Åsne Seierstad admits that writing about Utøya proved to be a draining experience.
Åsne Seierstad admits that writing about Utøya proved to be a draining experience.

Photo: Einar Aslaksen


Utøya and the pain that lingers

Åsne Seierstad receives one of the most important literature awards in Europe, the Leipzig Book Award for European Understanding. She wins the prize for her book 'One of us', about the Utøya attack. In this interview she explains how working with the book has affected her.

In May, Netflix launches Norway, based on Åsne Seierstad’s documentary about the terrorist attacks of 22 July 2011 in Norway. She’s donating all the Norwegian proceeds from her book One of Us to charity in memory of the young victims.

She arrives fashionably late to our lunch meeting at the Grand Hotel in Oslo, where there’s an obvious police presence. It’s the day after the Nobel Peace Prize Concert and just a week after the bombing of the government quarter was recreated, complete with blue lights and panic, by keenly focused moviemakers. As distinguished guests and famous artists check out, Seierstad hurries in, carrying a sports bag and wearing a fur hat and sealskin boots. She’s been waiting in line for the notary at Oslo Courthouse, the place where, as a journalist for Newsweek, she followed the trial of mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik. Seierstad has just signed the papers transferring the movie rights to her book En av Oss (One of Us) to renowned director Paul Greengrass.

“Filming is well underway,” Seierstad says. “The tight schedule just meant it took far too long for me to get around to signing the papers. My life’s gotten a -little too busy these days – right now, I’ve got three books on the go at once,” she adds with an apologetic smile.

Åsne Guldahl Seierstad

Age: 47
Lives: Frogner, Oslo
Family: Two children, aged seven and nine
Education: Master of Arts in Russian, Spanish and History of Ideas. Has studied political science and Arabic.
Profession: Journalist and author
Career: Has worked for Dagsavisen, Aftenposten, Dagens Nyheter, Politiken, NRK, Newsweek, Der Spiegel, The Times and has also written six books. Has won the following awards: Gullruten, the Freedom of Expression Tribute, the Norwegian Booksellers’ Prize, Den Store Journalistprisen, the Peer Gynt Prize, EMMA award, Prix des Libraires and Klasse-kampen’s cultural award and the Neshorn Prize.

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While Greengrass was recreating the AUF camp at Utøya on the island of Håøya in Vestfold in November, Seierstad was in America, researching another book. She had long since introduced the British director to all the key personnel, the 22 July Support Group and to 17-year-old Viljar Hanssen from Svalbard, who survived being shot five times and who is one of the main characters in both the book and the movie. Greengrass had also been able to meet Secretary General of NATO Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels, who in 2011 was Prime Minister of Norway and one of the terrorist’s main targets.

Seierstad was about to board a plane when Greengrass’ assistant called. The actor and doctor Anders Danielsen Lie had been cast as the terrorist Anders Behring Breivik, which was a defining moment and the answer to an extremely sensitive question. Seierstad doesn’t get involved in the casting or the script, so she had to wait to find out.

“I was incredibly relieved. I know Danielsen Lie from before. He’s a very powerful character actor. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with him about the role.”

Her work on the book One of Us has in some ways made Seierstad more familiar with the mass murderer whose name many Norwegians still can’t bear to hear. She lived on the same street and used the same gym as he did. She has interviewed his mother and studied his entire childhood and adolescence, gaining information not publicly available. When the documentary book was finished, the terrorist wrote to her from prison and asked for a signed copy. He didn’t get one.

Even today, Seierstad can still feel physically sick talking about him.

The timing of the movie has faced strong criticism, with 22,000 signatures feeling it is too soon after the event. The wounds made by this tragedy have yet to heal. However, the father of one of the youngsters who survived the terror attack, Erik Sønstelie, editor of the Oppland Arbeiderblad newspaper, is of a different opinion. “It’s absolutely the right time to be talking about things other than processions with roses and where we were the day when post-war Norway lost its innocence. We didn’t wait to tell our stories after the war, we shared them. We passed them on to the next generations. We did it to learn lessons from them, so that we would not forget. It’s the same now,” he says. Sønstelie is particularly keen that people should remember that it was a camp for the Labor Party’s youth organization, not just any ordinary camp.

“I agree with him,” Seierstad says. “The 22 July Support Group takes a completely neutral stance on the filming. This isn’t a film about Breivik the terrorist, it’s a tale of how the survivors, relatives, police, lawyers and judges all play a role in the struggle to come through these events. I gave Greengrass free rein in terms of the book manuscript. This is a movie about how the terrorist attack affected the whole of Norway. What happened on Utøya reflects the extreme nature of this attack, on values such as tolerance, integration, equality and justice,” she emphasizes.

On winter days like this, Seierstad loves to be out in the Nordmarka forest. She says she does her best thinking when she’s skiing and she likes to break the day up – first writing, then exercise. Seierstad could happily have headed deep into the snow-laden forest and worked out any problems there. Instead though, she has to forego her writing therapy in favor of psychiatry conferences and foreign book launches. One evening she’s interviewing the author Luke Harding about President Trump’s relationship with the Russians, the next day she’s giving a talk about another book, To søstre (Two Sisters).

The story of two young Muslim girls from Bærum (just outside Oslo) who were radicalized and traveled to Syria, will be launched in America and Britain in March and April. This award-winning documentary is also about Norway today, about families divided by extreme choices and tragedies. And about what exclusion and the need for belonging can lead to.

Friday 22 July 2011. They’re sitting in a friend’s car, on the way to the beautiful archipelago island of Skåtøy in Kragerø. Her daughter is only 11 months old and has just learned to differentiate between facial expressions of fear and joy. Her son will soon be three years old. Seierstad and the children are off on a cabin trip for the weekend. A chance for good friends to swim, barbecue, play and laugh together. A text message appears on her phone as she is driving southbound on the E6. A bomb has gone off in the government quarter.

Minutes later, a call comes in from Marie Colvin, the Sunday Times reporter, who the following year, would be killed by shells in Syria. She asks Seierstad if she’s in Norway and whether she can write for them.

“There was no way I could go back to Oslo,” Seierstad says. “I had the kids with me. But I spent that weekend in the cabin working.”

I read the heart-breaking biographies of the victims and cried like everyone else’

“22 July made a very strong impression on a personal level. Later, when all the aspects of the tragedy became clearer, I read the heartbreaking biographies of the victims and cried like everyone else.”

The following Monday, she took her son and her daughter in the stroller and walked in the procession of roses through Oslo, alongside thousands of other shocked people. In silence, the red roses were raised skyward in memory of the eight adults who were killed in the government quarter and the 69 young people killed on Utøya. Seierstad knew some of the parents whose children had been at the AUF camp. She also knew Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and Foreign Minister Jonas Gahr Støre. As a journalist, she needed to report to the rest of the world just how small Norway is. How strongly the entire country was affected. Every single one of us.

Oslo Domkirke, the Oslo city cathedral, became a focal point for memorials to the victims of the terror attack. Photo: IBL

She wasn’t thinking about a book at all when she -traveled to Tripoli in Libya that fall to cover the Arab Spring for Newsweek. But nine months after the terrorist attack in Norway, Seierstad sat in Courtroom 250 in Oslo as an international reporter.

“I was floored by all the different dimensions,” she says. “I had to make this something more than just reporting the news.”

She heard the soft sobs from the banks of relatives, the considered, articulate and unsentimental witness testimonies from politically active young people. In May 2012, she listened to 18-year-old Viljar Hanssen from Svalbard. Hanssen was shot five times by the terrorist, but survived, and was found badly injured by the water’s edge. His friends, Simon Sæbø and Anders Kristiansen died.

“The shot to your head, how has it subsequently affected you?” the prosecutor asked.

“This eye is damaged, but that’s convenient. It means I can’t see over there.”

Hanssen nodded towards the killer, who sat to the right of him.

Seierstad was deeply affected by Hanssen’s testimony. It would go on to be an important main story in her book about 22 July.

Eleven young people fleeing along Lovers’ Path is the opening scene in One of Us. They lay down and played dead. The man dressed as a police officer shot them anyway, one by one. “There had been eleven pounding hearts on the path. Now only one was still beating,” Seierstad writes in the book.

Author Karl Ove Knausgård helped her write the opening.

“Knausgård played an important role. I sent him the draft and got 12 densely written pages of suggested changes back. He’s a good reader. He advised me to rewrite the entire opening. ‘You have to begin with the worst thing you can think of from Utøya. That’s why you’re writing the book,’ he told me.”

What’s your aim, as a journalist and author?

“To describe reality. It’s often unfair, but it’s not only injustice I’m trying to expose. I’m curious about life around us, I stop when my heart begins to pound – and try to find out what has happened, like a detective, searching for leads and threads. As an author, I try to engage the reader and communicate through a powerful story that feels recognizable and immediate.”

Do these books change you?

“Everything affects me. My meetings with the parents, siblings and victims will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Seierstad has become known as the fearless war reporter who remained in Baghdad as the bombs rained down, when all the other Scandinavian reporters had been recalled back home. In private, she’s a woman who “sets the tone” in a room. But when she talks about all the people she has met in connection with the book about 22 July, she’s clearly emotionally affected.

In May 2014, the relatives of Simon Sæbø invited her to Svalbard for the Svalbard Ski Marathon. They knew that Seierstad was a keen skier and that she had done both the 90km-long Vasaloppet and the Birkebeinerrennet race from Rena to her childhood hometown of Lillehammer. She accepted right away and mentioned it to Jens Stoltenberg. He had been at Sæbø’s funeral. Now, he too wanted to join in and ski the 42km into the icy wasteland from Longyearbyen with them. A month earlier, NATO had announced him as their next Secretary General. He would be rounding off his time as Norway’s Prime Minister and leader of the Labor Party with this ski trip and a May Day speech on Svalbard.

“He beat me by a few seconds,” Seierstad says with a wry smile.

Her next book, on Trump’s America, will be completed next year, probably after a long stay in Alabama in the Deep South. Seierstad decided to do the project during President Trump’s televised inauguration speech, as she ate Trump Steak with friends in Oslo.

“People expected a presidential appearance and a unifying message. We got the opposite. I thought to myself, things are going to happen in the US that I have to write about. There will be a polarization and a change in social and economic conditions for most people. Trump should only be the backdrop.”

As a mother of two, Seierstad has to plan her work life more than she used to. When she was a young journalist, she could go to the war in Chechnya at the drop of a hat. Her close-up depictions of everyday life and an excellent way with words have been her hallmark. She’s slept on the floors of families in Chechnya, China and Libya – and of the bookseller in Kabul. It felt safer and she could get closer to the reality she wanted to portray.

‘I was afraid in Baghdad. Afraid that my life was going to end’

Are you never afraid?

“I was afraid in Baghdad. Afraid that my life was going to end. At the same time I take a pragmatic approach to fear. I try to isolate the feeling, freeze it out. But in a war zone, you need to be careful. During my upbringing, my parents gave me a natural feeling of safety and that has meant a lot. My mom was always keen that we children were individuals who should be seen, not just brought up. They took us seriously and taught me how to rely on myself.”

Seierstad’s feminist mother, Frøydis Guldahl, also taught her that girls could do the same things boys could; in other words – everything.

With the War on -Terror in full swing in 2001, Åsne Seierstad, in Afghanistan reporting for Dagbladet, took a horseback route to reach the Northern Alliance's stronghold. Photo: IBL

You were awarded the Neshorn Prize last year, which is given to people who, like the rhino it’s named after, charge right on through no matter what they come up against, isn’t it?

“I certainly keep charging on through, all right. -Everyone needs to have a rhino at their door,” she laughs.

Friends of hers observe that she doesn’t worry about what other people say or think about her. She’s even joked that she doesn’t understand irony, saying that her father, Dag Seierstad, a veteran of the Norwegian -Socialist Left Party, always said that you shouldn’t use irony when you’re talking to a child as it only creates uncertainty.

In recent years, she’s been living in Oslo’s quietest street, in a huge, red Swiss chalet-style villa worth around NKr46 million. The timber house originally belonged to Roald Amundsen’s brother. The polar explorer even lived there himself at times. Seierstad thinks that the house has a little bit of the explorer spirit, just like she does. She’s an adventurer, and wants to remain one. There, she can potter around, cycle to and from Bygdøy in just her dressing gown for a swim, then suddenly find the thread for the book she’s writing. Then, she won’t sleep for several nights and writes like a woman possessed, running on pure adrenaline. It’s as if she gets a sudden sharp insight after weeks of chaos.

‘My meetings with the parents, siblings and victims will stay with me for the rest of my life’

Why are you giving away the Norwegian proceeds from One of Us?

“I didn’t want it to come between me, the victims and the relatives. It’s a way of giving something back, like I did by getting a school built in Afghanistan after The Bookseller of Kabul.”

 So far, NKr2 million has been allocated to a number of school projects in refugee camps in Syria, and funding has also been provided for an artificial sports pitch in Sæbø’s hometown in Northern Norway and for a grand piano at the Bardu cultural center. The money is to help young people fulfill their dreams, in sports, education and culture.

As a mother, she’s also made a definite decision to stay away from dangerous war zones from now on.

“Our lives have been a lot about me. Now I want to pull back a little and be around more. For the children.” 

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