Part 2: In which Camilla Läckberg (CL) and Mrs. Peabody (MP) discuss the author’s fifth novel, The Hidden Child – its origins, its impact, its depiction of wartime Sweden and Norway – as well as the the process of historical research, and why Swedish crime writers are still drawn to the subject of the Second World War.
I was particularly keen to discuss this novel with the author, because it forms part of the corpus for my academic research on Nazi-themed crime novels (crime novels that engage with the Nazi period or its post-war legacies).
SPOILER ALERT: If you’ve not yet read The Hidden Child, you might wish to come back to this interview at a later point, as it gives away major details about the plot.
MP: Can I come on to The Hidden Child, in which you explore the legacy of the wartime past?
CL: They’re starting to film it in August for the cinema. I think it’s going to be great.
MP: I can imagine – it has lots of ingredients that would work very well. So what was it that drew you to the topic, because quite a few Swedish writers and Scandinavian writers do go back to look at the legacy of that past.
CL: Well, it actually started with an email from a reader, who thanked me for the books, and then said, ‘Did you know that there were lots of exciting activities going on in the area [around Fjällbacka, the coastal village north of Göteborg where the novels are set] during the Second World War? And I was like, ‘no, I never heard about that’. So I started doing some research and I found out about the smuggling, and the boats going back and forth [between Sweden and Nazi-occupied Norway], people fleeing over the border… And I thought ‘Wow!’, and the ideas started coming. Also, when I’d started writing about Elsy [Erica’s mother], who was already dead in the first book, I only knew that she had been cold with her daughters, but I didn’t know why. After four books, I still didn’t have a clue why. But when I started researching and started working on the idea of ‘the hidden child’, it literally dropped in my lap – Elsy’s whole story. It was one of those magical moments you have as a writer, when it’s like someone is telling you … I suddenly knew everything about what had happened to her; why she was the way she was. That was fantastic. So that book is very special to me for that reason, because I was basically ‘told’ Erica’s mother’s story.
MP: And it’s a very moving book, I think, as well.
CL: I had another very moving moment when it came to that book, actually. A year after it had come out in Sweden, I was doing a photo shoot for a cover, and there was this make-up artist, a woman who was around forty, forty-five. When we were alone for a few minutes, she asked me ‘How did you do your research into the Norwegian resistance and the people at Grini [Nazi concentration camp in Norway that held a number of political prisoners]? Did you know anyone who was there?’ No I didn’t; I researched through books and accounts that were on the internet by people who were there, but I hadn’t met one. And then she told me that her mother was from Norway: she had been part of the Norwegian resistance during World War Two, had fled from Norway, ended up in Sweden, and had never talked about her experiences with her children. But when she had read The Hidden Child, she got the children together and said, ‘read this, this is my story’. And then she talked about it: she was 19 when she was in the resistance and was put in Grini …. That was a special moment, because you guess so much. When you’ve done your research you have to guess a lot and fill in the blanks from your own fantasy. Sometimes you get it right, sometimes you probably don’t, but those moments when you understand ‘I got that right’ – that’s fantastic.
MP: Can I ask you about the depiction of the main characters and their relation to the conflict? Because I think that you do something very interesting there – there’s a sort of twist.
CL: Hmmm. What do I do?!
MP: Well, you have a murder victim, who is supposedly a Norwegian resistance fighter, who then turns out to have a very different background – his father was an SS-officer and he also served in Grini. And the murderer is the Swedish resistance fighter, who was a prisoner in the camp. So it seems to me that there’s something complex going on there in terms of how you’re looking at the categories of ‘perpetrator’ and ‘victim’…
CL: It’s all about playing with the ‘good’ and ‘bad’; who’s ‘good’ and who’s ‘bad’? If you do good your whole life, can that compensate for then doing something bad once in your life? And on the other hand, if you’ve done a lot of bad things, can you compensate by leaving them behind, or do you have to carry them with you? Can you turn over a new leaf? I love playing with those things. And also when it comes to murderers, I think it’s so much more interesting when good people do bad things, than when bad people do bad things. What can trigger a basically good person to do something bad? And that’s so much the case in that book – he [the murderer] has lived his whole life doing good things… But that’s also a question: for whom did he do those things? Was it for his own ego or was it out of true conviction? You can always play with those things as well.
MP: It seemed to me that there was a real complexity about the position of the victim and the perpetrator / the murderer and the victim. There’s a trading of places and what you end up with is very much a grey on grey [CL: yes], rather than a black and white morality [CL: yes], which leaves some questions in the mind of the reader… Were you looking for that complexity?
CL: Yes, hmmm, it’s the same thing again [see CL’s comments in part 1 about the inclusion of ‘issues’ in her crime novels]. I don’t think about it when I write it. I just … go along and tell the story. It’s only afterwards that I can see the patterns. It’s like when I wrote The Stonecutter: I wrote the whole book, and when I read the manuscript through to start editing, I was like ‘oh my goodness, there’s a theme in here that I didn’t know was here’ – about what makes a good mother and motherhood. I don’t realise those things while I write. But I guess it’s part of the structure for the book. It’s like scaffolding and I don’t see the scaffolding until I take a few steps back and look at the whole.
MP: When you were writing about this controversial past in The Hidden Child – one that still has resonance in the present – were you ever anxious? You’re obviously portraying something that is quite delicate. Was there a particular kind of caution when dealing with that subject matter, or did you just dive in?
CL: Just dove in, I think. I don’t think there’s anything that I write about that I’m afraid of approaching. The only thing I’m afraid of writing is sex scenes. That’s mainly because I picture my mother and my mother-in-law reading the books and their imagination running wild, so I can’t bring myself to do it! But that’s the only thing that I’m afraid of writing.
MP: It seems like another key theme in that novel was one of trauma: Elsy’s trauma and then the way that trauma has knock-on effects and is communicated down a generation…
CL: I think that theme is in all my books, and especially the eighth one, The Angel Maker. Do you know what an ‘angel maker’ is? It was a Swedish term common in Norway and Denmark as well, that described women in the late 1800s and early 1900s…. If you had a child out of wedlock, and you couldn’t take care of it, you could pay a woman a lump sum to take the baby, and what happened sometimes was that the women thought, ‘OK, I’ve got the money and this baby is only going to cost me from this point on…’. So there are a few court cases where women were found to have killed eight or ten babies. I start the story with a woman who is an ‘angel maker’ being arrested and they discover bodies buried in the ground in the basement. And that then follows as a dark cloud over her daughter, over her grand-daughter and the next generation after that. I love that theme; it recurs in my books.
MP: You’re always very concerned about the human implications of acts, whether of criminal acts or…
CL: It’s all about the characters for me. It’s the characters that make the crime plot, not the other way around. I don’t form the crime plot and then add the characters. I have a murderer and a motive and then I make the characters start doing things and that creates the plot.
MP: You mentioned some of the research that you undertook for The Hidden Child. Did you look at historical studies?
CL: I borrowed books about the Second World War in the area, because that’s what I was interested in. And then of course I always have to do research depending on where the story takes me. The story took me to Grini, and then it took me on the trains to the concentration camps in Germany, so then I had to do research about the camps and ended up with the ‘white buses’ going to Sweden [programme set up in 1945 by the Swedish Red Cross and Danish government to transport concentration camp inmates from Nazi-controlled areas to Sweden]. So I had to do more and more. I don’t do this amount of research, then I’m done and I write the book. I start at one end and then I discover that ‘I don’t know anything about the part I’m going to write now – I’m going to do some research’. So it’s a continuous process all through the book.
MP: When you’re dealing with that kind of historical event, is historical authenticity important?
CL: Well, I’m not a historian, so I will never get it absolutely right. If I were to get it absolutely right I’d spend five years doing research for every book… And then I’d probably write a thesis instead which would be really boring, compared to a crime novel [ironic laughter from Mrs. P, who once spent five years writing a boring thesis]. I mean I do think that I get it pretty right, but I can’t say that I’ve got all the details right.
MP: But again you were talking earlier about scaffolding in terms of plot; there’s historical scaffolding as well that you can make sure…
CL: I make some markers, and I drop some details, and I let the reader fill in the blanks. I don’t have to describe every detail of what a person was wearing in the 1800s. I can mention a few details; I can mention a dinner; but I don’t have to describe that in the 1800s they were eating this and this and this. But I also happen to have a father-in-law who’s a historian, so I always give him the manuscript and say, ‘please come back to me when you’ve read it and we can discuss the details’. So he always has a lot of good input.
MP: That’s very handy.
CL: Yes, I know! A police officer husband and a historian father-in-law: that’s two for the price of one. If only my mother-in-law had been a forensics expert. That would have been perfect!
MP: One last question… I’m really interested that there are lots of Scandinavian writers who are still bringing in the legacy of the Second World War into their crime novels. Is that legacy still a point of public discussion in Sweden? For example, that there were Swedish nationals who went to fight for the Germans.
CL: It’s brought up once in a while and the fact that we were not neutral is now established. We don’t pretend that we were neutral any more. And also I think there are several reasons why it keeps coming back: it’s a very fascinating war, and it’s also visually a very striking war – for example, the swastika symbol. So it’s easy to picture it. And it was so big in every way. I think that intrigues us as crime writers, because it’s the epitome of human evil. I mean, it’s evil. And also I think it’s still up for debate because of the fact that we now have – and I think it’s a disgrace – a nationalist party in Sweden as part of the government [the Sverigedemokraterna or Sweden Democrats]. And I’m so embarrassed that people actually voted for them. I’m horrified that we’re starting to forget. History repeats itself.
21 July 2012 in the Library, Old Swan Hotel, Harrogate.
Part 1 of this interview
Jo Nesbo interview with Mark Lawson in which he discusses his family’s wartime past and its impact on the Harry Hole novel The Redbreast