By Jake Rossen
By Jesse Marx
By Michelle LeBow
By Alleen Brown
By Maggie LaMaack
By CP Staff
By Jesse Marx
Until recently, Norwegian writer Per Petterson was little more than anobscure, aging novelist with a tragic past. In 1990, traveling on vacation to Denmark, his parents,brother, and another brother's niece boarded a ferry called the Scandinavian Star. In the middle of the night a pair of fires started on the third deck, spreading quickly. The captain ordered the fire doors shut and the air conditioning turned off, which had the effect of pumping smoke into the cabins of trapped passengers. Alarms failed, and because the hastily trained crew was largely Filipino and spoke neither English nor Norwegian, they could not properly direct passengers to safety.
Though some were able to escape on lifeboats, about one-third of the 493 people aboard the ship died, including Petterson's family. He learned of the tragedy through a phone call from his ex-wife, who told him to turn on the television. Petterson himself had considered making the trip with them.
"To put it cruelly," the 56-year-old author told the Washington Post of the tragedy, "it gave me material." Petterson confronted the situation head-on in his 2000 novel In the Wake, featuring a character whose parents and brother die in similar circumstances. The subject of loss is never far from the surface in his works. His follow-up, Out Stealing Horses, is a devastating rumination on forgiveness and pain. A 67-year-old Norwegian man moves far away from civilization to escape demons brought on by the death of his wife, before being confronted by a figure from his past. Much of the book focuses on the man's memories of time spent with his father as a boy.
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Alongside the cabin wall there was a big patch of stinging nettles, growing tall and thick, and I worked my way around them in a wide arc, and then my father came round the house and stood looking at me...
"Why not cut down the nettles?" he said.
I looked down at the short scythe handle and across at the tall nettles.
"It will hurt," I said. Then he looked at me with half a smile and a little shake of the head.
"You decide for yourself when it will hurt," he said, suddenly getting serious. He walked over to the nettles and took hold of the smarting plants with his bare hands and began to pull them up with perfect calm, one after the other...
Petterson, who lives with his wife on a farm in the forest outside Oslo, toiled as a librarian and a bookseller while writing his novels. Though some were successful enough to get published in English, he nonetheless remained relatively unknown for years. Out Stealing Horses would later win international awards and be chosen one of 2007's five best novels by The New York Times Book Review, but when it was first published in 2003 in Norwegian it found no interest whatsoever from the American market. Translated into English and published in the U.K. in 2005, the book didn't really take off until it was released in 2007 by Graywolf Press, a small but highly respected literary publisher in Minnesota.
"It was a Norwegian translation, and his first two books in English hadn't broken out. That alone is enough to put the American publishers off," says Graywolf Press director and publisher Fiona McCrae, who obtained a copy of the book through Petterson's British publisher in 2006. "If it was by someone who was 23 and their story had just been in The New Yorker, then they'd read it through a different lens."
Yet for the nonprofit St. Paul publisher, whose philosophy puts art before profit, such prejudice didn't apply. McCrae and her cohorts soberly saw the book for what it was—a powerhouse—and bought its American rights for a minuscule four-digit sum. "It seems like a quiet book, until you realize it's stolen your heart and your mind," she says. "We really liked it, but we didn't think it was going to be a big, big book. We're not that bright."
When Graywolf published the book in April of last year, the transaction turned out to be the literary equivalent of the Red Sox snatching David Ortiz from the Twins for $1.25 million in 2003. Buoyed by the strength of outstanding reviews and Petterson's receipt of the prestigious International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award in 2007 (beating out authors like Cormac McCarthy and Salman Rushdie), Graywolf has moved some 45,000 to 50,000 copies of the best-selling book—an extraordinary number for a novel of its kind.
Petterson's second novel, To Siberia, overlooked on its initial publication in 1996 but recently re-released by Graywolf, could see similar fanfare. The story concerns a young girl and her brother. Growing up in a small Danish town, they are forced to deal with their grandfather's suicide, the neglect of their parents, and the German invasion. In a starred review, Publisher's Weekly wrote: "The book builds up slowly, casting a spell of beauty and devastation that matches the bleak but dazzling climate."
For Graywolf, which publishes nonfiction, fiction, and poetry, breakout literary successes are happening with increasing frequency, and its 2007 list even featured something of an oxymoron—a poetry smash hit. St. Louis writer Mary Jo Bang's Elegy, which contains works written following the death of her 37-year-old son, won the National Book Critics Circle Award in poetry, and Bang was profiled on PBS's The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer and in Newsweek. Salvatore Scibona's novel The End was just announced as a finalist for the National Book Award. Poets Tony Hoagland and Elizabeth Alexander won $50,000 prizes from Poets and Writers in the last two years. And Graywolf titles were named in best-of-the-year reviews by everyone from the U.K.'s The Guardian to the Los Angeles Times. In the past year the publisher's sales have risen 25 percent, pushing them over a million dollars for the first time.