Turning Childhood Memories into an Award-winning Book – An Interview with Danish Author Morten Pape
Danish writer and screenwriter Morten Pape was invited by the Embassy of Denmark in Budapest to be their guest at the 23rd International Book Festival Budapest back in April 2016. During his stay in the Hungarian capital he attended the Scandinavian House’s Danish language club, was a panellist at the Book Festival, and celebrated the independent bookstores with the Scandinavian House. His award-winning debut novel entitled The Plan was in the centre of our hour-long discussion, but we also talked about screenwriting, the Danish film industry as well as the Danish welfare state.
Your first book is a real hit in Denmark, and, besides that, you’ve worked on a few screenplays, too. I’m wondering if you have always wanted to be a (screen)writer.
I’ve always known that I am good at reading and writing; in fact, these were the only things I was good at in school. I was a very frustrating kid, so I was writing and scribble down lyrics and poetry all the time. The problem for me was to believe that I was actually able to make a living out of it or pursue it as a career. Writing is really the best way to express myself as I’m not a good speaker – and I’m very shy. When I write, I feel totally powerful, and I don’t care what anybody else thinks. I’ve also been fascinated by films since I was a child, so writing for films seemed ideal. The only thing I want is to tell stories.
What are the differences between writing a book and a script?
Being a screenwriter means you are part of a large piece of machinery, and you are not allowed to do the final cut. You often help the director realise her/his ideas envisioned, because he/she doesn’t necessarily know how to write a script. For me film is the best artistic medium, because it combines so many different senses, but, of course, literature is also fantastic. When you write your own books, the only contact is your editor, which is good, because fewer opinions arise. This gives you much more freedom, too, since I don’t have to convince the director about something that might be only important to me. It is also a question of responsibility, whether I have full responsibility, or I share this with others in a hierarchical organisation.
What have you learnt by working in the film business?
What I have learnt during the years making short films and webisodes is that people hardly make any money out of this, since there are so many people who dream about working in the film industry. If you say you would like to earn money, you might end up hearing the following: ‘Fuck you, we have enough people who would do this kind of work for free.’ There is no money in the segment I work in, the short films are mainly low- or zero-budget films. No one (e.g. director, producer, cinematographer) makes a single penny. We do it to gain experience, to get better. When you become professional and work on feature films, of course, it becomes a profession.
Back to your book… Why did you write a book based on your own life?
It started with a short story written for a Danish daily newspaper. A week later after it had been published two of the biggest publishing houses in Denmark contacted me and asked me if I wanted to write a novel. It was an absolute surprise, because I imagined this happening ten years later. My plan was to become a screenwriter first, but I’ve always had the urge to tell my story. I wanted to tell about a time period spent in a certain environment.
What is the short story about?
It’s about me being a kid, my depressed mother who is only lying on the couch, smoking cigarettes and taking pills, and my dad living with his new family. One day she asks me to go to the deli to buy cigarettes for her. On the way there I’m very afraid that something is going to happen, and my fear is realised when on the way back home a person, who is a gang member, terrorises me. As if this wasn’t enough, I can also see my father with his new family from a distance. It was an honest and – in some way – a brutal story. Fortunately, publishers saw some literary quality in it. It depicts an environment that has hardly ever presented to a wider audience in Denmark.
Were there many other kids like you, or is your story rather unique?
There were many other kids, however, I possibly lived a much more privileged life than all my friends in the neighbourhood known for crime, violence and gangs. I was really one of the more fortunate ones. You can ask my friends and they would tell you they experienced ten times worse than I did. I’d always had this bad conscience about why my story should be unique, and therefore the hardest part for me was to realise and recognise that I did have a voice and a story to tell.
Was it easy for you to write about your life and also let everyone else know about it?
The act of writing was the best part of the entire journey. I didn’t care about what other people would think about me or my book, I was in charge, I had the power. I especially enjoyed this, because in my entire life I always cared about what people thought of me. I wasn’t on a revenge quest, but I was retaliating literally through my writing. The reality hit me only on the day when my book was released. I looked at my editor and put my hands on the top of my head and asked: What have I done?
What was the work with your editor like?
At the beginning of the process, I sent her the pages I finished writing and she gave me feedback. However, that didn’t work out, because it was like one step forward two steps backward, so I decided to show the novel to her only when it was ready.
What advice did your editor give you during the writing phase?
The best advice she gave me was ‘less is more’. She made me realised I was trying to hard to be bombastic and funny. Therefore, she took the whole text and structured it in a way that it was more down-to-earth. She said: ‘You don’t need to emphasise what you see or experience, you need to show what you can do with words! Just keep it simple!’
Were you able to handle criticism easily?
It was fairly difficult, because she was right and I was wrong, but the editing process was pretty painless. We did it in the old-fashioned way: She printed out the entire manuscript and made remarks and signs with her red pen, and I had to read through all the 600 pages, which I hated, but it was necessary to do.
Did you read your book right after you had finished writing it?
No, I couldn’t look at the pages. The book was done, and I didn’t want to risk making amendments in it. If I had found something bad or something needed to be fixed, I would have been in a very bad mood. But now I had to do it, because I’m reading it out loud quite often – and I still like it. Of course, there are some parts that I could have done better, but that is the meaning of life: You have to learn and improve constantly. I’m not sure I’ve become a better writer, but I’ve learnt a lot.
How would explain the phrase ‘better writer’?
It means being more confident using your own voice, which means you always need to challenge yourself in order to reach the next level and create something completely different. The artists I admire the most never repeat themselves. Think about the Radiohead! Their second record was a huge commercial hit, they were the biggest rock band in the world, and everybody was waiting for what they were about to do next. And what happened? They went from playing instrumental rock songs to play full electronic music. It was surprising, of course, but then everyone shook their hands. I don’t admire artists who are trying to do the same thing over and over again just because that has been successful once. This is boring!
This is convenient, too…
Yes, it is, and I really hate convenience. I despise settlement and being satisfied with yourself. For instance, Denmark is known for being the happiest country in the world. Maybe it is, maybe we, Danes, are just better liars than others. We also live in one of the best welfare states in the world, and it doesn’t matter what happens, someone will always catch us. I don’t like that. That’s way I’m very non-Danish in that sense.
But maybe only for the Danes, and not the immigrants who settled down there…
That might be true. The rest of Europe has a huge problem with integration, which is a dance between two people, not just a one-way traffic. Nobody wants to be part of a club that they are not invited to or don’t feel welcome in. On the other hand, there is a club waiting for you, but you don’t show interest to join it.
What is missing?
We don’t communicate enough or have a democratic dialogue that democracy is built on. We don’t know each other, and therefore we are scared of each other. You are always scared of things that you don’t understand.
You depict the area you grew up in, which is also called Urbanplanen, as a very dark place to live. It is also known that the composition of the inhabitants was a mix of Danes and people with immigrant background, who might only have lived next to each other but not with each other. Is your childhood neighbourhood still the same, or has it changed during the years?
Thank god, it’s changed a lot in the past 5-6 years! Nowadays the population scale is more equal in terms of background. They have torn down a lot of old places, and now they want to build new things. I’m currently a consultant at an architecture company that is competing to be commissioned to develop the landscape. The reconstruction costs a lot of money, but this effort shows the city has believed in the place, and they know it has potential.
What do the people who live/have lived there say about your book?
I could hear that a bunch of old friends had read my book. They told me they liked it, and are very thankful. Others only heard that I had written a book about the neighbourhood and just trashed everybody. However, this is not true at all, still, the story becomes and another story, and I’m just an object of hatred. I don’t think I’ve expected anything else, and this is a sad fact.
Were you eager to be as realistic as possible, or a bit of fiction also found its way to be part of the book?
It’ll always be fiction. It is real, but nothing is real. A lot of people asked me why it was regarded as a novel and not a self-biography. To be honest, I think self-biographies are more fictitious than novels: You cannot write the truth, but you can write honestly. This is what I’m trying to do when I write. I don’t remember every single sentence that has been said, but I do remember certain details. Therefore, some scenes are rather fictitious, although those do resemblance reality. It’s my reality, my truth.
Are you planning to make a film based on the book?
A company contacted me and asked me to start writing a script, which I did, but then needed to stop, because it was not the time for me to go through the process again. I write because I want to move on as a human being.
Maybe you should let someone else do it and only read the script through when it’s ready…
Probably, or maybe in the future when I broke and have nothing to do, I say, let’s do this.
What do you enjoy most as a writer?
Writing – I enjoy the process.
For writers, journalists or someone whose main task is to sit alone (if that’s the case) and write the greatest challenge might be to spend a huge amount of time alone. Isn’t the daily routine sometimes boring for you?
It’s never boring but always lonely. Before this book came out I had hardly made a living as a writer, I always had jobs. The success of my book made it possible for me to quit my day job, and all I do now is writing. I get up in the morning, go to the office and write, then I go home at 5 p.m. That is my new routine, and with every new routine it takes time to adapt to it. It’s strange for me to be my own boss, but I like that I can manage my time as I wish. I imagined doing this four years ago, but I imagined it somehow differently. I am very proud, though, and I’m not complaining. This is my dream, this is what I want to do.
Is it that simple to write from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and then go home?
It’s different from the way in which I wrote The Plan. When I wrote it, I ate and slept in the same room I was writing in. Having this experience, I think, it’s good to have that kind of routine when you leave your home, ride your bike to the office, shut the door and start the work there. You sort of install your brain to focus on that, then time flies in the office. I leave when I want to, so there is no pressure. I’m not sure I’ve found the right routine, balance or process yet, but I have nothing else to do now.
What happens if you’re stuck and cannot write anything?
I accept the fact that I can’t work every day, but, of course, not all day should be like that. I can’t write when I’m in a really bad mood, when I’m stressed, depressed or frustrated or something bothers me. If I can’t focus, I do something else: take a long walk or go to the cinema or meet friends.
Sometimes it helps if you start writing by hand instead of staring at the computer screen. Do you always write on your computer?
Usually on the computer but I really enjoy writing by hand. I should do that more often. You can feel your brain in your fingertips, and you really need to think about every single word you write down, you can’t just delete, delete, delete.
What are the challenges you have to overcome while writing?
There is always self-doubting, self-loathing, thinking that what I’ve done is not enough. Every creative person experiences this, so I’m always saying myself to stop complaining. Sometimes the most challenging is to sustain this rather pleasant condition. In addition to that, sometimes my hand hurts. It’s physically hard to write.
For some people writing is a kind of hobby. What do you do in your free time?
I read, but not as much as I want to. Reading is just as important as writing. The best thing I can do when I’m not writing is reading to be inspired. Inspiration is the most significant thing in my life. I find inspiration in books, movies, and every story I encounter. Beyond that, I’m a regular guy: I like football and having a beer with my friends.
As far as I know, your next book is in progress. Is that one also based on your life?
It’s not about myself, but inspired by a true event that took place in 2008 when one of my former stepbrothers was involved in the killing of a young person. I’m more interested in what led to the murder than in the actual murder. I want to tell the story of kids who have been let down by their parents, by the system, basically by everybody – of kids who inevitably had to become monsters. I don’t want to justify these kids’ actions, just humanise them. It affected me a lot that one of the kids was my stepbrother. Before this tragic event I had playing with him, spent time with him in the street. He was a non-violent guy, though he was very angry and insecure at the same time.
Don’t you think the theme is very similar to one in your first book?
It takes place in the same area of the city, and it’s also about racism, bad parenting, so, yes, it has the same components as my first book. However, I don’t think it’s a problem: the content is always as good as how it is being told. I want to tell this story differently than my own. I want to explore the storytelling aspects much more.
Do you know when it’s going to be published?
Oh, I have to write it first! I’ve already started it, so, hopefully, next year.
Written by Barbara Majsa