A Conversation with Camilla Lackberg – Part 1

Following the release of her novel The Hidden Child in North America, TheReadingRoom’s Sophie Hamley had  the opportunity to interview the hugely popular Swedish crime writer Camilla Lackberg, whose books have been translated around the world. Epic in scope and length, we’ve split this interview into two parts, so visit again tomorrow for the rest of this fantastic conversation.

The amount of interests you have in your life in addition to being a parent – you are writing, you have a jewelery business and music and all sorts of other things  and you’re travelling, of course, at the moment for festivals. Does it make it difficult for you to schedule writing around all those different things?
It does, actually, that is the difficulty I’m most often faced with, how to find actual time for my writing. During this trip, for example, I have to write when I have an hour here or there. I’m writing my next book because I’ve got a deadline. And on the aeroplane I’m writing. I just have to try to find those moments.

A lot of people might think you need to have a special space or have a special ritual around writing, but as you said, you just write when you have the time. Do you need to do anything in particular to get into the mindset to write like that?
When I write at home, when I’m not travelling and I have a normal writing day, then I’m a bit more ritualised. I sit at home, most often, or at a coffee shop, because I can’t write when it’s quiet. So, at home I have the TV on or music or something, and in a coffee shop you have all the natural sound around you. Then I try to not have anything booked that day, so I really try to keep that day free for writing so I can focus.

The Hidden Child

I guess it’s the conundrum of being successful, that increasingly you have less time to do the very thing that made you successful, but you do seem to be a highly organized person.
Well, I enjoy doing other things. Some other things I do are within writing – the children’s books, the cookbooks, the song lyrics – then that gives me creativity and energy for my crime writing, so it’s kind of a positive circle. It kind of keeps me on my toes a bit, to do other things.

Do you find that your characters, particularly for your crime novels, stay with you? Are they with you all the time so that you can dip into their lives as you need? Or do you just talk to them when you’re writing their stories?
Well, no. The kind of pathetic thing is that Erica and Patrik are actually like my best friends. And I know it’s a bit pathetic to be forty and have two pretend people as your best friends, but I do spend more time with Erica and Patrik  and I have in the last ten years  than I spend with my actual friends, which my actual friends keep telling me.

I remember reading an interview with Alice Walker many years ago when she said that the characters from The Color Purple just came into her kitchen one night and talked to her, telling her to write the story.
I think all writers get a very personal attachment to their characters. they feel like they’re real people. Sometimes if the characters I have in my books are not recurring, I can sometimes miss one of the characters after the book gets finished and I know I’m not going to include that character again. It’s like saying goodbye to an old friend.

And I suppose there’s a little bit of grief attached to that as well.
Oh absolutely. It’s is a bit sad, actually.

But if you miss them too much, and you haven’t killed them off,  you can always bring them back.
There’s one character that my readers quite often ask me to bring back, but that would be difficult. It’s an old man called Aylet, who discovers the body in the first book, “The Ice Princess”. People have just grown fond of him and ask about him quite often.

Maybe you’ll have to write a prequel story.
Well, I did kill him off in the first version of the manuscript – he died happily but suddenly of a heart attack in Spain – but the people who read the manuscript protested so much that I ended up saving his life. So I could bring him back. It’s possible still.

You have a crime school for writers on your website, which is an incredibly generous thing to do, but the way you set it out makes it very easy to follow. There’s a very clear process. How did you come to put that out there for other writers?
I started writing myself through a writing course so for me it’s a little bit like ‘pay it forward’. And I really want to take the mystery out of writing. Before you actually start writing a book, it’s a mystery how you actually write them, but it is possible and I really try to explain it in a very simply way.

What you wrote is so clear and methodical that you make it seem much more accessible to people.
It is accessible. Always, when I’m asked to give one piece of writing advice, my very best advice for someone who wants to write, it’s always the same, and that’s ‘Glue your butt to a chair’, because that’s basically what it is about. You do have to have some kind of talent for writing, of course. It’s not possible for everyone, but it’s possible for many, many more than you would think.

Do you find that gluing your butt to the chair means that you can write your way through bits when things aren’t flowing the way you’d like them to, and if you just persevere you find you can write your way through those blocks?
Yes, that’s exactly how I do it. I force myself to sit down in front of the computer, even if it doesn’t flow for one day. And then one day, maybe I produce two pages and under a lot of stress, but the next day, maybe those two pages made it possible for me to write 10 very fluent pages. So it’s all about not giving up.

The Preacher

As you mentioned you also write for children, and you have a very powerful baby in your books for children, but does the inspiration to write for children come from a different place? The motivation might be the same – to be a storyteller – but does that inspiration come differently?
I actually think it’s about the same thing. It’s about telling a good story, and you just have to take a different view on it when you write for children because other things are difficult than when you write crime stories. For example, I can’t use as many words as I use when I write my crime stories. I really have to limit the amount of words, I have to think about words that children would understand. Also, I do not only write for the child. I also write for the adult parent, because you’re the one reading the book three times per night for weeks in a row. And you always have the books you try to hide from your children because you really don’t want to read them because they’re so boring. So I really see it as two readers: the adult and the child, and they both have to find the book amusing.

That’s quite a delicate balance to strike, but it’s not dissimilar to what you do in your crime writing. You make your stories very accessible to all sorts of readers in the way you write them, yet the themes are not simple. There’s a lot that goes on in your stories, so it’s obviously something that you can do across the board.
And I also write song lyrics now with a friend who’s a songwriter. He’s one of my best friends, and he’s been writing songs for Westlife and Carrie Underwood and other artists like that who are really good, and he asked me to try to do lyrics to worth with his music. And that I really enjoy as well because you have yet another kind of challenge in writing: you have to express something in even fewer words than in children’s stories. You have to fit with the music. There has to be a rhythm to it. And I really enjoy it. It’s a little bit like Sudoku to me.

You also write cookbooks and that’s a different form of writing again, because you’re delivering information rather than telling a story. But it seems, from what you’re saying, that you just have this incredibly powerful urge to connect with people through story.
Yes. I love writing, and it always surprises me that sometimes people think that if you write, you can only write one thing. It’s like working at an ad agency and only being able to sell sports shoes. Of course you have to be able to be creative with other products as well. And for me, it’s the same thing; it’s writing, and it’s expressing through words but in different ways.

It can depends on the writer’s definition of what they do, too. Some people are storytellers, but some people are attached to the idea of being writers alone. You obviously come from the storytelling vein, which is just that: you can tell stories in all sorts of ways. And that’s such an important function in any culture, to have storytellers.
To me – and that was a very good way you expressed it because that’s exactly how I feel, that the storytelling always comes first and the words come second – I only see the words as a means of how do I use words to tell the best I can. I don’t really care if it sounds pretty or if it sounds like high literature. I just use the words that tell my story the best. Remember to tune in tomorrow for the remainder of this conversation with Camilla Lackberg.