Lars Kepler has forced his coffee drinking literary ‘parents’ Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril to take up drinking tea. They say it puts them in the right frame of mind to get on with the task of writing their bestselling crime novels about detective Joona Linna and how he goes about solving the beastly crimes they dream up over those cups of tea.
Now that their first crime novel The Hypnotist is available in English, they have come to London for a very brief book launch.
Last summer I found out they have a holiday home near me in Sweden, and I asked if we could meet up. But we just never seemed to be able to synchronise our holiday dates, so the first opportunity for an interview ends up being just before the launch party near Leicester Square.
We meet in the rooftop bar at their hotel, which is both full, and surprisingly smokey. But we can at least manage a couple of sofas near the bar, so we don’t have to get in the jacuzzi.
The main issue in Sweden has been that these two literary authors have abandoned ‘real’ writing for a life of crime, or that’s how it has seemed from my end. I wonder if they feel they are letting this ‘real’ literature down with their Lars Kepler venture.
Alexandra: “That’s a very interesting question. I’d say absolutely not. I think we have written a real crime novel. We are faithful to that kind of literature.”
Alexander: “We don’t value genres differently; there’s no reason to do so. It’s like music. I listen to classical music a lot, but I also like pop music. Things don’t have to compete.”
“I remember when you were outed as Lars Kepler and Vi magazine wrote about it, and it was as though everyone who reads ‘real’ books won’t have anything to read if you’re going to do stuff like this.”
Alexandra: “I heard about that and it’s interesting.”
“Do you agree?”
Alexandra: “No, quite the opposite. I have never met as many readers as I have since I became Lars Kepler – and it’s fantastic!”
Alexander: “Crime readers…”
Alexandra: “…are much more active.”
Alexander: “They come up to you, phone you, ask you about stuff. When you’re a so-called ‘real’ writer they’re more cautious.” At this Alexandra laughs out loud. “Whereas you can say whatever you like to a crime writer.”
Alexandra: “It’s wonderful.”
“Surely you must get recognised in the street these days?”
Alexander: “Yes, in Sweden we do.”
“I think Swedes keep tabs on writers and recognise them.”
Alexandra: “We were recognised in Helsinki a few weeks ago, actually.”
Alexander: “And in Denmark, of course.”
“Are people mainly positive or do you get as many negative comments?”
Alexandra: “Not to our faces. I think we just get the nice ones then.” Alexandra sounds cheerful. “Don’t know what happens behind our backs, but you can’t possibly like everything.”
Alexander: “That applies to ‘real literature’ as well.”
Alexandra: “But deep down I think it’s good that it isn’t just a luke warm ‘oh yeah’. Many say that The Hypnotist is the best book they’ve read and that’s so wonderful.”
“Now that you’re writing crime fiction, does that mean you’re giving up the ‘real’ books?”
Alexander: “We do what we find…”
Alexandra: “Yeees, I think so.”
Alexander: “…the most fun and it is such fun to write together. That’s the really big thing for us.”
Alexandra: “We really wanted to write together but couldn’t, as we have such different literary styles.”
Alexander: “We tried writing a children’s book, and that just didn’t work.”
Alexandra: “We needed to find another genre.”
“So did you actually need to become a different person?”
Alexander: “It was only then that the pieces finally fit together.”
Alexandra: “Where we’re not Alexandra or Alexander, but Lars Kepler.”
Alexander: “It will sound very childish that we had to create a third person.”
“You even started drinking tea.”
Alexandra: “We had the idea that we had to do what Lars Kepler would do.”
Alexander: “It’s a game as well, but it’s fun to find out what he likes.”
Alexandra: “As soon as we had decided that we had to be someone else, the language and the style followed. Kepler was writing.”
“Perhaps he’s one of your characters?”
Alexandra: “He’s probably Joona Linna really. He wants to be Joona Linna.”
Alexander: “I understand what you mean. Really we’re writing a book about Lars Kepler who is writing a book.”
“Yes, I suspect you do. When you came up with your secret pseudonym was it because you actually wanted to remain anonymous?”
Alexander: “But then, as you know, things happened.”
Alexandra: “There was also the fact that we had never written a crime novel and we didn’t want to tell the publisher what we had done. We thought it was an exciting plan.”
“So you submitted the book anonymously?”
Alexandra: “Oh yes, completely anonymously. And regarding what you said about being true to literature – for us it was important to be faithful to crime. Not that we weren’t going to write a good crime novel. And we obviously tidied up the language.”
Alexandra: “We wanted to write something exciting, about what strongly affects us, like children and families and so on. You know, we had to leave our flat, as we had used our own in the book.”
“Yeah, I can understand that.”
Alexander : “You know it’s going to end well.”
“Although I have to say that I wasn’t certain it would. I thought it could end with a bloodbath.”
Alexander: “We want happy endings, otherwise we can’t cope.”
Alexandra: “As someone said, the crime genre is an optimistic genre. When you see things that don’t go well in real life, you can change them in the book.”
Alexander: “Sometimes you intend for someone to die but then you end up liking them too much.”
“I’ve heard of authors who haven’t managed to kill off their own characters. They try and try, but they just won’t die.” They laugh. “How do you work out your complicated plots? There being two of you.”
Alexander: “I think it’s easier with two people. You have to work at it all the time. We have a load of post-its on a table so we can see all of it.” Alexander waves his arms to demonstrate a table with post-its. “We run around, and if we see that that plot line no longer makes sense…”
Alexandra: “As you say, they’re pretty complicated stories, and we want to write lots of them.”
Alexander: “It has to make sense – theoretically the reader should be able to solve the mystery. But it has to be difficult; there have to be lots of components.”
Alexandra: “It’s great to be able to bounce ideas off each other. A crime novel has to be logical.”
Alexander: “The reader has to be able to trust us. You know that the author will tie this up.”
“In the first book it was the Ek family the reader focused on and then they vanished, giving way to another problem. It’s the same with the second book where we begin with the woman on the boat, but then other events develop and become more interesting.”
Alexander: “They start each other…”
Alexandra: “… and then there are new plot lines. We want a big story and an enigma, a mystery.”
Alexander: “We don’t just have one murder but a whole scene.”
“You seem to have become more politically aware with The Paganini Contract, the arms dealing and so on.”
Alexander: “It comes with the subject to some extent and I think it’s part of the charm of presenting society. You do get it in The Hypnotist.”
Alexandra: “Yes, it was the familiy we were interested in. There’s the doctor who never took care of Lydia properly. Society is the biggest family in some ways, and it has failed. Perhaps that wasn’t so clear but it’s what we wanted to get across.”
Alexander: “It’s so obvious in Sweden that the authorities are failing the vulnerable.”
Alexandra: “The weakest. In The Hypnotist we wanted to show glimpses of solidarity with the children, like Aida and Nicke. But it’s much clearer in The Paganini Contract.”
I mention that I had noticed a spoiler in The Paganini Contract where Joona Linna is allowed to think about the past when they dug for bodies somewhere. Lars Kepler is somewhat taken aback by this, presumably because ‘real’ literature has no need to consider spoilers. Alexander mutters something about the possibility of changing the translation a little to make it less obvious.
“How do you relax after being cruel and unpleasant all day long?”
Alexandra: “We watch films.”
“And can you let go of everything then?”
Alexander: “Yes, we play with the kids, do homework. Cook…”
Alexandra: “… and watch films in the evenings.”
“Do you still manage to watch one film a day?”
Alexandra: “Yes, at least one film a day. But Alexander falls asleep sometimes.” She laughs.
Alexander: “You never fall asleep, but I do. Although that depends on the film.”
“Do you have a favourite genre?”
Alexandra: “We like thrillers a lot, as an inspiration for Kepler. We want to include the here and now in our books. I like all films. We’ve both done courses for film buffs, and Alexander has studied cinema history and theory.”
Alexander: “If you’re going to watch a film a day you can’t be too picky. We’ve noticed that I never fall asleep during romcoms, so perhaps that’s my favourite genre.”
Alexandra: “You’re certainly very interested in those.” Alexandra sounds amused.
“Is there definitely going to be a film made of The Hypnotist?”
Alexander: “Lasse Hallström will be directing.”
“Do you know who will play Joona Linna?”
Alexandra: “Not yet. I might be wrong, but the latest I heard was that they were going to mention it at Cannes.”
Alexander: “We aren’t really involved in the film at all.”
“When will they start?”
Alexandra: “They start shooting in November and then The Paganini Contract next summer. It’s really exciting, and Hallström is a great director…”
Alexander: “He’s a bit like us, changing genres. He’s done completely different kinds of film and now he’s going to do a thriller.”
Alexandra: “He said that he wants to frighten people.” She laughs. “He’s great because he cares about the people in the film and that way it becomes scarier.”
Alexander: “That’s everything. It’s less exciting if you don’t care about the people. You should be worried what might happen.”
“What hopes do you have now you’re entering the English-speaking market?”
Alexander: “We can dream, of course.”
Alexandra: “Yes, they’re big dreams.”
“You become fantastically rich?”
Alexander: “Yes!” He laughs. “It’s so big, England and the US and Canada.”
Alexandra: “The English-speaking world is so large, and that means that an awful lot of copies are being printed.”
Alexander: “We’re just small fry.”
“The Swedish book market is tiny. Even if you have sold lots of books there, it’s still a small number.”
Alexander: “Exactly. It’s something you can grasp.”
“Even if it’s greater in per capita terms. Both you and Stieg Larsson have sold books to a large proportion of the population, in a way that would never be possible in England.”
Alexandra: “We try not to think about it too much. We’re writing our third book and that’s good because it lets us immerse ourselves in work.”
“When will it be published?”
“November. The eleventh of the eleventh 2011, is the plan,” says Alexandra and laughs.
“The infamous Swedish jealousy – is that something which you’ve noticed?”
Alexandra: “Yes, I think so. It’s unavoidable. Although now that I’m saying it, I wonder if I am exaggerating.”
Alexander: “A bit of both I think. We hear from a lot of colleagues who say ‘Oh, I would love to do that. It looks like a lot of fun to break away and do something totally different.’”
Alexandra: “Those that are jealous think you can just write a crime novel but it isn’t that simple. I sat on the Council for Cultural Affairs for four years, reading everything published in Sweden and I lost count of how many crime novels I read. People write them all the time, but there are very few that stand out.”
Alexander: “You need to have a burning passion for what you do. Or it shows.”
Alexandra: “I truly believe that the jealousy has to do with not understanding what writing is about – that you really have to love to write.”
“If it was easy then everyone could do it. Will the English translation be published everywhere at the same time?”
Alexander: “There’s a bit of overlap. I think it came out in Australia much earlier and it’s coming in the US soon.”
“Is the translation the same everywhere?”
Alexander: “There’s a little bit of adjustment of the vernacular as it varies. The covers are different.”
“Have you read the English version?”
Alexandra: “Oh yes!”
“How did that feel?”
Alexandra: “I really like it.”
“I guess it’s the only translation where you can sit down and read it and know if it’s any good.”
Alexandra: “Exactly. I think it’s good. I think I have enough of a feel for English to know that.”
“I read it in Swedish but checked out the English one for comparison.”
Alexandra: “What did you think?”
“They felt about the same. It’s unusual to write in the present tense like you do. And in some places you describe the same thing twice. Why?”
Alexander: “I think clarity is very important – of course sometimes you read a book in one go, but often you ‘commute read’ and if you lose the context then it becomes boring. When you have a flashback you can add something that you didn’t have the first time – you get to find out what happened. We change perspective a lot. So if you’re reading it slowly it can be weeks before you return to something. I think it’s an issue of clarity. I don’t like it if I no longer understand what they’re talking about in a crime novel.”
“I’ve noticed that you often use both first and last names of your characters. Instead of simply saying Joona or Linna, you say Joona Linna.”
Alexander: “Yes we do.”
“Is that a conscious decision?”
Alexander: “I see using the whole name as a way of changing the perspective a little. It’s more dramatic saying ‘Joona Linna enters the house for the second time’. If you want to get closer then you just use the first name.”
Alexandra: “It’s a case of being close or looking in from outside. But I have to say I hadn’t thought about it.”
“I need to mention that Joona has the strangest migraines I’ve ever come across.”
Alexander: “Yes, they are unusual. It’s migraine with physical causes…”
Alexandra: “So it isn’t a classic migraine. It’s from an injury and a trauma as a result of that injury… but you find out about that in the third book!” They laugh.
“I can tell this is going to be developed some more.”
Alexandra: “Yes, it’s going to be developed. We really rather like him. But something has to make him fall to pieces every now and again. The migraines are the result of a very serious injury. It slows him down.” She laughs. “There has be a challenge of some kind for him. It’s interesting to have a hero who suddenly becomes weak – it’s so awkward.”
“I’ve given a lot of thought to your names – isn’t it a problem having names with just one letter that is different?”
Alexandra: “Yes, it is.”
“How much do you use your other name?”
Alexandra: “Coelho? That’s what I’m called in my passport and so on. When I was first published Alexander had already written a lot of books so I added in Coelho to show that I wasn’t the same writer.”
Alexander: “We end up in different places on bookshelves.”
Alexandra: “Lars Kepler is a much easier name to deal with, which is nice, actually.”
“How do you sign books then?”
Alexandra: “We usually both sign as Lars Kepler and then Alexander and Alexandra.”
Alexander: “So there are four names in each book. It takes a while but we think that’s how it should be.”
“I’ve been wondering how I should describe you. Who said what? Was it Lars Kepler or Alexandra or Alexander? It’s an interesting thought.”
Alexandra: “We talk like this and finish each other’s sentences…”
Alexander: “A bit like Huey, Dewey and Louie.”
Alexandra: “Were you in Sweden when the Aftonbladet reporter came to our house in August 2009?” (This was when the evening tabloid had worked out the exciting news that the Ahndorils were Lars Kepler and staked out their holiday home.)
“No, I don’t think I was. I saw a date afterwards, so it was just after I had left, and it wasn’t until later that I read about your unmasking. I had read about the sensation of the summer and wondered though. Like Bo Balderson. But because I left Sweden when you were still at school, you were fairly new to me. I first came across you when the interview with Alexandra appeared in Vi a few years ago, together with Jonas Hassen Khemiri.”
Alexandra: “Yes, of course.”
“You were the ‘promising new authors’ and they mentioned you had a husband who was a writer. I recently went to the library in Halmstad to research your other books but all they had was a little thin volume of Alexander’s. I don’t know whether to assume all the rest were on loan or something else?”
Alexandra: “We’re normally represented.”
“I didn’t look in the catalogue because I felt that if you weren’t there then you weren’t there.”
Alexandra: “Lars Kepler isn’t meant to compete with our other books.”
“No, I mostly wanted to see what you ‘literary types’ had given up for the world of crime.”
Alexandra: “Like I’ve said, I think a good crime novel is a thing of beauty…”
“At least you can’t be asked when you intend to write a ‘real book’ since you already have. It’s what crime writers and children’s authors are asked all the time.”
Alexandra: “There are some crime writers who have complexes and want to write ‘proper books’.”
“Writing crime novels is a way to be read and give pleasure to many.”
Alexandra: “It’s going to interesting to see your blog…” We laugh.
“I’m normally quite irreverent about people.”
Alexandra: “Well, we’ll see.”
The Ahndorils’ UK publicist comes to take them over to the launch party, along with their Swedish agent who is also in London. And before leaving the rooftop, the Blue Door MD comes up to say hello. It’s a nice evening, so I decide on a leisurely stroll to the launch venue, to watch Lars Kepler meeting the rest of the world.
(Translation by Ian Giles. Photos by Ann Giles)
There was something I really wanted to know after reading Lars Kepler’s second novel, The Paganini Contract, so simply had to ask if I’d understood things properly. DON’T READ this if you don’t want your reading of the next book spoiled!
“A quick question about the ending of The Paganini Contract. Does the son start dealing in arms again?”
Alexander/Alexandra: “Yes.” Alexandra sounds sad, “we’re thinking that this just won’t end.”
“That really was depressing.”
Alexandra: “Yes, arms dealing has no happy ending.”
“I thought he was suffering because of it.”
Alexandra: “I think he was suffering, but he became a traitor himself. He killed his father. It was the nightmarish aspect of this that we wanted capture at the end. That which became the Paganini contract. It’s really horrible.
“At least you hadn’t managed to murder everyone by the end.”
Alexandra: “Yes, Beverly was OK. I cared about her a lot.” She laughs.
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This is an interview I found really fascinating, Bookwitch. Thanks so much. Did you conduct it in Swedish and translate?
Love Alexandra’s dress and shoes!
I conducted, Adèle, and Son translated. After which I edited…
And no one should be allowed to write books AND wear shoes like that! Is what I think.
But lots of lovely writers have amazing footwear….Nicola Morgan and her boots, JKR and those shoes on Newsnight etc. And more Romantic Novelists than I can count have splendid shoes….
Where can I get a copy of the English translation of THE PAGANINI CONTRACT? I just finished HYPNOTIST and really am into their style!
You can’t. The Hypnotist is brand new, and The Paganini Contract hasn’t yet been translated. Might be faster to learn Swedish or to find another language in which to read.
IS THE BOOK THE PAGANINI CONTRACT AVAILABLE IN ENGLISH?
Not yet, Bruce. The British publishers wouldn’t say what their plans are, but I’d expect the book to turn up next year some time. Especially as the third book comes out in Sweden this November.
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