Research: Interview with author Atle Nielsen

I call Atle on a Wednesday morning, after a friend who works in the publishing business recommended talking to him. "He has read a lot of books" was the basis of the recommendation. And it turned out Atle really has read a lot of books.

Atle Nielsen is an author and journalist who has written more than 28 books, many of them biographies. He was a part of starting TV2, Norways first private tv channel who broke the stately monopoly. He told me he started writing about the early days of the start-up, but never got any further. But what he wrote was later helpful for two journalist who wrote a comprehensive history of the TV network.

I start by asking Atle what the difference between a biography and memoir is. "Ah, I wrote a paper about auto-biographies and self-fiction a long time ago."

"In my opinion, the main difference between an auto-biography and a memoir is that the first is something you would write when your old looking back at your life. Biographies are more literature, a poetic retelling. While a memoir is something typically famous people will write about their ongoing career. Its also more honest, and a lot shorter."

"A really good auto-biography is Speak Memory by Vladimir Nabokov, the guy who write Lolita."

I tell Atle about my idea of making a tool so everyone could write their memoirs. "I mean, I wouldn't read a memoir about a person I don't know or care about. But if my father og grandfather had written one I would obviously be interested in reading it."

I ask him what makes it interesting to read about famous people. "If your famous you can write whatever you want and people will read it. Neil Young's memoirs is just fragments, but it works because hes one of the greatest living artists."

The phone rustles and Atle is at his bookcase looking for biographies. "Let's see. I have a biography about Munk, that's interesting because I want to know what made him make his paintings. I also have a biography about Hamsun. It's very interesting to understand his relation to fascism and the nazi party during the occupation."

"And Alf Prøysen's biography is interesting. While the author wrote the book after this death, he realised that Prøysen had been gay. But he didn't dare to put it in the book, because Prøysen is such a national icon. He said that he later regretted that."

So how do you structure a biography, or memoir? "You could always start from the beginning, but more typically with a memoir you would start from one important event and then look back."

"You would start by describing the action that the event consist of in a straight forward manner, and then go back and reflect on the meaning of the event."

"Like David Beckham's biography that I translated to Norwegian. It starts with his transfer to AC Milan. And then goes back to his upbringing and childhood, and what lead up to the decision to go to Milan. And then it ends with current time right after his transfer."

I tell Atle about my inspiration for my project. The guy who made a replica of his dad based on old stories and email, that he could chat with. "Ah, there is a great deal I would like to ask my father about!" says Atle and laughs.

"Of course it's always like that when a parent die. You always wish you had asked them about something or the other."

"You know, before we used to write letters. We don't do that today. We write emails, but thats of course not the same."

What is the difference, I ask Atle. "Well, first of all the tone of the writing. You would know that you had to sit down for an evening and write a letter to your friend."

"First you would think about what you want to say, maybe write some drafts. And then write by hand the letter, and you couldn't erase a word or two afterwards!"

"But it required a lot of effort to keep in touch. Today we have a more continuous dialogue. Like my friend who I used to write letters to when I was young, today we just send each other a short text when one of our favourite football teams scores. It's nice that we can keep in touch without it being a big project".


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