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Last Updated: Wednesday, 2 November 2005, 12:16 GMT
Norwegian author reveals secrets
By Richard Allen Greene
BBC News

"When you drive a car, if you look right in front of the car, you will crash. You have to look ahead," Norwegian author Per Petterson suggests.

Per Petterson
Petterson won two top literary prizes in Norway for his novel
Sensible advice for those behind the wheel, certainly, but also a successful formula for a writer hailed as one of Norway's best living storytellers.

He recently visited London as the UK honoured the centenary of Norwegian independence - and read from his latest novel, Out Stealing Horses, before an audience including Norway's Queen Sonja.

Afterwards, he made a revelation surprising in a novelist: "I hate plots."

But the admission makes sense if you have read Out Stealing Horses, which scooped two of Norway's top literary prizes.

The book is full of incident, from the shocking shooting death of a child to a man abandoning his wife and children.

But primarily it is a tender - in both senses, touching and painful - exploration of the relationship between a father and son in the wake of World War II.

Unexpected demand

Petterson started with little more than that notion and a closing scene of a mother buying her son his first suit.

"I had some bare notes about a father and a son who loved each other - it should be evident from page one that they do," he said.

Cover of Out Stealing Horses
Petterson was surprised when his novel developed a plot
"Then a vision of these two fathers not looking at each other. Why? Ah, it's right after the war," Petterson said, his face falling at the memory.

"Oh, I have to write about the war - which means research. I hate research."

But as he describes it, once he had his premise, the closing scene, and a conversation with an elderly neighbour to find out how much a suit would have cost in 1948, the rest of the book almost wrote itself.

"There are scenes that you need, and they come."

Much to his surprise, he found a traditional story developing.

"Some way into the book, I said, 'Oh shit, there's a plot.' I like characters."

His focus on character may be the result of his literary influences, foremost among which he lists Raymond Carver, the great American short-story writer.

"When I started reading Raymond Carver around 1980, it was like coming home," he said.

Isolated lives

He was working at a bookshop at the time, importing foreign literature.

"I could import whatever I wanted, but I had to sell it," he recalls.

His shopping list included Carver, Richard Ford and Jayne Anne Phillips, and, he said, he "sold tons of it".

I am not afraid of small communities - you have to decide not to be paranoid
Per Petterson
But he is steeped in Norwegian literature as well, citing the country's 1920 Nobel laureate Knut Hamsun as another godfather of his latest novel.

"You cannot write a book like Out Stealing Horses without being aware of [Hamsun's novel] Pan. I read it 25 years ago, and it was like..." He punches himself in the chin for effect.

The narrator of Petterson's novel, like the main character of Hamsun's, lives alone among Norway's sprawling, snowy forests - and may not be quite the man he presents himself as.

Petterson, too, makes his home in a remote Norwegian village, though he was born in Oslo.

"I am not afraid of small communities," he said, though he admitted that it is nearly impossible for an outsider to become an insider in such a place.

"They will know things that you will never know because they have lived there their whole lives," he said with a shrug. "You have to decide not to be paranoid."

Per Petterson will be in conversation with Harriett Green on The Word on 7 November at 09:32 GMT, 14:32 GMT and 19:32 GMT on BBC World Service. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

Programme schedules
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