The Center for Fiction welcomed writer Victoria Kielland and translator Damion Searls to discuss My Men, Kielland’s novel based on the true story of America’s first female serial killer from the 19th Century, Belle Gunness. This dense, lyrical, and highly figurative novel charts Gunnes’s descent into madness as she struggles to attain the American dream. This is not a true crime narrative, but rather one that looks at violence as a form of agency during a time when women did not have material comforts without men. Author and journalist Merve Emre (Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America) led Kielland and Searls’s conversation about the process of writing and translating fiction based on the unraveling of an enigmatic historical figure.
By Victoria Kielland
Published by Astra House
Translated by Damion Searls
My Men is a harrowing read about an enigmatic historical figure: Brynhilde Belle Gunness, a Norwegian servant girl turned serial killer after emigrating to America in the wake of a hopeless love affair at home. She thought she was following her sister to a better life, but what she found in America was a society ruled by the same rigid moral codes that oppressed her at home. Consumed by desire, and thirsty for the love and recognition she never received during her impoverished formative years, Belle seeks revenge on the world that broke her. As Belle racks up a body count of at least 14 men, she grows increasingly alienated, ruthless, and—perversely—compelling.
Kielland writes urgently and thoughtfully about a broken person, one who yearns for liberation from the trappings of her class, gender, and traumatic past. My Men is a powerful and intense read, where the turn to violence is barely noticeable, but when it happens, there is no coming back.
Victoria Kielland’s first book, the 2013 short prose collection I Lyngen (In the Heather), was shortlisted for the Tarjei Vesaas debutant prize. In 2016, Kielland’s first novel Dammyr (Marsh Pond) was shortlisted for the Youth Critics’ Prize and the literary committee of the Norwegian Authors’ Union awarded her the Norwegian Booksellers’ primary writer’s scholarship. My Men is her breakthrough novel, published to rave reviews in Norway in 2021.
Photo Credit: Julie Naglestad
Damion Searls has translated more than fifty books of classic modern literature, most recently Thomas Mann’s New Selected Stories and Jon Fosse’s Septology and Bambi. His own writing includes fiction, poetry, criticism, The Inkblots (a history of the Rorschach Test and biography of its creator, Hermann Rorschach), and The Philosophy of Translation, forthcoming.
Photo Credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Merve Emre is the Shapiro-Silverberg Professor of Creative Writing and Criticism at Wesleyan University and the Director of the Shapiro Center for Creative Writing and Criticism. Her books include Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America, The Personality Brokers (selected as one of the best books of 2018 by the New York Times, the Economist, NPR, and the Spectator), The Ferrante Letters (winner of the 2021 PROSE award for literature), and The Annotated Mrs. Dalloway. She has been awarded the Philip Leverhulme Prize, the Robert B. Silvers Prize for Literary Criticism, and the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle. She is a contributing writer at the New Yorker.