The main theatre was full as people waited for Ian Rankin to interview Maj Sjowall.
Ian Rankin opened the event by thanking the audience for coming and gave us a brief introduction to Maj Sjowall..
Maj published the first book in the Martin Beck series in 1965. Maj and her husband Per first started talking about the concept for the books in 1963. Maj described how crime fiction is a good genre to describe society at the time you are writing. It describes our society and our time.
Maj told us how her and her husband had the idea of it the first novel was well received, then they wanted to release 10, to represent 10 years. This was used to describe a era of Sweden through crime and police work. Overall this series of book started a new kind of genre.
The Laughing Policeman was the first foreign language book to win the Edgar award. It was extremely well received in America.
All the books within the series, if read quickly read like one big book. Maj stated that this was done on purpose, one book but with 300 chapters. All books have 30 chapters, except from two, one which has 29 and one which has 28.
All the books within the series where written at night time as both writers were night owls. Her husband was a journalist during the daytime and extremely practical if you have children. Everything was done together, the characters and the basic plot was thought out before they began writing. They wrote long-handed, one at each end of the table. If Per started writing chapter 1 then Maj would start on chapter 2. They would then type up each others chapters the next night, in order to get a feel of what the other has written and a chance for some editing.
Ian then asked if Maj read crime fiction herself?
Her answer was surprising, not really read a lot of crime fiction. However when they became published in America, they started getting compared to McBain the both read his novels to see if they could see the similarities. This led to Maj suggesting to her publisher that they should buy the Swedish rights to McBain’s books. This then led to Maj translating 12 of McBain’s novels into Swedish.
The books are labelled as the Martin Beck’s Books however this is not a accurate description. Maj says that this was done by the publisher and the bookshops as they have a need for all books to have a single hero. This was an aspect that Maj was not happy with as she wanted multiple heroes in the series, not one single detective being the hero of every plotline. All the characters have to led their own lives and become heroes of their own story.
Ian then introduced the point that Maj is ultimately to blame for the popular Scandinavian fiction that we are seeing. However you books have heavily influenced writers such as Mankell, does this make you feel proud?
Maj says she finds the majority of them boring as they are all writing the same kind of novel. All the young Scandinavian writers are heavily influenced by Hollywood not socialism. This is mainly done so they can be translated into other language more easily and make them more available to a world audience. The genre has seem to become less about the police work and more about the relationships these people develop. This was not allowed in the 60s when Maj and Per were writing their novels.
In all Maj’s novels the person committing the crime is the ultimately the main victim in all the books. This is done in purpose as they are the victim, as they are being badly treated by society.
Maj is famed in Sweden as being a translator, Ian asked if she has ever checked the translations of her books to see how accurate they are?
She replied that she would find the idea boring and best left alone. As ultimately she will find things that she wanted to change. Translation is an art and it is the translators job to find the voice of the writer. Their job is to find the writer’s music and translate this to the world.
Time for some audience questions.
Do you feel like you have missed out on success? With the success of young Scandinavian writers’.
No, when Maj was writing people were not interested in writers. The writers wrote books, the publishers published books and you hardly ever saw a picture of them. Today writers are like film stars and Ian described Maj as an ageing rock star.
How did the Swedish police react to the books, when they were first published?
They didn’t react much, at the time the police was very closed and the novels didn’t receive much criticism.
What did writing as a collaboration bring to you as a writer?
It is not so common nowadays for writers to collaborate. Writing can be the most lonely work in the world. Ian says it is amazing that you can not see the join. You develop a new writing style and try to write in the same way.
The last question was from Ian, are you retired or do you still write or work as a translator?
The Martin Beck series was finished by book 10 and there was no need to continue it or resurrect the characters. Ultimately she misses the character but they would be very old now and she does wonder why they never call her.
Maj does still write but she doesn’t want her work to be published. She writes for herself and not for anyone else. She doesn’t want to be part of the writer circus that is evident nowadays.
With that final thought a very interesting hour was brought to a close. It was an absolute treat to hear Maj speak about her works, she is ultimately the original Queen of Scandinavian fiction.