Interview with Jussi Adler-Olsen
(One of Denmark’s most successful authors spoke to us about his latest book–recently his popularity has grown in the United States, thanks in part to his well-researched thrillers, with intricate plots, unforgettable characters, and realistic dialogue)
TSM: What can you tell us about the literary tradition of Denmark?
JAO The truth about the literary tradition in Denmark is that through the ages and throughout the genres, we have been able to assert ourselves.Originally, we were strongly influenced by the social commitment of the Nordic writers as well as the fairytales of the Icelandic sagas, which included descriptions of nature, violence, and spiritual thoughts within excellent plots. But to an equal extent, through our great curiosity, we have been influenced by the masters of the times outside the Nordic area. They have often been read in the original language, whether it was from England, Russia, Italy, Spain, Germany, or France, and in modern times, from the US and the entire American continent as well as from Asia. For this reason, we have adopted writing styles of every kind and have been able to convey the distinctive Scandinavian features through this diversity and linguistic wealth.
TSM: When did you decide you wanted to be a crime author?
JAO: Like most authors, I started to write when I was quite young. I was fortunate to have teachers who motivated and praised me. Praise is followed by great achievements. I wrote a story for my sister, and I entered essay competitions and even won a couple but, all in all, I was just a normal kid. I later worked as editor-in-chief and then managing director of a publishing house, and this taught me loads of things. In particular, I read a lot of manuscripts. Only when I was 30 did I realize that I had to try to write a novel. My wife and I took a half year off and spent the time in the Netherlands where I wrote my first novel, called Russian Solitaire. It was a well-crafted novel and it was OK, but I decided that it was too gruesome and that I needed more life experience, so I put it in my drawer where it will remain. I started writing another novel, The Alphabet House, at the age of 39, but due to my work situation it was not published until I was 47. But from then on there was no turning back—I have been a full-time author ever since.
TSM: Which writers inspired you to become a writer?
JAO: All the classical ones like Alexandre Dumas, Victor Hugo, John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens, and even Alistair MacLean and Frederick Forsyth.
But also I must pay my respects to the great team of crime and thriller writers in Scandinavia, Sjöwall & Wahlöö, who wrote their brilliant novels in the 1970s. I think all Scandinavian crime and thriller authors owe a lot of their inspiration to these two authors. The strongest point of their authorship was their unique dialogue and the fine and delicate mixture of social and political topics within a thriller plot.
TSM: Tell us about your latest novel, The Alphabet House.
JAO: Even though it is the one that is most recently published in the US, it is, in fact, my very first published novel.
Although the first part of the book takes place during the Second World War, it is not a war novel; it is a description of human relationships that are subjected to an incomprehensible pressure in extreme conditions.
Of all the novels I have written (except perhaps The Washington Decree), this is probably the most suited to be adapted into a movie. I have certainly used my background in film making when I wrote it and thought along the lines of a top movie in the Cinemascope format with a great cas .
TSM: How much research did you have to do to write a book set during WWII?
JAO: Research is essential. My research for The Alphabet House took several years, not least because at the time I was not writing full-time.
TSM: What do you think is the biggest misconception Americans have about Scandinavia since lots of people think everything there is like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo?
JAO: Except for the winters, in my opinion and in my experience, Scandinavia is the most sublime spot on earth and for so many reasons.
TSM: What are you working on now?
JAO: Right now I am writing on volume 7 in the Department Q series. It is great fun because now I have reached the point in the series where I begin to reveal some of the secrets of the long story. In fact, in this novel you will learn a lot about Rose. She has a very colorful background, I can tell you.
TSM: Do you outline?
JAO: I always work out a synopsis before I set out writing a new novel. It is very important to me that it is carefully thought out. One of the most important elements in the synopsis is that I have to know exactly why I want to write this novel. The themes surrounding the basic plot appear by themselves once you know the answer to the why.
TSM: Tell us about the Department Q series?
JAO: Before I wrote the first sentence of the first novel, I wrote the synopsis for the overall story of 4500 pages, which will span the entire series of ten volumes. I wanted each individual book to be a stand-alone, but if you choose to read the entire series, you will also end up with an overall story together with the background stories of our friends Carl, Rose, and Assad. Each individual character has his/her own important function throughout this long series. I knew each of their stories from the very beginning. What is Rose’s real story, where does Assad come from and why, and, not least, what lies behind the troubled soul of Carl?
TSM: What’s the best thing about being a writer?
JAO: I started to write to get more time, especially more time for my family. That hasn’t really worked out and now my success has meant that I probably work harder than I would have done in other jobs. Having said that, I also write to get read; I am not the kind of person who writes for a drawer in my desk. To me the best thing about being a writer is that people actually like to read what I write.