Twenty years ago, author Jostein Gaarder never imagined that his philosophical book “Sophie’s World” would become an international best seller. The novel, about a 14-year-old girl whose father sends her a series of thought-provoking letters as a birthday gift, has today sold more than 30 million copies around the world.
“I thought that the book would not be commercially sold,” said Gaarder, who was in Jakarta last week. “But it turns out it sold well and was even translated into 60 languages.”
After finishing the novel in a three-month marathon session, Gaarder decided to leave his job as a high school teacher and become a full-time writer.
Many of his fans here in Indonesia don’t realize that “Sophie’s World” is only one of 16 books that he has written since 1986. Eight of them have been translated into Bahasa Indonesia, including “Gadis Jeruk” (“The Orange Girl”), “Putri Sirkus dan Lelaki Penjual Dongeng” (“The Ringmaster’s Daughter”) and “Misteri Soliter r” (“The Solitaire Mystery”).
Gaarder, who came to the Indonesian capital to campaign on climate change, has been pondering life’s big questions since he was a child.
“I realize that I am part of the mystery,” the 59-year-old Norwegian said.
When he was young, his parents could only try to satisfy his curiosity with responses like “that’s just nature,” promising to answer his questions more completely when he grew up.
But his curiosity stuck with him, propelling him to become a writer and continue questioning the human experience. “I feel like I have a duty to answer my childhood questions,” he said.
Though Gaarder was once promised answers in adulthood, he doesn’t want to grow up. His childhood memories keep him curious about life, and questioning, he says, is the basis of all philosophy. The questions begin with our innate interest in the earth and life, as we ask “Who are we?” and “What will happen after we are gone?”
Gaarder said all people were born as philosophers, with the potential to maintain their childhood curiosity through adulthood.
“Unfortunately, many adults have lost their sense of philosophy,” he said. “So we have to maintain our childhood thoughts and experiences as adults, and we have to keep questioning.”
Born in Oslo in 1952, Gaarder seems to have inherited his talent with words; his father was a headmaster, his mother a teacher and author of children’s books. Gaarder attended the Oslo Cathedral School and the University of Oslo, studying Scandinavian languages and theology.
In 1974, Gaarder married his teenage sweetheart, Siri Dannevig. Five years later, he and his family moved to Bergen, where he had formerly worked as a high school teacher. It was during this period that he started writing fiction novels.
His first work, “Diagnosen og Andre Noveller” (“The Diagnosis and Other Stories”), was published in 1986, followed by “Froskeslottet” (“The Frog Castle”) in 1988 and “Kabalmysteriet” (“The Solitaire Mystery”) in 1990.
Gaarder then began “Sophie’s World,” hoping to spread the beauty of philosophy to youngsters. “My wife told me to be quick with writing the book, and I was,” he said with a laugh.
The process of writing, he said, brings him joy. “If you asked me whether I miss teaching, I would say nope.”
His style of creating a story within a story and addressing life’s greatest questions has become a trademark, which carries on in his latest book, “Slottet i Pyreneene” (“The Castle in the Pyrenees”), published in 2008.
Even when he’s not writing, Gaarder is questioning the universe, devouring books on natural science, astrophysics and evolution.
“I read these even before bed,” he said. “I want to understand more about the world while I’m still here.”
In addition to curiosity, Gaarder values imagination, as seen in his book “The Ringmaster’s Daughter.” The story is about a Norwegian boy named Petter who has an overly imaginative mind and grows up with his single mother. As an adult, Petter sells ideas, stories and plots to frustrated writers, quickly expanding his business to clients across Europe.
Gaarder covered 10 story ideas in that book. “I just pretended to be that man, in his shoes, and it flew,” he said.
After his fairy-tale career, he said he feels settled with his writing. “It’s like having the daughter I never had,” said Gaarder, who has two sons and several granddaughters. “I feel like I will not write any more books.”
He certainly doesn’t need the money, given the worldwide success of “Sophie’s World.”
“In fact, I almost like to scream to my wife, ‘What will we do with all the money?’ ” he laughed.
He established the Sophie Prize, which gives $100,000 to foundations or individuals concerned with the environment. This year, British food waste activist Tristram Stuart received the money.
The prize, in turn, saw Gaarder named a Norwegian ambassador on climate change.
In the 21th century, he said, we will have to answer pressing philosophical questions about how to live longer and protect the environment.
“It simply doesn’t make sense any longer to proclaim a person’s or a nation’s rights without simultaneously considering a few obligations, including the most important challenge of our time: How can we secure the health and welfare of our planet and its future generations?” he said.
His passion for the environment may even be enough to get him writing again. When asked if he would consider a book on the topic, he said, “I definitely would like to do that.”
Political considerations, however, might prevent him from pursuing the project.
“I don’t know if I can manage it. Maybe I should limit my environmental activism to my role as a private citizen and instead write my own romance story,” he said.
At a book discussion at Gramedia Matraman in East Jakarta, and at a public lecture on climate change at the University of Indonesia in Depok, more than 200 readers waited in line for a book signing.
“At first I expected that the readers here would be more shy,” he said. “Surprisingly, they are really talkative.”
Gaarder’s books are only published legally by Mizan in Indonesia, and he accidentally stumbled upon two pirated versions of his books “Misteri Soliter ” and “Vita Brevis” (“Brief Life”) during his visit.
“But that’s fine,” he said. “I’m still happy. I’ve traveled the world for those books.”
In the end, he revealed the paradox of his career: Now that he’s a famous author, he no longer has much time to write. “It’s funny, I used to have a bunch of time to write books when I was a teacher,” he said.