The Norwegian author, brought to UK readers by Orenda Books, discusses sibling rivalry, the Guest of Honour slot and translation protocol.
01 Could you introduce us to A Modern Family and how the novel came about?
A Modern Family is the story of a married couple, both 70, who decide to divorce after 40 years of marriage. The decision is seemingly undramatic for both of them, but feels very dramatic for their three adult children, Liv, Ellen and Håkon.
I have long been interested in the so-called generational shift, and how it affects the way we live. In this novel I try to examine how the family as an institution is affected by the new generation of seniors, who have a very different set of expectations and demands to life than the [generations] before them.
02 The sibling relationship is at A Modern Family’s core. What attracted you to writing about that?
I set out writing this book with a desire to write about siblings and sibling relations. I grew up with three siblings, and find the relationships complex and interesting, particularly the relationships between grown-up siblings: even though they usually share the same upbringing in the same family—with the same inputs and references—they turn into very different people, often with a very different narrative of the same family history and background.
03 A Modern Family won the Norwegian Booksellers Prize, was a number one bestseller, and has been sold into seven languages. Obviously, the book has struck a chord with people both at home and abroad. Why do you think it has been so successful?
Judging from the feedback from readers, a lot has to do with recognition. Even if there are so many different ways of being a family, I think the need to belong with someone is universal, and that is what this book is about, most of all.
04 I’m always interested in how authors work with their translators. Is it very "hands-on" with you and them? Is there a lot of back and forth?
It varies a lot. Some ask no questions at all, others have many. Working with the English translation, I stayed in touch with translator Rosie Hedger, often to discuss particular Norwegian terms and expressions that cannot be translated directly. I am very happy with the work she did, and feedback from my English readers also ensures me that she did a terrific job.
05 And in terms of this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair: how useful and important has Norway’s Guest of Honour been to Norwegian literature?
It is always a good thing to put literature front and centre stage, and I think the Guest of Honour project has been a vitamin injection to the entire Norwegian industry. The increased support for translations have been important, and the substantial increase in titles being translated into German may function as a door-opener to being considered in other markets—although I am unsure whether the Guest of Honor status will actually help sell translation rights outside of Germany.
06 Do you think it is a particuarly good time for Norwegian literature?
Norwegian literature has held a very high standard for a long time, and it is wonderful to see many Norwegian authors recognised on the international literary stage. This is mainly due to the quality of their work, of course, but it also helps that Norway is a country that supports its authors through various grants and support systems. And although our population is small, we are eager readers.
07 Can you sketch out your career in books? Did you always want to be a writer?
I made my début in 2010 with Stay If You Can, Leave If You Must, the first volume in a trilogy set in a small, Norwegian community that lost three of its young men to the war in Afghanistan. The trilogy examines why they enlisted and the consequences for everyone they left behind. In 2015 I published Wing Loading, a generational portrait of what some have called the "entitlement generation". And, in 2017, A Modern Family was published.
I have written for as long as I can remember, and even though I wasn’t always planning to be an author, I have always known that literature is where I belong. So, being published and read is, of course, a major bonus.
A Modern Family
Written by Helga Flatland
Translated by Rosie Hedger
We’re far too big for Italy. Big and white and blond, we barely fit around the table at the restaurant that evening. The furniture and interiors have been designed with trim little Italians in mind, not for Dad and Håkon, both almost six feet, four inches tall, not for such long arms and legs; not for us. We cram ourselves into our chairs, all elbows and knees, too many joints jostling for room. Ellen and Håkon squabble over the available space, suddenly teenagers all over again. I recall the way we identified the seams between the seat cushions in the back of the car, treating them as border lines—even the slightest hint of coat flap crossing a seam was forbidden. The air around us was subject to the same restrictions. Håkon was only three at the time, but he grew up with sisters and with clearly defined lines in the car, in the tent and at the dining table—and in life in general, really—lines that laid down the ground rules.
Sitting beside us is an Italian family. There are more of them than there are of us, but, as Håkon points out, they’re seated around a smaller table, all making their way through one dish after another, just like Olaf and I did on our first trip to Rome. We’d told the waiter that we wanted to order the same as the family at the table next to us. I spent the following week gazing at large Italian families sitting down to eat together for several hours every evening—children and grandparents, loud and prone to gesticulation, just like in the films, and I missed my own family, though I knew even then that it wouldn’t be the same if they were there. Here. But now they are here; now we’re here, all of us seated around the same table: Mum, Dad, Ellen, Ellen’s boyfriend Simen, Agnar and Hedda, Olaf and me—and Håkon.
I glance at Dad sitting at the head of the table, and it strikes me that we’re sitting exactly where we sit when we’re at our parents’ house. Dad always sits at the head of the table, with Mum to his right and me beside her, and Håkon across from Mum with Ellen by his side. Other later additions to the family—partners, Agnar, Hedda— have had to organise themselves around us; I don’t think we’ve even given it a single thought. The only person ever to initiate any kind of silent protest is Simen; on the few occasions he’s joined us for family gatherings, he’s practically launched himself at the seat beside Ellen—Håkon’s place at the table—draping an arm across the back of her chair and firmly clinging to his spot until everyone else has taken a seat.