Lisa Marklund has the sort of presence that makes everyone in a room look up. Tall (very), attractive (very), she commands attention in the same way that she grabs you when you pick up one of her books. But it’s not only her readers who recognise that presence – and with thirteen million books sold in thirty languages, she has a LOT of readers – the legendary James Patterson spotted her talent too. In 2010 The Postcard Killers was a New York Times #1, making Marklund the second Swedish author ever, to hit that coveted spot.
So what does it take to make it this big?
When we sat down for coffee in a cosy corner of The Shelbourne Hotel, Marklund had literally just stepped off the plane for a twenty four hour visit to Dublin, but a professional to the core, she was smiling, relaxed and unruffled. And it is this type of focus that has bought her worldwide success.
When Lisa Marklund’s first Annika Bengtzon book was published in paperback, it sold 1 million copies in Sweden. Staggering for several reasons – for one, there are only 9 million people living in Sweden, for another, in hardback it had only sold a few hundred copies. And, perhaps even more surprisingly, Marklund revealed that it was published by a small independent publishing house, by a friend and ex colleague in a remarkable twist that befits one of her intriguing and complex plots.
Marklund’s colleague, a journalist who has previously worked for her, had been retained by a Swedish American billionaire to research publishing in Sweden with a view to setting up a new publishing house. A year later, with fresh insider knowledge on the market, the project started, only to be shelved two weeks later. Unperturbed, Marklund’s colleague decided to set up his own press, starting with a range of sports books.
Knowing that there was a defined, hungry market for crime fiction in Sweden, knowing as Marklund put it ‘the micro details’ it was a natural step for Marklund to suggest he look at her first stab at crime fiction. Marklund is a woman who knows how to write tabloid headlines, whose job it was to sell newspapers, who had worked as an editor in print and TV news – she was a good risk for a new company.
But of the four thousand books printed in hardback, only three hundred sold.
Then the book won as Marklund puts it “won four or five literary awards. And when it came out in paperback six months later, it went to number one for one year and seventeen months – it sold one million copies.”
The awards that took Liza Marklund from sales of three hundred to over a million were the Poloni Prize (Polonipriset) 1998 for ‘Best Swedish Crime Novel by a Female Writer’ and The Debutant Prize, (Debutantpriset) 1998 for ‘Best First Novel of the Year’. Marklund was also named Author of the Year in Sweden 1999 by the Swedish trade union SKTF.
Marklund’s publishing debut had been in 1995 with Gömda (Buried Alive). Based on a true story, about a woman who is abused by her boyfriend and forced into hiding, she told me “I took back the rights to the true-life documentary book I had written previously, and we brought out an updated version. It knocked my crime off number one.” The reworked version ofGömda was one of the best selling books in Sweden of all time.
And her success didn’t end there. Marklund was selected as the fifteenth most popular woman in Sweden in 2003 and the fourth most popular woman in Sweden of 2004 in an annual survey with 1,000 participants, conducted by ICA-kuriren, a magazine produced by a Swedish supermarket chain.
Her books have been number one bestsellers in all five Nordic countries. In 2002 and 2003, two of Liza Marklund’s crime novels were listed on the international bestseller lists by the online magazine Publishing Trends, Prime Time ranking #13 and The Red Wolfranking #12. She went on to win the radio network RixFM’s Swedish Literary Prize in 2007.
Marklund admits “I never thought the books would sell – I had been writing my whole life, from poetry and short stories as a child, to my first fiction which was an existential book. I was a news journalist, but also I wrote about abuse in the media, children’s rights, abuse against women – I had to sneak these articles in. My editor said to me once, ‘you and your bloody women Marklund, nobody cares about it; it doesn’t sell.”
Marklund is now the co-owner of one of Sweden’s most successful publishing houses, Piratförlaget, proving beyond a doubt that with the right combination of talent and marketing ability, a small independent press can launch a career.
And success breeds success, but even Marklund admits that she was staggered when James Patterson first got in touch to see if she would be interested in co-writing a book with him. She told me, “I was taking some time out, a year learning Spanish and to play the piano. I felt I needed to learn some new things. His agent got in touch with mine and I flew to Florida to meet him. I was expecting this larger than life character, but in fact he was smart and funny and really humble, despite being the chair of one of the biggest advertising agencies. He’d sent me a story outline, an idea, and when I met him, we filled it in, then emailed back and forth. When I’d finished there was only one thing he changed – I’d written a dairy farm in, in Brooklyn.” She laughed, shaking her head, “there definitely aren’t any dairy farms in Brooklyn!” A gripping thriller, The Postcard Killers has secured Marklund a slot as one of the most successful Scandinavian writers ever. Marklund says, “There were no strings, I did it for the experience.”
I asked Marklund if she set out to write a serial character when she first started her career; she nodded, ‘I had five synopsises on my computer. This character had been with me since I was a child. I wrote short stories and had many published in magazines and journals as I was growing up, but she was always there.” So what is it about Annika Bengtzon that gives her the strength to carry eight bestselling titles?
Annika Bengtzon is a complex character, Marklund says, “I like her but I wouldn’t marry her – she is a good tool, I can use her to do and say outrageous things. She’s limitless and a lone ranger, but with a complex personality. She cries too much, she’s really mean to her colleagues, but she loves to cook, she wants a career and her kids.” Marklund told me, above all, as a writer “you have to have presence, to be there in the character’s head.”
One of the keys to Marklund’s success is ‘write what you know’. She told me “I was a tabloid journalist for ten years. I had more front pages than any other female journalist, and I became an editor for one of the biggest selling tabloids in Northern Europe. It was a tough world, you had to get results.” It is exactly this world that her serial character Annika Bengtzon inhabits. And as International best seller Karin Slaughter said “The insider’s look at the development of a news story and the progress of an investigation is dead-on. They give Liza’s work a vivid intensity that makes the reader feel as if they are looking over Annika’s shoulder.”
Like Annika Bengtzon, Marklund is totally focused on the story when she’s writing. She told me “I want to keep it all in my head, and for that I need to concentrate. I write twelve hours a day – starting around 10am and finishing at 10pm. It takes me around five months to write each book and by the end I know the script by heart. I do all the research first – a huge amount of research, and write a detailed plan of how each chapter will play out. I use loads of notes and post-its, but often when I research, I write up my findings in the form of a dialogue between characters.
‘My editor has been a friend since my days in journalism, and she reads the first draft. It might need a couple of days of polishing, of rewriting, but when I deliver it, it’s proofed and ready to go.”
Marklund makes a point of visiting every location she writes about, “I want to get a feel for the place, use the vocabulary of the inhabitants. I’ve just come back from Africa researching my next book that is set on the Somalia/Kenyan border. We flew over the refugee camps, it’s a hell hole. But famine isn’t new to Somalia, and it’s not its only problem – they haven’t had a stable government since 1981. One of the biggest problems is that there are no trees left northern Kenya – deforestation by war loads means that the soil is infertile and unstable, it’s impossible to plant crops. We could clearly see that from the air.” Marklund is a UNICEF Ambassador and with family interests in Kenya, she understands the situation better than most. As her earlier books testify, she has had a long interest in issues related to human rights.
Getting her foot into the industry with two non-fiction books that focused on a woman who had suffered horrific domestic abuse, has given Marklund huge insight how it feels to be a victim of crime, and this comes through in her work at every level.
A campaigner against domestic abuse, Marklund was a close friend of the murdered Swedish government minister Anna Lindh and recently presented a scholarship on behalf of the Anna Lindh Memorial Fund to Anna Thunes, a driving spirit in the struggle against domestic violence.
Marklund told me, “I couldn’t write for three years after Anna was killed. I think crime fiction is only read by people untouched by crime – if you experience it, you don’t want to read or write about it. In really violent countries like South America and Africa, there are no crime writers, there’s very little crime read. You need to have a peaceful society for people to appreciate fictional violence. You need to have a stable democracy for crime, which is why Scandinavia is such a popular backdrop for crime novels. It is the most peaceful society on earth; we’ve had peace since 1807 when Russia took Finland. We like to think that the reason the rest of the world has problems is because they are not Swedish!”
This market knowledge, understanding your reader, is without doubt one of Marklund’s strengths as a writer. She knows exactly how to write a tabloid headline to grab a reader passing the news stand, and she uses the same techniques in her books. She told me “When I quit an important job to write crime novels in my bedroom, people thought I couldn’t be that stupid. But writing is one of the most satisfying careers. You are your own boss, have your own time.” After being on call 24/7 in the newsroom, Marklund really appreciates the luxury of being able to organise her life around her work.
With such a successful publishing record, it is no surprise to learn that several of Marklund’s books have already made the transfer to film. The Bomber and Paradise, have been filmed in Swedish by the English director Colin Nutley, with actress Helena Bergström starring in the role as Annika Bengtzon in both movies. They premiered in 2001 and 2002.
In 2009, film and TV production company Yellow Bird bought the rights to adapt an additional six Annika Bengtzon novels for the screen: Studio 69, Prime Time, The Red Wolf, Nobel’s Last Will, Lifetime, and A Place in the Sun. Yellow Bird, part of the trans-European production and distribution group Zodiak Ent, produced the films based on Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, and the award-winning “Wallander” TV series, starring Kenneth Branagh. Like the Millennium trilogy, the total production budget for the series will be around SEK 100m (just under €10m). It won’t be long before Annika Bengtzon, and Liza Marklund are household names.
So what advice does Marklund have for aspiring crime writers? Leaning forward earnestly she told me:
- Write what you know
- Have a presence – be there – get deep into the being of your character
- Keep the same perspective (POV) throughout each scene
- Ban clichés from your work
- Be prepared to sit on your butt for a long long time, but
- Never give up…
And last but by no means least: keep everything.
Good advice indeed. When we met, I’d just finished reading Marklund’s Exposed and the night before had made the mistake of dipping into Prime Time, when I really should have been reading a proof copy of The Bomber in preparation for our interview. Now I’m enthralled by two books, and have no idea which to read first…