What’s your favorite book no one else has heard of?
Well, he’s very widely read in Europe but since this interview will be published in America: “The Wolf and the Watchman” (published as “1793” in Sweden), by my friend Niklas Natt och Dag. We’ve shared an office for 12 years and he’s really the most intelligent human I know. His books are historical fiction and take place in Stockholm in the 1790s and they will just blow you away. I’m incredibly proud of him. He’s one of my greatest inspirations.
Who are your favorite Swedish writers? Are there any who aren’t as widely known as they should be, whom you’d recommend in particular?
Bodil Malmsten, without question. She was a Swedish poet and novelist who wrote some of the most heartbreaking things I’ve ever known. You open a book by her and you don’t feel alone anymore. Two passages I quote more than anything are “This hurts too much to touch with words” and “Nothing must happen to you / No, what am I saying, / Everything must happen to you / and it must be wonderful.” If I may mention some more recent Swedish storytellers, there is Alex Schulman, author of “The Survivors.” He’s incredible. I’m convinced you’ll hear a lot more about him in the years to come. Can I go on? If I limit myself to those I know have been published in English recently, it’s Jonas Hassen Khemiri, Sofia Lundberg, Fatima Bremmer, Steve Sem-Sandberg, Christoffer Carlsson, Joakim Zander, Malin Persson Giolito, Sofie Sarenbrandt, Pascal Engman and Sara B. Elfgren. I’ll say Camilla Läckberg too, even though she’s very, very widely known, but I’m putting her in here anyway because she’s really opened the door internationally for so many Swedish writers, myself included, and never gets enough credit for that.
Which writers — novelists, playwrights, critics, journalists, poets — working today do you admire most?
There’s way too many to go through here, but to name a few: The Norwegian author Erlend Loe has been a great inspiration to me comedically. In the last few years I’ve been blown away by different aspects of David Sedaris, Zadie Smith and Celeste Ng, so they’ve probably influenced me. Can I say Dolly Parton too? I adore her storytelling. I’ve found great comfort in the books on writing by Stephen King, Annie Dillard and Haruki Murakami. My friend Niklas Natt och Dag has introduced me to Neil Gaiman and Alan Moore and I can’t thank him enough for that. On a personal level, I’ve tried to learn from the generosity and grace shown to me by Chris Cleave and Sofi Oksanen when we met at the beginning of my career. And of course: Margaret Atwood and Joyce Carol Oates have inspired me greatly in the way they write, but even more so in the way they are. They take my breath away.
Do you count any books as guilty pleasures?
No. I can’t imagine a time where reading should make you feel guilty. When I was little I was obsessed with comic books, and one time one of my mother’s friends said condescendingly to her: “Why don’t you give him a proper book to read?” My mother turned around and answered: “My children can read whatever they want, just as long as they read!” It’s one of the nicest things anyone has ever done for me. My mother is still the person I talk about reading with the most.
“The Winners” concludes your series of novels about a small-town hockey team. What writers are especially good on the topic of sports?
Simon Kuper. And Joyce Carol Oates, of course, but she can write anything. Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch” was a strong influence on me as a teenager, along with the Swedish author Max Lundgren, who wrote about a fictional soccer team called Ashöjdens BK. I think the storytelling of Buzz Bissinger is visible in the way I wrote the Beartown trilogy. I really like Mina Kimes, too. I’ll also throw in the Finnish poet and author Kari Hotakainen, who wrote the biography of the Formula 1 driver Kimi Räikkönen and completely changed the way I thought about writing a biography. Most of all because Kimi rarely speaks or even answers a question in the whole book. I got “Throwback,” by Jason Kendall and Lee Judge, as a gift from my friend Paul in Chicago a couple of years ago, and it really made me fall in love with baseball. I thought the Andre Agassi autobiography “Open” was absolutely fantastic too.