Sibling rivalry has no age limit. Grown Ups is about two sisters, Ida and Marthe, who are approaching forty and spend a few summer days together in their family cabin. Ida, the oldest, has always considered herself the superior one of the sisters. Her problem though is that she is long-term single, while Marthe has always had some boyfriend. Now Marthe is pregnant, too, while Ida has started to feel the baby panic setting in. For me, it’s fun to experience that readers of any age, not just around forty, relate to the sibling relationship, and that they see a lot of themselves in the fighting and the changing dynamics of power. It doesn’t seem to matter if you are 18, 40 or 65 – a complex or tense relationship with your brother or sister and the constant, often unconscious fight for your parents’ approval and attention is not something you outgrow automatically – it is something you always carry with you.
I really like writing about mean characters. That is to say, I like writing about people who start out with good intentions, but somehow end up doing bad things to the ones they love. Ida, the main character in Grown Ups, crosses the line several times during the story, but she is not necessarily a bad person. Rather, she is at a place in her life where she feels lonely and out of options, and a lifetime of sibling jealousy leads her to let her emotions overrun her jugdement.
The line between voluntary and involuntary childlessness is not as sharp as we think. Ida has recently turned forty when the novel starts. She is starting to panic over the fact that it might be too late to have a child, but she is not sure what to do about it. I wanted to write a story that showed that the question of having or not having often is less of a conscious choice than we like to think. The fast-growing fertility technology might make us think that there is always some solution to the problem, that we are in control. But often, the decision is made by a number of coincidences, of our own ambivalence or factors in our life situation that we do not fully control.
Forty-year crisis is a real thing. The Germans have the fine expression Torschlusspanik, ‘sliding doors panic’, which quite precisely describes the itching, the growing unrest, the panic, that can occur right when possibilities are about to close. I have thought previously of the forty-year crisis as something comical and slightly embarrassing – the age where men buy far too expensive bikes and women go on yoga retreats. But while writing and talking about Ida and Grown Ups, I saw people around me struggling with the biggest decisions of their lives, and discovered that yes, this age really can be a hard and vulnerable time.
I’m a writer that makes up the plot as I go along. I’m a little jealous of writers that know the whole plot before they even start writing, because that would save me a lot of time of trying and failing, but it doesn’t seem to work that way for me. I usually start out by getting curious about some situation – ‘what if two sisters are on summer vacation together and they are jealous of each other?’ - and then I start writing and take it from there. Getting to know the characters, finding their weak spots and their strengths and then putting them into tough situations, is something I have to explore through writing and rewriting, not only through thinking.
Writing a novel is very different from writing short stories. The writing process of my debut book, the short story collection Can I come home with you, was very different from writing Grown Ups. Writing a short story is learning how to work with limitations – when you only have a few pages to tell your story, you have to strip it of anything unnecessary and choose only the most important elements. In writing a novel, the possibilities are endless - you can go back and forth in time, you can include as many characters as you want, and you have to decide for yourself what limitations you need to make the story happen.
You can let the readers decide who’s the bad guy. It is exciting to see how readers and critics respond to the sisters’ relationship, and to the Ida character in particular – some love her and relate strongly to her, others think she’s despicable. I wanted to write about both Ida and Marthe as complex characters that are both good and bad. When my characters come off as people you can relate to emotionally and at the same time be appalled by things they say and do, I feel I have done something right.