Interview with Searching for Nora Author Wendy Swallow

Author Wendy SwallowQ: Nora is beautiful and vivacious, but also flawed. In Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House she manipulates her husband Torvald, lying about everything from money to macaroons, and hiding a crime she committed years earlier. What makes her a compelling heroine?

A: Nora is a woman who works with what she has. In her marriage to Torvald, she has little overt power; she must hide what she does to keep her family together. At the end of the play A Doll’s House, Nora rises above her lies and manipulations to talk honestly with Torvald for the first time, and it’s a shining moment. But my belief is that personal transformation doesn’t happen in a single stroke. I wanted to explore how Nora would struggle to be this better self as she faced difficult circumstances in the days after her bold departure. I was also interested in what it means to lie to gain power in the world, and the consequences of such behavior. At the heart of my book is Ibsen’s challenge: can Nora give up her masquerades, manipulations and lies, and learn to stand honestly before the world?

Q: Nora is not the only heroine in your book. There’s a second story line about a young Norwegian university student, Solvi. What does Solvi’s story bring to the book?

A: Solvi Lange, who comes of age at the end of World War I, embodies the progress made by women since Nora’s day. It’s 1918; women in Norway have won the right to vote, and young women like Solvi are claiming careers and autonomy along with shorter skirts and flapper hairstyles. Solvi is a photographer and a student of history. She happens across the mystery of a woman who – decades earlier – left a difficult marriage and disappeared without a trace. Solvi hears the story of this forgotten heroine of the Norwegian women’s movement at the same time she’s trying to untangle a legacy of shame and secrets in her own family. She soon becomes obsessed with these dual mysteries.

Q: Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House was controversial in its day, in part because Nora leaves behind her three small children. One famous actress even refused to play the role because she thought Nora’s conduct was so unnatural. What do you think of Nora’s actions, and how do you handle the issue of her children in the book?

A: The ease with which Ibsen has Nora leave her children is troubling. As a mother myself, I suspect Nora wakes up the next morning deeply regretting that to leave Torvald she had to leave her children as well. Much of my book is about Nora’s hunger for them, and her deep need to be loved and part of a family again, but this time on different terms. It motivates much of what she does.

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    Q:  What was most surprising to you about Norway?

    A:  There just are not many people! Even in Oslo, the capital city known in Nora’s day as Kristiania, traffic is light by American standards and everyone seems to know each other. It became clear to me that someone of Nora’s bourgeois class would have known everyone else in that class, and probably a good number of people of the lower class. It’s an intimate place, and that makes it hard for someone like Nora to disappear.

    Q:  Why did you decide Solvi would be a photographer?

    A:   I have always been interested in artists, people who make things and see the world in fresh ways. I also wanted Solvi to be doing something that her mother would never have imagined for her. Solvi represents the new modernity sweeping Europe at that time, and I liked that she was someone who could see the world differently than previous generations. It also gave me a logical way to have her get into trouble. She’s related to Nora, after all; she needed to get into trouble.

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