Karl Ove Knausgaard on Failure, Memory, and Writing 20 Pages a Day
John Freeman catches up with the My Struggle author in Japan
The fifth book in Karl Ove Knausgaard’s widely and obsessively loved My Struggle will be released next week, April 19th, from Archipelago Press. John Freeman caught up with the inimitable Knausgaard in Japan.
John Freeman: Book five of My Struggle was written at speed and originally published five years ago.
Karl Ove Knausgaard: Yeah
JF: Now you’re eight or nine thousand miles from home, in Japan, recalling a time that was experienced at speed as well. So, I’m curious if you could talk at all about what it felt like when you were writing these books and you had reached number five. What physical condition you were in, mental condition.
KOK: Yeah. It was like I actually wrote the book in eight weeks, the last one. Which is an incredible pace because it is over 500 pages. I remember that it was all about—what would the word be in English—staying power. That was the only thing I was thinking about. I think I wrote up to 15, 20 pages a day some days. It was all about staying there and doing it. Like an almost physical activity, you know. I sent my family away for a week, and that week I could almost write around the clock.
JF: Did you use any stimulants at all?
KOK: No. I didn’t. Coffee and cigarettes. But this was at the end of a long, long writing process. The next book collapsed completely. So it has a very, very simple structure, the book: coming into the city, living there, and leaving the city—that’s the structure. It’s really one narrative, of me and my brother. I haven’t read it since then, so I really don’t know what’s in it. But I had a feeling when I wrote it that this was the book I wanted to write when I was 20. I couldn’t write it for another 20 years.
JF: It’s shocking to read it and to realize that at one point you were a lousy writer.
KOK: [laughs] Yeah.
JF: And your teachers told you that.
KOK: Yeah, they did.
JF: What was Jon Fosse like as a teacher?
KOK: He was very nervous, very shy, but almost aggressive in his comments. But he still had so much credibility, you know. No compromises. That was the thing I learned from him. Which I haven’t followed, but I know of it: no compromises. [For Fosse], it’s only about the book and the quality of the book. There’s no sellout in him whatsoever. He’s been doing his thing since he was 20, I think, and he still does. He is uncorrupted and that was what he taught, just by being himself.
JF: Do you think teachers teach more by example than by what they say?
KOK: Yeah, absolutely.
JF: And do you think writing can be taught?
KOK: No. You have to learn it yourself. It’s like playing, you know? And you have to find your own way. So no, you can’t teach that. But there are so many other things you can teach, for instance what [Fosse] did.
JF: What advantages do you think you had writing about youth at the cusp of no longer being young? What does that scrub off the text, if you will, other than simply the skills you obviously developed by failing?
KOK: You asked, what kind of… Yeah. [long pause] Yeah, I don’t know. I wanted this to be a really, really bleak book, you know, because that period in my life was terrible. It was like there was no hope. I couldn’t see any hope. But there is a certain romanticism in the book anyway. . . a celebration of being free without knowing that you are. That’s the thing I don’t like about the book. It’s not true in that sense.
JF: You survived.
KOK: Yeah. There was something I was longing for in that period and that longing is the engine in the book, I think. The reason I wrote it. For me, writing that book, those books—the childhood book, three, four and five—was like method acting. I tried to really be that person, you know, and pretend like I didn’t know anything that was to come. That’s another kind of enormous restriction.
JF: This to me was the funniest of [the books].
KOK: Yeah, it is. It was fun to write it.
JF: It’s sort of funny because you realize those bleak periods you survive are awful when you’re in them, but then 20 years later they become comedic.
JF: In some ways it seems like book four and five are both about failure. Sexual failure and then sort of artistic failure.
KOK: Yeah. That’s true.
JF: And they both have similar structure. They’re pretty much straight through. They’re not mediated by the older sort of consciousness.
KOK: No, it’s very pure and simple and easy, and that’s why I could write them so quickly, too.
JF: The closest thing I could think of to these… it reminded me just a tiny bit of Kerouac.
JF: His buddy books, his books about trying to write and On the Road and Dharma Bums.
KOK: Those were the books I read at that time, when I was at that age.
KOK: And the things I loved. That’s why I love literature, those books.
JF: Who was your favorite writing teacher in that period? Other than Jon Fosse.
KOK: You mean as an actual teacher?
KOK: There was only him.
JF: Are there people you’ve left out simply for the purposes of narrative?
KOK: Not of the teachers, no.
JF: So you’re in this eight-week [writing] period, and you’ve sent your family away for one week. Was there a point at which you got stuck at all? Or stopped? I mean, obviously, you couldn’t have stopped that long.
KOK: No, I stopped there… After this book I completely lost it and wrote a terrible book. Which I had to throw away, and then one year later I wrote book six. So this was the last of the innocent books, and then book six was… I knew what kind of reactions I got, and I tried to write it and repeat it, and it was terrible. It was just fake. But this isn’t. This is the last of the non-fake books.
JF: Help me because I don’t know the publishing schedule, but when you were writing this had book one or two come out?
KOK: I had written only book one and two before, and then when I published book one, I was writing three. Then book three came out, and I wrote book four. And book four was under production when I wrote book five—it was just weeks between a finished manuscript and actual publication.
JF: So you must have a very secure system of locking out outside influences or press or things that might distract you.
KOK: Yeah, I did that. Then. But it was part of the project to do it very quickly and in a year. That’s helped me a lot, that I had this deadline and I had to do it. I could count so many pages a day, and I would make it.
JF: How many was it, do you remember?
KOK: No, but in book five some days it was 20. I think that was the most I did. It’s almost physically impossible to do more for me at least. So. That was very intense and quite hard but still fun.
JF: Was there any kind of… you know, you’re writing about youth and failure but also joy and discovery and longing. There must be some kind of contact high that you get from trying as hard as you can to re-experience those emotions. And you know obviously, in middle age, that’s one of the deepest cliffs. The capacity for joy. You have obviously explained that [writing] these [books] are not therapeutic… But was there anything that you came away from the book with, either then or even now, that makes you think, “I can still imagine those things and they’re not far away anymore.”
KOK: I think that these books were a way of closing it. When I got the English translation, I just looked at it, and there were so many things that I couldn’t remember. First of all that I wrote it, and second, I couldn’t remember the memories I had written about anymore. It was just like it was completely gone. So that was strange.
JF: Was there anything that you found, now that you’ve been in Japan for a couple days, that Japanese interviewers ask that other journalists do not?
KOK: The questions are more or less the same.
JF: Really? Everywhere?
KOK: Yeah. It’s true.
JF: Really. That’s sort of reassuring in a way, I guess.
KOK: I hoped that Japan would be a little bit more different. But we’ll see.
Feature photo by John Freeman.