The Girl in the Spider’s Web

The Girl in the Spider’s Web

Event: The Girl in the Spider’s Web – David Lagercrantz with Mark Lawson

Venue: Foyles, Charing Cross Road

Report by Alex Masters

Cameramen lunge silently from the side of the room. Audience members raise their phones in camera-mode above people’s heads as David Lagercrantz walks onto the stage. This is literary celebrity at its height.

It comes as little surprise given the recent furore over David Lagercrantz’ most recent novel, The Girl in the Spider’s Web – the much-discussed continuation of Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series.

David and Mark Lawson settle on the stage as a hush descends. ‘So’, Mark asks in a ‘Where do I start?’ tone, ‘What has life been like since the book?’

‘It’s surreal: I’m in emotional shock… it’s been crazy!’ David says emphatically. He smiles, hands raised dramatically. ‘I was on the top of the news: the scandalous writer being grilled.’ His Swedish accent hangs on to certain words to add to the drama. ‘It was very hostile. I was treated like a politician! I was accused of grave-robbing… everything!’ His exaggerations provoke much laughter.

He pauses and gives a wry smile. ‘I come from the wrong social class.’ ‘So, in Swedish terms, you’re posh?’ Mark asks, mirroring his tone. ‘Maybe I am,’ David says with a shrug. ‘But I can’t do anything about it. I’m working on it!’ He turns and grins at the audience. ‘I wanted to be an intellectual like my father. Then I wrote a snobby article and I was called the enemy of the people. Then the storm changed: there was even a hashtag #JeSuisDavidLagercrantz!’ He leans forward and touches Mark’s knee to emphasise his point.

David seems genuinely surprised by the public reaction. ‘We have the king, the prime minster and then [Swedish footballer] Zlatan Ibrahimović….we have six stories him about him every day!’ Indeed, David had co-written Zlatan’s autobiography, an amusing concept given he is hardly an expert on football. ‘I know everything about football!’ he says sarcastically, laughing. ‘Well, I did in the seventies!’ There are ripples of laughter. ‘I knew who he was,’ he asserts, then pauses. ‘Well I’d seen him on TV!’ One woman’s shoulders shake as she is taken by fits of giggles.

There is an irony in the fact that, unlike his father, David is not a keen polemicist. ‘My father was very controversial: he always wanted to be in a debate. I said: “Why do you do that all the time?” I wanted to be nice to everybody and now all this scandal! I’m treated like a politician!’

He also bemoans the fact that he ‘didn’t have the courage to be odd or eccentric’. He appears to be slightly in awe of the character of Lisbeth: ‘Ms Salander is my kind of character.’

Mark Lawson and the Extraordinary Yellow Socks,

Mark Lawson and the Extraordinary Yellow Socks.

Taking risks

Mark, whose bright yellow socks are more than distracting, especially given that they exactly match the cover of the book (was this a sartorial intention?), is intrigued by how David felt when he was first offered the prospect of writing the book. ‘I felt a fever,’ he says theatrically. ‘It was like falling in love, or worse. They [the publishers] were quite annoying. They wanted me to write a synopsis. I woke up at 4 a.m. the next day and knew I’d regret it my whole life [if I didn’t take the opportunity]. You grow when you take risks.’

Stepping directly into another writer’s shoes and inheriting their world and characters is a little-known and fascinating prospect. David explains that the one thing he had to avoid was pretending to be Stieg Larsson. ‘It must be my interpretation.’

Unsurprisingly, Sebastian Faulks is mentioned given that he famously wrote the James Bond continuation novel, Devil May Care. ‘Faulks was writing as Ian Flemming. Are you writing in someone else’s style?’ Mark wonders.

‘They used to say, as a teenager, “Be yourself.” What is that?’ David asks. ‘If I have any ability it is that I can write in different styles. My wife thought that writing in character was therapy… but maybe I’m best when I collide myself with my opposite.’

He explains how part of his inspiration came from Rain Man. ‘I was crazy about the film. There’s a part with the autistic boy and the traffic lights and it flashed to me – I had an idea: what if a guy like this witnesses something horrible like a murder? I wrote half a synopsis. I was in a state of nervous panic.’ He needn’t have worried. His publishers sent him a text in response: ‘So damn good!’

But the pressure remained. ‘Christ, I read them [Stieg Larsson’s books] over and over! I had the Stieg Larsson demon over me and my father telling me not to be a best-selling writer, to write quality. It scared the shit out of me. I still don’t sleep! Then I thought: “Stop it.” I said: “You’re a genius, Stieg Larsson, but now I have to go a bit crazy and feel it’s mine.”’ Mark, arms crossed, nods thoughtfully.

Iconic

One good thing that David feels happy about is that ‘I know for sure this is good for Stieg Larsson’s authorship.’ He continues: ‘His characters are getting more iconic. And we’re talking more about his real-life work fighting racism. For a legacy of Stieg Larsson I think this book does well. I respect that his death let his book rest in peace but I’ve never met a writer who wants his book to rest in peace!’ He pauses: ‘Apart from Kafka who asked: “Burn my books!” which is a shame they didn’t. He’s everywhere!’

Apparently Stieg had hoped to write ten novels. So, Mark wonders, have you signed up for more? ‘Yes,’ he says seriously, then pauses. ‘Seventy-five books.’ There is much laughter. I think the woman in the front row might have stopped breathing. ‘It’s very tempting but I don’t know anything yet. We will see. I would certainly think about it.

‘I like to be on insecure ground. I want to have new challenges… crazy things and new scandals… maybe I’m addicted to it now!’ His eyes sparkle as he scans the audience.

'I like to be on insecure ground.' David Lagercrantz

‘I like to be on insecure ground.’ David Lagercrantz

Neurotic

‘Is there any point,’ Mark asks, ‘Where you think: “I wish I’d never done this?”’ ‘I’m a very bipolar, neurotic person,’ David replies. ‘I feel deep depressions imagining I’d be disgraced by a whole nation… that Lisbeth would be after me!’ He looks reflective. ‘Being bipolar as a writer is quite good – you’re in a manic state. Depression…. it makes you doubt yourself and go back.’

‘We talk about writers with unusual minds,’ Marks says. ‘You’re one of those people.’ David throws back his head with laughter. ‘You’re flattering me! There are these romantic ideas of visions. It’s craftsmanship!’

It’s time to open up questions to the audience and, unsurprisingly, it seems that everyone has something to ask. One person asks how David negotiates writing for an international audience rather than Swedish. ‘I notice how bad the weather was all the time [in his book]. Do you feel bad about that?’

‘About the weather?’ David asks, now a comfortable comedian. ‘Yes. I’m sorry!’ There is much laughter. ‘The strange thing about fiction is we read about what we don’t want to experience in real life: that’s the paradox of fiction.’

Mark pushes the question: ‘You knew you would be published internationally. Stieg Larsson was writing for Sweden. Did you ever allow yourself to think of it being translated around the world?’ ‘I can’t help it,’ David admits. ‘But the global is in the local.’

‘If Stieg Larsson were alive today,’ another audience members asks, ‘what would he say?’ ‘It’s hard to speak for the dead,’ David replies. ‘Well, I suppose he’d be writing it!’ Mark points out, to everyone’s amusement.

‘I think about him a lot,’ David says. ‘These sadly posthumously famous people… Stieg was fighting this war against intolerance.’ He addresses Stieg: ‘Now you’re a legend. We’re discussing you. I’d certainly like to show him what a big guy he’s become.’

‘How did you feel about writing the character of Lisbeth?’ another asks. ‘A reporter was annoyed that she turned up so late [in the book],’ David explains. ‘I said that had been my plan for drama but in truth I was scared to death to write about her! Like all superheroes she had a mythology. I saw something new in her and then she started to live. I loved writing her and understood her. I can paint her; I know exactly how she looks!’ He stands and offers to paint an image of her on the back wall.

Book snob

Another wants to know what impression David had of the Stieg Larsson books ten years ago. ‘I have to admit I was a bit snobbish if everybody’s reading a book! I’d stick to Camus or Dostoyevsky. But after a while I couldn’t resist! It sort of hit me. Lisbeth hit me: she was in my subconscious; she’d come up in conversations. She changed crime fiction: we use to have a princess in a castle waiting to be rescued; Lisbeth refused to be a victim. I think she’s brilliant.’

There was a wonderful irony in the writing process. David had to write in conditions of extreme secrecy – and the computer had no internet connection. ‘A real Lisbeth Salander could have been out there! We used code words… there is a kind of paradox writing a spy novel and living in that world. We did our best to keep it secret. I think we did well!’

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3 Comments

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