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: You have Nora immigrate to Minnesota. Why?

A: Many Norwegians immigrated to America during the 19th century, and that diaspora linked Norway and America forever. Many of the Norwegians were farmers, and the America frontier offered boundless farmland. But America also provided a solution for anyone wanting to escape their past – pregnant single women, orphans, people who couldn’t find jobs, opportunists, criminals. When Nora needs to escape Norway, America seems the only option. I was also fascinated by the crushing reality of life on the prairie, which is often idealized in American literature. I read many accounts of Norwegian settlers, their trials and sorrows, and I wanted to tell a part of that Norwegian-American story.

Q: Your two earlier books, both memoirs, explored divorce and remarriage. How did those books lead you to Nora’s story and help shape your novel?

A: My divorce was the single most difficult and transforming experience of my life, and writing about it and my later remarriage helped me understand why those transitions are so challenging. When Nora walks out on her husband, she imagines it as a simple separation. But I knew that disentangling herself from her marriage would be wrenching and damaging, and that none of the Helmers would ever be the same again. Through remarrying, I also understood better some of the challenges Nora and the Eriksens would face as they tried to become a family.

Q: Does a reader need to see or read Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House to understand your book?

A: I tell the story of the play in the novel, so it’s not necessary. That said, those who know the play will enjoy seeing the connections, characters, and themes that emerge in Searching for Nora. I hope my book will send people back to Ibsen’s play, because it’s a work of genius. Despite being over 100 years old, it feels modern, and the characters leap off the page. Book club readers and students, in particular, might enjoy reading or seeing the play as part of discussing my book.

Q: Your novel required years of historical research as well as understanding the writings and life story of Ibsen. Where did that research take you and what were some of the most interesting discoveries you made?

A: I wanted to know what might really have happened to a woman like Nora who walked away from her husband and social class in 1879 Kristiania (now Oslo). That question took me deep into Norwegian economic and social history. I also read biographies of Ibsen and scholarship about the play. Then I went to Norway and interviewed Ibsen experts and emigration historians, becoming fascinated by the Norwegian diaspora into the American Midwest. I read first-person accounts of Norwegians who came to America in the 1880s, and the letters and diaries of women who settled on the prairie. I became interested in the darker side of prairie life and drove around the lonelier corners of Minnesota, falling in love with the wide, quiet land but also coming to appreciate its rigors and challenges. One of the most interesting discoveries was how much you can learn about life in the 1880s – it’s not that long ago, and there’s extensive documentation. So I used that information. I knew, for example, that diphtheria swept through Lac qui Parle County in Minnesota during Nora’s first winter there, and that there really was a mission for Indian children in that area before the Indian wars of the 1860s (and a Chief Renville, the son of a French fur-trader and Indian woman). The rich detail made the period come alive to me much more than I originally envisioned.

Q: What relevance does Nora, a 19th-century woman, have for readers in modern-day America and Scandinavia, with their very different attitudes about women’s roles as wives, mothers and workers? What explains why A Doll’s House, first performed in 1879, remains so popular on the world’s stages?

A: Like so many women of every age, Nora aches to throw off the expectations and restrictions that stifle her. She has to leave her husband at the end of the play because he has no idea who she is, and she suspects he wouldn’t love her if he did. All women, even in today’s world, struggle to assert their strength and power, as does Nora. All women understand what it’s like to hide their true self, to soften their remarks, to pretend and flirt instead of being forthright and clear. Ibsen’s play and characters capture a cultural sea-change – Torvald is stuck in a Victorian mindset, while Nora is an embryonic modern woman. But the world wasn’t quite ready for her when the play premiered in 1879, which Ibsen understood. What interested me was how Nora would take her moment of triumph and self-destruction at the end of A Doll’s House and rise from the ashes to build a new life.

Q: Until Searching for Nora, your career as a writer and educator focused largely on non-fiction newspaper and magazine journalism. Was it challenging to write a work of fiction, with its very different demands on you as a writer?

A: It took me ten years to write Searching for Nora, and I learned something new every day. Everyone imagines that fiction must be easy, because you can just “make stuff up.” In truth, fictional stories must hold together logically and artistically in a thousand ways and on every page. There are issues of plot, character development, voice, background, place, period, language, psychology. Just looking at language, you must orchestrate wording, pacing, rhythm, tone, economy, meaning. At any moment the story can skid out of control. Perhaps a character says something you hadn’t planned: a single word that takes the story in the wrong direction, ruins the mood, or reveals a surprise. Through many drafts you discover what works and what doesn’t, but it’s like wending your way blindfolded through the biggest labyrinth in the world. And a novel is organic; it needs space to grow and develop. I would go to bed each night and run the story like a movie in my head, because I wanted to see what would happen next.

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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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