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Interview: Camilla Lackberg, author of Buried Angels

In Sweden, Camilla Lackberg is an all-round superstar: she is known as a TV dance idol – who twirled her way through Sweden’s version of “Let’s Dance” – as well as a cookbook and children’s book author, a part-owner of an upmarket jewellery company, the creator of the music production company “One Spoon Music,” and – surprisingly – also a songwriter, who has just written the lyrics to a new track by legendary ABBA musician and producer Benny Andersson.

To the rest of the world, Camilla Lackberg is better known for her ability to write compelling crime novels, and for being Scandinavia’s “Queen of Crime.” This tribute may be quite appropriate for this self-confessed Agatha Christie fan, whose novels have sold over 12 million books worldwide, and whose fame as Sweden’s top-selling author has even surpassed the popularity of Sweden’s other chart-topper, Stieg Larsson and his Millennium Trilogy.

Lackberg’s novels paint a picture of the “darker side” of the popular perception of Sweden as a benign and orderly society. Lackberg’s epicentre of action is the small fishing village of Fjällbacka (originally Lackberg’s home town) on Sweden’s West coast, which has become infamous for being the setting of her Erica Falck and Patrick Hedstrom thriller series.

The latest in this series is Buried Angels, a psychological thriller in which Erica (a “real-life” crime writer) and Patrick (a local Police officer) have to solve the case of an entire family disappearing in 1979 during Easter lunch – a mystery which the local police had long ago given up on solving. The case is once again thrown into the spotlight, when Ebba, the only family member who was found in the house as a one year old, returns to the old homestead in Valö and finds herself confronted with her past as some unknown attacker tries to silence her. When blood is found underneath the old house’s dining room floorboards, the past comes back to haunt more than just one person in Fjällbacka.

In Buried Angels the narrative is skilfully arranged like a puzzle, in which all the seemingly disparate pieces of different characters, subplots and historical timeframes are slowly and intricately assembled, until at the end a picture emerges which – although there has been violence, murder and trauma – is surprisingly comforting and beautiful.

Camilla Lackberg was in New Zealand this week for a book tour around the country, culminating in a packed-house author session at the Aotea Centre as part of the Auckland Writer’s Festival. NZ Booklovers caught up with Camilla during her – first ever – visit to New Zealand to talk about Buried Angels and her continued success in the world of crime writing.

You seem to have a pretty busy and diverse life – you’re a writer, a dancer, a business woman, music producer and the mother of three children – tell me how do you fit all of those things in, and what is it like being involved in so many different creative ventures?

I think to me the different things give energy to the other things. I mean I love crime writing, but if I would only do crime writing I would probably get bored with it. After eight books of course it’s never easy to write the crime thrillers, but it is in my comfort zone, so I like to do things that are not in my comfort zone, like for example the children’s books, and try new things. I write song lyrics as well, and that gives me energy for the crime writing.

And you have just written the lyrics for one of Benny Andersson’s songs – can you tell me how that came about?

Yes, that was amazing. It’s actually a contest for one of the literary TV programmes in Sweden, the biggest literary TV show. They asked Benny Andersson to create a song, and they have asked ten different authors to write the lyrics to the same song, and in each episode they play [one], and after the show, when the season has ended – which is in a couple of weeks – Benny is going to pick the lyrics he likes most, out of the ten, and that’s going to go on the album. So, I’m keeping my fingers crossed!

Did you get to meet him?

No, I didn’t. But even if I don’t win, just to have had my lyrics performed by Helen Sjöholm- she often works with Benny, one of my favourite singers – just to have something sung by her is amazing, so I’m just happy for that experience.

And you had already written song lyrics before, for your children’s book Super Charlie?

Yes the “Super Charlie” song. We have done two “Super Charlie” songs and that is the way I got into song writing. I am working together with a friend who is a songwriter, and he has a studio about 200 metres from my house, and I have been friends with him for a very long time, so when I wrote the Super Charlie books – I used to be in marketing, so of course I think in marketing terms, and I was thinking it would be great to have a pop song for children with super Charlie – so I knocked on Pele’s door and asked “could we do a Super Charlie song together?” And then he liked how I worked with those lyrics so he asked me “do you want to work with me on other projects as well”? He has worked with Westlife and Carrie Underwood, so it’s really great to be able to do this. Because writing is writing, I like to be able to try my writing in different ways, because people ask “isn’t it very strange to do song lyrics, when you do crime thrillers”, and no: writing is writing. If you are creative with words it doesn’t really matter in what way, and I like the challenges of working with different kinds of writing. The common denominator is that you have to express something with words.

So what are your writing rituals? You write a lot, and how do you do it? Do you have special time that you write?

I write when my children are in school, and in kindergarten, so I work during the day time; that is the only time I can write – I’m tired in the evening. I usually write at home, but sometimes if I’ve been sitting at home a lot I get bored with that, and I go and sit in a coffee shop or something. Because I can’t work if it’s quiet. At home I have the TV on or I have music on, and at the coffee shop it’s perfect, there are babies screaming, people talking, and the sound of porcelain. I really have to have that sound level.

I read somewhere that you said the initial idea for a novel starts with a picture in your head, and that you go from there – could you explain how you go from that kind of visual inspiration to then work out the plot, the characters etc?

With this book, Buried Angels, I got this image in my head of this huge dining room table, set for an Easter dinner, and I just saw how the table was empty, but they had only just half-finished the dinner, so it looked like they had gotten up and disappeared. And the only one left, I saw a small child sitting on the floor, a one-year old – and I didn’t know who the family was, why they had disappeared, I didn’t know what happened to them, I just got this image, and I started thinking about it, and wondering who were they? What happened? And then the whole story starts from there.

As you have so many characters and there are so many sub-plots, do you need to have lots of notes on characterisation and structure?

No, I usually keep it in my head, so it’s quite messy in my head sometimes. I do scribble a little bit on the side – people’s ages and how they are related to each other – but I’m not structured like some of my colleagues are, where they have post-it notes with the whole book outlined. I wish I did, but I don’t. I work through chaos. But I write chronologically, so I always write from the first page to the last, so the way you read it is the way I have written it. I never jump back and forth, simply because I don’t know what’s going to happen on page 140 – I haven’t a clue when I’m on page 10. It just grows organically while I write, so the story unfolds to me at the same time as it unfolds to the reader. But, that said, when I am like half through I usually know, roundabout, what’s going to happen in the rest of the book, but it takes me the first half of the book to establish that, to form that idea. But the thing is that I always know who the murderer is, and what the motif is, and that is the guideline that keeps it all together.

You have sold so many books – 12 million books in 50 something countries around the world – what do you think it is about your books, and about crime writing that makes it so popular and really resonate with people?

Well I think we have always liked crime books and stories, we always like to be scared. It’s the same thing as with ghost stories, where we used to tell each other ghost stories, sitting around the campfire – we just like to be scared under controlled circumstances. And what scares us nowadays isn’t ghosts and goblins, its murderers and rapist, and things like that – that’s what scares us because we open the papers every day and see that they do actually exist. We don’t believe in the bogeyman anymore, but we believe in the murderers and rapists. And I also think that the success of my books has a lot to do with Erica and Patrick. I think I have struck a chord with this couple, and the fascination, I think, is that people around the world read about this Swedish couple- this very normal Swedish couple, very down to earth – and they identify, and they are fascinated that they can actually identify with a Swedish couple living in a small Swedish town. I think I struck something that is more human nature than Swedish, and that is my own theory. I don’t know if it’s valid or not, but when I try to analyse it that’s what I end up with.

In terms of being scared of things: Do you believe that there are inherently “evil” people, or is it that particular situations create evil actions?

I believe in the notion – I don’t remember who said it, but some smart person said it – that “evil is the absence of good”. I don’t think that people can be born evil, but that people can be born without the ability to feel empathy. I’m talking about psychopaths; there are studies that say that about 0.5% of a normal population are what is defined as a psychopath, which is the lack of ability to feel empathy. And of course, if you can’t feel empathy then there is really no stopping you from doing bad things except the fear of getting caught. And then there are, of course, people who do have empathy, and their life has treated them badly, formed them in a way. So what I find most interesting is good people doing bad things. Because we can all be forced into situations where we would be able to do bad things. And I think that we all have the ability to kill, if someone would threaten the life of my children, for example, or my life, of course I would be able to kill someone, it’s in our nature.

One of the things that is interesting in Buried Angels – and also some of your other books – is the way that you depict women and traumatic situations. The trauma of Dagmar – from Dagmar’s mother on – creates that sort of generational trauma, ending up with Ebba. Are you interested in how women can deal with trauma, or their resilience to trauma?

I’m always interested in what you pass on from previous generations, and that goes for both men and women, that’s a common theme in my book: the things that we pass on through the generations, and it can be both good or bad things, and I find that fascinating – the luggage that we carry.

And of course, a lot of the women in Buried Angels are quite strong.

Yes, but women are strong. I think that women are quite strong, I mean we go through childbirth, a man can’t handle a simple cold! [Laughs]

In the postscript of Buried Angels, you talk about the bombing in Oslo and the massacre at the Workers Youth camp in 2011, and that the reality of evil being committed in the name of right wing politics has an eerie resonance in light of the underlying plot of your novel. Is that a theme in your books?

I’ve never had an agenda with my books, I write to entertain, and that’s fantastic in itself. But that being said, of course I have opinions, and of course I choose to write about the topics that I feel something about, and in this book I have this theme about National Socialism. The party I describe is of course the Swedish Democratic Party, who got into parliament a few years ago, which I think is atrocious. I think it’s sad, I think it’s disheartening, and of course therefore I write about it, it is something I feel very strongly about, but I’m not active in any [political] way.

Do you think that Sweden, or maybe Europe in general, is still dealing with the post-World War Two fall-out?

Yes, because there are a lot of stories coming out now in the last years. Sweden has always held its head so high and said we were so neutral during the war, and more and more stories are coming forward that we were not that neutral, and there were a lot of Swedes that sympathised with the Nazis, and the government were cowardly, and we let the Nazis pass their trains on their way to Norway. But of course, there were also other sides, and there were Swedes that fought against the Nazis, even though we didn’t have to help the Norwegians, so we have both stories coming forward, and it’s part of our history. To acknowledge both sides – there were both, great acts of cowardice and great courage. But we were not neutral, no.

Another thing that is interesting in Buried Angels – and your other books – is the role of children. They are very central: dead children, alive children, characters suffering from the loss of children – what makes you write about children in such a way?

Because I am a mother. Actually my first book got accepted for publishing the same week that my first child was born – they called me on Sunday to say they would accept my manuscript for publishing, and he was born on Friday. So my writing has always gone hand in hand with becoming a mother, and during the ten years I have written eight books and I’ve had three children. And I think as a writer you always deal with your own fears, and to me as a mother my greatest fear is that something will happen to my children. So I kind of deal with that by writing lots about children getting hurt, children getting killed, children vanishing, because that is my greatest fear.

I have read that as a child you were influenced by authors such as Agatha Christie – what authors influence your writing at the moment? Who is on your bookshelf?

I’m still stuck on the English ones, I read a lot of different things, but my heart is mostly with the English ones like Peter Robinson, Reginald Hill, Val McDermid. I like that tradition of writing crime, I like that you have to have a good fighting chance of guessing who the murderer is; there is a certain way of building the plot – its quite a slow way of telling the story, the sub characters are carefully painted, and so I like that way of writing, and always have. But I have an old favourite, who really did something different – traditional, but different – and that’s Andrew Taylor with the Roth trilogy, where you started with the present and you work through three books back in time – I was like “I wish I’d thought of that”.

The Fjällbacka stories with Erica and Patrick have been made into TV series and into a movie as well in Sweden – what was your involvement in that?

I was a co-producer. I formed a production company together with another company – I own half and they own half – so I’ve had a lot to say about it. It’s one cinema movie that is based on my 5th book, The Hidden Child, and also four ‘made for television’ movies that are based on the characters, but not on the books. They are coming to New Zealand in September or something, so they are going to be on television here as well.

Your books have been translated from Swedish into 25 languages – do you think anything in your writing gets lost in translation?

I wouldn’t know, because I never read them, so I wouldn’t be able to judge them. The only thing that I find funny – because I do get copies of the foreign editions sent to my house – and sometimes it’s a little bit bizarre, because I could get the Finnish copy of The Lost Boy and it’s 300 pages, and then the next day I get the Polish edition of The Lost Boy and its 500 pages, and I’m like: “what happened to the other 200”?

So what is next for Erica and Patrick?

I’m writing the ninth book at the moment, and I don’t have anything really dramatic going on in their life, except that the twins are hitting the terrible twos, and Patrick’s mother has met a new man, which Patrick has a little bit of a hard time dealing with, his mother dating. And Anna is trying to see if she is going to be able to work it out with Dan or not. So it’s more like everyday life is trotting along.

And what is next for you? What is your next challenge?

Well, finishing my book. And I’m also going on a vacation in June, for one week. We are seven mothers and twelve children and we are going camping for a week with three campervans. We are calling it MILFS on tour, so we have actually painted the campervans with ‘MILFS on tour’ in neon pink.

You might get a lot of attention?

Yes, so it’s going to be crazy. We got our own Instagram account and our own hashtag, hashtag MILFS on tour, so you can follow us there. [Laughs] We are going to have a lot of fun!

Tanya Allport


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