fiction

A Brief Hello With Karl Ove Knausgård

P hoto credit:  WaterstonesTCR

Photo credit: WaterstonesTCR

By Conor White-Andrews

It’s late August, almost September, and over London the sky is a silently shifting collage of whites and grey. It’s still the summer, technically, but the weather outside his window—heavy grey, gentle rain, harsh yellow lights of offices and red tips of cranes burning against the gloom—suggests a changing of the seasons, perhaps a damp fading back into the autumn dark.

Buttoning up his plain white shirt, the man watches the rain. The hotel he’s staying in is in a nice part of town. He could see that when he arrived, having lived in the city before—in neighbourhoods bearing little resemblance to the one he’s in now—but the room is still dingy, basic nonetheless. There’s still a need for both the lamp beside the bed and lamp on the desk, where a plastic white kettle sits alongside red sachets of instant coffee and tea with two white mugs, to be constantly switched on in order to sufficiently light the room.

Adjoining the suite is a small balcony, shielded from the rain by the small identical balcony above, and now he collects the blue carton of cigarettes from the bedside table, the table with the lamp, and lets himself outside. On the balcony it’s warmer than he’d expected—the air thick, humid, heavy—and the man is reminded, again, of the strange turning of the seasons, the gradual then sudden retreat to darkness. But it doesn’t bother him, this fading, as he smokes a cigarette on the small balcony adjoining the room. That’s because it’s merely part of the cycle—an essential element; something he has addressed in his latest book, which he will be discussing later, in a bookshop somewhere in the city. He observes the rain as he would the dust, the grass, and the sun on a dry summer's day.

On the street directly below, a line of traffic—black cabs, red buses, everyday vehicles functioning as Ubers—shuffles forward at a pace too slow to properly distinguish, a series of red brake lights stretching on out of sight. Exhaling, the man drops the cigarette butt from his fingers. Inside, he makes another coffee, his third already that morning, and then checks his phone; his wife, Linda, has not called back. He will call her again soon. His watch shows 9:45, not even 10 o’clock, and he has hours to kill.

In a dingy hotel room lit by two yellow lamps, he has hours to kill. He fingers the metal lighter in his pocket, thinks about smoking another cigarette. He doesn’t though, and instead sits down at the desk. He drinks the last of his coffee—soon, he will want another—before pushing back the screen of his laptop and turning it on. He yawns as the machine blinks into life. His latest project—what it is, precisely, he isn’t quite sure—is saved as a folder on his desktop. He taps at it quickly, twice. The words that appear before him, black against white, form sentences, might even make sense, but the man doesn’t yet know what they mean. That will come later. But in his hotel room, the one in the nice part of town, he has hours to kill, and now it’s important to work. He clicks at the white plastic kettle, and in seconds it begins to scream.

I don’t know Karl Ove Knausgård, and it alarms me that I think I might. As anybody who has even partially read his epic series My Struggle will appreciate, the idea—the mental image—one forms of Knausgård is uncomfortably strong, and arrives in unflinchingly graphic detail. What makes it all the more interesting, however, is that, despite the project being almost directly autobiographical—and heavily marketed as such—as the confession of the century, its autobiographical nature is perhaps its least interesting facet.

Because of a misguided attempt at marginally cutting costs, I was late to the conversation Knausgård was having at the Waterstones on Tottenham Court Road, London, with an American literary agent. The event started at 7 p.m., and I didn’t arrive until 7:40. I took a seat at the very back, sweating and struggling to control my breathing after sprinting wildly from the station. I looked around and there was Knausgård, sitting on a stool at the front. He was smaller than I’d imagined, maybe, but still fundamentally the man I had watched in YouTube videos and speaking in the same thoughtful, considered voice. He was talking about Madame Bovary, gesturing with his hands. He said that Madame Bovary is the definitive novel, that in it Flaubert had captured the very essence of our reality, its textures, and offered it back in the form of words. He said that he had read Flaubert’s letters, and that what fascinated him was how Flaubert engaged equally in every aspect of his existence, how he did not discriminate. Knausgård spoke a little more about eating, shitting, shaving, and the multitudes of everyday life. He did not discriminate.

The talk ended 10 minutes after I arrived. At that point, there were to be questions from the audience, and I was able to ask the second question. There was a pause as the microphone was brought over. Stuttering, I asked Knausgård about structure. I asked him about how he deals with structure, when the books feel so much like an outpouring of strong, visceral emotion. I felt my skin burn as he grappled with my words, possibly wondering how to deal with a stupid question. Then Knausgård, looking at me from his stool at the front, said, hesitantly, that it’s not something he particularly worries about. He said that, as younger writer, he was crushingly aware of writing as a type of performance. He said that for years he wrote with painstaking intent, with a pose, until, one day, it became something else. He likened to it to rehearsing, and told me to keep writing, furiously, until the transition from the internal to the external becomes second nature. In A Death in the Family, he writes, “Writing is about drawing the essence of what we know out of the shadows. That is what writing is about.”

After the event had finished, Knausgård was signing copies of his latest book, translated into English, Autumn. I bought a beer, a Brooklyn Lager, and waited in line. Standing there, I watched as the various people went up and had their books signed. A number of them took photos and selfies with Knausgård, and I thought that he looked uncomfortable; though I am not sure whether this is because I have read his books and feel like I might know him, or because he actually looked uncomfortable. We chatted briefly when my turn came. He was friendly, and wrote, “Keep going!” at the front of my copy. It was surreal, standing before a stranger about whom you know intimate, personal details. I wondered about Linda, his wife, and about how the kids are. I wanted to ask about life on the farm.

But, again, I don’t know Knausgård, and to approach it in this way, I think, is to fundamentally miss the point. He’s a writer’s writer, and his is an oeuvre that engages constantly with the idea, the notion of literature, of writing itself. It’s imperative, it suggests, to look not at the artist, but at the art; at that which cannot be expressed in words being expressed in words. It’s adding form to something amorphous in the shape of sentences, capturing an essence, something magnified by the fact that most of us read his work as translation. His books, through their very creation, subvert our notions of what the form is, and how we engage with it. They are a testament to the power of literature—to its perpetual evolution—and to language as a whole. As Knausgård says, we must keep going.

The Writer’s Bone Essays Archive

Iron Ass: What It Takes to Keep the Writing Dream Alive

By Daniel Ford

Author and journalist Tom Shroder gave a fitting description to his Pulitzer Prize-winning grandfather MacKinley Kantor during our recent podcast interview: “He just had this iron will and a steel butt.”

Shroder’s The Most Famous Writer Who Ever Lived features a wonderful story about Kantor doggedly typing out a novel during a stormy sea voyage with one hand while his other held down his typewriter. I’ll echo Shroder’s own reaction to the tale by saying, “Jesus.” Odds are I’ve looked at least 50 tweets since I started this piece, and I’m on solid ground.

I typically don’t give a lot of thought to why I’m a writer. It’s just what I do. It’s what I’ve always done. The impulse to put words to paper is the first thing I think about when my caffeine-deprived brain wakes up in the morning. And if I don’t do enough writing during the day (which is often the case, sadly), then it’s the last thing I feel guilty about when I finally pass out well past my bedtime. The iron will Shroder mentioned allows me to keep at it, even when the steel butt isn’t quite willing or able.   

As often happens when you sit down with an old friend you haven’t seen in more than a decade, you learn things about yourself that prompt you to reflect on your life through a different lens. Stephanie Schaefer and I were in Nashville recently, and we had the opportunity to share a few cocktails with someone I knew from high school. He couldn’t get over the fact I was still a writer. He complimented my work, as well as Writer’s Bone’s success, and I was self-deprecating to the point I thought Steph’s eyes were going to lodge in the back of her head. He mentioned that he always wanted to write a novel and that he couldn’t get past the first chapter of anything he started.

Even with him puffing me up, I couldn’t help but think of all the notes cluttering my Moleskin notebook, and the typed pages featured red cross-outs and dejected notes in the margin. My unfinished work outweighs my published/finished work by several oil barges. During my trip to Nashville I came up with an idea that has Sean Tuohy salivating, yet, it sits in my text messages like an unwanted pile of week-old McNuggets.

I do feel proud of stories like “343” and “Cherry on Top,” but I view them more as next steps in my evolution as an author. I’ve conditioned my mind to think about what’s next rather than what’s been. Otherwise, I’d get bogged down in all the ideas that have slipped out of my mind, and all the tossing and turning that occurs while trying to tune out (or tune into) characters that demand their stories told. So it’s less an iron will and more of an anxiety-filled compulsion whose rewards (not monetary, of course) are so intoxicating that you could never imagine stepping off the literary roller coaster ride you’re strapped into.

Look, for all of the above reasons, writing is an insane profession that you have to be half-crazy to want to aspire to be in it. The following passage from Hassel Velasco’s “To Live And Write In L.A.” series is about love, but it could easily refer to writing:

You could also beg for mercy, and let life put you out of your misery before love sinks its razor sharp claws deep into you. I had been avoiding this scenario for as long as I could, but I found myself entering the arena again, yes, naked and unarmed, locking eyes with the beast and hoping it wanted to devour me as much as I wanted it to. However, I learned that there's no use in living a life without love, there's no point in living if you're not willing to be vulnerable and be eaten alive. You don't really live until you're ready to die.

(By the way, Hassel, that series ends when we say it ends. Vive la “To Live and Write In L.A.!”)

The other day, author Nicole Blades offered up sensational advice to aspiring authors, which serves as the perfect ending to this rambling start to what I hope will be a continuing essay series:

“Find your voice and rock with that.”

And so I shall.

The Writer’s Bone Essays Archives

How My Older Brother Made Me A Lifelong Reader

Readers with wheels.     My older brother Tom and I following the Hartford Half Marathon in 2010.

Readers with wheels. My older brother Tom and I following the Hartford Half Marathon in 2010.

By Daniel Ford

My older brother Tom is the smartest person I know.

(Okay, his wife is probably even smarter, but I’ve known Tom the longest, so he wins).

I loved the fact that he was smart when I was growing up. It made me want to be smart. It made me want to read a book at the breakfast table like he did every morning. His example made me want to do my homework right when I got home and strive to do the best I could do in school.

I remember walking into his room as a kid—always when he was out of the house because I was too afraid to ask him to hang out—and marvel at all the cool stuff he had. His Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs baseball figurines, NFL gridiron comforter, his original Nintendo. It was a nerd nirvana!

More importantly, Tom always had a ton of books arranged beautifully on his bookshelf. I didn’t steal them back then because I was still reading illustrated versions of Robin Hood and Treasure IslandThe Boxcar Children, and any "Star Wars" novel I could get my hands on. I loved knowing his weightier books were there and he had either read them or was planning on reading them. I would go back to my own room and rearrange my less impressive array of titles on my bookshelf so that each shelf started with the tallest book and ended with the shortest, just like my older brother did.

Thanks to my older brother, this is what my life looks like.

Thanks to my older brother, this is what my life looks like.

I read everything back then, but I hadn’t had the moment. You know the moment I’m talking about. It's the moment when someone puts a book in your hands and it hits your mind like a thunderbolt and completely changes the direction of your life.

Tom put several books in my hands one Christmas and I’ve haven’t been the same since. He wordlessly handed me a superbly wrapped present. The box was heavy. Since I was only reading thin paperbacks at that point, I didn’t know that meant it could only contain one thing. Books. Heavy, beautiful books.

Inside the box were three books that transformed me from a reader to a readerTo Kill a Mockingbird1984, and John Irving’s The World According to Garp.

I devoured the first two in short order. My young mind was blown that those two masterpieces came out of someone’s pen. People actually wrote like this? You mean there was more to literature than just pulpy fiction and sci-fi adventures?

Even if I had been a stronger reader at that point, nothing would have prepared me for the opening line to Irving’s classic novel:

“Garp’s mother, Jenny Fields, was arrested in Boston in 1942 for wounding a man in a movie theater.”

Whoa. 

Heavy stuff for a kid who was just trying to survive middle school!

When Tom went to college, I spent a lot of time raiding his bookshelf (and his music collection). He had already made the jump to American history tomes that were way over my head at the time, but which I attempted to plow through all the same. I’m pretty sure I still have his copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States that I stole back in high school (and finally finished as a college sophomore). He moved out after graduating and took all his books with him, but the bookshelf stayed behind. I relentlessly set out to fill it after immediately moving into his old room.

Me holding said copy of A People's History of the United States   on a trip to Yankee Stadium.

Me holding said copy of A People's History of the United States on a trip to Yankee Stadium.

I had some help thanks to my high school English teacher Pamela Hayward, who consistently handed me books like Crazy in AlabamaSnow Falling on Cedars, and As I Lay Dying, in addition to the required reading for AP English. But the constant was my older brother. Every Christmas, there would be more books. Or gift cards with recommendations attached. Or a loan from his precious collection.

Now, our bookcases are essentially lending libraries between the two of us. He has books on his shelf that I’ve loaned him without having read them, and vice versa. He likes to kid and say that a book has to be on his shelf for 10 years before he reads it (except for Eric Foner’s Reconstruction, which he will never read). If I can’t find a book in my collection, odds are he has it. Some of the best moments of our bonding weekends are spent talking about all the books we have yet to read in front of one of his bookcases (I usually end up taking one or two home with me every time).

His early example also inspires me to buy books for his three kids—as well as all my other nieces and nephews—for birthdays and Christmas. Toys are fleeting and end up as yard sale fodder. Books are a gateway to creativity, curiosity, and fun! I’ll be getting them books even when they think I’m the lame uncle who gives books (including my own someday…don’t judge me) as gifts, because that’s what I learned from my older brother. It has the added bonus of allowing me to rediscover titles from my youth and keep current with today’s children’s literature.

My nephew Jack (top photo)   and my niece Katie giving me hope for future readers.

My nephew Jack (top photo) and my niece Katie giving me hope for future readers.

Tom is now a principal at an elementary school in Connecticut, where he’s inspiring a new generation of young minds.

I follow his Twitter account and couldn’t be prouder when I see something like:

Dr. Veronesi read to both kindergarten classes this morning for Read Across America Day! @KathyVeronesi#rsd13ctpic.twitter.com/ehKB3lFLSI
— Thomas D. Ford (@TFord_LymanCT) February 28, 2014

I sleep well knowing the next generation of readers is in good hands.

For more essays, check out our full archive

The Art of the Beginning: How to Seduce Your Reader

By Daniel Ford

I want you to think of how some of your favorite books began. While you ponder that, here are a couple of mine:

“It was inevitable: the scent of almonds always reminded him of the fate of unrequited love.”—Love in the Time of Cholera
“When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”—To Kill a Mockingbird
“Arawak men and women, naked, tawny, and full of wonder, emerged from their villages onto the island’s beaches and swam out to get a closer look at the strange big boat.”—A People’s History of the United States
“He was the last one to act.”—Sid Sanford LIVES!

Okay, I cheated; the last one is from my novel that hasn’t been published yet. Hey, I wrote it, it can be my favorite if I want dammit.

The scariest thing about sitting down to write is trying to figure out where to start. You’ve got one chance to make a first impression. Your book cover did a great job of getting that book into a reader’s hands, but you’ve got to do the rest of the heavy lifting when that reader turns to the first page. What’s your “Call my Ishamel” or “You better not never tell nobody but God''? Thinking about your opening line should keep you up at night because you want it to one day keep readers up at night long past their bedtimes.

How my beginnings generally look.

How my beginnings generally look.

Usually, there is much more coffee than featured in this photo. 

I happen to love beginnings. It’s the middles and the ends I struggle with, and really who needs them? With a few exceptions, you’re never going to love a novel as much as you do when you first start it. I wish I could write a novel with only beginnings and get away with it. No plot, no character development, just setting up a world that I might some day want to revisit.

Originally, I went about writing the beginning to my novel after I had written just about everything else. At that point, my novel wasn’t a novel. It was a collection of stories based on this guy I hadn’t grown into yet. I had a loose idea in my idea of smoothing all the stories out to make one coherent story, but everything I had so far was a slew of middles and half an ending.

Then I started thinking about poker. That’s because I was playing a lot of it at the time. I didn’t have much money to lose, but I lost a lot of it during random Tuesday night poker games in Queens. It wasn’t the gambling that was addicting; it was being around a group of friends sitting around a table with a couple of beers and a vague knowledge of how to take each other’s money. I even organized a poker game for my family one weekend that had more color and suspect card playing than a heated game of Go Fish between 3-year-olds.

So I had a bunch of characters I loved and a desperate need to introduce them in a way that was true to them and the story I was trying to tell. And I had a table, some poker chips, and a deck of cards. Putting the two together after weeks of sleepless nightmares and frightening re-writes was like getting the card you needed on the river. The beginning began to suck me in slowly and seductively, and it’s sucked in at least three of the people you’ve read my novel thus far. The idea is out there, you’ve just got to patiently follow the breadcrumbs and not be tempted by subpar openings just to get to your plot.

Some other things to think about when settling on your first lines:

  • No idea is a bad idea at first. Get it all out there. You never know which bad idea is going to lead to a better one.
  • Don’t be afraid to leave your beginning until the end. Beginnings are where you’re going to make your money, so revisit it often and take time at the end of your process to make sure it reflects your characters and themes.
  • A shocking beginning isn’t necessarily a good one. You don’t want to overpromise at the start and then under-deliver in the end.  You’re building a world, don’t light it on fire with your opening lines if you can’t fan the flames or put it out in the middle.

During my high school graduation speech, I said that there really aren’t endings; there are only more beginnings. Endings were really a chance to take a breath before diving into what’s next. That’s what you want your opening to be like for your reader. A huge gulp of air before dipping beneath the surface of your words, only to rise again when your next beginning makes them long for the oxygen of temptation.

Now go write. Always.

For more essays, check out our full archive