Against the background of political struggles in 1980s Denmark, Jonas T. Bengtsson explores the unsettled landscape through the eyes of a growing boy shuttled from place to place by his anarchist father. In this interview, Bengtsson shares with us his own coming-of-age story: how becoming a father transformed his life, as a person and as a writer.
Bookish: A Fairy Tale is your American debut. Do you think your American audience will understand and fully appreciate the Danish culture that permeates the novel?
Jonas T. Bengtsson: I didn’t realize that Danish culture permeates it. More than anything, this book is meant to be evocative of my childhood and the land where I grew up: the ’80s, Copenhagen, everybody being taller than me, the city being scary and exciting. But, of course, there must be a lot of Danish culture in there.
Bookish: The narrator’s father suffers from mental illness, but he’s also a former politically-connected academic who went underground. Can you tell us a bit about what was going on there politically at the time?
JB: In the ’80s, the political situation in Denmark was much more black-and-white than it is today. I remember seeing posters where the Prime Minister was depicted as a wolf. It felt like it was the people versus the state. This was before the wall came down in Germany and everything changed. A bit of paranoia was just natural.
Bookish: The novel is about the relationship between a father and his son; then you dedicate the book to your own son. Was there anything you had learned about the dynamics of fathers and sons (whether from your relationship with your own father, or your child) that influenced the novel?
JB: Becoming a father changed my life. Having to—no, being forced to think about someone other than yourself is definitely healthy for an artist. I can’t just smoke a blunt and fiddle with poetry; I have to pick up my son from school. I can’t go on a four-day bender; I have to pick up some organic dairy. I now know the urge to protect at all costs.
Bookish: Why did you set your novel mainly in the 1980s and 1990s?
JB: This really goes back to me wanting to describe, maybe not the world [itself], but the way I saw it during my childhood and in my teens. Using the ’80s as a backdrop in the first part of the novel was also important for the practical reason that it was a far less digital world than today’s, and far easier to get away with living outside the law.
Bookish: The narrator feels like an outsider in the modern world. In a day and age where technology both brings us together but also alienates us, do you think most feel that way?
JB: I can really only write for and from myself, and I have always felt like an outsider. No matter what happens in my life, I suppose I will always feel a bit like a flasher in the park. I don’t need Twitter to feel alienated; I can pull that one off all by myself.
Bookish: Did you know how the book was going to end when you started writing it?
JB: I always do. It’s getting there that’s the hard part.