Agnes Ravatn: ‘Research is synonymous with procrastination, so I try to avoid it’
‘Just the thought of writing a historical novel is unbearable. To me, writing is about what could have happened, not what actually happened’
Agnes Ravatn: Research has always been synonymous with procrastination, so I try to avoid it. But I did have to do a massive amount of basic gardening research while writing The Bird Tribunal
What was the first book to make an impression on you?
Boy by Roald Dahl certainly made an impression. I read it as a child and actually literally fainted and woke up on the floor after reading the scene where the young Roald has a hernia removed. That’s when I knew that books can be powerful stuff.
What was your favourite book as a child?
I realise this may seem a little narrow-minded, but again: Roald Dahl. Matilda. Wonderful.
And what is your favourite book or books now?
Right now, I am reading the wonderful Norwegian author Vigdis Hjorth’s latest novel, and it is brilliant, as expected. In general, I turn to Montaigne’s essays again and again for amusement.
What is your favourite quotation?
“Can I join you ladies ... into one big lady?” – Groucho Marx
Who is your favourite fictional character?
The Norwegian novelist Dag Solstad is one of my favourite authors, and his books are populated with a number of deeply tragic and disturbingly realistic characters. My favourite is Bjørn Hansen, from the novels Novel 11, Book 18 and Novel 17. Highly recommended!
Which do you prefer – ebooks or the traditional print version?
I prefer printed books by far, although I have to admit I do read a lot of ebooks because it is so convenient. But the whole reading experience is rubbish compared with paper, so I don’t fear for the future of the print book at all. Its technology is simple, brilliant and almost unchanged throughout centuries.
What is the most beautiful book you own?
Almost all my books are well-worn paperbacks and none of them are particularly beautiful, but books are to be read, not watched.
Where and how do you write?
At home, from when I wake up, with a fountain pen and Tomoe River paper, with my phone and computer shut off. Yes, I am a recovering internet addict.
What book changed the way you think about fiction?
I think here in Norway, Karl Ove Knausgaard’s books certainly changed the way lots of people think about what and how to write, including myself. He taught me that if you just write subjectively enough, then you might hit something that almost everyone can relate to. It reminds me of a Kurt Vonnegut quote: “Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.”
What is the most research you have done for a book?
To me, research has always been synonymous with procrastination, so I try to avoid it. If I suddenly start researching something, I immediately get suspicious. But I did have to do a massive amount of basic gardening research while writing The Bird Tribunal. My nightmare is that The National Gardening Association will run a fact check and slaughter the book.
What book influenced you the most?
Lord of the Flies made a deep and scarring impression, and while not necessarily influencing my writing, it influenced my view on human nature.
What book would you give to a friend’s child on their 18th birthday?
A nice notebook. My favourite notebook is the Seven Seas Writer from Nanami Paper!
What book do you wish you had read when you were young?
Ulysses, just so I could stop feeling guilty about not having read it as an adult.
What advice would you give to an aspiring author?
Write what you want to read.
What weight do you give reviews?
I don’t avoid reviews. On the contrary I often find them enlightening: “Oh, so that’s what my book is about!” Bad, stupid reviews are irritating, but I give them little weight. Bad, intelligent reviews hurt. Good reviews tend to glance off.
Where do you see the publishing industry going?
I prefer not to think about it!
What writing trends have struck you lately?
Writing trends rarely strike me, I think, and I don’t actively seek them.
What lessons have you learned about life from reading?
Don’t believe everything you read.
What has being a writer taught you?
Which writers, living or dead, would you invite to your dream dinner party?
Michel de Montaigne, Fran Lebowitz, Brian O’Nolan and Lydia Davis would make a nice party. I don’t think they would need my company; I would just be in the kitchen preparing the food and serving lots of wine.
What is the funniest scene you’ve read?
I remember reading a biography of F Scott Fitzgerald and finding the scene where he and Zelda are at a big, posh party in LA and collect all the purses they can find and boil them in an enormous saucepan very, very funny. But now I find myself old and boring, and I can’t stop thinking: What if that was my purse in the tomato sauce?
What is your favourite word?
If you were to write a historical novel, which event or figure would be your subject?
Just the thought of writing a historical novel...! It’s unbearable. To me, writing is about what could have happened, not what actually happened.
What sentence or passage or book are you proudest of?
I am very proud of The Bird Tribunal, both the story in itself, the tone and the characters.
What is the most moving book or passage you have read?
I have to name another Norwegian author, who has the rare gift of writing in such a way that everyone who stumbles across her stories starts to cry! Ingvild H Rishøi is a young and extremely gifted author who writes socially concerned books without the politics destroying the beautiful prose. I highly recommend Vinternoveller (Winter Short Stories).
If you have a child, what book did you most enjoy reading to them?
I have an 18-month-old son and he is currently obsessed with In the Town All Year Round so I have to read that a couple of hours every day, whether I enjoy it or not. I look forward to the day that he is old enough to read Maria Parr’s wonderful, funny and moving children’s books. She is a new Astrid Lindgren.
Agnes Ravatn is author of The Bird Tribunal, translated from the Norwegian by Rosie Hedger. Orenda Books, £8.99