Monday, December 2, 2013

A Sense of (Some Other) Place: Vidar Sundstøl

Today I welcome Norwegian Author Vidar Sundstol. In 2008 the first book in the Minnesota-trilogy, Drømmenes land, was released and was later awarded the Riverton Prize for Best Norwegian Crime Fiction. He is the author of six novels, including the Minnesota Trilogy, written after he and his wife lived for two years on the north shore of Lake Superior. The Land of Dreams was also nominated for the Glass Key for best Scandinavian crime novel of the year, and the series has been translated into eight languages. The remaining novels in the trilogy—Only the Dead and The Ravens—are both forthcoming from the University of Minnesota Press.

Vidar Sundstøl:

Scandinavian crime fiction has become famous for, among other things, a certain "sense of place". A strong presence of the landscape itself in all its cyclic variations, although with an affinity for rain, fog, blizzards etc. (the sun hardly ever shines in Scandinavian crime novels). The Nordic landscapes have become part of a very successful recipe. In the recent years writers like Stieg Larsson and my fellow Norwegian Jo Nesbø have conquered the world.

My first book in English, The Land of Dreams, has just been published by University of Minnesota Press. This crime novel is also the first installment in a trilogy usually referred to as The Minnesota Trilogy from the US state where it takes place. One could perhaps say that by doing so I disregard an important ingredient of the famous Scandinavian crime soup: the Nordic landscapes and the aspect of armchair travelling in reading. When readers open a Nordic crime novel they'd like to be taken to Scandinavia. Why turn to a Norwegian author for a story from the US? From say... Minnesota?

First of all: I like disregarding and disrespecting the rules of writing. Except for one: my readers deserve the very best. Always. Any other rule is there for me to break if I find it necessary in order to fulfill the one that matters. That's why there is no Scandinavia in my crime novels (only a lot of Americans of Scandinavian descent). That's why the reader will meet Indians there, the Ojibwe people living on the Grand Portage Reservation. Simply because the best story I ever found I found in Minnesota. On the rugged North Shore of Lake Superior.

I used to live there, in small towns like Two Harbors, Lutsen, and Tofte - places where people call and tell you to get better before you even know you're under the weather. Today I live in Norway again, but my wife is American and we spent our first years together in Minnesota. She was employed by the US Forest Service as a biologist. The Forest Service has its own police officers who are upholding the law in places like the Superior National Forest where my wife worked. I used to visit her at the Tofte Ranger Station, where I also saw these policemen and - women, dressed in Forest Service uniforms, but with a gun on their hip.

The hero of the novel, Lance Hansen, is a forest cop in the Superior National Forest, essentially supervising an area of nearly 4 million acres between the Canadian border and Lake Superior. One morning by the shore of the great lake he finds a naked man smeared with blood, but without wounds on his body. Nearby he discovers another man, also naked, with his skull bashed in. It seems like an open-and-shut case.

Of course it isn't. Lance remembers seeing his brother drive down the dirt road that leads to the scene of the crime the night before. Before he gets a chance to ask him, his brother shows up at the Ranger Station lying about where he's been, not knowing that Lance has seen him.

Thus starts the story about Lance and Andy Hansen, the Cain and Abel of Minnesota.

I pieced it together from bits and bobs like I always do. Things I read in the local newspaper. The sheriff's reports. My wife's intelligent musings on what a North Shore policeman might be like. Books on local history. But most of all from my own fascination with the landscape and its cultural mix over the last 300 years: Ojibwe indians, French fur traders, Scandinavian fishermen, all thrown in the American melting pot, but somehow still not quite melted yet.

The book has been described as "Nordic Noir with an American twist". For my own part I am not that fond of labels. They make me feel like a product. Something like "Norwegian salmon". The Land of Dreams contains the ghost of an Ojibwe medicine man. How Norwegian is that for you?

The next two books in the trilogy - Only the Dead and The Ravens- will be published in the US in the fall of 2014 and 2015, respectively.

To my great surprise The Land of Dreams was an instant hit when it was published in Norway and won the Riverton Prize for best Norwegian Crime Novel of 2008. Since then I have learned that the success of this book, and indeed to the entire Minnesota trilogy, is partly due to that famous "sense of place" anyway. It's just that in my books it's some other place.

The Land of Dreams is translated by Tiina Nunnally, an award-winning literary translator. Her many translations include Sigrid Undset’s epic trilogy Kristin Lavransdatter, Per Olov Enquist’s The Royal Physician’s Visit, and several novels by Camilla Läckberg. Nunnally was recently appointed Knight of the Royal Norwegian Order of Merit for her efforts on behalf of Norwegian literature in the United States. 

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