Updated: May 4, 2020
The following is a translated version of a transcribed interview which I made with Josefine Ottesen on April 20th over Skype. You can see the full interview (IE: In Danish, but english subtitles are on their way) in the box below or on our Youtube-channel here.
Josefine Ottesen is one of the most famous Danish authors that works with creating fantasy universes. The author is most famous for writing fantasy novels for children and young adults, and if you were a child in the 90’s, you’ve definitely read numerous of her novels. What’s unique about Ottesen’s authorship is that her books speak about something universally human which makes it possible to read her books over and over again, as you grow older with them. Therefore, I’m first and foremost interested in hearing about how the author begins the work with creating these imaginary universes that are so telling of who we are as human beings on this earth?
“When I wrote ‘Det Døde Land’ (Eng.: “The Deadlands Trilogy”) it all started when my, at that time 12-13-year-old son, started listening to death metal music. And I found that very frightening. At that time, I was around 50 years old or so and I had this feeling that I couldn’t really expect a young boy his age to be interested in the interests of a woman my age. If I wanted to maintain a connection with him, I had to meet him where he was at. Therefore, I made him tell me why he found this music so interesting and he showed me a documentary made by an anthropologist who had been a heavy metal fan his whole life and then decided to explore the metal environment like it was any other field of research.
That was very interesting for me because it showed me that heavy metal like any other kind of art aim to give us the opportunity to explore things that we might not be able to otherwise, because it’s simply too scary, too difficult and too impossible. What you explore in the music is this state where everything has been falling apart, where there’s no values left - The real darkness. He made me a playlist and I sat down and listened to it wearing my headphones, so I wouldn’t miss out on any details. And I realized that I was nearly frightened to death. This music triggers your fright-muscle just like the horror genre does it. I got so scared.
Right then and there I had the opportunity to either be like any other spelt wheat 50-year old’s and reject this genre because it wasn’t pleasant wanting things to stay only positive or to explore what this kind of anxiety was and what it was about. And I realized that it is this anxiety about the end of the World. That in a short while we will stand here without anything to help us having no tools to how we should react to it. I wanted to explore this darkness and what I was afraid of.
I make a lot of research around my books because my work emanates from themes. So, I always have to go out and explore a theme before I can sit down and begin the writing process. What I tried to figure out regarding the theme for ‘Det Døde Land’ (Eng.: “The Deadlands Trilogy”) was how you could make the world end. I’m pretty sure I was on some kind of people-to-watch list at PET (Red.: The Danish Secret Intelligence Service) because of my suspicious google searches around that time. Dirty nuclear bombs, pollution catastrophes and such like. But it was very interesting. And one of the things that became clear to me which is also the theme of the book is that if we lose electricity we’re really fucked. Like in totally fucked. If there’s some kind of disturbance in the magnetic field on earth, then all the semi-conductors burn. And then you have no possibility of rebuilding them, because you need them to build everything again, you see? So, unless you have a very strongly controlled world society you would see the whole civilization bursting.
And what I see now in this current situation with the corona virus is that it’s formidable that we have a state here in Denmark with such a big piggy bank that it can throw money after us all, but in a place like the US with now 26 million people being unemployed and with their level of weapons in the country the possibility of it all collapsing doesn’t seem totally far-out.”
Still from the movie Contagion (2011)
Like nearly everyone else I’ve also seen the movie Contagion (2011) during this period of lock-down and I mention this to Ottesen in our conversation, because the movie is such a strong portrait of an American society falling to pieces because of a very serious pandemic, far more serious than the corona virus. In the movie you see the portrayal of this primal fear and need to protect yourself and your loved ones. I think it shows a lot about us as a people how we respond when everything is falling apart and there’s no law or system to support us anymore. Ottesen then continues,
“And I think this is such an interesting balance. Because we have lived for now 75 years in this country where most people have had plenty, and few haven’t had enough. With peace, with an incredible state, that we have a huge amount of trust in. But in the last 20 years or so extreme sport has also become very popular. I don’t think our brains have developed much since the Stone Age. And in some way, we have a need for fear. We have a need to be a little bit on our toes. And I think that’s also why there’s so many people living with anxiety. But we don’t have anything concrete to be afraid of. Because we have been nursed all the way through. I read about a person with OCD who was terribly afraid of germs who thought it is a relief for everyone to suddenly feel like her because of this current situation.”
During this corona crisis and national lockdown, we’ve also seen a lot of initiatives in Denmark to help out the weakest members of the society with everyday chores like grocery shopping and the Danish Broadcast Corporation hosting a national sing-along show each Friday night since the lockdown began. Ottesen believes that the current situation will have a large impact on both our personal growth as humans and on the relativism of values that we’ve otherwise seen in the above mentioned 75 years.
“There is a kind of alertness right now, suddenly the meaning with it all become more apparent. We become less in doubt over what life is really about. And this kind of relativism in our values has had a huge impact on us beforehand, and I think that will change after this. I think that building your own character and stamina will become a bigger focus for us, that learning to trust your own compass and develop your personal narrative will become of bigger importance to us. That you don’t just care about how many likes you get on Facebook. That we get aware of how important we are for each other. According to my novel ‘‘Det Døde Land’ (Eng.: “The Deadlands Trilogy”) this is also the theme, this question about what makes a person a human and not an animal. And for me you are not a human before you are in a relation to other humans.
The German American philosopher Martin Buber said something about an ‘I’ becoming an ‘I’, when ‘you’ are a ‘you’. It’s not until the meeting that I become someone. And this is something very fundamentally human, which I think we have been close to losing. I think this crisis will be of great significance, also in this sense. And it has already mattered in that the world community has joint forces in such a way that makes you realize that there’s also hope for them to join forces and work together in relation to other problems, like the climate crisis. Now it has become a possibility more than a hypothesis.”
This seems to be where the utopia in the situation lies. And the special thing with ‘utopia’ and ‘dystopia’ is that these two words are so closely linked. That in everything falling apart there lies the opportunity in building everything from scratch. But to move on from the exploration of the dystopia and the current situation, I ask Ottesen into the universes she creates and more specifically how she writes novels that are enjoyable to read, not only for children but also for adults. I wonder if this is something she has specifically in mind when writing them?
“For me the fantastic genres are the realism of the inner landscapes. And to construct these universes, the characters and their battles is like being a cartographer in an unknown land. If it’s a good book, you will find it to be a tour-guide through the jungle of this inner landscape. Here you can try walking on some paths you might not have discovered yourself.
When my novels work as I aim for them to do, you can read them in different ways. You can read them as a young adult or child as a thrilling story and then you can return to them later on to discover the extra layers of the story. One of the best things I have ever heard was someone calling my novels for ‘family-gatherers’ because it is books that you can read across generations and discuss together.
For me stories are the glue of culture. In my universe we understand ourselves and the society we live in through the stories we know about ourselves and each other. We all have a story and a narrative about ourselves which in the beginning are formed by our parents. When you are a child you are the product of your parents’ story about you and when you become a teenager and are on the way to becoming an adult you look around at a world that is completely incomprehensible. Where you have no chance to figure out where your path is. And what you need to do is toinvestigate the narrative about yourself. Some things in your parent’s narrative of you are true and other things might not be. The kind of novels I write reflects these processes around becoming someone. It’s basically just a folklore fairy tale where the setting and the effects have been boosted. But it’s the same story as you’ll find in the folklore fairy tale and myths from all over the world.
I have never felt the need to write realistic novels. Neither do I write novels where there’s this double setting with a realistic world and a magical world. My novels are all-in. And that is because I’m deeply fascinated with these kinds of narratives. It tells the story that everyone from everywhere on Earth can relate to because all of us were once children. And all of us have at some point stood on the gates to adulthood and been forced to begin our journey into the unknown to become someone.
When my son was around 3 years old, he looked up at me and asked “Mom, which story are we living in?”. And I was actually pretty clever at that time, because I didn’t tell him that we don’t live in a story, that this is the reality and just ‘life’. Instead I told him that what he’s asking is actually the most exciting thing; that we don’t know which story we live in, but we know that we’re the main character. And the hero. Who are going to make it.”
Since Ottesen has never been attracted to writing realistic novels, I wonder what was her journey into these fantastic universes, if she herself read a lot of fantasy as a child? She begins the answer with correcting me with a laugh; there wasn’t fantasy books when she was a child. There were only realistic children books, often with very moral points in them and she very quickly read her way through the children’s department at her local library. The stories that inspired her as a child were instead the ones from her Mothers background, the mother being an immigrant from Central Europe.
“I grew up in an environment where there was a lot of myths, legends and puppet theater. All these stylistic expressions. And I have always been very interested in these. I got a book on Greek myths and heroes by the Danish author Otto Gelsted when I was 10 and I read it to pieces. It actually fell apart, there was a whole in the front page. And I also had a collection of Charles and Mary Lamb’s Shakespeare for Children, which I also read to pieces. And then I have read a lot of fairy tales and been very drawn to these.
When I became a teenager, my mother gave me a diary which I didn’t understand what I should do with. By then I was 12 years old but from that moment and until I became 13, I suddenly had these experiences of waking up in the morning very angry or sad and not knowing why. And there I realized that when I felt like this it helped me to write everything down. And very quickly it became first poems and then short fables and fairytales which I used to mirror my own unrest and despair. It was in this process where I mirrored my experiences into a made-up world that helped me to be in this weary state and to get through it. There’s a lot of approaches to writing creatively. Some write with the focal point being the characters or plots or universes. But I write a lot with a theme as the focal point.”
As the author mentioned in the beginning of our conversation, she works a lot with themes in her books, which makes the research before the writing process a huge part of the work with the novels. She then unveils the work with a new book, a massive novel on both the beforehand mentioned building of and trust in your own personal compass and a critique of our relation to nature and the capitalistic handling of the climate crisis.
“What I’m very occupied with in this book is the way we in the western industrialized society have decided that we are the ones that own nature and not the other way around. That we are something else than nature, something different and grander. And the way we do things most often happen in correlation to the internet and the social medias. Here you stage yourself all the time and you never learn to rely on your own experiences and senses. Because you live on a level where it’s always other people’s reflections of you. And it’s these likes and online confirmations that effect whether it’s been a good or a bad day for you. This means that you don’t trust your own experiences and therefore that you don’t have a compass in life that you rely on. I have struggled with this theme for a very long time, this fact that we dissolve the ground relations where an ‘I’ become an ‘I’ in the meeting with a ‘You’.
It’s about this fundamental premise about how we relate to one another and how we use each other in real relations where you get a reflection on yourself and you get validated in the things you do. This whole fundamental kind of relations are diminished. It’s been a huge work for me to figure out how to create a universe that can be an imaginative model of these issues.”
The new book from the author sounds so exciting and relevant for our time and I look very much forward to reading it one day.
It's been such a thrill to talk with Josefine Ottesen about her authorship and her way into the universes of the fantasy genre. In the end of our conversation I ask her if there’s a specific fantasy character, either from her own work or from another author that holds a special place in her heart, or one that she can describe herself through?
“I think it was Voltaire that said, “I am a human, therefore nothing in a human life is unknown to me”. For me the characters are a journey through worlds, feelings and ways to look at the world where I can examine some things in myself. Like in my novel ‘Historien om Mira’ (Eng.: “The Mira Chronicles”, which I wrote to come to terms with the narratives that I was locked under.
If I have to say a work of fantasy that I am most fascinated about is the His Dark Materials trilogy by Philip Pullman. It is a story of Fall, but the outer narrative is based on the multiverse theory. In this other universe, they still have this close connection to nature but it’s a very closed culture and also a very religious one. There are some scientists that explores how there’s something in the northern lights that makes it possible to travel to other universes and Pullman portrays this very beautifully. It’s a book you can read over and over again.
If you are interested in more literary calories, I would recommend The Glass Bead Game by Herman Hesse . I can see now after reading it 4-5 times over the last 45 years that I’m very inspired by this novel. The way he turns aspects upside-down from what you think they are to what they are when experienced through a person who’s growing. That would be my two recommendations.”
/Cathrine Hedegaard, Research Assistant at Imagining the Impossible research group.