A year-long diary set in LONDON
Interview with Johana Gustawsson, the brilliant author of ‘Block 46’ (to be published in May)
7th April 2017
Johana Gustawsson is the brilliant new author of ‘Block 46’ to be published mid May. It is a chilling and dark Scandi Noir thriller… only she is French. TripFiction’s review of this excellent book will feature on 10th May in the launch blog tour… You can pre-order here.
Before the launch, though, we though we would whet your appetite. TripFiction interviewed Johana and asked her about her life, the book, and her writing.
TF: You are French, married to a Swede, and living in London. Does this make you feel a true European?
JG: Oh definitely! At home we speak English, French, Swedish, Spanish and Catalan; I am proud of my European cultural blend! We feel rich of all these influences. Miguel Zamacoïs, a French author who wrote a stunningly beautiful poem called “The Accent” (referring to the accent us Southern French have), used to say that culture is some earth stuck to your shoes that you bring everywhere with you; I cannot agree more.
TF: With Block 46, you have created a very impressive work of noir writing. Which writers of noir fiction do you most admire?
JG: Impressive? Oh! Thank you so much… As crime writers, I deeply admire Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle, Henning Mankell and Thomas Harris. When I read a book, I love turning the last page feeling desperately sad because I have to abandon the characters with whom I spend the last days, or weeks. Poirot, Miss Marple, Sherlock, Wallander, Starling and Lecter seem to still be part of my imaginary life!
TF: Do you think of yourself as being in the tradition of Swedish noir, or are you a writer of French noir?
JG: Well, it’s funny you are asking me this question, as last week a French journalist was telling me that he had difficulties putting me in a category! I would say that I am a writer of French Noir, because despite the dark Nordic atmosphere of my thrillers, you can definitely feel my French touch!
TF: The translation of Block 46 from the French by Maxim Jakubowski is truly excellent. What was your working relationship with him like?
JG: I owe Maxim a lot: he was the first one, here, in the U.K. to fall in love with Block 46. It was wonderful to work with him; he was so respectful of my work and translated it beautifully; I learned a lot in the process!
TF: How much (without in any way detracting from you!) was he – as many translators are – a co-creator?
JG: A translator is a co-creator: Maxim and I share the parenthood of the English version of Block 46. When a book is transposed into another language, it can lose its musicality, its rhythm and even its atmosphere, and that’s why the job of the translator is such a delicate and a complex one.
TF: Exploring the events that took place at Buchenwald towards the end of WW2 was very important to you in the writing of Block 46. Can you tell us why?
JG: My paternal grandfather was deported to Buchenwald in 1943; he was one of the heroes who organized its liberation in April 1945. Writing Block 46 was a very cathartic experience, much more than I thought it would be… The horror and the barbarity of the camp are absolutely beyond inhumane, and diving into it when I just became a mother was a terrifying but necessary experience, as we must never ever forget.
TF: The subject matter of Block 46 is pretty macabre. How do you, as a writer, ‘cope’ with something so unpalatable?
JG: It seems that I was born reading books of forensic psychology! I find it absolutely fascinating to dive and dig into a killer’s mind and it doesn’t scare me at all. The only part that was extremely difficult to write about was Buchenwald; it gave me horrific nightmares and the testimonies of the survivors seems to be tattooed in my mind…
TF: With Alexis and Emily, you have two strong women as your central characters. Is this a deliberate counter to the male predominance in many thrillers?
JG: I wrote what I wanted to read. I was very much inspired by Micki Pistorius, the famous South-African profiler who arrested countless serial killers. I saw an interview of her by Stéphane Bourgoin, a very well-known French criminologist. She was mesmerizing and I thought: this is the type of investigator we want to see in action. And Emily Roy was born. Alexis was the necessary counterbalance, bringing humanity, humour, love and glamour to Emily’s bleak and asocial character.
TF: Are any of your characters in any way (even loosely) based on people you know, or are they all from your imagination?
JG: I have to confess that Kommissionar Bergström shares similar traits with my Swedish uncle and that Alexis and I share the same European life (you should have seen our Christmas dinner: we sang in French, Swedish, English and Spanish!!!). But apart from that, they all are figments of my imagination.
TF: Do you plan out a book in detail before you start writing – or do you let the characters and the plot develop as you write?
JG: Oh, I definitely am the planner type! After having one of these very disturbing ideas, which will be the starting point of my book, I spend a few months on research, and then create what I call the “skeleton” of the novel, a very detailed plan of the hundred chapters, on average, that will be the backbone of the story. Then I start to write… after spending at least one week dreading it and pretending all the wardrobes and cupboards in the house needed tidying up!
TF: Do you write at set times each day, or do you set a target of a number of words a day? Or do you just write as and when the mood takes you?
JG: I write between 9 and 5, when my little boy is at pre-school and I normally set a target of a chapter a day. When the chapter is not finished at 5, I then go back to it after putting my little Viking to bed.
TF: What can we expect from you next – either in the original French or translated into English?
JG: My next Novel called Mör in the French edition, will be published by Orenda Books in May 2018. You’ll travel this time to Whitechapel in 1888 and of course to Falkenberg, in Sweden, to witness the birth of evil. Emily and Alexis will join us, but also some new characters. And that is all I will reveal!
A very big thank you to Johana for answering all our questions so fully!
Tony for the TripFiction team