Culture / Interview

“I Grew Up in Paradise”: John Clewett in Conversation


JOHN CLEWETT (aka Jon Stenhugg) is hailed as a pillar of modern Swedish literature. Few Swedes make the connection between him and his pen name, and fewer still know he grew up in rural California…

Jon Stenhugg has been hailed as a pillar author of modern Swedish literature. He’s sold thousands of copies of his two novels – The Second Child (2005) and The Magdalena File (2017) – and he taught at the Stockholm School of Education for over thirteen years. Few, however, know Stenhugg is the pen name of an American expat called John Clewett, who grew up in rural California.

“I grew up in Paradise,” Clewett tells me over the phone, “it’s a small mining town in California that was incinerated last year. Back when it was founded the town was extremely violent, so the people decided they needed a sheriff and a judge. But the group who went to find one in the neighbouring town of Orville soon realised they didn’t have a name for their settlement, so when the clerk told them they needed to register a name, they decided to name it after their only permanent building: the Pair-a-Dice saloon, which was then mistakenly registered as ‘Paradise’.”

Clewett’s grandfather was a judge in Paradise, but he tells me it continued to be an extremely violent place.

“I witnessed three murders by the time I was eleven-years-old,” he explains. “Back then it was like ‘oh, I guess this is what people do’, but looking back, I realise it’s given me a different spin on life and what people are capable of.”

Clewett says he was raised a European, so coming to Sweden – first to study, then to live – was no shock.

“I felt I was coming home,” he says. “I moved around to start with, and I lived in Madrid for a while. But I felt most comfortable in Sweden, so I’ve stayed here ever since.”

“I felt I was coming home. I felt most comfortable in Sweden, so I’ve stayed here ever since.”

Establishing himself in Sweden, and engaging an international audience, mean his novels have never escaped the generic label of ‘Nordic noir’, even if they may be thrillers more than they’re mysteries.

“I didn’t know I was writing ‘Nordic noir’ until I met Barry Forshaw, who invented the term.” Clewett explains. “Before I met him, I was just writing what I wanted to write. Anyway, my books are different to most ‘Nordic noir’ thrillers because, although the action takes place primarily in Sweden, my characters often travel abroad. I think you’re right in classing them as thrillers. People die in my books, and there are investigations, but it’s not the basic plot.”

Much of Clewett’s second novel, The Magdalena File, takes place in a secret town in Estonia immediately after the Cold War, while the action of his first book, The Second Child, takes place after the Second World War. I ask him if it’s coincidence both novels are set in the aftermath of war.

“Well the two books are very different”, he replies, “but I think there’s some truth in that.”

Clewett’s reputation abroad is well-established. Indeed, he tells me his international popularity almost outweighs that in Sweden.

“It’s odd but I think I’m more respected outside Sweden than here,” he explains. “In Sweden there are very few people who make the connection between me and my pen name,” he explains, “whereas in the UK and the US, more people make the connection”

Clewett travels abroad a minimum of five times a year, embarking on long book tours when new novels are published. I ask him if another book is on the way.

“All I can tell you is that there is a third,” he replies, “and I expect things to appear next year”.

Other than that, his lips are sealed.

This article has also been published in Nordic Style Magazine and Scan Magazine.

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