Per Petterson on writing, and pain

Yesterday I had two opportunities to hear Norwegian novelist Per Petterson speak. Last night the acclaimed author of Out Stealing Horses and I Curse the River of Time spoke before an audience at the Guthrie Theater, and earlier in the day he appeared on MPR’s Midmorning with Kerri Miller.

If I had known in advance just how much he would repeat himself in the two conversations, I might not have bothered attending the evening event. But I’m glad I did.

Petterson, a diminuitive, soft-spoken man, went into great detail about the way in which he writes, which many aspiring writers might find surprising.

Rather than start out with a plot outline, or a character sketch, Petterson simply begins writing.

I just start on the first page. Perhaps I have an image, or a first sentence. I think it’s going to be one story but then it turns into something else. And I tell the reader what I know as soon as I know it. I don’t keep any secrets – that’s cheating.

Petterson’s stories draw heavily from his own family life, whether it’s the character of the father in Out Stealing Horses or the mother in I Curse the River of Time. Petterson says he doesn’t write about what happened, but about what could have happened.

Petterson decided he needed to be a writer when he was 18. He wanted to create in others the feelings that his favorite authors created in him.

For the next two weeks, he said, he suffered with the desire to create something amazing, but in total fear of failure. That’s when he realized that to be a writer was to suffer.

Seventeen years later he finally finished his first story.

“When it’s unfinished it still has som much potential,” he chuckled, “but when it’s finished you see how small it really is.”

Petterson said he also doesn’t believe a good book should necessarily be entertaining, or easy. He said a truly great story should reveal to the reader some truth about their own life, and often times it’s a painful revelation. “I always move toward the pain,” he said, in a conversation with Graywolf Press’ Editor Fiona McCrae on the Guthrie stage.

McCrae, for her part, talked about what the editors at Graywolf call the “Petterson ache,” after one editor finished reading Out Stealing Horses and dubbed it “achingly good.”

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