It was mid-January and we had our first master class at the Seagull Books store. The guest was Norwegian author, poet, translator, literary critic and librarian Brit Bildøen (and yet I think I have left out a couple of feathers in her cap).
The session with Brit was fascinating primarily because she is, so far, the only author we’ve met who doesn’t write in English. To hear about the processes of writing and translation, from a person who does both, was intriguing. The focus of the conversation that took place was Brit’s novel Seven Days in August (2016), published by Seagull Books.
Brit covered a whole range of areas, including the writing process of an author and insight into her work of translation into Norwegian. Seven Days in August came out of a desire to write about the 2011 terrorist attacks in Oslo. It is a particularly sore subject for the country because, unlike India and other countries that have more or less gotten used to the idea, if not the actual horror of terrorist attacks, Norway had never experienced anything like it since the Second World War.
Despite wanting to write about the way the 2011 attacks affected their lives and psyche, Brit wanted to do it differently. She didn’t just want to write about the time immediately after the bombings but, rather, write about the future—about people’s lives, years after the tragedy. She sought to explore how, years later, the incident continues to infect the lives and relationship of a couple, Otto and Sofie, over a period of seven days.
As writers, we often start-off with an idea which gains a life of its own and, at times, resembles nothing of the original perhaps because the story progressed differently than we had imagined, or that other ideas and emotions seeped in and demanded a complete transformation of thought process. As an author hoping to publish a novel, how far do you think you can be in the writing process when the original idea has drastically evolved?—Brit was halfway through her novel when she revised it!
She began the novel with a specific narrative in mind, but the principal theme changed when a particular train of thought fused with the story. The politics surrounding the terror attacks as well certain creative tropes and emotions thrust the story in a new direction. This was a major point of interest for all of us because it’s so hard to imagine going back and reworking something from scratch, for inspiration demands it!
Another topic addressed, which writers might feel insecure or doubtful about—I know I have—was how to write about something you haven’t experienced yourself, especially, in the voices of different characters. I loved what Brit said regarding the process. To begin with, there’s the ‘well-known’ but can’t-be-stated-enough-times thumb rule: Read. Read. Read. Read. Read.
A couple of lines from Dr Seuss’ I Can Read with My Eyes Shut aptly sum up the current issue:
The more that you read, the more things you will know.
The more that you learn, the more places you’ll go.
It goes without saying, but helps to constantly remember, that the more stories and information we absorb, the more we learn. The more books and novels we read—the more characters, voices, opinions, perspectives, and psyches we know of and understand. After that, we should let our imagination run wild!
As Brit said, a writer essentially takes on different personas in the course of a novel. Each comes with its own background, personality, experiences and tastes. As a writer, one should try to immerse into the skin of characters, pretend to be different people, and then write.
As to the dilemma of writing about things we haven’t experienced—how strong is your desire to share the story of something in the way you’ve thought about it? One of the key moments of the master class was when Brit spoke about how the tragedy caused massive ripples in the lives of the people, especially because Norway was known to be one of the most peaceful countries in the world. The terror attacks led to a loss of innocence.
She shared her fears and doubts on writing a story based on the tragic events of 2011 because she hadn’t personally experienced the loss. However, like most Norwegians, she felt so deeply about the incident and wanted to explore the long-lasting repercussions in ordinary people’s lives that she didn’t want to leave it unwritten.
Speaking about the quandary translators face between translating and transliterating a text, Brit mentioned a crucial aspect—that of retaining the essence, good language and fluency of the original work. These are more important than getting the exact wording right. The same point came up in another master class later with Tess Lewis, an American translator of French and German. Tess also spoke about the issues of finding the right words that not only convey the meaning of the text but also the flavour of the language and the story/idea/theme.
The session with Brit Bildøen encapsulated the groundwork of writing a novel. From the genesis of an idea, its development and transformation, to dealing with social and personal experiences and expectations—all these are the basic stages writers struggle with and overcome. She inspired a sense of confidence as a writer when she shared her own stories and experiences.
Not to forget, she also read an excerpt from the first chapter of Seven Days in August. I was already interested in the book, but as she read the passage, my desire to read it increased. I loved the lyrical, dreamy and penetrating narrative. So, of course, I did the only thing that was possible for me to do after the session. I bought a copy of the book! Moreover, it’s always fun and exciting to have a book signed by the author for you!