In just a few days it’ll be here with a vengeance: publication day for David Lagercrantz’s novel The Girl in the Spider’s Web (Swedish title: Det som inte dödar oss), the sequel to Stieg Larsson’s phenomenally successful Millennium trilogy. Excitement is at fever pitch all over the world. This is the biggest book launch Sweden has ever seen. Vi Magazine’s music columnist Johan Norberg has been friends with David Lagercrantz for 20 years, so has been able to follow the circus surrounding the new book close-up. This is his report, gathered at coffee breaks and school runs, on elation and desperation.
The book is a colossal success before it’s even hit the bookstores. The Girl in the Spider’s Web, as David Lagercrantz’s sequel to Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy is titled in English, is the world’s biggest book launch of 2015. The marketing efforts are of military proportions, secrecy is ultra-tight and hopes have taken on near-religious fervour, as can happen when one single book means the difference between creating or cutting numerous jobs. The book will be launched in over 45 countries, and sales in Sweden are expected to equal one of the best-selling Swedish books of all time – I Am Zlatan, the memoirs of Swedish soccer star Zlatan Ibrahimović – which also just happens to have been written by David Lagercrantz.
Things are going well for David now. The worst-case scenario is that he will end up rolling in money, or more accurately, rolling in even more money, and he’s prepared for the reviews. Says he’s never been so thorough with a book. “The pressure has been enormous, but that’s only been good for me and improved me as a writer,” he tells me.
When the journalist Stieg Larsson died in 2004 he left behind three crime novels that would become a posthumous success all over the world, selling over 80 million copies. Larsson’s untimely death meant devoted readers lost some thrilling literary figures, and publishers likewise lost their goose that laid the golden egg, until someone had the idea of letting someone else take over the characters and write a sequel.
David often describes the things that happen to him as “total hysteria”. This time I’m inclined to agree. The news made headlines like a major political event and garnered some sour remarks. The fact that the commission went to David Lagercrantz caused irritation among some of his fellow writers, and the Swedish tabloid Expressen published a fierce personal attack not only on him, but also on his late father, an eminent cultural figure in Sweden, and the entire Lagercrantz family. The paper was later forced to retract the article.
There was something about his background that provoked them. Or perhaps all of it did. David Lagercrantz was born into the Swedish nobility, into a long line of successful intellectuals on both sides. His father Olof’s achievements are hard to overestimate. Few critics and commentators were as respected and feared in the second half of the 20th century, and a great many major authors and poets frequented the Lagercrantz home. However, it was his mother Martina, with her charisma and energy, who was the social hub of the household, says David, who still talks to his 94-year-old mother on the phone every day.
“She was the jolly one in the family, in terms of speaking, without a doubt. She could talk about anything and everything, leaping from high to low. Dad was a more reserved person who kept everything inside. He liked to talk about other people’s suffering, but not his own,” David says.
Those were the circumstances in which David grew up: surrounded by literature, with the attention of his ageing father, a privilege granted to him as the youngest child of the family by several years.
Privileged, but successful and critically praised in his own right for his most recent books.
Certain aspects of his personality are like something out of an Evelyn Waugh novel: anachronistically chivalrous. His suits are bespoke. Remarkably brittle and deeply impractical, he phones a handyman to hang a picture on the wall.
At the same time, he is in excellent shape from regular visits to the gym, more as a stress release than to build muscle. Displays a complete absence of traditional upper-class pastimes: definitely no golf, sailing or wine cellar.
In the environment he grew up in, there was nothing more vulgar than flashing money around, and the only thing that counted was his family’s and his father’s great virtue – something he himself points to as a blessed curse: scrupulous work. Disciplined writing.
I first met David in 1995, when our eldest daughters began at nursery school. Since then more children have come along, but the nursery and the school have always been the same. Our wives have demanding careers with long hours, so it’s mostly David and I who drop the children off and pick them up. That has given us plenty of opportunity to chat throughout those early childhood years, when there were tantrums at the school gates and we stayed to wipe away tears and sing ‘Here Comes Pippi Longstocking’ at morning assembly. A recurring topic of conversation is how we ought to go and have a pub lunch, stay there all afternoon, then go on to Stockholm’s trendy Operabar, get rip-roaring drunk and go home the next morning.
It never happens.
This piece has been put together from notes from personal meetings, but on one occasion in May we sat down together at his home for a focused question-and-answer session.
David lives with his family in what you could call a spacious apartment in the Södermalm district of Stockholm – not huge, but with respectably high ceilings. Nice for David, who is extremely reluctant to leave home, except to do the grocery shopping and pick up the children.
“I’ve never told the kids, ‘Daddy’s writing,’ which I often heard when I was little,” David says. “Writing has never been sacred in that sense. They come home early from after-school activities, life carries on and the kids are here. My insomnia means I’m wide awake at four, so when the kids get up I’ve already got three solid hours of work in. That’s when the essence of my writing happens. The rest of the day I go around and muck about. I don’t have superhuman powers of concentration, and I’m amazed I get so much done. When I’ve dropped the children off at school, and they’re happy, I might feel a little buzz of euphoria, and then an idea comes along and I’ll go home and make some notes. I usually say I write best when I’m not writing.”
Let’s rewind to 2011. David divulges that the secret project he’s been working on for six months is a book about Zlatan Ibrahimović. I think that comes as an anti-climax after all the secrecy and evasiveness, and I ask him: “What is there actually to write about with him, just a load of soccer matches?”
We’re standing downstairs at the day-care centre. My boys are putting their shoes on, while David is struggling with his son Hjalmar’s snowsuit. He is mortally offended by my banter and delivers a terse, crushing reply. I have experienced a wounded Lagercrantz and feel like I’ve been called an idiot. It took me a few weeks to get over it, but when I remind him of that episode today he doesn’t recall it.
In the midst of his huge success with I Am Zlatan, David tells me he has started writing again. “This is big, believe me, and top secret. They’d kill me if I said anything.” “The all-new adventures of Zlatan,” I joke. David does not laugh, merely corrects my mispronunciation of Zlatan’s name.
Long after that, I find out he was summoned to a confidential meeting at the Norstedts publishing house in August 2013 and let in via the back entrance to the basement. That was followed by meetings with Stieg Larsson’s brother Joakim, various agents and publishers. The wheels are set in motion, and David has to use code words in emails to the other parties involved. He uses a computer with no internet connection to avoid the risk of hacker attacks. The manuscript is sent to the publisher on USB sticks via private courier. It’s like something out of the Millennium books.
That sounds like a suicide pact.
“I know, the scope for failure was huge, but the pressure boosted me up. When I’m writing my own novels, I’m filled with doubt – why should I be writing at all? – but if I’m cross-pollinated with something else and feel some pressure, that ‘this is important’, then I raise my game and am liberated from my self-doubt.
“At first, especially when it was revealed that I would be writing a fourth Millennium book, I felt a certain timidity, saw a watchful eye over me, and that wasn’t good. There was the pressure and the fear of failure. I thought, ‘Stieg wouldn’t have done it like this’, and so there came a point when I stopped looking at his books. I’m no copycat, and I’ve got to put myself into it, so once I’d got everything into my system, sometime in March 2014, the only feeling I had was that it was my novel.”
What have you learned from Stieg Larsson, the author?
“I’m incredibly impressed by the impetus in the narrative and his moral empathy, but above all the phenomenal plot structure, which was also the hardest thing for me. Because he had several parallel plot lines, it wouldn’t be enough just to have a murder: there ought to be something going on at the Millennium offices and in several other places.”
Do you plan it out with Post-It notes on the wall?
“No. It was constantly ticking over in me, when I’d go for a walk, at the gym. The plot construction made it into a different type of writing.
“I was also forced to get inside the characters and be brave enough to make them my own, but they weren’t always very easy to understand. Like Lisbeth Salander. She was at her best in action scenes, when she’s striking back as the underdog. At first I just couldn’t get under her skin, explain her motivations.
“I tried some things out and discussed them with the publisher: ‘Who the hell is Lisbeth? Would she have done this? Is this reasonable?’
“But it was great to write Mikael Blomkvist, a figure who’s close to me in a way. Maybe I had a hard time with his absolutely magical spell over women. He doesn’t even seduce them, just walks into a room and they throw themselves at him. He’s not that promiscuous in my book, and the women don’t immediately fall for him the same way.”
THURSDAY 1 JANUARY 2015
We’re on our way to Järvsö, in east-central Sweden, with our families to go skiing. David is beset with the emptiness that comes after submitting a manuscript, but he also seems relieved. After we leave the children at their skiing lesson and take the lift up for our first run, he tells me a bit about the book.
Right before he launches himself down the piste, he declares triumphantly: “Nobody had better accuse me of cobbling it together. I’ve never worked so hard in all my life.”
He skis just like Roger Moore – carving in short, quick arcs.
Did you read a lot of crime fiction in your younger days?
“No, I had the wrong sort of upbringing, you could say. I only started recently and sometimes felt an anti-climax at the end: the puzzle might have been fun, but the answer often felt weak, boring. However, there are some authors – besides Stieg Larsson – I’ve read obsessively and felt really gripped by, like Håkan Nesser and Dennis Lehane.”
I have a hard time imagining you as a writer of bestial violence. Did you do any research into weaponry or forensic medicine?
“Those Jan Guillou-type gun nuts make me sick. I find it hard to be violent and describe violence. I’m incapable of revelling in it the way some writers do. There is violence in the book, but I don’t go into it. I think it becomes more powerful if you don’t write it out in great detail. It’s the intellectual puzzle that I enjoy more than anything else.”
SUNDAY 29 MARCH
I take my youngest son over to the Lagercrantz family’s place so the children can play together. The following week, David will travel to London to meet publishers from 30 countries who have read the book and see the potential for a bestseller. Projected print runs are being constantly revised. A classic snowball effect, beyond all comprehension. Things about the book get posted on social media every minute, around the clock, all over the world, which sets David off on a manic round of self-Googling in search of nasty comments, like picking at a scab. That weekend Stieg Larsson’s partner Eva Gabrielsson issues a statement to the press, and David fidgets nervously with his smartphone. “No, I really shouldn’t read this,” but he types it into the search engine anyway and shows me.
“He comes from a completely different background. Everything has always been easy for him. He’s never been an activist. Everything is wrong… Let Lagercrantz dig his own grave.” (Eva Gabrielsson, 27 March 2015, to the AFP news bureau.)
David is not unmoved by Gabrielsson’s statement. He repeats several times that he feels genuine sympathy for her and what she has gone through.
“No matter what I say about her, it will be wrong. Not even ‘I have no comment’ feels right.”
We’re standing in the little alcove where David does his writing. The phone rings, he stiffens, and the number on the display makes him draw air through clenched teeth. “Good grief, you see what I’ve turned into, jumping when the phone rings.”
As an old newspaperman, he recognises the number. “No, I’m not going to answer.”
A beep signals the arrival of a text message from a journalist at the tabloid Expressen, asking David to ring him back about ‘a thing’. “He didn’t say what it’s about – that’s smart,” David says, then calls his agent at Norstedts to ask for advice. They agree not to comment on Gabrielsson’s statement.
Right in the middle of their conversation, David’s son starts shrieking, “Daddy, Daddy!” David tells him, “I’m coming, darling,” then reflexively gives a distracted “Bye” to the Norstedts person and hangs up on her.
The source of the crisis? Our six-year-old sons want to connect their iPads to play Minecraft.
FRIDAY 24 APRIL
David phones me at twenty to nine in the evening. “Shouldn’t we get going with that article for Vi?” The publisher has pointed out to him that Vi Magazine is at the head of the queue, with the rest of the world’s press waiting behind them. I feel a little stressed; maybe I haven’t comprehended how big this is, and perhaps I’ve also underestimated the difficulty of writing about a close friend.
THURSDAY 14 MAY
The after-school centre is closed today, and David’s wife Anne needs to have the apartment to herself to prepare for an important meeting with senior management at Radio Sweden. He has to take the children out so she can work in peace. They come over to our place, and the kids go off and play. Now that the book is finished, David, whose default setting is fevered, has moved up a gear into jittery overexcitement. The publisher has sorted out a secret phone number for him because, terrified of conflict and only wanting to be polite, he says yes to everyone who calls. The situation is untenable, and the scope of things requires a team of publicists. The autumn is already fully booked with interviews, talk shows and book fairs all over the world. Yet he does not want to see his writing as some sort of business activity.
“It doesn’t feel good. I can’t identify with that mindset you see among some writers, and I want to keep a safe distance away,” he says.
Does this business aspect make things different today from how they were 30 years ago?
“You can’t compare them. When I was growing up, authors gained their status from their literary output, and people realised the importance of having intellectuals in society. Nowadays, in large sections of the media, you get status via commercial success, and that’s a perspective that is completely alien to me, as a result of my upbringing.”
What do you think Olof would have said about your writing today?
“I hope he would have seen the hard work behind the book, the seriousness, which was sacred to him. I guess in a way I hope that will bring me my father’s blessing from heaven.
“I’ve had a lot of performance anxiety because of him, but now I can start to ignore it a little.
“For Olof, there was formulation, thought and insight. He rarely spoke about dramaturgy and narrative, which I found in and with the Zlatan book, and I feel I can stand on my own more freely now. You don’t have to write learned dissertations on Proust; you can approach everything with great seriousness, soccer or crime novels, and create interesting literature. Today, genre literature has made real advances and in time I believe we might see a Nobel Prize here, because it’s not about genres but about how you do it, quite simply.”
Do you often think about your father?
“Yes. In the late 1990s, when he was old and paralysed by a stroke, he once told me when I went to visit: ‘Nothing you do, David, do you do seriously.’ That crushed me. I remember I walked across the Solna Bridge with those words ringing in my ears, devastated. It hit especially hard, because other than that he had always been encouraging and proud of me. All my life I’ve been beaten over the head with Olof. ‘Olof wouldn’t have done it like that,’ that sort of thing.
“Now that this book is on such a massive international level, I can’t help daydreaming a little about beating him. Do you know what I mean?”
Launching him on the global scene as David Lagercrantz’s father?
“Yes, that might be exaggerating a bit, but why not?”
WEDNESDAY 27 MAY
As part of the build-up for the new Millennium book, David travels to the UK for interviews about his 2009 novel about the computing pioneer Alan Turing, which has just been published in English translation. In a discussion about narrative technique, he takes his book about Zlatan as an example of how he tried to find the protagonist’s voice instead of quoting him verbatim. This is something he has already mentioned in hundreds of interviews, but now the media blow it up into a news item. Stockholm’s biggest daily paper, Dagens Nyheter, puts out a newsflash online: “Author of Zlatan biography admits: ‘I made up all the quotes.’”
David feels he has been misunderstood and is despondent. The media hype is ratcheted up for several days; several fellow authors criticise him, but suddenly the tenor changes. All the major papers confirm Lagercrantz’s method is commonly used among biographers, and I Am Zlatan is lauded – again – as one of the best portrayals of a sporting figure of all time.
SUNDAY 31 MAY
David rings me in the morning, asking if the boys can play for a while. He has just returned from his trip to London and New York and is in a state of jet-lagged hysteria. The trip has given him an inkling of what lies ahead. In New York, the venue at Book Expo America was plastered with ads for the English translation of the book, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. “It was unreal, absurd. I went round and was introduced to people at a cocktail party, just like in a Woody Allen film.”
On his way out of the apartment, he spots an issue of the Swedish House of Nobility’s in-house magazine lying on the hall table. He has a minor outburst and chucks it away.
“It says in the official Directory of Nobility that there are four people in our family, and I really don’t give a damn about this, but every bloody year I send in a correction, and still Signe [David’s eldest daughter] isn’t included because her mother and I weren’t married. Those idiots!”
Did you think the project would get this big?
“It’s not a given that continuing a dead author’s work will be a big thing. I was known for having ghostwritten a soccer player’s autobiography, but we didn’t actually know how this would be received. I hope – because so many publishers around the world have read advance copies – it’s not just Stieg Larsson’s name that’s generating such huge interest, but also something about my book.”
What are your thoughts before the reviews come in?
“Normally I lie awake and wonder: is some old adversary going to review it? If you get a bad newspaper review, that can be the end of it, that’s how ruthless it is. Now there will be reviews coming in from all over the world, from papers like Le Figaro, The New York Times, The Guardian and more, so somewhere things will even out. A bad review in Dagens Nyheter will only a fraction of everything that gets written. I won’t stand or fall on the basis of that.”
We’re meeting up for some photos of us together, and on the way to his place near Zinkensdamm it strikes me that they could hardly have found an author who was better placed. David lives virtually around the corner from the key places that feature in Stieg Larsson’s books. Sometimes when we’re in the playground with the kids, we see tourist groups go past on ‘Millennium walking tours’.
“You know me, so you can see everything takes place around where I live. I don’t like to travel and I don’t do any research in exotic locations. I use places I’ve already been to. Basically I’m Bilbo who wants to be at home in the Shire, but sometimes I’m forced to venture out into the world,” David explains.
I wait in the bathroom doorway while he shaves with a disposable razor.* I have never seen anyone shave so forcefully without drawing blood.
“You have to write something about the plot,” he tells me.
Okay then, what’s it about?
“A long time ago, I wrote a piece about a deaf autistic boy. After a car journey he drew a picture of a traffic light, very precisely with perspective and everything. His vision really stuck with me – really fascinating. Imagine a child with autistic savant syndrome as a witness in a crime novel! And then I had artificial intelligence from my book about Alan Turing. Writing about science as a part of a murder mystery, and then my interest in savants, was exactly what I needed for the story.
“Then there had to be something else to set the events in motion, otherwise it would end up being, ‘Now you’re going to write a book about Mikael Blomkvist and Lisbeth Salander,’ and how the hell do you start? ‘It was a dark and stormy night’?”
I read on the dust jacket: “Late one night Professor Frans Balder, a leading authority in AI research, telephones Blomkvist.”
So it is something about a night.
Photos by Moa Karlberg
English translation by Ruth Urbom