When Dorthe Nors received an email from her American editor telling her that The New Yorker was to publish one of her short stories, she burst into tears. She was floored. She had no idea it had been submitted. But she was also flattered. She was the first Danish writer whose story was published by The New Yorker. After years of finding homes for her stories in American magazines, she had hit the big time by getting into the most prestigious.
That was in 2013. The following year, 15 brittle and brutal tales formed the collection Karate Chop. Capitalising on the book's success, two of Nors's mesmerising novels were translated into English, first Minna Needs Rehearsal Space (2014), which unfolds in a series of headlines, and earlier this year the longer, more conventional Mirror, Shoulder, Signal. Nors achieved greater recognition when the second was shortlisted for the Man Booker International Prize.
She talks of not feeling "entitled" at this stage in her career to win the Booker. (She lost out to Israeli author David Grossman.) She is in London to take part in a two-day event of talks and readings at the Southbank Centre called World on the Brink, which brings together established and emerging Nordic authors. Nors's Booker nomination, arguably the most validating praise in a run of accolades, sets her squarely in the "established" category. Getting there, however, was a long journey.
Born in 1970, Nors knew what she wanted to do at an early age. "I was 8, and my teacher told me what a writer was, and I thought: 'That's what I am.'" Her first novel was published in 2001 and her second in 2003, but she couldn't live from writing. She turned to teaching creative writing and literature, and also "some art-school stuff", then moved to Copenhagen and used her language skills to translate into Danish what she calls Norwegian and Swedish "pulp fiction". "I earned four times more translating these books than I did from writing my own," she says.
Today, she is in demand and can sell her stories to notable magazines and anthologies. A new story, In a Deer Stand, is included in a recent compilation of short Nordic fiction, The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat. The story follows the plight of man who runs away from his horrific marriage and hides out in a forest. He is a recognisable Nors character: desperate, ground-down, anxious to escape difficult circumstances, but unable to get anywhere.
“It’s incredibly interesting portraying people who have lost track of themselves,” Nors says. “They go nowhere, they don’t have a clue, but they try hard to work it out.”
There is one main difference between the protagonist of In a Deer Stand and Nors's other lead characters. In this rare instance, the beleaguered subject is male. Most of the stories in Karate Chop revolve around hurt or broken mothers, daughters, wives and girlfriends. "They are people in transitional positions," Nors explains. "People on the threshold of losing their morality, their sanity – and their pets. The Danish title captures this better. Kantslag means 'karate chop', but also 'a battle that takes place on the edge'."
In Minna Needs Rehearsal Space, the eponymous heroine yearns for a new start and surroundings after being jilted by her boyfriend. In Mirror, Shoulder, Signal, Sonja struggles with life, nerves and driving lessons. "I can't change gears," she complains, and like many a Nors creation she tries to move forward, but ends up taking wrong turns, hitting dead ends, stalling or crashing.
Despite the hard knocks dealt to Nors's characters – literally and figuratively – her stories are not pitch-black dramas, but bittersweet tragicomedies. Take the title story of Karate Chop, which features a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. "When I wrote that, I called a friend and said I had just written the most hilarious story. That sounds perverted, but it's a story about self-deception, how we lie to ourselves."
Her New Yorker story, The Heron, opens with a lighthearted lesson in how to feed the birds in Copenhagen's Frederiksberg Gardens. The serenity is then shattered with the discovery of suitcase in a pond containing a dismembered female body. "The American writer Fiona Maazel said she wants readers to laugh at the beginning of the sentence and cry at the end. I want that, too. I want to engage a reader's sense of humour and sadness."
Nors says that she gets just as much pleasure from writing short stories as novels. However, each requires a different approach. "With the novel, you can stand back and trust the power of the material. With the short story, the author must have strong presence. You also have to get to the heart of things very quickly. I call it hit-and-run literature. You get in there, you do your thing, and you get out again."
Some of Nors's stories are only a couple of pages long. All are masterclasses in precision. "I always feel that if a story runs over seven pages then I'm rambling, and there are two pages too many. In the last story in the collection, The Wadden Sea, there is this girl telling about her mother's alcoholism. You don't need any more than that to stir up people's minds and have them connect with another human being."
Interestingly, Nors admits to being a fan of Charles Dickens and his doorstop novels. “He has that sense of horror and laughter, the absurd and the human. All minimalist writers love maximalist writers because that’s the form we don’t do ourselves.”
Otherwise, Nors' influences are primarily Scandinavian, whether Danish compatriot Hans Christian Andersen, Norwegian writer Johan Borgen or Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. Although her work is far removed from Nordic noir, Nors acknowledges that writers such as Henning Mankell paved the way for her. "They broke down some walls, and writers like me snuck in because publishers suddenly thought that there was something going on in these Scandinavian countries."
I argue that Nors's fiction has one thing in common with Nordic noir: that dark streak. "Well, it's dark half the year and it's part of our mood," she says. And yet there is a paradox at play, because for all those dark tones, Denmark frequently tops the table as the world's happiest country.
“It’s because we have the phenomenon hygge [a characteristic of Danish culture that involves creating a cosy atmosphere to engender a feeling of well-being]. Apart from cocoa, knitted socks and fireplaces, it’s a way of having social control. You hygge with friends or family, and contain any stress or heartache.”
Sonja in Mirror, Shoulder, Signal flounders in Copenhagen, "the spiritual cesspool of Denmark". In The Wadden Sea, we are told "Copenhagen was one big fabrication". Does Nors believe something is rotten in Denmark?
"No, but my characters are divided there," she says. "I come from a generation where we were forced to move from the rural areas to the city to be educated. Human beings who are in that situation are constantly longing for the landscape they left behind. But we're also being shaped by modern life, so we belong in both categories. When I'm in the countryside, I'm craving trips to Copenhagen, Stockholm, London. And after a while of being in the city, I crave the landscape. Some of my characters feel the same way. Sonja is permanently split."
Nors says that her way of exploring a character's existential crisis is more of a Swedish approach than Danish. "Danes are more playful writers," she says. "All this Lego stuff – we can build words, fool with the language. The Swedish tradition is more classical.
"The way Swedes write, it's like they are looking into a dark forest. It gets darker, and slowly the meaning of life – or lack of meaning – emerges from the darkness. And then they keep on looking. When Danish people fear there is no meaning to life, instead of investigating it, they will say something funny, or hygge and light a candle, or say something rude. We don't want to deal with it. I want to go deeper into it."
And if those depths take readers further from their comfort zone? “My readers should never be comfortable in the first place,” she says. “Literature that is sunny and happy – don’t go there. It won’t be good for your soul.”