By Amy Lepine Peterson
Thom Satterlee was writer-in-residence at Taylor University until 2011, and is now a full-time writer. Burning Wyclif, his collection of poems about the 14th-century English theologian, was chosen as an American Library Association Notable Book and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in 2007. Two years later, Satterlee won a $25,000 National Endowment for the Arts poetry fellowship. He used some of the award money for a research trip to Denmark. Out of that experience came The Stages, his first novel, published on Amazon’s Kindle.
The Stages, an allusion to Søren Kierkegaard’s book Stages on Life’s Way, is a literary mystery set in Copenhagen. The story begins with the mysterious disappearance of a newly discovered Kierkegaard manuscript and the murder of the Søren Kierkegaard Research Center’s director. Daniel Peters, the novel’s narrator and an American working as a translator at the Kierkegaard Center, is embroiled in the investigation from the beginning: first as a suspect, then as a mole for the police. His investigations take him from the archives of Copenhagen’s Royal Library to the far end of Denmark.
Daniel navigates the novel’s events through the prism of his Asperger’s syndrome. Like many people with Asperger’s, Daniel is obsessed with the minute details of a few chosen subjects. Through Daniel the reader learns naturally about the art of translation and Kierkagaard’s life and philosophy. The ideas, woven together with a quickly moving plot, a strong setting, and mouth-watering descriptions of Danish pastries, make the book a pleasure to read.
In The Stages, Daniel Peters first discovers Kierkegaard in high school. His Danish Literature teacher warns the students not to read Kierkegaard, that they would regret it if they ever started down that path. Did anyone ever give you that warning?
No, I was never warned against reading Kierkegaard. I probably heard his name for the first time when I was an exchange student in Denmark, during my junior year of high school. It was clear to me that the Danes were both proud of Kierkegaard (because he was world famous) and amused by people who’d spend a lot of their time reading his philosophy. Kierkegaard had the reputation of being difficult to understand. I was attracted to philosophy and I wanted to believe that I could understand him … or maybe I wanted others to think I understood him? At any rate, I now consider myself just an amateur student of his writing. His life, his quirks, his odd writing habits — in the end I think those things interest me even more than his philosophy.
Has studying Kierkegaard’s works influenced your theology?
It probably has, but I’d be hard put to draw clear lines between what I’ve read of his work and how it’s shaped my theology. You can divide Kierkegaard’s pretty massive output of work into two categories: direct and indirect communications. The first are the books that he published under his own name and are mostly made up of sermons or what he called “upbuilding” talks. The second are his pseudonymous books published under made-up names, often humorous names like Hilarious Bookbinder or John the Taciturn. I started out intending to say that the first kind of books, the direct ones, influenced me more, but actually I’m not sure. Books like Fear and Trembling and The Concept of Anxiety and Repetition, which fall into the “indirect” category, have also taught me things about the personal and subjective nature of our relationship with God. I can say this: both kinds of books gave me a greater appreciation for the role of faith in a worshiper’s life. Kierkegaard believed that God guided his life in ways that Kierkegaard could only see in retrospect. That idea of a backward glance at your life to see how God has been in control and a forward glance in trust that he still will be — I think I got that from reading Kierkegaard, even though I’m sure other Christians get the same idea from other sources.
You intended to write poems about Kierkegaard, in much the same way you had written about Wycliffe. What made you begin a novel instead? How did the idea come to you?
That’s true: I started out writing poems about Kierkegaard, along the same lines as the poems in my collection Burning Wyclif. The idea of the novel came to me when I was doing research on the poems. I traveled to Copenhagen and visited the Kierkegaard Collection at the Museum of Copenhagen. They have his writing desk there, and while I looked at it I suddenly imagined there being a hidden manuscript inside it. That’s not an original thought, I’m sure. Kierkegaard uses the “found manuscript” device in his book Either/Or and elsewhere, and I’m sure Kierkegaard fans have made their pilgrimages to Copenhagen and thought the same thing when looking at his desk. But I took the thought a little further. I kept thinking about the possibilities through four years and at least as many drafts of a novel.
Your protagonist is a fascinating character. Were you familiar with Asperger’s syndrome before writing this novel?
I don’t think I’d heard much more than the term mentioned. Early on, when I started to show my manuscript to literary agents, one of them asked me if the Daniel character had Asperger’s. That was the point when I started to research the condition. I was especially interested in adults who receive a diagnosis later in life, say in their 30s or 40s. That’s more likely to happen to someone of my generation — someone who went to grade school in the ’70s when Asperger’s wasn’t as much on the special-needs radar.
You describe Copenhagen in great detail, with especially memorable scenes at the police station. How did you research the setting for your story?
I made two trips to Copenhagen in the years that I wrote The Stages. Mostly I walked around the city with a tiny digital voice recorder in my hand and kept a running audio journal. If I couldn’t sleep at one or two in the morning, I’d just go out and record notes. All the time I was there (about two weeks in all) I collected random observations — Danes commuting to work by bike; conversations in cafes; cold, rainy evenings in Town Hall Square; the harbor filled with ships; people traveling on trains; and much more. I was given a tour of the police station and spoke with two homicide detectives in their office for over an hour. They gave me video and a book about the station’s fascinating history. I brought all this stuff back with me, and when it came time to write, I had more material than I could use — which is better than having too little. And, of course, I always had the internet for quick fact-checking.
The “Nordic Noir” genre has gotten a lot of attention in the media lately. How does your novel fit into the genre?
My novel fits into the genre by way of geography and atmosphere, but it doesn’t fit into it in terms of violence, sex, or gruesome details. Daniel’s former girlfriend is murdered, and it’s a violent murder, but the scene is never described graphically. It’s rather muted, offstage, like Greek tragedy. I don’t think I could get myself to write as darkly as, say, Steig Larsson. I don’t really want to.
How should we celebrate Kierkegaard’s bicentenary this year?
Here’s one thing that Kierkegaard and the narrator of my novel have in common: a love of pastries! Kierkegaard was a sugar addict, scooped spoonfuls of the stuff in his coffee, and loved to eat pastries and rich layer cakes. So I would suggest a pastry feast accompanied by strong and very sweet coffee. Then when your brain is really buzzing and you’d like a mental challenge, try reading one of his books. Repetition is a good one to start with. There are also anthologies of his work in smaller snippets. If you can say or think something ironic, that too would be appropriate since Kierkegaard is considered a master of irony. Literally: his master’s thesis was titled On the Concept of Irony with Constant Reference to Socrates. I bet if you Googled “How to sing Happy Birthday in Danish” there’d be an aid or two for starting the party off with a song.
Amy Lepine Peterson teaches English as a Second Language at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, and blogs at Making All Things New.