Biographer and novelist David Lagercrantz isn't much known in America, but in his native Sweden, he's as much of a superstar as a journalist-memoirist can be. He penned the hugely popular memoir I Am Zlatan Ibrahimović, and he's written a number of non-fiction and fiction books about exceptional and extraordinary people.
In 2013, Lagercrantz achieved instant international celebrity when it was announced that the late Stieg Larsson's family had chosen him to continue the massively successful Millennium series. That trilogy, beginning with The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, was a worldwide bestseller, and turned the supernaturally talented hacker and vigilante Lisbeth Salander into a household name. Three Swedish film adaptations were produced, as well as an English-language screen adaptation of Dragon Tattoo directed by David Fincher. And over the vocal objections of Larsson's 30-year partner Eva Gabrielsson, his father and brother inherited his estate and decided to continue what Larsson had conceived as a 10-book series.
The debate about the Larsson family's moral right to carry on Stieg's work is still raging, but the surprise element in the fight is the quality of Spider's Web, which instantly hit the top of the New York Times hardcover bestseller list. Lagercrantz himself has approached media fame and fascination with a self-effacing, conciliatory attitude, acknowledging the controversy over the book, and presenting himself as a Larsson fan with the chance of a lifetime to continue Lisbeth and Mikael's story. In a phone interview during his American book tour, Lagercrantz discussed why and how he underlined Lisbeth's superhero origins, where he stands on Gabrielsson's vehement objections to his work, and why killing off Lex Luthor is always a bad idea.
"I've never met an author who wanted their authorship to rest in peace."
Tasha Robinson: There were some fairly extreme secrecy and security precautions around The Girl In The Spider's Web — you wrote it on a computer with no internet access, journalists were only allowed to preview a few hard-copy pages under highly controlled circumstances, that sort of thing. Did any of this affect your writing process? Did it put you in the right paranoid mindset for a book full of hackers, espionage, and conspiracy?
David Lagercrantz: It did, actually! I think it was kind of a paradox, because I wrote about the same world that I was living in. The Edward Snowden scandal was one of the inspirations for the book, the idea that we have a new society where we're watched over all the time. And I learned how easy it is to hack our computers, which influenced me. So we were very paranoiac all the time. The translator also had to work on a computer with no internet, we used code words talking about the book, my publisher had to come to my home to get chapters on a USB stick, we didn't email anything about it.
So much of the book is based in specific detail about neighborhoods and hacking methods and politics. Were you worried about the online research you had to do being followed by hackers?
It didn't get in the way. I had to do enormous research—first the fictional research of learning the Millennium universe, reading the books over and over to understand the characters. And then I needed to do normal research — I'm not good with computers, but I had to learn. I started to read about hacking, then got in contact with star hackers who taught me. In Stieg Larsson's day, the worst hacking was done by outlaws like Lisbeth, but these days, the worst hacking is done by the state, by intelligence forces. So very secretly, I had these meetings with white-hat hackers, to try to learn how to do incredible things with computers.
Did they know what you were working on?
Yes. In the beginning, before we went public, I just said, "I'm writing a novel about hackers," but quite early on, we made the announcement, and all of Sweden got crazy. And then I could tell them, but I couldn't give away too much of the story.
How does someone who identifies as a hacker respond when you essentially say, "I want you to be a partial model for Lisbeth Salander"?
I met a lot of hackers, and some of them were very arrogant. They thought I was stupid, because I couldn't follow what they were talking about. But then I met this great guy whom companies hire to find their security holes, and he was very good about explaining so I could understand.
I understand the project came to you through your agent, who was also the current agent for the Millennium books. But once she brought up the idea of you continuing the story, what convinced you to do it?
I immediately felt a fever. I felt passionate about it, like falling in love. I said, "If I say no to this, I will regret it for my whole life." After I wrote I Am Zlatan Ibrahimović, all kinds of celebrities and stories came to me. I was a bit spoiled. But none of those projects turned me on. But when they mentioned this, I felt the same old fever. I couldn't say no. And one of the reasons was Lisbeth Salander. Because I saw quite soon that she was the kind of character I've written about my whole life — odd, brilliant people. I was obsessed by her. So I couldn't resist, even though I was scared to death, of course.
Did the Larsson family or their representatives have any input into the book, any suggestions or oversight?
No, I think we all agreed, the family and the publishing house, on two things. It was quite easy. The readers should feel at home with the Millennium universe, they should think, "Yes, this is good old Lisbeth." But at the same time, I shouldn't pretend to be Stieg Larsson, because I'm not. I should have my own interpretation. I had to put something of myself into it, or it wouldn't be a good book. In the beginning, I had Stieg Larsson's demon over me all the time, I thought, "How would he have solved this problem, how would he have written it?" And I went back to his books over and over. But I think the minute I started to write [well] — if I did — it was when I forgot about him, when I felt his characters in my blood system and started to go wild and crazy. Because if you're going to write a thriller like this, you can't be scared. I had a moment of crisis in the process, and a sort of bipolar process, of thinking, "This is going great!" and then sinking into a depression. There were so many people in Sweden grilling me about this, I was like a bloody politician, seeing my face all over the headlines every day. I had nightmares about the fans and critics coming after me. But then I forgot about it. Stieg Larsson was a brilliant mind who figured [the characters] out, but after a while, they felt like mine.
Did you consciously avoid writing in his style? You've written books in a variety of tones, but you didn't attempt any mimicry or pastiche here.
But I did look at his books to try to find out why he's such a page-turner. I tried to copy his Russian big storytelling, with shifting perspectives. But I couldn't copy his style. I could write like Zlatan Ibrahimović, because he was my opposite. I could create a sort of ghetto language for him. But I couldn't write almost as myself. Stieg was the reporter of my generation. So I just wrote my best prose — not my most literary prose, but my most effective journalistic prose. I didn't try to copy him in the small details, but just the big way he told stories.
One of the things you most draw out in the story is the idea that Lisbeth Salander is a superhero — that she identifies with outsized fictional characters, but she actually is one herself. What does that mean to you? What's the significance of being a superhero in a gritty crime novel?
Well, just like the great heroes, she has this great mythology that I inherited. Batman had his parents killed and wanted to take revenge and make Gotham a better city. Superman was sent to Earth as a Christ figure. Lisbeth has this evil father and a desire for revenge against him. I had to go back and dig into that, and I came across her sister Camilla. I got to play with the cachet of the evil twin. It may be the first evil woman in the series, but I couldn't resist it anyway.
I think the great thing about the books is that they're realistic — Stieg was familiar with many genres. We know he read a lot of crime novels, he loved science fiction, but he's also certainly a reporter. So his books are realistic, and they should be. But he flirted with — Lisbeth is between a crime heroine in a detective novel, and a superhero. As all good heroes, she has problems, and a darkness within her.
When you dig into Lisbeth as a superhero, you tie her to American comics, where she found her secret identity and her inspiration. What's your relationship to American comics? Are you a fan?
Not really. I'd read Superman, and The Phantom — he's not big in the States. But I had to answer the questions "Why is Lisbeth Salander such a great hacker? Why does she use the name Wasp?" I was Googling "Wasp," and suddenly, bam, there's this figure from Marvel Comics looking exactly like Lisbeth Salander. So that was a moment that got the story going. And I talked to Joakim [Larsson, Stieg's brother], and he said, "We were reading Marvel Comics all the time when we were kids." So I think I'm right about the inspiration, but who knows?
Mikael Blomkvist is a down-to-earth, realistic character, but he's sharing the spotlight with a woman who, in your book, takes a bullet through the chest and recovers on her own, without medical treatment. How do you navigate how the series' reality-versus-fantasy tonal shifts?
I don't know! I just love it. If you have an extreme character, you need normal characters to contrast them. Sherlock Holmes certainly needed a Dr. Watson. And Pippi Longstocking, who supposedly inspired Lisbeth Salander, needed Tommy and Annika, the normal middle-class neighbors. The normal, realistic persons are very important — it's through their eyes that we really see Lisbeth Salander. So I really liked that, trying to write good literature about complex figures, and playing with clichés. It was fun.
You share Larsson's leftist politics and his crime reporter background. Did you also share his feeling of using Mikael Blomkvist as an author avatar holding up your beliefs?
Oh yeah. Because if I didn't share Stieg's ground values, I couldn't have done this book. But who doesn't? He was this great hero, fighting intolerance and racism, and fighting for a more tolerant Sweden. So that was absolutely obvious. So Mikael Blomkvist is the guy Stieg Larsson was, and wanted to be: nice and correct, with good values, and passionate when he has a good story. And that's who I want to be myself. Maybe I couldn't make him as neurotic as myself — he's more this stable character. But otherwise, Mikael Blomkvist is the guy I'm dreaming of being. Even though I sometimes have a problem with how all the women flock to him. He didn't have to charm them, he just threw their clothes off. I had a hard time with that sometimes. I think it was too much. And it's never happened to me, sadly.
You made a conscious decision to tone down the series' violence in your book. Why?
Because I couldn't have ... I loved Silence Of The Lambs, I thought it was a brilliant crime novel, but I think after that book, the violence exploded in crime fiction. There's already too much violence in real life. Now when I read some crime novels, I think they're pornographic in their violence. I couldn't write it. I just can't stand it. I wasn't able to have these crazy serial killers. And I also have this belief that if you really want to scare people, it's better to just feel between the lines. The darkness can be scarier than the monster coming out of the darkness.
There's been so much in the press about the war for control over Stieg Larsson's estate. How have you dealt with being drawn into it?
It's troubled me a lot more than I can say. I'm devastated that people got so upset, and that [Eva Gabrielsson] got so upset, because just I fell in love with the books, and I wanted to write them. It's been the thrill of my life, writing this book. The only thing that troubles me is that it makes her, who's gone through so much, so angry. I'm so sad for that. I have daydreams that it will reach a settlement in some way.
The only thing I now know for certain is that this is good for Stieg Larsson's authorship. We know that for a fact, looking at the preorders. A new generation of readers are finding these books, and discovering his real-life work, which was fighting racism and intolerance. And as you know, the estate's money goes to the paper he founded. I'm sad that she is upset, and I'm very sorry for that, but if she wants her partner to live a good posthumous life, this is good for him, because now we're discussing him again, and finding new readers. She told the press and her friends, "Let his authorship rest in peace," and I respect that, but I've never met an author who wanted their authorship to rest in peace. They all want their work to be read and discussed. And now this character is more iconic than ever. I think it would be so sad if Arthur Conan Doyle had said, "Never touch Sherlock Holmes. Never, never, never. Let him rest in peace."
One thing about mainstream superheroes is that they usually get passed from creator to creator, and they change to fit their times and the writers' interests. Was that part of the appeal of emphasizing Lisbeth Salander's as a superhero?
I hope she'll be as iconic as James Bond, or Sherlock Holmes, or Spider-Man, or whatever. I think we needed her, and I know she's changed crime fiction. After Lisbeth Salander, we've gotten a lot of copycats in crime fiction, writing different kinds of girls. I think it's no coincidence that it's a Swede who thought her up. We're a society that's very equal between men and women, but we needed this revenge-focused tough girl, refusing to be a victim. As with all good iconic characters, we don't really understand her, so that's one of the reasons we have to go back to her again and again, to see what's going on. Is she really fighting for a better world, or just having her own revenge? What is she, really?
"I won't be Stieg Larsson for the rest of my life."
Stieg was planning 10 books in the series. Have you started talks yet about whether you'll write more Millennium novels, and when?
Yes, yes, of course. But we have to see if we survive the launch. We're certainly discussing it. And now it's really tempting, because the reviews keep getting better, and now we're number one on the bestseller list. But we haven't decided anything. The only thing I know for certain is, I won't be Stieg Larsson for the rest of my life. I want to have new challenges, and write new crazy books, because I think it makes me a better writer to be insecure, and try new things. Nothing's been signed, but I will not write 10 of them, this I know.
As you were writing this one, were you deliberately leaving yourself openings, in case you got the chance to write further sequels?
Well, obviously I didn't kill Camilla off. That'd be like killing Lex Luthor. A supervillain must continue to exist. But that wasn't because I was planning sequels. She was just too good to kill.
Could you eventually kill Lex Luthor, though? Would you want to be the one to wrap up the series, or do you think it's that important to leave these characters to the next person who might come along to pick them up?
I think it should always be left open. Camilla would be one of those characters people would always come back to. There aren't that many characters in the series. And if I don't do it, other people will.