THE WRITING LIFE ... John Ajvide LINDQVIST
JOHN AJVIDE LINDQVIST thrilled Swedish readers with his 2004 début on the social aspects of a vampire, Let the Right One In. Come 2010, there will be an English remake of the film adaptation, and with more horror stories under his sleeve, this Swedish writer is set to thrill and chill more fans. TAN MAY LEE finds out more about his spooks
JOHN AJVIDE LINDQVIST has, without a doubt, the most interesting and unconventional CV you would ever come across. He worked as a magician and stand-up comedian before dabbling in horror stories. Let the Right One In was his début novel about the much-bullied 12-year-old schoolboy Oskar who befriends his next-door neighbour, Eli, a 200-year-old vampire. It became a Swedish best-seller and was later translated into other languages and adapted as a film. Director Matt Reeves will release an English remake of the critically-acclaimed movie in 2010. For now, this year sees the English translation of Handling the Undead, tackling undeads that have risen from Stockholm’s city morgue.
When you were growing up, did you feel destined for an unconventional career route?
I was 12 when I seriously started aiming at becoming a magician, and I suppose that is unconventional.
You were a magician, a stand-up comedian, and now, a horror writer. How do you juggle this very fascinating combination?
Performing magic tricks and writing are both basically about teaching yourself a technique for making the impossible believable. Comedy and horror aren’t so different either. It’s about creating and describing an everyday situation in which you place something abnormal, something which sheds a different light on the situation, be it horrific or amusing.
What kind of research goes into your writing?
Very little. I tend to try to write about things I already know. For my second novel Handling the Undead, I had to visit a morgue but that was the greatest length I have gone to for research.
Your début novel, Let the Right One In, was set in the Stockholm suburb of Blackeberg, where you grew up in. How would you describe Blackeberg to a traveller today?
My mother still lives there, so I go there every now and then. It is quite a nice, quiet suburb in Stockholm with lots of greenery and forests around it. Nothing threatening there ... anymore.
Although you write in the horror genre, there were universal issues tackled, such as the superior and the bullied; divides between rich and poor. Would you say these are the issues that will move readers to sympathise with the characters in all genres—whether horror, sci-fi, or fantasy?
For me, quite a lot of horror fails when it doesn’t make me care about the people to whom the terrible things are going to happen. Someone you don’t care about can be slaughtered with a chainsaw in a story and you don’t give a damn. Then someone you really care for steps on a nail and it hurts your own body. As for social or psychosocial comment, I find this to be an essential part of any story, otherwise you simply don’t take an interest, or you have bad taste in your mouth once the story is finished.
Is this your first trip to Singapore? What are you looking forward to experiencing at the Singapore Writers Festival?
Yes, this is my first trip to Singapore. I look forward to seeing how Singaporeans do things in a culture which I imagine to be quite different from my own. I am, for example, a smoker, and I realise that this can be something of a problem. Also, I am quite fond of skyscrapers.
This year’s theme for the Singapore Writers Festival is UnderCovers, aiming to promote alternative literature. Do you consider your books an alternative form of literature with a cult following?
I don’t consider my own writing to be alternative in any way, since I aim for readability. Only my subject matters can be considered “alternative.” And maybe the deep seriousness in which I write about absurd subjects. As far as a “cult following” I don’t see much of that. I live in the countryside, sit in my little house and make up my stories. I don’t go out much and do very few readings.
In Asia, we have our own versions of vampires and ghosts. European superstitions can be pretty new and foreign. Although you personally do not believe that any of the creatures in your books really exist, what are the Swedish beliefs in the supernatural that have been ingrained in your culture?
The best short story I have ever written is about trolls, and in my latest novel there is someting called a “spiritus,” a sort of magical insect that gives its owner supernatural abilities—both trolls and spirituses are taken from Swedish mythology. I tend to mix elements of Swedish folklore with more mainstream horror elements, such as zombies or vampires. But mostly I just write about people confronted with something they don’t have the mental tools to deal with—things from the other side. And I think this is a universal theme.
Could you recommend some Swedish literature to foreign readers?
Always start out with Selma Lagerlöf (the first woman to ever win the Nobel Prize for Literature). Move on with Hjalmar Söderberg. For poetry, go for Tomas Tranströmer. If you want something more modern, try Kerstin Ekman. Sorry that so many of the names contain the letter “ö.”
Outside the world of horror and books, what interests you?
I like Abba, romantic comedies, Singstar and Guitar Hero. I do watch horror movies when something good comes out, but it so seldom does. I also look forward to playing Resident Evil 5. Otherwise my main interest in life is my wife and son.
What do you think of popular culture?
What a question! Well, my answer to the former question does give away that I prefer popular culture to that other, distant culture. I don’t really know what that is. I am a great fan of Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Samuel Beckett. But they are also part of popular culture, aren’t they?
Do you travel widely on book tours and personally trips?
No. I have too many things that I want to write about, and I simply don’t have the time. Also, I only go to other countries when it’s possible to bring my family and when it’s possible for them to come. Singapore was irresistible, though.
Now that you have seen film adaptations of your work, has it made you more interested in screenwriting and films?
I have already written the script for Handling the Undead and it’s due to start shooting next summer. Tomas Alfredson and I also plan to work together on my third novel, as we worked together on Let the Right One In. I hope I can continue writing the screenplays of my own books, as long as people let me.
How far along are you on your new novel?
I’m at the moment on page 420 of Little Star, which has unfortunately turned out a little too horrific. I have only something like 50 pages to go, but then quite the tedious process of cutting the novel down to 400 pages will begin. I started out thinking I was writing a 200-page book, but it’s always like that with me.
Reproduced from the Singapore Writers Festival 2009 issue of Quill magazine