How Fredrik Backman took a grumpy character from blog to novel — and ended up with international hit, A Man Called Ove
Fredrik Backman never guessed that his debut novel, A Man Called Ove, would achieve the overwhelming success it has. He started writing it when a character on the blog he writes in Sweden proved hugely popular. Admittedly a tad grumpy himself at times, he could relate to the woes of a man who finds life sometimes isn't going quite the way he wants. When an editor suggested he warm the character up a bit, Backman was having none of it. His instincts were right.
How did this character come about on your blog?
It started with me writing about discussions I was having with my dad in various situations. Like when we were at Ikea and there was something wrong with the cart so I kept bumbling into him and he kept telling me I “drove it wrong”. So I let him drive it and he drove it straight into me. Four years later he still insists I can’t drive Ikea carts and that there was “nothing wrong with the cart,” that the “floor was leaning.” I wrote that on my blog, and readers started commenting about stuff their dads or husbands or they did that drove their families crazy.
How did Ove then turn into a novel?
I sat at my computer and wrote it. People keep asking me, How do you write a novel? but I keep answering “By writing it, at your desk, until it’s finished”. I don’t really have a better answer than that.
The person who hired you at the newspaper Xtra said, “Right from the beginning he was very angry at everything and everyone, and extremely provocative.” In some ways, are you Ove?
In many, many, many ways I am Ove. I usually tell people that all of Ove’s best qualities are from my dad, and all of his worst characteristics are from me or someone else. Mostly me.
But you wanted to become a priest at one point; what changed your mind?
That’s not really accurate. I had ambitions of becoming a journalist, but one had to have a certain amount of university credentials to apply to the journalist program, so I started studying religion. Then I got stuck there for 3.5 years before people started telling me I should start thinking about what I wanted to do with my life. So I started sending stuff I had written to a couple of magazines and getting jobs like, “we need 50 words on this newly opened tanning salon.” Then I got a small column because one of the editors thought she needed “someone who can make people a little bit angry.” I was apparently good at that.
A Man Called Ove isn’t merely a caricature of a grumpy man. It’s about a someone scarred by grief. What or who was the inspiration for Ove?
To be quite upfront: There is no one inspiration for a character. It comes from a million different places. The grief comes from the fact that most people I have ever met are grieving something. Every human being has regrets and shame and sadness in them. You find something you like, a grain of story, somewhere to start, a feeling or a situation or, in my case, a character with an age and a name and a couple of funny characteristics, then you start creating. It’s work. It’s joyous, fun and wonderful; it’s not a J-O-B, but it’s still W-O-R-K. It’s not a matter of walking down the street and INSPIRATION STRIKES and then the book goes home and writes itself while you drink gin and tonics and play Lego Batman.
Why does Ove behave the way he does?
Why does anyone? I really don’t think he’s an odd person. He just has his principles. Everyone does; it’s just a matter of different principles. The thing that makes Ove funny is his disproportionate response to everything. And that makes him interesting as a character. One editor at my publisher criticized the script early on with the note: “The writer should be aware that everything is not funnier just because it is screamed.” But that’s wrong, because almost everything IS funnier if someone is screaming it.
Ove’s compensating for the grief he feels in many ways, isn’t he, by being so rigid and uncompromising?
Maybe. But it’s also just the way he is. His nature. It was a big part of the story to me, that he isn’t “cured” in the end. He’s the same person when the book finishes as when it began, it’s just the readers’ view of him that has changed. He didn’t become more sympathetic, you just became more understanding.
Would you say it’s also a book about regrets and wishes?
Aren’t all books?
Any regrets and wishes in your life?
Regrets of behaving like an ass from time to time, of course. And the same wishes as everyone: Healthy, happy kids and a wife who will keep enduring me. And maybe an ice cream.
You’ve said that people who read your blog have ordinary jobs and ordinary lives. Is that also what you wanted to write about with this book, an ordinary man?
I find ordinary people to be a lot more interesting than extraordinary people. I have nothing in common with extraordinary people. So yes. I write about things I know, and I’m a very, very un-extraordinary kind of person.
Why is Ove so appealing to many of the people he encounters?
Because he’s a good person. It just takes people a while to notice it because they’re busy finding faults. And he’s funny. He doesn’t like to be, but he is. That’s a nice characteristic in anyone.
What question(s) do people at signings or readings most often ask you about Ove and the book?
The most common ones are “Why is he so appealing?” and “What question do people most often ask you?”
If Ove ever met you, what would he say about and/or to you?
He would start by telling me I was an idiot for driving a Hyundai. There’s a line about in the book right at the end, actually: “It could have been worse. It could have been a Hyundai.” That about sums it up.
Have you been surprised by the success of the book?
Yes. Anyone who says they aren’t surprised is lying. No one understands all of this. It’s extremely weird.
What was most difficult about writing the book? Easiest?
The easiest part was to begin writing it. The most difficult was to get it finished.
There’s going to be a film of the book, I understand?
Yes. But I have nothing to do with that. My wife said from the beginning: “Sell them the rights if you want to, honey, but don’t come complaining afterwards if you don’t like it. And whatever happens you are not allowed to be involved in making the actual movie because NO ONE has a worse taste in movies than you!” So I’m not involved. I’ve met the producer two times in two years, and she gave me great cookies with chocolate stuff in them. That’s about it.
What’s next for you on the book-writing front?
I’ve released another novel in Sweden and I’m releasing one more in September. This fall my wife is starting a new job, so I’m gonna stay at home for a couple of months with our youngest child. After that I don’t know. I’ll probably write a book about a guy who stays home with his youngest child and plays a lot of Lego Batman.
This interview has been edited and condensed.