Prose from a peaceful pen

Peter Hoeg is a smart man. Even in the early years of his writing career - well before his second novel, Miss Smilla's Feeling for Snow, became an international bestseller - he was aware that having a public profile can sap the vitality out of other, arguably more valuable parts of a person's life. As such, he has deliberately maintained what he calls a ''drawn-back life'' and keeps his media exposure down to a minimum.

''I knew that [public life] could endanger both family life and writing, and generally the kind of life I want to live,'' he says by phone from his home in Jutland, Denmark.

''I don't regard myself as a shy person [but] if I am to go on functioning as a writer and as a father and husband, I think I am better off being careful. But I think everybody who is more or less a public person somehow has to protect themselves. I don't think it's something special to me.''

Despite his caution, when he does come forward, Hoeg is a considered and rewarding interviewee. He is a sophisticated thinker with an esoteric bent and a sense of humour, and he has an appealingly Scandinavian way of expressing himself in English. Danish is his mother tongue and while his English is fluent and sophisticated, his syntax can be a little unusual.

Hoeg also comes across as extremely calm. Perhaps because he has practised a non-religious form of meditation, intensively, for decades. It's the foundation stone of his daily life, including his writing.

''It is an integral part of my working process,'' he says.

''I start every day with meditation and then I write and then I meditate again and then I do the second writing stretch.''

And, once he has finished a particular project, he meditates even more intensively, usually retreating from everyone but his family for several months.

''I try my level best to empty the mind,'' he says. ''A novel is like a wave of tension that travels over a very long time … I think it is important not to carry with you the tension that you created in one work into the next.''

Hoeg's latest novel, The Elephant Keepers' Children, is the happy result of a failure of sorts. He was asked by his German publisher to write a children's book about spirituality but, he says, he's not good at writing to a preconceived brief.

''I write the books that come from inside, when they come, and I don't have much choice,'' he says. ''I tried to develop a concept for such a children's book and I could not. I had to give up. I felt I could not express myself completely through the voice of a three-year-old or five-year-old child.

One of the young voices that emerged from that process, however, stuck with him and eventually developed into the narrator of The Elephant Keepers' Children. ''So it wasn't a very carefully planned book but it came from that demand that I was not able to fulfil.'' The book is arguably the most light-hearted of Hoeg's works and has been described by one Danish reviewer as a ''masterful blend of wry comedy and absurdist fabulism, ruffled by the occasional breath of icy Scandinavian noir''.

Reduced to absolute basics, it's about a brother and sister in search of their missing, con-artist parents. Hoeg says writing it has been his ''happiest creative process'' so far.

Commentators and reviewers seem to struggle to categorise Hoeg, something that would probably please him.

He is not a fan of labels or the divide between literary and popular fiction.

''Each new book, it's a game for me,'' he says. ''It's like going to a carnival and dressing up like something where you cannot be recognised … [They] are a kind of research of the heart and part of that research is not doing the same experiment again and again. That's why I didn't, for example, write a sequel to the book about Smilla.

''I think that a lot of labelling art is a way people protect themselves against the impact of art. Art is a lot more dangerous and strong if you don't put a label on it too fast and put it into a cupboard and close the door.''

He says Edgar Rice Burroughs' Tarzan books, for example, had a great impact on him as a child and Shakespeare a great impact in his 20s, but he does not see the Shakespeare as ''in any way finer or of higher quality''.

''It's a mistake that we divide art into popular art and fine, highbrow, high-quality art,'' he says. ''It has no basis in reality. And it is a way to keep other people and other people's taste at a distance. It is a way of closing oneself towards some kinds of reality.

''So I like to play with genres and to experience the thriller and the love story and to play with reality.''

The Elephant Keepers' Children by Peter Hoeg is published by Harvill Secker, $32.95.

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