Novel Journey’s Interview with Linda Olsson

Linda Olsson graduated from the University of Stockholm with a law degree and from Victoria University of Wellington with a Bachelor of Arts in English and German literature. She has lived in Kenya, Singapore, Britain, and Japan and has been a permanent resident in New Zealand since 1990.

Ms. Olsson’s debut novel, ASTRID & VERONIKA (Penguin Books), has been published in 6 countries and last month became available for sale in the U.S. A large grassroots movement for the novel has already started among American booksellers.

The novel recounts the unusual and unexpected friendship that develops between two w
omen. Veronika, a young writer from New Zealand, rents a house in a small Swedish village as she tries to come to terms with a recent tragedy while also finishing a novel. Her arrival is silently observed by Astrid, an older, reclusive neighbor who gradually becomes a presence in Veronika’s life, offering comfort in the form of companionship and lovingly prepared home-cooked meals. Both women are harboring secrets, which they slowly reveal to one another as the year progresses and the seasons change. And what happens between them will change both of their lives forever. Set against a haunting landscape in the Swedish countryside, Astrid & Veronika is a lyrical and meditative novel of love and loss, and a story that will remain with readers long after the characters’ secrets are revealed.

What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?

I would like to mention Maurice Gee’s ‘Blindsight’, the latest, if perhaps not the all time best by my favourite New Zealand author. I am not sure if it has been released in the US, if not, it should! And I have just read ‘Death in Danzig’ by Stefan Chwin, a strange and absolutely wonderful book.

Tell us about your journey to publication. How long did it take before your novel was published?

As you may know, my book was originally a postgraduate thesis at Auckland University. At the end of the one year course, my professor, the acclaimed author Witi Ihimaera, suggested I should try and get my manuscript published. I sent it to Penguin New Zealand, and three weeks later they rang to say that they would like to publish. As simple as that. Frighteningly easy – all good authors have been rejected. My book was subsequently published in Sweden, again too easily. I had approached the Swedish publisher Bonniers to ask for their help in locating the owners of the copyright to all the poetry that I had quoted in my book (as long as it was an academic thesis, copyright was not an issue). They were helpful, and at the end of our e-mail correspondence, they asked if they could see my manuscript. I sent it to them, and three weeks later they told me they would like to publish. I also found my brilliant US agent, Kathleen Anderson, by sheer luck. Luck is generally an important ingredient in the process of getting published, I think. Next after actually writing a manuscript, I suspect that luck might be the most important part.

What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?

Though I did not go about it in the most professional, or recommended way, it somehow worked. I probably made mistakes, but all in all everything has worked out so well that I have decided to dwell on what could have been even better.

When I realised I needed a US literary agent I drew on a friend of a friend. My good friend here in New Zealand told me she knew a literary agent in the UK and said I could contact her and ask her advice for some names in the US. She was very helpful and gave the names of four. I decided to try them in alphabetical order, starting with Anderson. Kathleen Anderson came back to me within the day and said that I didn’t need to send her more, she would be delighted to represent me. She went on to sell the rights in the US, Holland and the UK, and I think a few more are in the pipeline. I have come to think that – apart from the fact that you do have to have a good manuscript – personal contacts, introductions and luck are vital ingredients in order to get published. It is very difficult to get a hearing, to be noticed and read. Particularly if you are from a small country far away. It is important to apply your creativity also to the process of getting published, a fact that many authors, particularly first time authors, may find difficult.

What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?

Difficult to say, because I have so often done the opposite to what I have been advised. I do think that it is good advice to learn the basics about how to present your manuscript and how approach publishers, i.e. what shape and form a manuscript should have, how to write a short and sharp synopsis, to do your homework and understand which publishers are likely to publish your type of manuscript etc.

What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve heard?

To carry on right through to the end without ever looking back until you are finished. It might be good advice for some, for me that would be impossible.

What is something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?

I wish I had understood more about the technicalities of contracts, and been able to better evaluate how international rights are best handled.

What are a few of your favorite books?

An impossible question, the list keeps growing day by day. But here are some that have been with me a long time:

The Overcoat, by Nicolai Gogol – because all Western literature grew out of this little book
The Red Notebook, by Paul Auster – because I am also fascinated by chance
Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka – because it never ceases to intrigue me
To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Wolf – because she can make the seemingly trivial utterly significant
A Madman’s Defense, by August Strindberg – because he writes with fire – and he is Swedish
The Victim, by Saul Bellow – because he grabs your hand and pulls you in and you suffer and sweat with the main character

What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?

I am very proud of my short story ‘Someone to Watch over Me’, which won the coveted Sunday Star Times Short Story Competition here in New Zealand in 2003.

Can you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?

Most typical is a day when I sit and stare helplessly into my computer screen for hours on end without writing anything. Rereading what is already there, changing a word here and there, adding a comma… I am totally undisciplined and genetically predestined to procrastination. But when it happens, when the words flow, the feeling is almost trancelike. And wonderful.

If you could choose to have one strength of another writer, what would it be and from whom?

I would like to be brave and write with total abandon like Franz Kafka.

Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?

I would like to write a novel drawing on my own experience of growing up in Stockholm, Sweden in the 50’s and 60’s.

What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?

Overall, it is such a privilege that it would be hard to think of anything negative. Other than the fact that it is difficult to live off your writing. The moment when you understand that as a writer of fiction you can create anything, you experience a miracle. Anything is possible. A drawback for me personally is that I am sometimes reluctant to leave my fictional world and return to the real one. With the novel I am writing at the moment I am extending a particular part day by day for purely selfish reasons, I think. I just don’t want to let it go. But eventually you have to, of course. The moment you give it away for others to read it is no longer yours. A bit like a child, perhaps. The day you realise your children are no longer children, that you will never again be able to kiss their dimpled buttocks or the soles of their feet (which you probably wouldn’t want to, even if you could), then everything shifts a little. You no longer have any influence, and you have to share your creation with others.

How much marketing do you do? Any advice in this area?

Within reason, I do whatever I am asked to do. By my agent, my publishers and the general public. I find it very rewarding and also challenging in a stimulating way. Discussing my novel with others, I am constantly intrigued by how much a reading experience is influenced by the reader. The text is the beginning, but each interpretation is fresh.

Parting words?

‘You write better as you age, that is the advantage with aging. Your brain may deteriorate, but not so you feeling for the language. In addition you get bolder and less inhibited.’

Göran Palm, Swedish political commentator and novelist, 1935

Novel Journey Critiques

Remember, our suggestions are just that—suggestions. The wise author will use discernment and pick up what works for him/her and ignore what doesn’t. Our hope is you and this author, who bravely subbed his/her work, will benefit.

Our critique code is as follows:
( ) = suggest deleting
[ ] = sugges adding
** = comments
gws=goes without saying
rue=resist the urge to explain
im= interior monologue

Original Chapter

Perhaps I’m a heathen but I don’t feel like going to church this morning. Not that I have anything else to do, and I didn’t do anything exciting last night that would give me an excuse to sleep in. Nothing fun ever happens in my life.

Maybe that’s the problem.

My days are fairly rote. I rise and go to work, then return home, have a quiet meal by myself, watch television, and by ten I’m in bed. If not earlier. Nothing changes in my life, it seems. Even my weekends are bland. I’ve gone to the same church for years, sat in the same pew, said hi to the same people, and nothing ever happens. Well, nothing out of the ordinary. If I weren’t scheduled to sing a special today, I’d consider going to another church. Some place that would give me a jolt, big enough to jumpstart my life.

The clock doesn’t seem to realize my dilemma; otherwise, it wouldn’t keep buzzing, reminding me to move. Move. I hate that word. But I force myself to roll out of bed, throw my blankets into place, and head for the shower. Lathering my body and hair feels like a chore. My arms are heavy. As I rinse, the spray works the kinks out of my tired muscles. I begin to feel better about the day, my life.

Toweling my hair dry, (my hair, another long, depressing subject) I go to my closet and study my choices. Clothes line the rack but I don’t have anything to wear. Nothing new—the story of my life. I think about wearing my blue dress, then cringe. I wore that last Sunday. I can just hear the gossip now—Doesn’t she have anything else? I know it sounds silly, but does anyone really keep track of how often you wear the same clothes? Is there someone assigned for that duty every week at church? Is there a clothes patrol? Do they track the styles of the day on their little attendance clipboard? “Oh, Susie is here and she wore that outfit last month . . . Checkmark.” In my mind, I know this sounds ridiculous, and would even be funny if I didn’t know that Pam could be the committee leader of the clothes patrol. She does keep track. Well . . . sort of. She’s my best friend, and I hate to mention this, but there have been days when she has leaned over and whispered, “Look at Mindy, didn’t she wear that same thing two weeks ago?” Or, “Look at Sally, isn’t that the same dress her mother wore at Thursday’s fellowship?” It wasn’t like a really big deal. I’m sure Mindy did her laundry at least once during those two weeks, and Sally probably just liked her mother’s dress. But if Pam recalled that information about Mindy and Sally, what do other people remember about me?

I struggle to remember what I’d worn two weeks ago as I sift through the clothes in my closet and wonder if I should call Pam for details. But that would alert her to my problem. I figure I can handle this and look at my clothes again. Whatever I wore to church two weeks ago leaves me drawing a blank. It’s as if my memory has been wiped clean. With a deep sigh, I consider posting an erasable board inside my closet and make a daily schedule for my clothes. I could call it my fashion menu. Then I could make sure each piece of clothing was worn at appropriate intervals so as to not offend the clothes patrol.

I finally decide on a fifties-style dress I purchased on EBay. It has frills around the hem and is hued in a delicious color that reminds me of elbow-dripping peaches. Kind of an orangey-yellowish-pink color. I’d bought it to kind of spice up my life and I love the style. To tone it down some, make it more suitable for a dowdy soul such as myself, I’d shortened the billowing sleeves and made a belt for it but I really can’t remember wearing it yet. And I’ve had it for months. Maybe I shouldn’t wear it; my inner angst agrees. But a girl has to spruce up her life sometime. Before I talk myself out of it, I take the dress out of the closet and lay it on my bed. Then I go and blow-dry my hair.

What an ordeal! My hair has a mind of its own! I clip the stubborn mop of straight, dishwater blond/brown nothingness back from my face, and am aghast at the sight. So I try spraying and molding, and ratting and curling. I get the back looking good and turn to find a Chow has taken residence in my mirror. I rinse my hair and begin again, only to pull it back in barrettes. Why people always compliment my hair, I’ll never know. After I dress and put on my makeup, (I only have to apply it twice), I twirl in front of the full-length mirror. In the dim light of my bedroom, I don’t look so bad. I like the way the ruffled hem flutters against my legs. It feels like silken caresses just below my knee. And the color seems to complement my complexion (what there is of it. Thank you, Almay.) It even seems to brighten the blond highlights I added to my otherwise mousey brown hair.

I look good. Not that any of the single guys at church will notice. Usually, I’m just part of the scenery, the part that no one really looks at, or they’ve grown so accustomed to me they pay no attention. I’m nothing special. Pam says it’s because I’m too quiet, that I won’t cross the room to talk to someone; I make them cross the room to talk to me. And guys don’t. They have enough girls willing to chase them that they have no interest in.

Ane’s Critique

I love the voice and style of this, but it went on way too long. By the second paragraph, I’ve got the fact that she’s down on herself. The ONLY thing that kept me reading was your voice. It’s very good. But you need to condense the first 1000 words into about 300. The rest can be interspersed into the rest of the story, but let’s get on with the action. What is the inciting incident? I felt like this was a large back story set into the present so I might not notice. BUT – all that said, be encouraged. You are a story-teller—a good one. You have a natural voice and wit that I like. Keep working. I believe you’re going to make it.

Perhaps I’m a heathen[,] but I don’t feel like going to church this morning. Not that I have anything else to do, and I didn’t do anything exciting last night that would give me an excuse to sleep in. Nothing fun ever happens in my life.

Maybe that’s the problem.

My days are fairly rote. I rise and go to work, then return home, have a quiet meal by myself, watch television, and by ten I’m in bed. If not earlier. Nothing changes in my life, it seems. Even my weekends are bland. I’ve gone to the same church for years, sat in the same pew, said hi to the same people, and nothing ever happens. Well, nothing out of the ordinary. If I weren’t scheduled to sing a special today, I’d consider going to another church. Some place that would give me a jolt(,) big enough to jumpstart my life.

The clock doesn’t seem to realize my dilemma; otherwise, it wouldn’t keep buzzing, reminding me to move. Move. I hate that word. But I force myself to roll out of bed, throw my blankets into place, and head for the shower. Lathering my body and hair feels like a chore. My arms are heavy. As I rinse, the spray works the kinks out of my tired muscles. I begin to feel better about the day, my life.

Toweling my hair dry, (my hair, another long, depressing subject) I go to my closet and study my choices. Clothes line the rack but I don’t have anything to wear. Nothing new—the story of my life. I think about wearing my blue dress, then cringe. I wore that last Sunday. I can just hear the gossip now—Doesn’t she have anything else? **Okay, about this time, I’m getting a bit bored with all this. We got it already. There are some things you just need to condense, in my opinion. Now I LOVE your style and voice, so don’t get me wrong. I just think you could shorten the opening and move onto the inciting incident that is going to change her life. Then intersperse all these others into later bits. They’re good, but too much for the opening. This paragraph is WAY too long.** I know it sounds silly, but does anyone really keep track of how often you wear the same clothes? Is there someone assigned for that duty every week at church? Is there a clothes patrol? Do they track the styles of the day on their little attendance clipboard? “Oh, Susie is here and she wore that outfit last month . . . Checkmark.” **New paragraph here**In my mind, I know this sounds ridiculous, and would even be funny if I didn’t know that Pam could be the committee leader of the clothes patrol. She does keep track. Well . . . sort of. She’s my best friend, and I hate to mention this, but there have been days when she has leaned over and whispered, “Look at Mindy, didn’t she wear that same thing two weeks ago?” Or, “Look at Sally, isn’t that the same dress her mother wore at Thursday’s fellowship?” It wasn’t like a really big deal. I’m sure Mindy did her laundry at least once during those two weeks, and Sally probably just liked her mother’s dress. But if Pam recalled that information about Mindy and Sally, what do other people remember about me?

I struggle to remember what I’d worn two weeks ago as I sift through the clothes in my closet and wonder if I should call Pam for details. But that would alert her to my problem. I figure I can handle this and look at my clothes again. Whatever I wore to church two weeks ago leaves me drawing a blank. It’s as if my memory has been wiped clean. **Again, the writing is good, the voice is good … the content here is overdone, too much. Remember, less is more. TRUST your reader to get it, and don’t belabor a point** With a deep sigh, I consider posting an erasable board inside my closet and make a daily schedule for my clothes. I could call it my fashion menu. Then I could make sure each piece of clothing was worn at appropriate intervals so as to not offend the clothes patrol.

I finally decide on a fifties-style dress I purchased on EBay. It has frills around the hem and is hued in a delicious color that reminds me of elbow-dripping peaches. (Kind of an orangey-yellowish-pink color.)**This isn’t needed. You just said peach, and then described peach. Use one or the other, not both. RUE** I’d bought it to kind of spice up my life and I love the style. To tone it down some, make it more suitable for a dowdy soul such as myself, I’d shortened the billowing sleeves and made a belt for it but I really can’t remember wearing it yet. And I’ve had it for months. Maybe I shouldn’t wear it; my inner angst agrees. But a girl has to spruce up her life sometime. Before I talk myself out of it, I take the dress out of the closet and lay it on my bed. Then I go and blow-dry my hair.

What an ordeal! My hair has a mind of its own! I clip the stubborn mop of straight, dishwater blond/brown nothingness back from my face, and am aghast at the sight. So I try spraying and molding, and ratting **Do they still use that term?** and curling. I get the back looking good and turn to find a Chow has taken [up] residence in my mirror. **LOL – GREAT line!!** I rinse my hair and begin again, only to pull it back in barrettes. Why people always compliment my hair, I’ll never know. **New paragraph**After I dress and put on my makeup, (I only have to apply it twice) **Ditch the parentheses and use an em dash to set this thought apart. The parentheses feel like author intrusion**, I twirl in front of the full-length mirror. In the dim light of my bedroom, I don’t look so bad. I like the way the ruffled hem flutters against my legs. It feels like silken caresses just below my knee. And the color seems to (complement)[compliment] my complexion **use an em dash here, too**(what there is of it. Thank you, Almay.) It even seems to brighten the blond highlights I added to my otherwise mousey brown hair.

I look good. Not that any of the single guys at church will notice. Usually, I’m just part of the scenery, the part that no one really looks at, or they’ve grown so accustomed to me they pay no attention. I’m nothing special. Pam says it’s because I’m too quiet, that I won’t cross the room to talk to someone; I make them cross the room to talk to me. And guys don’t. They have enough girls willing to chase them that they have no interest in.

Gina’s Take

I agree with my partners that you have a nice voice–an unpretentious style. I also agree this was a bit long winded. The paragraphs could be broken up and I found myself wanting to skim to get to something more exciting. I’d follow Ane’s advice. Make sure everything you write is for a reason and move the story along in the beginning as quickly as you can. If I’d picked this up in a bookstore, I’d have read the first paragraph interested, and by the third, would have set it back down. I squinted a lot because of the run on feeling of it all.

You’ve got tons of talent and a wonderful voice. Thanks so much for sharing this with us. I see a lot of promise here.