Jon Fosse

Interview

Interview, December 2023

Interview with the 2023 Nobel Prize laureate in literature, Jon Fosse, recorded in Stockholm on 9 December 2023 during the Nobel Week in Stockholm, Sweden.

Jon Fosse answers the following questions (the links below lead to clip on YouTube):
00:00 How did your writing career start?
01:58 What inspired you to start writing?
04:21 How would you describe Nynorsk, the language of your writing?
07:54 Do you think your prize motivation made sense?
09:37 Why are silences and pauses important in your writing?

Interview transcript

How did your writing career start?

Jon Fosse: I hated school, to be honest with you, really. I had very, what do you call it? Grades, in Norwegian. I couldn’t write, the teachers said, but still I wrote for my own pleasure, to put it that way, from a very early age. I think the first I wrote was lyrics to songs I wrote. Then I wrote small poems and small stories, and it gave me a kind of happiness to do that. I felt a kind of peace, I was safe, I was by myself, I could express anything. ‘Express’, that’s not the right word, but at least write something. It was bad. I read some of these texts and it’s really bad writing.  They’re very poor, but still, they gave me a kind of feeling of safety or something, and I thought that they came from a place inside me somewhere. I don’t know where it is, but it’s in my body somewhere, not in my brain, nothing I invented or something, and 50 years later, I’m still writing from this same secret place inside me. Such secret places, perhaps it’s better not to know too much about them or try to figure out exactly what it is, but it is.

What inspired you to start writing?

Jon Fosse: I started out quite early, playing the guitar a lot, and even the violin I tried, but I managed badly, but the guitar a bit better. I even played in a boys band, and we became that good that we played at local dances. I think I was 14 years the first time, and to enter such a place you had to be 16, so I was too young for it all, of course. But I was very, very much into music in my teens or early teens, I would say. For reasons hard to explain, I stopped writing and I even stopped listening to music, and I started writing. I think somehow what I tried, when sitting there with an old typewriter, was to create the kind of mood or atmosphere or feel that you had when you were playing music. All these repetitions I’m famous or ill-famous for, they came, I guess, from music, from playing.

I both played in this band an electrical guitar, but I also learned to play classical guitar and small pieces of Bach etc, I could play. But then – all over. You ask me why, I think partly because I never became a good musician. I rehearsed and I rehearsed, and I rehearsed, but somehow I didn’t manage to get on a good level. Although others I could compare myself to, they were much better musicians than I was. Perhaps because of that, as simple as that, it might be. Then I ended up with the writing in place of playing.

How would you describe Nynorsk, the language of your writing?

Jon Fosse: To me it’s very, very simple. When I first started to learn to write the language in the first grade in school, I started to learn the right Norwegian. That continued until I was … we called it ‘gymnasium’ in my days, the last grade before university or something. All my teachers were writing Nynorsk, all of us, so it was simply my language and is simply my language. I can do a lot in my life, like I’ve been saying, but I cannot leave that language, I’m not allowed to do that. And I don’t want it for sure, it’s as I said, that’s the sound, my dialect is very, very close to written Nynorsk actually.  When I, for instance, hear the voice of my grandmother, I can well hear it in Nynorsk, but it’s quite impossible to hear it in Bokmål. That sounds as a quite different person, so basic experiences are, of course, very connected both to the landscape and to the sound of the landscape, to put it that way. It turned out to be Nynorsk was supposed to be a language for the whole of Norway. It ended up being mainly a language for the western part, Vestlandet, my country, as I often say.

The reason for that is partly because it resembles the most the dialect spoken in this western part of Norway. You have basic traits of spoken Norwegian that are common in Nynorsk, not common in Bokmål, so you can broaden this a lot if you want to, and there are good reasons for that. But the way people experience it, they experience it as their own language or a language close to the way they speak, mostly in the western part, and in the eastern part, close to the western part, in Telemark, for instance, where Tarjei Vesaas came from, just to mention one place. It’s of course a minority language, it’s written by some 10% only in Norway. Because of that, you get very connected to this language, because it’s a minority language, of course, and you try to defend it the best way you can. I remember as a student, I said in an interview, If someone is attacking my language, the only thing you can do is to knock or go. You cannot argue for it, it’s like arguing for your own existence in a way. Fight or leave.

Do you think your prize motivation made sense?

Jon Fosse: Yes, completely. If it’s sayable, in a simple way, you just say it in a simple way, why write a poem or a novel? There’s something that cannot be said directly, and you have to turn to literature in a way to manage to say it. I think Jacques Derrida was quite right when he said that, What you cannot say, you should write. Or something close to that. I experienced that as a simple truth. You can write, manage to write very, very complex emotions or a way of experiencing life that’s impossible to speak. I guess that’s somehow the gift of a real author to be able to write in such a way. If you only report what’s out there or what you have experienced or something, everyone can do that in a way, if you only can write a sentence in this or that way. It’s also because of this dimension, I think that literature is really needed, and art in general, it’s saying something that cannot be said in any other way, and that’s why you do it.

Why are silences and pauses important in your writing?

Jon Fosse: The best way perhaps to try to describe it, is to go to my plays. I’ve written a lot of plays and quite many novels also, and poems. I guess I published seven collections of poetry or something like that. But let’s go to one of my plays. When I wrote my first play, Somebody Is Going to Come, or Someone Will Come – there are different translations – what I experienced was when you wrote these lines you could just break off and write “pause” or in the middle of a dialogue you could use the word “pause” or if it was very short, I used also “short pause”. If it was a long silence in a way, I wrote “long pause” and to get the right rhythm, it’s all about rhythm, writing to me, basically. To get a rhythm right, you need these pauses, of course. With a change in the tempo, for instance, or when an emotion isn’t outspoken you will not say it directly, but you break off and there’s a pause, but everyone knows exactly what you’re trying, or going to say. I remember Harold Pinter was asked about his bosses, they always talk about lack of communication, and he said that, No, there’s not lack of communications in my plays, there’s too much communication.

To a large degree, I agree with Pinter, it isn’t needed to say, it’s already understood, quite often. But there are several subtle reasons for using a pause in a play, and in the end, if you sum it all up, what you hear is in a way silence. Yes, I would say. In my novels I guess I somehow tried to get to this kind of silence, by all the repetitions. They came from music, but the way they work in my novels, it’s quite similar, I think, to the pauses in my plays. But in the end, this silence I’m talking about, I always feel that there are two languages. It’s the language in which I write, and then there’s a silent language behind it. What it’s really all about is said by this silent language, in a way that it’s very hard to. You cannot say it in a few words, exactly what it’s saying, but you can still hear it, I would say. It’s just like a great painting. All the paintings I like of the same Mark Rothko. His paintings are talking to me a lot, a lot, a lot. They’re not, they’re completely mute. They say a lot. I have kept three dogs and they are just the same, they cannot say a word, but you have the feeling, and they know, they understand, it’s true, an extremely lot. They can sense a mood before it’s there.

One of my collections of poetry is called Dog and Angel, and I think art has to say, to speak in a similar way as a mute dog or as a mute picture, also writing, I would say. I think the words are so rough and they say so little in themself. Let’s say, “kjærlighet” as you say in Norwegian, “kärlek” in Swedish, that’s saying at least something, “love” in English is saying almost nothing. To describe, let’s say, love, you have to use quite other words, of course, to manage to say anything of any value about it. Love is working well in many practical situations, but not when it comes to the real thing. I think every writer is a kind of skeptic, you’re skeptical of the language. You know that a simple word put in a quite normal syntax, they’re saying in fact, rather not much really but it’s needed for the daily life and daily communication and so on. But when it comes to a deeper understanding of life, if you use it in the normal way, you don’t manage to say anything of any interest more than you can say, just by talking.


First reactions. Telephone interview, October 2023

After the 2023 Nobel Prize in Literature was announced, new laureate Jon Fosse was inundated with messages congratulating him on the award. In this call with the Nobel Prize’s Manisha Lalloo he speaks about one particular reader who told him that his work was “the reason she was still alive.” He also shares what writing means to him and his advice for aspiring writers.

“When writing I feel that I enter another universe”

Manisha Lalloo: Hey, is that Jon Fosse?

Jon Fosse: Yes, it’s me, yes.

ML: It’s so nice to speak to you, my name is Manisha, we are so happy to be in touch with you, congratulations!

JF: Thank you very much!

ML: I’d love to ask you, how are you feeling today, how are you feeling about the prize?

JF: I’m really happy about it, of course, but I was, even if I’ve been a kind of candidate – or how to put it – I’ve been used to be high on the betting list and so I didn’t expect to win the tenth year I was into the speculations. So, I was honestly surprised when I learned. When I was told I would get it this year.

ML: So, it came to you as quite a shock. How did you find out about it?

JF: It was Mats Malm who phoned.

ML: I understand you were driving at the time, is that correct?

JF: Yes, I was driving, yes. You always get nervous of course before such a decision is to be taken, it could be you, it might be you, and to drive alone it’s relaxing for me. So, on country roads, on peaceful roads. I’m now in the western part of Norway, so I was driving along the fjord close to where I live by now.

ML: Oh, that sounds beautiful, what a beautiful place, a picturesque place to receive such wonderful news.

JF: Yes, it was, and of course I was, I felt really happy. My first reaction was to feel happy and then I started to be surprised and then I even started to – can this be real? Feeling of lack of reality, how to put it. Then Mats Malm told me that if I didn’t believe it, I could watch the television or watch the announcement on my Mac or something.

ML: How have you spent your first day as a laureate, how has it been for you?

JF: My Norwegian publisher has tried to organise a kind of system if it happens, so I went to meet the press and a lot turned up, I don’t know how they knew it, but somehow they knew it, so it took quite a while to do these interviews. When I came back home, I had hundreds of emails. People are very kind to me; they write beautiful stories about my writing to me. And are honestly happy for me getting the prize. So, I tried to answer each and every one about it, and it’s an enormous response I think, and it’s difficult to cope with. Of course, to answer that many emails or messages. It takes quite a lot of time.

ML: I can imagine, but are some of these messages from readers? It sounds like it must be quite wonderful to get messages from readers.

JF: Yes, from readers, and yes I had a very touching email, it was from a Greek woman who told me that my play ‘Death Variations’, that was the reason she was still alive, otherwise she would have parted. It was very touching to read.

ML: It must be really incredible to hear such words from people and feel like your work has touched people in that way, and it’s had such a powerful impact on people’s lives.

JF:  Yesi, it’s a play about suicide, and she, of course, she must have been very close to committing suicide.

ML: Obviously, your output is very varied, you’ve written plays and poetries and novels. For somebody who is just being introduced to your work, would you recommend a particular piece that they start with?

JF: Yes, I think that one of my favourite novels, I think is Morning and Night, it’s translated into Swedish and English, and many languages, and it’s rather short. So, I guess I would suggest that.

ML: Is there something that you particularly think about when you write, or is there something that writing especially means to you, that it’s very important in your life, or you find it to be a good way to express your feelings or what you’re thinking about?

JF: No, I don’t try and express anything, and I often say it’s like I don’t try and express myself, I try to get away from myself by writing. To escape from myself, like drinking or whatever you do to get away from yourself; It’s not a way to express myself. But, when writing I feel that I enter a new, another universe, another place. I change place, I change mood. It’s the same with whatever I write, and then, to manage to write well, that’s the greatest happiness in life to me, when something is writing itself and, I know that I am writing well. You forget about time, you are completely into what you are writing, so in this state of being completely into the writing and the writing is writing itself, that’s a great thing for me.

ML: That sounds wonderful, do you have a message that you would give to aspiring writers, people who look up to you or think …?

JF: Yes, that I have. You must stick to yourself, you must listen to yourself, to your inner voice and not to others. When I, my first books were published, and my first play was produced, the reviews, they were almost really, really, bad. I decided not to listen to it, but to listen to myself – to what I knew was good writing.

ML: Thank you so much, I really appreciate you taking the time to call us and speak with us.

JF: Yes of course.

ML: What are you planning to do for the rest of your day, or the rest of this week?

JF: Tomorrow I have to drive from Bergen to Oslo, and my intention is at least to answer all of the people who have written to me, there are so many.

ML: I think that’s going to keep you busy for a while now.

JF: Yes, it’s already many [unclear].

ML: Thank you so much for chatting to us.

JF: Thank you!

ML: And congratulations again!

JF: Thank you and bye bye!

ML: Bye.

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To cite this section
MLA style: Jon Fosse – Interview. NobelPrize.org. Nobel Prize Outreach AB 2024. Mon. 24 Jun 2024. <https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/literature/2023/fosse/interview/>

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