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Tove Alsterdal: “We take charge of our lives, we move on!”

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On an impulse, I sent an email for interview to Tove Alsterdal and I felt surprised (again) of how receptive and approachable are certain people who although being famous for their work they have no sign of pomposity and I felt a certain amount of hope that everything may turn out better after all – for everyone-! Her book, “Women on the beach”, is a police noir- international best seller and talks about an issue that distress us a lot the last years -especially the last couple of months- the sociopolitical phenomenon of “illegal” immigration. At least as far as I am concerned “Women on the Beach” urged me to learn a little bit more about the cruel reality that illegal immigrants have to face.

Have you wanted to become a writer from an early age, or was it something that you decided later on in your life? 

Yes, I’ve always wanted to become a journalist and an author. I worked in the theatre and at a psychiatric asylum for a while before I went into journalism – the latter will come back in my next novel! After some years at a TV’s news desk, I became frustrated with the shallowness of daily news, trying to explain the world in two minutes, and started to write plays for stage, radio, and film. 

Do you find a lot of difficulties while writing a book or it comes out instictively?

Do you decide from the beginning the development of the story and the characters as well as the ending of your novel? 

At first, my debute novel “Women on the beach”, was an idea for a film, but all the producers said it was to be too expensive as it takes place in six countries. As I really wanted to tell the story, I decided to write a novel instead (which is now adapted into a film!)

 It’s never easy for me to write novels, and gets harder with each book. The more I learn, the more complicated it gets. I do a lot of research and structuring before I begin to write, but that’s also due to the character of my stories. I base them a lot on reality and they always take place in several countries. I would lose track if I didn’t have a map. 

The three main characters in the book “Women on the beach” are all women. However, you chose for the main character, Ally, to narrate her story in the first person, while we learn about the other two women in the third person… Is there a specific purpose in this choice? 

I started to write all three women in the third person but got a bit tired of the word “she”. That’s why I decided to make Ally into an “I”. Also, she lives in New York, and I wanted to draw her closer to myself and the readers in Sweden, (I didn’t know then that I would have readers as far away as Japan and China). I felt that to write her in the first person reduced the distance. 

The book was first published in 2009. The stories are based on real facts during a time where this kind of exodus had already become a socio-political, historical phenomenon. Six years later, in 2015, we are witnessing this phenomenon in massive proportions due to the wars in the Middle East; Greece is considered a passage by hundreds of thousands of people who currently can not make it to the other side and find themselves trapped in a country that has been suffering its own deep crisis. Do you think that the book is still relevant to this type of massive migration or has the situation changed significantly? 

When I started to research the novel, almost ten years ago, I never thought the situation would become so much worse. At the moment I am updating a few things, as the smuggling routes, for the English version and the film script, but the essence of the story, which is a story about the value of a human life, is still just as relevant – or even more so! 

All the central characters in your book are women, and the figures around them setting in motion the stories are also women. Is this a conscious choice based on your affinity with their gender and their experiences? 

Ever since I started to write plays for the stage, my main characters have always been women. In the history of theatre and literature, female characters are often the wives or mistresses of the main, male characters. I believe that women embody the large questions of life just as well as a Hamlet or a King Lear. 

Two of your main characters are women who are experiencing a “nomadic existence”. The concept of the woman-nomad is central in the philosophy of Rosi Braidotti. Are you in touch with current strands of feminist critical theory? 

No, sorry, I had to google her! But as women are my main characters and nomadism and migration are themes in almost all of my stories, the female nomads tend to appear rather often. And back to the history of theatre again –women in classic works often sit at home and wait for someone to take them to Moscow (Three Sisters) or for their man to come home, like in the Odyssey. In my family, women have never been sitting still, waiting like that. We take charge of our lives, we move on!

How difficult was the research for you in order to write the book, and how long did it take? Did you face any political impediments during the research? 

As it was my first novel, I worked on it for several years, and it’s hard to say how much of the time was research. I always read all the books and reports I can find, and I travel to all the places. I didn’t go out in the sea on a rubber boat though, I have kids, and need to come home from work, but all the other roads in the novel I have walked, up and down.

In the Scandinavian countries the kind of literature that seems to be prevalent and therefore internationally known and recognized is the detective-noir genre. Do you agree with this observation, and, if not, are there any authors that we should know about? Why is it in your opinion that we don’t know about them? 

It’s true that the Swedish noir is huge in a lot of countries. There are many analyses to why

–maybe because they describe how this ideal society is falling apart, or due to our strong female contemporary characters, like Lisbeth Salander in the Stieg Larsson novels. Swedes are also very collective as a people –when someone makes a success everyone wants to do the same. We all started to play tennis when Bjorn Borg had his heyday, and became an expanding pop nation in the footsteps of ABBA. 

But of course Swedes write other stuff than detective stories. I don’t know what’s translated into Greek, but if you find a novel by for example PO Enquist, Kerstin Ekman, or Lena Andersson, I would certainly recommended it! 

Is your next book based on similar sociopolitical phenomena of our times? 

I’ve written two more novels after “Women on the beach”. “Tomb of silence” takes place in the north of Sweden and Russia, and is about people who migrated from the West to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, to build what they thought was to become a new paradise. One of them was a cousin of my mother’s who was executed during the Stalin era. The latest novel, “Let me take your hand”, stretches from the Stockholm suburb where I grew up, to Argentina in the 1970s. So, they all deal with political and social issues, but at the same time they are family dramas, or psychological thrillers. So I guess the answer is yes, and no.


Interview: Eleni Mark

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