Per Petterson was born in 1952. He was raised in a “strictly working-class” household in Oslo, with his father’s Swedish relatives on one side and Danes on the other. His father, whom he describes as “an athlete, looking like Tarzan”, worked in a shoe factory.
He worked for several years as an unskilled laborer, trained as a librarian, and worked as a bookseller, writer, and translator. From the age of eighteen, he always wanted to become a writer, but for many years didn’t dare to try because he was certain that he would fail. In his opinion, he lived a half-miserable life for a long time because of this.
Petterson has experienced, survived and moved beyond the tragedy of his family: Petterson’s father, mother, brother and nephew perished when a ferry caught fire on the overnight sailing from Oslo to Frederikshavn in northern Denmark (a total of 159 people lost their lives).
In an interview with Guardian, Per Petterson said that he remembered the last thing his mother said to him, in April 1990. She had just finished reading his first novel, Echoland, which had been published in Norway the previous year.
“She said: ‘Well, I hope the next one won’t be that childish.’ Which was a blow. And the next weekend she was dead.”
“I’ve thought a lot about what she said. I’ve tried to figure out what she meant. She was a little harsh, because she herself had survived so many things. She probably meant that I hadn’t been ambitious enough in that novel, that I should go further. OK, you want to be a writer – be a writer then! But she shouldn’t really have said that.”
Per Petterson and the world of books
While working as a bookseller for Tronsmo (a radical bookstore) in Oslo, he developed a relationship to literature. He read and conversed with customers, some of them very knowledgeable, about books. He likes James Kelman, Alice Munro and Charles Bukowski.
“When I went to City Lights in San Francisco, people in Norway asked me what it was like. I said: It’s a little like Tronsmo, only Tronsmo is better for American literature.”
His debut as a writer
He finally published his first book, Aske i munnen, sand i skoa (Ash In His Mouth, Sand In His Shoe) in 1987, at the age of 35 and 17 years after having first recognized that he wanted to become a writer.
This book was proclaimed one of the decade’s most sensational debuts in Norway. Since then he has written a book of essays and several novels that have established his reputation as one of Norway’s most significant fiction writers.
Per Petterson’s writing style
As readers we experience a writer who is sparse almost to the extreme with his words, but have a feeling that this is because the story he is telling is perhaps more important than the words, and that the writer is unwilling to let superfluous words enter the text and interfere in the telling of the story. However, his writing style is actually quite different: Per Petterson works as a “sentence-by-sentence writer”, groping in the dark towards an illumination that is withheld even from the author.
“When I started Out Stealing Horses, I had no idea that the war would be in that book. Then some friction crept in – an unease between the two fathers. And I thought to myself: what can that be? Well, this is the 1940s. It has to be something about the war. Shit. I’ll have to write about the war. Then I have to do research, and I hate research. Of course, now it seems that the war is essential to the story.”