Barnes & Noble Review Interview with David Lagercrantz
What's it like to pick up where an international sensation left off and continue the adventures of his signature creations? Nick Curley talks with David Lagercrantz, the journalist who has taken up the mantle of the late Steig Larsson, about The Girl in the Spider's Web, in which Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander make their triumphant return.
The Barnes & Noble Review: What are your earliest memories of writing a story?
David Lagercrantz: I had a father who was a writer: he was very influential back in those days. He was so solemn about writing. He thought it was the most important thing. So I remember rushing home from school. I would start telling a story: it could be a quite dramatic story, and he didn't care about my drama. He would say, "David, that was well told; write it down immediately." So if you have a good story, you have to write it. But I was too afraid, I think, to start to write a novel. So I did what many people did. I went into journalism.
BNR: I read that your first gig as a journalist was for Volvo's in-house magazine.
DL: Yes. I thought I was quite a tough guy. I went to this school of journalism and thought: I will get any job. I didn't get any at all. I was quite miserable. I was trying to write a new novel, actually, but I got stuck on the first sentence. Then I met an old teacher: "I will fix something for you, David." Suddenly, me with all my dreams, I was sitting at Volvo! You have to start somewhere, don't you?
BNR: You were also a crime reporter for the Swedish newspaper Expressen?
DL: Yes. It's a tabloid. But I must say that the Swedish tabloids are much better, actually, than the American or the English. They don't have a girl on page three or anything like that. They have some good journalism as well.
BNR: Was that where you were a crime reporter?
DL: Yes, I was a crime reporter, traveling all around when there was a murder. So yeah . . . It's long ago now, but maybe that was important.
A crime reporter learns a lot when he learns the importance of details. You learn that the common things that happen just before a crime are so important. If I just say, "I'm moving this and this," it's a poor beginning of a book, isn't it? But if I am about to get murdered . . .
BNR: It could be vital to the story.
DL: "David moved the coffee. He was looking at his watch." I learned the importance of details, and of research. Even if you want to lie, as you do in fiction, you need to do good research. Because then you'll lie better!
BNR: How were you selected as the writer who would continue the Millennium series? Was it a gig you sought?
DL: No, not at all. But I have always have been interested in odd geniuses: those who've been quite badly treated in the society. Like, Alan Turing is coming up a lot now in the States. I wrote this book about Zlatan Ibrahimovic, the footballer. I think it sold even better in Sweden than Stieg Larsson did. It was the fastest seller ever. Maybe it showed that I had ability to go into other worlds, to find another voice.
Then my brilliant agent had an idea. I told her one day that I was writing a love novel, and I think the story was good, but the hero was too much like me this weak, neurotic intellectual and it didn't really lift. It wasn't really a good book. I told her, "I think I'm best if I collide myself with a different world, with something else." Then she got this brilliant idea: "Maybe David is the man to do it."
BNR: How do you feel about the massive reach and readership of the series? What does that bring to mind for you? DL: I was absolutely scared to death of writing it. But I believe in taking risks. I believe in being scared. Because when there's danger, you have to act. So I think that did something to my writing, actually. I was so motivated. Most of all, of course, when I read the other books, I was so obsessed. I had fun, and I was worried, and I didn't sleep, and I didn't ever think. But it really was an adventure.
BNR: What was your relationship to the books prior to getting this assignment? You were a reader and a fan of the work?
DL: I was a reader. But to be honest, I'm a little bit snobbish. That's my father's fault. So I wasn't that much into crime fiction. But when I reread them, I really thought they were absolutely amazing.
BNR: Are you willing to give us any hints as to what might be putting Lisbeth and Mikael in mortal danger?
DL: As an old reporter, and I was interested in savants. Autistic savants. When I was a reporter, I did a story about a young guy who didn't speak. His parents didn't get any contact with him at all, and then one day they were passing a streetlight, and he looked up at the streetlight, and the next day he drew it perfectly. Without knowing anything about perspective drawing, he drew it absolutely perfectly. This story has stayed with me. Then I started to think, What if this guy witnessed something with his photographic vision?
BNR: I think people might be interested in your background in that you are, in some ways, uniquely prepared to write this book, as it is a story of industrialists and tycoons, and if I understand correctly, you're of Swedish nobility, which is quite rare for a writer . . .
DL: My father was absolutely upper class, of course, but he was a left-winger. He was very controversial in his time. So I sort of inherited that. I had the same sort of radical background with all the anger. So even though my father was in the upper class, he hated this arrogant economic, uneducated . . . I sort of paradoxically grew up with the same anger . . . This character, if you read the first book, the Banger family, except for the good one in the family . . . I've seen it, and I have the same anger with greediness and things like that.
BNR: I would be remiss if I didn't ask you about Stieg Larsson's partner, who has, as I understand it, publicly disapproved of this book. What is your response to that?
DL: I deeply respect her and all that she has gone through. I am so sad about it, but what can I say? I am so sad that I make her sad. But I know that I make so many people happy. I've never met so much love and longing. So I can just say I am sorry for her, and I hope there will be some settlement between the brother and the father. But I also say I think it is important that we discuss literature. I think it's good when you have a discussion about literature, what you can do and what you cannot do. And I welcome the discussion. I think it's great that she is giving her view, and I respect her. But for me, I can say that with all my heart I am not doing this for money. I have enough already. I do it for passion. It has been so much fun and to really write a good book, and to be worthy of this great author. I really think all these characters deserve to live on.
And if I write, God forbid, a bad book, Larsson's books will still be there. You can go back to them and say, "Oh, this lousy Lagercrantz, but Larsson . . . " Already we are reading them again, and they are selling again because this fourth book is coming out.
BNR: When do you write? Where do you write? What does your workspace look like? What is the ritual of writing for you?
DL: First of all, I am terribly neurotic, as you maybe can see. I walk back and forth, and I find it's not as bad as you might believe, because I have my best ideas when I am not writing actually, but when I am walking and doing other kinds of things. I wake up really early, four o'clock in the morning, especially when I write something like this. I am also addicted and confess all kinds of weaknesses to espresso. So I start with loads of espresso, and then I start to write. I don't think I write that many hours, but I have it in me all the time. All the time, all the time, it's ticking, it's ticking, it's ticking.
BNR: What is the best advice you've received as a writer, or is there a recurring notion that comes to mind?
DL: To go back to my father: Work hard, rewrite, and cut. I've learned to cut. I mean, really, my father said, "Cut every second sentence," but I think that's a little conservative. Cut every three or four. Cut it! Especially nowadays, when the movies are going faster, it's got to go fast. Many books are too slow.
Work hard. That's the only thing I can say. Work hard. Because if you work too easily, you will use old sentences. You have to work hard to find a new way. You have to develop all the time. My father wrote his best book when he was in his seventies, because he worked all the time, and I hope to do the same. I hope to do my best book when I'm eighty!
September 30, 2015