Culture / Interview

“Write As If For Twenty People Or You Freak Out”: Fredrik Backman in Conversation


A Man Called Ove has turned into an international success and was nominated for an ‘Oscar’. But its appeal didn’t start with the film. Instead, it goes back to the book, published in 2012, by author FREDRIK BACKMAN. He met up with ALEXANDRA ALTER…

Alexandra Alter

Fredrik Backman got tepid responses when he sent out the manuscript for his debut novel, A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove). Most publishers ignored him, and several turned him down. After a few months and a few more rejections, he began to think perhaps there wasn’t a market for a story about a cranky fifty nine-year-old Swedish widower who tries and fails to kill himself.

“It was rejected by one publisher with the line, ‘We like your novel, we think your writing has potential, but we see no commercial potential,” said Backman, who lives outside Stockholm with his wife and two children. “That note I kept.”

In hindsight, that critique seems wildly, comically off base. Five years later, A Man Called Ove has sold more than 2.8 million copies worldwide, making the book one of Sweden’s most popular literary exports since Stieg Larsson’s thriller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, and a film adaptation this year was nominated for an Oscar and is now finishing an international release to rave reviews and $25.8 million at the box office.The book became a blockbuster in Sweden, selling more than 840,000 copies. Translation rights have sold in thirty eight languages, including Arabic, Turkish, Latvian, Thai and Japanese, and Backman has gained a passionate fan base in South Korea, where the novel became a huge best-seller.

“No one really knows why,” Backman said in a recent telephone interview. “Not even the Korean publisher understands what the hell is going on.”

In the United States, Ove got off to a slow start. For months it sold steadily but in modest numbers. Then sales surged. It landed on the best-seller list eighteen months after it was first published and has remained there for forty two weeks. Demand has been so unrelenting that Atria Books has reprinted the novel forty times and now has more than a million copies in print. Peter Borland, who acquired United States rights to Ove for Atria, said he was struck by the book’s pathos and humor.

“It had a great voice, and it was different from everything else I was reading,” he said. “It wasn’t Scandinavian noir; it was Scandinavian” — he paused, searching for the right description — “something else.”

‘”It wasn’t Scandinavian noir; it was Scandinavian” – he paused, searching for the right description – “something else.”‘

Mr Backman didn’t fit into any obvious genre mold, and there was no guarantee that his whimsical, oddball sense of humor would appeal to Americans. Atria was cautious at first and printed 6,600 hardcover copies, a decent run for a debut novel in translation.

The novel got a boost from independent booksellers, who placed big orders and pressed it on customers.

“I passed it around to the rest of the staff and said, I think this is absolutely wonderful, am I crazy?” said Nancy Usiak, a bookseller at the shop. “There are ten of us, and this was one of the rare occasions where we all agreed.”

The novel’s protagonist, Ove, is a lonely curmudgeon who screams at his neighbours for parking in the wrong place and punches a hospital clown whose magic tricks annoy him. Six months after his wife’s death, he’s planning to commit suicide and has turned off his radiators, canceled his newspaper subscription and anchored a hook into the ceiling to hang himself. But he keeps getting interrupted by his clueless, prying neighbors. He strikes up a friendship with an Iranian immigrant and her two young daughters, who finds his grumpiness endearing. Once it became clear that there was an appetite for Backman’s quirky misanthrope, Atria asked him if he was working on any other novels. As it turned out, he’d already written several more.

“I write pretty fast, because I’m high strung,” Backman said.

Atria bought them all. Last year, it published his novel My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, about a girl called Elsa whose grandmother dies, leaving her with a batch of letters to deliver to people her grandmother had wronged in life. The book now has nearly 500,000 copies in print and spent twenty six weeks on the paperback best-seller list. In May last year, Atria released a translation of his novel, Britt-Marie Was Here, about a passive-aggressive woman who leaves her cheating husband and ends up coaching a children’s soccer team in a backwater town. And the following month Atria bought four more books from him, including the novella And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, a surreal story about an elderly man with dementia who adores his grandson.

Backman got the idea for Ove six years ago, when he was freelancing for the Swedish magazine Café. A college dropout, he once worked as a forklift driver at a food warehouse, taking night and weekend shifts so that he could write during the day.

A colleague at Café wrote a blog post for their website about seeing a man called Ove explode with rage while buying tickets at an art museum, until his wife intervened.

“My wife read the blog post and said, ‘This is what life is like with you,’” Backman said. “I’m not very socially competent. I’m not great at talking to people. My wife tends to say, your volume is always at one or eleven, never in between.”

Backman started writing blog posts for Café about his own pet peeves and outbursts, under the heading, “I Am a Man Called Ove.” Backman then realised that he had the blueprint for a compelling fictional character, and the novel began to take shape. “There’s a lot of me in him. When we get angry, it’s about a principle, and we get angry because people don’t understand why we’re angry.”

“There’s a lot of me in him. When we get angry, it’s about a principle, and we get angry because people don’t understand why we’re angry.”

After getting a few rejections from publishers, Backman tossed the manuscript aside and started working on a comic memoir about the challenges of parenthood. He had already finished the second book when a Swedish publisher, Forum, finally made an offer on his novel. Backman insisted that the publisher buy both books, and the novel and memoir were released on the same day.

But Mr Backman still hasn’t adjusted to the life of a famous author.

“Everyone keeps telling you how great you are and what a great writer you are, and they want selfies, and that’s not healthy, because you start liking that,” he said. “You still have to write like you’re writing for twenty people, or you’re going to freak out.”

FREDRIK BACKMAN is a bestselling Swedish author. The adaptation of his most famous book, A Man Called Ove (En man som heter Ove), is out now on home release.

ALEXANDRA ALTER writes for The New York Times.

For the latest Nordic news, follow @FikaOnlineBlog on Twitter.

This article has also been published in The New York Times.

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