Thomas Korsgaard on What Children Know

This week’s story, “The Spit of Him,” is about a boy named Kevin who ventures out to a neighboring village and, in the process, may or may not discover a dark secret about his father. How did the idea for this story come to you?

I began working on this story one night in my apartment. I was sitting at my desk and had just spent a long day working on quite a different story when an image appeared to me out of the blue. A boy, about ten years old, walking along a road in the rain, unsuitably clad in a pair of baggy pajamas, a laptop bag slung across his shoulder. That was what came to me—nothing else. But I was interested in knowing what was going to happen to him. I had to stay at my computer that night and try to put that image into words.

I remembered, also, being a young teen-ager preparing for my confirmation. I phoned the local community center to ask if my family could rent the place for the celebration that was going to be held after the church service. I told them who I was and why I was calling, and then heard the woman at the other end, presumably covering the receiver, say to her husband who ran the place, “It’s his son.” There was a muffled exchange between them, before the man said, “If it’s him, then tell them we can’t.” The woman then fobbed me off with some excuse. They didn’t seem to realize that I’d overheard them. I never mentioned it to my dad—I didn’t want him to know that we’d been snubbed like that.

At the heart of this, I suppose, lies the question: How can you ever be yourself when others have already decided who you are? I’m sure that the kind of rejection that Kevin and his dad experience in my story happens wherever there are people. The two are made the object of a kind of vigilantism on the part of the surrounding society; it’s an instinct that is very human, I suppose, but also a part of us that contributes to unrest in the world. Kevin’s dad has done something that’s very easy to denounce, perhaps even to hate him for, but I felt I had to find something about him that was redeeming, something I liked about him despite what he’d done—and I was able to find that by spending so much time with his son, Kevin.

A lot of readers probably think of Denmark as a utopian, egalitarian society. In your story, however, Kevin and his family seem to be outcasts, ostracized by their peers and, in his father’s case, resentful of their dependence on the government. Is there another side to Denmark that you were trying to depict?

My story about Kevin takes place, like my own childhood, far from the cities and the major towns of Denmark, in a small place of fields, fields, and more fields, where for better or worse everyone knows everyone else. Although Denmark is a small and wealthy nation, there’s still a wide gap between the well-to-do urban population and those in the rural districts whose lives are under pressure and who feel forgotten by those in power. Very few authors in Denmark write from that kind of perspective, and there are even fewer whose work finds its way outside the country’s borders. Denmark is a welfare society with a large and prosperous middle class, and our literature tends to reflect that, which is fair enough, but there’s another side to our country, too, and a growing underclass that literature should be giving voice to. Too many houses in rural areas stand empty and deteriorating: windows boarded up, yards littered with junk, brickwork greening with algae. If I happen to drive past one of these places with friends from more prosperous backgrounds, they’ll often say something like “No one lives there, surely?” And I’ll tell them, “Yes, someone probably does”—and, if it’s back where I come from, I might even know them.

During his outing, Kevin pays close attention to everything he sees, including advertisements and signs posted on houses and scratched graffiti inside a bus shelter. His observations feel representative of the experience of childhood, which is both to notice certain things in excruciating detail and also not to notice other things at all, like what people are telling him about his father. How did you navigate this dynamic?

Children see and notice a lot more than we grownups care to realize. On the other hand, everything appears new to them. A child doesn’t think much about whether they could be living a different life under different circumstances. Kevin doesn’t think of himself, for example, as poor and underprivileged. Far from it. There’s both enthusiasm and pride in him, which is nevertheless damaged by the perceptions of those he encounters.

My own childhood was fairly O.K. to begin with, but went off the rails when my parents suffered unbearable tragedies and were given no help in dealing with them. That made me a child who was afraid to be at home. I had to survive on my own. One of my strategies was mentally uncoupling myself from my family and pretending they didn’t concern me. I related to everything around me as if it were a film I happened to be in. Or else, I was the camera operator; I made myself an observer of the world around me. It’s a perspective I’ve maintained, and, even though it was born of traumatic events, it benefits me as a writer today; it’s that attention to detail, I think, that brings my writing to life.

But of course there are things that Kevin doesn’t see, or, rather, chooses not to, and I think that has to do with the desire to protect oneself. Sometimes you have to bow your head and lower your gaze so reality doesn’t break you. Kevin knows that. The problem is that you then risk crumpling up and becoming invisible if it’s a posture you keep for too long.

Much of the story takes place in dialogue, in a conversation between Kevin and a couple, Birgitte and Henrik, with whom he is unknowingly linked. Did you always know that much of the story would take place through this conversation, or did it come about in the course of writing?

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