04. 28. 2009. 18:43

The hero of single fathers

An interview with Sven Nordqvist

Swedish writer and illustratror of children's books Sven Nordqvist, best known for his Pettson and Findus (Festus and Mercury) series, was a guest at the 2009 Budapest Book Festival. 

You are a very popular author in Hungary, perhaps because your books are considered old-fashioned and quaint. Do you have qualms about being termed nostalgic?
I dare say I don’t really. My stories are set in the mid-50’s, my childhood years. Also in the kind of rural area I’ve always longed for as a city kid. I only spent a few weeks at a time in the countryside, my summers at Dalarna. And I longed for that old fashioned, tranquil world. I think one can tell from my books. 
And yet you live in Stockholm now.
Yes, on account of my wife who’s always lived there. When the children were born we moved to the country, which I enjoyed a great deal, and for seventeen years we lived like Pettson and Findus. Even our house resembled theirs. It’s been seven years now we’ve returned to the capital. I spend a lot of my time at home. Sometimes I walk down to the Old Town or to Djurgården (the island with the Skansen and the zoo), but I mostly prefer to be at home. By myself, for the most part. I used to like being on the move, just starting off somewhere and exploring the world. My great dream was to get to America. But I no longer want to travel, it bores me. Especially because it involves other people, and I’m tired of socializing.
Do you like imaginary travel?
Yes, though it gets harder as I grow older. I mean during my work I do travel. With the Pettson and Findus series I’d felt during the last few years I’m only repeating myself, going around in circles in the same place. I had much more fun doing Where is My Sister? [a book for which he won the prestigious August Prize in 2007 in the category of children's books] It was a real trip. My working method was different too: first came the pictures, then the story. With text I always feel under pressure to create within boundaries. Perhaps this book would do better without any text. Images had appeared on their own accord, in order, one developing from the other, without my having to consider what it will all come to, or where I will end up.
That freedom comes through in the book. In fact, you seem quite less nostalgic. Was that conceptual? Misquoting the past and exaggerating the facts?
No, the Pettson books were the same way, I like to blend reality with fantasy. I may have been more restrained fantasy-wise with those particular books.
Are you inspired by dreams?
No, I don’t usually remember my dreams. I’m always sober when I work. But I was always attracted to the absurd, whether to man-made objects or nature. Escher and Carroll were a great influence, their perspectives of viewing the world. But I was most influenced by my childhood objects, most of the images are a blend of my own visions, memories and imagination. I don’t like allusions, it’s not my kind of game. I mostly keep to my own little trinkets. 
Even with objects like a blimp or an engineer’s ruler you seem to twist them, taking their original functions and turning them into toys.
They are valuable anyway, they aren’t useless. But they aren’t criticisms of culture or civilization if that’s what you mean, these aren’t caricatures. It’s just a game I enjoy playing. Yes, I love to make toys from everyday objects. And I’m a great collector. Once a box is emptied or a machine breaks down, I feel a bonding with the pieces and fiddle with them. It just feels good looking at them, they store memories like photos do. Our house is full of oddments – yes, I am like Pettson.
But Pettson has no wife. Was he ever in love?
I think he was, yes. There’s no mention of it in my books. But one of the Pettson and Findus (Festus and Mercury) cartoons relate how earlier Pettson had had short relationships with women. This was suggested by the screenwriter and I conceded.  But I was more interested in writing about the father and son relation, I never really wanted to write about women. In the context taken by Pettson and Findus, no women are necessary, that would only complicate matters.
Pettson is the hero of single fathers?
I don’t know, perhaps he is. When I take part in Swedish architectural workshops, often fathers come up to me and tell me how happy my books made them as they recognized themselves and are reassured by seeing how others treat their children the same way as them. Pettson is a father and mother in one person, a very caring person who runs a household. And he can handle it all by himself without need for an advisor’s opinion or an assistant’s help in his work.
Are you a likewise many-sided father?
From the start of our marriage my wife and I share all tasks. We take daily turns cooking, cleaning, helping with homework and minding the kids. We strive for equality.
A few married couples appear in Where is My Sister?, and I've noticed how husbands are always smaller than wives. At one point, a wife even fits the husband snugly into a shopping hamper. Do you really see these gender roles as equal?
Not always. As I grow older, I notice my wife becoming increasingly dominant in our relationship. She’s the one organizing and in control. I often leave things up to her because it makes little difference if I let her have her way. Sometimes I feel like I’m sitting in her hamper getting along. But it’s alright this way, she enjoys it too.
Almost all of your characters have some sort of maleficent habit: your books show cigarettes, cigars, beer, and coffee. Has anyone criticized you for that?
That these don’t belong in a children’s book? No, but the point could be made. I won’t be hypocritical, these are parts of life. I smoke a pipe, all the time. And tobacco smoke had a role of its own in Where is My Sister. It turns out that giants in the sky smoke pipes and cigars, and that is what clouds are made of.
Other addictions?
Computer games! I love management and simulation games where you can build houses and cities, like Civilization for instance. I can spend days at a time building empires. 
I’ve read that your younger son is also a great gaming enthusiast. 
Yes, but he’s more into shooter games. He’s also preparing to become an illustrator, he draws manga and has just completed his second book. But so far nobody’s discovered him, and he promotes his work on the internet. He is still living at home with us, he is twenty-six.
How active are you in literary life? Are you up to date with the contemporary scene?
No, not really. I’m member of  an organization for Swedish authors and illustrators, but I don’t like to read much anymore. I don’t read children’s books since my kids have grown up. Back then we would buy everything and they would keep asking for more and more books. Oddly enough they weren’t focused on any particular book and wouldn’t have us read the same ones over and over, but were always eager for new adventures.
And what new books do you like yourself?
I’ve gone off reading. I mean no, I really do like Pija Lindenbaum! We live in the same neighborhood and meet quite often, a very entertaining person she is. Her books are freshly funny, it is what I find most lacking in contemporary works, something altogether special. And she deals with important issues and that is also in great demand, with discrimination, diversity, current social problems already present in little kindergarten communities. And of course I do read, I’m also a fan of  Eva Lindström’s books. She is regrettably somewhat less popular, and perhaps too difficult and artistic for that, but she too has an astounding sense of humor. Contemporary Swedish literature bores me. Most of the time I listen to books, old classics and fantasy literature primarily, I listen to these as one listens to music, while I draw. Somehow it helps me concentrate when I hear a book being read. And perhaps I’ve become lazy as well.
What do you do when you’re not drawing or writing?
I like old buildings. I studied architecture and to this day I have a passion for walking amid old houses. That is what I like about Budapest too, all this history, the buildings full of stories. I like doing my workshop, constructing and designing. Building weird contraptions. A long-time desire of mine was to build a complete house and I’ve finished that just recently – it is of course an old-fashioned country house. And I’d enjoyed building a playhouse for the kids. It’s still standing in Stockholm. We make extensions to it every year, so it keeps getting bigger. This year we’re adding a mini-golf course. I enjoy these things more than I do drawing. I used to think I couldn’t live without drawing. Nowadays it’s enough to complete works such as these. I don’t want more.
(He points at the sheet of paper that’s been under his hand all through our conversation. There is a gate drawn on it, ringed with creepers and ballshaped flowers. These flowers contain light bulbs. When I ask if I may have the picture, at first he looks at me like a Findus ready to pounce. Then he hands it to me with a smile. Findus smiles from Pettson’s face. I grab my gate and exit the red house with a sigh.)


Boldizsár Nagy

Translated by: Dániel Dányi

Tags: An interview with Sven Nordqvist, Sven Nordqvist