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miércoles, 16 de junio de 2010
Stieg Larsson: the man who created the girl
Stieg Larsson gave only one interview about his Millennium trilogy of crime novels featuring the brilliant but troubled Lisbeth Salander. Lasse Winkler, who conducted that interview, reveals what Larsson told him about the inspiration for his heroine and about the mysterious manuscript for a fourth novel.
'I could write a hundred of these books': Stieg Larsson
It all started one sunny day in late September 2004, on a park bench outside the Gothenburg Book Fair. John-Henri Holmberg, a Swedish publisher, sat down next to me and told me about three manuscripts he had just read, written by a friend of his named Stieg Larsson. They would, he said, make their author the most famous Swedish writer in the world, “bigger than Henning Mankell”.
At that time, Mankell had conquered almost every market around the world, achieving international sales of around 20 million copies. Larsson, who was then working as an editor on an anti-racism magazine called Expo, hadn’t published a single word of fiction.
If it had come from anyone else, I would have laughed off Holmberg’s claim as a piece of far-fetched fantasy. But my faith in his judgment, and the fact that this Larsson character had waited until he had three manuscripts ready before even approaching a publisher, intrigued me. So the next day, I called Larsson and asked if he would let me interview him.
A few weeks later, on October 27 2004, we met in the Stockholm offices of Expo. The fading light of day seeped into a room furnished with a simple table, two plain chairs and a lamp. Larsson, a 50-year-old chain smoker, looked exhausted. After his death, much would be written about his indefatigable work rate, his superhuman capacity to write for hours without a break. It was clearly taking its toll. The only known fruits of his labour were, at that time, his exposés of racist and fascist organisations for Expo, a publication he had helped set up in 1995 in the wake of a spate of neo-Nazi murders. This work had drawn him into the public eye and provoked death threats.
Larsson lived with his long-term partner, Eva Gabrielsson, but his name was not on the doorbell of their flat and his address was not listed in any records or databases. The couple had several established routines whenever they left home: sometimes they would leave by the front door; at other times, they went out the back, via the basement. Larsson had a habit of glancing over his shoulder frequently, as if to check if anyone was following him.
Not long before our meeting, the police had informed him that photographs of him and Gabrielsson, as well as information about their address, had been found in connection with a murder investigation they were conducting in Stockholm.
I began our interview by inquiring about this aspect of his life, asking if he took any precautions to protect himself. It was a mistake. “Sure,” he snapped back, “but I’m hardly going to tell you about them, am I?”
When I suggested that he wouldn’t have to fear attacks by Right-wing extremists in the future, because his fame would protect him, his temper flared further: he didn’t believe that being a public figure would change a thing. “What I do foresee is that I will be able to be more choosy,” he said testily. “I have a job at Expo. I intend to keep it. It’s the publisher’s job to sell my books. My job is to produce them. I suspect I’ll have to make a few public appearances for them. But I’m already starting to dislike giving lectures, because I don’t really have the time.”
Thankfully, his ill humour evaporated when the conversation moved on to the subject of the Millennium series. What, I asked, was the source of his inspiration? The basic idea had been knocking around for a while, he said. He’d been toying with it back in his days at the Swedish TT news agency where he worked as a graphic designer and occasional writer, from 1977 to 1999. At some point in the early to mid-Nineties, he and a fellow journalist, Kenneth Ahlborn, were working on an article about the classic detective stories that were popular with young readers in Sweden in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies.
“We were kidding around, talking about how you could write about those characters in their forties, when they were facing one last mystery,” he said. “That planted the seed, but nothing materialised back then.”
It was not until 2001 that Larsson stumbled upon the spark that would bring the Millennium trilogy into being. “I considered Pippi Longstocking,” he said, referring to the most famous creation of the Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren, a girl so strong she could carry a horse. “What would she be like today? What would she be like as an adult? What would you call a person like that, a sociopath? Hyperactive? Wrong. She simply sees society in a different light. I’ll make her 25 years old and an outcast. She has no friends and is deficient in social skills. That was my original thought.” That thought evolved into Larsson’s formidable heroine, Lisbeth Salander.
But he felt Salander needed a counterweight if his story was to be a success. Once again he turned to one of Lindgren’s characters, this time to Kalle Blomkvist, boy detective. “Only now he’s 45 years old and a journalist [called Mikael Blomkvist]. An altruistic know-it-all who publishes a magazine called Millennium. The story will revolve around the people who work there.”
Larsson was well-versed in the mechanics of crime fiction. Every spring and autumn, back when he worked for the news agency, he was assigned to write reviews that summed up the season’s releases of translated crime fiction. “I’d include the top five crime novels at that particular time,” he said. “Some of the writers I’ve praised are Sara Paretsky, Val McDermid, Elisabeth George and Minette Walters. Strangely enough, almost all are women.”
In his trilogy, he plays with the conventions of the genre. The first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, is a traditional whodunit with a caper thrown in. The second, The Girl Who Played with Fire, has a “lone avenger” feel, and the third, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest is a fusion of spy novel and legal thriller. “I’ve read crime fiction all my life. A thing that’s bothered me about crime fiction is that it’s generally about one or two people, but there’s not much about society,” he told me. “I want to get away from that particular pattern: a lead, a supporting role and backdrop characters. In real life, people are integrated into society. That’s what happens in my books, as well. Minor characters don’t just walk in and spout lines, they interact and have an effect on the events. It’s not an isolated universe.”
When Larsson had finished his manuscripts he didn’t initially send them to Norstedts, the company that would eventually publish them. They went first to Piratförlaget, a Swedish publishing house that focuses on bestsellers: they didn’t even bother to open the package. So a friend of Larsson’s, a well-known Swedish journalist and the chairman of the Expo board, took the three books over to Norstedts instead. And the rest, as they say, is history.
I asked him what his expectations were when he submitted the manuscripts to the publishers. “If I wanted to be sarcastic, I’d say expectations don’t enter into it,” he said. “But anyone who writes for a living believes their material has commercial value, right? I believe that my books have that quality. That’s why I submitted them for publication. I know they’re good. I knew that someone would want to publish them. This is my retirement fund.”
Many people have wondered why Larsson, like most authors, didn’t tout the first book around as soon as he was finished with it. Why wait until he had three? “Why not?” he said. “I wrote them for fun. I didn’t write them with the conviction that they would be published. And things don’t really all come together until you get to the third book. Now the foundation is in place. And I can go on to write as many books as I like about these characters.” Then he added: “My original synopsis was for five books.”
I asked if it was true what I’d heard that he’d almost finished work on a fourth. “Yes,” he replied, “I’m a fast writer and crime novels are easy to do. It’s much harder to write a 1,000 word article, where everything has to be 100 per cent correct.”
He told me that at least 150 pages of the fourth book existed.
At the time of our meeting, Larsson had also sold the rights to his books in Germany. It was his first foreign sale, the smallest hint of things to come. He hadn’t seen any money as yet, but he knew that “a cheque that will pay for my apartment” was on its way.
I asked about Larsson’s future plans. How many Millennium novels did he want to write? “I can produce a hundred books in this series,” he said. “That won’t be a problem as long as someone wants to publish them and people want to read them.”
Three weeks after the interview, I was standing on a crowded platform in Stockholm, waiting for a train, when my phone rang. It was Åke Edwardson, a fellow crime writer of Larssons also published by Norstedts.
“Have you heard the news?” he asked me. “Stieg Larsson is dead.”
Time stood still and the noise around me faded into a hush. Was this some kind of joke, I wondered. If so, it was a bad one. How could Stieg Larsson be dead? I had just talked to him. Our magazine had just published an article about his bright future.
When I hung up I thought about the German advance, the money that would have opened up a whole new life for Larsson. It all seemed so unfair. So pointless.
In the years since his death, I’ve repeatedly revisited in my mind my one encounter with Larsson. I continue to marvel at his conviction that his books would be a success – and can’t help wondering what further treasures he might have bestowed on the world had he stayed with us a little longer.