An Interview with Ola Jostein Jørgensen, author of “No One Dreams of Oslo”

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In the Norwegian imagination, the 2011 domestic terrorist attacks that took place in Oslo and the small nearby island Utøya, parallel 9/11. The date on which the attacks occurred—July 22—serves as shorthand and demarcation line between clear cultural befores and afters. 

In the past few years, fiction that references July 22 and its aftermath has slowly begun to appear. One of its authors is Ola Jostein Jørgensen (b. 1977), whose short story collection No One Dreams of Oslo was published in 2014.

I interviewed Jørgensen at the Café Tranen in Oslo, a few days before the eight anniversary of the attacks. I had recently translated his short story, “The Awakening,” for MQR’s theme issue What Does Europe Want Now?

Jørgensen graciously agreed to conduct the interview in English. The interview has been edited for length.

Eirill Falck (EF): Do you remember when you first began writing the book that became No One Dreams of Oslo?

Ola Jostein Jørgensen (OJJ): Yes—very shortly after the July 22 attacks. A friend and I were publishing chapbooks at the time, and we put one together called Ut av de åpne vinduene in denne byen (Out of the Open Windows in this City). We asked various writers we knew to write about Oslo in that very particular context, of the aftermath. I wrote a short story that’s not included in No One Dreams of Oslo, but that had some of the same features of the stories in the collection—it took place in Oslo, and these disconcerting, strange events were taking place. I thought that this was a way to write about the experience of this unprecedented thing happening without writing directly about it, which at the time felt impossible or even disrespectful. That was the very clear first formulation of that idea. 

EF: Were you writing something different prior to July 22, which you then had to put aside?

OJJ: I was. I had various projects in the works that sort of fell by the wayside, although nothing I had worked on at any length. Writing about Oslo all of a sudden seemed so much more important. That was what I really wanted to do at that time.

EF: Norwegians all seem to remember where they were and what they were doing on July 22. Would you tell me what your memories are of that day? 

OJJ: I was at home. I was writing. I don’t remember what I was writing. I remember hearing the explosion, wondering what it was. I remember thinking maybe it was a sudden thunderstorm. I lived quite close to two of the hospitals in Oslo, so after a while I started hearing and seeing a lot of the ambulances traveling very, very fast. I understood something really big must have happened. I also heard the fire engines and the police engines. I remember turning on the news. I think Twitter was where I learned there had been an explosion, and a lot of damage. Most people assumed it was some kind of accident, a gas explosion maybe. Some people started talking about terrorists, that it had to be Islamists or something. Most people thought it had to be some kind of accident. I started contacting people I knew in Oslo, seeing if everyone was OK. And then, the absolutely horrible news that there was a shooting at Utøya came. I remember going to bed really late that night, having heard reports that there were a lot of deaths, but only a few confirmed. And then waking up around four or five a.m., checking the news again and hearing the number sixty-six dead—and just being absolutely horrified. 

EF: Before July 22, did Oslo interest you as a subject?

OJJ: I had tried setting various stories in Oslo, but mostly out of convenience. It’s the place I know best. The idea of treating Oslo as a worthwhile entity in and of itself wasn’t something that had occurred to me before. That was also one of the effects of the attacks, not only for me but for a lot of people I talked to—the bombing in Oslo suddenly made a lot of people realize how much they liked and appreciated the city. People started talking about how proud they were of living in Oslo. Not a lot of people used to talk about the city that way before.

EF: More so the opposite. 

OJJ: Right. People were apologizing for living in Oslo.

EF: Why do you think people had that tendency, before, to be uncomfortable, or not proud, to be living in Oslo?

OJJ: It’s a good question. I’m not sure if this is a specifically Norwegian thing, but Oslo being the capital of the country, being the place where the government and bureaucracy is situated, sort of makes a lot of people around the country skeptical. I guess you have the same thing in the US.

EF: Yes.

OJJ: It was very easy for people outside of Oslo to talk about it in negative terms, and people in Oslo sort of accepted that or even adopted that attitude—OK, this place isn’t that great. In the immediate aftermath of July 22, there was this newfound pride in Oslo. I think that’s one of the things that’s still there, eight years later. One of the long-lasting effects of the attacks is that people talk about Oslo in slightly different ways. 

EF: Do you remember the first piece of post-July 22 fiction you read?

OJJ: I don’t. If I remember correctly, No One Dreams of Oslo was the first or one of the first works of fiction published. That same year, there were a few others. But it seems odd. There must have been something before that. Aage Storm Borchgrevink published a collection, also in 2014 I think, which has at least two short stories in a similar vein to mine—they take place in Oslo, and odd or unsettling events take place.

EF: The copy on the back of No One Dreams of Oslo reads, “Oslo before, after, and during the catastrophe. … The inhabitants live lives on a thin veneer of normalcy, but the veneer is constantly threatening to crack. And what isn’t supposed to happen suddenly can.” You’ve alluded to direct references seeming out of place or even disrespectful. Was that how it felt from the beginning? 

OJJ: I think, in one way it’s always this way with large, catastrophic events. It usually takes quite a bit of time before you can start making movies or books about it, or make jokes—

EF: Is anyone making jokes?

OJJ: Not about the terrorist attacks, but… No, maybe not? Not yet. But I guess it will come in some form sooner or later. Although that still seems kind of hard to imagine. Maybe ten or twenty years from now, someone will crack some joke that would be considered really inappropriate now. You need some distance and time just to be able to process and to have some sort of respect for what happened. And for me, at the time when I wrote these short stories, writing very directly about the terrorist or the attack wasn’t something that even really crossed my mind. It wasn’t something I wanted to do, was ready to do, or had the right or ability to do. What I could write about was the feeling of unease and terror and fright and all of those various emotions suddenly coming to light that hadn’t been there before, and then using fiction as a way to work through that and try to put it into a setting and to see what would happen if you view it from different angles. That’s not a very good explanation. 

EF: No, that rings true to me.

OJJ: I think even today—I thought about it because I knew we were going to do this interview—I haven’t considered writing anything about July 22 that’s more direct. I looked through my bookshelves and online to see what had actually been written in terms of fiction. There have been a lot of books published about the events of that day, but they have mostly been nonfiction. There are very few books of fiction that try to deal with the terrorist attack, and those that do deal with it in the same way I did—indirectly, sort of writing about people at the edges of it, or in an entirely fictional way like Jan Kjærstad.

EF: I wanted to ask you about Jan Kjærstad. There was an interview he did with Dagsavisen in which he said, about his novel Berge, “I had wanted to mention July 22. But I took it out because it seemed tacked-on. It was a rosy portrayal of a family, where the chapter ended with the line ‘now I’m going to camp’—which referred to Utøya. In the moment it seemed nifty, but when I revisited it after a couple of weeks, it just seemed out of place. If anyone writes anything sentimental or speculative about July 22, it will be mercilessly condemned by critics and readers alike. And justifiably so.” What are your thoughts on his perspective?

OJJ: It’s very relatable. I think someone writing something sentimental or speculative about it—I don’t think people would stand for it. But I think it goes even further than that. It goes beyond this particular incident. People are very suspicious of fiction that claims to be reality-based. That’s something a lot of people writing about their lives have had to deal with, and have been criticized quite harshly for at times. Someone writing about this major event, that affected a lot of people—I think the question is, why do you think you have the right to write about this in a fictional way, to use these victims and this event to further your own career? Even if it was very respectful and thoughtful and a good novel, those questions would inevitably pop up. So I think one of the reasons not much fiction has been written about it is partly because it’s not that long ago and partly the cost of writing about it would potentially be really high.

EF: When writing No One Dreams of Oslo, were there times when you felt an impulse to write something but stopped yourself because it seemed somehow wrong?

OJJ:  I don’t think I did. Or if I did, the impulse to self-censor was coming from somewhere in me, not from the outside world. Nothing like what Kjærstad describes, where I put something in that I later took out. At least none that I can remember now.

EF: Are you able to pinpoint what the taboos were to you? Was it simply directness in and of itself? 

OJJ: Yes, I think that was it. Portraying the actual events in writing, either the terrorist himself or his actions, the explosion or the shootings in any way… I didn’t even consider trying to write about that. Oh—this is something I haven’t thought about in a while: in the chapbook anthology we made, there was one writer who wrote very directly about the shootings. He wrote a story about someone walking around on an island, shooting people, told from the perpetrator’s point of view. In the end, it turns out to be someone’s fantasy about what had happened. It was very well-written, good in a literary sense, but that one made several people really angry. And this was a chapbook—we printed maybe two or three hundred copies, so very few people read it. But out of that small group, several people were really angry. And I understand them—as one of the editors of that book, I had an uneasiness about that story. And maybe that influenced me in some way not even to consider writing directly about that theme.

EF: The subtleness seems crucial, but I struggled with it when translating your work into English, for a mostly American audience. A Norwegian reader will immediately pick up on the subtle references in “The Awakening”—that the character the False Policeman serves as a kind of stand-in for the terrorist, for example. I worried readers unfamiliar with the events would think the False Policeman was simply a whimsical invention. 

OJJ: Right. I didn’t envision an audience outside of Norway. A prerequisite for being able to write the way I did is that the event you are writing about is so deeply ingrained that readers will immediately catch the references. And without that context, I can imagine the difficulty in translating those associations to another language and to another audience. What still feels so traumatic to people in Norway was to outsiders just another bad event in a never-ending series of bad events.

EF: Have you noticed broader shifts in Norwegian fiction after July 22? 

OJJ: Yes—if I’m allowing myself to speak in very broad terms. I’ll say first, as a disclaimer, there are a lot of books written in Norway given the population size. It’s a rich and varied field. There are some trends related to what we’re talking about now. I’m not the first to point this out, but there’s a lot of fiction written about very small, personal, intimate themes, about family, relationships. There’s a lot of inward-looking literature. A lot of novels that are very short-story-like in their scale. Short time spans, very non-epic literature. That’s something that can easily be seen as negative. There’s not a lot of literature that tries to take on larger political themes. There are attempts, but a lot of the literature that gets awards, and is well-received, is very inward-looking. I’m not sure it’s related to the July 22 events. I think it’s more related to larger shifts in the culture… I understand your question and I think it’s interesting, but I feel really uncomfortable talking about literature and culture in such broad terms, I just have to note that. Because it’s very easy to pick out books and authors and say, this doesn’t fit into what you’re saying. There’s a lot of good stuff and interesting stuff being written that cannot be pigeon-holed the way I’m doing right now.

EF: I will make sure your discomfort is noted.

OJJ: (laughing) That’s good. 

EF: Perhaps one thing that can be safely said about Norwegians is that we are very uncomfortable making broad statements? But it seems to me that part of what’s happening in No One Dreams of Oslo is that you’re trying to pinpoint what makes Oslo Oslo. For example, you describe Oslo—tongue-in-cheek—as the city in which we “praise mediocrity.” 

OJJ: This is very much related to what we talked about earlier—the tendency Norwegians who don’t live in Oslo have of talking about the city in derogatory terms and the tendency of people in Oslo to agree. The traffic, the inefficient bureaucracy… What people in Norway very often say when you meet them and you say you’re from Oslo, is that they like visiting Oslo but are really happy they don’t have to live here. They’ll often also say something about how Norway is ruled from Oslo, by an “Oslo elite” that’s ignorant of life outside Oslo. This tendency of speaking about Oslo was—and still is to some degree—adopted by people who live in Oslo. A lot of people move here to study or work for a few years, but then they move away, saying they don’t want their children to grow up here. Almost as if it would be child abuse. But what has changed—which is very related to the bombing of the government building in downtown Oslo—is that suddenly people started being much more vocal about what is good about Oslo, about the fact that they liked, and were proud of, living in Oslo. They were defending the city, and defending life in the city.

EF: What are the good aspects of life in Oslo?

OJJ: There are standard talking points. It’s the largest city in Norway, but on a global scale it’s fairly small. Compared to truly large cities like London, or Berlin, or New York, it’s a really small and manageable place. It’s clean, safe. There’s not a lot of violence in Oslo. It’s a green city, lots of trees, lots of parks. It’s very close to the fjord, obviously, but also the woods. You can live where you and I are right now—very  close to the city center of Oslo—and in the winter you can take a half-hour bus trip and be cross-country skiing. You can get the best of both worlds—be close to nature and also have the amenities of the city. That’s the short version of my Oslo sales pitch.

EF: You used to run a small publishing house, Det stille forlaget. What inspired you to get into publishing?

OJJ: At the time, my co-founder and I both worked at chain bookstores and spent a lot of time selling uninteresting and commercial literature. That’s what the job is, but we had to feel we were doing something completely different also. We published weird and marginal stuff. It was fun and interesting, but it was never meant to be anything long-term or big. It was a—overskuddsprosjekt

EF: I think that’s one of those Norwegian compound nouns that lack an equivalent in English. [Note to the reader: a flawed translation of overskuddsprosjekt is “project made possible by having a surplus of time and energy.”] 

OJJ: Yes.

EF: Did working at the chain bookstore influence how you think about literature, and how Norwegians consume it?

OJJ: I made some observations. It’s kind of obvious when I say it out loud, but I noticed how superficial we are when we walk into a bookstore. There are so many books being published, so much to read, and we sort of look for any excuse not to have to read a book. I noticed how very dismissive people can be about jacket colors or slightly off titles. Any excuse to put a book down. And you get to see very up close how cut-throat, how fierce the competition is. For most people, or for me at least, it feels like a big achievement to write and get a book published. Family and friends and people you know will compliment you… But if I hadn’t worked in a bookstore, I think the actual experience of being published would have been harder. I knew very well how many books are published and how short a period of time they are being displayed and seen. What would you say in English? In Norway we say, bøker er ferskvare.

EF: Maybe, “books are perishable goods.” 

OJJ: They expire quickly from a commercial perspective. Of the two books I’ve written, you won’t find them in bookstores now. And that’s perfectly fine. That’s how it has to be. But if you’re not prepared for it, it can be quite harsh.

EF: You’re also a translator. I’m curious whether your own work as a translator—or simply reading literature from other countries—has given you particular insights into Norwegian literature or life in Norway.

OJJ: It’s a good question. I’m not sure? I’ll just start talking and see whether I say anything interesting at all. Of the fiction I read, I read a lot of Norwegian fiction, obviously, but I also read quite a bit of Swedish and Danish fiction too. Aside from that, it’s a lot of English and American literature, and some European authors. And unfortunately, of the rest of the world, I don’t read nearly as much as I’d like to. But if we’re talking about Western literature, I think if there’s anything to be noted, it’s that in many ways it’s all very similar. It’s very easy for a Norwegian reader to relate to something written by someone in the United States or Germany or England. There are a lot of particulars that are different, of course, but the lives in this hemisphere are very, very similar. Maybe more now than they have ever been.