PLEASE READ THIS INTERVIEW CAREFULLY. A CONVERSATION WITH KAREN HAVELIN
In May 2019, Dead Ink Press released the noteworthy debut of young Norwegian author Karen Havelin: an intense, intimate and emotional novel about life with endometriosis, titled Please Read This Leaflet Carefully. The novel follows – in reverse – the story of Laura Fjellstad from 2016 to 1995, while she struggles to live a normal life with a chronic illness in the cities of New York, Paris and Oslo.
We have interviewed the author Karen Havelin to hear what’s behind this personal book – also recently shortlisted for the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize – which is a reflection on themes such as the female body, sexuality, pain, motherhood and relationships. Also, written twice, in two languages, and published simultaneously in three countries, it is the very honest end result of a very unique writing process.
What is Please Read This Leaflet Carefully about and how did it come to life?
Please Read This Leaflet Carefully is a novel told in reverse about a Norwegian woman living in New York City. At the start of the book she’s 35, has a daughter and is recently divorced from an American man. As the book progresses backwards, it explores how her life ended up the way it did, through past relationships, serious chronic illness, surgeries and travel.
I started writing it when I moved to New York City to get a Master of Fine Arts in writing at Columbia University. I changed genre from poetry, and language, from Norwegian to English as well as of course country. I had to start writing very quickly because I didn’t have a backlog of work in English, and parts of my life started bleeding through very quickly. I had been sick a lot in the years leading up to leaving and I had a huge need to write about those things. My life had changed until it almost exclusively contained those ingredients no one wants to hear about, that felt embarrassing and even shameful. It was important to me to write about it, also I kind of didn’t have a choice because I had to hand in a lot of pages quickly, and it was what I had. Only quite a bit later did I figure out a way to turn some of this material into a novel.
Do you have a favourite part of the book and why?
I have a special love for some of the physical descriptions of lovely things, particularly the yoga sections and the passages that describe what doing figure skating feels like. It was so enjoyable to write that stuff.
How was the book’s title chosen?
The title actually came from when I ran the instructions for a certain medication through Google translate – I needed a US nurse to give me an injection I had brought from Norway. Those three sentences were the first ones in the injection user manual, and I liked how they insist on your attention.
Please Read This Leaflet Carefully was written twice in two different languages, in Norwegian and in English. Can you say more about this and your relationship to the two languages?
Norwegian is my first language, I am Norwegian. When I was little though, I sometimes spoke English with parts of my family – I have an American aunt, and that’s where I got my American accent. Later, I had a boyfriend I spoke English with. And I would read a lot in English. So it was a language for intimate things for me. I think I also share with many Norwegians that since we watched so much TV in English and listen to music in English, a lot of things seem easier to say in English. Norwegian is also a pretty terse language, one that doesn’t encourage any kind of indulgence or silliness. So when I was writing poetry, I developed this method where I would write in English, and then translate and edit into Norwegian. I could get it down on the page in English, and then my strict Norwegian eyes could judge what was fit for public consumption. With this book, the first parts of the writing process happened in New York City, in English. Later, when I was back in Norway and shaping it into a novel, I re-wrote it in Norwegian and kind of finished it in both languages simultaneously. It was kind of a crazy thing to do, and I’m not sure I recommend it. Still, it was plenty interesting. As I was reworking parts of the book into Norwegian, I kind of discovered what I had actually written. Sometimes I was horrified! But it certainly kept me honest. Writing in my second language, under pressure, in a city far away, meant that I wrote very honestly. So I don’t think this particular book could’ve come about any other way. And I’m very happy with the end result.
How do the two versions of the book relate and contrast? Did you need to adapt any particular aspects to the different cultures and languages? Did you have any difficulties in the writing process?
My editors and I gave it a lot of thought, but in the end there were almost no changes to make readers understand things. I think for a US reader, it reads as a commentary on Scandinavia. And for a Scandinavian reader, it reads as a commentary on the US. And I think it works in both ways, it is both of those things. For readers who are neither, it’s maybe just a universal story. All of that works. Though people have a lot of feelings and extremely varied takes on this book.
How different is it to write for Norwegian and English-speaking readers?
Honestly, I can’t really think about who I’m writing for. But for me, it may be easier to write for an English-speaking audience.
You are both an author and a translator. What was your journey to becoming a translator and an author, into Norwegian and into English?
I took a translation class as part of my MFA with Susan Bernofsky, which was great. I’m not sure I’m really allowed to call myself a translator, though. I love the work and I’ve done shorter pieces and quite a bit of poetry that has been published in literary magazines, particularly by the brilliant Danish poet C.Y. Frostholm.
Toni Morrison and James Baldwin were important to me particularly when I was young. I also have an intense relationship with the play Angels in America by Tony Kushner. These writers were not afraid to take on giant, heartbreaking themes. Courage and honesty feel like their main lessons. And those are certainly the most important things you need as a writer in my opinion.
We kindly thank the author Karen Havelin for her contribution to our blog.
Karen Havelin is from Bergen, Norway. She attended Skrivekunst-akademiet i Hordaland, and has a Bachelor’s degree in French, Literature, and Gender Studies from the University of Bergen and University of Paris Sorbonne. She completed her MFA in Fiction from Columbia University in May 2013. Her work has been published both in Norwegian and in English. Her first novel, Please Read This Leaflet Carefully was published simultaneously in the US, the UK and Norway in spring 2019, from Dottir Press, Dead Ink Books and Cappelen Damm (norsk tittel Les pakningsvedlegget nøye).