Nordic Watchlist’s Marc Harries interviews Norwegian author Silje Ulstein about her debut novel, Reptile Memoirs which is available now.
Reptile Memoirs Synopsis: Liv has a lot of secrets. Late one night, in the aftermath of a party in the apartment she shares with two friends in Alesund, she sees a python on a TV nature show and becomes obsessed with the idea of buying a snake as a pet. Soon Nero, a baby Burmese python, becomes the apartments fourth roommate. As Liv bonds with Nero, she is struck by a desire that surprises her with its intensity. Finally she is safe.
Thirteen years later, in the nearby town of Kristiansund, Mariam Lind goes on a shopping trip with her eleven year old daughter, Iben. Following an argument Mariam storms off, expecting her daughter to make her own way home…but she never does. Detective Roe Olsvik, new to the Kristiandsund police department is assigned to the case of Iben’s disappearance. As he interrogates Mariam, he instantly suspects her – but there is much more to this case and these characters than their outer appearances would suggest.
Nordic Watchlist: Something I took from reading the book is that you seem to know a lot about snakes! How did you go about doing your research?
Silje Ulstein: I did a lot of research! I read a lot about them, I watched several YouTube videos, visited the zoo and held some and talked to the keepers. I was really fascinated by their senses, particularly how they see, because they don’t really, they only see warmth.
There was a lot of my reading that didn’t necessarily result in anything but I was curious to learn as much as I could.
I became intrigued by the similarities and differences between humans and snakes and tried to weave those into my characters. With Liv for example she often acts on pure instinct and is, I suppose, a bit of a loner. In many ways that is quite snake like.
Nordic Watchlist: How did you find writing across different timelines? Do you write them one at a time or do you switch between when writing as the book does?
Silje Ulstein: I suppose the answer is I do a little bit of both. I’m mostly working on one timeline at a time but if I hit a block and I’m struggling with where to take it next, I switch to another and then come back to it later.
I like to write whatever feels most interesting to me at the time I’m writing so if that means switching back and forth, I don’t mind doing it. I mean, there were times I was writing the ending without the beginning or middle being complete which meant there were a lot of loose scenes that I needed to go back and make fit together!
All in all, it took me four years to write. I’m aware it was quite an ambitious plot for a debut book and I didn’t really know what I was getting myself into when I started! It took up all my evenings, weekends and holidays but I am so pleased with how it’s turned out and how it’s been received.
Nordic Watchlist: You’ve pre-empted my next question – did you ever expect it to be as successful as it has been?
Silje Ulstein: No, not at all! All I was focused on was writing a good book and the success has been far beyond anything I ever expected. I hoped it would be published in Norway and of course I hoped for some good reviews but I had no idea it would end up all over the world. It’s an amazing feeling.
Nordic Watchlist: Did you ever worry it was a bit risky writing something quite so different? Was there any part of the story where you thought, am I going too far?
Silje Ulstein: No, not really. I was really interested in writing a thriller and trying to push the boundaries a little. I really like that feeling of being uncomfortable but intrigued at the same time and wanted to try and create that. That being said, there is one particular part in the book where I shocked myself when I first wrote it (no spoilers!) but I didn’t think for a second about not including it.
Nordic Watchlist: So, Reptile Memoirs was released in Norway in 2020. What’s coming next?
Silje Ulstein: I’m currently working on a new novel. It’s very much a work in progress at the moment so I’m afraid I can’t give you a release date. I don’t want to give too much away but what I will say is that it’s not a sequel but that there might be some repeat characters.
Nordic Watchlist: Have you got any desire to write a series?
Silje Ulstein: I wouldn’t rule it out so I suppose the answer is we’ll see. I definitely think reptile memoirs will be a standalone but given that there will be some repeat characters in my next book I suppose it is possible it could happen in the future.
Nordic Watchlist: Do you feel any added pressure writing your second book given the success of Reptile Memoirs or do you write what you like as opposed to what you think the reader might like?
Silje Ulstein: Yes, I definitely feel that. My aim with Reptile Memoirs was really to prove to myself that I could write a book and get it published. There’s a little voice in the back of my head now that says, “you need to prove you can do it again!”.
I try to shut that voice down though because I think what made me able to write my first book was heading into it with low expectations. I keep thinking it’s better to write something that doesn’t work than to write nothing. Fingers crossed it does work though!
Nordic Watchlist: A difficult question to finish, but do you have a favourite book or books?
Silje Ulstein: For me, that’s one of the hardest questions in the world! I’ve never felt like I’ve had one favourite for more than a short period of time. My favourite thriller could be Calling Out For You by Karin Fossum or Misery by Stephen King and then, from other genres, maybe Don Quixote or Crime and Punishment. Even just naming those few though feels like I’m betraying some others that deserve to be mentioned!
Interview by Marc Harries