In “As You Would Have Told It to Me (Sort Of) If We Had Known Each
Other Before You
Died
,”
your story in this week’s issue, a man is sitting at home watching TV
when the police show up at his door and arrest him. Naturally, he
thinks—or he tells us he thinks—that it’s a joke. Specifically, he
thinks that it’s an elaborate prank
by some close friends who are
throwing him a bachelor party. As the events continue—a trip to the
police station, the trial, conviction, lengthy jail sentence—he
maintains that he knows this is all a joke. The story is both very
funny and, in the end, slightly tragic. Did the idea for the story start
with comedy or drama?

Yes. Both. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of time in libraries. One day
I found a novel about a weird dude who thought he was a knight and
wanted to fight windmills. The feeling was that I had struck gold. I was
hypnotized by the book. There was something about the mix of sadness and
humor that rang true to me. Was “Don Quixote” funny or tragic? Yes.
Both. And, to this day, I find a lot of inspiration in stories that are
difficult to locate on a comedy-tragedy scale. Amy Hempel, George
Saunders, and Kendrick Lamar are all great writers, who skillfully
balance tragedy with humor. Maybe I am extra-drawn to these
storytellers, since I grew up in a home where jokes and puns were
constantly used as shields. To deny that life is both comedic and
tragic—often at the same time—would feel false, and I always aim for
honesty when I write.

One of the comedic aspects of the story is the narrator’s purported
slight disappointment in the details of the supposed prank that are
slightly off. He’s grateful for his friends’ elaborate efforts, but he
finds fault with the surroundings: “Not to sound ungrateful, but here it
was obvious that Miro and the gang had. How should I put it? Been a
little stingy.” He sounds like a guy who’s watched a lot of police
dramas on TV. In writing the story, how conscious were you of the line
between trying to inhabit a real police station, or a real courtroom,
and representations of these settings in popular culture?

Very. One interesting consequence of being a teen-ager, and discovering
that I could transform my memories into words, was that I could stop
being present. Whenever I was in a situation in life where I couldn’t
control myself or my surroundings, my words came to the rescue. I would
imagine that this world full of patriarchy, homophobia, racism, and
general distrust of people who don’t conform to norms was all a big
fiction. The main character in this story does something similar. In the
hope of keeping reality at a distance, he focuses on the small details
that (according to him) show that his experiences are not threatening
but, rather, part of an illusion, a bachelor party created by his dear
friend Miro. He keeps dreaming that, one day, the cell door will open
and Miro will stand there waiting. The problem is that Miro never comes.
And the narrator seems incapable of taking responsibility for his life
and actions, until it is too late. Paradoxically, something similar
happens to the writer of the story.

Toward the end, the story flips itself inside out. The person we had
assumed was the narrator turns out not to be. Instead, the story seems
to become a meditation on authorial responsibility, on what writers owe
to their characters, both real-life and fictional. Is this how you think
about the ending? And was that intention there from the beginning, or
did it come to you during the writing and revision process?

When I was writing both this story and my latest novel, I thought a lot
about how we remember people who have passed away. What kind of memories
do we cling on to? And which recollections do we actively try to forget?
Whenever I have lost someone, my first impulse has been to try to
collect all my memories of that person and write them down. Almost as if
in a naïve attempt to render them immortal. But often I have sensed that
the memories I choose to write down say more about who I am than about
the person who has passed away. In this specific story, we meet a
narrator who has become a fictional character against his will. And it
is not until the end that we understand why he is rebelling against this
version of his life.

Besides writing novels and stories, you’re a well-known playwright.
What does the stage offer that fiction writing can’t, for you?

Theatre offers bodies. The intimacy of the book turns into a collective
experience when you see something on a stage. The story is being told by
actual tongues, people who have hair-dos and accents and voices of their
own. In theatre, we can control the speed of the narration. We can add
music. We can kidnap the audience and create situations where the
viewers are forced to react. This kind of physical interaction is
trickier to create in a novel. The stage also offers forgetfulness. The
liberty of amnesia. Did you see that play that was running in the
nineties? Well, sort of. Maybe. Not sure. Do you remember that book I
lent you in the nineties? Well, of course, I have it on my bookshelf,
let me go get it right now. Books offer permanence. Words outlive
bodies. And the form that has influenced me the most is definitely the
novel.

In the United States, the Swedish fiction that is most familiar to
readers tends to be crime fiction, from Sjöwall and Wahlöö’s “
Martin
Beck
” novels,
of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, to Stieg
Larsson’s “
Millennium
trilogy. But there’s also, of course, a large number of fiction writers
whose work doesn’t focus on crime. Who are some of your favorite Swedish
writers whose work deserves to be better known internationally, both
past and present?

In my bookshelf, I have a specific corner for books that I would have
loved to have written myself, a.k.a. books that are too powerful to read
when I am deep into a project, a.k.a. books that are so influential that
they must be handled with care (and spread to everyone). Next to the
usual suspects (Nabokov, Duras, Cortázar, Faulkner), there are Swedish
books like “Nedstörtad Ängel” (“Downfall”), by the grand master P.O.
Enquist; “Drömfakulteten” (“The Dream Faculty”), by Sara Stridsberg;
“Vitsvit” (“White
Blight
”), by
Athena Farrokhzad; and “Allt” (“Everything”), by Martina Lowden. There
are also multiple books by Stig Dagerman, an amazing writer who died at
the age of thirty-one but whose novels and short
stories
will outlive us all. A personal favorite of mine is the unfinished
manuscript “Tusen År hos Gud” (“A Thousand Years With God”), which
features a confrontation between Isaac Newton and God, who has decided
to abolish the laws of gravity. Read it and get ready for takeoff—your
eyes will never be the same again.

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