Louise Halvardsson is a Swedish novelist and performance poet who spent 10 years in Brighton, UK. After her latest book Swenglish, a personal study of life in Sweden and England, she moved back to the country of her birth. See www.louisehalvardsson.com
Interview with: g emil reutter
GER: Tell us about your Swenglish Project and the documentary related to the project.
LH: It all started with a midlife crisis. Well, you could argue that I’m too young for such a crisis, but in Swedish there’s a word for it: “the 30-year-old-crisis”. I’d reached a point in my life where I felt fed up with pretty much everything, so I decided to live other peoples’ lives for 30 weeks. One part of the crisis was that I didn’t know which country to live in: Sweden or England. I stayed with 30 different people, half of them in Sweden and half of them in England; for a week I observed their everyday life and took part in their activities – including going to work with them. I also had to eat the same food as my hosts and follow their patterns of sleep. Now I’ve written a book about my journey and there’s also a filmmaker in Brighton who has documented parts of my adventures. The original aim was to focus on cultural differences and similarities between the two countries, but in the end it turned out to be more of a personal story. At the moment I’m in Gothenburg, but the conclusion is that I still don’t know where I really want to live … And I couldn’t decide which language to write the book in, so that has delayed the publishing process.
LH: Punk industrial hard rocker with attitude is my first book and was published a few years ago in Sweden and won an award for best debut young adult novel. It was never meant to be a teen novel; I see it more as a crossover, a coming-of-age-story for anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider. It started with a short story about a girl wanting to become cool and then I just kept on writing, using loads of old diary extracts from when I was a teenager. In a way it’s a fictionalised document of my last few years at school. The title deals with the frustration of not fitting into a box. Being too cool for the geeks, but not cool enough for the rockers. When I grew up I felt that you had to choose, you could not be both a punk and a heavy metal chick. The writing is very honest, I wanted to show what happens in the bedroom as well as in the toilet …
My latest novel project is “Replacing Angel”, a novel set in Brighton with a Swedish girl as the protagonist. It’s about wanting to live somebody else’s life, but realising that your own life isn’t too bad after all.
GER: You are a performance poet as well as a page poet. You have said, “If it wasn’t for the poetry I would tear my hair and slit my wrists. Poetry keeps me on track”. Tell us how poetry keeps you on track?
LH: I didn’t use to take poetry seriously. It was something I did for fun and to release emotions. For many years I saw it as my hobby, something I did that wasn’t related to “writing work”. You never hear about someone hating their hobby or being fed up with their hobby, if that’s the case they quit. And that’s how I found a freezone: poetry was just a hobby, and through the performance poetry scene I made loads of friends and could forget the woes of novel writing. I do like novel writing but it’s such a long and lonely process that it can make you go mad. A couple of years ago something changed though. I started winning poetry slam competitions and all of a sudden poetry became more than a hobby. Funnily enough I’ve made more money from poetry than novel writing lately … I have to remind myself not to take it too seriously. I want to keep the fun bit in. What really helps when I’m stuck in my novel writing is to write a poem, find an open mic and go for it. Instant publication.
GER: You write short fiction as well as poetry. Do you have a preference and why?
LH: Poetry! It works better when I have a feeling or a thought that I need to process. I’m not always up for crafting full sentences and thinking of a structure and a story. My poems have always been free from rules. I find it really hard to write short fiction that works. It’s something I have to force myself to do, but in 2010 I think it was, I decided to dedicate a whole year to short fiction and it paid off with quite a few publications and performances.
GER: What poets/writers have inspired you to a life in the literary arts?
LH: Many! I’m a big fan of J.D. Salinger. He didn’t publish very much, but the work he did publish has had a big impact on the world. I much prefer authors who publish three books in their lifetime to authors who write a book a year. I also have romantic visions of the beat poets and their lifestyle. But there are two Swedish authors, Linda Skugge and Unni Drougge, who have meant more to me than anyone else. They’re both very strong and outspoken and inspired me to go my own way. The UK poet Bernadette Cremin is another amazing person and writer who has encouraged me to write and perform.
LH: Very important. Today I received Stand magazine where one my stories is included and it made my day, reminding me that I’m a writer for real, not just a dreamer. And seeing my work in Fox Chase is equally important; it’s nice to have something to show the world. As it has been a long time since my first novel was out, it’s good that other things are happening while I’m waiting for the next big publication. It’s all about the journey. Every single publication is an encouragement to keep on writing and it makes it easier to deal with rejections. Even though it’s not much money – or sometimes no money – in it, it’s worth a lot to see your work in print and online; it confirms my identity as a writer. Publication of shorter work works better online than in print nowadays – it’s great to be able to share links on social media. I don’t know anyone who goes out to buy a literary magazine unless they’re a very dedicated writer.
LH: You’ve got three minutes to perform a poem without any props. People in the audience volunteer as judges and give you points between 0,0 and 10. There are usually different rounds and you count up the points at the end. Sometimes there are team competitions and up to four people perform a poem together and you compete with other teams based on the same rules as in an individual slam. At national competitions, different districts compete against each other and individual scores and team piece scores are added together.
I love poetry slam because anyone can take part. You don’t need any education, you don’t have to be good at spelling, you actually don’t need to be good at all: you just have to brave enough to step up on a stage. As anyone can judge the competition the scoring is very subjective and therefore you shouldn’t take it too seriously. The point is not the point – the point is the poetry as they say.
LH: In order to develop both as a person and a writer you need to try new things. I think workshops are great for learning new skills or brush up on old skills you’ve forgotten about. I decided to take part in a metaphor wrestling workshop last year and it was fantastic. I don’t use metaphors that much in my writing so it was a great challenge and the fact that you had to improvise a lot forced me to let go and come up with some crazy things. You create an alter ego character and then you go up on stage and are only allowed to speak in metaphor as you battle against another character, trying to come up with more and more hilarious things. I now feel much more confident about using metaphors in my novel writing as well, but using it with care.
GER: Shake the Dust is a project run by Apples & Snakes. Tell us of your involvement in the project and how you see the project influencing poetry.
LH: It was a project that was linked with the Olympics in London. Experienced poetry coaches travelled round to schools all over England to make teenagers write poetry and join poetry slam teams. I was assisting the poetry coach Michael Parker and we had great fun, playing creative games and getting the teenagers to write without it feeling like writing. I think it was a very important project because a lot of young people realised that poetry can be cool! It’s not just about reading the old classics: poetry can be about your life here and now. The team we coached made it to the national finals and seeing how the young people we’d worked with had developed was amazing. In the beginning they were very worried about spelling and writing the right thing, but they found their own voices and some of them said they would carry on writing after the project because it made them feel so good.
GER: Tell us five things we should know about you and why?
- I find it very boring to go to the toilet. But this is also where I get a lot of ideas and I can’t help sneaking toilet scenes into my writing.
- I don’t use much make-up, but I always paint my nails. It makes me happy to see my coloured nails move over the keyboard.
- I wish that my mother tongue were English. It’s the world language and even though I master English quite well, I’ll never be as good as a native speaker.
- I once broke into London Zoo. You’ll get to read about it one day …
- I dream about milking a cow and driving a moped. Sometimes it’s important to do something that is completely unrelated to writing.
The fiction of Louise Halvardsson is forthcoming in the Winter 2014 edition of The Fox Chase Review. Previous work has appeared at this link in The Fox Chase Review. http://www.foxchasereview.org/11June/LouiseHalvardsson.html
You can watch and listen to Louise on YOUTUBE at this link: http://www.youtube.com/results?search_query=Louise+Halvardsson+&sm=3