Interview with the author
Daniel, you’re the author of An Alabama Story. Let’s start by having you introduce yourself to the public in a few short words.
Well, I usually write about political and social issues, both in Sweden and abroad. But this last year I thought I’d try my luck at fiction writing. Before embarking on this project, I had barely done any creative writing at all, but all the ideas I came up with got me to a really quick start, and before long it was a true labor of love. For a longer blog post I wrote about the work leading up to the finished manuscript, see here. And for more of a personal portrait, see the one I included at the end of the novel at this page
You’ve now written a book about a southern family living in Birmingham, Alabama. Yet you’re been writing this from your home in Sweden? How has that been like?
In this day and age, it’s unbelievably easy to familiarize yourself with life in other parts of the world. A tool I’ve really enjoyed using is Google Earth, with its satellite photos as well as the street view. You get a simply extraordinary physical overview of any city in the world with it, since you can get a closer look at most of the buildings and other structure. They’ve got web cams linked to the map as well, where you can often see in real-time what kind of people walk the streets, what kind of cars people drive around with etc. Then you’ve also got Youtube, where especially young people like to document their daily lives. You can peer into the classrooms through their videos to see what it’s like there. Apart from these services, I’ve also perused online guides to the city, like this excellent one. So I’ve not found it too difficult having my characters come alive for me in my head, in a realistic setting, and then putting it down in writing.
That’s neat, I never realized how well these services fit together. So what audience did you have in mind for your book?
I think this is a book that can be read by pretty much all ages, though the demographic I believe will get the most out of it is young men in their late teens. This is the period when you long the most for something rebellious to indulge in – and in this overly politically correct age, the taboos to defy are the ones on race, gender roles and sexual orientation. That is, not showing any PC courtesy when depicting racial minorities and not bowing down to feminists or homosexual activists. The sort of material in this book is what fascinated me personally the most at that age, and I got into trouble with the authorities myself for merely making jokes about such matters on the net. Far from letting that silence me, now I’ve returned with a full-length novel filled with exactly that kind of material.
That brings us to a legal matter. Over in Europe today, you’re not blessed with any waterproof protection for free speech like the U.S. First Amendment – speech and writing can actually get you imprisoned. Was that why you chose to publish your work with American company Amazon?
Yeah. If I had published this particular work in my home country of Sweden, there’s a great risk I would get the maximum prison term possible for “hate speech” here – four years. The law is called Hets Mot Folkgrupp (Agitation against Ethnic Group in English), and it criminalizes “threatening or expressing disrespect” for minority groups. No protection exists for majority groups like Swedes or Christians, though – while you will be prosecuted if you point out that a certain ethnic group is overrepresented in crime statistics, you can freely talk about wanting to kill Swedes in general (like a certain rap band over here has done) or kill Christians (like a certain American black metal band has done, whose music is on sale in Sweden too). Part of the reason behind me writing this book was that I wanted to call to the world’s attention the dismal state of free expression in contemporary Europe. Apart from the Swedish law, you’ve got ones like the “Public Order Act 1986” in Britain that criminalizes people who “use threatening, abusive or insulting words or behavior” that can cause racial hatred. In Germany, you’ve got the ban on Volksverhetzung, criminalizing anyone “insulting, maliciously maligning, or defaming segments of the population,” punishable by up to five years in prison. Laws like these cut deep into public discourse and severely impedes debate on certain issues, since the courts can charge whoever portrays minorities in a bad light with “inciting hatred” or “agitation.”
Hearing that makes me happy to be an American. There’s always a concern that the writing of someone who doesn’t have English as his native language will fall short of what’s to be expected of the prose. What do you have to say about that, seeing as your native language is Swedish instead?
I believe readers won’t have anything to worry about. I take language very seriously and have read and written in English for over 25 years. A couple of years back, when I made the decision to go for a career as an author who mainly publishes in English, I took this care to a new level and studied style handbooks such as Strunk & White’s “The Elements of Style” and similar. Yet on the topic of style, I always consider myself the final authority on my own writing. Even if I consider it essential to follow explicit rules for writing and grammar, using someone else’s template has never been my way of getting work done.
How was it publishing your work through the system Amazon has set up for independent publishers like you? And how do you see the state of self-publishing today?
Oh, working with the Amazon system was a real treat. They had a powerful product already when I published my first book in 2010, and they had improved the functionality even more when I came around a second time for this work. It’s simply amazing that I’m able to get a written work out in print in less than a day after having uploaded the files. And with no need for prior review of the material of this work, unlike what would have been the case in Sweden. If the authorities had caught wind of me being about to publish this sort of material over here, they would have had the legal right to seize my computer and any other material and tools that had been involved in the work’s production, without even a court order, under the strangely named “Freedom of the Press Act (Tryckfrihetsförordningen).” The difference between Sweden and the USA is like night and day. After having grown accustomed to conditions imposed on you in the former country, you think you’re in some other dimension when you’re publishing material through Amazon. Ah, how lovely it would be if the European states were to overturn their “hate speech” laws.
As for self-publishing, I definitely see a large number of competent authors today opting for that route. Unfortunately there’s still a bit of stigma toward self-publishing, an unfounded one. Admittedly, there are people who self-publish utter junk and hope they will make a bit of money from it, but there’s also plenty of real junk emanating out of the large publishing houses today. I won’t name names since I might alienate people if I do, but I’m sure you’re aware of which ones I mean. I rather get the impression that the opposite is true – that the stuff backed by the large publishers is generally of low quality, since that’s what sells, while the Melvilles of our day self-publish their work. Personally I’m trying to reach some middle ground in between these two extremes; while I want to reach out to a large audience and understand that that requires material that’s easy to digest, I still don’t want to taint literature with more of the sort of books a high-schooler could have written. Every single sentence in my books has its own impact or is of relevance, and I require my prose to have sort of a melody to it for me not to delete it..
When I read the book and learned of this character Joan, and remembered that certain other well-known people had made their way into the pages of the book, I started wondering: Is Joan based on a real-life person?
Oh… Don’t ask!