In this episode, we discuss the 2019 novel Searching for Nora through an interview with the author, Wendy Swallow. Tune in to hear more about this amazing work of feminist historical fiction, and the catchy playlist that goes along with it.
KIRA-HOST: Hey readers! Welcome to the Little Press Playlist where we review books from small independent publishers and their musical pairings. I’m your host, Kira Cusick.
In this episode, we are going to be talking about Searching for Nora published in 2019 through Peavine Mountain Press.
At the end of Henrik Ibsen’s play A Doll’s House – Nora walks away from her family and her comfortable life. She has little money and few legal rights making her journey towards freedom all the more difficult. Her experiences impoverish her and lands her on a rough Minnesota prairie.
Meanwhile in 1918 – Nora’s granddaughter is unraveling the radical feminist mystery that her grandmother left behind.
I was lucky enough to sit down with the author, Wendy Swallow to discuss the narrative, her writing process, her thoughts on the characters, and everything in between.
INTERVIEW SEGMENT ONE
WENDY SWALLOW: Well, I’ve been haunted by Nora Helmer for a long time. I remember first reading the play while I was in college and I saw it at around the same time. And of course, like everyone in the audience especially all the young women and I cheered as she went out the door. But then I saw Doll’s House again about 15 years later when I was in the middle of divorcing my first husband and I had two little kids just like Nora has little kids. And when she went out the door I just felt this knot in my stomach and I thought, oh my goodness, is this an act of liberation or is this an act of suicide? Given her time and place, what does she have? Because I realized that separating from my husband when my kids were little was the hardest things I’d ever tried to do, and it was damn near impossible but I had a good job, one that wouldn’t lose if I did this. I had the support of family and friends. I had the rights to care for my children, to have my own bank accounts, to get a mortgage for a different apartment. I had all these advantages that Nora would not have had. And I didn’t really fully understand how limited her rights were in 1879.
INTERVIEW SEGMENT TWO
KIRA-HOST: As you can imagine, constructing this kind of historically based narrative requires a deep understanding of the time period. In her search to understand the conditions Nora would have been subjected to at the time, Wendy did an extensive amount of research – speaking with Ibsen specialists and historians in Norway as well as working with the Norwegian archives in Minnesota.
WENDY SWALLOW: My husband and I went to Norway for about a week. We were tempted, of course, just to be tourists but we had a strict schedule and I set up interviews with various people in Norway. The Norwegians were incredibly generous with their time and expertise. I was particularly interested in talking to Ibsen scholars because I wanted to understand better both Ibsen’s day and time and Ibsen’s motivations for Nora, like what did he mean by this play? What did he say? I had read biographies of him, but it was really wonderful to talk with Norwegian scholars who of course have delved pretty deep into this. Then I also was interested in talking with the immigrant historians who could explain to me this incredible diaspora of Norwegians to North America. Which I didn’t really fully appreciate until I was in Norway. When you’re in Norway this topic comes up a lot, many Norwegians have relatives who came over in the 1890s and have lived here ever since, and they go back and forth, some have relatives who went to America and came back, so there’s a very rich history.
The great things about the Norwegians, it’s a fairly small country, it has a fairly small population and they all know each other. So, I made a few appointments, and the very first appointment I went to, which was with a historian, a 19th-century sort of social, cultural historian at the library there at the national library. We talk for a few minutes and she’s like “you know who would love to be in on this conversation?” She calls like five people! So they show up – they’re like right around the corner in Oslo – and my husband, fortunately also a former journalist had his computer open and he just typed like mad while we had this sort of free-ranging conversation. A couple of them were Ibsen scholars, one of them was a woman who ran the center for Ibsen Studies in Oslo. And the cool thing about her was writing a biography of Ibsen’s wife – Susanna Ibsen – who was a really important figure in his life. Her life – she came from a patched-together family – there were all these women in Susanna’s life, she had a broad range of sisters and relatives and Ibsen was fascinated by how their lives unfolded depended entirely on if they married and if they married well. And he was quite shocked by that, to witness it. The other great thing about Astrid’s work – this woman’s name was Astrid Sayther – her work with Susanna Ibsen was she totally understood what Nora’s experience would have been like as a bourgeois woman in Norway at that time. What kind of education did she have? And what would have been her prospects for employment after she left her husband Torvald…
INTERVIEW SEGMENT THREE
KIRA-HOST: While there is rich texture given to Nora’s perspective – she is not the only point of focus in this novel. After Nora disappears to America her actions in leaving her family become infamous in Norway – but because of the shame Torvald felt – the truth of what happened to her was buried and became a mystery for public speculation.
That is where Solvi – Nora’s unknowing granddaughter comes in. She is attending university in 1918 and learning more about “the forgotten one” – a feminist icon she later finds out is her long-lost grandmother.
WENDY SWALLOW: So, I spent about 5 years writing the Nora story, and then I wrote the Solvi story and I spent about 3or 4 years sort of creating that. And it was harder because I had to figure out what really would drive the characters. It was clear to me with Nora what would drive her, but I had to create all that for Solvi. The first version of the Solvi, story when I felt I had it in place – all the way along I was braiding it together with the Nora story – but I finally started looking at the Solvi story just as its own story for a bit and I realized there wasn’t enough that was difficult in Solvi’s life, it was too easy. Like Magnus shows up in like the second chapter and you know okay that was nice and pat. But then I thought, wait a minute, she has very little experience of young men, so why does she get to be lucky and find the perfect guy right away?
KIRA-HOST: Right, she’s bound to meet a bad one.
WENDY SWALLOW: Right! and she meets Dominic and he’s entrancing because he’s really smart and challenging to her. And she seems to like challenging people. So her friend Rikka, who is much more evolved – shall we say – in her feminism at that point and how she feels about authority and she is trying to get Solvi to sort of cast-off her bourgeois advantages and start to live a scrappier life…
KIRA-HOST: I don’t think I could have picked a better book to talk about on our first episode! I may be biased because I generally love historical fiction, but searching for Nora explores themes of class, feminism, and migration in a really interesting way. by telling the story of both Nora and Solvi as well as taking an already iconic character and imagining a completely unique identity for her that is both inspirational and at times crushingly realistic. I really couldn’t put it down!
INTRODUCTION TO PLAYLIST SEGMENT
KIRA-HOST: And now for the playlist!
At the end of every episode, I’ll run my favorite through the tracks on the playlist which you can later find in its entirety on the Little Press Playlist Spotify page.
For searching for Nora I went for strong themes of independence, feminism, motherhood – highlighting both the light and dark sides of those concepts.
KIRA-HOST: So first up on the playlist I had to start with Liability by Lorde because I really think this speaks to Nora’s character in general.
But next up we get a little bit more specific, I put Alaska by Maggie Rogers which I think specifically speaks to Nora’s first experiences in America and this idea of walking off her old self and becoming someone new.
My third favorite on the playlist is Slipping Through my Fingers by ABBA. I think this really speaks to Nora’s relationship with her children back in Norway and how she mourns the loss of time with them.
And my last favorite is Last Great American Dynasty by Taylor Swift. In this song, she’s kind of chronicling these past women whose paths she’s intersected with over time, but she has never actually met – and I really think this speaks to Solvi’s story and her search for her long-lost grandmother.
END OF PLAYLIST SEGMENT – OUTRO
Let me know what you guys think!
Thanks for listening to the Little Press Playlist! I’m your host Kira Cusick, and I’ll see you next time!
Learn more about Searching for Nora and author Wendy Swallow, here.
Music for this episode provided by Adobe Stock Music.
While you wait for the next episode, jam out to the playlist out now on the Little Press Playlist Spotify page.