by Gabriele Ottaviani
Convenzionali is so glad to interview Ingebjørg Berg Holm (picture by Helge Skodvin)
Where did this novel come from?
My husband told me about the German weather troops that stayed on Svalbard during the WW2. Meteorology was a very important to the planning of military strategy, and both sides had secret operations at Svalbard to make weather observations. A German officer leading a weather troop was officially the last in the world to surrender, many months after the end of the war. Svalbard is very much in the middle of nowhere, and it was not a high priority to send an expedition up there. This fascinating story inspired me. I thought of the people stationed in the frozen wilderness, most of them scientists, not soldiers. The storm raging outside, the war tearing the world apart. They are locked in, confined to small quarters, tension is high. I found it to be the perfect setting for a thriller! And then, something else rose in me, and turned the story upside down. I don’t know where it came from, the novel just poured into my head and became something different. In the finished novel, the story of the female meteorologist stationed at Svalbard during WW2, is just a back-story to one of the protagonist’s grandmother. But I think -or hope- that “Raging bear” contains some of the claustrophobic tension from my original idea.
Why the choice of such a particular setting?
Svalbard was always there, in the original idea, and it was this remote, wild location that inspired me. When I went up there, I was deeply moved. It is a place like no other, wild, stark and dark. (I went during the dark season, when there is no sun at all.) The settlement there feels absurd- a modern, Norwegian village, placed in the middle of nowhere. The village is completely dependent on coal for energy, and all goods has to be shipped in. Not sustainable at all! But the people up there feels the climate change acutely in their everyday lives, and are very concerned. They live very much as part of nature, with a profound love and compassion for the willderness surrounding them. It is one of the strangest, most beautiful places I have ever been. As a human, you feel small and vulnerable up there, in the Ultima Thule, where we really should not be able to exist. But in reality, we are more of a danger to Svalbard than it is to us. We have already warmed the oceans so much that the melting of Svalbard’s glaciers is inevitable- we know it is bound to happen, but not how fast. Svalbard is a paradoxical, magical, beautiful and terrifying place, perfect for the finale of my novel. The rest of the novel is set in Bergen, where I live. I have previously written two historical novel set in a small village in a part of Norway I did not know from before. So I thought it would be a nice change to be able to have a character walking down a street or visiting a cafè without having to do hours of research to write it!
Who are its protagonists?
Sol is a minister, and she was married to Njål, a climate scientist. They both wanted children, but Sol only suffered miscarriages. Njål left her for Nina, a younger scientist that he was the tutoring. She did not want to have children, but got pregnant, and they had Lotta. Their relationship fell apart, and at the start of the novel, Njål and Nina are fighting for academic credit and a place in a forthcoming research project at Svalbard. They are also in the start of what is to be a hostile custody battle. Sol grieves her losses, and watches Njål and Nina from afar, longing for a child she never had. My three protoganists each has different relationships to nature, which reflects in their whole personalities. They are presented to the reader in intimate referates of their thoughts, and I have tried to give theme distinct and unique voices.
How do work, love and parenting combine?
I assume that you ask for me, personally? It is tough and hectic at times! I work full time as an architect, and was only able to take about 1,5 months leave to write this novel, and that is very far from enough time. It took me about two years from idea to publishing, so that was a very intense period, working 8 hours as an architect and then writing in the evenings and weekends. My husband is the key to making it work. We are a great team, and we are very Scandinavian parents, equally close to the kids. So in periods that I work a lot, he steps up, taking care of all the planning, cleaning, cooking and logistic planning that a family needs. I felt like a reversed 1950-s man, locked in my study, saying “Not now, mother is writing, go ask daddy” to the kids. Spending time together as a couple, not only parents and co-planners in the family logistics, is extremely important to make it work. We have fixed date-nights that are sacred to us both. But really, the short answer to your question is: I have a wonderful husband. P. S. As I am writing this, I am sitting in the common room on a family trip to a cabin, squeezing in some productive time in the midst of the family chaos. My daughter hangs on my shoulder, reading what I’m writing and exclaims: “And daughter! You also have a wonderful daughter, you must write that!.” (She is correct, off course.) Maybe that glimpse from my life also answers your question.
How are architecture and literature alike? What is the role of literature in our society?
I answer these two questions in the same go, as they are connected for me.
Both as an architect and as a novelist, I rely on empathy. To create buildings and environments that supports the indented use, you have to put yourself in the place of who is going to use the architecture. What are their reality, what are their needs? I can’t create what I myself would like, I have to understand the needs of people that are different from me. Empathy is a skill unique to humans, and it is a great tool for an architect. And writing novels, I also have use my ability to imagine someone that is different from me. In Norwegian, we have a word, “innlevelse”. It means “in-living”, the act of putting yourself in another person’s life and experience what they experience. To me, that is what writing fiction is all about: Trying to engage my empathy to cast myself into other people’s lives. I think that literature, at its best, can engage and enhance the empathy in both the writer and the user. It stubbornly believe that there is something universal in all humans, and grabbing on to that can make us able to understand and feel compassion for people very unlike unself. Without empathy and a belief in the universal, writing or reading even auto-fiction would be pointless. Not even Norwegian middle class men are exactly like Karl Ove Knausgård, so reading “My struggle” would be meaningless even to persons quite similar to him, without empathy, “innlevelse” and the connections through the universal human traits. Literature, and also the whole idea of peaceful human civilization, relies on humans unique skill of being able to feel other people’s feelings. Literature can train that skill.