Ulstein has a master’s degree in Literature from the University of Oslo and studied creative writing at the Bergen Writing Academy. Her debut novel Reptile Memoirs was a bestseller in Norway. She lives in Oslo.
“Literary mystery with a fresh twist — one of the characters is a huge Python whose P.O.V. is devoid of all emotion, ‘cause, hey — it's a snake,” said BJ Hegedus of Postalworks Silverlake in Los Angeles, California. “This dark tale of deceit, betrayal, and mayhem is from start to finish a can’t-put-down-read. Complex characters and fantastic plot make for a creepy yet oh-so-satisfying read set in Norway.”
Here, Hegedus and Ulstein discuss crafting the novel.
BJ Hegedus: Reptile Memoirs is a page-turning tale with chiseled human characters who are more than able to carry events along. The brilliant addition of Nero to the mix adds a richness that notches things up immensely. Nero not only serves as metaphor but as an astute observer. Can you talk about how he came to be?
Silje Ulstein: I had the idea for Reptile Memoirs years ago when a friend of mine who was helping ownerless cats find new homes, told me that she had this fear that one of the cats would end up at a snake owners house, as prey. It’s not common to have snakes as pets in Norway, it was illegal at the time, so it was a pretty crazy thought. But nevertheless, I couldn’t shake it from my head. I started writing about a snake and its owner, and with time connected it to the disappearance of an 11-year-old girl years later. So, the idea of the snake and the snake owner was there from the very beginning, but the snake character and the chapters from the snake’s perspective came very late in the process, as I had been reading about snakes in my research, and was fascinated with imagining how it was like to have a snake body and perceive the world like they do. I think the snake’s perspective gives a special kind of mood to the book, and a layer of meaning which I like, and I am very fascinated by the relationship between human and animal in general so I really enjoyed playing that out in a twisted way with a woman and a snake.
BH: Nero, huge python that he is, captivates us with his emotionless point of view. He watches and he waits and he shares his observations with us. What is so mesmerizing about him is that all the while we never lose sight of the fact that this is a snake’s point of view. What kind of research was involved in getting Nero just right?
SU: I knew very little about snakes when I started writing, so I definitely had to do some research. I was reading about snakes, watching documentaries and YouTube videos about them, and I also visited and held snakes at the zoo and talked to the zoo keepers. One of the things I really wanted to get right was how the snake’s senses work. Their hearing and sight are poor, but they sense movement through the ground and can “see” heat from warm blooded creatures. When they are smelling their surroundings, they are actually tasting it — by licking the air and bringing it to their smelling organ inside their mouths. Capturing these senses in the snake’s point of view makes it easier to imagine that one is seeing the world through the snake’s eyes (or his heat pits, to be exact).
Of course, telling a story from a snake’s perspective is in itself an impossible task, as snakes are so different from us. Snakes act on pure instinct, out of fear, hunger or other physical needs, where humans would reflect and interact. So, it was necessary to give the snake some human traits in order to tell Nero’s story. But I think that works well in Reptile Memoirs because the snake owner Liv herself has some snake like traits — she is a cold-blooded character; she has a changing nature and she acts very much on instinct. In a way, she is acting more on the impulses of the reptilian brain than the snake is!
In addition to the factual research about snakes, I also made use of some cultural and literary history in Reptile Memoirs. Like you said, the snake is a powerful metaphor, and one that has deep cultural roots all the way back to Eve’s conversation with Satan in Paradise. I wanted to write the novel in dialogue with the cultural image of the snake — and of course the cultural image of the woman and snake. I have also drawn inspiration from literary books that describe animal perspectives, like the amazing point of view of the human-turned-insect in Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis.
I suspect that this will not be the last novel I write about something I know little about to begin with. Learning something in the process is a huge motivation in my writing. Right now, I’m in the process of learning about physics.
BH: There are so many elements to this story — an array of characters, past and present time frames, different places. How did you keep everything sorted? Did you know how you wanted the story to go before you wrote it or did the plot unfold as the characters interacted?
SU: I planned very little ahead of writing this novel. I just started to write, and the characters grew and eventually started to act on their own. But with four hundred pages, five protagonists and multiple timelines and places, I had to do some sketches of the plot in order to remember details and make it all work. I drew large plot charts, and I wrote quite a lot of text that never made its way to the finished novel.
BH: Norway ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world and yet it produces a huge amount of “Nordic Noir,” this seems such a dichotomy. How do you account for this?
SU: How happy would we be if we never faced our greatest fears? Or let me turn it around — being happy naturally comes with great fear that everything we hold dear will be taken away from us. And perhaps the secret question — do I really deserve all this? Besides, I don’t think it’s far-fetched to blame the seasons. Long, cold, dark winters are hard on the happiest of people, and the contrast with summer can be overwhelming. It’s no coincidence that there is so much bad weather in Nordic Noir, and even when there is sunlight, the fear of darkness lingers. Thrillers tend to have hope in them for better times, perhaps reading books like that makes us happier?
BH: Detective Roe is such a wonderful character. Does he have more adventures to share with us?
SU: Thank you, I am very found of Roe and I really hope to hear from him again, but right now he is just silently waiting for me to make contact. I’m sorry, that was vague. The answer is that I don’t know yet, but I hope so.
Reptile Memoirs by Silje Ulstein, Alison McCullough (Transl.) (Grove Press, 9780802158864, Hardcover Fiction, $26) On Sale: 3/15/2022.
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