Pål H. Christiansen about his books for children
Interview by Annette Schwindt and Thomas Reis (December 2007)
How did you get the idea to write about a cod and a little boy becoming friends?
Pål H. Christiansen: I found the idea for “Fjodor går bananas” in a text I wrote twenty years ago. At that time, I was spending some months in Lillehammer and every day I sat down by my old typewriter and wrote down whatever came into my head (later, some of the texts from then became a part of my first novel “Harry var ikke ved sine fulle fem” in 1989).
One day I sat down and started writing about a man coming out of the sea with a raincoat and rubber boots on and a bag in his hand. A boy was standing on the shore. The two of them had a short chat, then the text ended. This text should become the inspiration for my novel Neer (1996), where a father also emerges from the sea. But I didn’t use the text itself at that time, just the idea of someone coming up from the water.
Why did you start writing children’s books after so many years of writing for grown ups?
PHC: What happened was that I got a phone call from the publishing house N.W Damm & Søn in Oslo. This was in 2004, I think. They wantend me to start writing children’s books for them, an idea I found interesting. I had thought about this once in a while throughout the years, because I knew my writing style could fit also for children. So I started thinking about this and roaming my head for ideas. I looked through old material and found the original text about that man in the raincoat from back in 1987. This was written in a sort of naive prose suitable for children and I decided to continue the story from where it ended.
What gave you the inspiration for the job of Palle’s father who is repairing fish in the sea with saw, hammer, nails and tape?
PHC: Very soon I had to ask myself two important questions. The first was: What did the father have in his bag? He had to bring something important with him, I was sure about that. I remember always looking in my father’s bag when he came from work when I was a child. Did he bring some sweets, a pencil just for me, whatever? He often did. The second question was: Why did the father come out of the sea? What had he done out there? The answer to the first question was obvious for me. He had a cod in the bag. I write about cods in many of my books, and I can’t tell you why. When the first question was answered, the second question was easy: The father had been to work, he had a fish with him and his work was to help and repair fish and other creatures in the sea.
Who takes care of Palle while his father is working in the sea and his mother flying around the world as a stewardess? Is that the reason why Palle wants a friend who is there all the time?
PHC: Isn’t he taken care of you mean? I find the first part of this question a little “political correct”. On the other hand, Palle obviously is a bit lonely and needs a friend. But who doesn’t? The point is that I am not writing realism, and the point about being taken care of is not what the young readers wonder about at all.
Is Fjodor the dark side of Palle? Fjodor is always naughty, loud and destroying things while Palle is forced to take the responsibility like an adult.
PHC: Fjodor is the dark side of all of us, and this goes for Palle, too. We all have met some Fjodor-persons in our life, haven’t we? What Fjodor forces Palle to do is to set limits, and that means taking responsibility for himself.
The band Vikingarna with singer Christer Sjögren are the running-gag of the books. Do they know about that and what are they thinking about it?
PHC: As far as I know they don’t know about it. Vikingarna stopped playing together as a band some years ago, but Christer Sjögren is continuing as solo artist with a big audience in his home country Sweden as well as in Norway. I guess they would like the idea of playing a part in a series of children’s books, as long as they’re not being treated badly by the author. Tanzbandmusic is not my favourite at all, but Palle’s father loves Vikingarna and in the third book he finally gets the chance to speak with Christer.
The Fjodor books are written for children who start reading. And although the text is easy to understand, it is written in a poetic form and well composed. How long does it take you to write such a text and how do you work?
PHC: After writing three books about Fjodor and Palle I find that the process takes a little bit more than a year. I am happy to be able to work close with my editor. That means I can start sending him e-mails with sketches for scenes, ideas and fragments. Then he comes back with his comments, and then I continue working until I feel time is due for him to take another look. When the story more or less is written out, the illustrator will start working with important scenes that we pick out. In the last couple of months there is lots of corrections to be done; the length of the sentences must fit it on the pages, and text and illustrations must fit together.
In autumn 2007 you toured through Norwegian schools and read Fjodor to many children. The tour will continue in the beginning of 2008. How did the children react so far, what do they think about Fjodor and what were your personal impressions?
PHC: It was great visiting schools and pupils from 1st to 4th grade. Most of the children seemed to like the stories about Fjodor and Palle and we talked about humour and about setting limits. They thought Fjodor was both naughty and funny, but a few got really irritated by that hopeless fish! Children in this age often have a even stronger fantasy than the author himself. One boy told me that he had “Fjodor går bananas” as a cartoon video tape at home.
Of course this was of great interest to me, first of all because I thought of all the money I hadn’t received for this, and secondly because the book was so new that it hadn’t been time to produce any cartoon at all. I tried to protest one time, two times, even a third time. But every time the boy neglected what I said. Then he concluded in a very secure voice: “I have seen it so many times that the tape is completely ‘worn out’.” At this point I was afraid of getting into a quarrel, and just nodded and smiled my best smile and continued with my reading.
The stories of Palle and Fjodor are simply perfect for kids. But so far they have been published only in Norwegian language. Wouldn’t they be a great deal for foreign publishers too?
PHC: Of course! I am told that several publishers have looked at “Fjodor går bananas” and I guess also “Fjodor i fritt fall”. But since this is a series of books, it is quite normal to wait until more books are written, so that they can decide whether the series can be translated as a whole. So I hope something will happen when “Fjodor og det store smellet” is launched next year.
Fjodor and Palle meet and become friends in book 1 because the cod needs to be repaired by Palle’s father. Palle and his parents go on holiday in book 2 and Fjodor causes trouble again following them. In book 3 Palle finally discovers Fjodor’s world in the sea. Will there be another book and what will happen next? Will Fjodor follow Palle to school? Or will they fly to the moon? Are there any concrete plans yet?
PHC: There will be another book about Fjodor in 2009. That’s for sure.
Edit: The fourth book about Fjodor has been published in March 2009 and is called “Fjodor på skolen“.