Just an American on the Bus
An Interview with Christian Moerk
A piano plays in the distance as I walk by the Love Lane street sign, shining white against one of Brooklyn Heights’ many brick buildings. I’m meeting with novelist Christian Moerk for coffee and a chat in the Starbucks on Montague Street, a few blocks from his home. Moerk is the author of 12 novels, translated into more than 20 languages. When I get there, he is standing in the middle of the café with a wallet in his hand, about to pay for an iced cappuccino. He looks up and smiles.
“Hi there.” He extends an arm, indicating that I should move closer. “What would you like?”
I order a latte. He insists on paying, and we sit at a little round table.
Moerk, 52, was born charismatic. He grew up in Denmark but left at the age of 21, determined to “figure out what [was] out there for [him].” He moved deep into the green mountains of Vermont and graduated summa cum laude from Marlboro College a few years later. He received the Margaret Mead Prize for best thesis, then went on to earn his master’s degree from the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. Upon graduation, Moerk received the Henry N. Taylor Award for his thesis, “Alien Nation,” which focused on the lives of illegal Irish immigrants in New York.
“I don’t quite know,” Moerk says when I ask him what inspired his fascination with Ireland. “I could identify with [the Irish] because they spoke English. In America, there were Dominicans, and Salvadorians, and Haitians—there were all kinds of other people. I didn’t speak any of those languages and I was so eager to identify with an immigrant group.” A feeling most of us can identify with; we all want to belong. Moerk pauses for a second and takes off his horn-rimmed glasses, placing them on the table. “They could be Danish, you know what I mean? It’s a small country, they have a dry sense of humor, they’re kind of skeptical.” While talking, Moerk looks me in the eyes. His voice is calm, and listening to him is comfortable.
After he graduated from Columbia University, Moerk got a job in the entertainment industry, working as a film executive at Warner Brothers.
“I didn’t know I wanted to write books until I had been a movie executive,” Moerk says. “I saw all the manuscripts coming in and I thought, That’s what I wanna do. I don’t want to hire those people. I want to be those people.”
While assisting with the productions of two Neil Jordan movies, both set in a small Irish town, Moerk was inspired to write Darling Jim. He returned to Ireland, rented a room from an old lady, and began writing the novel, which earned kudos from no less than the New York Times.
“I wrote the entire thing in a month and a half and I never changed a word,” Moerk says. “It was like a fever. I wrote the whole day and the whole night, and I would awaken at odd hours and get into my rental car and drive into the landscape.” He describes the small island as if it were a beautiful woman, its rocky mountains turned into soft curves. Then he adds, “They all wondered what I was doing. They were just so nosy, you know. Are you here for the festival?” Moerk says, mimicking the Irish accent. “Would you be here to buy real estate?” He laughs. “They’re lovely.”
I imagine Moerk sitting in a cottage by the beach, typing away on an old-fashioned typewriter. The romanticized notion, however, evaporates—quicker than the rain that falls in Dublin’s fair city— when Moerk answers my question: Whether there are days when he doesn’t feel like writing.
“Every other day!” he says without blinking. “At least.” His answer makes me think of a quote by Dorothy Parker: “I hate writing, I love having written.” It’s a feeling to which Moerk can relate. We talk about translation. “I’m a bit of a control freak with my work,” Moerk admits. “If things are untranslatable, you invent that little thing that you have to fix, as opposed to having someone else do it.” Moerk is as serious a translator as he is a novelist. He used to write his manuscripts in English, then translate them. His last two novels, however, he wrote in Danish. “It’s set in Denmark, so it would be inconceivable to write it in English. The places’ names, the way people talk. I wouldn’t be able to get that right.” When the time came to translate the books into English, he did it himself.
Moerk writes novels. That’s all he does. “I realize that it sounds really weird,” he says with a laugh. “Lots of my colleagues teach, or they write articles for newspapers. I don’t. But they also do it because their books don’t sell. When I wasn’t writing books that people wanted to buy, believe me, I was doing tons of things during the day. I was a copywriter for a website, I was a freelance journalist for the New York Times. I did all kinds of different things.”
In the background, Joni Mitchell starts singing “Big Yellow Taxi.” I ask Moerk what makes him happy.
“My happiness is momentary. I think it is for all of us. What does happiness mean to me?” He pauses and sips his coffee. “A well-written sentence means happiness to me,” he says. “I can sit here at 11:30, a late morning at Starbucks, having coffee and talking to you and I don’t have to be somewhere. That freedom makes me very happy.”
Another native of Denmark, H.C. Andersen, once wrote: “To travel is to live.”
“Does travel make you happy?”
“Oh my God, yes! I’m so fortunate that the books I write allow me to travel a lot.” He starts talking about Vietnam, then Ecuador. “You have this white-man-paternalistic view that it’s poor and it’s terrible, and then you come over there and you realize that their capacity for kindness is enormous. I learned a lot from my travels. I did.”
Moerk travels to Denmark often. “I have a home in both places. That’s normal to me now,” he says. “Whenever I’m in Denmark, I’m Danish and I’m like everybody else. And when I’m here, I’m just an American on the bus, you know. So, it really is situational love.”
“Let me see…” I look down at my unasked questions.
“Yeah, take your time. Seriously. I’m not in a hurry.”
“What is your biggest success so far?”
“My biggest success is basically un-assholing myself after coming out of Hollywood.” He smiles. “Coming back into the world, here, and not being an arrogant asshole, which is what is expected from you when you work as a movie executive. That’s my biggest success.”
“And your biggest disappointment?”
“My biggest disappointment is that I have been too afraid of intimacy to have children.”
I try to get him to elaborate on that, but it’s clear he doesn’t want to, so I let him off the hook.
Moerk was born into a family of famous actors. His mother, Susse Vold, quickly became the leading lady at the Royal Danish Theatre. Her career has spanned over five decades. Like Moerk, she enjoys travelling and has toured the world reciting the works of H.C. Andersen. “They were loving people who were incredibly busy,” he says of his parents. “Their work was their life, and I started thinking: Okay, great. That’s their life. Let me figure out what’s out there for me.”
On our way out, I ask Moerk what his favorite book is. “My favorite book is always the book that I’m reading right now,” he says with a smile. “So, the favorite book that I’m reading right now is called The Sisters Brothers. It’s about two ruffians on the Western frontier in 1852, and it’s brilliant, brilliant, brilliant!”