Only 1,000 Jews live in Norway, which is where Boston native Derek Miller set his debut novel, “Norwegian by Night.” This detective story follows Jewish-American widower Sheldon Horowitz, who moves from New York to Oslo to be with his family. In the novel, Horowitz struggles with the foreignness of the Jewish experience in Norway—a country with only a handful of Jews.
How does someone working in security affairs end up writing a novel about a curmudgeonly 82-year-old ex-New Yorker with a prostate problem living in Norway?
I’m just lucky, I guess! I suppose the longer answer is that I have been writing since 1996, so it is less accurate to say I “ended up” anywhere. Rather, after some 15 years, I suddenly have an audience for what I’ve been doing all along.
I wrote this story in particular because my writing is usually driven by themes that are on my mind, which I then weave into a story. I’m Jewish, my wife is Norwegian and not Jewish, and we had decided to move to Norway for awhile. My son had just been born as I started the manuscript. In fact, it was in the final moments before his birth that the ending of the book came to me, and then much of it fell into place. At the time, in April 2008, I was quite seized by the themes of fatherhood, Norway, the Jewish experience in Norway and also the passing of my grandparents’ generation. I was extremely close to my grandparents. The creative act came from turning these themes into a coherent and satisfying story.
Sheldon Horowitz, the protagonist in the book, is, in fact, a New Englander by birth and moved to New York only as a young man. He became a New Yorker over time. So I think the curmudgeonly disposition came naturally from both fronts. And, of course, the prostate trouble only adds to this. Ultimately, the essence of Sheldon—his character, his concerns, his philosophy, his humor—came to me through my grandparents, their contemporaries and from my imagination of lives from their generation that I feel are too seldom told.
When I think “Scandinavian detective,” I automatically think of the Kurt Wallander detective series, which is so dark. Words to describe your novel include “funny” and “witty.” Was it intentional on your part to make light of such a somber culture?
This will be hard for many readers to believe, but on my honor, I had never heard of Scandinavian crime fiction before I wrote this book. I’d never heard of Wallander, Stieg Larsson or Jo Nesbø. I’ve now seen both the Swedish and BBC productions of the Wallander series and like them very much, but have yet to read any of the books.
For this reason, I was not setting up an alternative universe or playing against type or using the presumptions as a foil. I was trying to craft a story that captured the Norwegian sense of humor—bone-dry and very witty—and juxtaposing it to the more loquacious Jewish humor of America. The two actually work very well when played against each other. At least I think so!
As for “darkness,” I would say that the stereotypes of Scandinavia are generally those of cold, dark and lonely lives. These notions long preceded the current fad of Scandinavian crime fiction. This is why, in contrast, I set my book at the height of the Norwegian summer, which is none of those things. Norwegians may be a bit taciturn compared to Jews, who, let’s face it, are gregarious. But they also delight in the summers and are anything but somber when the sun is shining. I thought it would be more interesting to set my story in the midst of such a mood, which I think is a fair portrayal of Norway.
I think you may be the first Jewish person I have met who lives in Norway, which is not all that surprising given that there are only 1,000 Jews in the entire country. What is the Jewish community like there, assuming there is one at all?
There is one, and I don’t know all that much. Word on the street is they are very open, welcoming and tolerant of more or less everyone. This makes a certain amount of sense because, on one hand, they are a small group and need to be pretty accommodating, or else such a small community could risk turmoil or dissolution when what they need is cohesion and some measure of unity or identity. On the other hand, they are Norwegians, so it stands to reason they’ll be like the rest of their compatriots who share those traits too.
What I can say for a fact is they are among the coldest Jews in the world, with the synagogue in Trondheim being the second-most northern one in the world. The one farthest north is in the U.S. in Fairbanks, Alaska.
Finally, as a foodie, I have to ask: What’s your favorite thing to put on your smorgas (Norwegian open-faced sandwich)?
The cheeky answer would be “the missing piece of bread,” but I suppose I’ve become reasonably fond of the “karbonade,” a cross between a meatball and a hamburger that is usually served with caramelized onions. This is also the sandwich my character, Sheldon, doesn’t like in the opening paragraph of the book.
Four Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the Greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!
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