Friday, October 08, 2010

Collaborating in the Darkness, Part II

(Editor’s note: This is the second half of an exclusive, two-part interview. To read Part I, just click here.)

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak at some length with renowned Swedish crime-writing partners Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, who will be putting in a joint appearance at next week’s Bouchercon in San Francisco. (You’ll find more about that at the end of this post.) We discussed the uncomfortable truths behind their first novel; their relationship with fellow Swedish crime writer Maj Sjöwall; how Stieg Larsson helped Roslund by exposing the Swedish neo-Nazi movement; and the authors’ taste in reading material.

Ali Karim: Could you explain how your collaboration process works, and fill us in on the mechanics of your process from idea to publication?

Börge Hellström: A legitimate question, Ali, and I understand why you ask this. Many have asked this question before, but neither Anders nor I have ever answered it. When we had written The Beast and been told that our Swedish publisher [Piratförlaget] wanted to publish it, we agreed that neither of us would explain the actual collaborative process; or indicate who wrote what, or who plotted what. We agreed that it is “we” who write the books--not Anders and Börge, but Roslund & Hellström. That is why Anders and I are still working together successfully after 12 long years. [Laughs]

Karim: And what was it like to have your debut novel, The Beast, win the Best Scandinavian Crime Novel of the Year [Glass Key Award] in 2004?

Anders Roslund: Oh, such an honor, and some sort of credibility for the collaborative authorship right from the start. Wonderful, truly wonderful.

Karim: Your second novel, Box 21 (published in the States as The Vault), explores the horrific world of “people smuggling.” What prompted you to tackle that subject?

AR: Well, we write about the consequences of crime, and this one is a crime without conventional borders. We had so much knowledge as a base from our research--as we mentioned previously that the story is always number one, and our job is to entertain--and happily, the reactions from our readers were exactly as we hoped. The readers enjoyed the ride and learned something new at the same time about a terrible crime ...

Karim: The third and four books in your series starring Stockholm detectives Sven Sundkvist and Ewert Grens were Redemption and The Girl Below the Street. Neither of those has yet been translated and published in English. So how is it that Three Seconds--which was actually your fifth book--came to be released before them in the UK?

AR: Redemption is being translated right now. Why this order? We don’t really know. They are all “Roslund & Hellström” [novels] and all equally different in terms of style and content. And you can read them in any order, so every country makes different decisions, I guess. As they are available internationally, I guess regional publishers chose the order. I do hope this was the right choice for English, with the big push being Three Seconds for the UK and U.S. [where it will be released in January 2011].

Karim: When will books three and four appear in English?

AR: One each year, I think is the plan.

BH: I hear Redemption is next up after Three Seconds ...

Karim: So, I cannot help but ask this: What do you think of the Stieg Larsson global phenomenon?

AR: For me he is not global; he is still local to me. This is because my contacts with Stieg Larsson were--and are--very important to me. I was for a long time publishing investigative journalism about extreme right-wing organizations. At one point I was on top of their “death list” and was physically abused, and was referred to as the “Threatened TV Man” in all the newspapers. I had a bodyguard. I was living in hotels without addresses, and as soon as my new number and address were known, I had to move fast to yet another “safe house.” Then the death threats returned. At that time, I contacted Stieg, since he had the same problem with the extreme right, and he had the knowledge and experience I needed to survive the Nazi threats. We shared the same problem, we worked it out together. I miss him immensely.

Karim: Did you feel any pressure when Larsson’s UK publisher, Quercus, took over the rights to your own work here?

AR: Oh, not at all ... Really, it is an honor that this fine publishing house believes in Three Seconds and our authorship, the same way as we do.

Karim: Why is much of Scandinavian crime fiction so dark in demeanor and atmosphere? And what do you put down as the global appeal of this subgenre, and particularly the international success of your own work?

AR: First of all, there is a unique tradition here. Swedish publishers have for many years nurtured and treated crime fiction as a strong, independent genre ... We share this ethos that the crime-fiction genre is not just “pulp.” The best crime fiction’s duty is to entertain and tell a good story, but [it should also be] imbued with knowledge and question what we see around us.

Writing crime fiction is something that we take very seriously and put our whole hearts into; it is, and should be, just as difficult and demanding as writing any other kind of novel ... And when you see it like that, and those around you recognize that genre fiction is as relevant (and important) as literary fiction, then good results are entirely possible. And of course it helps that as Scandinavians, we have so much darkness, so many long dark nights, snow and cold, lack of daylight, that actually the environment is conducive to crime fiction. [Laughs]

Karim: That idea of dark places inspiring equally dark fiction might also explain Scotland’s great contributions to this genre, from authors such as Val McDermid, Quintin Jardine, Ian Rankin, Denise Mina, Allan Guthrie, Stuart MacBride, Caro Ramsey, and so many others.

AR: I think they call it “Tartan Noir.”

Karim: Three Seconds is a nerve-shredding piece of fiction. Despite its length, it reads very fast. A Polish friend of mine told me that the plot--having to do with the Polish mafia’s attempts to corner the drug market in Scandinavian prison systems--is authentic, as Poland has been the center for some of best-grade illegal amphetamine production. Can you tell me about the genesis of that novel?

BH: I have known for years that Poland is both a transit country and also a land of many amphetamine factories. Ill blame my “messy youth” for that knowledge. In addition, you have many different types of amphetamines in Poland. We tried to show it in the book by letting them produce “Flower,” which is in amphetamine-based fertilizers. Fertilizers are very dangerous, we soon realized [though not to fields and meadows and lawns]. But you can manufacture drugs and explosives from them.

Karim: Your protagonist in that novel, Piet Hoffmann (code name “Paula”), is an undercover Swedish agent and a very complex character. Without giving too much away, can you tell me whether he’s based on any real person? The novel reads almost like a documentary.

AR: Thank you for that observation, and yes, we have a background in that world. I have worked for many years as a journalist in prisons and a probation officer for prisoners with the longest sentences and most serious convictions. Börge has been in prison himself and also been a drug user for a number of years. So together we have a vast reservoir of knowledge to draw upon, but from two very different angles. We always say our books are 50 percent fiction, 50 percent reality, but the reader has to decide which is which.

Piet Hoffmann, the main character in Three Seconds, is a prisoner who actually works for the police, but becomes the prison-king immediately in ... our fictitious prison in the book. He becomes the prison-king when he takes control of drug-dealing inside [the penitentiary walls]. That is exactly how it works in reality. The person who controls the drugs always has the power inside a prison. You are at the top of the hierarchy, even though you might not be a murderer or armed robber, who are otherwise the ones at the top of the pyramid. (At the bottom of the pile are “grasses” [informants] and sex offenders--the pariahs of prison.) ...

The problem with drugs in prisons is, among other things, it interferes with the rehabilitation programs ... So prisoners who might want to go clean can’t do it as long as drugs proliferate inside the prison. As long as a prisoner is influenced by chemicals--in other words, represses any feelings, and doesn’t feel anything at all--he or she cannot understand his or her own behavior ... Therefore [the prisoner is] unable to change that behavior, and thus fails to understand the consequences of that behavior. How it hurts others, is when they are released back into society. They have not been rehabilitated, and continue to commit crimes and add to the number of victims.

Ali Karim with Börge Hellström and Anders Roslund

BH: I would add that authenticity is our hallmark, though we do not write documentaries--we write fiction. It is good that you think that the book gives you an authentic feel. It makes us proud. Of course many of our characters in the books have an air of real people, but that is because we research and work hard at the reality we see around us and in the book. We give each character traits of ourselves, and traits from a number of people drawn from reality. ...

Karim: Indeed, all of your work reeks of authenticity, and Three Seconds is no exception. Tell me about your research process. And since you are, respectively, an investigative journalist and someone who works with ex-prisoners, have either of you been close to the hazards that you portray in your fiction?

BH: We have a gestation of two years for each book. Simply put, it takes eight months of research (self-knowledge, fact finding, interviews, and discussions). Eight months spent on the construction of story and plot, and the last eight months is the actual writing process.
As for Three Seconds, we interviewed a number of undercover policemen, a secret military contact, an explosives expert, a doctor and some secret informers [“grasses”]. To answer your second question: Yes, we’ve been close to what we write about, sometimes too close. [Laughs]

Karim: That is intriguing, so tell me more!

AR: Three Seconds is a 600-page novel about contemporary crime. It’s been described as an entertaining novel, an action novel, a crime novel, [and] a thriller about today’s criminals and the authorities who work with them, and are ultimately responsible for them--the prison and probation service and the police service. It’s 600 pages, because the story demanded it. It took a long time to write. It took a very long time to research, as we had to meet key people, the kind of people that very few can, or are allowed [or able physically] to meet. If you understand.

A prerequisite for the novel, the actual fiction, was that it had to be right. It had to be accurate. Accuracy and authenticity depend so much on the contacts we have made and earned along the way over the years.

To be able to sit with men who have been “inside” for 30 years, the ones who work as hit men in prison, or hit men outside of prison ...; to see [men] fill library books and newspapers and tulips with amphetamines, to see how they hide drugs and needles (with the help of bits of elastic and bent spoons) down toilet bowls in maximum-security prisons--[that] requires a trust that we have worked long and hard to establish. That is absolutely essential to us for our work.

To be able to meet policemen who work with criminals in the gray area that is called covert human intelligence, people who commit crimes in order that other crimes can be solved; to learn about the kind of places where they hold their secret meetings, or how you pay people who are not supposed to exist; to be able to get information from the heads of prison security about how things actually work and why we, the public, are not told about this “hidden world”; to shadow the people who train our military snipers and who can explain how to shoot from a church tower over a distance of 1,503 meters when the wind speed is seven meters a second and the temperature in the air is 18 degrees, and why the bullet will then take exactly three seconds to reach its target--these meetings are essential to us in the writing of a book.

We have met three “Piet Hoffmanns” [undercover policemen] and we have met three “Erik Wilsons”--the handlers who manage the undercover agents. Then, we have to ensure [their] anonymity--that was our promise to them. Hence, the characters are melted down from many such people, with a combination of authenticity and tradecraft.

Karim: I see that you are both coming to Bouchercon in San Francisco. Can you tell me a little of what you would like to do while you’re in Northern California? I assume you’ve already taken the popular boat trip out to the old prison on Alcatraz Island, in San Francisco Bay.

AR: Oh, yes. I have been there three times before now. I will show Börge Alcatraz. Hopefully, we will be able to go to San Quentin [State Prison] as well. Then Börge, who has talked about this prison for so many years, will finally get to see it.

BH: I would love to see the view of San Quentin [from the outside], though I would not like to go into San Quentin ... The Americans probably feel we are a bit weird anyway ... coming to their fine city of San Francisco to look at their prisons. The crazy Swedes and their social pathos! I guess we will confuse them. I know Alcatraz is on the tourist map, but I guess most tourists would rather avoid San Quentin. [Laughs]

Karim: I would think that Three Seconds is just screaming out to be filmed. Has there been any interest in adapting your story for either television or the cinema?

AR: We are almost there. It will be official, hopefully, any day soon--and it will be international project. Hopefully, when we see you on the West Coast we can reveal more then.

Karim: Quercus is very excited about your joining its stable of writers. What was it like working with the Quercus team on Three Seconds?

AR: Quercus is fantastic. All this enthusiasm, hard-working nice people--we couldn’t have landed in safer hands. We’re delighted to be working with them.

Karim: All your novels so far have won awards or at least nominations. As authors, what exactly do those prizes mean to you?

AR: We both find it difficult to accept praise, but are trying to learn to be proud and not look away or down at the ground when someone gives us sincere praise. ... So when [Three Seconds] was first selected for Best Crime Novel in 2009 by a jury of experts, and was then also nominated and awarded the Great Readers’ Prize for Best Crime Novel of the Year, it was of course fantastic. To be acclaimed by both the experts and the readers at the same time is beyond what I can articulate here.

Karim: If you were compelled to select the 10 most important crime novels, books that everyone should read, what would you choose?

AR: Wow, this is just impossible! I can’t really do it. But from the top of my head, [I’d mention] the Swedish novel 491, by Lars Görling, from 1962--not translated--[which] is still my favorite; it changed me, I think. Of course, Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö [shouldn’t be forgotten]; their 10 [Martin Beck] novels should be considered as a single volume split into 10 chapters. I love Shutter Island and Dennis Lehane. Another Swedish author I like and read is Arne Dahl. ... There are so many books and writers I read ...

Karim: Hey, you already demonstrated great taste, as Shutter Island--the book and the movie--are favorites of mine. So, Börge, what about you?

BH: It is impossible, Ali, but I’ll try to list some of my favorites--however, not 10, and not in any order or rank. Of course, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes; “The Raven,” by Edgar Allan Poe; The Bible, by many writers; Dracula, by Bram Stoker; The Abominable Man, by Sjöwall and Wahlöö; The Devil Rides Out, by Dennis Wheatley; To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee (yes, I know, it’s not a crime novel--but it’s so damn good); and, of course, Three Seconds, by Roslund & Hellström. [Laughs]

Karim: So what's next from Roslund & Hellström? And will detectives Ewert Grens and Sven Sundkvist remain the stars of your work? Or have you any interest in composing standalone novels?

AR: We are right now in the middle of book six, and finally it’s us controlling the book and not the opposite ... [It includes] Ewert Grens, of course; we have a few more with him before [writing] the first standalone, which we are considering.

Karim: Thank you for your time and patience, guys, and I look forward to seeing you in San Francisco.

AR/BH: And thank you, Ali, for your questions. ... Do you fancy joining us on that trip to San Quentin?

Karim: [Laughs] Not after reading what you put Piet Hoffmann through in Three Seconds! No, thank you.

* * *

If you’re planning to attend Bouchercon next week, I encourage you to sit in on a Friday afternoon panel discussion called “Inferno,” which will feature Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström, along with Zoë Ferraris, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, and Joshua Sobol. I’ll be moderating.

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