Now Lars Saabye Christensen (66) tells the story he has wanted to write since he became a writer, but which he never managed to write.
Not until now.
– It is a small book I have been thinking about for a very long time, almost as long as I have been an author. There are probably many writers who feel that we walk around with a picture of something we want to write, but are afraid to tackle.
For Saabye Christensen, it was a picture of his own grandmother. His Danish, or as he liked to call her, his Chinese grandmother Hulda Christensen who in 1905 went on the long journey alone to Hong Kong to live with her husband Jørgen who had gotten a job there.
The story was to be his best novel. But he postponed it all the time. Or did not dare to write it.
– It may well be her that I did not succeed. Perhaps it is the case that this story has been important to keep in mind. It has been like a kind of engine. It has driven me.
Afraid it was too late
This week the book “My Chinese grandmother” will be published. It was not a novel, but a non-fiction book – or simply a small autobiography.
– Yes, that was exactly what came as a bit of a surprise to me. That through my grandmother’s light, or in the shadow of my grandmother, I have written a small autobiography. It was not really meant to take place at all, but it had to be that way. I’m worried I’ll not be told this little story, and I’ve been wondering if it’s too late.
– For sent?
– Yes, that I have postponed it for too long. For the whole way I have thought: I will just write another novel, then I will take it.
“In that sense, all my novels are procrastination,” he writes somewhere in “My Chinese Grandmother.”
So were great novels like both “The Beatles”, “Half Brother” and «City tracks» only postponements?
– I have had that feeling yes. But I do not think it has been negative. It has rather been an inspiration.
The grandmother was an important person in Lars Saabye Christensen’s life. She also gained great importance for the life he chose to live: the life of an author.
– There are some people you connect with as a child, who you may already then realize have something that is important to you. You do not know what it is, you just have an idea. I experienced this with this strange grandmother of mine whom I only met a few times since she lived in Copenhagen. And it turned out to be right. Because I imagine, or I know, that some of my desire to write was ignited in a meeting with my grandmother.
Force yourself not to compose
She has appeared in his writings before, among other things as a clear inspiration for The Old Man in «Half brother».
Also read: The “Half Brother” of Reality
– Grandma has left a direct and indirect mark. She had something adventurous about her, which not only aroused my curiosity and admiration, but also my love.
He set a clear limit when he began working on this book: He was not allowed to write poetry!
– If you say that I ended a fictional world in the last volume of «The City’s Tracks», I entered this world exclusively with the papers and documents I had at my disposal. What I had in the drawer and in my own memory was to be the starting point for the text. I was not going to compose. I simply wanted to see what place I had in a larger context: Family. What life courses led to me.
He experienced that the limitations he gave himself created a freedom. At the same time, the common threads in his writing are completely untied: Because it was in notebooks he received from his grandmother that he began to write down addresses in the city and his first poems.
– Why did I mix this already then? The city, the addresses and the poems. It is not the case that as an 11-12-13-year-old you make plans. But I see now that there is a violent meaning in it, at least for me. It’s almost scary. That way, the city came out very clearly to me, and yes:
Addresses and poetry. But it’s me. This is what I have used in my writing from day one.
Staying at home
He is in a place in life where it felt very right to finally tell this story.
– I just thought it was both very correct and very logical for me to publish this book now. Order is important. I think most readers know me as someone who does not give up my privacy like that without further ado. Although I appeared as a character in my last novel, I have not been very interested in telling about myself, so here I try to include something that is meaningful for a potential reader as well.
– Now was the time, he says and lets the sentence hang a little in the air.
He is dressed in black when we meet him at the publishing house Cappelen Damm before the book “My Chinese grandmother” is published this week. He is not very mobile, and we take the pictures while he is sitting on a chair. He is photogenic as always, and gives his all – before he gets tired and looks at his watch. Time flies.
– I mostly stay at home now. This is one of the few trips I have taken in the world in a long time, he says.
On his father’s deathbed
In “My Chinese Grandmother”, time also goes backwards. At least that’s what his father Mogens says as he lies dying and has to stare straight into a large bell that hangs on the hospital wall in front of the bed.
– Yes, and this is reality literature so it holds. I can personally sign that the same clock is still hanging there.
– Is it common? Having to lie down and watch the time run out …?
– Of course it is. We talked a lot about that time. And I knew it would get a place somewhere. It was simply too dominant and tangible to avoid. It’s a special prop in a room like that. My father could see that the hands literally ate up the time.
Maybe it was wishful thinking when his father thought he saw that the hands went backwards, maybe he wanted to turn back time? At least that gave Saabye Christensen the opportunity to talk about lived life with her father.
– What he said about time going backwards is almost related to writing. In writing, one can embrace these time periods. He was now in a phase of life where he was able to be the child, while I grew old. Time was moving and taking on new forms. In writing, you also have that opportunity.
In that sense, the book “My Chinese Grandmother” is Lars Saabye Christensen’s confessions and his way of bringing the memories of his grandmother, father and own life forward. For while the father tells on to him, the son, on his own deathbed, he himself has no one to tell on to.
– It is upsetting for your own part, because you see yourself so clearly. The thought that I have no one to tell on what my father tells me … Where to I turn me?
The answer is, of course, obvious to an author who has sold hundreds of thousands of books: He turns once again to readers.
– But I think that I have not invested in anything particularly different than writing. All I have of commitment and profit I have locked into that work. There may be areas I have neglected in life. Many in my industry probably think about it, because it is easy to become, perhaps not self-absorbed, but engrossed. It is easy to close in on a parallel existence.
– I am often absent, even though I am here, says Saabye Christensen.
“Will I finish, will I finish?”
“That’s why I sat down and wrote this, even though I had stopped writing a long time ago,” he writes in the new book.
– It’s a small sting to myself. I have to endure that. When I wrote the last part of “Byens spor” it was a matter of time, and it was specifically about my own situation and my own cancer diagnosis. So that I said goodbye as a writer was written in a given context and must be understood from it.
– You have said that time tears and struggles in you?
– I’m probably pretty manic about just that. All people have a relationship with time, but yes, there are many ways to relate to time. Bad or good time, I was about to say.
We’re laughing a little. For that is well said.
– For me, it probably has to do with the fact that I have written books a lifetime. And constantly thinking:
“Will I finish, will I finish, will I finish?”
– And then I do not mean just the deadline or the pressure you put on yourself. Can you complete it? I’ve been thinking about death ever since I learned the clock. By the way, I quoted myself there.
But now? Does time go forward, backward – or does it stand still?
As a 66-year-old author, has he written his latest novel, and now also told the story that had to be told?
– Now I can at least start all over again. Now that I’m done with this story, I’m completely free. That’s actually true.
– And it is definitely a good feeling.
Published: 05.09.20 at 09:09