Today we're talking with Knut Hansen, author of Chuck It
FQ: I see that you are Norwegian and still live in Norway. What made you decide to write about a New Yorker living in Norway?
HANSEN: Still live...Well, at least I am back in my native country after ten years of expat life here and there, mostly in Shanghai. I returned from China to get back in touch with nature, really, which is plentyful and everywhere in good old Norway. Obviously, this is not the case with a metropolis such as Shanghai (still a blast! Fantastic city.) You've got to leave the province, even travel through another two, before you can experience what I now have just outside my window. Anyway, The book.... The protagonist Matt is based on a real person from the States who tried the expat life in Norway years ago. What's more, some of the most thought-provoking and inspiring people I know or know of - musicians, writers, cartoonists, artists in general - happen to speak English and come from the US (and whom I've met in both my hometown Bergen and in Shanghai. Great, eh?) Then again, if I immersed myself in Spanish like I've done with your native language since I was ten, I'd probably say the same about Hispanics, so I am biased here.
FQ: Along the same lines, why write in English, and for a primarily American audience? What was it that challenged you to do this?
HANSEN: I like the English language. Very hybrid, very dynamic, and the better I get at it, speaking or writing, the more friends and colleagues from around the world I will gain. My expat life in Shanghai taught me this.
Through my entire adult life, a solid 20 years now, I have dealt with Americans at a more or less every-day rate. Regardless of ethnicity, religious orientation, age, sex, etc. they, or should I say you, strike me as more direct and humorous than Norwegians and north Europeans in general (just don't include Brits here, 'cause they certainly know how to make fun of each other, at least compared to Scandinavians!); less inhibitions, I would say, in terms of daring to express an opinion about whatever subject crosses the table. Of course this might be considered a steretypical American, somebody who talks and laughs with ease, but so what? Whether he is dishonest, annoying, conceited - as long as he says something. It's far worse with a quiet sad-sack saying nothing. You might find remnants of this Norwegian stereotype in the Midwest, maybe not. Either way, a Minnesota blue-collar or executive is hardly more representative of the average American than of those of the same heritage still living in Norway. Common traits normally don't follow nationality, or do they? I don't know. Might be easy to structure a mindset from generalizing social behavior this way, but then it's just as easy to judge or strain relationships, or what?
FQ: On to the story! We meet Matt right away, on the first page, having lost his zest for life. How did he get that way? What made him despair so much that he attempted suicide?
HANSEN: That reveals itself as the story progresses. Should be plenty of bits for the reader to piece together without relying too much on narrative guidance. Certain chapters display Matt's thoughts on the whole point with existing. He spends a lot of time pondering what life is all about, which I think anyone open to self-reflection feels tempted to contemplate and to do something about such as accelerating one's own death, hoping to find something better in the netherworld or whatever we should call it (if there is one). Since I'm from a Viking country, perhaps I should call it Asgaard? Anyway, I believe many of us for various reasons have never gotten the chance to get to know oneself - and then, as a grown-up, ends up thinking 'Hey, what happened to my personality?' Why? Well, some readers of Chuck It might say my personal take on this surfaces in dialogues, monologues, in sudden change of events etc.; some might say 'No, the characters give me nothing, the plot goes nowwhere,' the ones looking for the blood and gore parts - and a hero. I can say this much, the reader will get around to that, but there isn't much implying fairytale conflicts in early stages of the story when Matt is lying in a hospital bed full of self-pity and remorse.
FQ: I found Jeanette to be a particularly interesting character, She was a strong-willed woman who knows what she wanted. Is she based on anybody you know?
HANSEN: Her strong-willed attitude, no. Her 'alluring looks' as it goes, yes. There was this girl, from my university days...To me she might have looked a little Mediterranean, a bit Spanish perhaps. I dreamed she had sparkle and spunk matching her voluptuous facade which had nothing shallow or plastic about it. She rarely wore make-up, that I remember. A plain natural beauty. I think Jeanette's personality sums up how I wanted, and still do, young women, and men for that matter, to be in Norway: more confident and honest when it comes to articulating emotions or voicing standards in general, I should think. I can tell you, there is still a lot of beating around the bush at these European latitudes when it comes to lust. When someone wants to advertise a crush or just curiosity, so many of us fumble and stutter. The craving for booze on the weekends, the manner in which a party unfolds through the evening - it still perplexes me how people cannot court and flirt without being intoxicated or far worse, cannot display a serious interest in a date without a script, without a back-up friend, without preps and props and all that. How do you think online dating services are doing in Norway? I wouldn't know the statistics here, I can only speculate there's a huge demand for that sort of thing. Wherever there is the internet and tons of shy people...How's that for stereotypes!
FQ: Without giving too much away, would you tell us a little about Barry? He has a profound effect on Matt.
HANSEN: Matt encounters all kinds of people who have profound effects on him. One of them is Barry, whom the reader gets to meet first in chapter 2, the turf showdown with some bullies. I'm not a childhood psychologist here, but I suppose the incident could be considered a milestone in their relationship, pointing to what? Well, maybe how reciprocal admiration generates bonds, true brotherly love, which nothing can break up, no matter how roughly conflicts or mistakes test-drive them through early and late stages in their lives. They walk through adolescence together, they enter early adult life together and so on, forgiving but never forgetting one another's flaws.
FQ: Matt and his friends like to party. The crazy party mid-way through the story was probably the wildest I’d ever read. How did you come up with all the action that happened within those pages?
HANSEN: If you map-google the address in Bergen, you'll see the neighborhood abounds with villas like the party house in the story. They all overlook the railway tracks and the brackish lake from the hillside running down to the city valley. I have been to one or two of those parties up there. Well-decorated, well-adorned, well everything! Once you're inside there is nothing there reminding you of an old wooden villa, unless you get lost in the basement. So there you go, that was my inspiration for the setting. The action is purly imaginative. The characters, though, how they reason and discuss what's going on around them are not. I think I remember the developing of the dialogue between Matt and Lars in the basement as being one of the toughest in the whole book. Another challenge I loved with the villa party was my attempting to describe all the impressions from a female angle. How does a male author qualify to wear the shoes of a woman and judge men through her spectacles? This point goes back to the question about the strong-willed Jeanette.
FQ: "Chuck It!" is a phrase first used by Matt’s sister Mary. Would you tell us a little about the role this phrase plays in Matt’s life?
HANSEN: First of all, look at all the super-cool combinations the verb 'chuck' offers you. Maybe you as a native speaker are not as fascinated as I am, understood. You try Norwegian one day! (1) It means to toss or throw with a quick motion; (2) it means to resign or give up; (3) it means to pat or tap lightly; (4) it could mean to eject a person from a public place; (5) it could also mean to vomit, then rather combined with the prefix 'up.'
When the reader gets to the chapter where Matt's sister utters 'Chuck it' he will also come across the word 'vomit.' However, other words, phrases and actions in the chapter may point to a few possible meanings of 'chuck.' Further, Matt might not understand why Mary says 'Chuck it' in this particular scene, displaying a family incident at an early stage in his life. Perhaps later in the story the maturer protagonist will share his own interpretation of the combination 'chuck' and 'it.'
FQ: The best line in the book, in my opinion, was “His depression had robbed him of his appetite for life.” (pg. 213) I believe that sums up Matt’s issue perfectly. Would you tell our readers a little about this aspect of Matt?
HANSEN: Matt's appetite for life materializes in his urge to act and be theatrical on stage and off stage. The Christmas school play chapters in the first part of the book elaborates on this. As long as he can surround himself with inspirational and challenging people nourishing his glow, he shines. Fanny, his young crush, and Mr. Franklin, one of his teachers, are typical examples. Then as an expat he gets to play the crazy New Yorker in front of a live audience every day. Take his improvised story-telling. The listener can never be sure whether Matt refers to actual events or just makes up things. He becomes exotic in the eyes of Norwegians, but also a clown. The euphoria he indulges in from rattling about the past, nonetheless, distracts him from something more important - his future. That he misses the camaraderie from his bands and wishes he could bond with neighbors and colleagues - what is he going to do about it if it depresses him to the point he can't take it any longer? It relates to his complicated character, of course, but just as much to cultural diversity and tolerance in a North European corner not too unfamiliar to the American audience.
FQ: What are you plans for your next book? Would you give our readers a little tease?
HANSEN: Something completely different! I have already finished a story about some young classmates signing up for a song contest at their school. The whole class gets involved and they never seem able to decide what song to pick or who should do what on stage. The scene is set in a small community right outside my hometown, so this one will not involve Americans at all. It's more for kids than for an adult audience, I believe, but it might have something in it for parents, too. It's written in Norwegian but I will definitely consider a translation. What do you say?