Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Interview with Julie K. Rose, Author of OLEANNA

Today I'm happy to welcome author Julie K. Rose to discuss her novel, OLEANNA: A Novel of Norway in 1905 (2014). I reviewed OLEANNA here.

1. What drew you to write about Norway? Have you visited the places you write about in OLEANNA?

Since Norway is where Oleanna and Elisabeth actually lived, it was the natural place to set the book. But since three of my four grandparents were Norwegian, I've always had an affinity for the country. I recall trying to learn Norwegian with the help of my grandfather when I was a child (it didn't take, unfortunately), and I grew up with Norwegian flag garlands on the Christmas tree, favorite family recipes, syttende mai (Constitution Day), and the story of mom's visit to Norway with John to see Elisabeth and Oleanna in 1964.

I was lucky enough to travel to Norway in 2004, and it was even more beautiful and moving than I could have imagined. My husband and I visited Oslo, Bergen, and the Sognefjord region. Ten days wasn't close to being enough! We definitely long to go back.

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2. What traits do you admire most in each of the two sisters, Oleanna and Elisabeth? Which sister would have flourished as an immigrant to America?

I admire Elisabeth's wit and intelligence, and her yearning for adventure. She always made me laugh, and surprised me. I admire Oleanna's loyalty, and her depth of feeling. She also has a sense of adventure, but it's both external—seeing the world­—and internal.

I imagine Elisabeth might have enjoyed a city, perhaps Brooklyn, which became a center for Scandinavian immigrants. When she really puts her mind to something, she gets good results, and the excitement and variation in an urban environment would have energized her (at least for a time).

Oleanna would have done better out in the Great Plains (as did their brother John), but I don't know that she would have been happy. Her capacity for hard work would have stood her in good stead—though I think she (like many immigrants) would have longed for the magnificent vistas and beauty of Norway when she looked out across the broad, flat prairie.

3. I wanted to know more about Brita, Oleanna’s mother, especially after meeting her brother in the later chapters of the novel. Was Brita’s difficult marriage the source of her unhappiness, or did other factors contribute to her discontent?

The real Oleanna was the initial spark for the book, but the characters are my own invention, including Brita.

Brita was a parallel to Oleanna and Elisabeth, a cautionary tale in a way. She was in love with the land, and its inherent power, so I don't think that she would have ever considered leaving Jølster. Given the opportunity, Brita would have spent all of her time at the sæter, watching the clouds and learning the names of all of the plants and wildflowers. Instead, she married (which is what women in the country did at the time) and had six children with a man who became an alcoholic.

Brita did not have the opportunity to choose, like Oleanna did. When Oleanna went to Bergen and really understood her options, she chose her life back on the farm; it was not chosen for her. All of the natural independence and free spirit Brita had was subsumed by child bearing, child rearing, and indeed, a difficult marriage.

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4. Weaving and painting figure prominently in the novel. Can you tell us a bit about the importance of these crafts to Norwegian culture?

Norwegian folkways and folk art continued in a long, unbroken chain down through the years, well into the 19th and 20th centuries.

Because of the unique geography of the country, there wasn't a really strong culture of the elite, and that extended to art. There were Norwegians in the few urban centers (Oslo, Bergen for example) who created and enjoyed more "academic" art, both from within and without the country, but it wasn't the norm as it might be in, say, France. So the local (rural) traditions that had been built up over centuries endured.

Katherine Larson's excellent The Woven Coverlets of Norway (University of Washington Press, 2001) provides a great background on the development of weaving in Norway and the difference vis-à-vis development in the rest of Europe, which is also a great explanation of Norwegian folk culture in general:

Although much of western Europe witnessed the birth of the textile industry in the Middle Ages and the subsequent transformation of a home-oriented craft into a business run by professionals, in Norway the art of weaving remained firmly in the home. The challenging climate and difficult terrain of this rugged northern land fostered a hard life in which things of value were carefully preserved, and the natural conservatism of farming culture impeded the acceptance of new methods. Thus certain weaving tools and techniques that had largely disappeared centuries ago from homelife of France or England were still to be found in the early part of the twentieth century in Norway, preserved within the folk art of its farming community. (xiii)

And because Norway lost its independence in the Middle Ages (first to Denmark, then to Sweden), folk art was also a way to express identity – an idea which was made more fashionable in the urban centers during the romantic nationalist movement in the 19th century and run-up to independence in the early 20th century.

There are series of posts on my blog about the world of OLEANNA for folks who want to learn more about Norwegian folk life and the country in 1905.

5. Women’s suffrage becomes an important issue in OLEANNA. When did women achieve the vote in Norway? Was it a difficult struggle? How did the geography of Norway and the divide between city and country life complicate participation in the suffragette movement?

Women gained the vote in Norway in 1913 – six years after the events of OLEANNA. As with most things in Norway, the geography did have an impact. The movement for suffrage began with middle class women in the urban centers in the 1880s, but it took the monumental question of independence from Sweden in 1905 to really reach women in the lonely valleys and high lakesides in the rest of the country.

I was lucky enough to be invited to write about the movement in detail as part of the "Celebrating Women" series to mark Women's History Month in March.

6. Do you have a favorite scene in the novel? Which scene was the most difficult to write?

This is tough, because I have a lot of favorites, and quite a few were difficult to write – many because I was dealing with the grief of my mom's death, which happened a year before I started writing OLEANNA. Ultimately though, the most difficult were the final scenes in Bergen, when Oleanna is trying to decide whether to go to America, or go back to the farm. I wrote and rewrote those many times, and to be honest, she did not reveal her mind to me right away. It was a tough decision, but ultimately the right one for her.

Though it's terribly sad, I love the scenes of her mother's "funeral" and burial, but I think my favorite scenes are those between Oleanna and Anders, particularly their first tryst at the sæter. In a way, it's such a brave moment. They both have these deep wells of sadness and loss, but take the leap to trust and be vulnerable with each other anyway.

7. Have you read much Norwegian literature? Can you recommend any Norwegian authors?

I have not, unfortunately. Like generations of high school and college students, I've read plenty of Henrik Ibsen; I particularly admire A Doll's House. (I provided a quick overview of the literary scene at the time of OLEANNA, including Ibsen, over at my blog.)

But Sigrid Undset's books are my main window into Norwegian literature. I read the Kristin Lavransdatter trilogy in my 20s, at the behest of my mom, and was hooked. I initially read the translation done at the time (1920s) and though most now see it as needlessly archaic, I found it charming. The 2005 translation by Tiina Nunnally is a more direct style, which I understand is more faithful to Undset's prose.

8. Do you have any advice for writers who wish to explore unfamiliar settings or historical events?

It feels a little bit like being an explorer; there aren't as many maps to follow, but on the other hand, you don't necessarily have to worry about who has gone before and what they've had to say. Rather than going over established ground in a new way, you can venture into new ground and put your own stake in it, so to speak.

Writing historical fiction necessarily means a lot of research anyway (yay!), but venturing off the path slightly means you may have fewer secondary source materials to draw from.

It may seem a bit daunting, but I'd say: do it! Not only are there are plenty of readers out there who yearn for something new, but it's an exciting way to go exploring as an author as well.

Thank you so much for these fantastic questions, and the opportunity to share a glimpse into OLEANNA and her world!

Thank you, Julie, for this fascinating interview. I've always had an interest in Norway ever since reading Undset's work myself, so I really appreciated your novel and the chance to learn more about that beautiful country.

You can learn more about Julie K. Rose and the world of OLEANNA at her website. Her book is available at major online outlets.

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