‘Stockholm is a good city for a crime novel to take place in’

‘Stockholm is a good city for a crime novel to take place in’

By BHUMIKA POPLI | | 10 February, 2018
Swedish author Carin Gerhardsen.
Swedish author Carin Gerhardsen specialises in writing socially-engaged crime novels that are known for their narrative depth. She speaks to Bhumika Popli about what drew her to this genre.

You started your career in writing with a book on philosophy. What got you interested in writing crime fiction?

A. Educationally, I am a mathematician and I obtained my degree at the Uppsala University [in Sweden]. When I started my writing career, I was working fulltime as an IT consultant, writing during the weekends. I made my literary debut 25 years ago with the philosophical novel Escape from Time. I was 29 years old at the time, and I was a bit naive in my attitude towards the whole thing. I thought that a good novel sells easily with no efforts made. The book got good reviews but no particular marketing was done from the publisher’s side and not too much happened, so I decided to focus on my real profession and abandoned my writing in favour of a career in IT consultancy. Until my husband persuaded me to give writing another chance, which I did. This time with a more mature approach. Since I’ve always loved reading crime novels, and on top of that I take a great interest in solving problems—mathematical problems, crosswords, Sudoku and all that—I decided to give crime writing a try. But—very importantly—without giving up my philosophical ambitions and literary quality claims. I asked myself what’s significant for a good crime novel and what ingredients from the point of view of content that applies to myself specifically. And then I started writing, and just in case I wrote three books in order to convince the intended publisher of my productivity. 

Q. Is there any link between the two—writing about philosophy, and about crime? And are these processes similar in any way?

A. My first novel, Escape from Time, was not about philosophy—it was a philosophical novel about loneliness, about how to make the best of your situation and the circumstances, and failing to do so. My starting point is that the same things captivate the reader and me. I am interested in the story of the individual, so I step inside all my characters, no matter whether they are main or minor characters, murderers or victims. I write about childhood bullying, about two sisters growing up in misery surrounded by alcoholics, about a young man who’s held captive by his abusive father, about a little girl waking up one morning only to find that she’s been abandoned by her family in a locked apartment. It’s often about different aspects of isolation. I’m also fascinated by bad luck as a phenomenon. Could we prevent what we consider to be bad luck? What do we do when we are unlucky, how do we react to misfortune? And who’s to blame? Do we bear the destiny in our own hands?  The best crime novels contain much more than the actual crime, which gives intellectual gratification, and it is also my aim to accomplish that bonus for the reader.

Q.  Before sitting down to write, how do you organise your ideas and thoughts about what you want to put down on paper?

A. I really work a lot on the plot. It’s important that it all makes sense in the end, that it all comes together neatly. It’s actually quite tricky to keep track of how far the reader has reached in the narrative, how far the police have reached. Not to present the reader with too much information, nor too little. Never to be dishonest with the reader. Probably my interest in problem solving, mathematics and logic helps to figure all that out. I’m very thorough with the synopsis. My aim is for the whole book to be “invented” in detail when I start writing. I could spend months just thinking, and when I’m done I write a detailed synopsis where every single chapter is described. And when that part is done my keyboard sounds like a machine-gun. And I actually used to work in exactly the same way when I was a system designer!

Q. You have worked in the IT industry for a long time. How and when did the transition to writing happen? And what is it about writing that appeals to you?

A. As a kid, I wanted to be a professional football player. Or an actress. When I got older I wanted to be a forensic technician or a mathematician. I’ve always been confident that I actually could be an author if I wanted to, and eventually I gave it a try. I picked three different books out of my shelf, one thick, one thin and one medium: The Process [The Trial] by Franz Kafka. And then I started writing a novel with the exact size of The Process. I wrote 10 pages every Saturday and 10 on Sunday, and 12 weeks later I had a 240-page-long novel. And I got it published! For me as a mathematician, it’s paradise to let the words flow and flourish, and for me as a writer it’s a relief to work with a clearly defined problem that has one single solution.

Q. You had a series of ideas for crime novels in your mind before you quit the IT field. Is that correct? Could you tell us what were you reading at that time? Were you always inclined towards crime fiction?

A. After having read [the Swedish authors] Sjöwall Wahlöö and Henning Mankell, [the English author] Ruth Rendell and [the Norwegian author] Karin Fossum, I was quite convinced that crime was the thing for me. And after having read hundreds of other not-so-good crime writers I was convinced that I could do it better. When I started writing crime novels I stopped reading crime novels. I don’t let myself be influenced by other authors; I want to do my own thing. Instead I’m influenced by the greatest television series, the Danish ones for instance, with their deeply credible characters, one as important and interesting as the other.

Q. How would you define “Stockholm noir” as a genre?

A. I think the best of Swedish crime literature differs a lot from that of other countries. Our good crime literature is very noir, and the rest of the world lives under the impression that Sweden is the best of countries, an idyllic place with hardly any criminal activity at all. That view obviously contrasts sharply with the reverse side of Swedish society, which naturally also exists. I also find the best crime writers’ way of being inside the heads of their characters very Swedish/Scandinavian. Stockholm is a good city for a crime novel to take place in, so I set the entire series in the southern part of central Stockholm and a bunch of suburbs south of the city. Stockholm is the capital of Sweden, quite a big city with all its sounds and smells, skyscrapers, suburb ghettos for the poor, areas with detached houses for the wealthy. It is surrounded by water, forests and fields, everything I could possibly have use for in my novels.

Q. What exactly drew you towards this particular genre?

A. How we all should take responsibility for the well-being of the people around us is a particular angle of life that is always somehow involved in my stories. People who care and people who don’t, people who react soundly to what life brings and people who don’t. How we all handle complicated situations and shattering experiences differently. Real cases inspire me, something I read about in the paper, stories people tell me, things I see and hear. There might be a worst-case scenario that flies through my head, and I ask myself: how would I react if that happened to me? How would somebody else react, somebody with different background, different capabilities? Then I weave my story around these thoughts, and above all I want it to be thrilling, credible and captivating. My novels are always quite sad. I enjoy suffering while reading, I want to be captivated by the book I read and by the one I write. I guess th at’s what makes my novels noir, and the fact that they take place in Stockholm make them “Stockholm noir”.

Q. Do you have any thoughts about the way the genre has evolved over time?

A. They say there is a cry right now for the renewal of the genre. There might be, but the best way of doing that is not to abandon all remains of credibility by creating superheroes. The police are still, and will always be, the most likely force to solve a crime. Not psychologists, not journalists, not old knitting ladies or priests.

Q. What led to the creation of Conny Sjöberg—the key character in many of your novels?

A. I’d say that everyone in my team is a key character, Conny is just one of them. I figured that however I create my team, some people will criticise. In order not to be excessively politically correct and remove focus too much from the actual story I created a credible team with a set of characters that I like to explore. I’m equally interested in the complexity of men and women myself, so to me the gender of a specific character is of less importance. I hope that goes for my readers as well, as long as the character in question is a human being of interest. I was bored with the stigmatised crime novel inspector: lonely, divorced and sad. I wanted my inspector, Conny Sjöberg, to be like most people in my surroundings: nice, friendly and a good honest person without any drinking problems. All that without being a superhero of course, which I obviously find not so realistic. Same thing with the rest of the team, I prefer not to exaggerate their characteristics, which would misdirect the focus.

Q. How has your India visit turned out to be? Are you taking back anything which could help you in your writing?

A. The [Jaipur Literature] festival was amazing! Extremely well arranged and generous, with enormous crowds of devoted book lovers, eminent speakers, lots of colour, lots of fun. The joy of words and freedom is what I bring back home. And the contact details of a lot of new friends.

Q. What are you working on next?

A. The eighth novel of the Hammarby series is now finished, and I’ve left my beloved detectives behind me. I’m currently working on a thriller for kids and youngsters, and another one for grownups. 

 

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