Norwegian author Maja Lunde has written children’s books, as well as a couple of bestselling novels on the environment. She speaks to Rishita Roy Chowdhury.
Maja Lunde is a Norwegian author who has garnered international acclaim and a global readership for her literary works. She has written nine children’s and young-adult books, and worked as a screenwriter on several TV and film projects. Her 2015 book, The History of Bees won the prestigious Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize. In 2017, she wrote another climate-themed book, whose English translation, The End of the Ocean, comes out next year. She is planning to write two more books about the environment which will complete her “Climate Quartet”.
Q. You first gained success as a scriptwriter and only then became an author. How did that transition happen?
A. I’ve always been writing, but never planned on being an author. It just happened. I worked on a movie for children about the Second World War and realised it could work well as a novel for children. I started to write from the main character’s point of view and in the process, I felt like I was getting to know her in a completely different way. All of a sudden, I had written my first book, The Border Crossing.
Q. How did you get passionate about raising awareness of climate change through your literary works?
A. “Write where it burns,” we say in Norway.
I grew up with a poster against nuclear weapons above the kitchen table. My family regularly talked about environmental issues and climate change at dinner. As I grew older, my worrying about the planet didn’t diminish, rather the opposite happened. After several scripts for TV series, and several books for children and young readers, I wanted to write a novel for adults. And I wanted to write something I would want to read myself.
One day I saw a documentary about Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD), the mysterious disappearing of bees all over the globe. Learning about CCD and about bees’ importance for us felt like an epiphany. I realised that this is where it burns for me. Seeing the film immediately sparked my interest and several questions rose in my mind. Why do bees die? What would the world look like without pollinating insects? Would we be able to survive? The three main characters in my novel [The History of Bees (2015)] were alive on paper from day one. William, a British biologist in the 19th century, trying hard to invent a new kind of beehive that would make him famous; an American beekeeper George in 2007, devastated after losing his bees to CCD; and Tao, in China, in year 2098, working as a hand pollinator in a world where all bees have disappeared.
Q. Tell us about the vision behind your “Climate Quartet” series of books, of which two have come out.
A. At first I thought of The History of Bees as a standalone novel. But as I was writing it, several other stories kept buzzing around in my head. All of them about people living close to nature, many of them affected by environmental change. Like Signe, an old woman growing up by the foot of a waterfall in Norway. Or David, a young climate refugee in southern France; and Mikhail, a Russian zoo manager. Suddenly I realised they were all part of the same story. Suddenly I realised that even though The History of Bees was almost done, I was not done. This is still where it burns for me. My characters, my stories, were all pieces of a big jigsaw puzzle, and there had to be four books—a quartet. Signe and David found their way into the second book, The End of the Ocean, which will be published in English next year, a story about the importance of water. Mikhail will probably show up in the third, which is about endangered animals. Each book can be read separately, but for readers who have the patience to read all four, a bigger picture will hopefully appear.
Q. What are your views on the climate-fiction, or cli-fi genre? Do your novels fit in this category?
A. I don’t really label my novels as cli-fi. I think of them as novels. It all depends on the reader. There are as many versions of a novel, as there are readers. You can read them as cli-fi, as political novels or stories about nature and people, as relationship stories, as stories of parents and children, of conflict, men and women, and definitely as love stories.
Q. You’ve written books for children and young adults. Do you usually write with a particular readership in mind?
A. This might sound strange, but I don’t think about the reader when I write. I think about the character. I always try to be true to my character, to write his or her story, and to try to make it as real as I can. It’s the only way I know how to write.
Q. What do you think about the general decline of reading as an activity?
A. It worries me. We tend to pick up our phone instead of a good book. But in the long run, books make us happier and wiser. In Norway, reader surveys done on reading habits show that people want to read more. So there’s hope at least.
Q. Young people in most cultures prefer watching films and online videos over reading books. How difficult is it for authors such as yourself to grab the attention of young readers?
A. If you’d asked me half a year ago, my reply would have been different and more pessimistic. But last autumn I published a book called The Snow Sister in Norway. It’s a Christmas book about a 10-year-old boy who has lost his sister. It’s about sorrow, love, friendship and family. The book is much more than the text—it has the most beautiful illustrations made by Lisa Aisato, and a wonderful cover and design. This had to be a book; there is no way this story could be transferred into a digital file or a video. The Snow Sister actually ended up as the most sold book in Norway, in any genre, last year. It sold to both children and adults, and everyone read it at the same time, one chapter each day in December. That this can actually happen to a children’s book in 2018, gave me high hopes for the future of books in general. The wonders of a book, the wonders of reading out loud, or having someone reading for you, it’s unique.
Q. Does Norway provide a big market for writers? Can you talk about the literary scene in your country?
A. We have a very good support system in Norway that enables a lot of writers to make a living from their work. The support system is part of the success of Norwegian literature. I find Norwegian literature to be both experimental and exciting, and I’m also very proud of all the good children’s books we have. And luckily we also have a lot of readers for our books. Norwegians do still read, though not as avidly as some years ago, unfortunately.
Q. Since you’re also a scriptwriter, how does writing for TV differ from writing for movies?
A. TV series give you the opportunity to follow the characters for a long time, to go deeper. That is quite satisfying.
Q. Tell us about your upcoming projects.
A. I’ll continue writing the third and fourth books in the Climate Quartet, and will make a new book together with Lisa Aisato, the illustrator I collaborated with on The Snow Sister.