Humor in Books, and Other Places, Too! An Interview With Bjørn Larssen

KRRL- What was the last thing that made you literally laugh out loud? BL- I postponed doing this interview until I could say in clear conscience that I JUST laughed out loud. I am re-reading Jenny Lawson’s Broken (In The Best Possible Way), none of which I remember, which is a bit spooky, since it opens with an essay about how she never remembers anything, so she can re-read books and always be pleasantly surprised, which I am now. Anyway, I laughed out loud, because she is buying toddler-sized condoms for her not-penis-having girl dog, but not for fisting, and then the clerk seems to think she is fabricating a dog to cover up her demand for tiny condoms. KRRL- What kinds of things do you usually find to be funny? BL- Well, there’s an example above. (If you don’t think it’s funny I guess it’s one of those “you had to be there and by be I mean read the book” things.) I like absurdist humour, but not too high-brow – I’m smart, but not Booker Prize smart. I like Mrs Brown’s Boys, which The Guardian tells me is super homophobic, and the part of Halldór Laxness’ Independent People where Bjartur comes to the reverend to discuss his wife’s funeral. (I think the word is “irreverend”) (I’m not actually sorry for that and won’t see myself out) I like self-aware, straight-faced comedy where things are simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and serious – if there’s a joke in Calvin and Hobbes, I think it’s funny. And almost everything pre-1990 by Joanna Chmielewska.

KRRL- I love irreverend! (Please stay! I insist.) How do you incorporate humor into your writing? BL- My humor is basically Joanna Chmielewska’s humour, but in English. A Polish translation of Storytellers, my first book, is almost ready and it turns out that translating Chmielewska to English, then back to Polish turns it into haha-soup cooked by Bing Translate. Oops, that wasn’t the actual question… My writing always balances between dark and funny. Children is a bit like Laxness – it’s going to get really, really dark, but an inappropriate joke is bound to appear at the most unexpected moment. Creation – the first book in my Why Odin Drinks series – is the opposite. It contains the phrases “peeing dispenser” and “ass-thetics” and the invention of bad stand-up, but it’s also Hobbesian philosophy. Storytellers falls somewhere in the middle – a reviewer recently called it “historical fiction that doesn’t treat itself seriously” and I really liked that. I do my best not to treat myself seriously. There is a Norwegian writer called Karl Ove Knausgård who wrote a six-tome fictionalised autobiography called My Struggle in which he details – this is a quote from an Important Critic [link to: https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/mar/01/karl-ove-knausgaard-interview-shame-dancing-in-the-dark ]– “his prolonged and calamitous attempts to dispose of his virginity during his late teenage years, a struggle sorely undermined by a chronic condition of premature ejaculation.” Neither My Struggle nor this article are satire, apparently. I told a friend to repeatedly hit me with a spade if I ever go full Knausgård and if I feel a fit of seriousness coming, I’m going to use the #mystruggle hashtag as a warning. KRRL- I'm just going to keep saying how much I love your answers :) But I LOVE the idea of not treating yourself too seriously. Also, is there a such thing as Calvin and Hobbesian philosophy?


BL- Calvin and Hobbes are of course based on the two philosophers, and my favourite episodes are where they’re actually having a philosophical discussion, only on that crazy fast sled about to fall in the frozen creek. I’ve learned a lot from them – and they gave me lots to think about. A friend, Lyra Wolf, beta-read Creation and suggested adding more of the underlying philosophical content, which I thought might bore the reader. The reviewers and readers alike really appreciated it, which is another proof that I know nothing about what people want, and it became less slapstick and more Calvin and Hobbes. I should change the description to Calvin-and-Hobbesian philosophy, probably.


KRRL- I am EMBARRASSED... I didn't know Calvin and Hobbes was based on the two philosophers...


BL- I didn’t know either until I found out ;) I got the complete boxed set in digital version, including strips that never went into print, multiple interviews, I have the Watterson exhibition catalogue, I’m a bit obsessed with those. Once you find out that they’re based on philosophers it becomes such a different read AGAIN. And of course Watterson never answered the “is Hobbes real?” question other than “to Calvin he is”…


KRRL- I'm going to have to go back and do some serious Calvin and Hobbes rereading, now!


Is there anything off limits in comedy?


BL- Rape and child abuse.


KRRL- Definitely.


On a scale from 1 to 10 (1 being dead serious, and 10 being constant jokes), what is the level of humor you usually prefer to read?


BL- Either constantly jumping all over the scale, or 5-7. KRRL- What is the funniest thing that ever happened to you? BL- It’s actually the thing that never happened to me, because Lori’s penis got stuck in Saudi Arabia. Let me elaborate on this a bit. Lori is a friend who knows Husby and me well enough to send us a surprise package. We live in Amsterdam. When after three weeks it still wasn’t here… that was back in the time when intercontinental post still took three weeks at $20 rather than three months at $50… she went to the post office and discovered it actually reached The Hague, which is 52 km away from Amsterdam, from where it went to Saudi Arabia, where the US customs apparently are. This did not sound like the most efficient way to deliver a package, but apparently it is. After a few more weeks we asked her if that surprise was going to go bad, as we worried it might have been something edible. It turned out to be some sort of bronze penis sculpture/decoration, which was all that she was willing to share. It was also a one-of-a-kind and expensive lost penis, so she went to the post office to demand a refund. She was told that there would be no refund, because a package is only lost when the post doesn’t know where it is. They knew perfectly well where it was. In the Saudi customs. It would be released when it would be released. The Saudi customs are either still holding on to Lori’s penis or it got delivered two years later, surprising the people who rented our old apartment after we left it. In any case, she never got a refund and we never got the surprise penis, so this story might have actually been much funnier and we’ll never find out :(


KRRL- That is hilarious! I'm picturing the people opening the "package" two years later. I wish I had the means to send an investigative team to track it down and find out what happened.


What is the funniest thing you’ve ever seen/heard/read/written? BL- Seen – the entire first season of Coupling (the UK version, Americans took 22 minutes of fun and blew it up to 45 minutes of embarrassment). Heard – the English versions of songs on Alizée’s second album. “I’m Fed Up” contains gems such as “bubbles and water, legs up for hours, my goldfish is under me” sung with an accent so heavy it becomes self-parody. It’s amazing. I listen to it when I need a smile. Read – I have to go with a Polish one. Wszystko Czerwone (“All Red”) by Joanna Chmielewska. I’ve read the paperback so many times it fell into pieces. My cousin made a fabric hardcover for it 15 years ago and that also fell into pieces by now. I’ll eventually have to buy the e-book, but this tiny hardcover holds so many memories. If this particular book somehow disappeared from the surface of the Earth, I could probably write all of it down from memory. Written – I tried to pick one or two sentences, but they need context – so I think I’ll just say Creation.


KRRL- You're giving me so many things I haven't seen or heard or read, here! Is there an English translation of Wszystko Czerwone?

BL- I don’t think any book by Chmielewska got translated to a non-Slavic language, unfortunately. She was so masterful with the language that it become non-translatable. To be honest, Polish is a beautiful, very complex language, while English is a handy, simplistic language that’s kind of…useful. Which also means that it’s very difficult to write really well in Polish, especially when it comes to humour, poetry, song lyrics. Chmielewska, Agnieszka Osiecka, Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński were rarities, virtuosos that never got as much critic praise as they deserved, because it was “just funny stuff.”


KRRL- I've got to give you my two favorite lines from Creation, here:

"Vili," said Vé, "tell your brother that his nice Audhumla attacked me when I tried to eat her, and I even said 'please' and 'thank you'."

He found that women's chests had a certain je ne sais quoi that, in his opinion, shouldn't be covered.


BL- Those are very good picks from Creation, yes :D I’m very pleased with the entire “your brother” conversation ending with “how old ARE you?” – “two days old."


KRRL- While teetering on the razor’s edge of the all-consuming void, is humor the best tool we have to fight the existential dread of a finite and bewildering existence? BL- Absolutely. I forgot to laugh at my existence recently and ended up with a massive burnout-type depression. Which sucks, because once you’re down there, you don’t know how to laugh anymore until you claw your way out. So… keep laughing. Turn the horror into a cosmic joke. Tear the local dictator’s clothes off. There may be little hope, but we still have cock jokes. In communist Poland a movie director, Stanisław Bareja, took everything that was most horrible about communism and turned it all into absurdist jokes. The censors were generally not very smart people. They knew from experience that he must have been saying things that shouldn’t be said, but they couldn’t figure out how or why. I come from what’s called the generation of lack; I have been hungry in my life because there simply was no food available. Bareja found ways to make us laugh through the tears. I don’t think it would have been possible to survive communism without laughing at it.


KRRL- Thank the gods for cock jokes!

During those years under communism, were you always the kid and/or adult that was being funny and trying to keep everyone's spirits up?


BL- I didn’t have a happy childhood (the Berlin wall fell when I was 13). I was bullied a lot and very quiet, so I escaped into books. Into the funny ones especially, because, as you’ve said, my reality was awful. I’ve never been too amusing in person, not until you get to know me really well. It’s easier in writing where you can fiddle with a joke for a month if you want.


KRRL- I totally get that. I don't think I'm very funny in person. It's much easier in written form!

Speaking of writing, what projects do you have out in the world, and where can we find them?

BL- Storytellers, my debut, is a historical fiction novel set in Iceland in 1920, featuring Conservative Ladies of Iceland, who will seem familiar to the fans of Keeping Up Appearances. Children, the first book in The Ten Worlds series, is a psychological grimdark Norse mythology retelling with inappropriate humour. Creation, the first book in Why Odin Drinks series… can I quote an editorial review by Rowdy Geirsson? “A hugely fun read full of the trials and tribulations associated with family dysfunctionality, encounters with four-pronged milk dispensers and one-pronged non-milk dispensers, admiration and awe towards avian ass-thetics, worrying regarding wolves in wolves’ clothing, and the universal distaste of Odin’s most hated vegetable.” Find all my books here: https://bjornlarssen.com/author Thank you so much for having me, I hope this was as much fun for you as it was for me!


KRRL- It absolutely was! Thank you so much for doing this! I'm looking forward to Wisdom! (coming April, 2022)