Talking Location with author Abi Curtis – Istanbul
Psychological thriller set in Norway, plus we chat to the author
24th October 2016
The Bird Tribunal by Agnes Ravatn (translated by Rosie Hedger) – psychological thriller set in Norway.
The Bird Tribunal is a beautifully written, and beautifully translated, psychological thriller set in Norway. Brooding tension builds right from the beginning of the book through to its dramatic climax.
Allis Hagtorn is 32. She was a successful TV presenter, but leaves her job (and her husband) in disgrace – having been caught ‘in flagrante’ with her boss. She is accused of having slept her way into her position. Her career is ruined. She answers an ad to be a housekeeper / gardener in a very quiet cottage on the banks of a remote fjord. She wants to run away. She imagines her new employer, Sigurd Bogge, will be an old widower (she knows he lives alone), but is surprised to discover he is in his mid 40s. He has a wife, but she is mysteriously ‘away’. Questions as to how long, or where, are rebutted. His conversation is monosyllabic, as he seeks to keep a distance between the two of them. Slowly his attitude thaws… and their relationship develops over a period of time into mutual obsession. Allis depends on Sigurd’s approval for everything she does, even though she is physically and mentally threatened. The abuse is tempered by periods of calm and remorse. As with many women in a similar situations, she runs away – and then comes back for more.
Both Allis and Sigurd are trying to escape episodes in their past. Both are tormented and looking for redemption. Their relationship is intense and tortured. You never quite know what will happen next, when Sigurd will next explode – and what will set him off. The tension at times is almost ‘unbearable’. Not a book that is easy to predict where it is going – except you have the constant feeling that it is not going to end up anywhere great. Agnes Ravatn is very talented at building a sinister and foreboding atmosphere – into which the reader gets sucked.
The Bird Tribunal has been selected for the English Pen Award, and the English Pen Award sponsored its English language edition through their Writers in Translation Programme. It was money extremely well spent.
Tony for the TripFiction team
Now for our interview with the author, Agnes Ravatn:
TF: In The Bird Tribunal, you have, with Allis and Sigurd, formed two extremely intense – but seriously damaged – characters. What was the process that led to their creation?
AR: That is a good question, and one that I find hard to answer. They both emerged over time, several years actually. I started writing the book all the way back in 2007, but at one point I was stuck, and I think mostly because I didn´t know the characters well enough. So I began working on their backgrounds. What were their secrets, what kind of fall from grace had Allis experienced, why was Bagge behaving the way he did? And eventually, the story started going again.
TF: In The Bird Tribunal, right from the start, there is a sense of foreboding. We somehow know that the story is not going to end well. How did you set about building this tension, drip feeding more and more about the previous lives of Allis and Sigurd, as the book progressed?
AR: My magic trick, which is not very magic, is not knowing too much. I am not a planner. My writing is always driven by curiosity and excitement, I don’t want too know what waits around the next corner. I have to know my characters, what motivates them?, how will they react in different situations?, et cetera. Then I can let the story evolve organically, and write more or less on instinct.
TF: The location in which a novel is set is of crucial importance to TripFiction. The location for The Bird Tribunal is very remote and very isolated. It seems very beautiful and very peaceful. Are Sigurd’s house, and its environs, based on anywhere with which you are familiar?
AR: Yes. I have stolen the summer house of my parents’ friends! It is a beautiful, old house, with the same steep stairs down into the fjord as in the book, not very far from where I grew up, on the west coast of Norway. I haven’t been there for probably 20 years or more, but it is a place that I can never forget.
TF: Your first book, Veke 53, was published in Norway in 2007. The second, Fugletribunalet (The Bird Tribunal), came out in 2013. That was six years apart – was The Bird Tribunal bubbling away in the background during this time?
AR: Yes, it was. I published a couple of essay collecions («Standstill», 2009, and «Popular reading», 2011») while always trying to work on my next novel. But it wasn’t before I deleted my Facebook and Twitter accounts, in 2012, that I managed to finish The Bird Tribunal!
TF: I think Rosie Hedger did a quite excellent job in translating The Bird Tribunal into English. How important do you think the translator is to the success of a book in an overseas market. What are the key attributes you look for in a translator?
AR: I agree, Rosie has done a fantastic job. I hope I can keep her forever! What I love about her work, is her capacity for capturing the enigmatic atmosphere in the book, and capturing the fine nuances in the prose. She has proven to be a very hard working, serious translator, no short cuts, and I almost think she has lifted my book to another level!
TF: How do you juggle your job as a journalist on Dag og Tid with your writing? Do you take sabbaticals in which you write, or do you somehow manage to fit in both on a daily basis?
AR: Yes, I take sabbaticals. I find combining writing with writing to be very hard – the journalism and the fiction writing is mutually sucking life and energy out of each other! And the closest deadline, hence the journalism, always wins. So I take long sabbaticals to write fiction. I find combining writing with more practical work much better. A year ago, I moved with my family from Oslo to a small homestead on the west coast of Norway, where we are surrounded by nature, peace and sheep! It is much cheaper to live here than in the city, so I can be a full time writer, and combine writing with chopping wood and gardening instead of journalism. That’s a much better life.
TF: Dag og Tid looks to be a very interesting, and successful, publication. I understand that, perhaps unusually, the language of the publication is Nynorsk. Can you tell me a little more about this?
AR: Dag og Tid («Day and Time») is an excellent weekly publication for politics, comment and culture, and one that I feel very lucky to be a part of. I have been given free hands to write about whatever interests me for almost ten years, whether it’s philosophy or politics or self discipline, and all the non-fiction books I have published have first been published as essays in Dag og Tid. Nynorsk («new norwegian») was created in the mid 19th century, as an alternative to Danish, which was then the only official written language in Norway. Nynorsk was meant to reflect the way normal people talk, and it is very similar to my dialect. Today, Nynorsk exists alongside Bokmål, a «norwegianized» form of Danish, and having two official written Norwegian languages is a resource.
TF: What is your next literary venture? What are you currently working on – and when can we expect to see it?
AR: I am currently working on a new novel, but I have no idea when it will be finished. I will be having a new baby in March next year, and knowing that a newborn can be a little time consuming, I don’t want to say anything that I might regret!
A big thank you to Agnes for answering our questions so comprehensively…
For more books set in NORWAY, just click here