Sofitel Hotel, Collins Street, 3pm

Jostein Gaarder is something of an enigma. He has carved a career by writing books aimed at teenagers and children; books that also address some of the most complex philosophical puzzles of our age.

Gaarder first shot to fame through his philosophical novel Sophie’s World. Published in 1991, Sophie’s World has sold 30 million copies in over 50 languages. He has continued to publish many more acclaimed novels including his latest, The Castle in the Pyrenees; a tale of love, science and spiritualism.

Gaarder is also known for his human rights and environmental campaigning. In 1997, he and his wife established the Sophie Prize, which gives US $100,000 annually to environmental advocates and leaders. I spoke to Gaarder during the 2010 Melbourne Writers Festival.

Is this your first time in Melbourne?

It’s not my first time in Melbourne, because I was here about 15 years ago after Sophie’s World was published. It is my first time at the Melbourne Writers Festival.

When did you first realise you wanted to pursue philosophy?

When I was 11-years-old, one day all of a sudden I woke up and I felt I was part of a mystery. I went around to parents and teachers saying, “Don’t you think it’s strange that the world exists?” and they said, “no not really”. So, in a way, becoming an author was kind of revenge because I stood my ground and I knew that life was a mystery.

Take me into the creative process you use to write your novels. Does the storyline develop first or do you start with a philosophical message?

When I wrote Sophie’s World, I believed it would be read by very few people. I tried to write it first as a manual but, of course, it was too boring. A lot of people think philosophy is very academic and difficult, but when there is the possibility of seeing philosophy in the frame of a story, they respond very differently.

The one thing Sophie’s World has in common with the Castle in the Pyrenees is that I used them both as didactic tools. The Castle in the Pyrenees is a love story but my intention was also to write a confrontation or an encounter between science and spiritualism.

All my other books are real novels. The Christmas Mystery, for example, began when I was asked by the Norwegian broadcasting to write something for the annual Christmas calendar. But I wanted it to be a magic Christmas calendar and so I wrote the story which became the Christmas Mystery.

Sophie’s World has sold over 30 million copies since it was released. What feedback have you had from readers about the book?

When I am signing books people often tell me the book has changed their life. I feel grateful for that. I just hope my books have changed their life in the right direction!

A lot of your books are written for children. What can adults learn from children?

Children are born curious and every day they are asking fundamental questions. I remember my younger son, when he was eight-years-old, asking me “do you believe there is life in the universe?” I said, “I don’t know, but try to imagine there is life all over the universe.” He said, “Wow!” Then I said “try to imagine the opposite, that there is nothing in the whole universe except for here.” He said, “Wow!” I gave him an intense feeling of what it is like to be here in this universe.

You have said it’s important for women to understand the world but for men it’s important to be understood. How does that view play into the gender roles you have chosen in your novels?

One of the questions I have been asked most frequently is “why is the heroine of Sophie’s World a girl?” I love that question, because then I can say “why not?” In Norway, we only have two sexes. In this book, it had to be a girl because Sophie means wisdom and Sophia in the Greek language is a female concept.  So, I have a theory that for women it is important to try and understand something and question making is often more wise than giving answers.

Your latest book, The Castle in the Pyrenees, explores the relationship between rationality and spirituality through the eyes of its two protagonist lovers, Steinn and Solrun. What are your views on the relationship between rationality and spirituality?

On one hand, we have the great ontological questions, like what is the nature of the universe? Does God exist? These questions have an answer but they’re not accessible. More and more, these questions are being taken over by scientific investigations in areas such as metaphysics. On the other hand, we have questions like; what are real values? What is love? What is justice? You cannot give a final definition.

To be clear though, I don’t believe in any revelation. When people say to me I speak to God, I think that’s naïve, but I respect people’s belief. People ask me if I am a Christian and I would say “yes” with no hesitation. The gospels and teachings of Jesus are fundamental but not in a supernatural way: Jesus is an important guide or moral philosopher.

What keeps your creative side flowing when you are writing?

Part of my work is to walk. I cannot move my thoughts without also moving my body. I love to leave civilization to walk into the mountains. For me it is a fundamental value to have access to unspoiled wilderness. When I tell people that, they look at me and say “really?” Then I feel like a Scandinavian.  But I feel I can learn more from the trees and countryside than from people in the towns. It is not a metaphor to say that I am part of nature and I am nature.

In your opening speech at the 2010 Melbourne Writers Festival you said that humans need to take a ‘vertical’ or multi-generational view of the planet. Are we seeing a regression from a ‘vertical’ responsibility for future generations?

I think in respect of our natural heritage, we are very horizontally orientated. We come from the jungle and we have to look to the right and to the left and look after our family. Now, we have to get used to having a more vertical perspective.

The most important philosophical text is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. These paragraphs weren’t taken out of the air but they were based on human development. My argument is that we can no longer just focus on human rights, but also on human responsibilities. It’s time for a universal declaration of human obligations. What happens – or doesn’t – in the coming decades will be absolutely significant for the future of the planet.

So do you have faith in international institutions, such as the United Nations, to solve the challenges of the 21st century?

Either we will really be able to build transnational institutions and save the planet or we will not. Those are the options. To be a pessimist, in a way, is to be lazy. The Copenhagen climate conference was a disappointment but Kyoto Protocol was the very first step to have a universal declaration of human obligations. So between pessimism and optimism there is hope.

Do you think there needs to be a greater sense of moral consciousness for people to take action on environmental issues?

I am a humanist and I think that people are extraordinary beings. I think the planet without people would be of much less value. Imagine the universe without consciousness; it is quite different to a universe with consciousness about its own beauty. It’s possible that only here on Earth there are creatures with a universal consciousness. So then it’s not just a global responsibility but a cosmic responsibility to preserve life conditions on Earth. That’s why my wife and I created the Sophie Foundation. Investing in the environment is investing in a part of me.

What goals do you have for the future?

I am spoilt because I wrote a book [Sophie’s World] that was read by millions of people. I have a dream to write a book about the environment that can reach many people. Apart from that, I feel that the price you have to pay for being published in so many places is that you feel one day your mission is fulfilled.