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Tomorrow And Tomorrow: Tore Renberg Interviewed
Anita Sethi , September 28th, 2014 11:48

Anita Sethi speaks to See You Tomorrow author Tore Renberg about the unlikely influence of Adrian Mole, reading Proust with Knausgård and the ever-present influence of music in his life and work

I meet Tore Renberg one evening in Europe’s largest bookstore, Waterstones’ Piccadilly, where people gather to hear the multi-award winning author, who has been hailed by Jo Nesbø as one of Norway’s finest young writers, in conversation about his gripping new novel, See You Tomorrow, which is translated from the Norwegian by Sean Kinsella. “There is not a single boring sentence. This is a full voltage blast of a novel”, wrote Matt Haig of the book and during the next hour Renberg sheds intriguing insight into the inspirations behind crafting those compelling sentences that have garnered fans the world over.

The title calls to mind Macbeth’s “tomorrow and tomorrow” speech, but first, I ask Renberg about the formative moments of his past. Born in Norway in 1972, a pivotal point in his life occurred in 1986 when he stated in his diary, “I am going to be a writer”. He cites the cultural influences of the ‘80s as being influential, from Sue Townsend to Duran Duran. “It’s all due to Adrian Mole. I was very curious at that age, 13 or 14 years old. What a great novel The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole was - it connected so profoundly with my wantings and my life. All the pimples and the girls and everything. He was this young man believing himself an intellectual”. Reading Dostoyevksy as a young man was also a transformative experience: “I picked this old worn out copy from my parents’ bookshelf and it said Crime and Punishment. I took it to my room, started reading and it took 5 or 10 pages before I was totally moved from the coastal city of Norway to Russia. I was transported via literature to Russia in the 19th century”.

“I experienced the magic of literature”, continues Renberg. “I have been there so many times when the difference between you and the characters is diminished - you are there, for a few brief seconds. I experienced that with such a great force. Then I ran to the diary which I kept at that point. I’m so angry with myself that I didn’t continue it [the diary-writing]. There it started. I wrote like a mad man - poems, stories. I was practicing every day. I was getting best friends with literature. There was no fear left in me after those years of writing. To any one who wants to be a writer I’d say keep on going, don’t criticise yourself too much, keep at it. I suppose I was lucky to have that belief in myself - or belief in literature”.

Later on at university he developed influential literary friendships including with Karl Ove Knausgård. “My tall friend with the beard. I met him when I was about 19. He was impressive. He was into literature, girls, pop music, so we became friends - as easy as that. He wanted the same thing I wanted - to become a writer. I met him in the beautiful town of Norway called Bergen. He was a great inspiration”. They worked on the student radio together while studying, and Renberg was grateful to have a critical reader of his work at that point in his life. “When it’s a long distance between you and the literary magazines, you just need someone to read it. Your girlfriends will tire of it eventually, your mum will say what she’s always been saying. You need someone who takes it seriously. We took it so seriously. We read tonnes of pages of literature. I remember the Summer of ‘93 - we sat in the outdoor cafe in Bergen reading Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past, which we were both madly obsessed with”.

Renberg achieved his first major success aged 23, with the short-story collection Sleeping Tangle and then the novel The Man Who Loved Yngve, which was made into a major motion picture. Four further novels with the same protagonist have sold over 400, 000 copies in Norway, his work has been translated into fifteen languages and his varied portfolio also includes working as a TV host, literary critic, writing for the screen and theatre and playing in several bands.

Renberg’s other great passion is music and it pervades his literature. In his Acknowledgements for See You Tomorrow he writes: “It often feels as if my energy comes from listening to music. I’d like to take the opportunity to thank a handful of artists who have meant so much over the years: Nick Cave, Jarvis Cocker, David Bowie, Ray Davies, The Flaming Lips, David Sylvian, Morrissey, Pet Shop Boys, Tom Waits, Kate Bush, Duran Duran, Phil Collins, Bob Hund, Depeche Mode, XTC”. As a child, his mother wanted him to become a violinist and pianist, and he would go to his grandmother’s to play the piano, although laughs as he remembers how he was too distracted by the cookies and tea.

I ask Renberg about that intriguing connection between music and fiction and how it has influenced his work: “Music to a writer is not just that you enjoy music - I do really believe in a connection between being a listener and being a writer - because it tunes you. I do not pretend to be a big musician but I have been a big listener all my life; it’s about getting to know characters and listening to them. Writing fiction is about listening to people”. In this book all of the characters have a musical taste which is far from his own, “so I had to put my own in the Acknowledgements so people know I like good music!”. He mentions The People’s Songs by Stuart Maconie - a social study which looks at every year through one song, examining Britain and its music. That notion of reading a society through song is also pertinent to See You Tomorrow, in which there is a fascinating connection between music and identity. Renberg can’t ever listen to music when he’s writing, though. “It’s too strong. Music has this wonderful way of getting into your body instantly. Literature is more cerebral in a way”.

The erudite Renberg’s conversation is peppered with literary references, and he quotes Oscar Wilde who said of Balzac: “Balzac did not copy life, he created it”. See You Tomorrow marks a new chapter in Renberg’s career, far from copying the work of previous years but instead creating new territory, with distinctive new voices and characters. Of the five novels Renberg has written, at least three have been autobiographical, he explains. “If you write autobiographical novels it can be liberating to start writing them but after having done that for some time, what was liberating becomes the opposite. So after a while of having been at that, I thought, when am I going to get my imagination going, write beautiful dialogue and other characters? It built a tremendous want in me to do those more Balzacian novels. There was a great force in me to do that”.

The genesis for See You Tomorrow arose in 2007 although he didn’t quite recognise it as such then. “I pictured a girl who was 14 years old, really upper middleclass, cute as a bunny, wearing a silver cross around her neck, unkissed, Christian, madly in love with no good damaged Daniel. I ran to the computer and wrote a short story on this. I portrayed this young girl so intensely in love with a boy she shouldn’t be. We’ve all been there. Two years later I woke up and my subconscious had been working on it. I shifted perspective. I started to write about Daniel standing near the woods thinking, ‘am I going to get laid today?’”. Renberg saw the possibilities of the subject matter working as a novel, with “different characters each expanding the universe in age and class. I dove into the novel without having planned it so it grew organically like a tree or plant. It was adventurous for me, and a new thing”.

Whilst evocatively conjuring the specificities of place, Renberg’s work also tackles universal themes including love and loss and the search for fulfilling friendship. “The goal of my literature is to write about everyone. I do not consider myself a Norwegian writer. I’m a humanist to my teeth. What I want is to write literature based in Norway, as that’s where I come from, but if it can connect with people in different countries, that’s the beauty”.

Musing on the early days starting out as a writer, he stresses the importance of perseverance: “It’s very important to be rejected - both by the girls and the publishers. I wrote madly and couldn’t understand why I got my collections of poetry all back from the big Norwegian publishers. I couldn’t understand it but kept going - which is really important. I was humbled and learned a lot from the process of acknowledging it, starting over, and going back”. And of the day-to-day life of the author: “Writing is a fantastic job to have but also a very lonely one. You have to be self-confident as it’s only me at the office. I think probably those first years of rejection were very good for me”.

Renberg also returns to the subject of empathy, which binds his work together: “Creating characters is all about compassion. It’s not judgmental. In life this would be difficult, impossible. It’s all about empathy, listening to your characters seriously”.

See You Tomorrow is out now, published by Arcadia Books. Photograph by Anders Minge. Anita Sethi is a journalist, writer and critic. Her website is www.anitasethi.co.uk and she tweets at www.twitter.com/anitasethi

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