April 15, 2014

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SLJ’s SummerTeen Speaker: Johan Harstad

Johan Harstad’s debut novel, Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion?, was originally published in his native Norway in 2005 and successfully made its way to 11 countries before being published in English in June 2011. The book, about a 30-something gardener’s unusual preoccupation with Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, is winner of the 2008 Brage prize in the category of children’s literature and was made into a 2009 TV series starring the Wire’s Chad Coleman.

johan harstad SLJs SummerTeen Speaker: Johan HarstadHarstad, who lives in Oslo, is a guest speaker atSLJ‘s August 9 online event, SummerTeen: A Celebration of Young Adult Books. If you’ve signed up for SummerTeen, make sure to gather your teens to hear Harstad speak on the “The Science in Science Fiction” panel from 2:30 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. Registration is still open.

SLJ spoke to the award-winning author, musician, photographer, and playwright about why he thinks librarians are “guides of literature,” his strong views on artistic freedom, and the progress of his upcoming novel for adults.

How did you end up writing for your genre?

JH: A coincidence, really, I had only written novels, short stories, and plays for adult readers and never thought I’d write a YA novel, or a commercial novel like this. Then I was contacted by a publisher who asked if I felt like giving it a shot. I had just finished a new novel for adults at the time and wanted to do something different for my next project, so the timing was perfect.

I ended up having a lot of fun writing it, not only because all the films and novels of the genre that I watched and read when I was young sort of came back to me, but also because of the freedom and the fact that I was sometimes scared while writing it, which was done mostly at night and in the early hours, looking up from my computer and seeing my own reflection in the window. Contrary to what many people think I’m not a space geek so I had to do a lot of research, which I also enjoyed immensely.

What do you like best about writing for a YA audience?

JH: Without a doubt the fact that YA readers are still young enough not to have cemented their preference in art. They are still searching for what will reflect them and their interests, and even though they may be the hardest crowd to please, they are still very much on the lookout and somewhat open to the weirdest ideas. For the youngest YA readers, I like the opportunity to do my best to scare them for life.

What’s one of the most moving things a reader has said about your books?

JH: I get my fair share of emails from teens who have read my books, not only my YA novel, but also my other work, and I’m often both extremely thankful and moved by what they write. Being told that you have changed someone’s life is quite powerful thing to hear, it makes you want to work harder, as you remember how your own life was changed by books, films, and music that made you who you are. Also, I’m sometimes surprised and touched to hear that young readers have read my YA novel “172 Hours on The Moon” and wanting to read more, they jumped directly for instance to my 500 page play about the war in Bosnia and the Genocide in Rwanda, which they apparently enjoyed even more.

More than anything, I have to say that what has moved me the most are those few people who have ended up getting tattoos with a sentence or graphic inspired by one of my books because the books mean so much to them. That is very humbling, knowing they will carry it with them for the rest of their lives. My French translator and dear friend also has one, a sentence in my handwriting from a short story collection of mine. The tattoo, running from the side of his torso all the way up to his armpit, says something like “All the time people whom you can love are being born. All the time.” Still, no one has gotten a tattoo based on my YA novel, so the spot to be no.1 is still open…

How valuable are librarians at getting the word out about your work?

JH: Very valuable, indeed. Especially when it comes to the younger reader who’s searching and glad to be pointed in the right direction. I’ve met both public librarians and school librarians who have done a great job in promoting my work, so I’m very grateful to them as a group. In many bookstores around the world the people working there are not as well-read as they once were, but librarians, I think, still read a lot. And therefore they are able to be guides of literature. I remember my high school librarian who probably felt she was fighting a lost war to get kids to read, but she would light up whenever someone asked her for a tip. Then it was always worth it. That one kid. She had read everything, it seemed. And for more than 10 years after I finished high school, she kept promoting my books on a special display in the school library.

Do you ever worry about your books being censored or challenged?

JH: If you’re talking about political censorship or any form of censorship that threatens the release of a book, I’d have to answer theoretically as that has never been an issue. Partly because my writing isn’t particularly controversial, partly because I check my facts thoroughly when writing about potentially controversial subjects and partly because there’s very little you can’t get away with-in Norway at least. What happens to my works when they are being translated to languages I don’t speak by translators I don’t communicate with is a different thing, of course. But I don’t spend energy worrying about things that I have no ability to control. The bottom line is that I write as freely as I possibly can and am always ready to stand up for the text if needed. In general, I strongly believe in importance of artistic freedom to explore whatever feels necessary, as long as it tries to say something about us and who we are. And I have great respect for some of those artists who have put their whole lives on the line to create something that makes us all better. Or tried to, anyway.

What are you working on now?

JH: I’m working on a new novel for adults, which may come out in Norway sometime next year. If all goes well. I don’t really want to say very much about it other than that I’m in the middle of it, which is both the best and the worst place to be. Parts of it will be set in the US during the 90′s. But the characters are Norwegians. Well, most of them. It’s a novel I’ve wanted to write for years, and now I’m finally ready to do it.

Other SLJ SummerTeen Interviews:

Gareth Hinds

Earl Sewell

A.S. King