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‘In the dock’ with Johan Theorin

Our third featured author ‘In the Dock’ is Gothenberg-based author Johan Theorin.

Johan’s breakthrough came in 2009 when he won the CWA John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger for his first novel, Echoes from the Dead.

Johan’s first three books (Echoes from the Dead, The Darkest Room and The Quarry) are set on a Swedish island called Öland. With his latest novel set in the Swedish mainland, Johan explained to us the reasons for the change of scenery and we also that his story-telling started long before he could read or write…

Your first three books are set on the Swedish island of Öland. What is it about this place that inspired you to set them there?

Well, if Öland was a person it would have a split personality. In Sweden, the island is well-known as a popular summer place with lots of sun, sailing and sandy beaches. More than 200,000 tourists visit Öland in July and the Swedish royal family has a summer house on the west coast of the island. But the rest of the year very few people live there, and especially up in the north where I live there are many villages which are completely empty most of the year. These contrasts have always fascinated me, and in my novels I speculate about the sinister and spooky things that can take place in isolated villages during the winter on Öland.

And what made you move away from Öland for your new book, The Asylum, which is set on the mainland?

I just felt the need to write about something else than Öland. I had written three novels
and about ten short stories about Öland, and needed to take some time off from that island. Not as a person, mind you – I still go to Öland several times every year. But as a writer, I wanted to enter some unknown territory. A Hitchcock territory perhaps, where the reader couldn’t trust any character in the story.

Would you say that setting is more or less important than character in your books?

The setting is a character in my novels. Almost, at least. I try to make the setting feel just as convincing and ‘alive’ as the characters, so that the readers feel they really have visited that place.

The Asylum has an extremely spooky setting – a nursery that is connected to a high-security prison for dangerous psychopaths. Where did the idea for this come from?

From a personal experience. When my daughter was small we visited a Swedish city and took a walk with her in a baby carriage. Suddenly at the end of a street, we came to a high concrete wall with barbed wire on top. It turned out to be the city prison. It was such a strange experience to walk beside this large wall with my jolly daughter in her carriage that the image of a small child next to a large prison – of innocence and evil existing side by side, which they of course do in the world – became stuck in my mind, and many years later inspired this novel.

How would you describe your books to those who have yet to have the pleasure to read them?

They are sort of a combination of dark crime stories and Scandinavian folklore and ghost stories. They are not horror or fantasy stories, really – the supernatural mostly stays in the background, and I leave it up to the readers to decide if there really are such things as ghosts and premonitions. I have never experienced anything supernatural myself, and people are in the long run more interesting than ghosts.

Do you do much research for your books? How much would you say is based on reality and how much is fictitious?

The island of Öland is very real, my mother’s family comes from the island and I have lived there every summer since I was a baby. I have also met many people there who were similar to some of the characters in my books. So that experience is one kind of research, but I also like to read all kinds of non-fiction books and newspapers, and talk to police inspectors, crime scene investigators and doctors to get the facts right. Writing a novel is like making a mosaic of fiction by collecting lots of factual pieces and putting them together.

Have you ever spoken to any convicted criminals as part of your research?

I was caught for shoplifting when I was 10, so I know the workings of a criminal mind… More seriously, a relative of my mother was committed to a mental hospital for aggressive behaviour towards his parents many years ago, and we visited him there a few times. It was a scary place with lots of locked doors and silent staring people, and it made a big impression on me when I was young.

Are any of your characters based on people you know?

There is an old man in the Öland novels, Gerlof, who used to be a sea captain in the Baltic sea, but is now retired. He is based on my grandfather, Ellert Gerlofsson, who sailed his own ship in the Baltic sea for thirty years and told me lots of great stories. But Ellert died when I was young, so I guess that writing about him is my attempt to bring him back.

Have you always loved writing?

Yes, but it is actually the thinking about the stories that I love the most. I have always been a daydreamer. My mother said that I started telling her adventure stories in the kitchen long before I could write, when I was 4-5 years old. So I daydream a lot about the characters and places in my novels before I start writing about them.

What made you make the move from journalism to writing fiction?

I actually wrote fiction before I became a journalist. I have published short stories in Swedish newspapers and magazines for twenty five years, but they have had very few readers. It was only when I started writing novels that large numbers of people discovered me.

Have you always lived in Sweden?

No, I lived with an English family in Sutton Coldfield for a summer when I was young, and for two years as a student in the United States, in Michigan and Vermont. But the climate there was very much like Sweden. Nowadays I sometimes live in France, which usually is much warmer than Sweden.

Who are your favourite writers?

I have very many. One favourite is Peter Straub, who I think is mostly known for having written two novels with Stephen King. But he has written several strange and beautiful novels on his own. I also like crime writers who care deeply about their characters, such as Karin Fossum, Dennis Lehane and Ruth Rendell.

What are you reading at the moment?

The Death of Bunny Munroe by Nick Cave. I’m not sure I care that much about Bunny as a human being, but the writing is terrific.

Can you give us a sneak preview of what you are currently working on?

I am writing the fourth novel in my Öland quartet. This one starts with an old ship approaching the island one evening, a ship which turns out to be full of dead and dying sailors. And so another mystery begins…

An finally, what scares you?

Old, dark houses in the countryside, and the thought of sleeping in them. I would never do it – at least not alone!

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