"Stieg Larsson's death was good PR -- hopefully I won't follow him in that storyline"

An interview with the Danish thriller author Jussie Adler-Olsen.

The success of Stieg Larsson's books has showed publishers the potential of Scandinavian thrillers -- and so British audiences are now getting the chance to read books which otherwise might never have made it over here.

One of the new crop is Jussi Adler-Olsen, a Danish thriller writer with an appetite for power struggles and suspense. I spoke to Adler about Mercy, the first in his five-part detective series Department Q, on life growing up in a mental institution, and why he can't be compared with Larsson.

Why have British readers developed such an appetite for Scandinavian fiction?

British readers needed to read something new. In the UK, for quite a period, people were writing more or less the same stuff. I'm talking thrillers or crime stories. We are storytellers in Scandinavia, though I'm not writing as a Scandinavian, that's not my purpose. I'm not influenced by other Scandinavian authors.

How helpful is the inevitable comparison to Stieg Larsson?

Stieg Larsson was a special person. It was a good story: he died in the middle of everything and that's good PR -- hopefully I will not follow him in that storyline. But try to imagine if Larsson had been published 15 years ago and then I came along. No one would compare us.

Perhaps they'd compare Larsson to a couple of older crime writers, like Sjöwall and Wahlöö, who are the mother and father of crime fiction in Scandinavia. They taught us how to combine social elements, politics, real literature and fantastic dialogue.

I think the good thing about some of the best Scandinavian writers is they need to take care of every element of storytelling: plots are important, as is writing well, writing for every page and creating characters the reader can access. But they are not good at creating empathy.

Many writers in Scandinavia aren't using points of view, and I am. You're in the head of [my character] Carl, and the next you're in the head of Merete, and perhaps you're in the head of Lasse.

Which key themes arise in Mercy?

One of my important themes is the misuse of power. You see it so often, here and there. Could you connect it to a story where there's a trauma and you are challenging what people are afraid of? I was a publisher before, and an editor. I read hundreds and hundreds of manuscripts that I had to throw away because they didn't respect the reader, that he or she very often had read more than the author.

You have to do your best to invent new and better locations. Perhaps this was the case in Mercy; having a location that was never seen before and stretching the story without losing the reader. That's difficult.

Your father was a psychiatric doctor and you grew up in hospitals around patients. How much did you draw on your personal experience of insanity and confinement in Mercy?

It's influenced me throughout my whole life. I learned a lot from the patients during that period. I was quite close to them, like the other children in the hospital. There were a few of us, we played football, we were normal children, but we felt pity for the patients. Sometimes they were very depressed and of course it was hard for them to see normal families so close to them.

In 1955, when I was five years old, the doctors brought in psychopharmaca [anti-depressant and anti-psychotic drugs] - you should have seen the screening cages before that point. The women and the men they were almost naked because the nurses were afraid they would kill each other with their stockings.

But we didn't fear them, even when they spat at us. We feared the doctors because they had the power, and some misused it. With psychopharmaca, suddenly patients could walk around freely and we could be close to them. I met a patient, [Mr X]. He was a "nice little killer", my father said.

Mr X was kind of a weak person and he had a big, big wife and they always fought but one day it was too much for him and -- wham -- he killed her. So he was in a mental hospital and the drugs made him very nice and easygoing. I liked him tremendously.

I could see the good and evil in him, and in the other mental patients: very often their actions were an explosion from normality into total insanity. It's a very interesting phenomenon, which I use a lot in my books.

How significant is the notion of confinement in your work?

I wrote Mercy before news came of [Josef] Fritzl in Amstetten and Natascha Kampusch. And reviewers in Demark said: "Oh come on, how can a woman be kept in a place like that for so many years?"

It was very good public relations for me when Natascha Kampusch escaped. My research about women in the case was based on the notion of what would happen if it was a man sitting there instead? A man couldn't live with not knowing why he'd been confined and why he couldn't react to it. He would commit suicide after a few years.

What are your writing methods?

Normally I have a lot of stories to tell. I think I have maybe 20 synopses now that could be made into books. Every time I find a good, original story, I take three weeks off and I write it down like a synopsis and then put it away. When choosing the case [for the Department Q series], I research every little thing for several months. Then comes the stage where I write the book. I have five months in which to do it, which is a very short time so I have to be focused. I have never felt writer's block. It doesn't exist in my world because I stay at the desk until I've finished what I intended. It could take 15 hours and some days you're not in the mood. I never finish the last sentence, I always leave half a page to the next day. Then you can sit down and finish the chapter and before you know it you are running onto the next.

Every time I write a book I go to a monastery in Denmark where there are writers. I sit there in a small room and each evening we meet and read the raw text out loud. It's terrible. I use the old WordPerfect text system because I don't have to use a mouse. You move your hand away from the keyboard, even for one tenth of a second, and you've lost your focus.

Mercy by Jussi Adler-Olsen is out now.

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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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