Linn Ullmann: "Memories are stories, they are not documentaries”

Linn Ullmann: "Memories are stories, they are not documentaries”

“Memory is who we are. When we tell stories about ourselves it isn’t about memory. Memories are stories, they are not documentaries.” So said Linn Ullman, daughter of Swedish film director Ingmar Bergman and Norwegian actress and director Liv Ullman, as she discussed Unquiet, her heavily autobiographical novel with Lee Randall at the Edinburgh International Book Festival this afternoon – on her first ever live Zoom call.

Explaining that she chose to write the book as a novel rather than a memoir, she said that while all authors draw upon their own stories and their own experiences, she wanted freedom and felt that the novelistic genre gave her more freedom to tell the story than memoir.

Ullman chose not to name the central characters in the novel, clearly based upon herself and her parents, as their stories have been told by themselves and by so many others. “Names are an obstacle; obstacles are interesting, constraint is where inspiration comes. When you free something from a name, you liberate it. Which is part of the freedom you need as an author. To liberate the three main characters, not to name them at all, was liberating.”

Unquiet originated as a book that she tried to write together with her father as he was getting older and he felt he was losing his language and his memory. Deciding they would write a book together they spent years talking about it and planning it but only started to record their conversations in the final few months of his life. “All the windows of his mind were open and he was in a part dream and part real landscape. We had to throw all our plans out the window and we had to invent a whole new language – some about memory and some about forgetfulness.”

“I felt that I had failed so terribly because I had waited too long, it was too late.  Everything I was supposed to do – I was supposed to do this final conversation with my father and I hadn’t done it properly. I almost felt shame.”

She started writing another book which turned into Unquiet – a novel about a father and a daughter at the end and at the edge of life which became the story of a family. She knew from the beginning that it would be in six parts after the six cello suites of Bach. “I wanted to model the book on the six songs in each suite – an homage to my father. He might have forgotten exactly who I was, he might have forgotten all the wives, he might have forgotten many things but two things he didn’t forget – he didn’t forget his bad reviews... and he never forgot Bach.”

When she returned to transcribe the tapes of her conversations with her father, she admitted that she didn’t feel so ashamed. These conversations “were just an old man and his daughter trying to figure out this weird situation about how to talk to each other when everything they had known about how to talk to each other had gone.”


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