Inspirational Traveller: Novel writing in New York
Katja Hvenmark Nilsson is the author of recently published novel, Manhattan Transfer. Katja, a Swedish national, was living and working in Gothenburg, but in 2015 all that changed when she decided to up and leave for the bright lights of New York. In New York, she spent her time working on her novel, which was successfully published by Hoi förlag in 2019. We interview Katja to find out more about this exciting project, incredible journey, and how it changed her as a person.
Congratulations on publishing a novel - a fantastic achievement! Is writing a novel something you had been planning for a while or was it a spontaneous decision?
The need to write a book was a feeling that had been growing, and I wanted to take 6 months off from my ‘day job’ as a high school teacher to do so. My employer asked, however, that I took a year instead, so as not to disrupt classes part-way through the year. At first I wasn’t sure - a year is a long time, and I didn’t think my savings were enough. But when my then boyfriend and I broke-up, I decided just to go for it. I wasn’t exactly sure what it would result in, but it was something I had to do. When I started I had no support network; no connection to a publishing company, no future promise from an investor - it was just the idea - but I figured I would make it work, some how, by living on a budget. I did, too. I wrote with discipline everyday, though forcing myself to take time off on the weekends, so I wouldn’t get tired.
You moved to New York in order to write your novel. What made you feel the need to move a different city to write, rather than writing from home?
I figured I could either stay at home and be broke and sad in an empty apartment, or I could make it an adventure, live abroad, and be broke there instead! The last option seemed more fun.
In part, the novel is a reflection of your experiences while living in New York. Did you have this story line in mind before you moved, or did the move inspire the story?
The move absolutely inspired the story. The novel is in many ways inspired by the interesting people I met in New York. Many Americans are so talkative and rhetorically skilled, they will tell their fascinating life stories to strangers like me in a few snappy sentences and I thought to myself ‘I have to remember this person, I want to remember exactly what he or she said’, so I wrote it all down so the memories would stay with me. In fact, I mostly wrote the script on my cellphone during subway rides. The title Manhattan Transfer alludes to the announcement they make on the L-train when you go from Brooklyn over to Manhattan. It’s also a metaphor for the main character’s inner journey, as she develops other parts of her personality when she leaves Sweden and moves to Manhattan.
Why New York?
I have known for a long time that I wanted to live in New York at least once in my life, and that I wanted to know the city as more than a tourist. Many of my favourite movies and TV shows are set there; it’s such a beautiful city and easy to get around either by public transport or on foot, thanks to the logical system of streets and avenues. It felt accessible to me, and I like to be independent!
How long were you living in New York for, and was the novel written entirely from there, or was some completed on your return to Sweden?
In the end, my novel was an international journey written in New York, Berlin and Tenerife! I lived in New York for almost a year but did not have time to finish the novel before I had to go back to Sweden to work. When I came home to Sweden I also wanted a change - I was a different person and I didn’t want to return to my old life like nothing had happened. I started to work as a substitute teacher, then one day I got a phone-call from Microsoft who had read a non-fiction book I’ve also written and published, for new teachers. They were impressed at how I integrated digital tools into the classroom and hired me as a consultant to travel around Sweden and give free lectures to teach schools that had purchased their products - it was fun, but busy - and I had no time to be complete my novel. After a year, I packed my bags and moved to Berlin with the intention to finish the novel. I wrote almost every day between nine and five. Then, when it got cold I packed again and went to Tenerife. That’s where I finished the novel.
After I’d finished writing it in Tenerife, I sent it to every script publishing company in Sweden then closed my computer, went to the beach, and asked some guys to teach me how to surf. I had a week before my next flight back to Sweden which I spent surfing, salsa-ing, hiking volcanoes and whale-watching. Of course, once I returned to Sweden, I was anxiously waiting for replies from publishing companies - I just needed one single ‘yes’. When the ‘yes’ came, it was such an adrenaline rush.
What sort of inspiration did living in such a vibrant city give you?
New York City never ceased to amaze me, my heart still aches to go back; there is a power and a pulse that never stops. The people and the vibe were a huge inspiration to me - I was overwhelmed with the generosity and the social competence of strangers who would talk to me in stores, in the park, on the subway - this is something that doesn’t happen in Sweden! I remember some amazing street musicians - I would stop and listen and put a few dollars in their jar and think to myself ‘this is a great concert, how can this artist not be famous’? I made friends and went with them to sky-bars and speakeasies (or, at least I did in the beginning when I had more money!). I have two stand-out memories, the first was in a ping-pong arcade hall; in Sweden they give you a racket and one ball to play - and if you loose it you have to pay - but here there were baskets full of ping pong balls, the floor was covered with them, people shot them in all directions. It was such a contrast. The second was a 1940’s themed evening cruise; there was a live swing band and people dancing on the deck. It was so warm and I looked up at the sky, and suddenly I saw the Statue of Liberty right by the boat. It was fantastic.
How did you and your novel protagonist, Vienna, discover the city?
I let my main character, Vienna, discover the city with her camera, and I discovered it as a writer - there were so many interesting people and places that I never tired of it.
To begin with I looked for tips online and in guidebooks, but actually the people around me were very generous with advice, even taking me out to their favourite bars or cafés. I found the best places by paying attention to what people around me talked about. In order to live in New York for a year while writing my novel, I was on a tight budget, so one of the best places I was recommended was a university training school for hairdressers - they were always in need of volunteers to practice on so I used to dress up, go there and come out with fantastic hair for free! I also found jazz clubs, free concerts and places where they did the Harlem-born, Lindy Hop.
To begin with, I was shy and hesitant to go out alone - you don't do that in Sweden, but the New Yorkers taught me to be brave about it. Towards the end of my stay I went to places alone almost on a a daily basis, I enjoyed the freedom of not having to wait for someone. I have continued to do this since I returned to Sweden, too. Perhaps other Swedes think it arrogant or unusual, but the truth is I don’t care so much what others think anymore. I do the things I want in life. I’m very grateful to New York for teaching me the value of that.
NYC is a busy city - was it easy to integrate and to meet locals? If so, how did you do this?
To start with, I had room-mates who showed me the neighborhood and gave me a lot of advice. I also became part of meet-up groups related to socialising instead of just writing - one was called ‘The Fun and Fabulous Girl Friends of New York’, who I went to brunch with several times. I also went to gatherings that the Swedish Consulate of New York hosted for Swedes. Outside of organised meet ups, New Yorker’s are just really friendly! I was so impressed by the social competence and the courage of them starting conversations with me, a stranger. I learned from that. Now back in Sweden, I forget it’s not normal here - I’ll often walk up to someone who looks like they need help and ask if I can do something, or just start talking to someone who looks alone. People here are usually at best confused, and at worst frightened by me doing so. I prefer the American social competence.
How did you develop your writing whilst there?
I took a script-writing course to focus my thoughts which really helped. I also joined a meet-up group (New York has so many that you’ll doubtlessly find one to suit your interests and meet others like-minded people). The writer’s group I joined was called ‘Shut up and Write!” And we basically did just that!
Did you face any challenges while writing?
Yes; firstly time and money. Then angst. Angst that all the time and money I’d put into the project might be for nothing, angst that my writing was not good enough, angst about not getting the novel ending right, angst that all the 300 pages might not be good. I often obsessed about the script so much that it led to me waking up in the middle of the night to write a scene - I felt like a mad scientist, obsessed with my work, I couldn't stop thinking about it. Sometimes I got writer’s block and had to force myself to take breaks over the weekend - after some rest I could usually could find my motivation again.
Did you discover any favourite places to write from that you would recommend to others either writing a novel, or working as a digital nomad there?
I lived in Harlem for a while and often worked from a café called Manhattanville Coffee. It was a great place to write, and the staff were so friendly. On my birthday they made me a fantastic drink on the house and once, when my Swedish bank froze my card, the baristas gave me free bagels to survive the week. I really recommend Manhattanville Coffee! When I lived in Brooklyn I had another go-to café called Outpost. The best thing about it was the goat cheese salad - plus the fact that they had outdoor sockets, so you could sit in their garden and write, and still charge your computer!
Can you tell us any stand out moments from your time there?
Yes, and it’s funny in hindsight, but not at the time. My first landlord wore a wig and dressed up when he came to collect the rent, I think so that we wouldn't recognise him in the street. It was super strange. He would only take cash, but he didn't want to tell us exactly what day he would come, so it was really difficult to pay rent. The first time he came I didn't know I was supposed to be there so when I came back home he had taken my bed, and I had to sleep on the couch in the living room for three nights before he came again. That time I made sure I was at home, so I could pay, and get my bed back! This is of course in the book. Nothing beats the comedy of reality.
As you know the city well now, do you have any other NYC recommendations for readers who are visiting?
In the summer I loved spending time in the parks. I would charge up my computer and sit somewhere in the beautiful Central Park and write - there are also hidden little parks among the houses in Alphabet city. I loved the Swedish celebration of Midsummer that SWEA organizes every year too. My favorite skybar is the Press Lounge, and ‘Don’t Tell Mama’ is a cool place to go to if you are a fan of musicals as the waitresses sing Broadway tunes with amazing voices. You should of course seek out at least one Speak Easy joint - those secret bars that you have to know where to look for. My general tip is to keep your ears open and not loose yourself in your cellphone. If you hear great music then walk towards it, if you see 500 people having an organised pillow fight then join in. Oh, and if you’re near Sundaes and Cones ice cream bar - definitely try the lavender!
Finally - did you manage to explore any of the US outside of NYC?
I’ve spent some time in the US as a foreign exchange student in California. I’ve also visited Seattle and Chicago, but a future dream is to go cross-country and visit the National Parks.
- Interview by Katie Silcox
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