"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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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser