Wednesday, June 8, 2011

TTBOOK: Nordic Noir Interviews

Wisconsin Public Radio broadcasts a terrific interview programme, To the Best of Our Knowledge, or TTBOOK for short.  For each show, staff members select a theme and then interview authors who have written books related to it.  Bless their frosty Wisconsin hearts, they did a show on the recent craze for Nordic crime fiction, and they interviewed four of the writers I've been reading over the past year.

Well, they didn't actually interview Stieg Larsson (Sweden), since he died a few years ago, but Charles McGrath, New York Times writer-at-large, spoke about Larsson and his posthumous impact on the genre.

Although Larsson's novels have inspired interest in Nordic noir, they are not representative of it. McGrath describes the more usual Scandinavian crime story:   "A very gloomy, solitary detective who drinks too much, smokes too much, eats appalling food, is depressed and solves in a solitary way some gloomy, awful crime. They are not upbeat books."  He seems dubious that they'll ever be truly popular in the US on their own merits.

He describes Larsson as passionately idealistic in the way many American youths were during the 1960s. If someone made a politically offensive or misogynist remark, Larsson would break with him or her permanently. As for the conspiracy theorists who wonder if the Swedish neo-Nazis that Larsson had been writing about might have murdered him, McGrath thinks that Larsson's heavy smoking and abysmal diet probably did the job for them.  A heart attack seems to him all too plausible.

Henning Mankell (Sweden) may or may not become a best-seller in the US, but in Germany, Kurt Wallender, his detective, outsells Harry Potter.  Mankell wanted to "create a person who had a certain basic credibility", so Wallender is  prone to depression, cynical, lonely, and he drinks too much. Mankell grows tired of characters who never change: "I still remember when I gave Mr. Wallender diabetes in the 4th book. In one way, it made him even more popular, because people get diabetes in real life."

Interviewer: "For a lot of Americans, Sweden remains a sort of model society, but certainly you raise a lot of questions about whether or not that's really true in these stories.  What do you think these novels can say about the state of Sweden?"

HM: "First of all I really believe that Sweden is still a very decent society to live in, but I'm also aware of the fact that Sweden could have been a much better society... What I believe I'm doing in a way is trying to take away a little of the mythology of Sweden. In the '60s it was a lot of rumours of the blonde Swedish girl.  Even that was a sort of mythology. There was also a mythology that Sweden was a perfect country; we have never been that. "

He reads from one of the Wallender novels:
This is Sweden, he thought. Everything is bright and cheerful on the surface. Our airports are built so that no dust or shadows could ever intrude.  Our national aspiration, our religion, is that security written into the Swedish constitution which informs the whole world that starving to death is a crime.  But we don't talk to strangers unless we have to, because anything unfamiliar can cause us harm. We never built an empire, so we've never had to watch one collapse, but we persuaded ourselves that we'd created the best of all possible worlds, that even if small, we were the privileged keepers of paradise. Now that the party is over, we take our revenge by having the least friendly immigration control officers in the world.

Asked about the focus on weather in his books, HM says he grew up in northern Sweden:  "When it was more than 35 degrees below 0 celsius, you didn't have to go to school." The weather, in other words, is a significant factor in Swedish daily life.

Interviewer: What do you say to people who say crime fiction is not serious literature?

HM:  It's one of the oldest literary genres.  Of Medea:  "If that is not a crime story, I don't know what is. My favorite crime fiction is MacBeth."  Using "a mirror of crime" may be the best way to examine and portray the world we are living in, and what is within ourselves.

Karin Fossum (Norway) describes her Detective Konrad Sejer:  "He's a very decent man! Well-dressed, polite, friendly, like Dr. Kildare."

Interviewer: He's so different from American detectives, with all their gunplay and rough talk.

KF:  Sejer "smokes one cigarette each night and drinks one whisky. He's very easy for people to like."   She's disappointed that people are interested in him; she didn't want him to be interesting, wanting the focus to remain on the criminal, the victim, the society. But readers have gotten attached to him; "they care what happens to him."

Interviewer:  People in your books who commit gruesome crimes don't seem totally evil.

KF:  "An evil person who commits an evil crime is not interesting to me, because he only does what he's meant to do. But a good person who commits an evil act -- that's really interesting!  My project is that you will sympathise with the criminal. That's what I want."

"One of my friends committed a murder, and it was a very special moment when we knew, because the moment you know the human beings behind the tragedy, it gets so real.  I know the killer, I know the victim, I know the flat where it happened, I know the particular room where the killing was committed, I went to the funeral, and so on and so on. It became so real to me."

A woman whom she'd known for 18 years as "a very good and very stable person" went mad and killed her difficult and troubled 5-year old son, then tried to kill herself.  Fossum wants to bring her readers closer to the more average people who snap and commit crimes next door.

Interviewer: Most American detective novels appeal primarily to men.

KF:  The Sejer books are enormously popular with women, as well, probably because they evoke real feelings.  "My wish for my books is that when you read, you really must be moved."

Arnaldur Indriðason (Iceland), describing Jar City:  "a gloomy, dim, horrible story about murder and rapes."

Detective Erlendur's wife hates him, his daughter is a drug addict, his son is in rehab. In an effort to distinguish him from the thousands of detectives already out there, Indridason decided "to make him as Icelandic as I possibly could. I made him grumpy and old-fashioned...  There's no fun in happiness, so there's no fun in writing about happy people."

Being very Icelandic, Erlendur is obsessed with vanishing:  People travel in the winters and there's a blizzard. They disappear entirely.  Maybe they're found 5-10 years later, or maybe never found. "This fascinates him."

Indriðason's style is social realism:  ordinary men & women in extraordinary situations, trying to manage. Action-packed James Bond-type dramas would never work in Iceland, he says.

"I'm writing for 300,000 people in Iceland in a language they say will die in 10 years because of the influence of English.  I'm writing for my little group of people in Iceland. Always."

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