Interview with Johan Harstad

photo credit: John Erik Riley

Interview by Magdalena Ball

One of the key themes in the book is about the Mattias’ relationship between fame and obscurity. Talk to me about that.

It’s quite a dilemma for Mattias, this. On one hand he want to stay out of the limelight, be the guy in the background, but on the other he (and everyone around him) fear that he will go too far and become isolated, withdrawn and completely lost. When he was about eleven he discovered the astronaut Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, and simply decided that what he wished was to live his life like him, doing his job as best as he could, but without seeking fame and attention. He wants to be anonymous. The problem is that Mattias also has one of the best, if not the best, singing voice in Norway, ever, and so naturally he doesn’t get any understanding from his peers when he tells them that he doesn’t want to take advantage of his talent. He says somewhere in the novel that it takes a lot of energy and strong will and guts be number one but it takes a gigantic heart to be second best. In many ways you can say that he’s very much afraid of what his life would be if he were to be number 1, at the top of the world, but at the same time he’s making a very difficult and very bold choice to stay in the background and decide to be second best, so to speak.

Where did the idea for the novel originate?

That’s a good question and the strange thing is that I’ve been answering this question for so long that I’ve forgotten how it really started. But I think it was a couple of thoughts that merged into a single idea. Once of my oldest friends is half Faroese so I grew up listening to all his stories from that place. He used to go there every summer for his vacation, and I was quite envious of him, it sounded so much more exotic than where my family was going. Also, the thing is, as a child I hated wearing short pants. I loathed it. I think this had quite a bit to do with the fact that the family car was a signal yellow Mazda with black leather seats. Leather seats which tend to get really, really hot after a few hours in the sun and make your skin boil if you expose them to bare skin. And there’s this memory which never leaves me, I’m standing outside the Legoland amusement park in Denmark and my otherwise loving mother is telling me that, unless I change into short pants right there and then, in the parking lot, I’ll never see the inside of the gates. Naturally, I changed to shorts faster than Superman in the phone booth. Now, when I got back to Norway and met my friend who had spent the summer in the Faroese, he was dead pale, almost see-through. With approximately 300 days of rain and fog a year, with a middle temperature of 12 degree celcius, he had not been sporting short pants for a second on the Faroe Islands. So, naturally, this place became some sort of Shangri-La for me, a mystical place hidden in the fog in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, with only 50,000 inhabitants, and many years later, after I had written two short stories collections and was in the early phase of what would become my first novel, I started thinking about the Faroes again, talking about it with my friend. Not only were there very few contemporary novels from the Faroe Island at that time, it also struck me that one of the reasons I loved the place without even having been there, was that it was so much less known than its big brother, Iceland, well known for its music scene and design (and these days, the financial crisis, of course). I loved the fact that the Faroe Islands seemed to be second best. This lead me to thinking about people I went to school or University with, those people in your class that you never got to know, whose name you can’t recall, those who were never invited to parties or at least never showed up. We all have memories of these people, and usually we feel a bit bad when thinking back, like we should have taken better care of them, included them more. But when I was thinking about them now, I was thinking: What if they preferred to be left alone? What if they never ever dreamed of being included, being the center of attention like the rest of us. And somewhere along the road Buzz Aldrin popped up. The greatest number 2 the world has ever seen. The guy in the background, not because he was forced to be there, but because he chose it. What if someone would see Aldrin as their hero, as opposed to the more obvious choice, Armstrong? That’s when I knew I had my novel. And since my first two research trips to the Faroe Islands I’ve been back one or twice every year, either flying there or taking the 25 hrs boat trip from Norway. The whole project made me fell even more in love with the country, it’s sort of a second home to me now, and the islands seem to have a sense of tranquillity I’ve never found anywhere else. There’s pretty much nothing to do there, though, and you’re wet half the time. So I would suggest not going alone or you might start climbing the walls fairly quickly. But the feeling of solitude and being in a modern, unique society at the same time is very strange, in a good way. Like being voluntarily stranded on an island with all amenities.

Have you had any feedback from Aldrin himself?

No, I haven’t, and I’ve always been a bit afraid of what he’d think of it, whether or not the project is something he would frown upon or embrace. It seems to me that the Buzz Aldrin of the 2000’s has a somewhat different view on fame and public attention than the Buzz Aldrin of the 1960’s had. He does a lot of public appearances now, as well as endorsements and the like. So, I don’t know. Of course, what I tried to do was to make the novel a sort of tribute to him, at least how the appeared back then, as a perfect representative for the ‘people in the background’, those you never think about even though they’re great at what they do, even though they’re great people, doing important work, like driving the ambulance, picking up the garbage, doing autopsies year after year in the hospital or finding a cure for cancer. Or going to the moon, nineteen minutes after Number One, Neil Armstrong, But, well, I don’t even know if Aldrin reads novels. Though I can say that I hope he does, and that he likes it. My publisher in New York informed me that the book was mentioned on the official Buzz Aldrin site, so at least it has been picked up by the Aldrin radar. But, had I been Aldrin and this guy from Norway wrote a book about a guy being semi-obsessed with me, would I have given him a call? Well, probably not. But I might have taken the rest of the day off, at least.

Talk to me about your protagonist and narrator, Mattias. Is he a kind of everyman?

While writing the novel I truly thought that Mattias and Buzz Aldrin were both one of a kind. In a time where the focus on celebrities are completely off the charts, where it feels like everyone wants to be on TV, signing up for Idol, Survivor, Big Brother, Paradise Hotel, So You Think You Can Dance and all these other, utterly stupid talent shows and game shows every chance they get, where even kids, when asked what they want to be when they get older, answer ‘famous’, I surely thought that Mattias was a very, very special character, to put it mildly. But the more I got into the material, the more I talked to people and studied my surroundings, it became clear that Mattias truly is a kind of ‘everyman’, like the rest of us. We are all ‘everyman’, though some people desperately try to cover it by making a total ass of themselves on National TV three times a week or more. It was almost a shock to realize that I too had become so affected by the celebrity-feast that I had lost the ability to see that most of us don’t dream of being famous. Most of us dream of being loved by their girlfriend, boyfriend or their family, to have good friends, a job they like instead of dreaming of being famous. This includes myself, as well. Naturally, I’m happy if my books are being read and well recieved, and I have done a lot of traveling and promotion all over the world over the last six years, stuff that Mattias would have hated, he’d rather snuff it than participate in it. But I’ve also become even more aware over the years that even though I enjoy traveling and all the wonderful people I’ve met, this is not the reason I’m a writer. Would I stop writing if I knew I’d never do a public reading, never going to a festival or never do an interview again? No. I’d probably just be able to get the next book out quicker. So I think that I’m evolving more and more into a version of Mattias, at least I understand him so much more now than what I did eight years ago, when we first ‘met’.

Music forms a backdrop to the novel, from Mattias’ voice to the songs of The Cardigans. Talk to me about the music in the book.

Early on I decided that one of the characters in the novel should be a die-hard fan of just one band, that this band should be all she ever listened to. As the character in question was supposed to be a (former) psychiatric patient, living in a halfway house, I had to figure out the perfect band for a psychiatric patient. To no one’s surprise there’s quite a lot to choose from which will fit the bill. But I ended up with the Swedish band The Cardigans, mostly because I couldn’t figure out who on earth was meant to dig this band. It seemed they were both too much ‘pop music’ to appeal to those into indie music or rock and at the same time too progressive to appeal to the younger audience, or people who like simple pop music. So I ended up thinking that for psychiatric patients, who often don’t feel they fit anywhere, this would be the perfect band! I can’t say that I knew The Cardigans too well, or that I automatically became a fan once I got hold of all their albums, but I listened to these records over and over and over and over and over and over again while writing, call it method-writing if you will, until I loved the band, and therefore ended up naming the different parts of the book after Cardigans’ albums. But I have to be honest and say that since the book came out I haven’t been able to listen to a single song by them. I just can’t take it. I guess I OD’ed on The Cardigans. There’s no drama to this, I often include music that I’m not particular fan of myself in my work, I cannot expect my characters to always have the same taste in music as myself, and I enjoy these challenges of trying to understand why they like a particular band or song. Or film, for that matter. But once in a while music I like will make its way into the text as well, and if you look closely there are for instance a couple of Radiohead songs paraphrased in the text, usually what happens is that I’m listening to a certain song or album while working, and it will in different ways, shapes and forms ‘bleed’ over to the text. As for the reason Mattias is a singer in the book, I always wished I had great singing voice. Unfortunately I don’t. This is not false modesty, I was the lead singer of a band when I was in my teens and plants died while I sang. So I had to move to the drums, making the Universe sigh in relief, probably. But I sometimes think that writing a novel is like writing a music album, and that it would be so much easier if I could just get across the right feeling in a 3min 34 second song instead of having to write hundreds of pages in order to arrive at the same spot. Then again, writing instead makes me able to not only control the singing, but also all the other instruments. So perhaps I’m better off as a writer at the end of the day.

A television series has been made from the book – how did that come about? Talk to me about that process.

I was first approached by a Norwegian director about the time the book first came out in 2005, and only this fall will the series premiere on Norwegian TV. So these things tend to take time, it seems. Initially the plan was to adapt the novel into a feature film, but this was changed into a four part miniseries a year later, to make sure one could preserve the rhytm of the book and not having to cut it down too much. The series stars well-known Norwegian, Danish and Faroe Island actors as well as Chad Coleman from USA, last seen in HBO’s ‘The Wire’, a series both me and the director were big fans of. So it was quite a triumph for us to get him and a great moment driving up to the crew hotel in this Faroese village one day and seeing this cool black guy out on his morning jogging route, sporting an Obama cap. You don’t see that too often in that neck of the woods, and he looked terrifically out of place. I had no wish to write the screenplay for the show, not only because I didn’t want to write the story I’d just finished all over again, but also out of respect for film and TV as a medium. It just seemed to make more sense that someone else did it and I wanted the director to feel free to make his version of the story. Which I’m happy to say he did. I still feel it is based on my novel, but it also includes stuff that I’d definitely put in the book if only I’d thought of it at the time. On the other hand, as a writer you have to see dialogue bits and scenes changed or cut, stuff that you’d really hoped would make it to the final version. But that’s just the way it is, and I’m not too concerned. Perhaps due to the time that’s passed since I first greenlighted the project, I feel somewhat detached to it. Or maybe it’s because I feel that the novel and the series aren’t exactly twins, they’re more like … cousins. During production I stayed pretty much away from it, only surfacing when the director/screenwriter asked for my thoughts as a consultant. That’s where the writer should be, I think. Out of the way. I did spend a couple of weeks in the Faroe Islands while filming took place there and attempted to shoot a ‘the making of’ thing, followed by a few days on the sets in Oslo, Norway. To my amusement, I think a lot of the crew had no idea who I was and so they didn’t feel the author was stalking them as much as just a crazy guy with a camera. Well, maybe not that crazy, either, to be honest. I felt so embarrassed walking around with that oversized camera trying to stick it up in everyone’s faces and constantly worried I’d be in the way that I usually kept unnatural far from the set or simply turned the camera off, too shy to bring it up. Which really isn’t the way to make for a great documentary. So when the 12 hours of tape got lost by the production company before I could start editing, I breathed a sigh of relief. Though perhaps it could have been an interesting film about the shyest filmmaker ever.

You’ve published two collection of short stories before Buzz Aldrin. Talk to me about the differences for you between writing a short story collection and writing a full length novel.

The only difference really is that novels, for me at least, take longer to write, take longer to plan and involve one or two more writing crisis before I’m done. A good crisis or two during a project is always recommended, when you suddenly wake up and think to yourself: ‘I have absolutely no idea what I’m doing!’ which luckily always ends a few days or a week later with a new understanding of the whole thing and a bullet proof belief in it. I’ve also written and published plays, including a 500 page play centered around the wars in Bosnia and Chechnya and the genocide in Rwanda, all which took place in 1994, with plotlines tracking back to the Vietnam war and forward to the war in Iraq. It’s a depressing piece to say the least, but it felt extremely important to me to write it. Compared to the small differences between the short story and the novel, the difference between the two and writing a play is quite substantial. While working on a play I have to compress or hide all the descriptive parts in the dialogue or scene instructions, and dialogue which may be of literary high quality in a novel will often sound fake in a play, so you have to approach it from a completely different angle. This often involves me sitting in my studio acting out all the parts like a mad man, listening closely to the sounds of the words and then deciding if I believe myself or not. Also, while writing plays you’re constantly reminded that in order for the play to reach its final destination, the stage, a lot of actors, directors, producers, set designers, lightning people and what have you not will have to work with it, or against it, cut and bend and break and tweak and twist the whole thing until it works. In their opinion, anyway. So I’m very happy that I have had all my plays published as books as well. This way I can concentrate on writing as good a play as I can and simultaneously think of it as literature that can also hold its own if read as a book. Furthermore, this way I know I’ll always have the ‘original’, printed version, should the stage production turn out to be horrible, and I find I don’t spend too much time being afraid of what those crazy people at the theater are doing with my piece.

Talk to me about your other novels. Are there plans to translate them into English?

In 2007, I published a novel called ‘Hässelby’. The title refers to a suburb of Stockholm, Sweden and the main character, Albert Åberg (Alfie Atkins in the UK), is also the name of a well known Swedish children’s book’s character, famous at least in Europe from the books by Gunilla Bergström. In these children’s books, Albert is a boy between the age of four and six, living together with his father. In my novel, though, Albert is 42 years old and still lives with his father in the same old apartment. When his father suddenly dies, Albert sees it as an opportunity to finally create the life for himself that he longed for all these years he was taking care of his father. A large part of the novel is made up of a flashback to 1985-86 when Albert traveled around Europe with his friend Viktor, and by coincidence ends up in Hong Kong and later Paris, where he meets a girl and almost decides to stay for good, before ending up returning to his father in Hässelby. The novel starts as a traditional novel exploring themes such as the relationship between father and son, growing up in suburbia, friendship and politics, but throughout the novel the tone gradually gets darker and darker as more surreal elements are introduced. The novel ends as a nightmarish tale where Albert discovers that someone have been following him for over twenty years, all over the world, and that the world is coming to an end. ‘Hässelby’ is strongly influenced by David Lynch’s tv-series ‘Twin Peaks’, the theory of Synchronicity and Arthur Koestler’s book ‘The Roots of Coincidence’ as well as the music of The Police. This novel has not been translated to English yet, but I know that at least one of my US publishers are thinking of publishing it sometime in the future, so I hope it will one day be available to english speaking readers. It was published in The Netherlands last year, where they have little or no knowledge of the aforementioned children’s book character, but the novel was written in a way that doesn’t demand that you’re familiar with him, and the fact that the character is very similar to another fictional character isn’t in any way the main focus of the book.

In 2008 I published a Young Adult horror/sci-fi novel, to my own mild surprise, really. I never thought I’d write a genre novel like that, but I was very much into horror stories when I was 11-12 years and so I just thought I’d have a go at it. Writing was great fun, and very different from my other books, both in terms of tone and theme, but also because I tried to write a page turner more than writing a very ‘literary’, language focused book. The novel is called ‘DARLAH’ and have been published in several countries including Germany, France, Korea and The Netherlands. It will come out in English in spring 2012 by Little, Brown in New York, under the title ‘172 Hours on The Moon’. In the novel, NASA decides to launch another mission to back to the moon and as a mean of gaining public interest (and funding) they announce a lottery in which three teenagers will be allowed to go on the mission along with the astronauts. The real purpose for the expedition is to examine a mystical phenomenon possibly connected to the infamous Wow-signal discovered in 1977, recently rediscovered; it apparently was the real reason that NASA stopped sending people to the moon in the seventies. DARLAH is the name of the lunar base they are staying in, a until recently secret installation dating back to 1976. NASA holds a contest for kids between 13 and 18. The winners are a girl from Norway who plays in a band, a boy from France who just lost his girlfriend, and a girl from Japan who dreams of living in New York. Once on the moon things start to go horribly wrong as the communications with Earth is cut, the landing vehicle is mystically sabotaged and then the power source of the station start to fail. To make matters even worse there astronauts and teenagers start encountering doppelgangers of themselves, and back on Earth a former NASA employee, now a senile man living in a retirement castle has a clear moment when he sees a report on the mission on TV, suddenly remembering exactly why they decided never to go back to the moon, no matter what.

Talk to me about LACKTR, your project/label/organization.

Well, LACKTR, aka LACKTR PRPGNDA, aka LACKTR PRPGNDA COMMUNITY – STRONGER THAN DIRT!, it’s a practicality more than anything, a workshop, a toolbox, a sticker and a general excuse I use for stuff I make or present that is either supposed to exist separately from my books or stuff I don’t feel the need to label ‘Johan Harstad’. Very handy to have when you get tired of yourself. The stuff produced range from everything from design, prints, sound, film, photography to text and even very limited edition books.Though I mostly use it as a name when doing graphic design, which I do a lot. For instance, in Norway I’ve been doing the design for all my books the last nine years, and instead of printing the words ‘Johan Harstad’ everywhere on the colophon, it simply says design by LACKTR. Which, by the way, is a nonsense word. Though it could be short for ‘Lack training’, since I’m not a professionally trained designer, it’s just that I’ve been doing it for the last twelve years. So, anyway, I write the books and LACKTR does the cover. We work separately, but we always meet for dinner. And we are the same person. Usually, at least, as the name LACKTR sometimes is used on collaboration projects with other writers, musicians, photgraphers and theater companies. For instance I released the album “Bring Out Your Life Vest”, featuring music from the band The Kulta Beats and noise musicians Bjørn Erik Haugen and Kelly Davis. The album was released in a limited edition of 1,000 copies and attached to the first thousand copies of the novel Buzz Aldrin, What Happened To You In All the Confusion?, for which all the music was written. LACKTR also co-produced the first production of the play Krasnoyarsk (which I wrote) and LACKTR is behind the group The Sell Out Space Girls, which is (or rather, was) a mix between a experimental jazz group, dj-ing and noise music. Two fairly large blogs are being kept by LACKTR, but addresses to the sites have not been made public. These blogs have been a semi-secret in Norway for a few years as I have avoided having it tracked by the Google search engine. As a result, people who read my books got the address from friends or other readers and so the total number of readers slowly increased. The anti listing fight against Google unfortunately is now lost and the blog is easy to find. According to Wikipedia, though, ‘The blog sometimes sees the publication of new short stories, essays and short texts, though graphic design takes up most of the site. Information posted, such as updates on travels and projects are known to be notoriously untrustworthy, as it blends facts, fiction, deliberate misinformation with actual news.’ It’s all very confusing, I’m afraid. And it doesn’t help that LACKTR sometimes claims to be a international conglomerate with over hundred employees, most of which are from former Soviet states and claim to barely know me. This was supported a few years ago on one of the blogs, where LACKTR supposedly revealed the following statistics concerning its employees:

Total number of employees: 156

Divided into the following departments:










LACKTR EDCTN (Education): 22





Female: 44%

Male: 56%

Percentage of employees:

who’s right foot is longer than the left: 12%

with glasses: 72%

with rimless glasses: 0.64%

with glasses with no strength: 99%

with separate winter and summer jacket; 1.28%

with siblings whose first name starts with the same letter as one’s own: 34%

of foreign origin: 88%

originating from the former Soviet Union: 93%

with a valid passport: 0.64%

with towels embroidered with its own name: 100%

with more than 1000 different shower caps, gathered through a long life in hotels: 0.64%

having been married to Elizabeth Taylor behind: 1.28%

with a hint of autism: 23%

with autism (idiot Savant): 4%

who had braces as a child: 56%

who can program a VCR: 15%

who’ll use chopsticks in an asian food restaurant: 99.9%

leaving the work premises during lunch break: 0%

who wash the shower curtain 1 time pr. month or more often: 64%

who knows the origin of the phrase “to think suitcase”: 76%

as “thinking suitcase” in the course of the day: 87%

Employees’ sense of identification with the characters from the television series The Simpsons:

Homer: 1%

Bart: 0,5%

Marge: 42%

Lisa: 18%

Maggie: 0,15%

Santa´s Little Helper 2: 3,5%

Barney: 0,25%

Moe: 0,75%

Chief Wiggum: 0,15%

Apu: 30%

Principal Skinner: 0,70%

Krusty the Clown: 1,75%

Sideshow Bob/Sideshow Mel: 0,10%

Ned Flanders: 0%

Mr. Burns: 1, 15%

Then again, this could all be a joke and the bottom line is that LACKTR is Johan Harstad and the other way around. I’m leaning towards that conclusion myself, even though, if true, it clearly states that I have too much free time on my hands…

This book is your first internationally translated book. Why do you think it has become so much of an international success?

My short story collection, ‘Ambulance’, from 2002, was my first internationally translated book, it came out in France and Finland. But ‘Buzz Aldrin…’ was my first novel to be translated. Over the years I’ve learned that the reasons some books are translated and some not are, well, numerous. There are just so many variables, from meeting the right agent(s), connecting with the correct publishers who really likes the book and wants to push it hard instead of just having bought it since it’s the ‘flavor of the month’ to economy and sheer, blind luck. or misfortune. We all know of extremely good writers that are hardly being translated, and sometimes that is also a sign of quality, either because it is impossible to translate the work or because it’s, well, so good that not enough will get it. Or the book is too long. Or too short. It’s sad, really, how much of it comes down to a question of budget spending. But, ok, to answer the question, I’m not totally sure why the book has found a home in so many countries. I certainly didn’t expect it when I was writing it. I remember thinking of the novel as a kind of difficult book, disguised as an epic tale, and I though that it would sell around 500 copies. But I guess the theme touched something which a lot of people can relate to, that it is ok not to wish for immortal fame and attention. As mentioned earlier, I though that the protagonist, Mattias, was one of a kind and feared that not too many readers would understand him. But from the number of readers and the attention the novel has gotten, it seems I was wrong. That being said, more than just being a novel with an interesting subject, I of course hope people read it and publishers publish it because the writing is good. After all, I’m a writer, not a self-help guide storyteller and so the literary part of it is always the most important for me. Literature as an art form.

Has this put demands on your time for international interviews like this one – is balancing promotion and writing sometimes an issue for you?

With several of my books being translated I have been spending a substantial time doing interviews like this and traveling to support them during the last years, as well as keeping in touch with my translators, agents and publishers and, of course, when you are in the middle of a new project and only want to focus on that it can take its toll to have to go back to a book you did three or six or eight years ago. You have to twist your brain a bit and learn a few tricks to make yourself able to jump back and forth without losing your thread. One could of course consider this the flipside of having readers or being published in general, but on the other hand it’s an extremely small price to pay. And then there’s the thrill of coming to another country and meeting people who actually have read your book without knowing anything about you. It still feels a bit overwhelming and unreal every time, especially because I never intended any of my books to make it as far as they have. So I’m quite proud of them. And it’s a small price to pay for all those wonderful trips, the wonderful people you meet and the wonderful friends I now have in some of my publishers and translators. Also, having written these books, I feel the least I can do for them is to follow them out in the world to meet new readers. I’m also well aware and quite humble to the fact that I won’t necessarily see all my future books translated, so I’d just as well do my literary walkabout now. But overall, balancing promotion and writing is not a big problem, though I can’t say that there isn’t the odd day when I feel like I’m spending too much time answering e-mails and booking flights, dreaming of getting a super efficient, old-school, no nonsense secretary in her late fifties who can type a thousand words a minute and whom I don’t have to pay at all. But finding a way to get the work done is also a part of being a writer, either if you travel a lot or have another job on the side or children or whatever, either if you get snowed under by correspondence and invitations, or like me, receive just enough to freak you out sometimes. So we all have to figure out how to make the best of our time. I do tend to travel less these days and saying no to more stuff than I used to do, in order to secure enough time to work on new projects. And when I’m in the final months of a book I will say no to pretty much everything.

But I will of course take time to come to Australia in February 2012 and am really looking forward to it!

To listen to Johan read from Buzz Aldrin visit: The Compulsive Reader Talks.

Visit here for a booklet made for’s Vine Program for the launch of the Buzz Aldrin novel. It’s a mix of graphic design and promotion for the novel, including an introduction Johan wrote which talks more about how the book came to be, and it includes some photographs from research trips to the Faroe Islands and stills from the upcoming tv-series at the end.

Visit here for a music video Johan made with a small, pocket-sized camera while he was on the Faroe Island to document the shooting of the series. As discussed above, all the footage he took was lost except for the stuff he recorded with this flip camera, all of which is more or less in the video. The music is a cover of The Cardigan’s ‘My Favourite Game’, performed by the Norwegian band The Kulta Beats (who make a cameo appearance in the novel). The song was recorded for the album ‘Bring Out Your Life Vests’ which I/LACKTR commissioned to accompany the 1000 first copies of the novel (also mentioned in one of the answers).

For The Compulsive Reader’s review of Buzz Aldrin, What Happened to You in All the Confusion, visit: here.