North jazz: Kent MacCarter talks to Johan Harstad about Buzz Aldrin: What Happened to You in All the Confusion? (guest post)

Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?
UWA Press, Australia
9781742582634 (buy paperback)

by Kent MacCarter

The concert in which Norwegian novelist Johan Harstad can eat a sandwich, drink a watermelon granita and adroitly conduct an interview without any noticeable pauses for gulping or chewing is an impressive orchestration. Amid my questions and his replies, I didn’t manage a bite. My cappuccino was thankfully sipped to its foam curtsey before Harstad’s fair complexion and amiable countenance loped through the front entry of Pellegrini’s Espresso Bar in downtown Melbourne. The vowels of his salutation cambered underneath their fellow consonants, complementing his locks of unkempt hair wedged underneath a cap. Such was his accent to my ear. This was Harstad’s second full day in Melbourne, rounding out his first week in Australia.

The setting and timeline for much of Harstad’s Buzz is on the Faroe Islands, a treeless archipelago nation of 18 islands in the North Sea, its calendar filled with downpours. It was not an overtly rainy afternoon in Victoria, unlike those that typify such a Faroese deluge, but it had been a wan morning with a leisurely climactic drool. He was comfortable. I was hungry. We were both on time.

Zipped into a florid hoodie, Harstad was the single Iced Vovo in this Tim Tam box of a classic espresso bar. We snagged two stools by the bean grinder and the tamp bin. Sisto Malaspina, co-founder of Pellegrini’s, bounded up to us with his defining smile and cravat, and two salami and cheese sandwiches.

The number two is an important digit in Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, Harstad’s debut novel from 2006 which has recently been translated into English and published in Australia by UWA Press. What you take away from the book will be enough fuel for a week’s worth of lunches; each portion longer than a Kraftwerk song, each bite a calculated ho-hum from one of the more well-sculpted anti-heroes in the past thirty years, whether you like that character’s ditty, scant ambitions or not.

Kent MacCarter: I wanted to start by diving right at Buzz’s main antagonist/protagonist, Mattias. His characterisation never overwhelms or underwhelms—he simply ‘whelms’ for 460 pages, experiencing what comes his way in a controlled, pensive mind-meld. He is what I imagine the anti-Tyler Durden (Fight Club) would be like. Being ‘number one’ in anything is never a goal for him, but would Mattias settle for being number 222 instead of two?

Johan Harstad

Johan Harstad: Good question. I think that what’s important for him is to—okay, this is the reason I think he would have trouble being number 222: what Mattias believes in is that being number two—the runner up—will do pretty much the same job, achieve the same results as being number one, except that he doesn’t have to take any blame or field any glory. So he’s sort of like the perfect communist in a way.

I like where you’re going with this.

Because he’s so committed to whatever work he is involved in at any one time [at various points in the book it’s gardening, singing, passing out, carving wooden sheep]. He has a beautiful sense of community, at least in his desire to be a perfect cog in ‘the wheel’. So no, I don’t think he’d be content with being way in the back. The problem, of course, is that Mattias says all the time how he wants to be second best, wants to be invisible in society, but while in the Faroe Islands, and perhaps to some degree while in Norway, he demands considerable energy from everyone to enable him to be him.

I did find him to be a needy character.

Oh yes. Sometimes throughout the book, you really crave to give him a good bitchslap on the forehead!

Was it difficult to keep this character in a steady passive-aggressive tone? Without veering, say, too wildly or didactically in your story with unnecessary plot slipknots?

This being my first novel, I was very worried about how should I develop my character. I’ve never read any of those ‘how to write a novel’ books …

Probably a good thing.

 … Yes. But I did start out in considering what I thought a novelist should normally do before writing: figuring out the character’s personality, how he would react in certain situations. Then I thought, I’m not going to do that because I know myself and I have no idea how I’ll truly react in any given situation. That’s not how humans live, right? You could be a very calm person, gentle to everyone—a meet-a-cat-in-the-street-and-you’d-pet-it type person—then you get in a taxi and become an arsehole due to a small, nameless thing that happened prior. I already knew that Mattias is a character whose goal is to be second best. But I started with only that. I knew he’d go to different places and was going to meet other characters, but thereafter I just made it up how he reacted to scenes in the book along the way. That’s the best way, I think, to go about it.

Your birthday fastens you to the beginning of Gen Y. Buzz has a clear mooring in the zeitgeist of Gen X. And Mattias’s clear worship is at the feet of a Boomer generation pillar, Buzz Aldrin. Why did you choose these successive generations and how difficult was it couching sections of your book in each, then pitting them against one another, in a way?

I wasn’t actively thinking about this while writing, but I always felt like I grew up in an empty space between tiers, two generations I can cling to, at least on paper. I do feel as if I belong in the ’70s, but was not old enough to actually experience it. Another novel of mine primarily plays out in the mid ’80s. There was one critic of that book who could not move away from how I was only beginning to gain consciousness at the end of the ’80s, so how would I be able to describe those years? Strange! I was alive that whole decade. My upbringing is saturated with the ’80s. I felt this reviewer was robbing that whole decade from me. What? Should I be stuck only in the ’90s because I was a teenager then?

The ’90s are not cool as of yet. We’re still a bit embarrassed that we went for the whole grunge thing.

I understand. Having lived through the ’80s, I know it’s difficult to reach out and grab a part of it to make it believably yours to write about.

Yes. I’ve always enjoyed writing about people who were either younger or older than me. I do think that, apart from cultural references, generations are more alike than not. We all have the same joys and struggles, right? And indifferences, troubles.

The good, the bad and the execrable of America inundates Australia, significantly informing pop culture here. In writing Buzz—incorporating whole orbits of American pop culture references—how did you managed to moor it as a distinctly Norwegian text instead of succumbing to the onslaught of David Lynch, Allen Ginsberg or Miles Davis?

It wasn’t a concern at all. Here’s the strange thing: my strong opinion is that American English-speaking culture has saturated Norway so severely that it now feels indistinguishable. When reading an American book, I don’t reflect on the fact that it’s not Norwegian. Many Norwegians oppose this tide, of course, and try to minimise American influence. I used to be that way as well. You know, being a naïve teenage rebel and boycotting everything, especially this. It didn’t help that the US had a few horrible, horrible presidents fucking up the whole world.

Norway, at least per capita, historically had the greatest number of people migrating to the US between 1850 and 1950. There are more Norwegians living in the US today than there are in all of Norway. That’s made a strong connection between the two countries. It’s a standing joke in Norway that it’s the fifty-first state.

As Mould is to many! Now, Mattias is an anti-hero who stands out the way Holden Caulfield did; as the persona Nick Flynn portrays himself as in Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. How did the development of Mattias come to fit this mould? Did you start off with that in mind? Were you fifty pages in and simply felt like shunting him into that space?

I was very fortunate. Mattias arrived to me very much intact. Readymade. He was sort of a Happy Meal in that sense. When I was in middle school, I demanded a lot of attention. I took up a lot of space, I think … because, while I didn’t end up being a poet, I wanted to be a poet. And I thought I was a poet. So until I was aged twenty or so, I was strictly writing poetry, playing the role of ‘poet’ in my high school.

Were you the dark, brooding, back-of-the-café type? Two cigarettes in one hand?

Oh yeah! And, you know, just contemplating suicide from dawn till dusk. So I sucked a lot of attention out of my fellow students because there weren’t many writers—wannabe or otherwise—amongst the people I was hanging out with.

And this would have been in Stavanger, Norway, correct? The same hometown you give to Mattias.

That’s right. So, for the novel, I was thinking about these people I went to high school with and, as everybody experiences, you spend all these years together, but you never really know them. You may know their names, but you don’t talk to them.

All you see is a paintjob.

Exactly. They’re sort of the ‘extras’ in your life … even though that sounds horrible. Maybe they’re not invited to parties because they’re not cool, maybe they just don’t show up, a variety of reasons why they crop up in your life. So I was thinking of my old classmates—could it be that they didn’t want to spend time with me? That they had these perfect lives and didn’t want them to be ruined by someone as difficult or as outgoing as myself then? There must be many of these types—who’ve just been fooled by media that everyone wants to be on TV, wants to be a ‘World Idol’ or wants to be Paris Hilton: famous for being famous.

Yes, like some sort of manufactured assumption of how a person ‘is’. There’s identity and then there’s ‘identity prime’.

Absolutely. So that was the starting point. Buzz Aldrin as a character—and as a fulcrum of reference for Mattias—just dropped down from nowhere.

How fitting …

This novel was my third book. I’d written two short-story collections prior, and was struggling to settle on what should be my next project. I was not doing anything during this time—just sitting at home, watching daytime TV, which can be a brilliant thing to do when the timing’s right. I got hooked on a horrible Brazilian soap opera for half a year. As the drama played out on TV, everything suddenly—it just happened, as unsexy as that. Both Mattias the character and Buzz Aldrin as a motif fell into place.

I’m intrigued how the Faroe Islands came to be in the novel.

A long-time friend of mine’s mother is from the Faroe Islands, so I grew up with gripping stories about this place. I always wanted to do something about it, to incorporate those stories into … something. Most people even in Scandinavia don’t know much about the Faroe Islands. They might, sort of, half-way be able to point at them on a globe.

I also researched and discovered that hardly any contemporary novels were written from or about the Faroes, so it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to have a whole country for yourself! I could become a Julius Caesar of sorts, do this and that, rule this new land.

True. When I first came to Australia, I learned of a litany of island nations I’d never even heard of. I knew of the New Hebrides, but not as the sovereign nation of Vanuatu. I went out to explore that island nation and I remember thinking, Wow, there’s hardly anything written about this place?

Getting back to the anti-hero ‘device’—it’s hard to convincingly pull off, and you have. Chuck Palahniuk oftentimes fails at this. You field the obvious references to Murakami and Foer, impressive names, but do you ever feel pigeonholed by those associations?

I do a bit, but who I’m compared to is all over the place. In Germany, when Buzz first came out, the back cover said that ‘if John Irving was writing in Norwegian, he’d be writing like this’. I have to admit that I’m not a John Irving fan. In the Netherlands, I am the ‘Murakami of Norway’. When the book was published in New York, I was frequently compared to Foer.

And maybe, since you grew up in America—you probably know more about this than me, but I do feel it is, in a way, very American how there is always comparison to other stuff, a mix between this and that, X meets Y.

It is, I agree. It’s also a marketing thing. Publishers are keen, if not maniacal, about sticking a ‘name’ on the cover as a reference point because they’re in it to sell books, largely, and that’s fair enough …

Absolutely.

… but they can be a little shameless in their reference points. At times it’s an outright fabrication, the comparisons they concoct.

For instance, take Murakami. I’m a big Murakami fan, but I’m not sure if it’s solely a good thing to be compared to him because some of his books are terrific, but some are, well, not as good. I don’t consider Murakami to be a great artist, in a sense, of words. It’s not often that I read a Murakami novel and I want to cut out a sentence and make a poster of it. His sentences, his language is very basic, I think. While mine—since at least trying to be a poet when I was younger—are more interested in language than story. Story is always secondary to me.

What about sound? You mention that music was certainly a ‘guilty party’ in driving you to write; the lyrics of Depeche Mode etc., but what about the rhythms of what was ‘alternative’, then ‘indie’ music? Did that aesthetic sculpt some of your writing patterns? As you’re a drummer, I imagine this might have occurred?

Harstad at Penguin Plays Rough, Sydney

Yeah—well, the drumming is also a marketing thing. It started in Italy. Someone made a mistake on my press release, said I was a drummer, a rock musician. I do play in a sort of band, a punk band. And I don’t like punk music, so it’s a bit strange. We rehearse only if we’re doing shows, about once a year, usually in Germany. I’m the occasional drummer—no more so than people who sing in the shower should be known as vocalists.

This has been inflated to fuel your mystique?

Oh yeah. I’ve stopped fighting it because it stuck like a bad tattoo.

In this interview, I’m happy to dispel bullshit.

Thank you!

Is there music that truly does influence sound patterns in which you write? The book incorporates swathes of consciousness writing, and it has succinct phrasing interspersed that allows a reader to come up for air.

I’m always listening to music while writing, making elaborate playlists. What I actually listen to is strikingly different from the mood and music that ends up in my words. In Buzz, one of the characters only listens to the Cardigans, that Swedish band, and I think they’re a horrible band. An absolutely dreadful band. I used the Cardigans since I couldn’t really understand who was supposed to listen to them? It’s too prog for young kids and too poppy simple for, well—

For discerning tastes?

Yes. So the Cardigans are the perfect band for some halfway psychiatrist patient, which is Ennen, another character in my book. Now, Radiohead has been a very important band for me, especially in writing my short story collection, Ambulance, which has a cover design ‘sort of saying hello’ to OK Computer’s design. For every book I’ve written, there is one standout album that’s my mental soundtrack for its development. Oddly, for Buzz, it was Beck’s Sea Changes, which I listened to constantly. He had ended a relationship prior to recording it.

And you can tell?

It’s so bleak. It fit the Faroese climate. But it has the perfect mix of being really depressing but also having a small glimmer of hope in there. It’s a wonderful sadness. It drones on … which I guess could be, also, one reason for the text doing the same.

Harkening the Faroese climate, then. That small glimmer of hope, as you say, got me envisioning a part in the book where Mattias and his fellow ‘patients’ are driving around the countryside, the rains break, allowing sunrays their ‘15 minutes’, a small window amongst the downpour.

Exactly. The Icelandic band Sigur Rós was one I listened to a lot as well, speaking of droning on. While writing, I tried to adapt their approach to making music. Sigur Rós, for instance—I like how they do what they want, go on the road when they want. They return to Iceland to live. That’s that. Same with Radiohead. They’re allowing themselves to be a pain in the ass only when they need to.

Resuming to streams of consciousness in Buzz, I think it does take a reader a transition period to fully step into that.

Yes, it does.

I re-read the first 50 pages because—well, Buzz starts off with such a stream in its third sentence, wasting no time getting into gear. You’ve got two succinct sentences, then a giant solid paragraph across three pages. An Australian reviewer has referred to this form as ‘artless although effective’. I call that assessment naïve, but this form was clearly a calculated decision to use. Why did you? Jose Saramago’s Blindness, Janet Frame’s Faces in the Water and Mercè Rodoreda’s The Time of the Doves all use this form to gorgeous effect. What do you say to a comment like that?

Art … less? I think it’s just—I mean, what can you say? If you don’t like it you don’t like it. But I am always sceptical of people who say ‘this is art’ and ‘this is not art’, it all comes from pop culture reference. People look at Rothko paintings and say, ‘I could do that at home, just two colours’. But if you know the story about it, if you know—for instance, if you know how Rothko worked, the enormous amount of time he spent reflecting before doing … it’s the stream of consciousness thing again. Virginia Woolf did it. The ending of Ulysses incorporates it. Speaking about music again, jazz has always been interesting for me. You could say that the stream-of-consciousness method is my attempt at writing a Coltrane solo—okay, maybe not in the same tone, and not to say that I’m anywhere near as good as Coltrane!

Basically, I’m trying to defend myself against these notions. Andy Warhol, for instance. ‘Oh, it’s not art! It’s just a marketing campaign,’ people said. But it is art!

I don’t get a whiff, anywhere in this book, that it smells to be ‘written for commercial success’.

Mmm hmm.

I don’t get any sense of that.

I’ve now been travelling with this book for close to seven years. That’s quite a stream, too. When it was first published in Norway, I was pretty sure it’d be read by about three hundred people. Every time I wake up in a new hotel, I think, What am I doing here? This is crazy. I haven’t sold thousands and thousands of copies. Just to be able to travel with this kind of book that was, as you’ve said, not written to be a commercial success is amazing.

‘When they left in the morning, there was a fair chance they’d never come into harbour again, that they’d sink out there noiselessly and undramatically like a cat hiding away to die, and little notices would appear in the Russian papers in weeks that followed, sole proof that they ever existed.’

That’s an immaculate line.

I wanted to read that as example of an airtight line, as compared to those streams. Did you have any hurdles getting this book through a cadre of editors in Norway?

No, I didn’t. It could have been because my book before Buzz, the short-story collection, was written the same way; very long sentences and because I wanted—especially having a title like Ambulance.

So you’re hyper aware of the cadence?

Oh yes. I do constant re-writing as I sit and tap out rhythms: ‘this doesn’t work, what if I do that, what if I do this’. Many times I go back and think, OK now, I’ll have a full stop here, so I’ll actually have to take away this full stop there and do another comma over here …

Getting Buzz into UK English, then American English—they’re obviously not identical. Did you have any issues there with UWAP and Seven Stories Press?

I had virtually no contact with UWAP until it was printed in Australia, but I did work very closely with my American publisher. My translator of this book—a brilliant translator from England—translated it into British English … which was awkward for me because Scandinavians are more accustomed to American English. Much of the result in British English sounded so upper class!

And completely perpendicular to the book.

Yes! It made me feel distant throughout the novel, and my intent on wanting Mattias wanting him to be a ‘normal guy’—we couldn’t give him this stiff-upper-lip way of speaking! I was very happy when my American publisher said, ‘We’re going to have to Americanise this a bit.’

Really? This could be the first and last time I’ll ever here that from an artist. You were happy to have that done, to get back to your original starting point in the language.

I wanted to do that. Absolutely. When I read it, it’s much closer to how I thought it would sound.

Do you work directly with your translators? How much interaction did you have in getting your work into Hindi? Japanese?

Well, I—Hindi I didn’t have anything to do with, but usually I try to work as closely with my translators as possible, almost to the degree of moving in with them. I try to meet my translator prior to he or she starting so we can get to know each other, hang out, so they can begin to understand the way I talk and how to approach Buzz. You have to make sure they’re getting it, and they’ll usually send me a lot of questions by email. I collect all these various Q&As for those who might translate it in the future … who’ll get a fifty-page document with all those extant queries from previous translations. But my Russian translator, she never asked me a single question. We never met. I’m a bit freaked out about that because Russia and Norway are very different culturally, so there had to be many points in Buzz that did not compute well in Russian. When I finally got the Russian edition, each page was riddled with footnotes. That takes away much of the forward motion of the book. Very disjointing.

Speaking of disjointing, you’ve also written children’s literature and horror. Do you actively pursue strikingly different successive projects to keep things fresh?

It’s more just a random string of coincidences, because the YA horror story was commissioned work. It’s set on the Moon. People ask me what my obsession with the Moon is all about and I haven’t any such obsession. I’m not all that interested in the whole Moon thing. It just happened to seem like a good idea for both Buzz and this. I was asked, ‘Do you want to write a book for young adults?’ and—the original idea came from a festival in Stavanger during a year in which it was designated as the cultural capital of Norway. A publisher wanted a YA book to hand out to 10,000 kids.

I thought, That’s a brilliant idea. I’d love to do that. But I didn’t want to write about bullying, smoking or some teen anything topic, I wanted to scare them shitless. They had to give the final book to slightly older kids than originally planned. I went back to all the stuff I read in my early teens—Michael Crichton, Steven King—which I’d forgotten about completely. It probably forced me—like reading poetry, but from the opposite vantage—to be more aware of language-as-art when I went back to novels. YA novels are fast-paced and don’t require the art of cleverness in language.

Did you find it difficult to write succinctly for the YA book?

No, it was a great feeling … like doing something illegal. Writing a kids’ book was like watching porn in a way, because I didn’t have to think that much. All the energy goes into plotting, a completely new idea to me.

I want to ask about your writing of plays—a very different experience from writing novels, YA books, horror or porn. Did you find the restrictions of playwriting freeing or refreshing as compared to wide open spaces in novel writing?

It’s definitely not refreshing!

No?

Oh no! No, no. I’ve written four or five plays, all commissioned in different manners that I’ve felt obligated to agree to. Usually I am in a horrible mood while writing plays. For a long time I couldn’t figure out why that was so. I think it has to do with the fact that I am losing all the lines themselves, my control on them.

There’s no jazz in playwriting. It’s really more construction work than anything.

So my solution to the problem was that, while I was commissioned to do the work, I was never told what exactly to write about. So I’ve always been free to fill in that space. So one is a 500-page play that addresses genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia, very documentary-feel, done when I was an in-house playwright at the national theatre in Oslo. People who tend to go to theatres like this are middle-upper-class people and I just loved the idea of being able to lock them in the room for nine hours straight, confronting them to sit through Rwandan genocide and things they couldn’t care less about. It’s opening in 2013.

You mentioned previously that you started out as a poet. Did you intend to write plays and novels?

No. Never.

You cite Norwegian poet Jan Erik Vold as having a huge poetic influence on your writing. Are there poetic influences from way back in those brooding teenage days that you keep with you?

Oh yeah. Vold was really the starting point for me. Vold is very jazz. The all-time jazz greats are prominent in his work. Ginsburg and Creely are there too. I was introduced to the whole Beat Generation through Vold and it just blew my mind when I first read Howl.

I don’t read as much poetry as I should, but when I pick up a collection I know well, it opens my mind again. I think, This is why I’m writing, this is what I’d love to be doing. Unfortunately, I can’t write poetry I think anymore but I can still get all that energy from it. It rejuvenates me because, again, that was the reason for my writing at all. Poetry—the focus on each separate word and the potential strength of those words take me back to my source.

I’ve always found poetry to be the most efficient ways to write a thought, emotion, observation … but I typically get blank stares from novelists when I claim this.

No, no. I think that’s true. It’s the same with music. So many times I’ve thought, Why couldn’t I just be a great singer like Mattias? Instead of writing a 500-page novel, I could write a song that’s three minutes and thirty-two seconds. But I’m not able to do that at all. I feel bad when I read a great poem—there in ten, twenty lines is what I’ve been struggling with for ten years writing five books about.

Lastly, the book has been received well in the Faroe Islands. You go back about once a year?

Yes, it has. I go back at least once a year since Buzz came out. I was very relieved when they seemed to like it, especially when people told me I portrayed them—the Faroese culture—in a precise, accurate way. That was important. I didn’t want to glorify them, and I didn’t want to paint them as ‘the outsiders’ of the world.

When I first researched the area, luckily, there happened to be such a warehouse exactly as I had envisioned for the book. What has been a joy for me is that when I return, workers there tell me that tourists come by, asking if this is the factory that was in ‘that book’? That’s mind-blowing! I’ve always wanted to be a writer who moves people to travel or enchants them further into reading about a place. During brief moments when it seems as if I have succeed in doing that, I fall into severe delusions of grandeur.

Then I warp out of it.

Kent MacCarter is a writer and editor who lives in Melbourne with his wife, son and two cats. He’s the author of two poetry collections: In the Hungry Middle of Here (Transit Lounge Press, 2009) and Ribosome Spreadsheet (Picaro Press 2011). He is currently editing Joyful Strains: Expat Writers on Making Australia Home (Affirm Press, 2013), a non-fiction collection of diasporic, personal essays from authors who now live and write from Australia. MacCarter currently sits on the executive board of SPUNC: The Small Press Network and is active in Melbourne PEN. He is Managing Editor of Cordite Poetry Review.

One thought on “North jazz: Kent MacCarter talks to Johan Harstad about Buzz Aldrin: What Happened to You in All the Confusion? (guest post)

  1. Pingback: LiteraryMinded’s fifth blog anniversary spectacular! (part two) | LiteraryMinded

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