Lena Andersson is a Swedish novelist and a columnist for Dagens Nyheter, Sweden’s largest morning paper. She won the August Prize and Svenska Dagbladets litteraturpris in 2013 for her novel Wilful Disregard. A year later she wrote a sequel with the same main character, Ester Nilsson, Limited Liability.
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Your book was very well received by the literary critics, but what was the readers’ reaction? Do you have in mind an „ideal reader” for your novels?
The readers reactions have been manifold and diverse, but mainly positive and uplifting for me personally. The identification with the characater Ester Nilsson is strong with many, and she also annoys quite a few; they seem embarrassed to realize that the way she acts and thinks is the way they have acted, felt, thought and behaved.
The reader I have in mind for my novels is myself, i.e. someone who is like me with the same preferences, interests and sense of style. I do not believe in the originality of human beings, but in their basic similarities. People are not all the same, far from it, but there is a core within us that we share, so if I write for a reader that could be me, I write for many others. What I never do is speculate about what a potential reader would like.
What did it mean to you, personally and professionally, to receive the Augustpriset? Do such literary awards have any influence on the success of a book in Sweden?
That particular award, the August Prize (named after 19th century writer August Strindberg) has a considerable impact on sales figures, and also on the interest from abroad to buy the rights. I sold several more books because ot the award. Other than that I do not think the award matters much.
The lucidity with which Esther´s feelings are being analyzed could be interpreted as a cold, masculine way of writing. What do you think about these conventional limitations of writing and what does it mean to be a woman writer in Sweden?
I have made it my mission to eradicate presumptions about innate, inevitable and collective differences between the sexes. For sure, the gender roles that we are taught to comply with from an early age do affect us, and impact our self-perception, expectations on ourselves and other’s expectations upon us. I do not think that there is a female way of writing or analyzing things and a masculine way that is different. Lucidity is not a male prerogative, it is a matter of practice and temperament. However, one could claim that there is a feminine and a masculine way of analyzing and writing, but that pertains to gender roles and not to the sexes. That is, men can then write in a feminine style and women in a masculine, if we choose those two terms, that I find to be false and unfortunate. I never think of myself as a woman writer of course, but as a writer. Ester Nilsson could very well have been a male character and had the exact same problems with love.
Do you think that the ever growing independence of modern people is becoming an obstacle in the path of building enduring relationships?
No. If people want independence then that is what they should seek and have. The important thing is that they agree with those that they enter into relationships with about the degree of independence they want. It is a matter of contract and discussion. People need to calculate if the indepence is worth its cost and vice versa. The main thing is the agreement. My book is about precisely this. Ester Nilsson is very clear about what she wants and rather open about it, whereas Hugo Rask is vague and unwilling to communicate either his wishes or his lack of them. It is a collision of values between them. No one can be forced to engage with someone else, this Ester knows, but actions and words have consequences. One cannot engage with someone else as Hugo Rask does, and then pretend it has no repercussions. To engage in a relationship with another person is like establishing a contract with her or him, unless you clearly announce otherwise, and Hugo, according to Ester and myself, is guilty of breach of contract, even though the contract is merely mental and not written down. The contract can have any kind of terms, but to pretend there are no terms at all is wrong and we all know it.
The detailed analysis of Esther´s feelings reminded me of Ingmar Bergman´s movies dealing with feminine psychology (The Silence, Persona, Cries and Whispers etc.). Was there any such comparison between your novel and Bergman´s films or is it true that he is more renowned and celebrated abroad than in Sweden?
No one, I dare say, has thought of Ingmar Bergman upon reading my first novel about Ester! He is enormously important in Sweden but even more so abroad. I certainly like Persona, but even more I admire his writing. His manuscripts are like novels, and some of them are published as novels and I have read them with great interest and learned about both writing and people from them. I am not sure that Ester is a good example of „feminine psychology”. A woman is not supposed to pursue a man the way she does, especially not in the face of failure, but rather sit still and wait to be courted.
Beyond the elaborate analysis of love, your novel deals with the relationship between reality and language in a very profound manner giving the impression that this is, in fact, its most important stake. Can you tell us more about your interest in psycholinguistics and the mysteries of human mind?
It is true that this is the book’s main subject, or one of them. I have written extensively on the relationship between language and reality in my columns and in other publications, and also in the second novel about Ester (published in Sweden late autumn 2014). It is a complicated philosophical matter that philosphers have dealt with for thousands of years. It pertains to the core question of what consiousness is, what we are able to know about reality and so on. My assumption is that the human consciousness is able to perceive reality correctly in such matters that have to do with survival. We would not have persisted unless we perceived the world as it presents itself. But that is just the basic level.
Obviously there are many things we are not naturally apt to interpret correctly, for instance space/the universe. The structure of language seems to be something we are born with. But language presents a model of the world, it is not the world itself. Language is unreliable, it is not exact, it is like evolution itself, what works is good enough. Hence the approximate nature of language. The words and sentences are necessarily constructions, interpretations of reality, not mirrors of it. Without this gap between reality and language, this insecurity in the relation between them, there could be nor humor, no absurdism, no lies, no different perspectives upon things, no dynamics or interpretation of the world – in short, no literature. The analytical and psycholinguistic challenge, then, is to understand what this important gap between reality and language does to our thinking about reality, especially our delusions and misunderstandings of it.
Being so concerned with communication and language, what´s your opinion on ever increasing digitalization of the contemporary world? Do you think we find ourselves on the brink of a new era for humanity (like the acquiring of speech or the invention of writing)?
Spontaneously I would say no, because I think that the more it changes the more it stays the same. We are after all biological being, consists of biological matter. The digitalization is just a new tool to perform the same functions and pursue and fulfil the same dreams. Our cognition does not change, our brain structure remains the same. But what do I know, I am cognitively uncapable of imagining the future. When I reflect upon questions like these I think about Plato and Aristotle. We understand the problems they deal with and their suggestions for solving them and how to think about them. Thinks may hold for anothter 2500 years, or not. People constantly adapt to their new environments and can’t escape the laws of nature, that is all I know.
The main characters in Wilful Disregard discuss about politics, economics, philosophy, terrorism, revolutions and other contemporary issues of great importance. What do you consider to be the writer’s role in our times? In your opinion, is it possible for a writer to influence in some way the world we live in through his work?
The writer has no given role, he or she has to decide for themselves what they want to write, and usually it is what they are capable of writing. I know for a fact that writers of all kinds influence readers and there thinking, and their sense of language, since I have been influenced by text for as long as I have been reading.
How do your two activities, journalism and writing, get along? Do you believe that writing for a daily newspaper has shaped and influenced your literary writing style or do you consider them to be two different things?
I have been writing in newspapers as a critic and contemporary analyst, but I was never a journalist with a journalistic method or outlook. In my view, that is something totally different than being a writer. My reflections are not journalistic, rather essayistic. In my columns I have been forced to really verbalize my thoughts and views, and carefully scrutinize them, which has had a mainly positive impact on my fiction and my thinking especially, which has sharpened due to the columns. From June this year, 2015, I no longer write reflections for the newspaper. It has become increasingly difficult to combine them with other kinds of writing. I will concentrate on my books from now on.
Could you tell us a few words about the literary world in Sweden? Being a writer is considered a full time job or rather a hobby? What kind of books are being read? Do Swedish writers get actively involved in promoting their books and being in contact with their readers?
This question is not possible for me to answer. The arena is diverse, and so are the readers, and the writers.
One of Margaret Atwood’s 10 Rules of Writing is: „Do back exercises. Pain is distracting”. Esther, the character in your novel is very fond of running and you did cross-country skiing for a while. Are you still practicing any sport nowadays? If you do, is it helping you with your literary activity?
It is true that back pain is distracting. I have severe back pain, in spite of all my exercising, or maybe because of it. I try to be in good shape physically.
Are there any books or authors that influenced your writing or which you consider fundamentally important for you and your work?
There are so many I could not begin to mention them for fear of forgetting someone.
© foto Lena Andersson: Ulla Montan.