Character, Plot, and Pastries: An Interview with Thom Satterlee
Taylor University’s Writer-in-Residence, Thom Satterlee, recently published his first novel, The Stages. It centers around the mysterious disappearance of a Søren Kierkegaard manuscript and the death of the head of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center in Copenhagen. Daniel Peters, the novel’s narrator and a translator at the Kierkegaard Center, is in the middle of the investigation: first as a suspect, then as the police’s mole. His own inquiries take him from deep within the archives of Copenhagen’s Royal Library to the far end of Denmark. Daniel navigates the events through the prism of his Asperger’s Syndrome.
The following interview was conducted through email exchanges between Thom and Taylor English alumnus William Green (’04). William holds an M.A. in creative writing from Miami University and an M.F.A. in writing from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. He teaches at Northeastern Illinois University and lives in Chicago with his wife, a Chicago Public School teacher.
Let’s start with novel’s title. Why did you call it The Stages?
It comes from a book with a similar title: Stages on Life’s Way, by the Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard. Kierkegaard believed that there are three stages of human existence, and during our lives we find ourselves occupying one stage or another. He called them The Aesthetic, The Ethical, and The Religious. In my novel, the main character has a brush with each of the stages.
You have primarily worked as a poet and translator before this. How did the idea for the novel come to you?
Most of it came to me during a road trip from Indiana to New York. The plot was sketchy, but I had this notion of a murder mystery taking place around the time of Søren Kierkegaard’s bicentenary. It would involve a stolen manuscript. It would include a bunch of Kierkegaard scholars. It was just an idea, and I didn’t think I’d actually do anything with it. I’d never written a novel before, and I was pretty happy writing poetry. But the idea kept nagging me. I wrote about the story in my journal one morning, struggled over whether to give it a go, then spent the next four or five years writing and re-writing.
There must have been some significant changes during four or five years of re-writes. At what point did you write Daniel Peters?
Daniel was there from the beginning. His life circumstances changed from re-write to re-write, though. For instance, in the earliest version he was married and lived in Indiana and taught at a Christian college, but in The Stages he’s a bachelor living in Copenhagen and working at an international research center. His personality changed dramatically, too.
Daniel Peters is a great character. How did you create/research him?
Some of Daniel’s character—translating Danish, living in Denmark—came from my own experience. I spent my junior year of high school as an exchange student in Kolding, Denmark. In graduate school, I started translating Danish literature and have continued doing so for two decades now. So I know about living in Denmark and being a translator.
What about researching the Asperger’s element of Daniel?
That was completely new to me. I had to research that part. Mostly I read or listened to interviews with people who were diagnosed with the condition after they reached adulthood. It fascinated me—this idea that someone could live with Asperger’s his whole life, struggle to fit in socially, be at a loss to understand the “rules of life” everyone else seems to “get,” and then have a revelatory diagnosis sometime in his early forties. “Oh, I have Asperger’s! That explains a lot.”
Daniel Peters is a very single-minded man. He has a daily routine of waking up early, doing his translation work at the Kierkegaard Center, eating a hot dog at his favorite stand for dinner, and going home to bed. Is that a reflection of his Asperger’s?
Oh, yes. Definitely! Daniel has a rigid schedule he likes to keep to. He doesn’t like it when anyone messes with his schedule. Flexibility is not one of his strengths.
By the way, the description of the hot dog and “pigs that lived good lives as only Danish pigs … can” sounds delicious.
It is. And the writing required extensive research. I didn’t eat as many Danish-style hot dogs as Daniel, but I had enough to know they taste really good, even during a cold rain in the middle of Copenhagen’s Town Hall Square.
Daniel’s Asperger’s prevents him from picking up on social cues and subtle expressions.
That’s true. That’s one of the reasons he prefers to be alone. It’s just too frustrating to read people’s signs and get them wrong all the time. And he loves his work. He’d be happy just translating Kierkegaard day in, day out.
And yet the story is about him being forced into a new role where he must read people and report to the police on any suspicious behavior. Why did you make Daniel Peters a mole for the police?
Main characters have to struggle, and being a mole for the police isn’t an easy assignment for Daniel. On the other hand, he finds he can do it. His skills as a translator serve him well as an investigator. But spending so much time with people and away from his work…that’s what’s hard for him.
It makes sense for this being the impetus for the story. This is the moment of catastrophe in Daniel’s professional and personal life. Because Daniel is a character strongly given to routine, you had to break him of the routine. The novel finds many ways to send Daniel all over Copenhagen. He makes trips to the archives in the Royal Library, to the police headquarters, and on a train to the western end of Denmark. How did you balance his internal struggle and the external action?
That wasn’t an easy assignment for me! Given Daniel’s desire for routine and the story’s need for disruption—or some form of conflict (“No struggle, no story,” says Robert Penn Warren)—narrator and narration were bound to bump heads. What I mean is, letting someone with Daniel’s condition narrate the novel was an important and risky decision. He couldn’t always get his way; but being a rigid person, Daniel wouldn’t always let the story get its way either. I don’t know if I achieved balance. Probably the novel is not balanced. Probably there are times when I let plot steamroll over poor Daniel Peters. And times when I let Daniel avoid his narrative obligations for too long. What do you think? Is the novel balanced? Does it need to be balanced in order to succeed?
I don’t think it has to be an equal split, but it can’t be a “bathtub story” either. The characters have to do something and allow value changes in the story.
I agree. It’s difficult, though, when your protagonist is a loner…and also the narrator! I’ve given him the car keys, so to speak. My concern was that Daniel wouldn’t want to drive the story anywhere. He’d rather sit at his desk or lounge around in his apartment eating licorice. But, as it turns out, he does have some adventures over the course of the novel.
One of the functions of the first-person narrative is to cement this as Daniel Peters’ story. Why was it important for this to be his story? Or for the reader to see it through his eyes?
That’s a good question. I wrote several versions of this novel before publishing it. In some versions, I wrote in third-person; in at least one other version I wrote in first-person, but with a different narrator. I try this, I try that; this doesn’t work, that doesn’t work; and so I try something different. That’s pretty much my messy, inefficient writing process. Lots of wrong guesses leading to a final and possibly equally wrong guess.
I can tell you what I think the novel achieves by having Daniel as its narrator. He acts as a reasonable conduit for all the Søren Kierkegaard references, of which there are many. One feature of Asperger’s Syndrome is an obsession with minute facts about a given topic. It could be clocks or trains or baseball stats or the moon—but someone with Asperger’s usually knows a whole lot more about a particular subject than most people care to hear. For Daniel, that subject is Kierkegaard. In The Stages, Daniel is both the mouthpiece for Kierkegaard and a contemporary likeness to him. Both men were loners, cared deeply about word-work, never married, had an unusual appetite for sweetened coffee and fine pastries, and were considered odd—outsiders—by others.
Let’s talk about the deaths in the novel. They’re tragic, but they’re not put there to teach Daniel or the reader a lesson. I admire that. I hate it when a character is killed off simply for the purpose of another character having a revelation. How did you decide to write about murder/death?
Can I get away with saying I didn’t decide? It’s more like I gave in. I resisted writing this novel from the beginning. Really, it didn’t feel like a choice. But I suppose, ultimately, it was. If a bear chases you up a tree, did you choose to climb the tree or did you just want to go on living? It felt sort of like that.
You also write about death in an interesting way. Daniel Peters describes the steel and glass structure of the Royal Library or an overly loud jazz band with more gruesome detail than the murders. Why write about death in this relatively muted fashion?
Daniel is sensitive to loud noises, and something about modern architecture grates on him, too. By comparison, the deaths are quiet affairs and removed from his immediate experience. But you’re right: the murder itself is not dramatized in gruesome detail. Why not? Well, since the novel is written in the first person, Daniel would have to witness the murder first-hand, and that would spoil the whodunit suspense. It sounds like I’m trying to hold a fictional character responsible for the choices I made as a writer, doesn’t it? The truth is, I didn’t want to write a gruesome murder scene.
When Daniel is in “The Memorial Garden” at the Copenhagen police headquarters, a detective re-enacts the suspected murder of Mette. The homicide detective, Ingrid Bendtner, stands in for Mette, and the other detective is rather thoughtless to Daniel’s feelings when re-enacting the murder. When confronted with the details of the murder, Daniel reacts with violence. Why does he act this way?
Actually, that’s one of my favorite scenes in the novel. I think the main reason is that he loved Mette and the re-enactment disturbs him. He also has plenty of pent-up frustration by this point in the story. Like it or not, his regular routine—his whole life—has been disrupted. It’s hard for someone with Asperger’s to tolerate change. And Daniel’s had more changes thrown at him than ever before. I feel sorry for him. I don’t blame him for what he does.
I’m always interested in how characters respond to death and loss. Daniel mourns Mette by constantly remembering her. These memories often create the sweetest parts of the novel. Why does he mourn for her by keeping the memories so present in his thoughts?
Daniel’s not sure how to mourn, and he’s afraid he isn’t mourning properly, the way other people do. To him, grief is a foreign language he doesn’t expect ever to learn. But you’re right: he keeps the memory of Mette alive, and they are sweet memories, without distortions of any kind. He thinks he should cry, though, and he berates himself for not doing so. Still, whether he knows it or not, he does mourn. He mourns for Mette in his head, with those memories. For Daniel, that’s just his way.
It seems to me a very responsible way to mourn for someone lost. In a different way of remembering, Daniel is constantly recalling facts, real minutia, about Kierkegaard. Everywhere he goes in Copenhagen, it is connected to a Kierkegaard fact. These facts do not have the emotion of the memories about Mette, but they are entertaining.
I think it goes back to his high school relationship with Mette, when they both discovered Kierkegaard’s writing at the same time. They bumped into each other at the Kolding Library after school one day. Their Danish Literature teacher had told their class not to read Kierkegaard, that they’d regret it if they ever started down that path. Daniel and Mette were both disobeying orders. In the novel, the scene that describes their library meeting is pretty brief, and it doesn’t appear until late in the final section.
Why does Daniel constantly recall Kierkegaard facts? Beyond his fascination or the Asperger’s tendency to fixate on one topic, he amuses himself with the facts. Kierkegaard is almost his companion.
I hadn’t thought of it quite that way, but I think you’re right: Kierkegaard is like Daniel’s secret friend! There’s something childlike about Daniel, about most people with Asperger’s, and so this strong relationship with an “invisible” person sort of fits, doesn’t it? I’d add that Daniel takes enormous pride in his work. And Kierkegaard is his job. Kierkegaard is pretty much his whole life.
I noticed that the novel is full of restraints. Secrets are held, Daniel never touches the wine that was left in his apartment…but then he does indulge his appetite for pastries. Why is this? The other time he indulges, when he buys the tailored suit, Daniel is out of his element. But he seems to be at home with pastries.
Anyone who goes to Denmark learns to feel at home eating pastries. When I lived there in the mid-‘80s, my host family had pastries several times a day. Usually with coffee. There were specific times for this: morning coffee, mid-morning coffee, afternoon coffee, and evening coffee. Basically, all-day coffee and pastries when you come right down to it. Even if Daniel wanted to resist something as delicious as Danish pastries, he couldn’t. Neither could you. I dare you to spend a week in Copenhagen and not eat kringle or weinerbrød. Denmark’s not the right country for dieters.
How did your visits to Copenhagen influence the novel?
Originally, I wasn’t going to write a novel. I received an NEA grant and decided to write a series of poems about Kierkegaard. I used some of the money to take a research trip to Copenhagen, and while I was there I visited the Museum of Copenhagen. They have Kierkegaard’s writing desk in their permanent collection. The desk is kept in a tiny room with a few display cases and some wall posters illustrating Kierkegaard’s life. I was in there all alone for close to an hour, and for part of that time I stared at this antique desk. The idea occurred to me that, hidden somewhere inside the desk, there might be a manuscript of poems that Kierkegaard wrote, but were never discovered. He used a similar conceit in one of his most famous books, Either/Or. The hidden-manuscript idea eventually led to the novel.
Then, after I’d decided to write the novel, I made a second trip to Copenhagen and interviewed staff at the Kierkegaard Center. That place really exists, and I use it as the model for my novel. I also visited the police headquarters and spoke with homicide detectives. They gave me a tour of their building and discussed the day-to-day life of being an officer in the Copenhagen Police. I needed to meet with these people, the scholars and the police, because they live the real lives of the fictional characters I was creating. I’m glad I didn’t just guess at what those lives would be like. Instead, my research gave me some boundaries of what was possible, what I could imagine after having seen the actual. I took the real setting of Copenhagen and an informed sense of certain people living there, and from those materials I imagined my story.
Ingrid, the Danish homicide detective, is a good character. She is one of those reliable and competent people that are a pleasure to know and work with, but those people are too often ignored. You must know that type of person.
Yes, I know several people who fit the description of “reliable and competent” and also “good.” And I agree with you that they’re seldom represented in fiction. I’m not sure why. Does it go back to Tolstoy’s “unhappy families” theory—that the lives of messed-up characters are intrinsically more interesting to readers? But all of us, happy or unhappy, messed-up or balanced, have our depths. The way Ingrid nurtures Daniel by leading him through this unfamiliar experience of being a suspect strikes me as pretty interesting. She’s a good cop, through and through. I believe such people exist.
How did going to Copenhagen help you create Ingrid?
I had a wonderful visit to the Copenhagen Police Headquarters, called Politigård in Danish. The two homicide detectives I met with both happened to be women. That’s probably how I got the idea of including a romantic attachment between Daniel and Ingrid. Even though the novel doesn’t delve very deeply into Ingrid’s life as a police officer, I heard enough stories from the detectives I met with to make me feel like I could write police scenes. Since Daniel narrates the story, though, most of Ingrid’s life isn’t described in detail.
The novel has a character named Susannah who works for the Royal Library. Her job is authenticating rare documents. In a fascinating scene she explains to Daniel Peters how she verified the Kierkegaard manuscript. What research did you do to learn this process?
The research for this part of the novel was crucial. The story hinges on the believability of an unbelievable coincidence: just months before Kierkegaard’s bicentenary an unknown manuscript of his surfaces. I had to know what experts in the field would look for in verifying it. So, on my second trip to Copenhagen, I met with the person who oversees the rare manuscripts collection at the Royal Library.The library owns all of Kierkegaard’s handwritten material. He showed me a Kierkegaard manuscript—an early draft of The Concept of Anxiety—and pointed out certain characteristics of Kierkegaard’s penmanship, as well as his habits of editing and annotating texts. We talked about the forgery detection process, the different stages of analysis, and he gave me plenty of detail. I recorded our entire conversation. I also read an article that traced the evolution of Kierkegaard’s handwriting over his career as a writer. And I had a book by the Director of the Kierkegaard Center written specifically about Kierkegaard’s manuscripts and full of excellent color photographs. When I was writing the scene between Daniel and Susannah, I had more than enough material to guide me!
Scandinavian crime fiction has become popular in the last years. I wanted to call The Stages “tweed noir.” How do you think your novel relates to other crime fiction?
“Tweed noir” sounds about right. After all, most of the characters in the novel are educated to the third degree and spend their days reading and writing on a fairly obscure topic.
The Stages is set in Copenhagen and involves a murder, but otherwise it differs almost completely from popular Scandinavian crime fiction. The detective, Daniel, doesn’t really want to investigate, and he’s not very good at solving the crime. There’s not much violence. There’s no torture, no bondage, no violent sex. I’ve read enough Scandinavian crime thrillers to know where I do and don’t follow authors like Stieg Larsson and Adler-Olsen. I probably won’t sell as many books as they do either! That’s okay. Like Milton, and after him Wordsworth, I want a “fit audience … though few.” Sometimes I feel like I want a wider audience, but I can’t write to please everyone, especially the ones who enjoy violence. That’s not me. So, I try to live within my limits as a writer and a person.
The Stages ends with some loose ends. Will there be a sequel?
I don’t know. The novel finishes on Kierkegaard’s bicentenary, May 5, 2013…and that date hasn’t even arrived yet! But someday I may want to go back to Copenhagen and see what Daniel Peters and Ingrid Bendtner are up to. We’ll see.