An Interview with Helle Helle
Helle Helle is often considered Denmark's most popular writer. Her books are bestsellers as well as critically acclaimed and prize winning. She is a master at the incremental in literature. Her artful, nearly imperceptible pivots in plot are curiously affecting. I was both amused and moved by her novel This Should be Written in the Present Tense, her first book-length work to be translated into English. The book launches with US publisher Soft Skull this month. We corresponded via email with the help of translator Martin Aitken.
I'll start off by saying that I truly enjoy your writing. I take great pleasure in accompanying your characters in their happenstance misadventures. I would say that Dorte's acts are pedestrian, obviously minute, and yet it's the smallness of her tics that accumulates into an unusual and remarkable book. In fact, there's compelling suspense here -- I was eager to turn each page, to see just what Dorte would or wouldn't get up to -- even as it seems, as some have said, that not much is happening. In many ways it's what isn't happening or said that creates the tension. Would you agree? And if so, what is it about leaving so much off the page that appeals to you?
I believe you're right, though I never consciously contrive to leave things out. It just always ends up working best if I write very little about more intensely emotional happenings in particular. A nervous breakdown might take up two lines. Conversely, I'll find myself writing a whole chapter about somebody buying a raspberry slice at the bakery. It's a method that's mean and considerate at the same time. I spare my characters from having to try and understand or explain what they're feeling. On the other hand, I suppose I ask a lot of the reader -- for instance, that they take their time. If you read too quickly, a nervous breakdown can be easily missed.
When I started writing the novel my plan was for it to be about a kind of entrenched, almost hereditary, inability to get worked up about things. I imagined Dorte, a young girl, struggling to detach herself from parents who, although possibly loving, were intrinsically unexpressive. The kind who'd say "That's okay, then," when something absolutely amazing happened, or who'd talk about condensation in the greenhouse when her world was falling apart. I thought the parents were going to take up a lot of the book, and that she was going to be screaming her head off at them every other page. But they ended up hardly being in it at all. They've got one line on page one. It simply worked more strongly that way. Their absence was like a hollow reverberation underlying Dorte's every action, however great or small.
Fortunately, most of my plans go to pieces like that. A novel can't be thought into existence, it has to be written. The hands are always wiser than the head.
I'm interested in the idea of "sparing" your characters from having to attempt to understand or explain themselves. There's even the moment when Dorte refuses her own intrusive thoughts. Much is made of a character's motivation in drama, in literature. Which isn't to say that the character herself needs to know, but that the author might at some point understand what drives her characters. Do you think that's too tidy? Do you have an idea, even if only in hindsight, why your characters do what they do? Or doesn't it ultimately matter?
I dodged the issue in my first answer. The truth of the matter is it's not my characters I spare but myself. I'm not very capable of writing about feelings and thoughts. It's hard for me to find a language interesting enough to describe our emotional lives. Instead, I write about what the characters do and say. Everything that can be seen and heard and is tangible. In that way I leave it to the reader to consider all the little actions and goings-on, and on that basis make inferences about the characters' emotional states. When Dorte hides behind a bush because her parents' car is parked outside her house, I don't need to explain why she does it. The pain or the comedy of it is plain enough on its own.
I'm 1:1 with Dorte when I'm writing her into being. I feel just as knowledgeable or ignorant about her as she does herself. My feeling is she's rather good at seeing through many of her own motives. She knows it's not by accident at all that she bikes out to the garden center on that exact afternoon: "I cycled aimlessly in the direction of the nursery, it was late afternoon." That's why she uses the word "aimlessly." Because there's no accident about it at all. There's a great deal of self-delusion about the way she goes about in the world, but also a degree of awareness about deluding herself.
My characters never run away from me when I'm writing a novel. My method is based on me knowing them exceptionally well. In certain cases better than they do themselves. Everything Dorte does and says is a sign of how things are with her. I want to write her into being in such a way that the reader can encounter her the way people encounter each other in the real world, with all the guessing games and the decoding of little signs that goes on whenever we observe others around us.
"The pain or comedy of it," while "plain enough," is also quite ambivalent, isn't it? That "or" isn't so little. What I mean is that a lot of the book seems to teeter, for me: on desperation or exhilaration, for example. There's something almost liberating about Dorte, even as I could read her as lacking overt or conscious agency in many situations. She seems to be walking a lot of fine lines.
But then there's that moment in the sun just a bit further on as she's "aimlessly" headed toward infidelity, when she is empty, herself, content. She "let[s]" a car go by. There is something nearly Buddhist about this, I could say. It's quite striking, in fact, as much of the rest of the book she's wandering, searching without necessarily achieving satisfaction. What was that moment for you?
That moment's an important turning point for me. Dorte stands there with her bike in the sun, and thinks: "Here I am with only myself." Like elsewhere in the novel nothing really happens, but the way nothing happens in this instance is different. All of a sudden she feels intensely present -- in herself, in the now, in her trainers. What's more, she's on her own -- and contentedly so. But that may only be possible for her because she eyes the prospects of an illicit romantic encounter that comes a few lines further on. It's an encounter she's decided to pin her faith on, however casual it might appear. Moreover, the repercussions of it will compel her to make new decisions. And decision-making isn't Dorte's primary expertise. She's more the type who lets life pull her along, without thinking too much. A bit like her aunt.
Dorte brings up her own "so-called" writing early on, even if it's material for the trash. She meanders quite a bit around any possible ambition for her writing. There's the money from her lyrics, the abandoned writing group. In the end the fact of fiction makes a star appearance as she, via the former writing group pal who is her latest potential lover, has a meeting with a "nearly [...] proper writer" for a consultation, of sorts. This conversation turns out to be quite key, doesn't it, in that you are guiding the reader on how to read your book as a constructed artifice. Did you ever toy with leaving this out? How did you decide to foreground as much as you did the writing of the book within the book?
This Should be Written in the Present Tense is written as a novel that also happens to be about writing about a novel. The work Dorte bins in the first chapter may even be This Should be Written in the Present Tense, or a draft of it. She comments on her own writing from the first sentence: "I wrote too much about that step." Personally, I'm very fond of books that simultaneously unfold as fiction and yet draw attention to the fact that they are works of literature written by an author. That was what I was trying to do with this novel. It's probably most obvious at the beginning of the book and towards the end, for instance in the encounter with the nearly-proper writer who gives Dorte advice about how to write proper literature.
That nearly-proper writer is a younger version of myself back when I was a student of the Copenhagen Writers School. All high-piled hair and lipstick, a person who seems to know most of what needs to be known about writing, even if she's yet to be published. I've given myself cameos in quite a few of my books, but in this instance it really is, as you put it, "quite key." I'm often asked how much of myself I put into my novels, and the answer is: a lot and yet very little. I'm not Dorte, and I've never had an aunt who did catering. But in the 1980s I was indeed enrolled as a student of literature at the university for quite some time without actually turning up for lectures very often. My family thought I was a conscientious student, while in fact I was wandering about the streets of Copenhagen wanting to be a writer and spending all my money on clothes. Like Dorte, I could get on the wrong train if only the conductor made that sweep of his hand. So I know the way she goes about in the world. And since I wrote a novel about a young woman hanging out with poets and wanting to be a writer herself, I can easily understand how hard it might be for the reader not to keep me, the writer, apart from this young woman, Dorte. For that reason I wanted to appear in the book towards the end, the self-important nearly-writer, in order to give the reader that little surprise: that Dorte isn't the author after all.
And now you are a proper writer! You might have wandered as a would-be writer in Copenhagen (which, at least in Dorte's case, feels akin to a situationist's dérive, though perhaps less intentionally unintentional), but you've done well since then. Your aimlessness turned out to be quite productive. I can link this idea of meandering to the creative process. We need a certain amount of noodling around on the page to find the writing that works. It's Keatsian negative capability, isn't it. Being comfortable in ambiguity -- both in the writing and in the living. This can seem to go against the grain when one is considering a career path or, more fundamentally, producing income.
Writers in the US, even those who publish regularly, can all too easily feel a lack of material support for the writing in its own right. Often much of the writer's income comes from ancillary endeavors. Can you speak to your own experience in Denmark as well as what you may have witnessed for other writers?
These are very good questions. I've never thought of it before, but the way my main characters often drift through life, apparently without aim -- the way they allow themselves to be pulled along by events and suddenly find themselves standing on the wrong street corner or bedding down on some stranger's sofa quite without design -- is reflective of the way I write them into being. To plan out a novel in any strong sense just wouldn't work for me. I need a good opening sentence, and preferably the closing one too, in order to get started. Besides that, the notion of place is crucial with respect to what my characters do and the ways in which they behave. A good setting will always provide its own fabric. Finally, there has to be a sore point, some underlying hurt beneath the surface of the narrative. This has to remain implicit for me. I need to feel that it's there, but I don't want to have any more specific idea as to its nature.
I find writing to be a balance between keen awareness of language and something more unconscious and unstudied. I might have an idea that the book's going to head off in this or that direction, but because language is so elastic and full of meanings, it doesn't always work the way you want it. It goes its own way, and that's where as a writer you've got to go along with it and resist the temptation to force it back towards the original idea. Once you start writing with the body rather than the mind you lessen the risk of cliché -- in expression as well as content. And that, I suppose, is what we're after. But while I have to allow myself to be pulled along and go with the flow in order to write, that's certainly not something I practice in my own life.
My working day is very structured. The first years I was writing, I had a full-time job hosting a radio program for Denmark's national broadcasting corporation. I was writing short stories then, I couldn't manage anything longer than five pages while I had a job. It's quite beyond me how people can write novels while working full time. Fortunately, there's a strong system of support for the arts in Denmark, with grants writers can apply for. We're a very small language community, so we need to support our writers, and translations are funded too. That said, the majority of writers here still have to take on other jobs in order to make ends meet. Teaching, say, or commissioned work, as well as giving talks at public libraries and schools, which is something I do a lot. The side-benefit there is that you get to meet your readers and are made to think in order to respond to what are often very thoughtful questions. There can be a very special intimacy about such encounters. Apart from that, I've been fortunate enough to sell quite a lot of books, however astounding that is to me, even though in essence my novels aren't exactly the stuff of bestsellers. Mostly, they're a lot about language, the things we say to each other. Maybe readers are more interested in that than people imagine.
Cara Benson is a writer whose work has been published in The New York Times, Boston Review, Best American Poetry, and in syndication. A New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Literature, Benson is at work on her second book. www.carabensonwriter.com
Martin Aitken was born in the UK and works full time as a literary translator. He has translated books by such acclaimed Danish writers as Peter Høeg, Kim Leine, Dorthe Nors -- and Helle Helle. His translations of short fiction and poetry have also appeared in countless literary journals and magazines, including The New Yorker and Harper's. Forthcoming books include novels by Simon Pasternak, Josefine Klougart and Peter Høeg. He is soon to embark on the translation (with Don Bartlett) of the sixth volume of Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle from the Norwegian. He lives in rural Denmark.