John Ajvide Lindqvist interview
The author of Let The Right One In talks about his latest novel Harbour (out in paperback this week), his career as a comedian, and his love of Clive Barker
Last year, SFX talked to Swedish author John Ajvide Lindqvist (best known for vampire tale Let The Right One In) about his latest novel, Harbour. In this eerie tale (reviewed here), a six-year-old girl vanishes during a visit to a lighthouse. Two years later, her traumatised father begins to suspect he is being possessed by his daughter’s spirit… We didn’t have the space to fit all our discussion with Lindqvist into the mag, so here’s some choice snippets of the material that we didn’t have room for.
SFX: Let The Right One In concerned a vampire, and your second novel, Handling The Undead, was a different spin on zombies. Was that a deliberate approach, to take these classic monsters and reinvent them?
“Well it wasn’t, because when I started thinking about the story [for Let The Right One In] I wasn’t even sure that the ‘monster’, so to speak, was going to be a vampire, I just knew that something terrible from the other side would come to Blackeberg [the Stockholm suburb where Lindqvist grew up]. It was only when I realised, when I started writing the story, that the main character Oskar would befriend or even fall in love with this monster that I realised that this couldn’t be a werewolf or a blob from outer space or anything – a vampire was the best choice! And then I started to think very hard on how I was going to portray this vampire and what this was going to be, because I’m not a vampire kinda guy!”
SFX: You don’t wear black all the time, then?
“I don’t! Hawaii shorts a lot of the time, actually. I’m not into vampire movies or vampire books or anything, so I just took the very simple premise: okay, we have a child which has lived for a long time, and this child is smitten by a diseases more or less impelling this child to kill and drink other people’s blood in order to survive; what would life be for a child like that? And that was it. Whereas with Handling The Undead it was a basic premise for me from the beginning that I’m going to try to write a zombie story where the zombies are not aggressive, and what would drive the action if you don’t have that? And also to take into account the fact that’s sometimes done, but very seldomly, in zombie movies, that every zombie is always someone’s uncle, brother or father or brother. How would people react to their dream coming true once someone had died and they’re saying, ‘Please let this someone come back to me’? If he or she did, how would you react? So the basic premise for that book was: zombies, but not aggressive. And then I had to think up a storyline from that premise.”
SFX: You worked closely with director Tomas Alfredson on the original film of Let The Right One In. How did you decide between the two of you what material to leave out?
“Well for example, Hakan’s second life, so to speak [in the book, Eli's "guardian" is a paedophile, and survives being burned alive]… we realised very early on this cannot be done, so we will have to just cross out that part where he becomes a zombie, which is fine by me. We decided very early on that we were going to focus on the relationship between Oskar and Eli and that everything that didn’t somehow give or have anything to do directly to do with this story would have to go - for example, the subplot with Tommy and these teenagers stealing things. And we didn’t want any policemen in the film, so it was Oskar and Eli and everything else would have to be downsized. But we intended from the beginning to make two movies: a part one and a part two. So my first script was like, 250 pages long. Most of the big cuts of plotlines were made already at that time, when it turned out of course to be impossible to make two films. It wasn’t really difficult to shrink the story. Taking it from 240 to 110, that wasn’t so difficult, but it was these last pages, when I had it down to 110 pages and it had to go to 90, when I had to really remove small things. But apart from that it wasn’t really a difficult process, no. It surprised me when I read the 90-page screenplay through a few weeks after, and I thought, ‘Well, basically this is exactly the same story as the 240-page one. Everything that’s important in the story is still there.”
SFX: You weren’t involved with the American remake Let Me In, but I guess in a sense you are already used to letting others take over your work, when your books are translated into other languages.
“Yeah, true, and I’m not that kind of person… I haven’t read any of the foreign translations. I read, like, ten pages of the English one and saw that yeah, this is good, this is working, that’s fine, and then I’m okay with it. At a certain point you have to give up control, and I do this quite early because I don’t have time to delve into things already made. So I just keep my fingers crossed and hope for the best.”
SFX: When you’re writing about vampires and zombies you will inevitably get classified in the horror section of the book shop. Do you think of yourself as a horror writer?
“Yeah, I definitely do. I mean, it’s the genre I love. and all my ideas for things I want to write for years to come are in this genre. so if I’m considered – which I am, especially in Sweden – a ‘real writer’, a writer who can be given literary prizes and so on, that has come as a great surprise to me! I mean, I’m very, very happy with that, but primarily I am a horror writer. Yeah, I’m a horror writer!”
SFX: What were the things that inspired you or captured your imagination in terms of horror, when you were growing up. Was there anything in particular that made you think, “This is what I want to do”?
“Well y’know, it took me such a long time. When I was really heavily into horror from when I was 13 or 14 up till I was 20, I never really thought about writing or trying my hand at it myself. I wrote a lot of things for television, I wrote plays, I started writing novels and so on for many, many years, before actually coming to the idea of trying to write a horror story – I was 32 or something when I started writing Let The Right One In. But in the horror genre the thing that I think has been the most inspiring to me in that aspect would be Clive Barker’s tendency to side with the monster. Like the Cenobites in Hellraiser; they’re not just monsters, they are people who have taken a decision. I think it goes for a lot of his stories that he explains how people become monsters and why monsters are like people. This I find very attractive in his stories, and it also makes them very, very frightening. I think he is the writer who has the greatest capacity to scare that I know of, in the deepest sense.”
SFX: We gather that before you started writing novels you were a magician, and a comedian. Was the magic a full time occupation?
“No, it was on the side, but in the summers I worked a lot, in the street – it was street magic. Comedy was a release, because while doing magic I talked a lot more – said funny things and so on – than doing the magic, so when comedy came in it was, ‘Okay, I don’t have to do the magic, I can just talk!’ I worked as a professional comedian and that was my only occupation for 10, 12 years. My problem as a stand-up comedian was that I was impatient, I always wrote new material – if something didn’t really work I just threw it away and wrote something else instead of trying to work into it. So in the last years of my career I got most of my money for writing material for other people who were more famous than me. Very Ben Eltonish – he’s also written a lot of material for other comedians, hasn’t he?”
SFX: What kind of subject matter was your comedy about?
“Apart from the first few years it was a conscious decision that it wouldn’t have anything to do with sex, because that was worn out. A large part of my act was about Blackeberg, Blackeberg being portrayed as a very bizarre place, with bizarre occurrences, and telling about Blackeberg and how people were there. So I just continued in that strain when writing about my first novel, didn’t I?”
SFX: Speaking of Blackeberg, your books have a very strong sense of place. Is that something that’s important to you?
“Yes, it is. I try not to write about places that I don’t know, only places that I know intimately. Although with that said, Domoro [the island setting of Harbour] is a composite of this place where I live and some islands around here – it’s a composite of many islands. So I do feel I know Domoro, even though it doesn’t exist! Yeah, I have a very strong sense of place. Which is a problem, because I haven’t lived in so many places, so always when I have a new character coming up I start to think, ‘Okay, where he does he live? Hmm, Blackeberg… no, not Blackeberg again!’ And then I have to take some other suburb that I have visited a few times!”
SFX: Morrissey is obviously an important influence for you as well – the title of Let The Right One In came from a Morrissey song, and Harbour features a couple of ghostly characters who are constantly quoting Smiths lyrics.
“Well, did you recognise the quotes? The problem is we had this sort of a panic about the rights. In the Swedish version they literally quote everything – it’s just quoted but translated into Swedish – but we were not allowed by the rights holders to use the quotes in the English translation, otherwise they would have said exactly the lines from the songs. In the Swedish version, almost all their dialogue, apart from just a few lines, everything is quotes from Smiths songs, but we were not allowed to use this unfortunately, so I had to rewrite all of the dialogues so we were paraphrasing.”
SFX: Harbour is structured in an interesting way too, with lot of memories and stories and flashbacks. Was that something that you particularly wanted to play with?
“From the beginning I had decided I wanted to write a book that had a more epic, so to speak, tone, where you have a place and its whole history is affecting the present, beginning with this pact hundred of years ago… So yeah, I wanted this structure where I jumped back into older days to explain what’s happening now. This was very deliberate.”
SFX: Do you find yourself developing and changing as a writer? Are you finding yourself drawn to different types of storytelling, different images?
“Developing in a different direction. I think for better or for worse I tend to think in a more epic scale generally. The next book I’m writing, which will be called X – like X on a treasure seeker’s map – if my publishers allow it, will be a huge thing, going through what really is our place here on Earth. There’s going to be monsters – yes, there will be blood, and the feeling that I had when I was reading these really cheap horror stories when I was like 13/14/15 when I got bored with the classics, the things I know now are really bad were the ones that I enjoyed the most! So I try to retain that pulp feeling but within a more epic context. I think that Let The Right One In is my best story but Harbour is my best book and so I’m going more in the direction of Harbour generally.”
Harbour is now available in paperback, from Quercus.