the book of nordland

stef penney

Q: What is The Book of Nordland?

A: It’s an untitled novel about somewhere I’ve never been (and am not allowed to go).

At the end of last year, I was approached with an unusual proposal: would I like to write a novel set in northern Norway… strictly without going there… by somehow communicating with local residents and then involving them in the writing process (this part was very vague)… oh, and it would have to be published in 2024, to tie in with Bodø (Nordland’s capital) being the European Capital of Culture.

Initially, I thought, no, of course not. I don’t do that. I can’t do that. 2024 is only two years away, for God’s sake, and I take five years to write a book, and I never show anything to anyone before it’s done because if I did, it might crumble to dust in my hands. So no.

I talked to the proposers at Bodø 2024. 

Bodø is in the arctic, which is a huge draw for me. The landscape around it is extraordinary. Wild, dramatic, almost entirely pristine. Stunning. The county of Nordland stretches up the Norwegian coast from north of Trondheim to Narvik, leapfrogging the Arctic Circle as it goes. It includes the Lofoten Islands, and an awful lot of other islands. It includes Jan Meyen Island in the high arctic. It is mountainous and has countless fjords. It has an ice cap, and Norway’s second largest glacier, whose name is The Black Ice.

I kept looking at photos online, and sneakily reading about its history, even though, obviously, I wasn’t going to do it. Because it was a crazy idea, and I already had my next idea for a book all lined up.

But I couldn’t stop looking, and reading. And thinking about it. And then I said yes.

The project was announced in March 2022, and call went out on the Bodø 2024 website to Nordlanders to send in tips and stories, anecdotes, memories, photos – anything really. And then we held some writing workshops with young people, asking them to describe a day in midwinter, or their grandparents, or a favourite place. 

I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m not sure that anyone has.

It’s fascinating, and it’s an ongoing process: trying to tease out those things that strike a chord, that resonate enough to set ideas growing and crystallising. A character came to me in the middle of the night. Then other characters began to cluster around her…

Every book I’ve written has been like this: I look up at an unscalable mountain face, and think, I can’t possibly do that. And then I start. 

Here, you can read the interview with Bodø 2024, about what I’m supposed to be doing. 

And if you are Norwegian, or if you know Nordland and have a story about it, then please get in touch…