'A great crime novel is actually, at heart, not about crime. It's probably about the strange workings of love, friendship, desire, addiction, greed, sex, power, and of being young, growing up and trying to be an adult.'
Christoffer Carlsson was born in 1986 and raised in Halmstad, on the west coast of Sweden. He has a PhD in criminology, and is a university lecturer in the subject. He began writing at a very young age and has, since his debut at twenty-three, written five novels in the crime genre. October is the Coldest Month is his first book for young adults. In 2013, he became the youngest author ever to have won the award for Best Swedish Crime Novel of the Year, which he was awarded for the first book in the celebrated Leo Junker series, The Invisible Man from Salem.
*Read an extract from October is the Coldest Month. October is the Coldest Month is published by Scribe Publications - click through to the 'Buy' link at the bottom of the page.
I know you started writing at a young age but can you give us some background on what made you want to write and how it happened?
That's actually a difficult one to answer, in my case. I don't really know how it happened. Here's what I can tell you: I was a lonely kid. I grew up in a rural part of Sweden, with most of my school friends living about 10km away or so. So I didn't really have much to do. Loneliness isn't very good for a young kid. Now, I don't come from a family where you read books. Literature, I learned early on, was not a right but a privilege. My parents didn't have the time to read, and in school I was a very mediocre pupil, at first. Then, in 1995, we finally got to choose a book for ourselves. In Sweden, they call it a 'desk book', where you keep the book in your school desk and read it in class. my school didn't have a library, but the local community had a 'book bus' come by the school every two weeks, and the children all had to go out and into that bus and pick a book to read for the next 14 days or so. And I stood there, looking at the thin ones, you know, trying to figure out how to get through this as smoothly as possible. And my eyes fell on this strange little book with a weird title. The Famous Five on a Smuggler's Quest. Now, I didn't know what 'smuggler' even meant but I sort of liked the way it sounded, and it looked really thin, so I chose it.
They were desk books, meaning you weren't allowed to take them home, because kids are stupid and lose things. The books belonged to the local library, and if you lost it, the school had to pay a fee to the library. But I must have taken the whole smuggling business to heart, because at the end of that day, I smuggled the book into my little Reebok backpack and took it home, finishing it the same night.
Something had happened but I couldn't really put my finger on what. It was the first time I realized that you could transcend your circumstances. In the world of fiction, you could create another self. And you know, pretty soon after that, I started writing. It gave me the same sense of purposeful dreaming, in a way.
Have you always been a big reader of crime novels?
Yes, pretty much. There have been times when I've gotten so bored by the saturation of the market that I completely turned away from crime novels for a couple of years and only read other things, but aside from those periods, yeah, I've always read crime fiction in some form or another. I began by reading Enid Blyton, you know, and then I soon moved on to Arthur Conan Doyle, W E Johns, and early Swedish crime novels such as those by Stieg Trenter and Maria Lang. I don't know if you're familiar with Trenter and Lang, but imagine Agatha Christie's puzzles and you approach them. Classic detective mysteries. Aside from them, though, I also read a lot of other fiction. I've always done that.
Can you please share any advice for new writers on writing more generally?
Practice a lot. Write what you would want to read. Don't dig where you stand, that's boring. Dig into something that you don't yet fully understand, something about yourself or the world that seems weird or strange or senseless. In fiction, something should be at stake for the writer as well as the reader. If you are purposefully trying to figure something out, it gives everything you do a sense of urgency. The reader will feel it.
Any advice specifically for writing crime?
Don't focus too much on the technicalities of a crime investigation. Who cares? We've all read enough books and seen enough tv shows (many of the best ones Scandinavian!) to know that world. You need some amount of it, so make sure you get it right. In order to do that, talking to people will eventually be necessary. But if you jump right in, you will ask a lot of stupid questions and waste people’s valuable time. Instead, read as much as you can on a topic before going into the field. You'll be better able to ask more relevant questions that way.
And don't forget. A great crime novel is actually, at heart, not about crime. It's probably about the strange workings of love, friendship, desire, addiction, greed, sex, power, and of being young, growing up and trying to be an adult. A crime novel draws these very human things to their extremes and explores one possible outcome – crime. That's the craft, and art. If you go to your bookshelf and browse through the best crime novel you've read, that's probably what you find waiting in the pages.
And don't hide stuff from the reader if you don't have to. The reader is probably smarter than you anyway, so there's no point in trying to outsmart her. Instead, make characters keep secrets from each other.
The reader isn't a friend, nor is she an enemy. Your reader is a temporary lover. Your story is your method of seduction.
How did you first get published?
I was active on an online forum for writers*. I was there because I felt I needed some feedback on the stuff I was working on at the time, and a lot of the people there were really good. This was pretty much the first time there was a forum of this kind in Sweden, so it attracted a lot of good writers (many of us who were at that forum have today become quite famous Swedish writers: Sara Lövestam, Anders de la Motte, and others.) There was an eventual story contest, where the prize was a book deal with a large publishing company in Sweden. I didn't win, but the publishing house signed me anyway. It wasn't a very good book, but you know, I was 23 at the time and I think they saw that I had potential, so they may have signed me more for the books they believed I had in me than the book I had just finished. Three years later I wrote the best crime novel of the year and sold a shitload of books, so I guess they were right, haha.
* Aside from Christoffer: The platform was called Kapitel1 ('Chapter1') and it's still around, I think, and it has pretty much the same looks and features it did back in '08.
Do you think writers start out needing to be particularly patient? Is initial rejection part of the process?
Oh yeah. Patience is a virtue. But so is determination.
Following to the above question, how do you go from a PHD in criminology to an award-winning novelist? Or was it going from an award-winning novelist to PHD in criminology?
Neither, I'd say. I was writing long before I even knew what criminology was. I started studying criminology after high school, because I didn't want to work (only adults worked, you know) and I was interested in the psychology and sociology of crime, deviance, and its reactions. But of course, criminology can be a valuable tool for a writer.
What was the genesis for October is the Coldest Month?
I was working on Master, Liar, Traitor, Friend at the time, and it was nearly killing me. Big in scope, informed by actual events, with several layers of time and multiple narrators, it was a tricky book to write. As a distraction, I began imagining this teenage girl's voice in my head. Her brother was missing. She had to find him. And I knew that I wanted to tell it through the eyes of somebody living in a rural space, because so much (Swedish) fiction (whether YA or adult) revolving around teenagers is centered in urban landscapes. And urban landscapes are connected to urban ways of thinking and living. But, you know, Sweden is actually a pretty rural place. Many people grow up in the countryside. I mean, I was one of them. So I wanted to tell a story about what it means to be young in that kind of place. It wasn't a YA novel at that point, it was just a story. Form and outlet came later.
Can you share any challenges in writing it?
Well ... I was very aware of the fact that I was a 28 year old male living in Stockholm and belonging to the intellectual and cultural middle class, while writing about the sexual and social awakening of a 16 year old girl in the lower segments of rural working class society. And trying to make it feel genuine.
Did you work closely with your English translator?
I did, yes. Closer than how I normally work, I should add. I'm very, very hard to please when it comes to English translations of my work, but I must say that she astonished me. Her sense of rhythm and sensitivity to detail just blew me away. I don't know how she did it. The translation is absolutely phenomenal. I actually prefer it to the original, the translation is somehow rawer and cooler, conveying drama and tension where I didn't really intend one.
One of your previous novels, Master, Liar, Traitor, Friend, was inspired by scandals and murders in Sweden in the '80s. And are your ideas often grounded in actual cases or scenarios you’ve heard about?
To some extent they are, yes.
Do you think there’s a difference between the style of crime writers in different countries? And if so, what’s particularly Swedish about your writing and sensibility
Oh, the first part of that question is easy. Yes, there are between-country differences in how we approach crime as writers. But the second part of that question ... that's so difficult to answer. Maybe I'm not the right person to answer it, actually, haha.
October is the Coldest Month is considered a novel for young adults – what changed for you in writing for young adults?
Not too much, honestly. I did what I always do: I was concerned with emotional authenticity and an exciting narrator, a full heart and all the power I could infuse it with.