Discover the shortlist: Jon Fosse, ‘I felt I had something crucial to say’

Shortlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize, Jon Fosse is the author of A New Name: Septology VI-VII.

A prolific Norwegian writer, he discusses the final installment of his hypnotic Septology that took him five years to write.

Jon Fosse

Written by Jon Fosse

What first inspired you to write A New Name

In 1983 I published my first novel (Red, Black). During the eighties I published some more novels and a couple collections of poetry, but in the early nineties I started writing for the theatre. After writing around thirty plays, and travelling to opening nights all over the place, I felt that enough was enough and decided to go back to writing fiction – to what I imagined as ‘slow prose’, somehow the opposite of the shortness, and intensity, needed in a play.

Septology is by far the longest text I have ever written. I spent five years writing the novel, which has an architecture built of seven parts or books. In most countries they are published in three volumes. I hope and think they can be read alone, especially I-II, The Other Name, longlisted for the International Booker Prize in 2020, and VI-VII, A New Name. But of course, this novel is also part of the whole that is Septology, and that in a way sums up a lot of what I have written earlier – motives from both earlier novels and plays are somehow re-written there – but seen in a different light. 

Perhaps the reason why I wrote the novel was that I felt I had something crucial to say and that it was, so to speak, my duty to say. I cannot say what it is, only the novel can, but it has to do with the mysticism of ordinary life, so it is not wrong to describe the novel as a kind of ‘mystic realism’.

I am thankful that I managed to write this novel, and to be honest, I don’t think I could have managed to write it now.

What’s your earliest reading memory?

As a small child I loved a very short book with drawings about a major who decides that his town needs a fire engine, and then he and some citizens try to build one. It of course looks more like a car made by children out of wood. I also made cars of wood myself as a child.

What authors have made the biggest impact to your work?

I think the authors who have influenced me the most are the Norwegian writer Tarjei Vesaas, the Austrian poet Georg Trakl, and Samuel Beckett. Although I think the writers I admire the most are Franz Kafka and Knut Hamsun.

Jon Fosse

I started writing around four or five in the evening and wrote until nine in the morning

How does it feel to have your work translated for people in the English-speaking world to read?

I write in a rare language, New Norwegian. It is written by only approximately half a million but is understood by everyone who has Norwegian as their language, and even for those who have Danish and Swedish. From a certain perspective the Scandinavian languages are one language, since they are mutually understandable, but they are written in four versions, two of them Norwegian.

Anyhow it is only around twenty million who speak a Scandinavian language as their main language, so it is of course possible to reach many many more readers when translated into English. I have had the luck that all my plays already are available in English, and much of my fiction.

Tell us a lesser-known (fun) fact about you.

I used to be a heavy smoker but stopped it and started using Swedish snuff. And I use a lot of it, almost one box each day.

 And I love fountain pens, and have quite a collection, and many, many bottles of ink. In later years I have written more by hand, but still I use the most one of the Macs I have in what might also be called a collection. My first Mac was by the way the first laptop ever produced.

And an interesting fact about the book.

I started writing Septology living in Paul Claudel’s castle in the south of France. I was invited to stay there by the Claudel family, and my relation to it is that the daughter of my Japanese translator is married to the great-grandchild of Claudel.

I started writing the novel there, during a couple of very hot summer weeks, and the rest of it I wrote in a small Austrian town on the outskirts of Vienna. I started writing around four or five in the evening and wrote until nine in the morning.

Tell us about a book that changed your life.

A Norwegian poet, Olav H. Hauge, also translated poetry. He lived in a village close to where I grew up. All his translations were published in a single book that I read in my teens. That way I read many great poets for the first time, and what impressed me the most was the poetry of Georg Trakl. Since I knew some German, I bought his collected poems. This book made an everlasting impression on me. I have translated his most important collection, Sebastian in Dream.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever been given?

Write, don’t think! 

Think before you write, and think after you have written, but not when you are writing. 

To me it is very important to, so to speak, let the writing write itself. I prefer not to plan anything, I just sit down and start writing, and then just keep on writing. I am all the time of course listening to what I have already written, but also to what I write. I have no idea where what I write comes from. 

But at a certain point I get the feeling that the finished text is already there, and I just have to write it down before it disappears. And when, or if, I make changes I always have to do it to get closer to this text that already exists somewhere out there written exactly as it should be.