For September’s FaberShop interview, Faber’s Hannah Marshall meets American author Derek B. Miller, whose debut novel, Norwegian by Night, is out in paperback this month. Having received widespread acclaim on its initial publication earlier this year, the novel was recently shortlisted for the New Blood Dagger at the Specsavers’ Crime Thriller Awards. Here Derek tells us about the book, the big themes it tackles and its unusual yet somehow familiar hero, Sheldon Horowitz.
What three words best describe your debut novel, Norwegian by Night?
Resistant to classification.
Sheldon Horowitz, the protagonist of your novel, is an unusual and rather unique hero – he’s elderly, for starters, a foreigner abroad, a former war veteran, someone with an unreliable memory of the past … Where did the seed for this character come from?
Sheldon may be unusual in literature — at least this is what I’m often told — but he doesn’t feel unusual to me as a person. It seems to me that readers share this view too. This is important because it suggests that I accomplished what I set out to do: bring someone we loved back to life to share a last adventure, if only for a short time.
As for having an unreliable memory, yeah, I guess he does. But I’m not bandwagoning on the ‘unreliable narrator’ device, which I don’t like or enjoy. Rather, I’m coming at Sheldon saying that memory is inherently imperfect, and the act of aging creates imperatives — like facing death — that any thinking person would attend to. Attending to it means turning deliberately towards what’s real, with courage, and then experiencing the implications of that encounter. In that sense, Sheldon is a humanist character, not a post-modern product.
As for the origins of Sheldon, there are two seeds for this character: the seed of Sheldon as a person (or what gives him form), and the seed planted in my mind as the writer (what animates him to life and got me to write the book).
Sheldon’s humour, his tonality, his love come mainly from my maternal grandfather, Lester Shapiro. I loved him and he’s gone. Lester was called Sonny when he was young, and this gave way to Donny for Sheldon as his nom de guerre. There was a tone of voice he used that was somewhere between Alan Arkin and Jack Klugman. I can hear his echoes in their acting and intonations and it makes me happy.
The dramatic impulse came from reflecting on several themes that I wanted to explore in fiction. This was a cluster of seemingly-unrelated matters that were only unified by the fact that they were on my mind. Things like parenthood, identity, migration, patriotism, and the Jewish experience in Europe. Once I saw Sheldon as an old, displaced Jewish American in unfamiliar Norway, all these things cohered into a logic, and that logic became the platform for dramatic action. It also became really fun to write. Sheldon is thoughtful, driven and decisive and that makes for mischief.
So while Sheldon may be unfamiliar in popular literature, I actually think he is shorn from the pages of 20th century experience and the realities of the Atlantic divide. Far from being a complex amalgamation, he seems — at least to me — straight out of central casting. He’s just been waiting a long time for the right part.
Norwegian by Night has a tense, thrilling plot, did you have the story already sketched out before you started to write it or did it develop as you went along?
With this novel I think of that phrase ‘converging parallels’, meaning in this case two stories that become connected due to a matter of perspective. That perspective is Sheldon’s and the two stories are the one he’s involved in during the present, and the one he’s reliving from the past. So as he tries to save the young boy he calls Paul, he is also grappling with the memory of the boy he couldn’t save, his real-life son Saul. The dramatic tension results from the chase-through-the-woods story entering into emotional conflict with Saul’s death, creating a fiery dialogue between present and past. All this I knew from the beginning, though I didn’t know how it would manifest itself until I started writing.
You touch on some big themes in the novel, such as ageing and grief. Are these issues ones that you have always been interested in exploring or did they come to mind as you were constructing the story?
I had absolute faith that Sheldon Horowitz was a fascinating and rich and deep character. So I put my faith in his life. I tried to listen to the kinds of feelings he would have, and the ways in which he’d express them circumstantially. When your character is 82 years old and has lost a son and blames himself for the tragedy, then big themes like age and grief present themselves naturally. I constantly asked two simple but productive questions: what would Sheldon feel, and how would he express this? That is, through what words or deeds in context? The closer I came to his humanity in the face of the circumstance, the better the book became. It also kept things humming along.
How much did your experience of certain things in your own life – being an expat, being a Jewish American man in Norway etc. – find their way into the novel?
When I wrote this in 2008 I was living in Geneva, Switzerland with my wife, Camilla. She’s Norwegian. My son, Julian, was just born. We knew we were going to move to Norway for a while and that our son would have dual citizenship (Norwegian and American). So I was thinking about Norway. I was thinking about fatherhood. I was thinking of love and loss. I was thinking of the Jewish experience in Norway and how unfamiliar it is. I was thinking about identity. In thinking of these things, the story started to take shape. I like fiction that is the product of ideas, and drama that is driven by tensions that are personal and significant because they matter. None of the book is my experience or life. But is the product of stuff I think about. Which only makes sense, I suppose.
You have a fascinating ‘day job’ in the area of international policy design. Did your experience of working in post-conflict areas around the world influence your decision to include an international, more specifically Balkan, element to Norwegian by Night?
I’m very interested in how the particular and the universal have to contend with one another, and how those differences create new worlds — new personalities, new relationships, new choices that have to be made. Two of the themes in this book are movement and displacement. This invited a discussion of why people move. Migration is not always the product of hope and a chance at betterment.
Very often we’re running from something, and not necessarily towards something. The events in the Middle East make far more sense, I believe, when viewed this way. There was never a unified movement towards a shared future, just a shared hatred of the common past. And now the battle for a new future begins. And the experience is horrible to witness.
I’ve met many people who live or have lived in war zones and have dealt with conflict. My first experience of that was being in a bomb shelter during my time in Israel in 1991. Iraq was launching Scuds at us for around 40 days and every night was spent in gas masks wondering where these unguided rockets might land and speculating whether this round would have the expected bio-weapons. Later, as a researcher and policy specialist, I travelled to places like Sierra Leone, Haiti, Yemen and Somalia. These people aren’t distant or foreign to me anymore. I know them. I have their phone numbers. We write emails. It only makes sense that my experiences will find their way into my writing. I might not be creative enough to avoid it.
How does your American heritage come out in this novel?
I am an American writer. I am a New England writer. I am a Jewish writer. There is no hierarchy, and I would say there is no choice. It is a fact and I can see it by reflecting on what I create.
I’ve been in Europe more than seventeen years now, and I remain stubbornly — for both better and for worse — entirely American.
But now I’m a certain kind of American, and the act of looking back on America from a place outside it gives me a perspective and tunes me into some things but not others. I think of that wonderful Tom Waits song, San Diego Serenade, which has the line ‘never saw my hometown ’till I stayed away too long’. And that’s exactly right. It has made it possible for me to get closer to America, and see it’s essence in part because I am far enough away from the noise to hear the signal. On the other hand, I’m out of touch with the movement of the American language and many popular references. So, to quote another song, sung by Johnny Mercer and The Pied Pipers, I try to ‘accentuate the positive, eliminate the negative, and latch on to the affirmative. Don’t mess with Mr. In-Between.’ That’s about all I can do as a writer.
As for U.S. writers, it really does turns out that I have this natural affinity for them. Richard Ford. James Salter. Michael Chabon. Saul Bellow. William Maxwell. Steinbeck. Vonnegut. Heller. It isn’t a formal bias and I certainly love books from many, many places, but most of my favourites are American. I don’t know why. I haven’t really thought about it yet. Maybe I will.
Can you tell us a little about your next novel? Will we ever see Sheldon again?
My next novel is now drafted and I’m in the tortured phase of re-reading the whole thing and editing it down to make sure it tells the story — and only the story — that I really want to tell. It is set in my native New England, in this case southern Maine. It is a mystery and a family drama that plays out against the struggle for community that seems to be happening everywhere. It is a longer book, a more complex story, and much more of an ensemble cast. One big difference it has with Norwegian by Night is that Sheldon isn’t in it. I hope people can look past this flaw.
As for Sheldon himself, all I can say is this: Norwegian by Night is definitely the end of Sheldon’s story. The question I’m mulling over is whether this book is really the beginning. I can imagine a novel or two set between WWII and Vietnam. There is a universe there to explore and remember. I don’t yet know the answer myself.