THE UNNERVING STORIES in Karate Chop, the first book by Danish writer Dorthe Nors to appear in English, excavate the dark crawl spaces beneath ordinary domestic life. The startling, sometimes violent tales exert a staying power that belies their brevity; the longest story by far clocks in at a mere nine pages.
When Nors sat down at a seaside cottage to compose these stories after a peripatetic period, she was not an avid consumer of the form. She’d thought of them as harder to write than novels, and had assumed they weren’t for her. Yet the stories came out quickly, suffused with confidence and sly humor and possessing a peculiar beauty.
Setting often plays a strong role in Nors’s stories, whether an intertidal zone or a laundromat, a farmyard or urban graveyard. Soon after reading the collection, I was inspired to take a trip to Copenhagen, where a number of the stories take place. The same week of my trip, Nors traveled to Berlin (where I live) and beyond to promote the German translation of Karate Chop. But we struck up an online chat about her early ambitions, her influences, the short story form, and the reception of her work in the United States.
MARIAN RYAN: Twice this year you traveled to the United States to promote Karate Chop, hitting New York and the Upper Midwest. How did you find the experience? How did readers respond to your stories?
DORTHE NORS: It’s been great visiting both New York and the Upper Midwest. I’d never been to Minneapolis before, for instance, and I love that city. Their football team was called the Vikings so I felt right at home, and then there was the Mississippi. I ran right down to it and threw myself in it.
Readers have responded to these stories with curiosity and insight. I find that Americans are good at reading short stories. Also I experienced some readers in New York who were very interested in the exotic settings my stories have. One woman who had read my New Yorker story told me she had planned a trip to Copenhagen and she wanted to see the herons in Frederiksberg Gardens. That was very touching.
Graywolf Press (which published Karate Chop) will also publish two of your short novels in 2016. Can you give us a “teaser” about these?
Yes! I’m very excited about this. Days is a story told in lists, yes, lists! The narrator is a woman who has just lost the man she loves. She decides to write a list every day to get over the heartache. It’s a story about the beauty — and the sorrow — of life — told in funny, heartbreaking lists all set in Copenhagen during the spring and summer, when Scandinavia is extremely pretty. The other short novel is called Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. This novel is written in headlines only, yup — all headlines. It was such a fun book to write. It’s about a female composer, Minna, who, as the title reveals, needs a rehearsal space, but that’s not all she needs. She also needs to find her voice, find a way out, find her own feet, find love, find her inner mermaid, find a rock to sing from, and she needs to get an asshole filter (You gotta read the book to find out what that is. I’m not saying anymore, hush-hush.)
You published four novels before Karate Chop, and two after. What is the appeal of writing stories versus novels?
It’s a completely different experience writing stories compared to writing novels. A novel is a much bigger monster to handle. You go back and forth, you contemplate, you delete, you rewrite, you develop, and you live with it for a long time. Writing a story — to me — is about being in the moment, it’s about accuracy, musicality. To be frank; it’s more like singing than writing. The voice has to be so present when writing a good story, and the voice must never be weak. When writing a novel the level of intensity in the text isn’t constant. Writing a short story, the intensity must be constant.
So it was different in a sort of basal way?
It was fun writing these stories, and that was actually kind of strange, because I always thought of short stories as the hardest genre of them all. You can’t miss a note in a short story! And then these stories suddenly started to come out of me, and not only did I find that I enjoyed working with this form, I also found out that my language worked well with that kind of precision. The Karate Chop stories wrote themselves, and it was a great experience.
It sounds almost like something that overtook you — like a storm — these startling brief stories. A lot of American short stories aren’t very short anymore. But most of the stories in Karate Chop are four or five pages. Why is that brevity essential?
I think a short story has the length a short story must have. I never thought of the Karate Chop stories as shorter than other stories while writing them. I thought of them as finished when they were finished. I love short shorts, though. They truly have to be precise. You can’t go on and on about something pointless. Every sentence has to make a scene, build a character or burn down a village. That kind of writing keeps you from getting lazy. I do feel more connected to the American short story than to the contemporary Danish, though. I think the importance of voice is bigger in the U.S., and that’s exactly what I love working with in short stories: the voice.
Who are your favorite short story writers?
I didn’t know much about the short story as a form when I was writing Karate Chop and didn’t have any favorite short story writers back then. I liked a Dane called H. C. Branner. I also liked the short stories Hans Christian Andersen wrote. Yes, we call them fairy tales, but that’s just a fancy way of covering up that they are actually just short stories. I have been influenced by a lot of Swedish writers when it comes to my prose. I love Swedish writers like Astrid Lindgren, Per Olov Enquist, and Kerstin Ekman. And Ingmar Bergman! But for the last four or five years I’ve read quite a few American writers I love: Flannery O’Connor, Lorrie Moore, George Saunders, and many more. There’s a lot of extremely good writing going on in the U.S
The stories tend to unfold in an associative way, as characters chase their thoughts down unexpected paths. Reality is displaced, perhaps because it’s too hard for the characters to look at it straight on. For example, the girl in “Do You Know Jussi,” after a confusing (offstage) sexual encounter, wanders down hallways of memory and imagination where she’s making up characters and inhabiting their lives in specific detail. Is it important for you to feel surprise at what happens in a story?
Oh, I love to be surprised by my own stories. I often go “OOOH,” when writing. In “Do You Know Jussi” I think that the girl has just lost her virginity. Instead of having her say that she feels ambivalence toward becoming a sexual being, we just follow her stream of consciousness. Fact is that our inner thoughts don’t follow realistic patterns. Our inner thoughts are quite often associative. They run down different paths — some into the future, but most often they run backwards into the past.
The girl in “Do You Know Jussi” remembers her childhood fear of growing up and becoming someone’s woman. She remembers how estranged she felt considering the relationship to an imaginary man. I think most girls feel ambivalence like that growing up. We are taught that we should get married and be mothers and that it’s going to be so wonderful. We’re not told that there’s an aspect of loss of self in the process, but we sense it and it haunts us. That is what I think “Do You Know Jussi” is about. But what do I know.
The stories are packed with so much emotion in so few pages. They feel like their very construction was violent. They express whole lives, and sometimes ways of life, though fragmentation — a tremendous compression of splintered parts. Did these stories come from a turbulent place?
Oh, wow, I don’t know. I love when a character, and that is in my case most often a voice, starts telling a fragment of something and then withdraws. Like a face emerging from the mist, telling something seemingly out of context but filled with content, memory, insight, meaning, narration, and then withdraws into the mist again. The enigma and power of that is lovely to work with, I think.
I did write this collection after traveling a lot and meeting a lot of people. Some of these stories stem from conversations and experiences I had during those years, but this is not autobiographical material.
Misogyny is a frequent element in the stories, practically a part of the characters’ bloodstream. The stories are filled with abandoned lovers, battered women, cheated-on mothers, slutty grandmas, women who “talk big,” and women who hate other women. But there is no great enlightenment on the horizon. What leads you to handle this material in such a matter-of-fact, the-way-it-is way?
Wow, big question. There is a lot of misogyny in the world. There is TOO much misogyny in the world. If it pours out of these stories it’s because I see it everywhere. I have also felt it in my own life and I hate it. But women are not necessarily saints. One way of keeping women down is to assume that we’re not human beings. But we are human beings and human beings are complex beings. And we are — all of us — responsible for the bad things we do. Also I really don’t like literature that preaches. I don’t want to give people any lectures on stuff, so I treat things in a deadpan way, I think. People can do with it what they want.
Although there’s plenty of darkness in the collection, the stories never dip into bathos. Humor runs alongside cruelty in every piece. The down-and-outers in “Hair Salon” who make fun of a fat lady who’s overly attached to her drugged-up dog remind me of characters out of Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son or early Raymond Carver — but a lot funnier. Has this sort of humor always been part of your writing?
I never plan out my stories. I never treat stories as manipulations of a potential reader. The fun stuff just happens the same way the dark stuff happens; because I think it’s enjoyable to write about. I love reading literature that balances itself between dark and light. Maybe I trained myself reading literature like that? In Denmark we have a saying that goes: “Sorrow and joy walk hand in hand,” and I think that is true. If you can’t feel one, you can’t feel the other, and that makes your life pretty sad.
I’ve heard that you wrote these stories when you were living in a seaside cottage. They do seem to resemble sketches in a naturalist’s notebook — brief, vivid portraits. Do you find inspiration in other fields or artistic forms?
I wrote seven of these stories living in a seaside cottage. In two weeks! It was fun! I don’t see them as sketches as much as “songs” — they are emerging voices from the mist, or in this case perhaps from the dunes! I used to draw and paint a lot growing up. My mom is a painter. And when I was younger I played the guitar and sang a lot. I wanted to be the new Rickie Lee Jones, but alas I didn’t look cute with a hat on. To be frank I don’t have a head for hats at all, so I gave up the dream of being a singer-songwriter. I still sing a lot in private, though, tra-la-laaaah!
Speaking of, I spotted your Karate Chop playlist over at Largehearted Boy. You listened to a lot of Joanna Newsom while writing the stories. I know you don’t like to talk about the next thing you’re writing, but maybe you can divulge what you’re listening to?
I’m listening to a lot of Joni Mitchell and I’m listening to a lot of classical music: Arvo Pärt, Mozart, Brahms, Bach — that old lot. I love choir works. The bigger, the better. And chamber music. And Joni Mitchell. You can never get too much Joni Mitchell.