PEN Atlas Q&A: Helle Helle, author of ‘This Should Be Written in the Present Tense’

Helle Helle is one of Denmark’s most widely read writers. In This Should Be Written in the Present Tense, her first novel translated into English, she writes about a young woman, Dorte Hansen, who has just moved to a house near the railway station on the way to Copenhagen. She is a student but never attends university and we read about her drifting and not quite managing to do things and become involved. This Should Be Written in the Present Tense has just been published by Harvill Secker

Interview with Tasja Dorkofikis, PEN Atlas editor

Dorte Hansen lives on her own, on the way to somewhere else. Everything looks ordinary on the surface even though the reader detects that something is wrong.  One has a sense that Dorte moves through life, letting chance make her choices, without getting too engaged in anything. Are all your heroines a bit like Dorte? Are you concerned about young women nowadays and their sense of purpose in life?

I have a weakness for writing about women who allow themselves to be dragged along by events. All of a sudden they’re in Hamburg with an electrician or getting on the wrong train because the conductor waves his arm. They plan on having omelette, and end up with a pastry snail from the baker’s.  I find that my expressive energy is best generated if my characters fail to do what anyone else can plainly see would be good for them. This is true equally of men and women in my novels, though mostly I have written about young women aged about twenty like Dorte Hansen. At that age you’re at an exceptional stage in life: you leave school and leave home, and must find direction, forge your own path, discover who you are. The smallest, most accidental occurrences shape the rest of our lives. You run into a guy called Per Finland on a country lane and end up a teacher. Or you have a beer with an aspiring young poet and become a writer yourself.

Readers often ask me why my characters can’t just pull themselves together: complete their education, find a job, move on, at the very least start eating properly. But it doesn’t make sense for me to write about people who are sorted out, people with well-defined aims in life. I sit and stare at the empty page, the words won’t come. Allowing one’s characters to drift aimlessly about may of course be a literary device to encourage the reader to read on, in the hope that someone eventually might do something sensible.

‘I didn’t know what to do with myself… I felt like I ought be doing something .’ For me, it was ambiguous whether Dorte is mentally ill or she is just drifting disillusioned and without plans. Are the boundaries between the two ever clear to you?

Yes, they are, completely. I see no indication of any kind of mental disturbance. But certainly there is paralysis, an inability to do something about one’s own condition, but I consider that to be quite normal.

Dorte’s aunt, also called Dorte Hansen, has a very important emotional role in the novel. Why do you give them the same name?

The simple reason is I wanted the name on the door to say “Dorte Hansen X 2”. The two Dortes resemble each other, and yet they don’t. Aunt Dorte has a sandwich shop in a provincial town, she works hard and moves in with a new man every year. Dorte too drifts from one relationship to another. But at the same time she’s moving away from where she’s from. Maybe she becomes a writer. Maybe she ends up writing books about women with an incapacity to do something about their own condition. But this novel, This Should Be Written in the Present Tense, is not so much about moving from one environment to another as about making that transition without feeling you’re betraying where you’ve come from, I suppose.

Most of your sentences are seemingly simple, pared down, inviting readers to read between the lines. The play between what you have chosen to say and to omit contains a whole story in itself forcing the reader to be very attentive, and giving this very intense reading experience, full of subtext. Can you let the reader know a bit more about this process of writing/selecting?

Every time I start writing a new novel I make the same mistake. I imagine this will be the one that does it all. It will tell everything like it is and be a brilliantly perfect construction. Then a long time passes during which I gradually become despondent. I can’t find my language. I can’t put into words what I’m trying to say. Eventually, I’m completely broken down and have to admit to myself that the plan is no good. This is fortunate, because it’s such a good place to start writing. From there I inch myself forward, sentence by sentence. I consider every word, and the meanings they draw along with them.

One of the most interesting things about writing is that changing one word can transform a book entirely. I’m not really that concerned with what’s between the lines, more with what’s on them. What’s essential for me is that each word has to convey something. There has to be a reason for its inclusion. Commas and full-stops are just as important, for the rhythm and music of the paragraph, the telling pauses.

I do think of my novels as eventful stories, even if it’s easy to think that nothing much happens in them. But what I mainly write about is what my characters do and say, what goes on, and not so much about what they feel and think. Their movements and utterances are like peepholes on their feelings and thoughts. In that respect, of course, you’re right when you talk about reading between the lines.

Your prose is full of ordinary, minute details of everyday life. Why this attraction to the pattern of daily realities?

I have a weakness for the objects of day-to-day living, they make up a framework in all my novels. When I start to write I have a long list next to the computer that says, e.g. waterbed, suitcase, beef burger, bedsit, pastry snail. The tangible stuff of everyday life, things that for me have meaning and which I intuitively sense can impart something to the novel I want to write. The waterbed, the suitcase and the beef burger have to be significant for the main character as well.

Do you have any stylistic heroes?

I have a number of stylistic heroes. Norway’s Kjell Askildsen and Per Petterson are two, Beckett a third. And then there’s Hemingway, whom I envy for a lot of things, not least his vast practical knowledge. He knew so much about war and Paris and bull-fighting and grenades and fishing and hunting. Not much in the way of pastry snails and day-to-day living there.

You make the reader doubt the reliability of the text from the beginning: ‘This is how it might have been’; you often negate what you wrote or suggest a different alternative; the timescale of the novel is not very clear and the final message is that the novel should really have been written in the present tense. Do you want the reader to see the reality as confusing and unreliable too?

Personally I’m fond of reading novels that point to the fact that they are just that: novels. Books that do more than just tell a story in which the reader can indulge without thinking. That doesn’t really do anything for me. But if you can go from being totally absorbed in your reading to suddenly pausing and thinking this isn’t real, then literature is doing what I think it’s supposed to.

When you write fiction, the language you use is the only thing that’s real. Words, like ‘waterbed’ and ‘suitcase’, commas and full-stops, a sentence such as ‘This is how it might have been’. But if it’s well written you may end up believing it anyway. Even if it is only printer’s ink.

Your novel has been translated into English by Martin Aitken. Do you work closely with your translators?

Translators should be allowed to work without the author interfering. Translation is writing the book again, and the translator is the best person to do that. Martin Aitken had a few small queries for me along the way, which I tried to answer. Language isn’t just information that can be transferred. It’s the myriad of small meanings that come with it. I really don’t understand how it can be done.

Fortunately, Martin Aitken is even better at Danish than I am. And now that This Should Be Written in the Present Tense is on the desk here in front of me, I think of it as belonging to both of us.

About the editor

Tasja Dorkofikis is  editor of PEN Atlas and a freelance editor and publicist. She has previously worked as a publicity director at Random House and Associate Publisher and Commissioning Editor for Portobello Books. Tasja divides her time between London and a small village in Vaud in Switzerland.

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About the Author

Helle Helle is arguably Denmark’s foremost modern novelist and its most popular. She has been awarded many prizes, including the Danish Critics’ Prize, the Danish Academy’s Beatrice Prize, and the P.O. Enquist Award. She was recently given the Lifetime Award of the Danish Arts Council.

Her work has been translated into thirteen languages. This is her first novel to be translated into English.

About the Translator

Martin Aitken holds a PhD in Linguistics and gave up university tenure in 2008 to translate literature. Since then he has translated a score of books into English and Danish, his work also having appeared in countless literary journals and won numerous prizes. Martin Aitken lives in rural Denmark.

Additional Information

This Should Be Written in the Present Tense has just been published by Harvill Secker.

You can buy This Should Be Written in the Present Tense through our book partner Foyles.

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Comments

17 Comments on PEN Atlas Q&A: Helle Helle, author of ‘This Should Be Written in the Present Tense’ - Leave a comment

Snarky

One of the most interesting things about writing is that changing one word can transform a book entirely.

And changing “pastry snails” (a calque from Danish snegle) in the piece above to a term actually used by English speakers would evoke the spiral pastries the speaker had in mind, rather than the gastropods suggested by the current version.

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