John Ajvide Lindqvist doesn’t like vampires, and hasn’t the slightest idea why the fanged ones are so in vogue.
“There’s such an immense amount of rubbish,” says the Swedish writer. “It’s so sad because when you go to the bookstore, in the horror section, half of the books are about vampires.”
Yet his own debut novel, Let the Right One In, features a romance between a vampire and a boy – and is an international bestseller that has been translated into 28 languages and adapted into a multi-award-winning film.
The 40-something novelist was speaking at the 13th Biennial Singapore Writers Festival last month, at a “Meet the Author” Q&A and to The Jakarta Post.
In person, he belies his novel’s disturbing tone that deftly mixes the socio-realistic horrors of bullying and alcoholic fathers with supernatural ones such as zombie rapists and bloodsucking children – as well as the beautiful melancholy of the film, for which he wrote the screenplay.
He punctuates his speech with lively gestures, emphatic sounds and a reverberating laugh that competes with the Hammer-horror-worthy thunderclaps outside.
When he began Let the Right One In in 2001, he had no idea vampires were going to be so popular. He simply wanted to portray his 1980s adolescence in Blackeberg, a Stockholm suburb, but with the addition of a fantastic element to see how this would affect the suburb and its inhabitants.
“I wasn’t even sure that this thing was going to be a vampire, but as it turned out, I decided I wanted my protagonist Oskar [based on himself] to befriend the monster or the horrible thing … a vampire was the most suitable monster.”
Becoming a horror writer – let alone the foremost Swedish horror writer today, dubbed his country’s Stephen King – was similarly unintentional.
Although he is a lifelong “horror aficionado”, devouring books by King, Clive Barker – his favorite – and Dean Koontz and obsessively watching horror movies (“as soon as I could sneak in . you had to be 15, but I was 13”) – his original “great purpose” in life was to be a magician.
At 18, he came second in the Nordic Card Championships, but realized he enjoyed speaking on stage more than performing tricks. He then turned to stand-up, but found he was more interested in creating new material than honing jokes, and began writing for “more famous” comedians and television.
Meanwhile, he strove to be “a Writer with a big W”, trying to write plays, novels, short stories and poetry, without much satisfaction.
Eventually, he tried his hand at horror, attempting a short story, which he says was “not really a good story” but was “quite exciting”, petrifying himself and his wife as he read it out load.
The experiment prompted him to pen Let the Right One In, an exhilarating, seven-month process.
“When I was trying to write *serious’ literature . I was like sweating over every sentence . But while writing *Let the Right One In*, it was like, I know how to do this, I know what’s going to happen, this is easy!” he says.
“Horror is the maximum open genre; you can basically write about anything … you just have to make it believable.”
Let the Right One In was initially rejected by several publishers, leading Lindqvist to shelve it and start another. It was finally published in 2004, and quickly became popular, assuring a new career.
Lindqvist’s feverish productivity seems to have found the ideal outlet. Since 2004, he’s published two more novels, Handling the Undead and Human Harbour, and completed a fourth, Little Star, in October; three more are planned, in addition to a short story collection, Paper Walls, and several screenplays.
Yet his magical and comedic past still seeps into his present.
Magicians figure in Human Harbour and a recent film script. While signing books, he performed card tricks for fans, and exudes a natural stage presence.
Comedy and horror are similar, he says, as both involve explorations of the unexpected, and his experience performing for an audience informs his writing – he is always aware of his readers.
With the horrible and the fantastic, Lindqvist prefers to part with clich*s and consider how to apply such elements to reality.
In Let the Right One In, he depicts vampirism without “sparkle”, glamour or sex appeal.
“It would be an impoverished, disgusting existence … Basically, being a child living with a terrible disease, and having to kill people in order to survive,” he says.
However, Lindqvist doesn’t discount Stephenie Meyer’s romantic creations.
“My 12-year-old son is reading *the Twilight Saga books and really likes them so I will read the first one, at least.”
In Handling the Undead, he explores the concept of peaceful zombies, monsters he prefers to vampires.
“Because that’s a staple of almost every zombie story, they’re aggressive and there tends to be a war in the end … Also, every zombie is someone’s sister, father, brother … you would have a relationship with these dead people.”
Human Harbour features vengeful ghosts, Little Star has shape-shifting wolves and there are trolls in Paper Walls. This supernatural theme will continue for at least his next three novels, as will the Swedish setting.
His devotion to British singer Morrissey and The Smiths is another ingredient he weaves into all his stories. Let the Right One In refers to Morrissey’s song, “Let the Right One Slip In”, as well the myth of vampires needing to be invited into homes.
“I need them as emotional equipment for what I’m writing … I know that this chapter should sound or have the feel as this song by Morrissey or The Smiths … it somehow sets the pace with the quote … I use it to push myself on,” he says, adding he includes quotes from his poet wife too.
A real-life encounter doesn’t appeal though.
“*A Swedish newspaper* wanted me to interview him and I said yes, because I couldn’t say no, but I didn’t really want to do it … you shouldn’t meet your idols.”
He is more interested in his upcoming interview with King. While he feels they’re very different writers, he acknowledges King has likely influenced him subconsciously, and lauds the other author’s “no-nonsense attitude towards writing”.
“He’s not a writer with a big W… *His approach is, ‘I hope you like them, I try to make them as good as I can, and make each new one better’.”
He has a similar literary approach, writing chronologically for about a year at a time, and says his strength is stubbornness.
“Stories for me are much more ways of creating bridges and pathways to images that I simply can’t let go of … this gives my stories a certain amount of intensity, because I believe so much in these images.”
Lindqvist aims for high-quality popular culture, citing Pan’s Labyrinth as the epitome. He has been hands on with adapting his novels, all of which seem destined for the screen, insisting on writing the screenplays himself.
“If someone else f***ed it up, I would hate this person for the rest of my life, and I don’t want to feel that way towards anyone,” he says.
Fifteen directors wanted to adapt Let the Right One In. He chose Tomas Alfredson, whose film Four Shades of Brown he considers “very funny, very dark, perfect, melodramatic, wonderful, heartbreaking”.
He was moved to tears by the result – “for me the book and film feel almost exactly the same” – so he and Alfredson plan to team up again to film Human Harbour, after Kristian Petri directs Handling the Undead.
“I really want to make Swedish movies … I had to fight a lot with the Swedish production companies because they want to sell it to American production companies as there would be more money in the project,” he says.
However, he is looking forward to Hollywood’s version of Let the Right One In, renamed Let Me In, which Cloverfield’s Matt Reeves will direct.
“It can’t possibly be better because I love the Swedish version, but it will be different, and I think that’s good.”
With so many projects on the go, and his recognition on the rise, one wonders if it challenges his writing process?
“No, I don’t let this affect the way I write or what I write . the story takes me in. This problem might apply to writing a series … but I still haven’t written a series,” he says, adding the nearest thing is a 10-page epilogue to Let the Right One In, called “Let the Old Dreams Die” (the next line of the song), to be included in Little Star.
Lindqvist confesses he always wanted to be famous, although he does not aspire to being a “literary rock star” like fellow SWF attendee Neil Gaiman.
“But it would sadden me if I couldn’t at least keep this level of fame,” he says, with a twinkle.