Episode 3: Interview with Gunnhild Øyehaug (Eng)
Chance encounters and surprising coincidences are the mainstay of literary fiction. But what does chance mean for an author? Do authors submit to the caprice of inspiration or do they plan for chance to emerge, pen in hand? In a series of interviews, realised for ALEA, Karin Kukkonen asks literary authors about the role that chance plays in their writing process, the plotting of their narratives and the relation between literature and life.
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Gunnhild Øyehaug is a Norwegian essayist and novelist. In her work the most surprising loops between literature and life become possible: a reading mistake might create a new fictional world (Presensmaskin; Presence Machine, 2018), big literary names float past each other under a bridge in Prague (in Knutar; Knots, 2004), or a lion reflects on how his tail works as a plot line (in Vonde blomar; Flowers of Evil, 2020). Øyehaug’s essays stretch from engagements with Virginia Woolf (in Stol og ekstase, 2006) to “miniature readings” of Gustave Flaubert and others (Miniatyrlesninger, 2017). Her novel Vente, blinke (Wait, Blink 2008; Nynorsk litteraturpris) was turned into the film Women in Oversized Men’s Shirts (2015) with a script written by Øyehaug herself. In 2022, Øyehaug’s translation of Kjersti Horn’s dramatization of the novel Kristin Lavransdotter by Norwegian Nobel-Prize winner Sigrid Undset will premiere at Det Norske Teatret in Oslo.
Karin Kukkonen: Your writing covers an incredibly broad range of topics, from language theory to environmental concerns. What role does chance play in your choice of topic for the next novel / novella?
Gunnhild Øyehaug: I often think that the concept of “association” is fundamental for my writing, certainly, when I get asked if I can describe it. On the level of ideas, this concerns: a thought, a sense perception, a text, a sentence, a word, a sign, a light that comes in on the wall one afternoon, a conversation overheard on the bus, etc. These make me think of something else altogether. The sudden bridge between these different elements is what creates a context, an idea, a structure. And whilst one is writing, this bridge will also carry its own associations and lead the text in directions that one had not envisioned when one begins to write. Only when one actually writes do all the directions show themselves, or rather all ways open up. Words are a volatile and plastic material, and a single sentence often ends in a place completely different from where one initially thought it would end, because one of the words (or one of the meanings of the word) reacted with its surrounding words and immediately demanded other and new words.
The Danish author Inger Christensen has said something wonderful about what happens when one begins to write: “In one’s most inner self one knows that the beginning is a bridge, which has been built before, but it is only when one goes out into the empty space that one feels the bridge beneath one’s feet.” When I wrote Vonde blomar (Evil Flowers), my last novella collection, I was interested in writing texts which only had a minimal dramaturgical structure, which jump back and forth (for example in the narrator’s thoughts), and the strange thing was that in the first novella which I attempted to write in this way, which revolves around an ornithologist who has lost part of her brain – namely, the part that contains her expertise on birds – the bird species snipe appears, and I found out that the snipe’s mode of alighting is typically a fluttering zig-zag movement. Completely by accident a symbolic pattern of flight has appeared in a mass of text which was exactly looking for a more fluttering, dramatic development. And it is a little like that when the idea for a novel emerges. It is both a leap and a development. Often one work will give ideas for the next, but there is simply no plan for this while one writes. In this way books are due to chance, but at the same time not random at all in the sense that they respond to something in a previous work: “it is only when one goes out into the empty space that one feels the bridge beneath one’s feet.”
Karin Kukkonen: Your novels and novellas often mention literary theories, for example, because characters are literary scholars (like Laura in Presensmaskin or Undis in Undis Brekke), or because you reference Shklovsky’s article on the plot. These texts reflect on how they are constructed (and how they can be analysed). Does such a metafictional strategy open particular possibilities to include chance?
Gunnhild Øyehaug: Any element one includes in the text has the potential to change the direction of the text. It is the same with literary theory. I have been generally interested in the inner play that emerges when different elements meet, mostly elements that have been side-lined in high culture together with elements from so-called popular culture, for example, classical literary references with references to TV-shows and pop-music. To use references is by the way also an interference from the world of the essay into the world of fiction, and the same can be said about literary theory – it is a way for combining the analytical with the creative. Some of the things that interest me the most are actually how meaning arises, how something comes into existence, how something is lost – how something can arise and dissolve almost at the same time, when one deals with words. I am fundamentally interested in cultural expressions, in modes of narration, structures of narrative, modes of saying and in particular I’m probably interested in how structures of narrative or language-based images stiffen over time and turn into a cliché. I’m interested in the language of propaganda and advertising, the language of biography, and I seem to be interested as well in the literary texts I write, interested in how to create awareness in the text about its own elements of stiffening, in other words form, in other words language.
Meta-fiction opens for continuous breaks and continuous shifts in direction, and to destabilise the form at the time when it is created is perhaps meta-fiction’s most important role in the work. The other role is to create a room that is as fictitious as it is real. A kind of elevator aglow with sunbeams that takes you to the underworld. But if one turns this around and attempts to think about how it must be for the literary reference to suddenly end up, without being able to defend itself, in a fictional universe – to wit: Aristoteles theory of the plot which suddenly tumbles down into my novel about parallel universes where the plot is ambiguous, permanently doubled, where the time line is split, and where recognitions at the end perhaps more muddy than crystal-clear – from such a perspective, I ask myself for two seconds whether one of the consequences of meta-fiction isn’t that it opens for a destabilisation, or at least an implicit discussion of the literary reference. And I do not know whether, if I were Paul de Man or Maurice Blanchot, I would have like to find myself in a river in Prague floating against the stream (as Blanchot does in a novella I have written), or if Paul de Man would have appreciated being compared to the Horsehead Nebula in outer space (as he is compared to in the novel Wait, Blink). Yet the literary association does not have such scruples, and the association is, maybe, I believe, created by chance but also an intuitive, analytical utensil.
Karin Kukkonen: Your story “Draumeskrivar” (Dreamwriter) foregrounds the oneiric, dream-like quality often linked to literary writing. In dreams, what we think is necessary and what we think happens by chance are often strangely inverted. Do you think dreams (or writing about dreams) have a particular relevance for chance in literature?
Gunnhild Øyehaug: Absolutely. The fascinating thing with dreams is among other things that they open up a side in the human that is anti-rational and not purpose-driven. One has a kind of teeming inside that is incomprehensible, and that one rather does not want to seep up in the life where one has things under control and is a successful person. Inger Christensen writes: “In an everyday context, we act as if we live in the realm of necessity, from where we dictate the conditions to chance, and not the other way around.” The fact that dreams are so important in my texts has to do with this, I believe, that it gives permission to what is instable, wild, jumpy and absurd – and exactly contingent – in what is human, in everyday life and in thoughts. For in the same way that the brain connects and makes centaurs of things one has experienced in dreams, dreams in the text open in order to show off something particular: the small interstice between the rational and the absurd. The protagonist in “Dreamwriter” imagines that if she were a plane which had crashed, and if one found the black box which reports the plane’s movements, then one would find nothing else than a sentence from “Draumekvadet (The Dream Ballad; a Norse medieval visionary poem): “I hear the water but cannot see it, it must run underground.”
The composer Arvo Pärt has explained in an interview how he thinks about music. “This is how I imagine music. It’s like food. Like a field full of grain.” And I almost would like to say that this is how I see the literary dream landscape as well. If I combine the citation from “Draumekvadet” about the water that runs underground with the statement from Pärt about music as food, then I might have created a proposal about what dreams in literature are to me: a river of food, of grain, which runs underground. Hold on, is this a good metaphor? Maybe, and in particular if one pays attention to the running in the metaphor, that dreams in texts are not silent and fixed like seeds, each in their little space underground, but in a flood and a movement – and always ready to find a new course. The volatile – I have been interested in how much of the activities we consider as performed while we are awake, such as thinking, evaluating, analysing, remembering, etc. are actually shaped by our imagination and fictional models, and I seek different ways to reveal the impulse to speculation. The meta-fictional track in the texts is then one way to open to blurry areas, the dream-tracks another. Both go against the rectilinear, and find oxygen in the contingent.
To conclude: Literature are for me tied to the continuous connexion between the visible and the invisible, form and dissolution of form, because it is a necessary protection, to use a term from Christensen, a protection against the overproduction of order: “We could perhaps also imagine chance as a diffuse source of energy, which just by being present has an ordering effect, a kind of collaborator into our own production of order. And we could imagine that we got, through this collaboration of chance, a protection against our own overproduction of order.” Thus, dreams are a protection in human lives, and thus literature is a protection in society.
Translated by Karin Kukkonen