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Talking Location with author duo Emma Vestrheim and Sarah Surgy – Odense

4th April 2017


#TalkingLocationWith… author duo Emma Vestrheim and Sarah Surgey

Discovering Nordic Noir in Hans Christian Andersen’s footsteps: A trip to Odense, Denmark

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 11.25.24When you think of ‘Nordic Noir’, it is the Danish capital of Copenhagen that first comes to mind. Harbouring dark criminals with humanistic storylines, the city has hosted some of the most gruesome crimes in Scandinavian literature. Connected to the Swedish city of Malmö via the Øresund Bridge, which is the setting for the most popular crime series of all, The Bridge, this location seems an easy choice for those turning to Nordic crime literature. When Sarah Surgey and I decided to write our own take on Nordic Noir, we wanted to look beyond the hub of the genre and explore what else Denmark had to offer. Looking west, we knew it had to be the central Danish city of Odense. Nestled on the island of Funen and surrounded by rolling hills of fields and pig farms, the city, whose name comes from the Norse God Odin, is a city rich of literary history, fairy tales, and all the imagination has to offer. Odense is the home of the Danish fairy-tale writer Hans Christian Andersen, and the city is very proud of it. When I visited Odense to conduct location scouting for our novel, A Presence of Absence, I was drawn to the writers difficult upbringing and the wild imagination that came from it. Inspired by the locations that Andersen frequented as a boy, I saw a new take on Nordic Noir emerge.


Odense Palace

As soon as I stepped off the train from Copenhagen, I was in the world of Hans Christian Andersen. Looking out towards the Odense palace, sculptures of fairy tale characters are situated in the adjourning park. The city itself is full of these sculptures, with characters varying from ‘The Trinity’ to ‘The Tin Soldier, ‘The Emperors New Clothes’ and ‘The Sea Horse’. Odense wants you to know that this is where the world’s most famous fairy tales come from. Walking past the Odense Palace, which is subtle in appearance, you come across your first piece of history. Andersen visited the palace as a boy while his mother worked as a washwoman, and he frequently played with Prince Frits, who later became King Frederick VII. The two were known to act out plays by the great Danish/Norwegian writer, Ludvig Holberg, and also improvised songs out in the courtyard.

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Hans Christian Andersen’s house

Hans Christian Andersen’s childhood was anything but a fairytale. The main feature of the city is a self-guided walking tour you can take, with the pavement marked and easy to follow. The tour guides you through cobblestone alleys, parklands, and into the city centre, explaining Andersen’s years as a boy in the city. Starting at his birthplace, the home was built in the poorest part of Odense, housed five other families at the time. The area included soldiers, roustabouts, paupers and beggars who scraped a living from doing odd jobs.

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Colourful houses, Odense

The tour moves onto a workhouse, which was also a Charity School. This was where Andersen received his free education, with inadequate teaching and no exercise books to learn from. It was in this world that Andersen focused his attention on composing new stories from the biblical murals that adorned the walls of the schools reading room.

Further up the river is the washing site, where Andersen’s mother worked as a washerwoman. Forced to stand in the water for long periods, she warmed herself with alcohol. She died in 1833 from her addiction, which by then had developed into a disease. Andersen later restored his mothers’ dignity in the fairy tale ‘She Was Good For Nothing’. Another highlight of the walk is the old prison, where Andersen’s family would host celebrations. In the novel “O.T”, Andersen describes this cruel institution.

Screen Shot 2017-04-03 at 12.46.46Walking along this path, I knew we had to set our novel in this city. Surrounded by the struggles and grief of Andersen’s childhood, many of the locations on the self-guided tour are now in our novel, and introductory chapters pay homage to the work of Andersen. Through his difficult childhood, the writer found talent and success in his work, and we found the new home of Nordic Noir.

Thank you so much to Emma and Sarah for sharing such an interesting picture of Odense. You can check out their joint Twitter Account for the Odense Series here and Facebook here. And of course you can buy their book on this link

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