|photo: Les Kaner
Søren Sveistrup is an Emmy and BAFTA Award-winning screenwriter and producer of TV series including the global hit The Killing. He also wrote the screenplay for Jo Nesbø's The Snowman. Sveistrup obtained a Master's in Literature and in History from the University of Copenhagen and studied at the Danish Film School. He lives in Denmark with his family, and The Chestnut Man (reviewed below) is his first novel.
What made you think this story should be a novel instead of a series?
I studied literature at the Copenhagen University before I attended film school, so writing a novel is actually a return to a former interest. I remember two reasons. First, I felt the need to create something on my own instead of in a team, the latter being very much the case when you write movies or TV. Secondly, I felt I could add something to the crime novel genre, at least regarding many of the crime novels I had been reading. I wanted to see if I could write a novel that kept myself and the reader on the edge of the seat during the whole roller coaster ride, in the same way I've tried to do in my scripts.
What are some differences and similarities between writing a novel and writing a script?
I approached the writing process very much the same way as always, but one of the biggest differences is that you don't have to think about how this or that situation or chapter should be transformed into a scene consisting of actors, camera angles, light settings, the right landscape, a budget, etc. You can write whatever pops into your head and you don't have to discuss it with anybody besides your publisher or agent. That's a phenomenal freedom, but it also makes it a much lonelier process. Besides that, a TV series consists of images, whereas a book is constructed solely out of words--words that create different images in every reader's mind.
You've said part of the reason you write is to explore and control your emotional landscape. What self-discoveries did you make while writing this book? Which of your own emotions ended up in The Chestnut Man?
When I initiated the book, I had many other projects. A couple of movies, a few TV series and some other things, and then I topped it with an ambitious book project. Eventually I had a mental breakdown and felt burned out for many months. When I returned to work, I decided to write the book and drop everything else; in fact, I promised myself to keep my life very simple. I realized that the burned-out side of me could be expressed through Detective Hess, while my aversion towards that feeling could be expressed through the female detective, Thulin. I guess many of my emotions are expressed in the book--my hopes, fears and anxieties. It's like that every time when you create something--you give everything you've got at that exact time.
Was either Hess's or Thulin's point of view easier to write than the other?
Hard to say. My personal mood changed while I was writing the book so I guess the POV challenges stayed the same.
In addition to emotional distress, some of the characters experience extreme physical torture. Tell us about your decision to put them through that.
To be very honest, I actually don't like to write those chapters, even though people tell me I'm good at it! They are too morbid and terrifying, even for me. But the thing is: you can't cry wolf and then never show the wolf and how the wolf terrorizes. I love whodunits and building up suspense and expressing the hopes and fears of the characters, but sometimes you just have to show the reader where the tension and fear all stem from. Some people might believe those scenes mean the writer is a sadist, but it's really the other way around--it's just me writing about my anxieties and worst-case scenarios.
Denmark consistently ranks in the top three of the happiest countries in the world, according to the UN's annual World Happiness Report. Why do you think such dark thrillers come from there?
The Danes in general are a very friendly people, so I would like to be the clever one that could answer that question--but I'm not! Maybe because of our fear that the happiness will one day disappear. Or that it will show itself to be one big illusion. Or maybe from the fact that living in one of the best welfare systems in the world doesn't mean we don't have serious problems that are being shoved under the carpet.
A wealthy society like the Scandinavian [one] means everything looks good and perfect, at least on the surface. But of course we have cracks in the surface, and maybe Scandinavians sometimes feel a greater need to hide this away because of the seemingly perfect facade. A bit like the never-ending competition on Instagram and Facebook that makes it hard for people to admit their lives are not always perfect and happy-happy. This kind of mental dishonesty accumulates frustration, anxieties and depression, which often seem to be the fuel for Scandinavian crime novels.
What's next for you? The next book in this series or back to screenwriting?
At the moment, I'm thinking about the follow-up story to The Chestnut Man. But screenwriting could also be around the corner. It depends on the next idea I get. --Elyse Dinh-McCrillis, blogger at Pop Culture Nerd