It’s fair to say that Lars Mytting (above), author of Norwegian Wood, the British Book Industry Awards Non-Fiction Book of the Year, is pretty chuffed about winning. “I’m really glad for the award. My Facebook went hot with congratulations. In the beginning we said: ‘Well, it’s a book that could only have happened in Norway.’ But now the interest is all over.”
When I talk to him down the line at his home in Elverum, 100 kilometres or so north of Oslo, Mytting is keen to declare a particular affection for his UK readership. “One of the things I really adore is your genuine curiosity for the world outside, and the way you have embraced the slightly accidental thing about this book.”
It is, on the face of it, a complete accident (with chainsaws) that a book subtitled Chopping, Stacking and Drying Wood the Scandinavian Way has somehow cut to the heart of British readers, selling 95,338 copies through Nielsen BookScan. As he recounts early on in the text, Mytting, a Norwegian novelist of some renown, conceived the idea for Norwegian Wood when he noticed his elderly neighbour, Ottar, painstakingly stacking his logpile while patently unwell.
Initially, though Mytting thought the subject was interesting, it didn’t stand out as one that would be an instant hit, “certainly nothing that I thought would find a big audience”, he says. “But I have this writer in me who always tries to understand a subject very completely, and the tone of the book really came when I turned myself into the firewood nerd.”
Mytting had mentioned the idea for the book to his publisher, whose instinct was to make it into a “funny picture book of Norwegian hillbillies in chequered shirts by their woodpiles. He said: ‘This must, for heaven’s sake, not be a book about trees and chainsaws.’ But that’s exactly what he got. The idea really was to write a book that my neighbour, this old firewood enthusiast, would like to read himself; for the knowledge, but also as a recognition of his own labour of love. On the surface it is about trees
and chainsaws, but it’s also about humans and giving warmth in the bigger sense of the word.”
Did Mytting bring anything of his novelist’s voice to the writing of Norwegian Wood? “The fiction voice is extremely important. When I examine the book in hindsight, I find that it uses three quite different narrative voices. It starts each chapter with my fiction voice, which I usually use to describe landscapes or weather, then it shifts into a more essayist tone before entering the hardcore non-fiction voice.”
What does he believe is the essence of the book’s success, both in the UK and elsewhere? “All of mankind once relied on firewood. So I think it’s encoded in our DNA to share a love for it. And I think also the modern dream of self-sufficiency is carried in the book. From the meetings I’ve had with UK audiences, I find they have much the same love for those cherished moments when you are gathered around an open fire.”
The title of the book in its original Norwegian is Hel Ved, which literally translates as “solid wood”. Mytting tells me the phrase also has a double meaning; it is an expression for a person you can trust, someone who is honest all the way through. The UK version of the text is also not a straight translation from the Norwegian. “We made quite a lot of adaptations so that the point of view would be distinctly Norwegian but also would be of practical use for other climates. So we tried to combine the voice from the north [of Norway] together with the usefulness of a non-fiction book”.
What is the current state of Mytting’s own woodpile? “When I wrote the book, it was in a very, very sad state: a pile of mouldy logs, badly stacked. To get a good woodpile you need to work during the winter and also in the first part of spring. But that season is also the time you need to work on a manuscript. So by the time the book came out, I had a lot of reporters coming to see this perfect woodpile and I had to ask them to shoot it from a distance with the background blurred. But the woodpile is in a much better state now. I’ve read my own book and followed its advice, and I’ve made quite a nice stack”.