Q & A with Henning Mankell

Q: What made you start writing?

A: My father always encouraged reading, so I read a lot. I was very imaginative and I learned quickly that imagination could function as a tool for survival as well as for creativity. And I think that is the moment when I am at my best, when the forces of imagination have the same value as the reality. When I was six years old my grandmother taught me to write and I can still recall the incredible feeling of writing a word, creating a sentence, telling a story. The first thing I wrote was a one page long summary of Robinson Crusoe. Unfortunately I don’t have it anymore, but that was the moment I became a writer.

Q: How come you have so many readers?

A: I think it is because I describe people who change and because I write about an environment that people can recognize. For me, I write to try to understand the world we live in. What interest me is fundamentally deep existential questions. What it means to be human, what characterizes the world I live in. I think everything I write is about that, one way or the other.

Q: Where and how you do you find inspiration and how do you work?

A: I find inspiration everywhere. And I read a lot. I am very dedicated to my work and I am extremely disciplined when I write. As a creative person, I drain myself all the time, so collecting impressions becomes my rest. It is as if I fill the boat with water instead of emptying it, and when the boat starts sinking it’s time to empty it again.

Q: Why is Kurt Wallander so popular?

A: Wallander is a character who I think is perceived as very human. He is a talanted detective, but he also has problems, like his fight against incipient diabetes and his lack of ability to nourish personal relations. He is very dedicated to his work but can still doubt and worry whether he is doing the right thing or not. And he is sometimes longing to be somewhere else, far away from the all the misery. Just as we all can do every now and then.

Q: How did you start to write the Wallander series and how was Kurt Wallander born?

A: The idea of Wallander was born out of a desire to write about the increasing racism in Sweden in the 1980s. Racism for me is a crime and therefore it seemed natural that I wrote a crime novel. It was after that the idea of a policeman was born. I picked the name Kurt Wallander from the telephone directory. And then it continued. When I write, I always try to reflect the reality we live in. A reality that is becoming rougher and more violent. This violence and its impact on people around it is what I try to reflect in Wallander. But reality always surpasses the poem.

Q: Are you very much alike, you and Kurt Wallander?

A: We share the love of music and we both have a Calvinist attitude towards work. But otherwise, I am not very fond of Wallander as a person, but it doesn’t matter since he is fictional and only exists in my head.

Q: Do you have any literary role models and if so, who?

A: August Strindberg, John le Carré, the ancient Greek dramas and many many more. Macbeth, for example is the best crime story ever written.

Q: How is to live both in Africa and in Sweden? Does one place feel more home than the other?

A: To divide my time between Africa and Europe has given me perspective and distance, and I think it has made me a better European. The frozen winter landscape of H√§rjedalen and the barren landscape in Mozambique can sometimes remind me of each other, as well as the dry heat of Africa can remind me of Sweden’s winter cold. Both places are my home. But I will always be a European.

Q: What is important for a novel as well as a good crime novel?

A: I want to learn something when I read. I prefer books that remind me to use my critical eye. A good crime story is not only about a crime that is to be solved. It should be a psychological examination of the culture it reflects.

Q: What is it like to live and work in Africa, especially considering the severe poverty and the current situation with HIV and AIDS?

A: I see poverty and misery every day. But I also see the joy and hear laughter. People laugh much more on the streets of Maputo than in the streets of Stockholm. It is like the Western world has lost its laughter somewhere between payments and credits. A laughter that the Africans have managed to keep. My work with Teatro Avenida has been one of the greatest challenges in my life. It is not easy to run a theatre in one of the world’s poorest countries, but it has made me realize that where there is imagination, there is wealth. It is not a only bad thing to be poor, because then you have to use your imagination. However, it is frustrating to see the West’s apathy when it comes to helping to solve Africa’s problems of poverty, illiteracy and HIV. I can’t help everyone but that is no excuse for not helping a few.