Talking with Naja Marie Aidt about her short story collection ‘Baboon’
The Danish writer Naja Marie Aidt’s book of stories, “Baboon” (Two Lines Press: 190 pp., $12.95 paper), is an explosive collection; strange things happen to the characters, leading to unlikely twists, through which the borders of reality blur. The first of Aidt’s books to appear in English (in a translation by Denise Newman), it won a 2008 Nordic Council Literature Prize.
Aidt has published more than 20 books in Europe, going back to 1991. “I definitely think ‘Baboon’ is representative of my writing,” she explained, “even though my poetry is different in many ways. But I think one would recognize the tone or the sound of my writing. My obsession with details, sensuality, drama. Critics in Scandinavia have referred to Greek mythology when writing about ‘Baboon’ and other books of mine and I think they are right. There is definitely points of resemblance with the classic tragedy, and you can probably also tell that I wrote several plays and a libretto.”
Aidt is to read from “Baboon” at Book Soup in West Hollywood on Tuesday at 7 p.m. Recently, she and I corresponded, via email, about the book.
Many stories in “Baboon” are beautiful but elliptical. They start simply, then open up in unexpected ways.
I never really plan the plot in a story. I basically sit down and write when I have an urge that I cannot overlook and then there is often a “point of desire” that starts off the story. In “Bulbjerg,” for instance, my desire was to go into the landscape, which I know very well. I wanted to dive into a hot summer day and I wanted someone to get lost in the woods. The story evolved from that point; the love for the landscape, the feeling of summer, insects buzzing, grass in the wind, the ocean as something desirable the characters can’t find. Working this way makes the stories surprising for me in the same way I want the readers to be surprised. It’s like, “Wow, where did that come from? They left the dog behind in the woods. What does that mean and what will it lead to?”
I get absorbed by the now-and-when in the stories. My hope is that it leads to great intensity. I think literature should always be intense. Daily life is a huge subject in my writing. Communication and miscommunication between people, family life, loneliness. In “Baboon,” I used a strategy that may be best described as a clash between a poetic, beautiful language and a Stephen King-like horror. I was very aware of when and how I revealed the story line. In “Bulbjerg,” I do not reveal the gender of the protagonist before the reader has gotten to know the character telling the story. In that way I get to play with what gender means and also with the readers’ expectations.
“Mosquito Bite” is the longest and most complex story, taking place in multiple parts, over an extended time. Is there a difference in the way you approach such a story?
Yes. Even though I was always a passionate reader and fan of the American short story, I have obviously been brought up with the Scandinavian short story, which is traditionally more like a novella and sometimes almost a short novel. Writers like Paul Bowles, Grace Paley, Raymond Carver and Mary Gaitskill have had profound impact on how I developed as a writer but so have Karen Blixen, H.C Andersen, Johannes V. Jensen and the amazing short story writer Herman Bang. I guess I see the story as a very free form: It can be short or long, realistic or surreal (or both). What matters is to find the perfect form for every single story and every single character.
Often, the narratives have to do with families, as in “Torben and Maria,” which involves an abusive mother and her young son, or “The Car Trip,” in which a family goes on vacation.
Domesticity offers me a lot. Family is a social construction that holds us together whether we like it or not and there are so many different relationships: The love life and/or conflicts between the parents, the relations between siblings and the relations between children and parents. In “A Car Trip,” I try to show this by simply forcing a family with three kids into a car and having them drive to a summerhouse in pouring rain. They are trapped. But on the way something dramatic happens and new perspectives are suddenly an option. Maybe just for a moment. But as a short story writer that moment is most interesting to me -- the second a character is shaken to the bone. What will he or she then do? In “A Car Trip,” the mother receives a phone call that probably makes her see her family in a new light or perspective. But that is up to the reader to think about. I like to have open endings. I like to involve the reader and make room for his or her images and thoughts.
“The Car Trip” also has a surprise ending -- a last line in which the entire story turns. The opposite occurs in “Interruption,” which begins with a stranger literally forcing herself into a man’s apartment. These stories are naturalistic, but they also have a touch of the surreal.
I think there is a pattern in my work, which includes a lot of poetry, that shows my love for both the very naturalistic and the very surreal. I find it interesting to mix it up. I mean, life is very surreal if you think about it, even though we consider it to be very naturalistic! Strange things happen. We try to organize the surreal and mystic elements in life in order to contain or come to terms with them so we can survive. We try to make them meaningful. It is my control over the story as a writer that establishes the contract between story and reader. In the stories you mention I tried to write in a very realistic way while absolutely weird stuff happens in the narrative. That is yet another clash. But honestly, while writing them I did not doubt that this could happen in the real world. Again, I like to play with combining styles and themes that seems impossible to combine. Or seems too odd to combine.
Was “Baboon” written as a unified collection?
It is definitely a collection. I composed it as I would compose a collection of poetry and was very much aware of the order of the stories. Also, I always saw the book as a chain of stories connected by themes and a certain way of writing. I wanted them to be a whole. I always work like that with short stories. I take the genre very seriously and would never publish a book with random stories and call it a collection. This book is not psychological realism but more like a very physical prose, describing the characters’ body reactions in their interference with the world. I do not crawl into their brains and their emotions as much as I crawl into their physical beings.
Often, as in “Candy” -- where a misunderstanding between a couple and a shopkeeper leads to theft charges -- your stories involve missed communication, opposing agendas, the inability to connect.
Communication is a very interesting and important subject to me since it is the way we connect to or disconnect from each other. There are certain unspoken rules about how communication should unfold in a society so not everything turns into chaos. I think I was always aware of this. I always had a sensibility, even as a very young child, that makes me feel very strongly the interaction or emotional tension between people. It can be very unpleasant but it gives me access to recognize and understand deeper layers of communication. In Scandinavia, we are not as happy to small talk as people are in the States. There is a fear of giving away too much to strangers, that talking to strangers could turn out to be a waste of time or even dangerous. I grew up with that. The tension in a silent bus on a dark winter day. In that way Danish culture is very different from the States.
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