Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Forshaw Tackles the Larsson Phenomenon

During a recent party at the Swedish Embassy in London, held to celebrate the life and literary endeavors of Scandinavian journalist-novelist Stieg Larsson, I dropped a not-so-subtle hint to prominent books critic Barry Forshaw (right) that I would appreciate receiving a review copy of his brand-new work, The Man Who Left Too Soon: The Biography of Stieg Larsson (John Blake Publishing). Last week, that volume landed on my desk. Being obsessed with the late Larsson’s fiction, I read Forshaw’s book straightaway, and soon thereafter thanked the author for his kind printed acknowledgments of The Rap Sheet, as he had excepted material we’ve featured on this page before, including interviews with Larsson’s father, Erland, and his British publisher, Christopher MacLehose.

Forshaw also agreed to be interview. Over the course of that exchange, we talked about conspiracy theories related to Larsson’s death at age 50, Forshaw’s thoughts on the film versions of Larsson’s three novels, and how he wound up writing the first English-language biography of Sweden’s now best-known author.

Ali Karim: So, tell us a little about how you got involved in writing your biography of Stieg Larsson, The Man Who Left Too Soon.

Barry Forshaw: This was more by accident than design. I became an expert on Stieg Larsson in precisely the way I became an expert on British crime fiction, American crime fiction, Italian, and so forth--just by being commissioned to write so much over the years for various papers (The Times, the Independent, the Express) and various magazines. Slowly but surely, you acquire a considerable breadth of knowledge. Of course, this breadth of knowledge is actually a byproduct of enthusiasm--it’s not a question of settling down to study and absorb information about all these aspects of the crime field; if you’re an enthusiast, and have the kind of blotting-paper personality that I do in such areas, you’ll find yourself unconsciously hoovering up everything there is to know.

AK: And then editor Maxim Jakubowski commissioned the book from you?

BF: Maxim Jakubowski is a man with whom I’ve shared a few careers--writer, bookseller, publisher (but I’m practically a beginner in terms of what he’s done over the years). Maxim had kept a weather eye on my writings about Larsson; he’d noticed (as who hasn't?) the phenomenal sales of the books, and commissioned me to write it for the publisher John Blake. I actually worked with the Blake editor, John Wordsworth, which was a real pleasure.

Back to Maxim: I was in Nottingham recently for the ScreenLit Festival, with the British Film Institute’s Adrian Wooton. Introducing the new film of Jim Thompson’s The Killer Inside Me, Adrian reminded the audience how many of us first encountered the original book through Maxim's groundbreaking pulp imprint, Zomba Black Box Books. As did I! Over the years, Maxim has done a great service to the genre by nourishing the careers of new writers--as well as bringing classics of the genre back into print. I’ve been lucky enough to persuade him to let me have material for Crime Time--and it wasn’t easy! He’s quite pleased by the fact that the only complaint I had about the magazine concerned his “shocking” material--“How can you publish such things?” (from “Disgusted” of Tunbridge Wells). Recently, John Blake gave him the chance to do a new title list (as opposed to his previous Black Box and Blue Murder imprints). And MaxCrime is managing to be both commercial and present all the strands of modern crime fiction within the list. He had two striking female writers in the first tranche: Tara Moss, and the talented Italian Barbara Baraldi with The Girl with Crystal Eyes.

AK: When did you first think that Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo would become such a big deal?

BF: I have to say that the team at Quercus, Nicci Praça, Lucy Ramsey, and (of course) Larsson’s inestimable publisher, Christopher MacLehose, alerted me very early on that this was a writer to whom attention must be paid. In fact, the literary editors I wrote for were onto Larsson’s importance very quickly--I had my first commission to write things soon after the publication of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. But who had the slightest idea the Larsson phenomenon was going to achieve the heights it has? Barely a week passes without some new sales record being broken.

AK: I hear there are now several biographers on the Stieg Larsson trail, but your book is the first English-language work. How long did it take to research and prepare the manuscript?

BF: Even the British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia I did for [publisher] Greenwood--which was a backbreaking endeavor--didn’t begin to compare with the intensive work I had to do on The Man Who Left Too Soon. The amount of writing I’d already done on Larsson wasn’t really much help--I was asked to deliver 70,000 words on the man, his remarkable life, the books and the subsequent dispute over the estate, which meant a great deal of burning of the midnight oil and many lengthy conversations (while a tape recorder consumed a small army of batteries). The hardest thing was to get all the names right--it may seem a small detail, but the Scandinavian names defeated several proofreaders.

AK: Did you find that your work on British Crime Writing: An Encyclopedia and your previous book, The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction, were at least helpful in setting a context for the Larsson bio?

BF: Not really. British Crime Writing was tremendously stimulating to put together, but possibly the most demanding thing about that assignment was getting my heavyweight (but sometimes recalcitrant) team of fellow contributors to come up with the goods--and then to correlate the largest amount of text I’ve ever worked with in my life. By contrast, The Rough Guide to Crime Fiction--all my own work--was a mere bagatelle. None of this was really any kind of launching pad for The Man Who Left Too Soon; most useful here were the many Scandinavian authors I’d interviewed or reviewed over the years--many of whom were a useful resource when it came to writing a book about Larsson.

AK: As with your encyclopedia, you obtained contributions from many contemporary crime writers, both Scandinavian and British. Were there any who really hated the Larsson books?

BF: You bet! When I asked several authors to talk about their views of Larsson, they pulled faces and said, “You really don’t want to hear what I think of Larsson!” And when I told them I wasn’t planning to write a hagiography, several people then agreed to speak to me. Ironically, I think some of the most insightful material in the book comes from people who are deeply ambivalent about Larsson’s work--although having said that, I think the single most useful interview I obtained was from [Scottish crime writer] Val McDermid. She is enthusiastic about Larsson (though with reservations)--and she is, of course, all over the “Millennium Trilogy”; she was a favorite writer of Larsson’s, and he even has [fictional editor] Mikael Blomkvist reading a McDermid book.

AK: How helpful were Larsson’s Swedish, English, and U.S. publishers in providing a context for the author’s life and work?

BF: No complaints. I think the section on publishing Larsson is an interesting one--principally because the actual act of publishing an author who has died before the real body of his success kicks in is an unusual one. And the process of publishing Larsson in different countries has been radically different--the one common denominator, of course, is the astonishing success.

AK: When putting together this book, you talked with many people who knew Larsson, asking them about the affects of his lifestyle on his health. However, Eva Gabrielsson, his longtime partner, seems to downplay that aspect. What’s your take on his early demise?

BF: It seems to me to be unarguable--even though there are those who do not agree with this--that it was Larsson’s punishing lifestyle (notably the heavy smoking) that ended his life at such a young age. I must admit I quite liked Yrsa Sigurðardóttir’s liking for the conspiracy theories (rather than his lifestyle) in his demise--mainly because she admits to being a chain smoker herself! Minette Walters was another writer who refused to take a disapproving view of his nicotine habit.

AK: What’s been the reaction to your book from Larsson’s father and brother, or from Gabrielsson?

BF: Frankly, I haven’t enquired too closely! I tried to be as evenhanded as I could about the bitter dispute over his estate, and allowed the views of both Larsson’s father and brother, and of Eva Gabrielsson to stand without too much authorial comment. Let’s face it, people make up their minds about such things very quickly (as they have in Sweden)--and I wouldn’t be surprised if my attempt at evenhandedness is interpreted as leaning to one side or the other. You really can’t win in this area.

AK: Larsson did a lot to expose right-wing extremists during his journalism career, and as a result, conspiracy theories have revolved around his demise, as you suggested earlier. In the course of your research, did you discover any actual evidence of a conspiracy?

BF: There were unquestionably threats to Stieg Larsson’s life--and he was well aware that journalists who took on extreme organizations, as he did, were obliged to take precautions. There was the occasion he saw a group of skinheads waiting in the street outside the offices of his magazine Expo, but escaped their attentions by leaving via another entrance. However, the conspiracy theories--à propos though they would appear to be for a writer who wrote the kind of menacing thrillers he did--appear to have no foundation in fact.

AK: In the middle section of The Man Who Left Too Soon, you focus on the narrative trail of his Millennium Trilogy. You had to reread all three of his novels in order to write this biography. Did you find them as captivating the second time around?

BF: I had a strange dual response to reading the books again for this middle section. Having to create so much analysis was stimulating, but hard work. Having said that, writing about books and films has been giving me pleasure since I was 12 years old, and it remains my dream job. And such is Larsson’s skill as a storyteller that I found myself enjoying once again this master of narrative--even though surprises have long gone for me. I was, I have to say, concerned that people would not read the analysis section before reading the books themselves--inevitably, there are spoilers, so I repeated on a few occasions that the sections were designed to be looked at after reading the entire Millennium Trilogy.

AK: Opinions vary as to whether the trilogy is as “feminist” as reported originally, due to the graphic sexual violence deployed as the stories unravel. What’s your take on Larsson’s feminist credentials?

BF: Of all the questions I asked various writers and fellow journalists, the issue of Stieg’s feminism--and attitude to sexual violence--was by far the most contentious. One area that deeply divided authors was Larsson’s treatment of violent sexual abuse--some felt that he was impeccably feminist, others were uneasy about what they considered to be gloating treatments of rape. I hope I allowed readers to make up their own minds.

My own view? It’s a really divided one. There is no question that he was genuinely a feminist who celebrated strong, capable women. But it has to be said that his strong, capable female protagonist [Lisbeth Salander] is also a disturbed sociopath who is psychologically damaged. What do we read into this? Is it simply a novelistic imperative to render his heroine more vulnerable? My own personal jury is still out on the graphic descriptions of sexual abuse in the novels. I can’t see an argument for Larsson describing such things in a discreet, mealy-mouthed fashion--and I would have thought it would be difficult (except for certain individuals) to find these passages erotically exciting. Basically, Larsson provides us with a remarkably high number of male scumbags to function as antagonists for his vengeful heroine. And I think--in the final analysis--he does it in a (largely) responsible fashion. But it’s a difficult call ... Sorry if that sounds like fence-sitting.

AK: Have you been asked to promote your new book?

BF: Of all the books I’ve done, The Man Who Left Too Soon is the one that seems to have generated the largest number of requests for events, interviews, signings, etc. (including from various Swedish and British newspapers, CNN, BBC TV and radio). Of course, I’m sure that this level of interest is all to do with my literary skills, rather than the popularity of Stieg Larsson, novelist.

AK: And what has the initial reaction been to your Larsson biography?

BF: Ironically, the first review was a showcase one in The Times, who made it their Book of the Week! But just to show that writing for a particular paper doesn’t buy you any special favors, it was a lackluster review! I gritted my teeth--the only thing that rankled was the suggestion I hadn’t spoken directly to people involved, which wasn’t the case. But, as [President Harry] Truman said: “If you can’t stand the heat, stay out of the kitchen.”

AK: Can you tell us your thoughts about the Yellow Bird Swedish film version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo as well as the coming American remake?

BF: The Swedish film was a creditable stab, about which I had reservations. And [filmmaker] David Fincher for the remake? Well, as long as it’s Fincher in Se7en mode and not The Curious Case of Benjamin Button mode ...

AK: By the way, I hear you’ve become even more involved with the British The Crime Writers’ Association (CWA). Tell us a little about your role.

BF: The clock is ticking--these are, in fact, my last days as vice chair of the Crime Writers’ Association, working with a particularly capable chair, Margaret Murphy; the new chair and vice chair, who begin in May, are Tom Harper and Michael Ridpath. Frankly, I really enjoyed my time doing this--the CWA seem to feel that I have a host of publishing contacts. Well, I suppose I have been invited to a lot of author meals, as my waistline is beginning to show ...

AK: So what’s life like being a freelance writer in these days of technological changes throughout the print media?

BF: It’s challenging! The key phrase you use there is “technological changes”: I struggle to keep up with such things, but I’m fully aware that it would be suicidal--as a freelance journalist--to take a Luddite approach. But in a way it’s no different from trying to keep up with all the developments in the crime-fiction genre--you can’t really afford to say, “I know all there is to know.” That way lies hardening of the arteries.

AK: And what other projects do you have in the pipeline?

BF: Again for the ubiquitous Maxim Jakubowski, I worked on a LitCrit travel book called Following the Detectives for the publishers New Holland--my sections will include Ian Rankin’s Edinburgh, Donna Leon’s Venice, Peter James’ Brighton, [and] Georges Simenon’s Paris. It was immense fun doing this, though I really think Maxim should have paid for me to spend at least a week--at his expense--in all these locations ... Other projects include a Directory of World Cinema: Italy, which is another specialist area of mine.

AK: Finally, can you tell us what books you’ve enjoyed reviewing lately?

BF: You know, whenever I’m asked this question, my mind goes blank. I write a review of at least a book a week--and there really is some impressive writing about these days. The last crime novel I really enjoyed? Well, I’ve just read The Galton Case, by Ross Macdonald. I’m cheating, I know!

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In the video below, Barry Forshaw talks about Stieg Larsson’s journalism career, the phenomenon of his Millennium Trilogy, and his own process of putting together The Man Who Left Too Soon:

Read an excerpt from Forshaw’s book here.

READ MORE:In Stieg Larsson’s Footsteps,” by Barry Forshaw
(Mystery Fanfare).

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