“Like summer. No, it’s more than that, something bright and floral. Like a – a summer meadow,” says Marie Fredriksson.
“Somewhere between rose and gardenia, with a splash of wild strawberry,” offers Helena von Zweigbergk after a bit of contemplation.
What are they talking about? Let’s put that question to one side for now. So many others take precedence, now that their joint project, the book Kärleken till livet (‘Love for Life’), is finally finished. That’s the book in which Marie Fredriksson tells of her journey through life, from her career heights down to the hellish depths of her years of illness, letting her story filter through Swedish author Helena von Zweigbergk’s gentle listening and respectful retelling.
“Have you read it?! You must be the first. That’s brilliant. I’m so happy, so happy,” Marie Fredriksson exclaims in delight, placing her hands over her heart. As if in a gesture of gratitude to life. Or to God. Or maybe to Helena von Zweigbergk, whose role soon expanded from co-author to confidante. Friend.
Perhaps because things had got off to such a rocky start.
“Sitting there at my kitchen table, talking about all the tough times in my life, from my childhood to the cancer… I cried so much… it was so incredibly hard,” Marie Fredriksson says, slowly, pausing often. “But the more Helena and I kept at it, the better we got to know one another, the more I was able to talk. To get the right words out. And that was important. Everything had to be the truth. No faffing around, as I like to say. That’s something ingrained in me, from when I was little.”
I remember the grief, how the family was torn apart.
Just a few minutes ago, she arrived at the studio where photographer Thron Ullberg is going to shoot some photos. Stood in the doorway radiating energy, like a fiery flame in a leather jacket. “It’s been some day,” she declared. A good day. One where she’d even been looking forward to this interview – not a regular occurrence throughout her long career. She has shunned journalists. Maintained her privacy. That was also Helena von Zweigbergk’s image of Marie Fredriksson when the question arose whether she wanted to ghostwrite Marie’s memoirs.
“I felt leery,” Helena recalls. “We’d met a few times, and I remembered how hard it was to communicate with her. But then we sat down together – and there was a different Marie Fredriksson. Open. Serious. It was immediately clear that this was an important book to her. And I wanted to do it!”
There were some obvious similarities between them. They are around the same age, each with two children. Both are emotional people.
“I could identify with Marie’s mindset. The fact that she sometimes finds it hard to stick up for herself. Crying instead of being cold and calculating,” explains Helena von Zweigbergk, who is already in make-up in another part of the studio. The make-up artist has made it as far as varnishing her toenails.
They call it a “book of emotional memories.” Not a staid survey of Marie Fredriksson’s life – or of Roxette’s career. More snapshots of turning points, decisive events. We accompany her back to her childhood in the small community of Östra Ljungby in Skåne, southern Sweden. To happiness and music-making and a much-loved mum and dad. But also to an event Marie was unable to talk about, even with those closest to her, for many years: her elder sister Anna-Lisa’s death in a car crash, when she collided with a milk tanker one icy December day in 1965 on her way to buy a dress for her engagement party. Marie was seven years old at the time.
“She was 20 – and I can barely remember her today. But I remember the grief, how the family was torn apart. Completely. After that I had to fend for myself. Just imagine, I was only seven years old. But I think that’s where I got the fighting spirit which has benefited me so enormously – not least of all when I developed cancer. I never give up,” she explains.
She pauses, needs to sip her coffee, take a bite of cinnamon roll. Go back to my question about what made her dare – and want – to open up. Even about the darker sides of her life.
The answer is expressed in various ways in the book: she wanted to help other people. Give hope to people going through hard times.
“So many people are diagnosed with serious illnesses. Things like cancer. They’re the ones I’m thinking of. Now, thank goodness, people are starting to talk about difficult things, but it’s taken a long time. I remember how it was at first myself. People were terrified. They disappeared, didn’t dare get in touch. Then when I had to start taking cortisone, 32 tablets every day, I swelled up so much, nobody recognised me. That’s when things got even worse…” she recalls.
Marie’s fight against her illness has already served as a guiding light and a source of solace. As I read Kärleken till livet I thought of the walks I took with my own sister-in-law when she was suffering with a brain tumour. Her steadfast statements like, “Just think of Marie Fredriksson – she made it, and I will too.” My sister-in-law didn’t make it. But maybe, just maybe, that extra strength was what gave her one more year. When she was able to delight in becoming a grandmother, watch a little boy take his first steps.
The book – that honest account with “no mucking about” – also contains some sections of reportage where Helena accompanied Roxette on tour to Australia, getting insights into the life of a global star, standing in the wings as Marie Fredriksson went out on stage to be greeted by a sea of cheering fans.
“She was totally cool, while my head was spinning. When I asked her whether she was nervous, she didn’t understand the question. ‘What do you mean, nervous?’ That’s what she’s been doing her entire adult life. And she loves it. I think starting to work together with Per Gessle again, reuniting Roxette, was one of the most important aspects of her recovery. As she puts it somewhere in the book: on stage she could be Marie again, not just a cancer diagnosis,” Helena tells me.
Maybe we ought to take the illness part on its own. Not divide it up into little bits of pain, like in the book. It feels like a brief account would suffice, but we have to pause for a moment first. It was on the 11th of September 2002 – one year to the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US – when Marie Fredriksson’s world came crashing down just as abruptly and irrevocably as the Twin Towers in New York. She was on her way to Antwerp for a Roxette gig with Per Gessle. She’d been out for a jog with her husband, Mikael Bolyos. Ran faster than him. Came home. Suddenly felt ill. Went to lie down – and now rushed into the bathroom, overcome with nausea. There she collapsed. Had an epileptic seizure. Hit her head so hard on the bathroom floor that she fractured her cranium. Was rushed to hospital. Tests, followed by a diagnosis. A brain tumour. This is where her journey into darkness begins. Treatments. Grief. Worry. She has a husband she loves, as well as two young children. Mums cannot – must not – die.
Even if nobody else believed in me, I believed in myself.
She makes faltering progress, through crises and setbacks. Through the hell which she ought to have been spared: the tabloid headlines saying her cancer had spread. All lies, lies, lies. The doctor in Järna, south of Stockholm, who told her she’d brought about her illness herself by smoking and drinking too much. Now she’s hitting back, telling her own story. It doesn’t feel like Marie Fredriksson is out for revenge, rather to achieve her original idea: writing a book about the truth.
“The way that doctor treated me, it shouldn’t be allowed. I’ll never forgive him,” she says.
And there she is, in the midst of all that turbulence. Many people who fall victim to a serious illness might recognise the feeling of having ended up in a cold, bare room. Completely alone. Their nearest and dearest might reach out a hand, but no one really connects. It’s impossible to share the ultimate consequence of the diagnosis.
And then… like a miracle, a marvel. The tumour didn’t come back. It had been stopped in its tracks. In the summer of 2006 Marie Fredriksson decided she was healthy.
Now she is sitting opposite me. She says, in almost a whisper: “There were so many people who didn’t think I’d make it. Doctors, too. But I knew inside I was going to beat the cancer. And those years when I was unable to speak, became totally isolated. I remember when we’d sit and eat dinner, the whole family, how Micke and the kids would be chatting together. I couldn’t get a single word out. It was horrible. And yet I knew all along I was going to make it.”
Where did that knowledge come from?
“It’s hard to explain. I’ve always had tremendous inner strength – and strong faith in God. But that’s one of the few things I’m not willing to talk about. My faith is private. On the other hand, I do want to talk about everything you can overcome if you – how can I put this? – if you make your mind up. When things were at their most difficult… even if nobody else believed in me, I believed in myself. Felt I had to. And now I’m sitting here.”
About your faith: is that something you’ve had throughout your life?
“Oh yes, ever since I was little and went to Sunday school. My sister Tina and me. We had a wonderful pastor in Östra Ljungby. I’ve got really bright, lovely memories. All the songs I loved. Then when my big sister Anna-Lisa died… faith became such a source of help… for all of us.”
She takes a nibble of cinnamon roll, then explains:
“But I hope it’s clear how important my own family have been as well. Josefine and Oscar, who are always there, helping out and making jokes, no matter how I’m feeling. And Micke … without him … when I fell ill he had to take care of everything, and he did. He was so amazingly strong.”
Their love story wouldn’t have been very believable in a novel or song lyrics. Only in real life can two people meet – it was in Sydney where she was performing in Roxette and Mikael Bolyos was travelling through – fall in love at first sight and make a decision. He proposed after 48 hours. She just said a joyous “yes”.
What did you see in him?
“An amazing person. But most of all, he’s so funny. So easy to be with. We’ve had so many laughs together. And of course we have music in common. That was incredibly important when things were at their lowest point.”
When they met, she was a global star who commanded stadium audiences all over the world – and a lonely, restless girl after the applause faded. Someone who phoned her mum from all corners of the globe. But all that was hard for Inez Fredriksson back in Östra Ljungby to take in…
In the book, Marie puts it bluntly: “If Micke and I hadn’t met, I don’t know if I would have been able to continue in Roxette much longer. I couldn’t handle the personal side of life on tour. I was hanging out in bars, drinking too much. I was sad a lot of the time and had a hard time with the press, when I always had to be nice and say the right things. Always having to be available to everybody, always putting on a smile and being happy. Marie Fredriksson the performer had grown in stature, at the expense of Marie the private person. I had less and less space to be myself. And when I was myself I felt uncertain, small and lost.”
People can choose to talk or choose not to talk about their darkest places. But when you’re the one who has to ask those questions… Were there any times when Helena von Zweigbergk felt she was skirting around the sort of things she really wanted to know, out of respect for Marie or because she didn’t dare to ask? Helena nods and shakes her head at the same time. Understands what I mean, but says she never felt that way.
“Marie set the tone. It really felt like she was striving for the truth. Even though she found it hard to express herself, at least in the beginning. Her spare language coloured the book. Made it more dense, content-wise, rather than chit-chat. When it requires a certain amount of effort to speak, you don’t fool around.
Yes, the language – bearing in mind the uproar that ensued when Swedish author David Lagercrantz mentioned he hadn’t quoted Swedish footballer Zlatan Ibrahimović verbatim in his book about him. Did Helena von Zweigbergk do the same thing, create a sort of “Marie Fredriksson-ese”?
“Definitely not. I found that controversy really strange. I never understood what it was about. Of course you can’t quote people word for word. You have to summarise, trim things, tighten it up. Then we went through everything together. Because Marie can’t read any more, I read everything aloud to her. Changed a few more things. Together we created a narrative that is her own story.”
Accounts of Marie Fredriksson from her friends and colleagues are woven in throughout the book. Their love and appreciation feel genuine – but wasn’t there anyone who was willing to tilt the mirror a bit? To show another side of their friend and colleague? Something annoying, that might get on their nerves? That Fredriksson lass from Östra Ljungby probably hasn’t completely stopped bugging people since she used to wake the whole family on Sunday mornings by singing opera numbers in front of her three-way mirror.
“That is something I’ve thought about,” Helena says. “But if you spend time with Marie, you can’t help but think what a trouper she is, all the time. Free of bitterness and jealousy. It feels honest that people around her chose to say nice things. It feels like they meant it. It wasn’t the case that I sifted things out, no …”
For Helena von Zweigbergk, who has dedicated herself to writing her own novels in recent years, this joint project meant so much more than collecting Marie Fredriksson’s words and memories. She has also gained insights into the life of a pop star, a backstage pass to a world she had always wanted to find out about.
Today she maintains: “Musicians aren’t as fussy-wussy as us journalists and authors.”
What do you mean, “fussy-wussy”?
“We deal with words, words, words. It’s nice to talk to someone who communicates using other forms of expression. Like singing and music.”
A little while later I will ask what Marie Fredriksson has learned from Helena von Zweigbergk. But I put the question to Helena first.
“Marie has given me the courage to address difficult issues. To not be ashamed to talk about them. There’s also something in her attitude to life, what she’s arrived at, that I can relate to. Like, life’s not about shopping at a posh department store. She has a seriousness that’s been good for me to adopt. She’s hardly ever ironic or sarcastic. Never tries to appear smart. It was important, lovely, for me to meet a person like that.”
Because she’s so different from the people you’re around most of the time, you mean?
Now I ask Marie what Helena von Zweigbergk has taught her.
“That’s a good question. To be braver, I think.”
She said the same about you.
“Maybe that’s because we had so much fun working on the book. I hope, really, we’ll continue to meet up. But you know what I was just thinking the other day? Now that this book is finished – maybe we’ll write another one. About how life is now.”
Life now, for Marie Fredriksson, is quiet at home. Peace and quiet, something that has become increasingly important to her.
“Everyone’s in such a rush. It drives me mad, I can’t deal with it. I want to enjoy the day, my family. So many things in life are more important than this bloody stress. I didn’t realise that before I fell ill. Before my cancer, I was another one of those people who just rush around.”
Of course, it’s not all peace and quiet. Roxette’s plans for the future are still up and running. South Africa awaits for Marie Fredriksson and Per Gessle after Christmas. She bounces up in her chair with delight at the sheer thought of the tour. Meeting fans, hanging out with the musicians and Per Gessle, whom she has known since her teenage years in Halmstad.
“I’m a Gemini,” she says by way of explanation of the duality she embodies: both fragile and strong. Both homebody and someone who loves to travel around the world. Take it easy – but also work, work, work.
Has her voice changed as a result of her illness? Hard to say. Maybe it’s become a bit darker.
“But I give it the same as ever, I fight on in the same tones as before. It’s just so much fun. The way your singing sounds really depends on how you feel on the inside. If you’ve slept badly or are feeling down, you can hear it straight away.”
I’ve never seen myself as a victim, never ever…
Some people who have survived serious illnesses say afterwards they’re actually grateful for what happened. Because their illness taught them so much. For me, a cancer patient myself, that has always sounded unbearable, incomprehensible. Marie Fredriksson doesn’t hide her grief over her illness. The tragedy it entailed. All the years she missed out on with her children. But sitting in a blue armchair opposite me, she can also talk about all the things she has learned to notice and appreciate. Being in the moment, calmness. Following the seasons, waiting for the first nightingale of spring, drawing strength from the tree growing outside her house. As she sums up in her book: “Better a tree than Facebook. For crying out loud.”
“I’m a completely different person today,” she tells me. “Much, much stronger, just mentally. Happier too – however odd that might sound. And even though I’ve had thirteen years overshadowed by grief, I’ve never given up the creative side of my life. I’ve painted, composed songs, sung. Right now I have a desire to paint. I don’t know what it will be until I’m sitting here. But I’ve decided to try watercolours. In black, blue – maybe.”
So once your inspirational book is out …
“Inspirational book??!!” She sits up in her chair and fixes her eyes on me. Suddenly she seems really tall. And angry. If I’ve got it into my head that she has written an inspirational book then I’m wrong, seriously wrong.
“There’s so much more in the book than my illness. So much about music, the story of Roxette, going around performing all those years. ‘Inspirational book’ sounds so tragic. I’ve never seen myself as a victim, never ever…”
All right, a ‘give ‘em hell book’ then, I suggest as an alternative. She leans back, admits it’s good. Much better, at any rate. Suddenly I recall the bit in the book where her husband realised she was on the road to recovery. It was the evening when she got annoyed with him and hissed, “Stupid bastard”.
That’s another way of spelling love.
We already know what love smells like – as Marie reminded Sweden’s Princess Madeleine and Chris O’Neill at their wedding in Stockholm, where she performed her song Ännu doftar kärlek (‘Still the Scent of Love’), co-written with Lasse Lindbom.
“Like a summer meadow,” she said right at the beginning. There is surely room for Helena von Zweigbergk’s rose and gardenia to grow as well, with a row of wild strawberries along the edge.
If we wanted to mix the scent of friendship, it might be sufficient to add the ink from a just-published book and the memory of salty tears blended with the sweetness of all the cinnamon rolls required for the job. We’re running out of time now – Marie has to go into make-up for the photo shoot.
“This’ll take bloody ages,” she cheerfully assures me.
Only later on do I realise we never spoke about death. What Marie Fredriksson, with her strong faith in God, imagines will happen afterwards. Strangely enough, Helena von Zweigbergk doesn’t know either.
“You know, we never talked about that. We were totally focused on life.”
Photos by Thron Ullberg
English translation by Ruth Urbom