From South to Northwest: a travel to Norway with the amazing Ruth Lillegraven

by Gabriele Ottaviani

Ruth Lillegraven (photo by Ann Sissen Holte) has written a formidable novel, full of very significant themes: here are her answers to our questions.

How would you describe Norway to those who don’t know it?
Ah, well, where to start: Norway is a small country far up north, with quite cold temperatures compared to Italy. We are quite few inhabitants compared to the area, and since we’ve been lucky enough to find oil, we’ve had a quite privileged economy for many years. We are world known among tourists from all over the world for fjords and mountains and prices way above average. 

What city is Oslo? And what are its inhabitants like?
Oh, to ask me: how is Oslo, is to ask me: how is your parents? Or your kids? I feel unable to give an objective view on Oslo. I moved to Oslo in 1997, 19 years old, right from a farm in the western part of Oslo (yes, like Clara – but luckily my family is a lot more harmonic). Although I now live in the woods in the outskirts of Oslo, and have done that for a decade, Oslo is the town of my life. It’s beautifully surrounded by big woods and the fjord. It’s a small city compared to most European capitals, of course. And like in most cities, it has big social differences. Clara and Haavard in my book live in one of the most privileged areas.

How is Norwegian society?
Ah, very big question to try to answer in a few sentences. The oil income has also made it possible to have a good welfare system, that we are proud of and grateful for. But things are not perfect anywhere.

What influence has Covid had on Norway?
As all other countries we are influenced by this global pandemia in so many levels. But, I have to say, we have been quite lucky so far, compared to Italy and most other countries. We’ve had low numbers of deaths compared to many other countries. It is difficult to say why, maybe thanks to the spread population. But of course Covid 19 has changed social life and life in general to an extreme degree for many people. And the economic consequences for many people are enormous. Many people have lost their jobs, or their businesses have been ruined. For instance it is very serious for the cultural life and for the restaurants, pubs etc. It’s really strange times. Actually, I ended up writing a collection of poetry inspired by this strange springtime and the Covid 19-situation, it was published this autumn. 

For us Mediterranean people Scandinavia is the land of social democracy and welfare, of wealth, well-being, tranquility, sobriety: is this really so?
Heh… Difficult to answer. On many levels I think it is so, yes. I think the Scandinavian countries all are a bit different, although they also have a lot in common. When it comes to Norway, we’ve been lucky to have this privileged economy and that has made it possible to build good welfare systems. But no systems are without holes and weaknesses.

What does Norway need today?
That’s a big question and it can be many answers to that. Personally, I think we need to learn how to deal with the climate-crisis and the worlds refugee-crisis. And maybe have a plan B for how to cope with it when the end of the oil comes…

What can be done to better protect children’s rights?
Well, I’m no expert in the field, but I guess one most work at different fields at the same time: with the laws (like my Clara does), with education and schooling of different professions, with information, within the police etc.

How has Norway changed after Utøya?
That’s very difficult to say. I think almost every Norwegian were deeply shocked and saddened by 22th of July 2011 (it was not only the shooting at Utøya, but also a bombing of some of the governmental buildings in the center of the city). I think we all thought that now everything would become really different. But it’s not easy to conclude on any very big differences. In some ways security is better of course. I worked in the ministry of Transport at that time, and I remember coming back to work (in the building opposite the main building where the prime minister’s office was, the one that Clara describes in the book). It was suddenly a different, more strict security system. But it was also very strange to see the physical wounds in the buildings and the streets, again just symbols of the many destroyed life. Many of us hoped for a warmer, more tolerant society after that trauma. But as I said, I’m not sure to what degree anything has really changed. Well, one thing is that maybe we realize that things like that can happen also here, on our “safe island”.

What is the meaning of justice for you?
Ah, that’s maybe the most difficult question of all you’ve asked me. It’s so philosophical, so essential. I don’t feel able to say something very clever about that. I guess justice is about all people been threated the same way and with the same respect – and given the same chances. And unfortunately, justice on that level has never taken place, and maybe never will. In my book Haavard believes that justice is possible, while Clara says that there is no such thing as justice. And maybe they are both right. Anyway it’s something we should all work for, I think, every day.

How important is the background of origin in a person’s history? Your protagonists come from very different backgrounds…
Ah, that differs from person to person and case to case, I think. But yes, Clara and Haavard are very different, and very much products of their cultural background: Clara as a daughter of a farmer/soldier and a mental ill mother, raised at an desolated farm in the wilder, western part of Norway. Haavard, on his side, from a privileged family with old money and a lot of cultural capital, in the “sunny side” of Oslo. Clara feels he has “come easily to it all” – and I guess she’s right. So, yes, they are opposites, and that influences their marriage to a great deal. The differences that once maybe attracted them to each other, is now something that irritates them.

You are also a poet and playwright: in Italy now due to Covid theaters are closed, if you had the power to reopen them what kind of show would you offer?
Well, I’ve been lucky enough to write one playwright from zero, and also to dramatize one of my poetry books. To work with the theatre was really like a brand new, and very exciting, world for me. And I really hope to do that again in the future. It’s so sad with the closed theatres, it’s the same thing in Oslo now, one of the many sad effect of this situation. I am really looking forward to the reopening of the theatres. But what I would like to write about? Well, it’s not a new thought, but for quite a while I have been wanting to write about something that involves both the climate crisis and a story about a family and their (maybe dysfunctional) relations. And dark and difficult love. Climate & love. A quite vague idea, but …

Why do you write?
To be honest, I think the true answer is that I write because it brings me joy and pleasure and a sense of meaning in my own life – at least at its best. And because, after all these years (fifteen years of writing, although only the last fice as a fulltime writer) I feel that it is the only thing I really know how to do (although sometimes I don’t think I know how to do that either).

What does literature represent for you?
For me personal, above all: I way to dream myself away, take part in other people’s life, sometimes in other places and times. It can be a way to escape from my one life, and therefore also a way to relax. But good literature also makes us brighter, I guess. Brighter – and better – human beings.

Who are Clara and Haavard, your protagonists?
She’s a jurist, he’s a pediatrician. She’s from a small farm in western Norway, he’s from a privileged part of Oslo – the capital – where they now live. They tend to live a perfect life, but they live separate lifes, in a way, and they both have secrets that they hide from each other. He’s a warm, easy-going person, she is more uptight, I think many regards her as chilly or cold, too. She has sharp edges, in a way, and it was important for me that she was like that, a more edgy and demanding character (like in the TV-series I mention below) than many female characters. They have twin sons, and I think one can say that Haavard is a more close and caring parent than Clara. They are both very engaged in their work – and have a common interest in the work for better conditions for vulnerable children.

Your novel will became a movie: if you could choose, who will be Clara and Haavard, and why?
Ah, lovely question. I’ve always thought of Clara as a beautiful, chilly, blonde lady, like Cate Blanchett, Uma Thurman, Robin Wright Penn, Elizabeth Debicki. As for Haavard, I really don’t know. Any suggestion?

Michael Fassbender. Michael Fassbender is my suggestion… How important are history and the past in life?
That differs from person to person, I think. For some persons, the past defines who they are – and has enormous impact on their lives. For others, not so much. In my book, traumas in Clara’s past are very defining for her and how she acts. And also what happened to her father as a soldier in Lebanon has had big impact on her too.

Upcoming projects?
Well, these days I am really trying to finish a new, second book about Clara – I hope it can be published here in Norway the spring of 2021. After that: maybe the climate&love-play, and a third book about Clara. I am also working on a new series for kids, also some kind of “crime fiction” – about environmental cases, its for kids from 6 years and up. Book 1 and 2 came this year, the two next will come next year. This autumn I also have a new collection of poems, the first one in 4 years, called something like “These are different days” – it was written this spring/summer and its partly about the strange year of 2020 and how Covid 19 affects the world and our daily lifes.

Your favorite book and movie, and why.
Ah, it is SO many. So difficult to choose. One favorite author, actually from the same region as I come from in Norway, is Jon Fosse, he’s translated into many languages, also Italian, I would believe. One American novel – very different from Fosse’s book – that made me cry my heart out when I finally read it last summer, was A little life by Hanya Yanagihara. A rich, deeply moving book about how cruel and beautiful life can be. As for films, the last years I have to admit that it has been quite a lot of TV-series the last years, after I became a mother 8 years ago, and Netflix and HBO took over the world. Homeland, The Americans and House of cards are among those who has inspired me in my work with the book, and maybe especially in the creation of my main character, Clara. Money heist, Fauda and Le bureau are other favorites. But this reminds me that I’ve seen too few real movies the last decade! That has too be changed.



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