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Nordic books are not all grim thrillers - humour, drama and young adults titles are popular too

Grim noir thrillers still rule the Nordic book charts but more humour, drama and YA are coming up

Published on Jul 22, 2014 1:00 PM
 

Booksellers bank on Nordic noir but publishers are also seeing the lighter side of Scandinavian fiction.

On bestseller lists this May along with Norwegian author Jo Nesbo's newest crime novel The Son was comic adventure The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden, a laugh-out-loud but thought-provoking read about apartheid and nuclear stand-offs.

The author, Swedish writer Jonas Jonasson, began making waves internationally in 2012 with the translation of his first comic novel, The Hundred- Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared.

The movie version was released in Sweden in December last year and began showing earlier this month in Hong Kong and the United Kingdom.

In Singapore, the book has sold at least 8,500 copies since its release, compared with 1,000 copies for Swedish author Lars Kepler's The Hypnotist (2011), considered a good seller by distributors MPH Books. The distributor brings in several other Nordic crime writers, including Camilla Lackberg, Liza Marklund and Leif Persson, each of whom sells about 1,000 copies a year.

Nordic favourites go as far back as Swedish writer Astrid Lindgren's Pippi Longstocking (1945), but interest in Singapore perked up with Norwegian novelist Jostein Gaarder's bestseller Sophie's World (1991), which still sells at least 400 copies a year.

The boom came in the Noughties with thrillers from Henning Mankell (Inspector Kurt Wallander series), Stieg Larsson (The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo) and Nesbo, all of whom sell between 800 and 2,000 copies annually, distributors say.

These Nordic bestselling writers still form a niche in the market.

Writers such as Dan Brown who enjoy mainstream success can move 30,000 copies of a title each year.

However, Jonasson's success has paved the way for English translations of other genres in Scandinavian fiction as well.

From Sweden, there are two recent comedies: Fredrik Backman's A Man Called Ove, released this month, and Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg's The Little Old Lady Who Broke All The Rules, last November.

Then there are the cute detective capers of the Jerry Maya series for younger readers by Sweden's Martin Widmark (Penguin); a potentially prize-winning literary novel about lost friendship, Breaking Light, by Sweden's Karin Altenberg (Quercus) and a lyrical dystopian young adult novel Memory Of Water by Finnish writer Emmi Itaranta (Harper Collins).

"Agents and publishers have begun to explore the local books of this area with more interest and that's why we're seeing this increase," says a spokesman for Penguin US.

Book distributors expect the new wave of Nordic novels to sell well, as readers are following the trend.

Ms Jie Yi See, 26, a photo editor and avid book blogger, began reading Nordic noir with the release of Larsson's The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo in 2009. She also read Jonasson's The Hundred- Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared, hoping to discover "the other side of Scandinavian writing".

She enjoyed its deadpan humour. "It gave me insights into how they take old age - they take it lightly, it's okay to be old. It's very different from Singapore," she says.

Reader Reena Devi, a freelance writer and editor, came to Nordic noir hearing the hype about Larsson's series. Her favourite noir writer is Norway's Karin Fossum and she is also planning to read Jonasson's books soon.

"Nordic fiction is not standard fare," says the 28-year-old.

"The plot is interesting, it's very strong on character and narrative. This is different from mainstream fiction choices which are either strong on plot or character but not both."

akshitan@sph.com.sg


FIRST WAVE OF AUTHORS

STIEG LARSSON (died in 2004, age 50)

The Swedish journalist died of a heart attack before completing his series of books about female hacker Lisbeth Salander but the trilogy – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornets’ Nest – sold more than 75 million copies in 50 countries. The first book was twice adapted into movies and Larsson’s Swedish publisher has hired a ghostwriter to create a fourth in the series.

HENNING MANKELL, 66

This Swedish author of about 30 novels has sold 40 million books in 41 languages. He is best known for his grim books featuring disillusioned inspector Kurt Wallander, last seen in the 2009 novel The Troubled Man, translated into English in 2011. Mankell now writes less mainstream literary fiction, often historical novels.

JO NESBO, 54

This Norwegian novelist has sold about 23 million copies of his dozen-odd dark and violent crime novels, all but two of which feature alcoholic inspector Harry Hole. His most recent book is the standalone novel, The Son, released in May.

NEW WAVE OF AUTHORS

KARIN ALTENBERG, 40

This Swedish archaeologist’s critically acclaimed debut Island Of Wings was nominated for the 2012 Orange Prize for fiction (now Bailey Women’s Prize) and the Scottish First Book Of The Year award. Her second novel Breaking Light, is an eerie drama of friendship and lost family.

MARTIN WIDMARK, 53

This Swedish writer writes a best-selling detective series for younger readers. The translated books of The Whodunit Detective Agency, run by classmates Jerry and Maya, will be brought out by Penguin in October.

EMMI ITARANTA, 38

She wrote her critically acclaimed debut novel, Memory Of Water, in her native Finnish and English. The story is set in a dystopian future where a teenage girl tries to keep alive Japanese tea rituals or “chado” in a time when fresh water is scarce.

JONAS JONASSON, 53

This Swedish writer began making waves internationally in 2012 with the translation of his first comic novel, The Hundred-Year-Old-Man Who Climbed Out Of The Window And Disappeared. He also wrote comic adventure The Girl Who Saved The King Of Sweden.

FREDRIK BACKMAN, 33

The college dropout sold more than half a million copies of his debut novel A Man Called Ove in his native Sweden. Now a full-time novelist, he says the story about a grumpy old man drawn into fixing the problems of the family next door was inspired in part by an argument he had with his own father. He has written a dysfunctional parenting guide, Things My Son Needs To Know About The World, and a second novel, My Grandmother Sent Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, has sold 100,000 copies since last September.


Culling stories from the land

Swedish archaeologist Karin Altenberg writes only in English and about Britain, so she does not think she counts as a Scandinavian writer.

"I don't think Sweden sees me as a Swedish writer. I'm not even published in Sweden," says the 40-year-old, who works at the Swedish National Heritage Board and divides her time between Stockholm and London.

Publisher Quercus released her second novel Breaking Light on June 30. It is an eerie drama of friendship and lost family set in the atmospheric landscape of Dartmoor, south-west England, where Altenberg researched Stone Age communities.

Her critically acclaimed debut, Island Of Wings was set in the remote island of St Kilda and is based on the true story of a new minister who moved there with his wife in the 19th century.

Island Of Wings was nominated for the 2012 Orange Prize for fiction (now Bailey Women's Prize) and the Scottish First Book Of The Year award.

Altenberg is fascinated with the stories geography tells, since her training allows her to "read the landscape", seeing in the curve of a hill the presence of a burial mound, for example, or deducing instantly where people of ancient times might have sheltered and grown food.

"I write because I moved to Britain when I was coming of age. I didn't know English very well and I had to try so hard to learn it that I just kept on writing," she says.

She did her doctorate at the University of Reading in the United Kingdom, after a bachelor's degree in Lindt University in Sweden.

She says: "I did want to study literature actually, but that was the one area my parents said, 'You shouldn't go there, it's too crowded'."

The daughter of two linguists, she was brought up in an academic atmosphere that discouraged creative writing.

"Literature was important, you were supposed to read it but you weren't supposed to write it. Writing was a bit pretentious," she says.

Penning stories remained a secret hobby for years until a friend told her about the island of St Kilda, which reminded her of a rocky island off the coast of Sweden which she used to sail to as a young adult. Aiming to write a cultural history of the place, she ended up with a novel.

She and her partner still holiday on the Swedish island, which is also when she writes fiction.

Her full-time job with the Swedish National Heritage Board allows her to write only on weekends or on vacation.

It leaves her little time to read and she prefers poetry such as the verses of Nobel Prize winner Tomas Transtromer to potboilers of the sort that have whetted appetite worldwide for Nordic crime.

"I don't know it, I haven't read much of it," she says.

"I don't want the association, though it might be tempting for the publisher, in marketing terms."

Breaking Light retails at $33.63 at major bookstores.


Word-of-mouth success

Emmi Itaranta wrote her critically acclaimed debut novel, Memory Of Water, in both Finnish and English.

"I usually write the first draft of each chapter in Finnish and then I translate that draft into English and edit it," the 38-year-old Finn says from Canterbury in Britain, where she currently lives.

"Obviously it would be easier just to write in one language but this is the way it works for me."

The daughter of a TV journalist and an office worker, she learnt English in secondary school while growing up in Tampere, Finland.

Memory Of Water (Teemestarin Kirja in Finnish) was released in English last month by Harper Voyager, the young adult imprint of HarperCollins.

The story is set in a dystopian future where a teenage girl tries to keep alive Japanese tea rituals or "chado" in a time when fresh water is scarce.

Itaranta, who is married with no children, completed the manuscript while doing her master's in fine arts at the University of Kent.

She also has a master of arts in drama from the University of Tampere in Finland and has held many writing jobs, including that of a critic, a press officer and a screenwriter.

Memory Of Water was inspired by her interest in Japanese tea ceremony and a corresponding interest in climate change and the growing scarcity of fresh water reserves.

Though accessible by young adults and older readers, the relatively heavy topics puzzled her writing group as they read it chapter by chapter.

She says: "They asked me a lot of times who is my target audience. I always said, "I don't want to think about the readers too much. It's more important to write the story as it needs to be told."

But sticking to her guns meant only rejections from British publishers when she submitted the English version.

In 2011, she submitted the Finnish text to a fantasy and science-fiction contest organised by Finnish publishing house Teo.

The manuscript won and was published a year later.

Six months after that, Germany bought translation rights and through word-of-mouth success, the book was eventually acquired by HarperCollins.

The author laughs at the circuitous route it took to be published in English.

Riding on the success of the novel and her desire to write a second book, though not in the same world, Itaranta recently gave up all other jobs to concentrate on writing full time.

She says: "It's a leap into the unknown essentially and I'm very well aware that I might need to find a new job in a year or two."

But she also knows there is hope for writers like her to break into international markets, especially now.

"Nordic crime is doing very well and, if anything, has enhanced international interest in writing from the region," she adds.

"I think there is space for other things from Nordic countries as well. The market has been oversaturated with Nordic crime."

Memory Of Water retails at $27.82 at major bookstores.


Finding comedy in grumpy old men

Fredrik Backman has gone from college drop-out holding odd jobs to selling more than half a million copies of his debut novel in his native Sweden.

A Man Called Ove is now out in English under the Sceptre imprint and Simon & Schuster, and is being translated into more than 20 other languages.

The book about a grumpy old man drawn into fixing the problems of the family next door was inspired in part by an argument he had with his father, says Backman, 33, now a full-time novelist, on the telephone from his home outside Stockholm.

The telephone call is often interrupted by household chores including putting away groceries and caring for his sick four- year-old son, while his wife, a stay-at-home mum, is busy with their 10-month-old daughter.

He explains that Backman senior, a lawyer who worked in insurance, is just like the character Ove (pronounced Oover) in that he can fix anything, watches over his community with an eagle eye and hides a heart of gold behind a crusty exterior. Backman noticed a surge in readership every time he chronicled a father- son encounter on his blog.

"I think that all the best parts of Ove come from my dad and all the worst qualities come from me," says the author, who sent his parents the draft of the book. It came back with red markings and suggestions from his teacher mother but his father had little input.

He says: "My dad thought it's just about a man walking around being right all the time. There's just this certain type of man, they are very sure of themselves, they could do nothing wrong."

Backman also modelled Ove on the men he worked with during his time as a pest exterminator before landing writing jobs for magazines.

"When my car broke down I took it to them. They kept telling me I was a moron but they helped me."

A Man Called Ove was written in about three months and brought out by Swedish publisher Forum in 2012.

"They had no illusions about it ever being big," says Backman with a laugh, who had to pay his own way to the Swedish Book Fair that year. But about 600 readers of his blog turned up to see him, attracting the attention of a German publisher.

Word-of-mouth endorsement spread and now the book will be published in 25 languages.

Backman says the success of humour writer Jonas Jonasson (author of The Hundred-Year-Old- Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared) paved the way for his and other novels of Nordic humour to be picked up overseas. "This is not a new wave of writing for us because it's been here, it's just a matter of the rest of the world realising it exists."

He has also written a dysfunctional parenting guide, Things My Son Needs To Know About The World, and the second of his novels, My Grandmother Sent Me to Tell You She's Sorry, has sold 100,000 copies since it was published in Sweden last September. It is about the relationship between a seven-year-old girl and her 77-year-old grandmother, who upsets neighbours with her quirky habits.

"I find very young people and very old people more interesting than anyone else," he says. "People under 10 and older than 70 tend to disregard the rules of society, the kids because they don't know any better and old people because they don't care anymore. There's a comedy to it."

A Man Called Ove retails at $29.95 at major bookstores.

Background story

“It gave me insights into how they take old age – they take it lightly, it’s okay to be old. It’s very different from Singapore.”

Ms Jie Yi See, 26, a photo editor and avid book blogger, on Nordic noir

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