Karen Havelin's Like I'm Indestructible (Agave Magazine Vol. 3, Issue 2) takes on a theme that rarely features prominently in literature: chronic illness. Here we talk to the Norwegian author about her love of Charlotte Brontë, the challenges of speaking honestly about a hidden topic, and why she believes her poetry is better in Norwegian.
AGAVE MAGAZINE: You've been writing since you were a child. What motivates you to write, and how has your writing process changed over the years?
KAREN HAVELIN: I’ve always written when life overwhelms me in one way or another. It became an important way to express myself and handle life in my early teens, which is when I realized I wanted to be a writer. Now, it’s a more complex phenomenon—I notice that life is worse when I don’t do it. It is as if a portion of me exist only inside my writing and when the flow stagnates, it’s bad for my health. It feels like something I have to do. If I put everything I have into this, I can maybe do something no one else can.
It’s taken me a long time to accept how I work. When I was younger, in the typical fashion of new writers, I was convinced I needed to be inspired before I could write, or that I needed to be tortured, or to make my writing process resemble other people’s. Now I have a higher acceptance for myself and a much bigger trust in the process. I have to write a lot before I know where I’m going. But if I show up and keep doing it, something good will eventually come of it.
You studied under some notable professors at Columbia University, including Gary Shteyngart and Donald Antrim. What was the most important thing you learned from them?
The most important thing I learned was to stop relying on charm in my writing, to do my ground work, blocking, dialogue, structure—to put in the work. So much work! I was primarily a poet before Columbia, so I changed both language and form, which was a little nuts, but also liberating. Because of the demands to submit lots of pages, I had to immediately start writing full speed, which was useful in getting past self consciousness and going all in.
The novel which is excerpted in Agave Magazine is written in reverse chronological order. Why did you employ this particular method of storytelling?
The reverse chronology showcases other things than straightforwardly following the character from younger to older. Like, how do people change through the years, and what things stick? How are we influenced by the past, and can we free ourselves? This way, the different time periods in my character’s life sort of exist simultaneously, which feels true to me. Each part works on its own as well. It’s been interesting to see how different the readings of this book are. People have thought it’s everything from uplifting to tragic, torturous to pleasant.
What made you decide to write about chronic illness?
This is one area where I can admit to having personal experience. I work with what I know. But chronic illness is also largely unexplored in literature. I have always longed for good books about illness. Particularly ones where the sick person gets a voice, and doesn’t either die or get cured. Books that show the amount of work that goes into having a challenging body that has to be coaxed along.
It’s a bit of a challenge too, to try to make engaging literature about something that might on the surface seem dull. These are things that influence people’s lives to an immense degree, and that they perhaps don’t ever talk about. You can have crazy experiences that you can’t necessarily share with anyone. There are actually a lot of opportunities for humor. How are people’s lives interesting, even though they maybe can’t have exciting adventures? How are people shaped by lives that are very constricting in certain ways? This is one of the reasons I’m a little bit obsessed with Charlotte Brontë’s characters.
Chronic pain and chronic illness also impact women and men differently and tangle up into money, class, race. Everyone has a body, everything I experience I experience as this body. So for me, it feels obvious to chase that concentration of energy I see there.
Do you prefer to write in Norwegian or English?
This varies—it comes down to one day at a time, one piece of writing at a time, in whichever language feels possible. I’m probably a freer writer in English, and probably also less rigorous. In Norwegian I have a terser voice. My poetry is probably better in Norwegian.
Learn more about Karen and her work at www.karenhavelin.com.