Ms. Olsson's debut novel, ASTRID & VERONIKA (Penguin Books), has been published in 6 countries and last month became available for sale in the U.S. A large grassroots movement for the novel has already started among American booksellers.
The novel recounts the unusual and unexpected friendship that develops between two w
omen. Veronika, a young writer from New Zealand, rents a house in a small Swedish village as she tries to come to terms with a recent tragedy while also finishing a novel. Her arrival is silently observed by Astrid, an older, reclusive neighbor who gradually becomes a presence in Veronika’s life, offering comfort in the form of companionship and lovingly prepared home-cooked meals. Both women are harboring secrets, which they slowly reveal to one another as the year progresses and the seasons change. And what happens between them will change both of their lives forever. Set against a haunting landscape in the Swedish countryside, Astrid & Veronika is a lyrical and meditative novel of love and loss, and a story that will remain with readers long after the characters’ secrets are revealed.
What book or project is coming out or has come out that you’d like to tell us about?
I would like to mention Maurice Gee’s ‘Blindsight’, the latest, if perhaps not the all time best by my favourite New Zealand author. I am not sure if it has been released in the US, if not, it should! And I have just read ‘Death in Danzig’ by Stefan Chwin, a strange and absolutely wonderful book.
Tell us about your journey to publication. How long did it take before your novel was published?
As you may know, my book was originally a postgraduate thesis at Auckland University. At the end of the one year course, my professor, the acclaimed author Witi Ihimaera, suggested I should try and get my manuscript published. I sent it to Penguin New Zealand, and three weeks later they rang to say that they would like to publish. As simple as that. Frighteningly easy – all good authors have been rejected. My book was subsequently published in Sweden, again too easily. I had approached the Swedish publisher Bonniers to ask for their help in locating the owners of the copyright to all the poetry that I had quoted in my book (as long as it was an academic thesis, copyright was not an issue). They were helpful, and at the end of our e-mail correspondence, they asked if they could see my manuscript. I sent it to them, and three weeks later they told me they would like to publish. I also found my brilliant US agent, Kathleen Anderson, by sheer luck. Luck is generally an important ingredient in the process of getting published, I think. Next after actually writing a manuscript, I suspect that luck might be the most important part.
What mistakes have you made while seeking publication?
Though I did not go about it in the most professional, or recommended way, it somehow worked. I probably made mistakes, but all in all everything has worked out so well that I have decided to dwell on what could have been even better.
When I realised I needed a US literary agent I drew on a friend of a friend. My good friend here in New Zealand told me she knew a literary agent in the UK and said I could contact her and ask her advice for some names in the US. She was very helpful and gave the names of four. I decided to try them in alphabetical order, starting with Anderson. Kathleen Anderson came back to me within the day and said that I didn’t need to send her more, she would be delighted to represent me. She went on to sell the rights in the US, Holland and the UK, and I think a few more are in the pipeline.
I have come to think that – apart from the fact that you do have to have a good manuscript – personal contacts, introductions and luck are vital ingredients in order to get published. It is very difficult to get a hearing, to be noticed and read. Particularly if you are from a small country far away. It is important to apply your creativity also to the process of getting published, a fact that many authors, particularly first time authors, may find difficult.
What’s the best advice you’ve heard on writing/publication?
Difficult to say, because I have so often done the opposite to what I have been advised. I do think that it is good advice to learn the basics about how to present your manuscript and how approach publishers, i.e. what shape and form a manuscript should have, how to write a short and sharp synopsis, to do your homework and understand which publishers are likely to publish your type of manuscript etc.
What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve heard?
To carry on right through to the end without ever looking back until you are finished. It might be good advice for some, for me that would be impossible.
What is something you wish you’d known earlier that might have saved you some time/frustration in the publishing business?
I wish I had understood more about the technicalities of contracts, and been able to better evaluate how international rights are best handled.
What are a few of your favorite books?
An impossible question, the list keeps growing day by day. But here are some that have been with me a long time:
The Overcoat, by Nicolai Gogol – because all Western literature grew out of this little book
The Red Notebook, by Paul Auster – because I am also fascinated by chance
Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka – because it never ceases to intrigue me
To the Lighthouse, by Virginia Wolf – because she can make the seemingly trivial utterly significant
A Madman’s Defense, by August Strindberg – because he writes with fire – and he is Swedish
The Victim, by Saul Bellow – because he grabs your hand and pulls you in and you suffer and sweat with the main character
What piece of writing have you done that you’re particularly proud of and why?
I am very proud of my short story ‘Someone to Watch over Me’, which won the coveted Sunday Star Times Short Story Competition here in New Zealand in 2003.
Can you give us a view into a typical day of your writing life?
Most typical is a day when I sit and stare helplessly into my computer screen for hours on end without writing anything. Rereading what is already there, changing a word here and there, adding a comma... I am totally undisciplined and genetically predestined to procrastination. But when it happens, when the words flow, the feeling is almost trancelike. And wonderful.
If you could choose to have one strength of another writer, what would it be and from whom?
I would like to be brave and write with total abandon like Franz Kafka.
Do you have a dream for the future of your writing, something you would love to accomplish?
I would like to write a novel drawing on my own experience of growing up in Stockholm, Sweden in the 50’s and 60’s.
What is your favorite and least favorite part of being a writer?
Overall, it is such a privilege that it would be hard to think of anything negative. Other than the fact that it is difficult to live off your writing. The moment when you understand that as a writer of fiction you can create anything, you experience a miracle. Anything is possible. A drawback for me personally is that I am sometimes reluctant to leave my fictional world and return to the real one. With the novel I am writing at the moment I am extending a particular part day by day for purely selfish reasons, I think. I just don’t want to let it go. But eventually you have to, of course. The moment you give it away for others to read it is no longer yours. A bit like a child, perhaps. The day you realise your children are no longer children, that you will never again be able to kiss their dimpled buttocks or the soles of their feet (which you probably wouldn’t want to, even if you could), then everything shifts a little. You no longer have any influence, and you have to share your creation with others.
How much marketing do you do? Any advice in this area?
Within reason, I do whatever I am asked to do. By my agent, my publishers and the general public. I find it very rewarding and also challenging in a stimulating way. Discussing my novel with others, I am constantly intrigued by how much a reading experience is influenced by the reader. The text is the beginning, but each interpretation is fresh.
‘You write better as you age, that is the advantage with aging. Your brain may deteriorate, but not so you feeling for the language. In addition you get bolder and less inhibited.’
Göran Palm, Swedish political commentator and novelist, 1935