Now and again, as a reader, you come across a new author who reminds you that the art of storytelling is not so very complicated – you just have to know what you’re doing! Only the best make it look easy, and Swedish debutant Alexander Soderberg falls into that category.
Whilst it’s true that Soderberg’s “The Andalucian Friend” is his debut novel, he is anything but new to the writing game. He has worked as a screenwriter, editor, and scriptdoctor, mostly in Swedish television, where he has garnered a solid reputation for producing results. It would be inevitable to try to make comparisons with the legend that is his countryman, Stieg Larsson, but that would be grossly unfair at such an early stage in Soderberg’s book-creating journey.
First published more than a year ago under the title Den andalusiske vännen, the book was snapped up by Harvill Secker of the Random House Group in London. Rights have sold in 33 countries, and the novel has been optioned for film.
It is the first in what has been billed as a trilogy. So why start out planning a three-book deal? “When you write a TV or film script you usually stick to a three-act structure, which is exactly how I’m approaching this book trilogy. I’ve got three acts to play with, rather than having to reach a conclusion in one book. Act one is the setup, the second act is action and act three is the outcome and resolution. But timescales are blurry; nothing ever quite goes to plan.”
The 42 year-old Soderberg was born and raised in Stockholm, before moving to the countryside in southern Sweden in 1998. He still lives there with a wife, three daughters, one Labrador, one horse and two ponies! The overriding impression you get about him is that of a modest, well-grounded individual who craves nothing more than the company of family and friends, and the freedom to throw himself into his one true passion. “I have always written. It is a natural thing to do for me.”
Soderberg says the key to writing for him is routine. At 7:45, he drives his kids to school, walks his dog, then sits down to work until 2:00 in the afternoon. It took him about two and a half years to write his first novel. “Time is important when you write. To have the time to put away your work for a while, let the story rest and take a look at it with new fresh eyes. No one knew about the book so I had time on my side.
“I worked closely with my editor right up until the week before publishing it in Sweden last May. It is hard to give you an exact total of the time from when I started writing to when I finished it, because it evolved from various scripts I’d been working on and I was constantly writing lots of other things while writing the book.”
The central character in his trilogy is Sophie Brinkman, a nurse who gets more than she bargains for when she falls for one of her patients. “The story needed her from the start as a centre force that the plot could lean on. She makes mistakes and has many flaws. But she is more than she realises. True and close to her feelings, but still afraid of them. She is human. I like her a lot.”
It is hardly surprising to discover that the book originated from an idea that Soderberg had for a television script. “I soon realized that I wanted to expand the story, to make it bigger, wider. That’s when I started to write it as a book. I wanted to paint with more colors than were available for television, in a way. It was great fun to spin out the narrative full blast, building a universe around the characters, and allowing them to live their own lives.”
He describes the story as “entirely fictional” and reveals that although he has visited some of the places and settings, his research was largely internet-based. “The worldwide web can offer more or less everything you need today.”
In an effort to learn a bit more about Soderberg’s approach to writing I fired a few more questions at him:
How do you plan your writing? Are you a detailed plotter or do you “go with the flow”?
“Both. It depends on the day. I am detailed when it comes to the large parts, the big set pieces.”
Where do you write?
I have an office in my house. But it is a mess right now, I don’t know why. I can’t even go up there. Nor can the cleaning lady. She hates the office, refuses to go there. So I find other places. My favourite writing space at the moment is a room with a panoramic window, facing south. I see for miles from there. Better than TV.
Who are your favourite authors? What draws you to them?
“I don’t have any particular favourites. I read on impulse. I am more drawn to different genres than particular writers. It is a mood thing. It’s a fascinating moment for crime fiction right now. Thanks to writers like Dennis Lehane and Gillian Flynn, the quality of genre fiction has been so elevated that I think we’re in a bit of a Golden Age.”
Where do you stand on the subject of e-books?
“I haven’t read an e-book yet. But it seems to be okay for a lot of people. E-readers do not seem to take away the reading experience. I’m looking forward to trying one soon. But books are books. One of the few dead things around us that actually lives. And bookshelves will always be the nicest furniture there is.”
How do you judge your success? Is writing now a full-time career for you?
“Yes, I write as a full time job. That is a success for me.”
What are your interests away from writing?
“I love horse riding. I came to it later in life, and bought my first horse a year ago, a ten year old gelding, a Swedish warmblood. We have a strange relationship – I love him, he hates me, kind of. But it is just wonderful. I am hooked.”
There is an interesting footnote to the story of how Soderberg’s work came into the light of day. The observant reader of The Andalucian Friend will notice a citation about the use of an English translator – Soderberg is not yet fluent in the language. “I speak some English. I have not read the English or US translations but I understand that the translator has done a great job.”
The translator was Neil Smith, who remembers being contacted by the Salomonsson Agency in September 2011 with a request to translate a fairly large sample of a new book at very short notice. “I was intrigued. The Salomonsson Agency has an enviable track record, and the fact that they were convinced that this new acquisition was going to be big, and was worth getting a last-minute sample produced in time for the Frankfurt Book Fair, was enough to persuade me to take a look at the manuscript.
“I read the start of The Andalucian Friend and, became hooked. It really did feel very different to anything I’d translated before. It certainly felt more international in scope than a lot of Scandinavian fiction, with settings ranging from well-to-do Stockholm suburbs to Rotterdam, Paraguay and, yes, Andalucía.”
Smith recalls not having time to read the whole book before starting into the translation process. “I approached the first draft of the translation as a reader, and was surprised at how often my loyalties towards different characters changed. I no longer had any faith that the book would follow convention and leave one of the most sympathetic characters alive at the end of it: I don’t think I’ve ever been so anxious about a character’s survival!”
(c) Joe McCoubrey
Joe McCoubrey is a former journalist who reported first hand the height of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’ throughout the 1970’s and 1980’s, firstly as a local newspaper Editor, and then as a partner in an agency supplying copy to national newspapers and broadcasters. He switched careers to help start a Local Enterprise Agency providing advice and support to budding entrepreneurs in his native town and became its full-time CEO. He retired to concentrate on a long-time ambition to be a full-time writer. Someone Has to Pay is his first novel.