1. About the Author
2. A Conversation with Peter Høeg
3. Questions for Discussion
About the Author:
Peter Høeg, born in Denmark in 1957, pursued various interests--he was
a professional dancer, an actor, a sailor, a fencer, and a mountaineer--before
turning seriously to writing. He lives in Copenhagen with his family and has
no phone, television, or car.
He has traveled throughout most of the world, and has spent considerable time
Smilla's Sense of Snow is his third novel and the first to be published
in English. It has also been published in twelve other countries including
Korea, Brazil, and most of western Europe.
A Conversation With Peter Høeg
Q: When did you start writing?
A: There is a day of change in the life of most authors... That is the day
they go from writing poems and short stories to working on a novel and writing
for several hours every day. I'm thirty-six now; I must have been about
twenty-four or twenty-five when I reached that turning point. I'd written for
years before that but had never sent anything to a publisher.
Q: How many years did it take to finish your first novel?
A: My first novel took four years to write, but that doesn't say anything
about the quality or the size of the novel. It was a learning piece, an
apprentice book, because writing is not just a talent but a skill. It's
something you have to learn and develop. It's a slow process.
Q: What was the inspiration for Smilla's Sense of Snow?
A: I had two dreams about Greenland. I'm interested in dreams but I don't
usually base anything in my life on them. Dreams are too flimsy and unstable
for that. Still, these were very strong dreams. Some dreams seem to stay in
the mind for years with a clarity that approaches that of real life. Before
that I had had almost no contact with Greenland. I knew something about it,
because Greenland used to be a Danish colony. I grew up in a very poor part of
Copenhagen where there were many Greenlanders. So it was a part of my cultures
of course, but it was not something I was that interested in. Out of these two
dreams grew a certain feelings and I knew I had to write this book.
Q: You had visited Greenland before then?
A: Yes, I had visited Greenland before, but only for very short periods of
time and went back for longer visits while I was writing the book.
Q: The book is so vivid in its descriptions of Greenland that it feels like a
A: I received valuable help from the Greenlanders living in Copenhagen.
Without their help, the book could not have been written.
Q: What about Smilla? Readers are amazed that this is a woman written by a
man. Is she the first female narrator you have created?
A: Yes she is. The book is the first long text in the first person that I
tried to write. I think now, in hindsight, that it is an attempt to get close
to my inner self. That is the hard part for me, not technique. I have a
barrier that goes up whenever it gets very personal. This book is somehow an
attempt to get in touch with my feelings. Nobody is just one sex. To live in
this world and love a woman, you have to have some kind of understanding of the
other sex or mutual consciousness. The use of language is one way of getting
Q: You had a number of other professional lives or interests before making
writing your full-time occupation. You were a professional ballet dancer,
fencer, and seaman for a number of years.
A: My life now is much more quiet that it used to be. Doing a lot of things
can also be an expression of restlessness. It's difficult to write a book and
be restless. To write big books you have to have a kind of calm. I grew up in
a welfare society and a book like this one about Smilla is something that has
to be understood within the framework of a welfare society. I was given the
opportunity to write full-time for two years without having to do anything
else. My parents gave me the opportunity to follow different interests and
I've been grateful for that. Writing a book like Smilla's Sense of
Snow--which uses language and images from many different areas of human
life--would not have been possible otherwise.
Q: You've done a great deal of traveling all around the world. That seems
clear in your writing. It doesn't have just a Danish perspective. Where have
A: Many places in the tropics. For me, one of the main themes of
Smilla is a portrait of a woman standing between two cultures. As
society becomes more global, as colonies achieve independence, we see more
interracial marriages, and children grow up standing in two cultures. My wife
is African, which means my daughter, in a way, is in the same situation as
Smilla. Less problematic, I should hope, but still... What kinds of problems
do the parents face? What can be done to keep both cultures intact? That is
why the character Smilla became the person she is in the book.
Q: Your daughter speaks both Danish and her mother's native language?
A: Yes. One of Smilla's problems is language. I hope by painting a black
picture of Smilla's problems I shall avoid the same problems with my
Q: You've arranged your life in a way ideal for a writer, especially for
Americans who can't imagine life without an answering machine. You don't have
a phone, and you spend a good part of the year outside Denmark. Is spending
time traveling a plan for the future, too?
A: It is not to avoid people; it is an attempt to find balance. The book is
the slowest art/media form. Everything else is very fast, but a book is very
slow. It took me two years of working full-time to write Smilla, and I
have packed into that one small object a lot of energy and concentration. Now
that it is finished, it is waiting to explode, to blow up. To pack in that
energy and keep in that wave of tension that has built up for a couple of
years, I had to have a lot of calm and quiet in my personal life. On the other
hand, I like the public. Every book begs for people to read it, to listen to
it. I like contact with readers. But there's a risk in becoming a public or
semi-public person, because it can invade your life until you lose your
concentration. So I try to find a balance.
Questions For Discussion:
1. "It's hard to figure out what genre this dense and tantalizing story
belongs to--is it a murder mystery, science fiction, morality tale, or an
intricately plotted adventure wrapped in a carapace of technical information, a
la Tom Clancy?"
How would you classify Smilla's Sense of Snow? What elements of the
book fit into the conventions of the genres named above? Does the book include
elements of any other genres? Discuss other books you feel are comparable to
Smilla's Sense of Snow.
2. "The portrait of the woman was very important to me. Writing as a woman is
an illusion. It was difficult but it was also fun," Peter Høeg has
said. "Longing for a woman is one of the strongest moving forces in the life
of a man, so maybe this was an attempt to get closer to a woman, to explore the
landscape of a woman."
Discuss the above statements. How do you feel about a male author writing from
the point of view of a woman? How successful was Peter Høeg in
portraying the inner life of his heroine, Smilla? What techniques did he use
to make his portrait vivid and realistic? Discuss other books in which a man
has written from a woman's point of view--or vice versa. How do they compare
to Smilla's Sense of Snow?
3. In the course of the novel, Smilla says: "I think more highly of snow and
ice than love. It's easier for me to be interested in mathematics than to have
affection for my fellow human beings."
Is Smilla devoid of feelings or is she merely hiding them? What are the causes
of her antisocial behavior? If Smilla does not care for other people, why is
she telling her story at all? Is she a reliable narrator when it comes to her
analysis of her own personality? Do you feel that Smilla genuinely cares for
any other characters in the novel? If so, which ones?
4. Discuss Smilla's relationship with her father. What are the causes of the
rift between them? Do you feel he deserves the poor treatment he receives from
Smilla? Is there some degree of reconciliation between them in the course of
5. What impact has Smilla's mother had on her life? How has Smilla dealt with
her mother's death over the years? Discuss Smilla's parents as representatives
of two different, opposed worlds which Smilla must straddle.
6. "Høeg understands just how Denmark and the Danish character are
representative of a larger European attitude toward the non-European world, and
the remote and mysterious Inuit are representative of the destruction and
transformation all non-European peoples have suffered at the hands of the most
--Jane Smiley, Washington Post Book World
Discuss the clash of cultures portrayed Smilla's Sense of
Snow--specifically, Denmark's exploitation of Greenland and the Inuit, and
in general, the conflict between the technological culture of the West and
traditional, indigenous cultures. How does Smilla herself symbolize this
clash? Discuss parallels to similar culture clashes in the United States and
elsewhere. Do you agree with Richard Eder's assessment of the novel in the
Los Angeles Times as "an anti-colonial thriller"?
7. Smilla's Sense of Snow will be adapted for film. What elements of
the book lend themselves to film adaptation? What elements will be difficult
to translate to the screen? Come up with your ideal cast for the movies and
discuss your choices in terms of the qualities and characteristics that make
them right for their character.
8. "The primal stuff of this novel, of course, is snow and ice, which
Høeg conjures up in all its varieties--frazil ice, grease ice, pancake,
porridge, field ice--with the relish of Richard Burton anatomizing
--Fernanda Eberstadt, The New Yorker
Discuss the significance of the title Smilla's Sense of Snow. What
meanings could it have beyond the literal one? What do snow and ice represent
to Smilla? To what effect does Høeg use images of, and information
about, snow and ice throughout the book?
9. It is rare for a translated book by an unknown foreign author to attain the
level of success that Smilla's Sense of Snow has achieved in the United
States. What factors do you think most contributed to that success? What did
American readers identify with in the novel? What does this book have to say
to an American audience?
10. Discuss the moral ambiguity of the supporting characters--the mechanic,
Investigator Rivn, Lander, and so on.