DenmarkInNY caught up with young Danish writer Mikkel Rosengaard amid the US debut of his latest novel The Invention of Ana.
We spoke with Rosengaard about the American literary scene, his inspirations, and how he went about creating an “infectious” novel (his words, not ours) that leaves the reader demanding more.
Where did you get that idea of an “infectious” story?
The idea came from the sensation that narrative and story-telling has never been more powerful and dangerous than it is today. When I looked around New York, I saw a city where the stories we fabricate about ourselves have the power to shape and mold not just our thoughts, but our physical lives as well. I was interested in exploring what happens when we are able to conjure up a story about who we are and then materialize that story. What happens when we make a fantasy into reality and become that invented version of ourselves.
How did it all start with the book? What drew you in to write this novel?
I was interested in writing a novel of seduction, but where the seducer wasn’t a person, but a story or anecdote. The Invention of Ana traces this story that two mathematicians make up about their daughter Ana. Who then passes the story on to the people she loves, who then passes it on again, kind of like an STD. The story is passed from person to person, affecting all of their lives along the way. It’s a kind of study of how infectious and manipulative a story can be.
Did you have any literary inspirations?
When I started writing the novel, literature was dominated by writers like Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk and Ben Lerner who championed the idea that society is suffocating on narrative and that we should rid ourselves from fabricated narratives and turn to a more honest and authentic literature. To a kind of autofiction. And I got what these writers were saying. I too was feeling overwhelmed by all the fabricated narratives that are heaped upon us from advertisement, social media, Netflix shows, political campaigns, fashion, movies and so on. But instead of abandoning fiction and narrative, I wanted to find a fabricated story that was so manipulative that it changed a fundamental aspect of existence, like time or space. Or at least our perception of it. So that is what I set out to do. To write a kind of anti-autofiction. A Don Juan novel with a story that was so manipulative that it seduced and manipulated everyone it met.
What’s it like as an new author to launch a novel in America?
Launching The Invention of Ana in the US has been a truly life-altering experience. And I’m not exaggerating. Publishing a novel with one of the big US houses functions a bit like getting a key that unlocks all these doors and opportunities. Teaching jobs, gigs at magazines, script writing, all these worlds are suddenly cracked open, at least for a little while.
For me, the big break was a review in The New York Times Book Review. Being picked out from the thousands of books the Times receives each month is just overwhelming. And coming from tiny little Denmark, getting access to the millions of Times readers is a privilege I feel deeply grateful for.
What are the greatest challenges a young writer faces today in getting their work published?
As a Danish or non-American writer, the challenge is to convince the American publisher that your book is worth the risk. Foreign fiction rarely sells well in the US and The Invention of Ana is the first Danish debut novel to be published in the US since Peter Høeg’s debut from 1988. That 30-year gap says something about the odds. But if we forget that foreign aspect, I think it might actually be easier to get your work published as a young writer today. Culture is obsessed with youth and novelty. What seems difficult today, if not impossible, is sustaining any attention. The press, social media, the publishing houses, are mostly interested in new and shiny toys. And with even the shiniest toys, the novelty soon wears off.
Do you feel the Danish audience and readers to differ from the American?
Yes, the themes that I work with, about narrative and storytelling, seem to resonate better with American readers. Maybe because a person’s life trajectory is a much more shifty and mercurial thing in the US. In Denmark, for the past two or three decades, literary fiction has been intensely focused on what you could call the novel’s micro-level. Critics and younger writers have focused on the sentence-level, on style and language and form. While the macro levels of the novel such as structure, narrative and pace have been mostly ignored. When you read Danish book reviews, a central concept such as pace is never considered. It doesn’t even register. And because my own writing centered on narrative structures and the layering of stories in our everyday lives, I’ve always felt that I belonged more to an American tradition. In America and Latin America, even the most complex and experimental novels will take plot and pace seriously. The narrative thrust never goes ignored.
What are your ambitions in writing?
It seems to me that we live in a time of great confusion, where fundamental aspects of human existence are changing at breakneck speed. The Web 2.0 is only 15 years old. It’s only been a decade since the smartphone was introduced. I believe it’s the job of the writer and the artist to explore — often blindly, of course — the effects these radical changes are having on our lives and communities. Not explain what is going on, because that is probably impossible, but to shine a light on some overlooked aspect, or call attention to some side-effect or another. There is a lot of work to be done and I hope to chip in whatever way I can.
Are you dreaming of presenting more Danish literature to the Americans?
I’ve lived in New York for 8 years and my Danish and American writing began to blur long ago. I write non-fiction and short-stories in English, but have stayed with Danish for the longer fiction pieces. I’m not sure what will happen with the next book — if it will be in Danish or English. Either way, I never address an American or Danish audience when I write. Those national boundaries makes little sense when most texts are available online anyway. When I write, I let my curiosity guide me. And hopefully, the readers who have anything to gain from my writing, will find their way to the books.
Emma Petrine Søgaard Jensen, Culture Intern at Denmark In NY.