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interview

The Man Who Never Slept

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Stieg Larsson’s biographer reveals the formidable journalist behind the man who wrote the crime thriller of the millennium, and the children’s book character which inspired the sketch of the girl with the dragon tattoo.

Early this millennium, a Swedish workaholic journalist called Stieg Larsson was writing late into the night to finish a series of crime fiction books. His retirement fund, he would say. But Larsson died even before the first book, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, was published. Before his retirement fund sold over 30 million copies worldwide, language rights were sold in 41 territories and the books became a global cultural phenomenon. But nobody really got to know the man who wrote the books and dreamt up the unforgettable Lisbeth Salander (the Elizabeth Bennett of this century?). The first official biography, Stieg Larsson: The Man, The Journalist, The Author, will be published this summer. In an interview, biographer Jan-Erik Pettersson, who knew Larsson personally, tells us about the man who never went to sleep.

Q How did you meet Stieg Larsson? What kind of a man was he?

A I was the publisher of a book by him and his Expo [the magazine of which Larsson was publisher/editor] colleague Mikael Ekman when I was working at Ordfront. The book was about the extreme right-wing party Sverigedemokraterna (Sweden Democrats).

My impression is that he was a rather cool, laidback person with enormous knowledge about the subject that was his speciality—the extreme right.

Q We’ve read that he lived on coffee, cigarettes and junk food. And that he never exercised in his life. Was he as indisciplined as he sounds?

A No, he was extremely disciplined. But obviously, he didn’t really take care of himself. He was too focused on what he saw as his object.

Q Well, writing these books while running his magazine must have taken some serious discipline.

A He was a typical workaholic. He said that he wrote his novels at night because he didn’t need much sleep. He also said in his last interview that it was easy to write crime fiction compared to magazine articles, since you didn’t have to check facts all the time. Writing novels was obviously something he did for pleasure.

Q His death was sudden. And there are a number of conspiracy theories now. Do you think there is any truth to them?

A If you mean theories saying that he didn’t die, that he is still alive, well, of course, I don’t believe in such nonsense.

Q How did you go about researching this book? Who are the people you spoke with? Did you speak with his estranged father and brother?

A I talked to a number of persons, read his books, his articles and a lot of books and other material connected with his life and times. Yes, I have also met his father and brother.

Q How would you rate Stieg Larsson’s work as a journalist? What are the big stories he did?

A Most of his journalistic work was about extreme right-wing parties, racists and so forth. He was the foremost expert on this subject in the country. And that’s also what Expo deals with. His journalism is, for the most part, extremely packed with facts. The subject speaks and the writer holds back.

Q Does Expo continue to print now? Who runs it?

A Yes, definitely. It’s run by a non-profit foundation with different sponsors.

Q We’ve read that Larsson did not get along with his father and brother. And his vast fortune, earned posthumously, has not gone to his partner of 30 years, Eva Gabrielsson, but to his father and brother. What is the history of the discord?

A I don’t think there is much of a history there. His parents were young when they had him. They were living in a rented room at that time and couldn’t take care of him. So, for the first eight years of his life, he lived with his maternal grandparents. Then he lived in his parents’ home in Umeå. But he was always a very independent sort of person, so he moved to a rented room of his own when he was just in his teens and then moved to Stockholm when he was 22.

Q What is the status of the case between his girlfriend Eva Gabrielsson and his father and brother?

A The disagreement between them still goes on.

Q It is said that his girlfriend has his laptop. And that it may contain the manuscript for a fourth, even fifth, novel. Is this true?

A There are perhaps 150-200 pages of a new novel. I don’t actually know where the laptop is. It’s a well-kept secret.

Q British journalist Christopher Hitchens mentioned that Larsson modelled Lisbeth Salander, the main character of the novels, on his niece Therese. These are Hitchens’ words in the magazine Vanity Fair: ‘According to Larsson’s father, the sympathy with which ‘the girl’ is evoked is derived partly from the author’s own beloved niece, Therese, who is tattooed and has suffered from anorexia and dyslexia but can fix your computer problems.’ What are your thoughts on Hitchens’ contention?

A I think maybe Hitchens got this idea from Erland, Stieg’s father, because I know that he phoned him. It was at about the same time I was visiting him in Umeå. I think it’s difficult to find a specific real-life model for a literary figure like that. It may well be that he has borrowed traits from specific individuals, but I don’t want to confirm speculations about Salander’s identity, and I don’t think that an author works like that.

Q Can you share some anecdotes from his life?

A As for anecdotes, no. I don’t want to because it would look strange in connection with a book that is not about the private life of Stieg Larsson. It’s much more factual and political.

I think the best story, not anecdote—though it’s not a new one—is how the Salander figure was invented. Stieg and his friend and work-mate at the news agency TT, Kenneth Ahlborn, were talking about old children’s books’ figures, and they were making up fantasies about their lives as grown-ups. And Stieg was absolutely sure that he would like to write a book about Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking [a nine-year-old girl with fiery red pigtails and coarse manners, the worst of which she usually reserves for pompous adults] and what would happen to her when she was 20-something. Probably it wouldn’t be a very nice story—she would be treated as someone with mental problems, locked in an institution and so forth.

Many years later, Ahlborn met Stieg (it was just a month or so before his death), and Stieg said he had written that book about Pippi and it was going to be published. Ahlborn thought he was joking, but then understood it was true. So if you want to know who Salander is, you should read Pippi Longstocking since that’s the most important model. Though the Millennium Trilogy is a much darker story.