasp comes flying, with its six legs, two pairs of wings and two antennae, it is almost like a knight dressed for battle. This is what I thought last week, when the weather was splendid and summery and I decided to seize the opportunity and paint the west wall of the house. I knew there had to be a wasps' nest inside the air vent, for we could often hear buzzing behind the wall when we went to bed in the evening, and it stopped just where the wasps crawled in, and sometimes a few of them even got into the room, though both the window and the door were shut. As I put the ladder up and, with paint can and brush in one hand, climbed far enough to reach the boards below the eaves, I didn't give them a thought, for even though they dwelled only a few feet from our bed, they had never turned against us, it was as if we didn't exist to them or were only a part of the backdrop they lived their lives against. But this afternoon that changed. As soon as I started painting, I heard a faint scratching sound from the air vent and a wasp came crawling out, took off from the edge and with a buzz flew up maybe twenty metres into the air, where it was no more than a tiny speck against the vast blue of the sky, before it came diving straight at me at the same time as another wasp came crawling out of the air vent, and another and another. All in all five wasps circled around me. I tried shooing them away with my left hand, carefully so as not to fall, but of course that didn't help at all. They didn't sting me, but their aggressive movements and their angry buzzing were enough to make me climb down and light a cigarette as I pondered what to do. There was something humiliating about my situation, compared to me they were so tiny, no bigger than my outermost finger joints, and considerably thinner. I fetched the fly swatter from the kitchen and climbed back up. No sooner had I dipped the brush into the oily red paint and applied the first strokes than I heard the scratching noise again. Soon the first wasp was out on the edge of the vent and

letting itself drop down into the air before circling me; shortly afterwards I was surrounded again. I struck out at them and hit a couple, but only in mid-air, and all that happened was they were knocked off course. I hardly got any painting done. I gave up, poured the paint back into the larger can and cleaned the brush. A few hours later I climbed the ladder as gently as I could, sealed the air vent with gaffer tape, tiptoed down again, hurried inside up to the bedroom, where I taped shut the inside of the vent as well. When we went to bed that evening, the buzzing outside didn't cease. Nor the evening after. But then it went quiet.


Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Karl Ove Knausgaard

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 Community Bookstore in Brooklyn, and we hosted him in conversation with Nicole Krauss. 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, 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 pubic 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.

—October 3, 2017

Customer Reviews