‘The most important thing to have is a thinking routine’: Fredrik Backman

The bestselling author of Beartown says the lockdown hasn’t restricted him much since he’s not a huge fan of travelling

Published - July 10, 2021 04:00 pm IST

Fredrik Backman

Fredrik Backman

Swedish author Fredrik Backman’s most recent book, Anxious People, feels like a novel written for the pandemic era. The story of eight strangers stuck in an apartment open house is as much about anxiety and depression as it is about hope and kindness. “I got the idea when I was apartment hunting with my wife,” Backman says in a phone interview from Sweden. “We went to see around nine apartments one day until I was like ‘they are all fine, let’s just pick one,’” he laughs. “But in that setting, there was also a strange sense of competition that brought out people’s anxieties and insecurities. I am interested in relationship dramas and why people act like idiots, so I found that fascinating.”

In a candid conversation, the bestselling author of A Man Called Ove and Beartown speaks about his craft, juggling multiple characters and narratives, and more. Edited excerpts:

Let’s start at the beginning. Were you interested in writing as a child?

No, I nev er wanted to be an author. Writing for me was just a good way of communicating. When you write something, you can rewrite and edit before showing it to someone... I found that really useful as a kid. Even now, I don’t actually think of myself as a writer per se.

If there are 10 words to describe something, I choose the easiest. I think this makes my books easy to translate, because the translator does not have to hunt too much to find the exact words.

Do you have a writing process? What is it like?

I wish I had a process! I just think about stories all the time. It is my favourite thing to do. Young writers ask me about my writing routine. But the most important thing to have, in my opinion, isn’t a writing routine... it’s a thinking routine. You can sit in front of a computer for 10 hours, but if you don’t have an idea, what are you going to write? You have to have an idea first.

Some people think, ‘Ah, I will create this perfect writing den and I’ll sit down there, and words will flow.’ Maybe it does work. But I need to think about ideas for at least 100 hours first.

Your books usually have a long list of characters. How do you keep track of them all?

The key is to think of them as people and not characters. I live with them in my head for a long time, and think about them so much that they become real people to me.

Every character is a combination of several real people — I take inspiration from 20-odd real people and that becomes one character. Each character has to feel real to me. Otherwise they won’t feel real to you.

So when people ask me how I keep track of different characters, I ask, ‘How do you keep track of your family or friends?’ They are all distinct human beings to you. That’s how.

Your novel Beartown deals with heavy topics like rape and trauma. How do you approach such topics with sensitivity?

I spent a lot of time researching for that book. I talked to over 100 people who had been in similar situations, and some of them had truly horrific stories. It was a hard book to write, as it should have been.

A lot of Beartown revolves around ice-hockey. Was ice-hockey a big part of your early life?

I have played sports all my life, but not ice-hockey. I grew up in south of Sweden which doesn’t get a lot of snow, so ice-hockey wasn’t big in that part of the country. But it is one of my favourite sports to watch.

Ice hockey is a sport that demands everything from you. You have to do a lot of things at once — you have to be fast and nimble, you need strength and concentration, and you need to tie all this together with technical prowess. You don’t need to know any of this to enjoy the book though. It’s like, even if you don’t understand Quidditch, you can still enjoy Harry Potter...

A Man Called Ove, the film, was nominated for the Oscars. Beartown has been adapted into a miniseries. How involved are you in these processes?

Very little. My wife, who is also my agent, handles the business aspect of things. We set certain boundaries, but beyond that, it is up to them how they interpret the original text. After all, the people who work on the adaptations are professionals as well. The last thing they want to do is to argue with me (laughs).

What are your hobbies?

I am not a huge fan of travelling, so the lockdown hasn’t really taken away much from me in that aspect. I like spending time with family and friends. These days, I enjoy arguing with my daughter as I accompany her to football practice.

What are you working on currently?

I’m currently working on the third part of the Beartown series (its sequel, Us Against You , was published in 2018). Will this be the last book of the series? I don’t know yet.

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