Dorthe Nors & Jarett Kobek Discuss Literary Breakthroughs & Tech Industry Assaults on San Francisco
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by Jarett Kobek
In the Summer of 2013, when I met Dorthe Nors in her native Denmark, she was about to have a major international breakthrough. Word had just come in that The New Yorker had accepted her short story “The Heron.” Its appearance would be followed by Karate Chop a rapturously received collection of short stories released by Graywolf. The resulting press would transform Dorthe’s status at home and abroad.
Since then, Dorthe has been a steadfast champion of my own writing, including my book I Hate the Internet, which she hyped several months ago on Swedish television. When Electric Literature asked if I’d have a conversation with her, I jumped at the chance. We spoke by telephone about her international renown, the misery of post-gentrification San Francisco, writing in Denmark, I Hate the Internet and her own new novel just published in Danish.
Dorthe Nors: Hello? Hi Jarett.
Jarett Kobek: Hey Dorthe, how are you?
DN: I’m fine, how are you? There was this computer that just said something to me.
JK: It said the call’s being recorded. I tested this by calling my dad right before I called you. He got freaked out by the computer voice.
DN: I’m more calm now but there was a moment there where I thought, “Oh my God, the CIA or FBI is on to me.”
JK: That’s what I said to him. I told him that the CIA is recording every call he makes.
DN: He’s scared enough as it is. It’s really nice hearing your voice again.
JK: It’s incredibly pleasant talking again. I was just thinking, we haven’t spoken outside of email in about two years.
DN: In exactly two years. The last time we saw each other was in February 2014. And things have been happening since then. It’s going really good with the novel, isn’t it?
JK: With mine?
DN: Yes. Isn’t it?
JK: It seems to be. It’s early.
DN: You don’t know where it’s heading really but something’s happening.
JK: It’s been getting press and people have been buying it. But there’s always that moment when the book goes out. You can do as much press as you want but that doesn’t mean that the people who buy it will like it. And there’s a delay between people buying it and reading it. If they like it and they start recommending it, then you’re in a good place. People have been very nice in terms of the reviews. So it looks pretty good. But publication was only five days ago.
DN: I thought it was in the beginning of February!
JK: No, February 10th was the official publication date.
JK: People always respond, for better or worse, to outrage.
DN: [laughing] Like Trump and you?
JK: I’ve thought about how the political moment in the US has primed people for my novel. Everyone is now accustomed to having stupid men yell at them and now there’s a book by a stupid man yelling about the Internet.
DN: Every time I see Trump on television, I’m thinking about you and what you write about in that book. That assholes will rule the world. No matter what you do, it’s the dumbest ass that’s going to take over, right?
JK: The thing about Trump that’s a little reassuring is that he says these things and then forgets them ten seconds later. So he’ll make a fascistic pronouncement and everyone will freak out but a minute later, he’s forgotten. He has the attention span of an earthworm, so while we’re worried about the first one, he’ll be making another fascistic pronouncement.
DN: Because it works, right?
All of it is Trump saying that my father won’t be let back into the country. So that’s led to interesting phone calls.
JK: He was talking about Muslims and in particular how he didn’t want to let Muslims into the country and how he didn’t want American Muslims to come back into the US after being abroad. Which is an exact description of my father. So he’s been watching this on television. He has three different systems of television input. He’s got cable. He’s got satellite. And something else. All of it is Trump saying that my father won’t be let back into the country. So that’s led to interesting phone calls.
DN: And what his son then does is he makes a phone call from a computer that says, “This conversation is being recorded.” [laughs] So he’s in a loop now. Oh you’re a sweet kid to that man, you really are. Just to keep him occupied down in Izmir, right?
JK: He’s gotta think about something. Otherwise he’ll spend his time harassing the neighbors.
DN: [laughing] Oh Lord. I was thinking about what you wrote in I Hate the Internet about Bush being the worst president ever and every time I see Trump on television, and we’re getting more and more scared over here that you’re actually going to elect him, I go, “Well, Bush looks like a kindergarten teacher compared to him.”
JK: He has a good chance of getting the Republican nomination. I genuinely do not think that in the general election, unless something goes horribly wrong with the Democrats, that he can win.
DN: That is what is in our prayers every Sunday. Please don’t let Trump win. I think the other Republican candidate said that if we don’t stop him now, he’s going to nuke Denmark. [laughing] So we’re scared shitless, I tell you. We’re hardly getting any sleep over here.
JK: We should probably move on to something literary.
DN: I’m leaving it up to you because you’ve got the assignment.
JK: I was thinking we could talk about what I liked to term “The Dorthe Nors Phenomenon.”
DN: [laughing] The Syndrome. The Syndrome sounds a little better, right?
JK: For me it’s been inspiring to be slightly adjacent to the Syndrome. One of the things I don’t fully understand is what your status as a writer was before the Syndrome occurred. You’d published a few books in Denmark. But were you particularly well regarded? Were people reading you heavily? What was it like in that moment before all of this?
So for six years I had the stories published in different American magazines, just for the fun of it. I never ever imagined that I was going to have a breakthrough.
DN: Well, I was acknowledged. I had a very good publisher in Denmark. Back in the ’90s, my editor was known as the best editor in Denmark and I got picked by him, so things were happening. It was not like I was out in the dark. But I didn’t have readers, I was not part of any literary community that could do anything for me, so I was sort of a lone wolf with a career going nowhere. I got good reviews. The Karate Chop collection got really good reviews but that’s where it ended. My publisher didn’t want to spend money on highlighting me in the newspapers. The newspapers couldn’t care less. It just ended there. So for six years I had the stories published in different American magazines, just for the fun of it. I never ever imagined that I was going to have a breakthrough. I was fighting to get into the Danish literary community and the smaller, powerful circles in Copenhagen and having absolutely no success. You could say that I was acknowledged but nothing was happening with that acknowledgement. No readers, no media or anything.
JK: In Demark, there’s two literary schools?
DN: There’s one school. And then the rest of us pick it up.
JK: And you’re not from that school.
DN: No, I’m not from that school. It’s a writing academy, it allows in six students every year. The teachers are acclaimed writers who went to the school themselves. It’s like a hamster wheel. These kids, they’re pretty young when they get accepted, they go there for two years and they’re very talented. You can’t get into that school unless you’re a good writer to begin with. But it’s a very strong community, it’s almost like a religious community. There’s something uniform about the way they treat each other. And you know, I went to university and studied art and I was 29 when I wrote my first novel. I never contemplated getting into that school. I was so sick of school when I was done with university. There was no way in Hell I was going to apply to that school. So in Denmark there are two routes into writing. Writing academy or you go to university and pick up on writing otherwise, in the more classical way, the more old fashioned way. I belong to group number two!
JK: Is the academy state funded?
DN: Yes, it is. It wasn’t to begin with but they get funding now.
JK: The welfare state in action.
DN: They treat it as if it was an art academy. The art academy gets funding from the cultural ministry and so does this school.
JK: The moment in which everything changed for you is when your book ended up in the hands of Brigid Hughes, the editor at A Public Space, and it turned out that they have a publishing agreement with Graywolf?
DN: In the beginning, when I worked with A Public Space, they did not have that agreement with Graywolf. I was just publishing stories in A Public Space and then when I had around twelve stories published, I asked Brigid, “Should I try to have all the stories collected in America?” and she says wait a minute, and it turns out they have this agreement with Graywolf, where Graywolf would publish two books every year chosen by Brigid. And that’s how I ended up there.
JK: And from there you ended up with a short story in The New Yorker.
DN: There were three stories left from Karate Chop that had not been published in American magazines. So they sent these three stories to The New Yorker without telling me, and then I got an email right around the time I met you, like a month before, I got this email that said, “The New Yorker wants to print ‘The Heron’, isn’t that great?” and I knew it was big because I started crying but I had no idea how far out it was.
JK: I remember you didn’t even know you that were going to get paid.
DN: I cracked my American friends up that Summer. Because there were so many things that I didn’t know. For instance that some Americans are willing to kill to get into The New Yorker. I knew it was big, but come on, homicide?
JK: Literally, there are some people who would kill.
DN: But I didn’t know!
JK: Publication in The New Yorker is the beginning of the Dorthe Nors Syndrome. Is that a fair assessment?
DN: I would say that it’s the relationship to A Public Space, Graywolf Press and The New Yorker. Graywolf has a wonderful network and a wonderful sense of literature and they’ve done it for years and years, but the whole New Yorker thing made it easier. When people refer to the breakthrough in America now, they don’t refer to all the other shit that happened, it’s always The New Yorker. And in Denmark it’s the same. In Denmark they didn’t care what I was doing in America but the moment The New Yorker thing happened, the Danish media woke up because that they knew.
JK: So then a strange thing happened, which watching from the sidelines I can’t even begin to comprehend. You started showing up on television.
DN: Where, in America?
JK: No, in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe. From an American perspective it’s unfathomable for a writer. I think no matter how well a literary writer was doing, the chances of getting that sort of media coverage is zero. Unless they killed someone. Maybe to get in The New Yorker.
DN: It has made a world of change to be published in The New Yorker. It’s a very big turning point, but at least in Denmark the interest in what I’m actually writing is pretty small. I would say that in America there is a larger interest in the material that I deliver.
JK: There’s a greater willingness here to read challenging writers in translation than there is to read Americans. That might be because most Americans aren’t challenging. Maybe the literary writing coming out of America is so tepid that is a revealed preference in the market. If your choice is between an American novel and a novel in translation, at least with the second, you know that people cared enough to commission a translation. The Syndrome happened at a moment that was very fortuitous for foreign writers.
DN: I also think it’s because of Knausgaard. Do you remember when we walked from bookstore to bookstore on Lower Manhattan? And in The Strand I was completely pathetic, taking pictures of The New Yorker magnets, and looking through The New Yorker, going like, “Do you notice me?” And in that magazine which was about two or three months old, like six months after “The Heron” was in there, there was an excerpt of Knausgaard from My Struggle. And I was like, look, there’s a Norwegian in here. It’s an entire Scandinavian wave. And then you said, “Yeah, well, you’re inside that wave.” [laughing] It was so hilarious because Knausgaard is huge in New York right now, and I’m so not that. From what I hear, he’s stardom.
JK: He is out of control.
DN: Well, he looks like Jesus. He’s way ahead of me in that department.
JK: He might think he’s Jesus, too.
DN: He might. He might be Jesus. He takes all the sins of the universe on him. He does.
JK: If he’s Jesus, I can’t imagine what Heaven looks like.
DN: It would look a little bit Norwegian. Like a Norwegian suburb.
JK: And now you’re getting translated everywhere else, right?
DN: Karate Chop has been sold to ten countries. The interesting thing when you get a breakthrough in America, you get a breakthrough in Great Britain, because these two countries are strongly connected, and this is so powerful to a literary career. It’s sort of a contradiction that Americans don’t love their own literature but it’s still a very, very powerful continent when it comes to being acknowledged.
JK: How is Karate Chop being received in other territories?
In Denmark, I’m constantly referred to as, “Dorthe Nors, the first Dane ever published in the New Yorker.” Journalists are starting to vomit when they see it. It’s because I beat Karen Blixen to it.
DN: In the UK, they really loved it. Great reviews in The Guardian, The Financial Times and so forth and an interview in The Indepenedent. And I did cool jobs for the BBC and other places. Great Britain has been great. Sweden really took to it also. And then it’s been published in places where I don’t really know how it’s turned out. It was published in Norway, the homeland of Knausgaard and I have no idea how it went. I’m not in touch with the publisher in any way. My feeling is that it was just dropped on the market and now it’s in a pile of books that were never really wanted. Otherwise, it’s been a short story party. In Denmark, I’m constantly referred to as, “Dorthe Nors, the first Dane ever published in the New Yorker.” Journalists are starting to vomit when they see it. It’s because I beat Karen Blixen to it.
JK: Watch out for Karen Blixen.
DN: Watch out. She’s one feisty ghost, I can assure you.
JK: In the UK, Karate Chop was published in a single volume with another book that you wrote, Minna Needs Rehearsal Space.
JK: Sometimes when you meet writers, and when they’re the nicest people in the world and you really like them, you dread reading their work.
DN: I know that.
JK: You’re worried it’s going to be horrible. When I read Karate Chop, I thought, “Thank God, it’s good!”
DN: We can stay friends then.
JK: “Thank God, I don’t have to lie.” [laughs] When you sent me the UK edition and I read Minna Needs Rehearsal Space. I was blown away. I really liked Karate Chop but Minna strikes me as a work of genius. That’s a phenomenal book. Everything about that book is good.
DN: Could you please review in in The New York Times or something?
JK: If they’re letting me review books, something has either gone very well…
DN: Or very wrong.
JK: You’ve described it as a novel written in headlines. Every paragraph is one sentence. It’s a wonderful effect. I read it after writing I Hate the Internet, and I had the sensation that you’d managed to do what I was attempting, which was figure out how to have the most stripped down, least literary language and still have depth. But it wasn’t going to be on the surface. There wasn’t going to be hugely intricate writing. I’m not sure I have a question.
DN: I’m silent because I completely agree with you that there is a degree of deconstructing the novel as a form in both our books. And that the Internet and the way that the Internet works and the way we connect to that universe forces us to deconstruct in order to write truthfully about now. But it’s two very different ways that we do it.
JK: That’s very true. [laughs]
DN: No, no, you know I love I Hate the Internet. I think it’s a groundbreaking book in form and content and it’s so hilarious. And then you master one of the things I remember from you in life, the Live Jarett, who’s incredibly good at starting one and then just…I won’t say ramble, because this is smart rambling, but you have a way of associating your way through material where it stays alert and smart, and you got that in the book. It loops in and out. It’s very good. But it’s two different ways of deconstructing the novel.
JK: How so?
If you want to be understood on a deeper level, you have to be incredibly good at writing headlines.
DN: The idea of writing in headlines comes from what Facebook looked liked at the start, where your name would be in the beginning, and all you had to add was what you were doing. In the first form of Facebook, it would say “Dorthe” no matter what I did. I could not express myself in any other way than with my own boring name. So it would be, “Dorthe goes to the kitchen. Dorthe takes the bus.” And so on. It was interesting to make all kinds of things the actors of the sentence and also the restriction of that, that limited the way we could express ourselves, and then there’s the headline in itself. We have to write shorter and shorter on the Internet in order to be read and have a communication with other people. If you want to be understood on a deeper level, you have to be incredibly good at writing headlines.
JK: Apparently, there’s a plan in the works at Twitter to remove the 140 character length on tweets. In the US, because our journalism is bankrupt, anytime anything happens — like someone drops a bottle on Market Street in San Francisco — there’ll be a news article, and what the article will consist of, entirely, is tweets that a journalist found of people commenting on the bottle. In one way you understand why this is appealing — it certainly makes their job easier and it gives the illusion of a multifaceted point of view, but lately I’ve been wondering about what it means that all of this commentary is limited to 140 characters.
DN: It does a lot to our language and the way we need to express ourselves to be heard.
JK: It’s the idea that every complex issue can be reduced to 140 characters. I don’t think that’s how life works.
DN: It’s definitely not how life works. And it’s not how politics and journalism should work. I was thinking what you were just saying, that the journalists have multiple voices because they’re picking them from Twitter, and this is the whole Minna Needs Rehearsal Space idea, that everything and nothing has this ability to spew out headlines constantly. Even the coffee cups and the trees and the cat. Everything is spewing headlines.
JK: The old forms of literature, of writing, no longer seem adequate to address the moment of the now.
JK: A lot of people have tried to write about the Internet and technologies, but they do it in this strange way, where you take whatever the dominant mode of writing is in that moment and then you plug-in proper nouns. That writing becomes enormously embarrassing. Almost immediately it starts to date. One of the things in I Hate the Internet, which is a technique I stole from a not very good Vonnegut novel called Breakfast of Champions, is that I define almost every noun. The definitions in the book are not necessarily the most accurate or the most fair, but my thought was that this might work as a bridge for readers. Realistically speaking, who knows if Twitter will be in business in five years? And if it’s not, what happens to the 15 year old who picks that book up in 2021, and tries to understand what’s going on, and it’s all dependent on proper nouns about companies that no longer exist and of which the reader has no memory?
DN: That’s Science Fiction, Jarett.
JK: Yeah. [laughs] It is. It’s strange to try and write about anything contemporary with any relationship to how people are living and not have it be terrible. These preexisting forms of writing are not good at adapting to new realities.
DN: And it’s also about finding the right combination. I don’t know if you’ve had this in America, but we’ve had people writing Twitter and text message novels.
JK: Oh, fuck, yes.
DN: And I’m really sorry to say, but they’re not good. It becomes too instrumental.
JK: It’s a gimmick.
DN: It’s like an app. It’s like a literature app. I can’t imagine anything more horrible. If you try to describe this change in communication and connection — or lack of connection — between people in a classical literary form, it stinks. Then you also have to find the balance. You still have to communicate with people in a form that is somehow relatable. It’s tricky. But I think we nailed it!
DN: “We Nailed It.” [laughing] That’s the headline on this interview.
JK: I think maybe the headline should be, “Two Writers Congratulate Each Other.”
DN: [laughing] “On Their Genius!” Intercontinental back-patting. No, we shouldn’t do that. The other story which you haven’t read yet, which is going to be in So Much for that Winter, which is the new American title for the book that contains the story about Minna … but in So Much for that Winter is another novella that I wrote. It was written directly on the Internet. So this is another way of using this new thing. I wrote a list every night directly to a blog, back seven years ago, and then that turned into a story.
JK: When people are reading the books, do they understand the intellectual component of what you’re doing?
DN: In Minna Needs Rehearsal Space or in general?
One of the things I like to think about is what would happen if I were a woman who wrote word-for-word the same books that I’m writing as a man.
JK: In general. One of the things I like to think about is what would happen if I were a woman who wrote word-for-word the same books that I’m writing as a man. I feel like I would get the exact opposite reaction that I receive. With I Hate the Internet so far, people are responding to issues raised in the book but not talking about it as if it’s a novel. Partly that’s because it’s a bad novel. It says that in the book! The character development goes nowhere. No one learns anything. But there’s a functional novel in there. It’s not a bad reception to be having, but I think it’s very based on my gender. A better example might be ATTA. If a woman had written that book, I don’t think she could have gotten it published. In some of the reviews of your work — and they’ve all been good — I’m not sure I’ve seen much discussion of the underlying intellectualism of it. Am I just imagining this?
DN: When you said that about a woman writing I Hate the Internet and ATTA, I felt in my stomach that you were right. If I Hate the Internet was written by a woman it would be filed as, “She’s not really getting it.” She would be mansplained to Hell. Accused of being a whiner or hysterical. Stuff like that. ATTA, it’s hard for me to say, it’s written in a very American context and it addresses a very American wound and I don’t know what Americans feel about women talking about that.
JK: If that had been written by a woman, it would have never been published.
DN: It might have been in Denmark, but that’s because it’s a different country. The reviews that I got in America had a very strong sensibility of the form and how it was technically written, and then because I was exotic and from another country and all, I might not have been judged under the same law. I don’t know. But I experience it in Denmark. I recently published a novel about two weeks ago and it has had raving reviews. Men love this book. Which is completely surprising to me because it’s about female autonomy. There has been one woman who went completely sexist berserk on it. Which is really interesting. So it’s not like we don’t get it here. The interesting part is that it was a woman turning on me. I do think you’re right that there’s a huge bias here.
JK: I’m curious about Denmark. When I was there, by and large all the women writers were very nice people, all very interesting and professional people. All of the male writers, with the exception of Ole Tornberg, were kind of horrible.
It’s an era where women are doing something in literature. So maybe that’s why the male writers feel left behind.
DN: I can’t explain it. I don’t know why it is. I know male writers. One of my best friends here is a Danish writer, and he’s a man, but he lives in London. So maybe it’s just hanging around Denmark. I see your point even though it’s hard to see those things in your own culture. Right now in Denmark, female writers are ahead of things. Women who write in Denmark are sketching out new ways of writing, they’re breaking ground, they’re making new traditions. It’s an era where women are doing something in literature. So maybe that’s why the male writers feel left behind.
DN: But I do agree. I can’t even imagine I Hate the Internet being written by a woman and not getting a lot of hate.
JK: It would be exactly what you said. “Shrill, whiny, she doesn’t get it.” And the thing that’s funny is that I think all of those are fair critiques.
JK: It is a really shrill and whiny book.
DN: Which I love.
JK: It’s a very petty book. You know what’s funny is that I’m in San Francisco right now. I’m doing a couple of events. I’m recording this in the office of a Google employee.
DN: [laughs] And this conversation is being recorded on many levels. Check out the plants on the table. Check out the lamp over your head. What is it like being back in San Francisco?
The unfettered venture capitalism tech bubble has run rampant for the last five years. There’s been structural damage, environment damage, there’s a profound homeless problem.
JK: I came back in December over Christmas and it was the first time. It’s incredibly fucked up. But with San Francisco, no matter what happens to it, unless they raise every building, it’s still astonishingly beautiful. When you’re visiting, it can be very seductive. You can blind yourself to what’s happening. But, no, it’s a weird moment. The unfettered venture capitalism tech bubble has run rampant for the last five years. There’s been structural damage, environment damage, there’s a profound homeless problem. You can see the tech workers wandering around in places you would never have seen them before. I’m in the Castro, which is historically gay and there’s a huge debate because the neighborhood is getting less gay and more tech. And by and large the tech guys are straight. They might not have a lot of sex. But they’re straight. Long standing communities are changing.
JK: But the world economy seems like it’s teetering. And the economy here is very vulnerable. A lot of companies in San Francisco have never made any money.
DN: How the hell are they able to be there?
JK: Because of the way that venture capital works and because of low interest rates. Some people will read this and think that the economics of this are pathetic, but in my understanding, traditionally if you had money, then you could stick it in treasury securities or any low risk places and the interest would be enough to see some kind of return. That’s the principle of capitalism. Trying to make from other money. Because the interest rates have been so low for years, if you have that money and you want to make money off of that money, you can’t put it in a low risk situation, because there’s no interest. What people do is find companies without any interest in whether or not the business can be profitable. You want to get in on the ground floor and generate buzz. You invest $10,000,000 in someone’s imaginary start-up. That company never has to make money, it just has to get to the point where your original investment pays off, which happens in a variety of ways unrelated to its functionality as a business. The economic planning of the government incentivizes risk and can create worlds where the rules of business don’t apply.
DN: That scares me shitless.
JK: And that is the economy of San Francisco.
DN: Which means it’s like a helium balloon.
JK: There are three companies that make money. Google, Apple and Facebook. Some others, too, but they’re not so Internet-y. But then there are huge companies that don’t make money. There’s this company called Salesforce which has tens of thousands of employees, which has never made a profit, and no one has any idea what it does.
JK: Before I go, I wanted to ask what’s your new novel about?
DN: It’s already sold to Great Britain, German, Norway, Holland and Sweden. So it’s going great.
JK: The Dorthe Nors Syndrome. The saga continues.
DN: It’s about a woman in her forties who decides to get a driver’s license. And if you think it has any resemblance to me, you’re wrong.
DN: She decides to get a driver’s license in order to move out of Copenhagen. It’s about getting control of the vehicle, which is hilarious, but it’s also about finding another direction in your life. Ant it’s about choosing the landscape over the urban. We’re all taught to move into cities all over the world. There’s a huge and massive political centralization going on. It’s not only that people want to, it’s that they have to. Because the rural areas are closing down. This woman doesn’t even know if there’s a place to return to. She wants to leave the city, but is there a countryside, is there a nation beyond the city that she can move into? It’s I think the most political book I’ve written. It’s also very funny and heartbreaking. As you know I try to have my books balance on a thin edge between tragedy and comedy.
JK: That’s the biggest issue. The urbanization of the last thirty years.
DN: For an artist or just for somebody who doesn’t make a lot of money, it’s an insane struggle to live in the urban centers of a nation. You told me this about San Francisco, that the prices and the gentrification make it almost impossible to live there.
JK: And it gave me a nervous breakdown. And it was the consequence of what you describe. Having to be in the urban center. It’s not necessarily the best place to be if you’re an artist. But how do you do anything without social access?
You get an education and you move into the biggest city you can find and that will mean you’re doing good. But the problem is that there’s a lot of people who are trapped in big cities who don’t thrive there.
DN: This is what’s really puzzling me. I was struggling and I saw all my friends who were not making a lot of money really struggling to live in fancy apartments and on stupid addresses. They were pouring all their creative energy into something that was completely pointless. But then again, every time the question came up, where was I going to go? The other option if you prefer the urban way of living in Denmark would be Aarhus, but that’s the same phenomenon. The prices of apartments were going haywire. We’re told that if you’re moving to the city, you have a social status. This is how we’re brought up. You get an education and you move into the biggest city you can find and that will mean you’re doing good. But the problem is that there’s a lot of people who are trapped in big cities who don’t thrive there.
JK: It’s true.
DN: When I’m in New York and I drive in a taxi, the dude behind the wheel goes, “I’m teaching math in a high school and I’m driving here at night because I need to make money,” and the one thing that goes through my head is, “Why the Hell don’t you live in Minneapolis? Why are you living here?”
JK: Living in New York is synonymous with mental illness. It’s so crazy.
DN: It’s so raw.
I think people are more willing to tolerate the eccentric that they know in person.
JK: On the other hand, one of the worst decisions I’ve made, career-wise, was to leave New York. I couldn’t have become a writer if I hadn’t moved to California. It didn’t click before I was in California. But not being in New York has been bad in some ways. In terms of professional success. I think people are more willing to tolerate the eccentric that they know in person. If you’re sending in a manuscript like I Hate the Internet and no one knows who you are, then it’s just mysterious. No one will deal with you.
DN: I remember I told you that what you were doing in that novel resembled some of the things that the literary subcultures in Denmark are trying to do, which is why it’s not completely strange to me.
JK: Like I said, when I read Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, I was surprised by the resemblance. And you did it much better than I did. In terms of distilling it down to that kind of language, you succeed in a way that’s very impressive.
DN: Before we hang up, I wanted to say one thing about literary communities. Moving out of New York is of course moving away from those powerful literary cultures. Which is what I moved away from when I moved out of Copenhagen. I come from a really remote place in the world and I write in America. You don’t have to be where you write. I live almost in Scotland now. And I was just in Copenhagen for two weeks for the launch of my new novel. After six days, there was not a fiber in my body that didn’t want to leave the whole shebang. I love Copenhagen but I’m not meant to live in it.
JK: One of the good things about exiling yourself is that it does give you the chance to develop in private.
DN: Yes. Exactly. That makes all the sense in the universe. I’ve heard about other American writers who’ve done it. For instance Daniel Woodrell, he lives in Missouri. He’s the dude who wrote Winter’s Bone. He never made it in New York as far as I know. I was asked recently which writers I appreciate the most. They’re almost always writers who live away from a powerful cultural center. Because it allows them to develop on their own. But you’re right that it might be harder to get in touch with the power structures.
JK: Okay, I have to run! We’ve been doing this for an hour and five minutes!
DN: Run, Jarett, run!