10 Surprising Facts About Novelist Stieg Larsson
I'm a little embarrassed to admit it now, but when Stieg Larsson's The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo was released in the U.S. in 2008, I chose not to buy it, despite all the glowing newspaper reviews and the raves from friends who said it was the equal of Martin Cruz Smith's Gorky Park. I couldn't get my head around the idea of a detective novel set in Sweden, a nation I associated with strong coffee, lingonberry jam and difficult-to-assemble chairs from Ikea rather than grisly crimes, sordid secrets and suspense. After someone loaned me a copy, though, I belatedly enlisted in the legion of Larsson fans who made the late author's three novels -- and the movies based on them, including the current English-language version of Dragon Tattoo with Daniel Craig and Rooney Mara -- into an international phenomenon.
But after reading Jan-Erik Pettersson's Stieg Larsson: The Real Story of the Man Who Played With Fire, I no longer feel so foolish. Pettersson informs readers that an acquisitions editor at the Swedish publishing company to whom Larsson initially sent Dragon Tattoo and its sequel, The Girl Who Played With Fire, returned the manuscripts unread with a generic rejection letter attached. I'm guessing that unnamed editor has spent a lot of sleepless nights, mentally calculating the bonanza that he or she passed up. (According to Larsson's official website, his books have sold 63 million copies worldwide.)
Pettersson, himself a book editor who had published Larsson's nonfiction expose of Swedish hate groups in 2001, unfortunately isn't as skilled of a storyteller as his subject. The book is an odd blend of conventional biography and critical essay, and precious little in the way of juicy personal tidbits about the investigative journalist-turned-novelist who died of a heart attack in 2004 and never got to see the monster success of his novels. Instead, Pettersson spends a lot of time explaining Larsson's cultural and political back story -- the real-life Swedish cultural context, political scandals, and brutal crimes that inspired the Millennium trilogy. Pettersson does provide an intriguing glimpse into how Larsson actually worked as a writer and what he was trying to accomplish. If you're a fervent fan of the Swedish novelist -- and who isn't by now, honestly? -- knowing these things will make rereading the trilogy more meaningful and enjoyable.
Here's a taste of Pettersson's book: 10 things you may be surprised to learn about your favorite crime author.
1. Larsson's actual first name was Stig, not Stieg. He altered his first name when he was a teenager involved in leftist politics to avoid confusion with another local teen named Stig Larsson, who also happened to be an activist and, oddly, became a renowned Swedish novelist as well, long before the world had ever heard of Stieg Larsson.
2. Larsson had little formal education. He read voraciously, but only had a high school degree, and after graduation worked in blue-collar jobs and roamed Africa and the Caribbean as a backpacker and political activist, instead of enrolling in a college writing program. Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller would have been proud of him, though.
3. Larsson once taught an all-female squad of anti-government guerrillas in Eritrea how to fire mortars. He might look like a bespectacled intellectual in photographs, but Larsson -- like other Swedish men -- did compulsory service in the Swedish military and knew something about weapons. It came in handy when he went to the combat zone in Eritrea, then a rebellious breakaway province of Ethiopia, during the mid-1970s.
4. Larsson's first career was as a graphic artist. He got good grades in high school art class and managed to score a temporary job in 1979 as a clerk at TT, a Swedish news agency. He quickly established himself by putting his drawing skills to use in the then-new field of newspaper information graphics. Larsson went on to conceive and design a profitable line of folding pocket maps for his employer before his bosses noticed his lively, fact-laden intellect and gave him a shot as a feature writer.
5. Larsson was a huge science fiction buff. He served a term in 1980 as chairman of the Scandinavian Science Fiction Association. His favorite movie was Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey.
6. Larsson decided to write the Millennium trilogy as a retirement plan. He never made much money in his journalistic career and saved little of it. But, as he confided to a friend at one point, he wasn't worried because someday he was going to write a bunch of detective novels on the side and become a millionaire. What seemed like brash bravado turned out to be justified, but Larsson died of a heart attack at 50 before he got a chance to enjoy the mountain of money his books have made.
7. Larsson read American detective fiction, but only by women writers. This might have had something to do with his strong feminist leanings. One of his favorites was Sara Paretsky, the creator of tough, brainy Chicago private investigator V.I. Warshawski, whose dogged, methodical sleuthing bears similarities to Mikael Blomkvist's approach to ferreting out Harriet Vanger's secret story.
8. There really were a lot of home-grown Swedish Nazi wannabes during World War II. The fictional Richard Vanger, who joined Hitler's army, was based on a real Swedish fascist named Gosta Hallberg-Cuula, who joined up and got himself killed on the Russian front. Some Swedish Nazis were high-ranking officers in their nation's military and had their own concentration camps, in which they imprisoned leftists such as Larsson's grandfather.
9. Lisbeth Salander is based on Pippi Longstocking. It may seem hard to believe since the strong-willed, charmingly rebellious heroine of the children's novels by Astrid Lindgren has red pigtails, not a black-dyed Goth coiffure, and Pippi didn't hack into bad guys' computers, ride motorcycles or sport a pierced nose. But Larsson, who liked to refer to Lisbeth as his Pippi, had the genius to imagine a grittier, grown-up female rebel who embodied the same anarchistic spirit.
10. Just as it is in Larsson's books, being a Swedish journalist actually can be pretty dangerous in real life. Larsson himself was the subject of so many death threats that he wrote a manual on personal security for other reporters. They needed that sort of advice, as it turns out. In 1999, an investigative journalist named Peter Karlsson was seriously injured in a car bombing.
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