A year ago, October 15, 2010, this interview with Henning Mankell was posted on the blog. The author talks about the influences that led him to create Kurt Wallender. First came Wallender and after him the deluge of brilliant writers and engaging and engrossing characters. The interview took place in April, 2003.
Anyone who has missed Henning Mankell has missed one of the best police procedural series available. FACELESS KILLERS, DOGS OF RIGA, THE WHITE LIONESS, THE MAN WHO SMILED, SIDETRACKED, THE FIFTH WOMAN, ONE STEP BEHIND, FIREWALL, and THE TROUBLED MAN do not have to be read in order of publication but are better enjoyed if the reader can do so.
What do you have in common with Wallander?
We have three things in common. We were born in the same year, 1948. We are both very fond of Italian opera. And the third thing is that we work a lot. Besides that, I don’t think we would be good friends, because we are very different from each other.
Given that he’s not particularly your type, what makes him so beloved by his fans?
He is like the average man and woman. People are changing, for the better or for the worse. I think I managed to make his changes plausible, which makes people trust in him. And since he is worried about certain things in society, I think he also becomes a sort of spokesman for a lot of people’s worries.
One of your ambitions has been to show Wallander as a man who is always changing and never fixed. How has he evolved?
I’ll give you one example. After, I think, the third novel, I spoke with a friend who is a doctor. I asked her, what kind of disease would you give Wallander? She said immediately, diabetes, because of the way he’s living. He’s a little overweight and he doesn’t move around a lot. I thought about it and said, OK, I’ll give him diabetes. As a result he became even more popular. Can you imagine James Bond getting diabetes? Of course not! But Wallander is more like a real person. And what is true about human beings is that we’re always changing. This not only goes for our health or physical appearance; it also goes for our thoughts, which is the reason Wallander today is more radical than he was when I started to write the novels.
FIREWALL, which you wrote more than ten years ago, involves an assault on the European banking system. Clearly you perceived vulnerabilities that are now playing out in the world economy. Could you comment on that?
After that book had been published in Sweden, there was a professor who wrote an article protesting that what I wrote wouldn’t be possible. Then just two weeks after he produced that article, exactly the same thing happened in Finland. People say it’s very difficult to talk about the future, but I don’t believe that. Naturally, you cannot say whether there will be a natural catastrophe or a terrorist attack or such things. But there are so many things that you can predict, if you sit down and think a little. I must say that I wasn’t all that surprised when we had this big financial crisis, since everything was building up for it during the last few years.
Your series of Wallander novels ended a few years ago with the ninth book. Will you ever write another Wallander novel?
Actually there is going to be one more. It was a secret until just a few days ago. But now it’s official. I can’t tell you anything about it, but I can tell you that I have just finished it.
The Sweden of the Wallander books is a more troubled place than many Americans may have thought. What would you like your U.S. audience to know about your country?
For many years now there has been a sort of mythological image of Sweden that was not created by us but by you. Sweden has always been, yes, a decent society, but also society with many kinds of problems. Even the Swedish sun has its dark side.
Why did you choose the small port city of Ystad as the settings for the stories?
If I had been in the United States, I would have chosen a border city like Brownsville, Texas. Border cities have a special dynamism because of all the different people who meet there. You have to remember that Ystad is in the southern part of Sweden on the Baltic Sea, which is like the Rio Grande between us and the continent. Another reason I chose Ystad is that about twenty years ago, when I started to write about Wallander, something very unfortunate was happening in Sweden. It became possible to buy any kind of drugs in Ystad that before you could only get in big cities like Copenhagen. The difference between the small city and the big city disappeared, and I wanted to show that development.
There seems to be a boom in Scandinavian mysteries these days. What makes the region such a hotbed for crime writers?
It’s just a coincidence really. In Sweden many years ago we had a couple called Sjöwall and Wahlöö, who were very successful crime writers. Later on I started to write, and I became very successful. And you know the old saying, nothing succeeds like success. If you remember when Björn Borg started to become a tennis star, suddenly other great players turned up in Sweden, like Mats Wilander and Stefan Edberg. Obviously, this is connected in a way, because everyone started to play tennis in this bloody country! So maybe I have been a sort of inspiration for other mystery writers. But besides that it’s purely coincidental.
Your father was a judge and as a child your family lived above his courtroom. How did that influence you?
As a child I learned a sincere and profound respect for the system of justice. It is a serious matter when people are doing things wrong; there must be a reaction to that. On the other hand, until proven guilty, someone should be looked upon as innocent. Then when I became a little older, I saw the connection between the system of justice and democracy. If one doesn’t work, neither can the other. It’s as simple as that. I have put this idea between the lines in all the novels that I’ve written about Wallander.
You come from a long line of musicians. How has passion for music affected your writing?
I believe that every artist, whether he or she is in theater, film, or writing, wanted in the beginning to become a musician. That is my secret theory. In my case it’s true. I was supposed to be a musician, just like my brother. But I felt that I would never be good enough at an instrument. So I chose another instrument, and that was writing. When I write, I believe that there must be some kind of musicality for the reader. There must be a rhythm in the pages. On the other hand, I wouldn’t be able to write anything if I listened to music while I’m writing. That’s not possible.
You’ve said that Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea is the book that made you want to be a writer. When did you first read it? Did the old man’s struggle in the book influence your creation of the complicated, struggling Wallander?
I think Hemingway got the Nobel Prize in 1954. At that time I was six years old, and I asked my grandmother to read The Old Man and the Sea for me. She said, but you’re too small! And I said, I want you to read it anyhow. So she read it, and I probably didn’t understand very much of it. But what I understood was that it was a marvelous story about a very simple, very lonely old man fighting with a big fish. I thought it was tremendous. I can still remember where we sat. When I reread the book today, I hear her voice reading it for me. That book had a tremendous impact on me.
In terms of Wallander, I’m tempted now to say yes, but that wouldn’t be true. Naturally there are always secret inspirations that you carry around that you don’t know about. But I don’t think that there is any brotherhood between the character in The Old Man and the Sea and the Wallander character. It is a very interesting idea though.
What writers have had the greatest influence on you?
Naturally there are many writers that have been important to me. But when you talk about the Wallander series, I would mention two American authors: one very old one, Edgar Allan Poe, and then Thomas Harris, the author of the Hannibal novels. Besides these two, I would like to mention John le Carré.