NEW YORK • Fredrik Backman got tepid responses when he sent out the manuscript for his debut novel, A Man Called Ove. Most publishers ignored him, and several turned it down.
After a few months and a few more rejections, he began to think perhaps there was not a market for a story about a cranky, 59-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, 35, who lives outside Stockholm with his wife and two children. "That note I kept."
In hindsight, that critique seems wildly, comically off base.
Four 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.
Ove became a blockbuster in Sweden, selling more than 840,000 copies. It was adapted into a successful stage production and an award-winning Swedish film, which recently opened in the United States.
Translation rights have sold in 38 languages, including Arabic, Turkish, Latvian, Thai and Japanese.
Backman has also gained a passionate fan base in South Korea, where the novel became a huge bestseller.
"No one really knows why," he said in a recent telephone interview. "Not even the South Korean publisher understands what the hell is going on."
In the US, Ove got off to a slow start. For months, it sold steadily, but in modest numbers. Then sales surged. It landed on the bestseller list 18 months after it was published and has remained there for 42 weeks. Demand has been so unrelenting that Atria Books has reprinted the novel 40 times and has more than one million copies in print.
Editorial director Peter Borland, who acquired the US rights to Ove for Atria, said he was struck by the book's pathos and humour.
"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."
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 plans to commit suicide and has turned off his radiators, cancelled his newspaper subscription and anchored a hook into the ceiling to hang himself. But he keeps getting interrupted by his clueless, prying neighbours. He strikes up a friendship with an Iranian immigrant and her two young daughters, who find Ove's grumpiness endearing.
Once it became clear that there was an appetite for Backman's quirky misanthrope, Atria asked Backman if he was working on any other novels. As it turned out, he had 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 named Elsa whose grandmother dies, leaving her a batch of letters to deliver to people her grandmother had wronged in life. The book has nearly 500,000 copies in print and has spent 26 weeks on the paperback bestseller list.
In May, 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.
Last 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, which is to come out today.
Backman got the idea for Ove five years ago, when he was freelancing for the Swedish magazine Cafe.
A college dropout, he once worked as a forklift driver at a food warehouse, taking night and weekend shifts so he could write during the day.
A colleague at Cafe wrote a blog post for their website about seeing a man named 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 1 or 11, never in between."
He started writing blog posts for Cafe about his pet peeves and outbursts, under the heading, I Am A Man Called Ove. He realised that he had the blueprint for a compelling fictional character and the novel began to take shape.
He has not 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 20 people or you're going to freak out."
•A Man Called Ove is available online at Books Kinokuniya for $18.95.