author of Quicksand
Other Press: How did you come up with the idea for Quicksand, and for the character of Maja? Did you have any difficulty getting into her head or creating her voice?
Malin Persson Giolito: I have known for a long time, in that strange mysterious way writers “know” things, that I wanted to write about a school shooting. A tragedy, so tragic that it was like something out of the Old Testament, or one of those eight-hour Shakespeare plays that I liked to watch when I was a teenager. I wanted that. Pitch black. However, when I sat down to start writing, I realized that it was impossible. Who would want to read such a thing? Until Maja came. Cynical, funny, desperate, unhappy, lovely, obnoxious Maja… And how she came to me? I have no idea. But it is her story, so much hers, she is much more important to this story than any crime, and I realized along the way that it was her and her friends I wanted to write about.
I want to say that Maja was the easiest part, but it took a very long time to make her mine. I worked for four years with this novel and I really worked. “How many words do you actually need in your book, Mummy? More than a billion?” was one of many skeptical questions from my youngest. I approached Maja through her friends, her parents, her sister, and the tragedy of course. But when I started hearing her voice, I couldn’t turn it off. She accompanied me everywhere, and watched me and my life, my double standards, my friends… Maja’s voice worked in many ways as a comic relief for me as a writer, but it was also quite an annoying companion.
OP: You’ve said before that Quicksand is “Maja’s book.” Why did you choose to have her be the only narrator? Was there a point during your writing process when you had another or additional narrators?
MPG: It was a huge technical challenge for me as a writer. That motivated me and it frightened me, which triggered me even more. It is hard to write suspense without changing perspectives when pushing the story forward. I wanted to see if I was capable. But for a long time I had my doubts. So I wrote long sections, I think a couple of hundred pages from the lawyer’s perspective, and I also tried a few chapters with the other main characters, like Maja’s mom, and the other two lawyers. Once I had gotten that out of my system, I could go back to Maja. To keep it with Maja makes it so much more intense, to let her be the master of her story. Everything that interfered with that just made the story weaker. And not only from a literary perspective. She is a good narrator. Honest, unsure, unhappy and, yes, I keep repeating myself: funny.
OP: This past year Quicksand won the Swedish Crime Writers’ Academy Award for Best Swedish Crime Novel, and it’s the first of your novels to be translated into English, as well as several other languages. How has Quicksand changed your life as a writer?
MPG: I think that the first thing everyone—not only my husband—thinks is that it has changed my life economically, and it has. I actually stopped working as a lawyer before the success—with some hesitation, because I like economic security, pension rights, and all that. Now I don’t have to worry for a few years. But to be honest, the big difference is something else. The massive support from my agent and my publisher, the critics’ praise, the prizes, and all that have given me a higher status as a writer. To be taken seriously is very nice. I hope, and I think, it will give me more courage as a writer. Everyone keeps asking if I will be blocked by the success and have a hard time writing the next. I think (and I really hope I am right) that I have been freed to do what I have always wanted to do: write my own stories the way I want to write them.
OP: How did being a lawyer help you write this novel?
MPG: Well, to be passionate about the court, about the process of law, that helps if you want to transmit the sense that it is not too boring to follow a court procedure from beginning to end. And it helps to dig where you stand… Is that a Swedish saying? If so, I am sure you have something similar. But it can also be a disadvantage if you write too close to home. I have a different view on the law than non-lawyers; it is like my religion, I don’t question my ten commandments. But Maja does. Maja has kept this from becoming a lawyer’s story and she has made it into something bigger.
OP: The story you craft in Quicksand profoundly resonates with contemporary American audiences. It explores subjects one normally doesn’t associate with Sweden, such as race, gender relations, and immigration. Were you aware of how universal Maja’s story would be when you were writing it? Do you think with your novel you’re bringing a fresh understanding of contemporary Sweden?
MPG: It is not a surprise to me that we—Americans and Europeans— share more problems than either one of us likes to admit, one of them being that we like to blame immigration for injustices that have other causes. But still, that so many people can relate to the story is one of the things that has surprised me the most. Maja lives in the rich suburb were I grew up, and I wanted to put that in a larger context in order to put light on injustices that have bothered me since I was a kid and that have become far worse in recent years. But it could have been seen as just a story about the young, rich, and fabulous. I am so happy that it isn’t. We need to talk about structural injustices. But do I want to bring a fresh understanding of contemporary Sweden? Quicksand is not a political book unless the readers make it political. And if the readers do, I hope it makes them look at themselves more than at Sweden.
OP: Is there anything you’d like your readers to take away from Quicksand?
MPG: That is such a difficult question. I could say that I want readers to think about equality, or what justice means in reality, but at the same time I don’t think that good books make you realize things that fit on a Hallmark card. Really good books can make you question yourself but without you being aware of it. I want my readers to think about my book after having finished it. They can think what they want, but if they think, that proves the story worked.
OP: Many authors have quirks to help them write. Do you have any? Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
MPG: Lawyers often overcharge for advice that is absolutely useless. Are you really sure you want to ask me that?