The wondrous beauty of life

… more space for the weird, the strange, the unpredictable, the extremely sad and the extremely humorous …

Interview with author Louis Jensen

To be enthralled by the wondrous beauty of life to such a degree that it expands his consciousness and makes him ’high’ trying to put these experiences into words – this is the fountain that sustains the works of Louis Jensen.

To allow the text a life of its own so that the story unfolds on its own accord – this is the most important technique for Louis Jensen when he writes. Consequently, he never knows in advance how his stories are going to end. – I start at a point which fascinates me – an inner vision, a word or a sentence that excites me in some way. For example a big heart lying on a beach. This sets an inner film in motion, and I then write down what I see. In this way the story and the plot are almost inevitable.

The text has its own life
Afterwards, Louis Jensen looks at his text critically – is something not quite clear or could something be expressed more beautifully or more rhythmically? But the plot itself, he makes no attempt to change. – It means that I don’t always understand myself what I have written. Children at the schools ask me, “But, why did this happen?”, but I cannot explain what happens or why – the text itself has decided what will happen. When Louis Jensen instructs children in how to write, he explains to them that they should not write according to a plan, but start at a point where their feelings are most intense. – “Don’t think”, as Rad Bradbury said – let the story get its own life rather than try to write something that is like something else. Therefore, I don’t want primarily to create excitement or appeal to a zest for reading in other ways – I let myself be carried away by the flow. Naturally, pauses will occur when I am writing, where another part of my conscience begins to wonder how the story will unfold, about the plot itself and other technical dimensions. Subconsciously, my brain also begins to arrange the material – it takes a number of different overlapping structures to create a text. You are right in the middle of your story and looking at it from above at the same time, just as you write in a mixture of consciousness and subconsciousness.

To touch upon the indescribable
- My greatest joy in writing is to incorporate my experiences of the beauty of the world into my stories – a singular experience of the rain or the sun for example, a beautiful experience which I feel should be communicated so that it is not wasted. Unfortunately, I can’t always describe my experience quite accurately. At other times I am transported by joy at having succeeded – you always keep trying.

The hymns by the great Danish writers – Brorson, Ingemann, Kingo and Grundtvig – are some of Louis Jensen’s most important sources of inspiration. -The Danish hymn book completely fascinated me as a child, and my linguistic aesthetics is rooted in their tradition of describing nature and the feelings it inspires, which extends our whole being and determines how we behave in this world. Also from a social point of view – one becomes a slightly better person when moving the attention away from oneself and directing it at other people. Man’s great problem is that he is so self-absorbed, but the moment he stops focusing on himself, it suddenly becomes possible to understand and look at other people in an entirely different way … they are mighty forces that work their way into our minds and make us the people we are. The ultimate experience for me is when the text suddenly opens up for all the dimensions in the world which have until now been obscured – when one succeeds in touching upon something almost indescribable. Some readers perceive this and take it to heart – in this way literature can make us more open and expansive in our understanding of ourselves and of the world.

Literature keeps us alive
- When I write for children I don’t try to write in a particularly child-orientated way – I write in a way I think they will understand. And it makes me very happy when I meet children who say “that was exciting – do write some more!” To feel that they have gained something from one of my books, that it has touched them and what I want to say means something to them – that is a joy.

When I am out somewhere reading aloud to children, I often do a summing up of something I myself or others have written – for example the background for The Arabian Nights which my project on writing 1001 stories has been inspired by. The vizier who every day appoints a new woman and cuts off her head the next day, until he meets the ingenious Shezerade who tells him a story so extremely exciting and keeps it going until the early morning so that he has to let her continue the next day. The vizier knows he is being outfoxed, but he is so wrapped up in the story that she is allowed to go on night after night. I am very fond of this story because it lets us realise that literature keeps us alive. The interesting point about reading stories aloud is also that it is possible to change pace according to the audience’s reactions which provide input for the story-teller – if they are completely caught up in the tale, one can make the pauses longer. It is like a play.

It is also exciting for the children to meet those who write books for them. When they know you are coming, they begin to imagine who this story-teller is – he takes on a certain shape instead of being something rather abstract. And he becomes part of the text in a way that provides their experience with extra dimensions. And it might certainly inspire them to write something themselves.

‘Presence’ in the writing workshop
The direct meeting with the children can also take place in a writing workshop. For the writing workshop to function in the best possible way, it is absolutely essential that the author is able to generate confidence and a kind of ‘presence’, says Louis Jensen.

- If you want a good dialogue with children, you must make quite certain that you create a kind of mutual confidence. You have to be very open with them, so they feel you are taking them seriously and are really listening to what they say and write, instead of instructing them. However banal their reactions might seem to you, you have to answer in the best and most qualified way that you are able to – precisely as if you were having a dialogue with a fellow author. If the children feel this kind of attention, they will open up and feel confident and safe enough to write something which they might not otherwise attempt. This space that you share with them must also be a reassuring free area where the children are allowed to express themselves in weird and strange ways, just as they feel like.

Therefore, Louis Jensen always underlines at the outset that bullying is expressly forbidden in his workshop. -It is important that you yourself know the blocking mechanisms in the writing process, so that you can forestall them.When you succeed in creating this safe atmosphere, children are on the other hand much better to take advice than adults who have developed any number of defences. Children are much more likely to take heed when you tell them that for example “this word blocks your text, take it out” or “move the last word up front”.

The teachers’ special responsibility
Developing the ability to write does at the same time qualify the children as readers – so it is obvious that teachers and librarians must work more purposefully at stimulating children’s interest in reading by introducing writing activities.

- To tell stories and read aloud is also very important if you do it the right way – that is to say that you yourself really want to give the children something special. If that is the case, it is nearly always possible to catch their attention and encourage them in all sorts of directions. An uninspired teacher on the other hand can kill many children’s incipient zest for reading. So commitment is the most important key for teachers and librarians to stimulate children’s love of reading – tell them how very important it is to read. I myself had two wonderful teachers of Danish in lower and upper secondary school, who were able to make everything come alive and to give me the essential push forward – they were completely besotted with literature and their enthusiasm rubbed off on their pupils, as did their ability to feel wonder and renew oneself, to express oneself and be brave enough to do it in new ways. If one does not already possess these capabilities, it is important to learn them at college.We are all the time on the brink of spiritual death, but the school has the opportunity of giving children a constantly innovative opening to the world – a break-through to another world. It should be the obligation of every teacher to mediate this insight to children, because it is so all-important to our lives in a completely existential way, underlines Louis Jensen.

More room for the unusual
Asked whether Danish children’s literature has ideal conditions, Louis Jensen feels that on the one hand the Danish support system works really well – on the other hand he would welcome more room for the unusual children’s literature. -I feel that the state should support literature, making room for other than mainstream literature to be published. And if I were to express a wish, it would be for more space for the weird, the strange, the unpredictable, the extremely sad and the extremely humorous … all that kind of literature where the text shows itself in another way than we are used to – the strange books that open up for something of what we all carry around inside our minds and which help to widen the world – it would be unbearable if all children’s books had the same predictable plot.

Interviewer: Monica C. Madsen, journalist
Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

(First published in Danish in Læsningens magi, 2003) (see details of the reading campaign Children and literature on page 34)

When I was a child…
Louis Jensen, author

I quickly became a champion reader, although I am sure I never really learned to read when I started school – it was just too weird with all those letters. But I was very happy for my mother to read comics to me.

Reading became a very important part of my childhood – I borrowed many books from our local library, which only consisted of two rooms in an old house with a limited number of books. I began with the fairy-tales, went on to the rest of the children’s books and soon began to venture into the adults department in order to find more books. I also liked singing … subconsciously I was probably caught up in the poetic space which language created for me – then as now it was entirely magic and profound, with enormous power of attraction and longing – we are forever inspired by longing and we continuously look for it in the stories we read, both as children and as adults.