The novelist and essayist Siri Hustvedt has lived in Park Slope with her husband Paul Auster for more than two decades. She calls her last book, The Shaking Woman or A History of My Nerves, “a nonfiction exploration of my own seizure symptoms seen through the lenses of several disciplines, including psychiatry, psychoanalysis, neuroscience, and philosophy.” Picador will publish her fifth novel, The Summer Without Men, in April.
You were raised by first-and second-generation Norwegians in a heavily Norwegian part of the country, and now you live in Brooklyn, which once had a strong Norwegian community. Do you ever engage with its vestiges?
When my mother was a child, growing up in Mandal, located on the southern coast of Norway, she heard one story after another about the Norwegians of Brooklyn. She heard so many stories, in fact, that she firmly believed Brooklyn was inhabited only by Norwegians. On my very first visit to New York in 1977, I stayed with a college friend whose family lived in a brownstone in Bay Ridge. The family’s name was Carlsen, and my friend’s father was a Lutheran minister. By then, of course, there was no Norwegian ghetto, but a mixture of many different ethnic groups. There is a lovely store in Bay Ridge called Nordic Delicacies [6909 Third Avenue], where I can indulge the culinary proclivities of my childhood: lefse, lingonberries, Norwegian goat cheese (brown and sweet), herrings, and chocolate bars steeped chiefly in my own nostalgia.
What are your thoughts on the current boom in Scandinavian crime fiction?
It is a peculiarity of American life that when a writer from a small country—such as one of the three that comprise Scandinavia—produces a massive bestseller, it is viewed as an achievement of the whole culture, rather than the product of one person’s imagination. That said, especially in Sweden, there is a distinguished tradition of good crime fiction.
Are there other Scandinavian writers you think deserve more attention from English-language readers?
There are so many, I could simply record their names for several pages. Since that isn’t allowed, I will mention just a few: Terje Vesaas (poet and novelist, Norwegian), Olav H. Hauge (great poet, Norwegian), Karl O. Knausgaard (contemporary Norwegian and translated but deserves more attention), Selma Lagerlof (Swedish novelist), Stig Dagerman (great Swedish writer first published just after WWII), and Inger Christensen (astounding Danish poet and novelist).
You’ve written several books in the last few years but only one novel. What attracts you to fiction, but also drives you often to non-fiction?
This is indeed how it looks from the publishing record… The truth is that I am always writing essays as well as fiction. I go back and forth. The two essay collections were written over a period of time, not produced at once. My consuming interest in a number of fields compels me to write about them, so I split my time between fiction and non-fiction. I have a novel coming out soon, I am writing another novel, but also essays and preparing lectures. Since The Shaking Woman was published [last year], I have done quite a bit of speaking at academic conferences and at medical schools and universities. My two lives are not entirely separate, however; my interest in these subjects inevitably sneaks into my fiction, and my concerns as a fiction writer steal into my papers written for academic audiences. Fiction is about the particular, about the nuances of individual life. Non-fiction is more abstract; it is trying to understand how it all works by generalizing. I like to do both; they both give me pleasure and I have no intention of giving up either.