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Author Olaf Olafsson on exploring love, loneliness and memory in new novel 'Touch'

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In a person's life, is there always the one that got away - the person, maybe persons, about whom you wonder, what if? Well, Olaf Olafsson's new novel takes that question to a new level. His protagonist, Kristofer, is an Icelandic man in his 70s who has spent the last 50 years looking for and longing for a woman he loved in his 20s. The book is titled "Touch." Olaf Olafsson is with me now. Welcome.

OLAF OLAFSSON: Thank you.

KELLY: Start at the beginning, by which I mean not where your novel starts, which is present day or nearly - it's at the beginning of the pandemic - but back where your story really starts, which is with two young people who at that time lived in London in the 1960s, and they fell in love. Kristofer, to start - introduce us to him.

OLAFSSON: Kristofer is an Icelandic man, as you said. And in the 60s, he is studying at the London School of Economics. And he decides, for complicated reasons maybe, to quit his studies and, on an impulse, takes a job at a Japanese restaurant in London. And there were not many of them back then. This is one of the first ones. And there he meets a woman his age, a Japanese immigrant, Miko. And they fall in love.

KELLY: Yeah. Their affair, their romance is short but incredibly intense. And it sets the mood for the whole novel because there's a lot that you don't know about what's happening between them. There's a lot that Kristofer can't figure out that it seems Miko is not telling him. One thing we do know is how she describes herself. She uses a term that I was not familiar with - hibakusha. Am I pronouncing that correctly?

OLAFSSON: Yes.

KELLY: OK. What is hibakusha?

OLAFSSON: Hibakusha is a survivor of the atomic bomb. And this - I heard the term first in the late '80s, early '90s, when I traveled a lot to Japan. I spent a lot of time in Japan. And it's - as we say, it's a loaded word with all kinds of references and stigmas and history, of course. And being a hibakusha in the Japanese society is not easy. And without giving too much away, that was something Miko never talked about.

And so when she disappears - she and her father disappear all of a sudden - leaving Kristofer not only heartbroken, of course, but with a lot of questions. And at the beginning of the novel, which, as you mentioned, takes place at the beginning of the pandemic, she reaches out to him for the first time in 50 years. And he decides to go and try to find her.

KELLY: It's such a compelling way to open your story, with Kristofer now an old man, and he gets this message out of the blue on Facebook from a woman he hasn't heard from in 50 years. How did you approach writing that moment? How did you decide that's where you needed to start the story?

OLAFSSON: I had been walking around with this idea in my mind for a long time, this story. And in March of 2020, my wife and daughter and I, we found ourselves in Reykjavik, Iceland. And it dawned on me that this was the perfect setting for the story. It's not a pandemic story. It's Kristofer's and Miko's story, but it takes place during the pandemic. When I was writing the book and he decides to leave Iceland to search for her, I mean, I was hearing, you know, like we all were, you know, news reports of flights being canceled, of the country shutting down, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. And I had to get him out of Iceland to London first and then to Japan at that point. So this was - I was writing that kind of in real time, if you want.

KELLY: Ah. Well - and it gave a strange urgency to a love story...

OLAFSSON: Yes.

KELLY: ...That had been on pause for 50 years. And it suddenly was, not only are we getting old, but if I'm going to ever see this woman again, I got to get on a plane right now.

OLAFSSON: Yeah. Yeah. There was no - he's a widower. The novel talks about his marriage, you know, the woman that - after he got back from London. And he's a widower now. And he's just closed his restaurant because of the pandemic. And there's one thing on his mind. It's to see Miko and find out what actually happened. So he makes the trip.

KELLY: So the book - people are obviously gathering it's a love story. It's also a mystery because we don't find out until the very end the mystery of why Miko disappeared and ended their affair. It was also, I thought, a meditation on loneliness, how it is possible to be surrounded by people, even people you love, and still feel a very specific loneliness in the absence of a very specific person.

OLAFSSON: Yes. And the pandemic was probably the perfect time to write about that kind of loneliness and sort of the loneliness that you find yourself in if you feel you haven't lived the life you perhaps were hoping to live or wanted to live at some point.

KELLY: Is the book also perhaps a meditation on memory, on what we choose to remember? And you make that more poignant because Kristofer has been diagnosed - we don't know details - but with some form of memory loss.

OLAFSSON: Yes. And that - I love writing first person. I love the channeling, if you want, a protagonist in first person because you see everything through his or her eyes, and the reader has to determine how much they can trust the narrator and his or her memory. And Kristofer is questioning his own honesty maybe, questioning his history. And the trick for me is to evolve all that through the novel. You know, I enjoy it very much, sort of putting myself in that situation. And, you know, I kind of teased my friends who are actors and say, they have to do - you know, go into a character and do that for, you know, weeks. And I said, well, you know, that's what you do as a novelist when you go into a character for months or years.

KELLY: Well, I will say it's one of the huge challenges, is how you end a love story in a way that feels satisfying but not treacly and how you end a mystery in a way that feels satisfying and not totally outlandish. And without giving anything away, I thought you nailed them both.

OLAFSSON: I appreciate that very much. Thank you.

KELLY: Well, thank you for taking the time to speak with us.

OLAFSSON: Thank you very much. Much appreciated.

KELLY: That is the writer Olaf Olafsson. His new novel is titled "Touch." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
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Christopher Intagliata
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.