Writing Isn’t a Sacred Activity, It Is an Ordinary Activity: A Conversation with Karl Ove Knausgaard

January 8, 2021   •   By Bob Blaisdell

HAVING RECEIVED an advance copy of In the Land of the Cyclops: Essays, I wrote Knausgaard’s American publisher, Archipelago, to request an interview with my favorite living author. We spoke for a little more than an hour on Zoom — Knausgaard was in London, I was in New York — on November 11. I have deleted only our exchanges where technical glitches required me or him to repeat ourselves or where I indulged myself in literary tangents that received little response. Knausgaard reviewed the complete transcript and expanded, clarified, or developed a few replies.


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BOB BLAISDELL: I saw you speak in Brooklyn a couple of years ago, across from the Brooklyn Public Library in a synagogue. And you were speaking with —


KARL OVE KNAUSGAARD: Was that Maggie Nelson?


Yeah.


I remember that event very well. I was incredibly nervous. I do admire Maggie Nelson’s writing a lot, and it was a difficult book that we were going to talk about, but she was great and it went well. That’s the thing with events and interviews in general, I guess, it is never just about questions and answers, but also about the dynamic between the two persons, and that is always unpredictable. There are a million ways to talk about a book, you know? It was an honor to do it with Maggie Nelson.


That was a very fun, interesting night. … I’ve got this book. And as you mentioned in an email, you wrote these quite a while ago.


Yeah.


Has the book already been collected and published in Norway?


Yeah, so, the first volume, my first collection of essays was published after My Struggle. And then there was a second that was published a few years ago. And the book you got, In the Land of the Cyclops, is a collection from both of them.


From both of them. I see. … And what happened to the ones that you wrote for The New York Times, for example? 


They are more like articles than essays, so they are a bit different from the other texts. The last article I did, about Anselm Kiefer, is going to be a book in itself, published in Norway in January. When I do the stuff for The New York Times, I always write very long, around a hundred pages, and then we, the editor, Luke Mitchell and myself, take it down to the article size. So basically, all of those articles are like books from the beginning. [Laughs.] But I think they are related somehow, the subjects, so maybe one day I can publish them if there is some interest for that.


For instance, that one on the brain surgeon [“The Terrible Beauty of Brain Surgery”] — I don’t know what you want to call it — but it was fantastic. 


Oh, thank you. Yeah, I’ve really loved doing that stuff. It’s so great to do that, to go out and meet someone and experience something and then go back home and write about it. I think it’s really wonderful. And very different from my normal writing life, where I sit alone in my room and work on something that comes from within. I meet people I never would meet otherwise, Henry Marsh [the brain surgeon], for instance. And Anselm Kiefer, too, was really great to meet and observe and his work. It’s very different from writing essays, I think. It’s something else, I don’t know what it is. But it’s just fun.


Is it more fun than any other kind of writing, then, for you?


Yeah, yeah, I’m taking notes and recording and interviewing people and you know it’s much more fun. That’s what it is — and exciting.


What’s the least fun? The least fun kind of writing, then? 


[Sighs.] Some of the essays that are, you know, that someone else asked you to do, and you agree a year before and then you have to do it in like three days or something, that’s really hard. But I think all writing has elements of fun in it, or joy is more accurate, I think. And also, writing a novel, that’s completely different, you can’t compare it with anything, because it’s so slow. It could take a year or four years. You want it to be big, but you can only move small pieces every day, and today for instance I wrote about a man going to a mailbox and picking up the newspaper and that was my day. I want to write this big huge novel, but it’s never even close. So, there’s many types of writing, but there is an element of joy in all of them, I think.


What are you working on right now? 


I just published a novel in Norway two months ago. I’m now writing another novel which somehow is related, and I’ve started it, I’ve written a hundred pages or so, so I’m in the middle of the beginning of that, which is the hardest part. But that’s what I’m doing.


The middle of the beginning is the hardest part? Not the beginning but the middle of the beginning is the hardest? 


Yeah, yeah. That’s the hardest part. Before the novel decides itself and you just can follow it along. Before that happens, you have to make the space where it later will unfold, and the space, it seems when you are writing, is nothing in itself. The feeling is that nothing is leaving the page, it is flat and dull and all you want to do is to start again afresh. Once I did that, started again and again, and in the end I had 800 pages of beginnings. So now I tend to stick with it, no matter how bad it feels, trying to be patient, hoping for something to evolve. That’s hard work and you don’t know whether it’s going to be something or not, and it’s not good in itself. It’s just like building a scaffolding or something.


Tolstoy also used that image of the scaffolding.


Really? Yeah?


He had to set it all up and … He almost never had joy writing. I’ve gone over everything he ever wrote in the 1870s, and there were maybe two days in writing Anna Karenina where he was saying, “I had a good day!”


Really?


Yeah! When you talk to other writers, does it seem that you have more enjoyment from it than they do? 


No. It’s so many sides to that process. So, the self-doubt, the torture of realizing how bad this is, that’s part of it, and it’s kind of constant. I actually send pages to my editor every day. And he replies the next morning, just to be able for me to continue. But then, when you’re in it, to me, it’s like, yeah, it’s very joyful, not that it’s fun in that sense, but it’s just very satisfying somehow. When you are beyond good or bad and everything is flowing, that’s the place to be. I know that it exists, and when the text enters that place, the writing changes: before that I have to use willpower to sit down and work, but when I’m there, writing is what I want to do. Every novel I have written has that turning point, that tipping point, and from then on, it is like everything takes care of itself! But even then, there’s doubts and shame and all those kinds of negative things too, and in the beginning of the process, like now, it has been a terrible few days, but I know that will pass and I know something else is waiting. [Sighs.] But I know many writers who hate writing, I mean who really hate it and I don’t understand that, but I do admire them for sticking in there, you know? [Laughs.]


Yeah, I’m surprised too that writers don’t enjoy what they’re doing, since nobody has to do it! Nobody has to do it. May I quote something from the book at you?


Yeah.


Where you’re describing something, but when I read it, I thought of your writing. So, this is from the piece about Kiefer [“Tándaradéi”]. You say, “Watercolor is a medium that demands speed and cannot be reworked: what is there must be left there — one doesn’t get a second chance. It is an art of the instant.”


Yeah.


It seems to me that that’s what you’re doing. That you give us that sense of what you describe for watercolors. 


I never thought of that … from the watercolors to Kiefer or any other watercolors that I love — so light, so floating, so precise, and it’s all there. To me, writing is trying to get to somewhere and never reaching it, but a long winding road into something and the text goes up there and down into there, and it’s like an enormously slow process. I do find it very different. I think a poem could be instant and elegant and kind of light and floating. But I do understand what you mean by saying that, but I don’t think of it that way at all.


Okay! All right, all right. Let me try another, where you’re talking about Ingmar Bergman’s notebooks [“Feeling and Feeling and Feeling”]. 


Yeah, that’s a kind of more recent, I think it’s three years old or something. I think I spent like four months on writing that one, I just couldn’t write, I couldn’t, and I had to do this for this Bergman book that was coming out, and it was tormenting me, and then in the end I just wrote something very quickly and I can’t really understand why it was so difficult, but it was so difficult. And then I realized that the text I wrote was about that. Of all periods from Bergman’s life I could write about, I chose one where he was writing a script that really was terrible and never became anything. He lived in Munich at the time, and he did what he always had done, but it just didn’t come alive, it was forced and mute, really. Then, in that period, there’s a glimpse of what would become Fanny and Alexander. An embryo. That’s the fascinating thing about his workbooks, they are completely transparent when it comes to ideas and the creative process, you can see where things come into being — for instance Persona — and it is never the main subject, it is always something else, a woman sitting with folded hands, for instance, that was the start of Persona. That was the idea! But it was funny, because when I wrote about Bergman’s creative dead end, I had no idea that it also described the place I wrote from!


So it’s from around the same time as the Seasons books, Autumn?


It’s after.


Those essays were so immediate. My daughter had read volume one of My Struggle, and I saw her book and I didn’t pick it up, though she had liked it and recommended it. And then one day I read your essay, the one called “Gum,” in The New York Times, and I thought, “I have to read this guy.” 


Umph!


Because, I thought, whoever wrote that is an interesting man! And so then I read Autumn, and then I reviewed the next three books. And then I took on My Struggle. And now I’m almost all the way back. I’m rereading My Struggle. It’s still great. But there’s a quote from the Bergman piece where you’re talking about the ladders —


Yep.


So let me read from there, where you say, “The workbook was in other words a kind of ladder leading from the writer to the work. Usually, the writer will take that ladder away once the work is done, allowing the work to stand alone, isolated as it were from its creative context. Bergman’s workbooks are the ladder left in place.” I know your work much better than I know Bergman’s and so I, again, thought about your work, that one of the pleasures of reading you for me is seeing art being made and not being put behind something else. Not being put behind — 


No.


a voice or a manner.


Yeah.


I’m seeing the whole thing, and somehow the instant of you writing it and also all of the building of it: seeing the scaffolding with the building. 


Yeah, I didn’t think of that when I wrote about Bergman, but I did when I wrote My Struggle. I was kind of backstage and on the stage at the same time. It was as much about the book being written as it was about what the book was about, because life and literature for me was so interwoven and that book is also very much so. Life and writing and life and literature is completely tangled together somehow. And also the fact that I published them in a year, and I wrote when I was publishing, so I was writing, publishing, and then I get reactions, and the reactions are in the book, and then, you know —


Yes!


Yes, this book is very much about that — of course I’m hiding things, but I tried to be transparent so that you could see through literature into life and from life into literature, and that was the whole project, the dynamic between life and literature really. So, yeah, I do think that’s relevant with what is going on in My Struggle.


I’m glad I got that one. My favorite essay in the book, I think, is the one about necks, “The Other Side of the Face.” 


Yeah? Mm.


What do you remember about —


It’s a friend of mine. Thomas Wågström is a photographer, and I’ve written a text to three of his books. It’s kind of a trilogy. And Necks was in the middle of them. The first is about clouds in the sky and the floating parting elements in the world, and it is a look upward. The neck is a look straight ahead and into the body, into the biology, and the third book he’s up and looking down, seeing people like miniature and exploring the patterns between them. That’s three very different perspectives. The neck is the middle one, and it was the most easy to write. The book is amazing, it’s just photos of necks, people’s necks, like portraits, where the identity is hidden. The neck is as individual as the face, but we never connect identity with the back, of course.


I didn’t know what to write when I started it, and I never do, but I do find the biology and the body intriguing, the bodily existence, the flesh, the matter without the spirit, the noncerebral being in the world. We come from there, and it is still with us, and we are still surrounded by that kind of existence. There’s something there, I always want to go kind of the opposite way of the abstract or the thinking or the, you know, that’s where the mystery is, in the body, it’s in the dark of the body, in the things we don’t know about, [sighs] and that’s what this text is about, I think, somehow, if I remember right. It’s a kind of constant fascination for me, also in what I’m writing now, that’s where I’m trying to go, but that’s a place where there are no words, and no thinking, so it’s of course hard, no, not hard, it is impossible! But [sighs] I don’t know why I’m so fascinated about it, but there is something there. And I think that’s in the essay, too, that fascination.


I need to ground myself back in your words. I’ll quote one sentence back at you: “And this is why, I think, that in looking at the neck, as these photos lead us to do, we get the feeling that we are being offered a glimpse of the body as it is in itself, nonindividual, nonrelational, biological, whole. Something growing in a certain place in the world.” And on the previous page, you say, “A neck cannot be modern.” And that made me stop and exclaim: “So simple!” And so obvious, but it stopped me and gave me great pleasure, just that one simple discovery! One of the pleasures of reading you is these sudden realizations, that are of course obvious when you think about it, but before you thought about it, no one was thinking about it.


Yeah, I can’t think — I don’t think much in my life, and, you know, [sighs] not at all really, so in a conversation I can’t say anything clever at all. At a dinner conversation I normally say nothing, and I don’t, I don’t think about things! … Politics, or anything, really. But in writing, it’s, just because of that, because I don’t know anything, and I don’t know where the writing is going, so everything is kind of a surprise to me. It’s not me, it’s like a kind of an exchange between me and literature and language and the whole point of that is not to know where you’re going, so that the places are as new to you as they are to the reader. Writing is about searching, about exploring, about the things you do not know but discover through writing. I have never thought these things that are in my texts, ever, but the texts kind of do it for me, and it’s not that it’s brilliant or anything, but it’s just something that I otherwise wouldn’t have thought without the help of the writing. The text and literature and also the things you look at, you know, for instance, this book, or things you read, and it’s all thrown into the mix, and I don’t think about it, it can only happen in writing, those meetings, so I think that’s one of the reasons why I’m writing, because I am very curious and I do want to explore things and understand things, and a way to do it. My only way to do it is through writing. And then it doesn’t matter if it’s my opinion or my thoughts. What is mine anyway? What is I? The text does something, the text thinks something. It has left me. So if people confront me with “You say this, you think that,” I will of course take responsibility for it, it is not like I’m completely unconscious when I’m writing, but often things are stated in the text because it is good for the text, you know? It doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with my own opinions. The text opens up a field, where something else can be said. Writing a novel is entirely for me about creating that field, so that something else can be said. Something that is true. But that truth belongs to the novel. Hopefully it can be applicable in life, but it is not me saying it from who I am, but from inside the novel or the essay.


There is the pleasure for us, seeing how you got to the thoughts. It’s like with mathematics teachers saying, “Show your work,” and you keep showing us, again and again, how the thought got there. And for some reason, it’s thrilling, it’s so exciting seeing the thought. You compared it to clouds at one point — 


Yeah.


And it developed, and it’s there, only because of where it already was.


Yeah, that means that I don’t own them somehow, and something weird happened. I thought about that when I knew that we were going to talk tonight. Because not a long time ago I started to read Kierkegaard — for the novel I was writing — his collected works, and I started to read his books. My wife and I talked about him and I became very interested in his philosophy. Then this English essay edition was being made, so I had to go through the essays, and then I realized — and I didn’t know this — that I had written an essay about Kierkegaard [“Life in the Sphere of Unending Resignation”]! I had just completely forgotten. I know what was in it when I read it and I had just read these books, and they’re like new, and I’ve just written about them, you know, and that’s part of this — what we’re talking about — that it’s not me thinking so much as it is the dynamics of writing. It happens on the page; it doesn’t happen in me. That’s why I also forgot what was in the book, I think. Because it’s not me, it’s the book.


Do you proofread all the translations into English?


No, no.


Do you check them?


Essays? I normally do. Also because I use many different translators. Sometimes I don’t know them, and an essay is also easier to check. But in the novels, I don’t. I trust the translators completely. I’ve been so lucky to have two brilliant translators for my novels, Don Bartlett and Martin Aitken, and also Ingvild Burkey, who translated the Seasons books, and also some of the essays. She’s really wonderful.


Has there ever been a mistake, after you see it, and you go, “No, actually, that’s the wrong word”?


Yeah, it could be, yeah. That could happen, but, not very often. And it really doesn’t matter that much. It’s almost always a question about tone, and much more than words, somehow. If they get the tone right, then it’s fine by me.


What’s the longest thing you’ve ever written in English? Have you composed at all in English, since school?


I wrote once in The Guardian, a long time ago. I was asked for a list of 10 books about angels, and I wrote it in English. Sometimes I write in English when we are editing the articles, like making a bridge or filling out a scene, but that’s really nothing. I can write in English, but I don’t have that Fingerspitzgefühl, the sense of language that really makes the writing. All the nuances in the language disappear, all these different layers of tones, and then there’s not much left!


That’s interesting. I have a question: since you do so much writing about art and painters and photography, do you ever take photographs, do you ever paint? And when you take photographs, what do you take photographs of?


I’m a really lousy photographer. [Laughs.] My wife’s laughing at me, because of my photos, they are really, really poor. They’re just flat and nothing goes on in them. And I have been, you know, I have worked with photographers on assignments and they have all been so incredibly good. I have seen the same as they have seen, we went to the same places together, but then when I have seen their photos, it becomes obvious that they have seen different things, almost like they have been to different places, having produced something absolutely magnificent. I was there with them, I saw nothing of the kind! So no, I’m not a photographer. I’m not a painter either. But I did actually start to paint some years ago. I was kind of depressed then — I didn’t know it at the time, but I could hardly move and felt that everything was hopeless and meaningless, so if not depressed, then at least not able to work or to do anything other than the minimum everyday life things. Anyway, then I went into the little town we lived by at that time and bought oil paints, brushes, and canvases. I have always wanted to paint, but never felt that I had the right to. So I started to paint. And it felt so good, I really loved it and became obsessed by it, I could easily paint for 16 hours straight nonstop. But the paintings themselves were incredibly poor. They looked like something an old, retired, completely unartistic person would have done in a summer course in painting paid for by his children. Landscapes with yellow fields of wheat and blue sky, nothing was going on in them at all, no soul, no character, no personality, nothing. But it was so joyful! The colors, the shapes and the hope that it might turn into something if I just kept going! But it never did. They never left the petit-bourgeois, amateurish area. I did enjoy it, something happens in front of you, and one of the paintings that I did, and really, it’s kitsch and it’s stupid, but I spent two years on it, you know? [Laughs.]


I think that experience has been helpful for my writing about art, however, because I know how hard it is to make a picture that is striking, like you can’t take your eyes away from it, and that is constantly producing meaning and evoking emotions in the viewer, in an almost endless way, a picture that doesn’t stop, doesn’t rest, but keeps giving. Anselm Kiefer’s pictures do that, for instance, and although some of his work seems simple, made up of a few combined elements, the simplicity is part of the art, part of the genius. I know how incredibly hard it is and difficult and it looks so simple and easy and, you know, if you see a Kiefer painting, you think, “Yeah, maybe I could do something like that,” but you can’t, you can’t! The art is to make it accessible, and to make it hypnotic, to make it intriguing and simple at the same time. Which you know is what the best art is, and that’s completely out of the reach for me, of course, but I do love writing about it, and I do love seeing art, and I do that a lot, because it fills me with something, or rather, connects me with something meaningful and valuable. Seeing Kiefer at work was an amazing experience. I had never been in a studio like that, you know, and to see how completely immersed in the work he was. It was like there were no boundaries between him and the work, that he was in his art. I’m sure it takes a life to be at that level, where you could do what he is doing. He fought with — what do you call it, not coincidence, but with chance, you know, it was like a struggle between his vision and his thoughts and the material — and you could see it. Also interesting was to see his way of regarding failures, he just pushed them away and continued. His work was a constantly ongoing process, a flow like no other I have seen. I was completely exhausted after five hours, having done nothing, but he continued for many more hours, and he is a man in his 70s. It was amazing.


I know just from your writing that you love looking at art books. Do you prefer going to museums or looking at the art books?


I prefer going to museums, if I can. It’s a very, very different experience.


Can you go right now? 


No, no, everything is closed. And I haven’t been to a museum since the lockdown started. So that’s a long time ago.


So are you completely moved to London?


Yeah, yeah. I’ve been here for three years now.


I’ve read so much about your children. They’re living in Sweden?


No, they’re here, in London.


Your children are in London?


Yeah. London is their base.


Oh!


Yeah, they’re here in the house now.


And you remarried?


Yeah, yeah.


A British woman, an English woman?


Yeah, she is a British citizen. She is originally from Israel, she moved here when she was six. We got a child together — he is nearly two years old now.


Congratulations. 


Thank you very much, yes. Thank you.


Fantastic, fantastic. Has your oldest daughter begun reading your books?


No, none of them have read my books. They’re aware of what’s there, but they haven’t read it.


I’m thinking of the essays in Autumn and Winter, where you’re addressing your unborn daughter. Eventually she’ll read those. And I should tell you I’ve taught your essays in my writing class. I teach at a community college in Brooklyn. My students, some of them are recent immigrants, some of them are working people, adults who come back to school, so they’re not usually readers, but when they read your essays about bats, about your daughter’s operation, eggs — they get it. And I’m delighted. They follow it, and it’s a big test for me, whether a writer can communicate to my students who aren’t readers. And your writing does! I use short stories by Tolstoy sometimes too, and they completely get it. So that’s one of my literary tests: Can my students who don’t read, read it? 


That’s a very sympathetic way to think about literature, I think. Because it is meant to be for everyone, you know, it’s not meant to be for certain groups, like for people with higher education, for instance, or for people with certain kinds of jobs. Literature is for everyone. That is very important.


I have a few questions that go back into this book. The title essay, “In the Land of the Cyclops,” it doesn’t seem like a characteristic essay of yours.


No, that’s true. It is the only essay in the collection where I didn’t search for something. I knew what I wanted to say. So there’s no exploring, only opinion. That is probably what you noticed.


It’s, I think, the only angry thing I’ve ever written and published. My books had been regularly attacked in Sweden, where I lived at the time, and finally I had enough and decided to counterattack. It ended up being like a Don Quixote attack on windmills. It’s not a good essay, but I think it is good for the book to have a different kind of temper in it.


And you also give it the title at least in this English edition, it’s the title essay.


Yeah, that’s true, that’s just because I love the title. [Laughs.] And all of the essays are written there, in that country.


I see. That’s one connection. Is there anything you miss about Sweden?


Yeah, of course. I lived there for 15 years, so Sweden plays an important part in my life. As Norway also does. But I do like to move on, and I also like to live in different kind of places. London is very much the opposite of rural Sweden, and I have never lived in a metropolis before, never lived in a place that somehow is the center. I love it, also because I suspect I’ll never completely figure the city out.


How much time are you writing every day? Are you writing in the morning? What’s your writing routine now?


Now, I write when the children are in school. I have around five hours a day to my disposal, and then some days more. That is good, because if you’re in a project, it’s very good to stop and not finish, to hold back a bit, because the energy accumulates, and the subconscious activity too.


So the novel that was recently published, Morgenstjernen [The Morning Star], I wrote mainly in lockdown, about two-thirds of it, I believe. Then schools were closed, so the time for work was limited, but that was actually good for the writing. Normally the best time to write for me is at four in the morning — I discovered that with the Seasons books. It’s something with coming from sleep and nothing has happened and it’s almost like the guard you have to watch the world is not up yet, and so you can just slide in and out of your own thoughts. It’s the best part of the day to write, really. But anything works. Once, when I was young, I thought I had to be completely isolated, so I went out to an island and wrote. I was in a lighthouse writing, and it was very unproductive somehow, and then when I had children, I was writing in the living room, I suddenly became very productive. They brought life into the writing process, and also a perspective: writing isn’t a sacred activity, it is an ordinary activity, it doesn’t have rules and it must constantly be improvised. And if you only write for an hour a day through a year, or through two years, you will have plenty of time for a novel, you know?


I admit that the first time I reviewed your work, Winter, I said something about how you weren’t funny. But then when I listened to you and when I kept reading, I kept catching myself laughing at particular moments in the novels and in the pieces. There are funny moments of just of surprise. So I take it back. Because you are occasionally funny. I don’t think you try to be funny, but you are sometimes funny.


Yeah, but it’s like, you know, one of the funniest books I know of, I remember when I read it the first time, I was basically on the floor, howling with laughter, and it was Céline, Mort à crédit [Death on the Installment Plan]. It’s so gloomy and dark and hopeless that in the end the misery just becomes incredibly funny. I think that can often be the case: if you just go on and on in that direction, it’ll turn in the end and be hilarious. The first journalistic piece I did was a road trip in America. At the time I was exhausted and probably a bit depressed, too, and then I am not a very social person in the first place, so I ended up traveling through the US, writing a travel piece for New York Times Magazine, without talking to a single soul. It was meant to be about the US seen from the outside. They mention de Tocqueville beforehand, you know, and then you got this depressed, silent Scandinavian reporting about all his troubles getting around. I found that funny. To me, it was a comical piece. But in a kind of deadpan way, so I’m not entirely sure if someone else than myself did!


It was a funny piece. And maybe it’s easier to be funny when one is feeling depressed. As soon as you’re conscious of yourself on the page, it seems, as you say, something different happens, because it’s on the page. I was just reading in My Struggle 4, and you were 18, and you were writing, and you would write with loud music coming out all over. Do you still write with music? Or do you write silently?


Yeah, yeah, music always.


Do you wear headphones? 


Yeah, I wear headphones. I normally only play one record while I am writing a book. The same songs over and over again for whatever long it takes for that book to finish. It is a way, I think, of creating a safe zone, a kind of familiar place, because the writing itself is very uncertain, very unsafe.


What kind of music is it now?


For instance when I wrote a book about Edvard Munch, I played the Lambchop album FLOTUS nonstop. For My Struggle 6 it was Iron & Wine’s album with B sides called Around the Well, and then also Midlake, The Courage of Others. The album that is nonstop now is Father John Misty’s God’s Favorite Customer, which I absolutely love. When I wrote a piece about Russia, which is not a book, but nearly, it was a hundred pages when I wrote it, then I played War on Drugs. All American bands! Lots of good music up there, in your country.


Yeah, but I’m unaware of it, unless my students talk about it. So, one of my favorite books used to be The Rainbow by D. H. Lawrence, and you write about it in one of these essays. And it seems as though I have fallen out of enchantment with it. Is there a book you’ve fallen out of love with?


If there’s a book I’m falling out of love with? Do you mean that particular book or in general?


Is there a particular book that meant a lot to you and now you can’t —


No, no.


You kept all your loves? 


Yeah, I kept all my old books, and even though I can see it’s not great literature, if it has meant something to me, it has a quality, you know? I do think that — especially about books I read when I was 16, 17, 18, in those formative years that may be not great now — if I read them now, still they meant so much, and I had something that I really wanted and needed, so I don’t think in those terms, really. But it’s funny that you mention Tolstoy so often, because my favorite novel these days — I think it’s the best novel that’s written — is War and Peace, and the thing about that is that I read it maybe every 10th year, which is enough time to forget what it’s really about, so I read it almost as a new book, every time. And the last was, I think, two years ago, and it’s such a great experience to read and it’s such a … Yeah, I think it’s the best. It’s much more fun to talk about books that you’ve liked and loved than books you fall out of love with, I think.


What are you going to read next?


I’m actually reading a lot about Russian philosophers and scientists at the moment. Yeah, from the time of Tolstoy and through the Revolution, the Russian cosmists. That’s what I’m reading, so there are many books waiting. Also, I bought a lot of the Russian writers that I don’t know about, more contemporary writers, crime writers, that kind of stuff. I’m heading in that direction, and I’m very interested in it, and so it’s more about that than a specific writer or a specific book. It’s a field that I’m incredibly thrilled by, because I didn’t know anything about it, you know? It’s for my writing, but still it’s incredibly exciting. I don’t have much time to read, but I do read every evening.


Well, how are you dealing with the pandemic? Does it feel especially difficult for you? 


When the pandemic started and we were in lockdown, I remember I wanted to call my friends and tell them what was happening — Everyone is wearing masks on the streets! There are ambulances everywhere! We can’t go out! People are dying in the hundreds, and outside everybody is avoiding other people! It is like something out of a nightmare! But then, of course, I couldn’t, because everybody was experiencing exactly the same everywhere. Then even the most outrageous event becomes obvious. In five years’ time, I guess, these experiences will make their way into fiction in a meaningful way that will give new insights. But when it is going on, it is the same for everyone, and to get access to “the same,” you need to enter it from the outside, and at the moment, we’re all in it together, there’s no such outside available. Having said that, the pandemic has been terrible in the UK, with so many deaths, and a kind of double-perspective came into work in lockdown, deaths on ​the outside, family life on the inside. And in some ways lockdown was good, at least for us, as we got to spend much more time with the children than we normally do, as they haven’t been going to school for months. That ambiguity, between the horror outside and the cozy everyday life on the inside, became a not insignificant part of the novel, although very indirectly, I was then writing, which now is published in Norwegian.


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Bob Blaisdell is the author of Creating Anna Karenina:Tolstoy and the Birth of Literature’s Most Enigmatic Heroine, Pegasus Books.