September 7, 2011
Ann Vatow in The Brooklyn Rail:
Norwegian author Johan Harstad wrote his first novel, Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All The Confusion? against the background of artists like Beck and Radiohead. In fact, “background” takes a starring role in this story about a 30-something gardener/musician who moves to a halfway house after losing his job and girlfriend. Like Buzz Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, Mattias, the novel’s central character, prefers to do good work without attention, further developing his second-fiddle philosophy while making souvenir wooden sheep and enduring the Cardigans, a fellow resident’s favorite band. Mattias downplays his exceptional singing talent because he is a realist, someone who—like Harstad, the author—does his best work without hype. Harstad, who lives in Oslo, is the first in-house playwright at the National Theatre. In 2008, he won the Brage Award. Other professional interests include graphic design and drumming, something that allows him to be behind-the-scenes (which is fine with Harstad), until he makes a mistake.
Ann Votaw (Rail:): Compare how Americans feel about Buzz Aldrin versus what Norwegians say about it.
Johan Harstad: The American reception of the book (so far) has been more or less similar to the reception in Norway, or in most other counties, for that sake. Though, of course, there will always be small differences from country to country in how a novel is read, it is usually quite subtle and not that easy to detect for the writer.
Rail:: Why is Mattias, your Norwegian protagonist, so besotted with Buzz Aldrin, the second American astronaut to walk on the moon after Neil Armstrong?
Harstad: The novel is about a guy who wants to be second best in life, to be a great number two, so using Armstrong as his hero wouldn’t really work, would it? Aldrin as a role model, on the other hand, kind of gave itself. In Mattias, the main protagonist’s eyes, Aldrin is the perfect example of someone who does almost exactly the same (and just as good) work as the number one guy (i.e., Neil Armstrong), but without having to pay the price of taking all the heat from journalists, fans, etc. As Aldrin, Mattias wants to be in the background, do his work as best he can, but without the wish for international stardom and universal praise. This whole rat race to become famous and the best of the best is very strange to Mattias, and while I wrote the book I was sure he was one of a kind thinking all this.
Rail:: Your book’s full title is: Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion? Does Mattias ever get a satisfying answer?
Harstad: Aren’t we all asking that question? At least I know I was, which of course was one of the reasons for writing the book. It’s a good question. What happened to the man who, of all the billions who have walked the Earth, was the second man to set foot on the moon? This is the question Mattias keeps asking himself, trying to find an answer which will also be the answer to how he finds a way to live his own life.
Rail:: Mattias has been described as a dreamer/antihero. What is your reaction to this description?
Harstad: I don’t consider Mattias a dreamer. I consider him a realist. I consider him a protester against a growing society of hollow fame and fortune, a protester against this ever-growing demand that you are not great at what you do (or great in general) unless everyone knows about you. A realistic protester against all this sound and fury, signifying nothing. To a large degree, I’m a supporter of his case. I think we need people, more than ever, who rebel against the whole celebrity thing, but he goes too far sometimes and the novel is not an autobiography, obviously.
Rail:: Mattias is a singer with creative sensitivities like gardening. You are, among other things, an author, playwright, drummer, and graphic designer. How does your lead character compare to you?
Harstad: I don’t know. I’m not a great drummer. I’m not sure Mattias would have liked me if we’d met. Or maybe he would. Hard to say. But I feel I’m understanding him more and more. And though I still very much enjoy traveling to different countries, meeting a lot of wonderful people while supporting my books, I’m probably becoming more introverted each year, focusing on doing the best work I can do instead of spending time Googling myself to see how many hits I get and reading what everybody thinks about this and that, which of course, praise or no praise, very soon becomes a complete headf**k and a major distraction from the real reason I am writing in the first place. I do graphic design under another name, so most people don’t make the connection, and as far as my occasional drumming goes, well, the drummer is the guy in the back that no one cares about until he messes up. Suits me just fine.
Rail:: How did your interests in theater, music, and graphic design reveal themselves in the novel?
Harstad: It would surprise me if my interest in theater and graphic design is revealed in the novel at all, really. I didn’t write for the theater until after the Buzz novel, though I do the cover design and layout for all my books in Norway. Music, on the other hand, is probably there in all my books. I always listen to music while I write, all kinds of music, and it happens quite a lot that the music, to some degree, dictates the rhythm and pacing of different parts of the work or that phrases or quotes find their way into the text. There are, for instance, a couple of Radiohead lines in Buzz if you read closely, and the novel as a whole will possibly read nicely to the sound of Beck’s Sea Change and Sigur Ros’s Ágætis Byrjun which were two records kept in heavy rotation while I was writing. Music, after all, is one of the best ways to describe someone. That is one of the main reasons I chose the Swedish band the Cardigans to be the only artist one of the main characters would listen to throughout the book. Personally, I’m not a great Cardigans fan, and in many ways I chose the band because I couldn’t figure out who would love such a band.
Rail:: Buzz refers to repetitive events: Ennen playing the Cardigans, Mattias making wooden sheep with fellow residents, and Tuesday as the week’s least eventful day. What was your intent, if any, in creating these symbols?
Harstad: What can I say? We would like to think that life is something that offers you unique experiences and constant variations, but of course that isn’t true. Even more so if you’re stuck at a sort of halfway house in the northern part of the Faroe Islands, surrounded by rain and fog 300 days a year. Then the days soon become copies of yesterday’s copies, and a feeling that the whole week is just a string of Tuesdays. That’s life, as Sinatra used to sing. And so the characters have to find ways to break the seemingly monotonous circle, which I, to give them some credit, believe they’re quite good at.
Rail:: Buzz Aldrin, your first novel, was made into a Norwegian TV series in 2009. What was it like seeing actors play your characters?
Harstad: I spent a few days on the set while they were shooting on theFaroe Islands, and I particularly remember the first day. They were doing a funeral scene in a small church in the middle of this extremely green, postcard-looking valley, and I walked onto the set only seconds before they started to shoot, so I didn’t get to talk to any of the actors beforehand. I sat down with the grip by a monitor in the next room and before I knew it this funeral music came on and all the characters were on the screen in front of me, crying their hearts out. The whole thing was surprisingly emotional, and it was a bit overwhelming to suddenly see real-life versions of characters I had made. Not to mention Chad Coleman, who I’d last seen as an ex-con on the streets of Baltimore in HBO’s the Wire, not sitting calmly in a church in the village of Saksun on the Faroes playing the role of Carl. For a moment, I almost forgot they were actors and wanted to talk to them like they were the people from the book.