In the six years since his death, Stieg Larsson has become the world’s bestselling author — and its most enigmatic. He is the prize product of what RS contributor Nathaniel Rich calls “Stieg Larsson Industries,” a high-powered publicity machine that continues to pump life into the mysteries surrounding the author — from the mundane to the wildly conspiratorial (including rumors that Larsson faked his death and is in hiding somewhere from Nazi assassins). Rich, who has written before about the Scandinavian crime-fiction boom, traveled to Sweden this fall in pursuit of the real Stieg Larsson.
Through Rich’s conversations with the author’s closest friends and family members, some of whom have remained silent until now, Larsson the person begins to emerge: a frustrated journalist and crime-novel obsessive who was driven by his crusade to monitor the neo-Nazi movement in Sweden, and a respected expert who worked with everyone from Scotland Yard to the Southern Poverty Law Center in combating the spread of dangerous extreme-right movements worldwide.
But the myth of Stieg Larsson is likely to persist. “Everyone wants these stories to be real,” says Rich. “His fans, reporters, and most of all, anyone who stands to profit from his books.”
Stieg Larsson has to be one of the most solidly enigmatic — and speculated-about — figures in the world at the moment. What was it like to go to Sweden in pursuit of his story?
It was daunting, because the people close to him have been interviewed many hundreds of times. A mythology of his life has emerged — one that is highly entertaining but in certain aspects totally preposterous.
How did you break through that, piece together the man behind the myth?
I spoke to a lot people who knew him, and a different story started to emerge: I started to realize that at his core this guy was a science-fiction geek and crime-novel junkie who became obsessed with a relatively narrow subject in Sweden — the history and practices of the extreme right wing. His desire to learn about these fringe groups gave his life meaning, and eventually took the form of an obsession.
You mention in the piece that it was actually a thriller — Frederick Forsyth’s “The Odessa File” — that inspired him to start collecting information about extremist and racist groups in Scandinavia.
He started an archive, which is now stored in the Expo offices. There are about six huge filing cabinets, 7-feet-tall, on tracks. The archive contains every kooky newsletter and piece of hate mail sent by Swedish racists and xenophobes in the last 50 years, and every newspaper clipping about hate crimes and Nazi marches. Friends joked that Stieg knew the name, address and even the shoe size of every Nazi in Sweden. The archive goes beyond what any national intelligence service would have — or even want. He was like the obsessives you see at science-fiction or crime-novel conventions, only he was monitoring real people. Of course the neo-Nazis loved this: They were Expo‘s most loyal readers.
What do you think of the books themselves?
I was much less interested in the books than in the way an industry is created around a bestselling writer, especially a dead writer who can’t speak for himself. There is a deep desire that the writer’s life story be as exciting as the books themselves. I don’t know whether this comes out of a lack of imagination on the part of readers, our out of a yearning for the novels’ spell to continue past the final page. Probably some measure of both.
The novels themselves are modeled fairly closely on traditional British crime fiction. The setting is more exotic, there are lots of long names peppered with umlauts, but the main novelty is the Lisbeth Salander character. As Larsson was careful to point out in the only interview he did before his death — to a Swedish booksellers’ magazine — Salander is based in part on Pippi Longstocking, the character who is the subject of the bestselling books in Sweden’s history. This was no coincidence. Larsson’s goal was to write a bestseller. He said the books would be his “retirement fund.”
Stieg Larsson’s niece, Therese Larsson, is a big part of your story — most significantly as a real-world inspiration for Lisbeth Salander. What was it like to meet her?
She’s given almost no interviews to American journalists, and she’s given very few interviews at all. I spent the day with her, and I really liked her. She’s very positive, full of life, a kickboxing enthusiast. She’s suffered a lot of tragedy in her life, and lost a lot of people who were close to her. I found her very sympathetic. And, of course, she’s baffled by the level of her uncle’s success, like everyone else. It’s surreal to her.
Did you see a resemblance to Lisbeth Salander?
I did. Larsson drew from her, but he also drew from other people, and he made stuff up. It’s easy to misunderstand the creative process and think that everything’s real. It’s especially easy to do that with Larsson. He writes about a magazine that’s vaguely similar to the magazine he ran, Expo, and a main character who’s an investigative journalist, as he was.
What do you think is most misunderstood about Stieg Larsson — and his books, for that matter?
What I tried to get across in my piece, and what hasn’t not been reported much, is that Larsson was really savvy about the conventions of crime novels, and his goal was to write a bestseller. There is a universal myth about the writer who makes it big late in life: by day, he toils away at some job he doesn’t care about, but at night, he works on his masterpiece. It didn’t really work like that with Larsson. He was genuinely obsessed with exposing bigotry. He was running out of money for his magazine, and lived a hard life-he was poor, he’d always been poor, his family was poor. There was a real financial expediency to his decision to write the books. He loved crime novels, but more than that he saw the Millennium series as a way to solve his financial problems once and for all. He was a great student of the crime novel. He knew the formula exactly and he knew what worked.
He might have gone on and written many more novels, but none of his friends think he would’ve given up Expo. That was his real passion. If he could write the novels instead of having to beg for funding, he’d be happy, but really his love was Expo. It was his crusade.