Danish screenwriter Sveistrup’s first novel, The Chestnut Man, (Harper, Sept.), reveals something rotten in Denmark.
What inspired you to write this novel after your successful TV series The Killing?
The Chestnut Man returns to my early interest in literature, but the turning point was when I picked up my youngest kid at kindergarten one autumn day when they were assembling chestnut men, a Danish tradition, and singing “Chestnut Man, do come in,” which sounded scary. Their chestnut men had no hands or feet, a frightening amputated look, and I thought this “icon” would be a “horrifying signature left at a crime scene. So I decided to challenge myself by writing a book rather than a TV series.
In The Chestnut Man, child abuse motivates serial killings. Does the novel suggest any solutions to this problem?
My goal was to keep the reader on the edge of the seat, but it was equally important to involve this issue, which the Danish press was focusing on then. The children’s plight angered and frustrated me because government officials were trying to cover up the scandals. Even the seemingly perfect Danish welfare system has serious cracks in its worn out surface, so I combined this fact with my passion for whodunits. We must discuss this problem openly, and love is of course the overall answer—no matter the question.
Why did you reverse traditional gender roles and pair an intuitive male detective with an ambitious, hard-driving female one?
Actually, I don’t think that way. For me it’s just people. I try to create characters who don’t seem dull to me, as conventional ones do—they’re not fun to work with. I sometimes create characters to form a dialogue about my own issues while I’m writing. When I feel burned out, I create a character like Mark Hess. When I feel fed up with feeling burned out, I create a character like Naia Thulin. When I feel a need to control everything, I create a character like their boss, Nylander. My characters also must be somehow mysterious. I prefer the reader to be a detective, too.
How does this novel comment on hygge, the quintessentially Danish quality of coziness that engenders a feeling of contentment and has become a global lifestyle trend?
We have plenty hygge in Denmark! Danes generally are very friendly and enlightened. But The Chestnut Man is more about the cracks in the surface; Denmark is not just the fairy tale land of H.C. Andersen and Tivoli. Maybe we Danes should openly discuss our anxieties and fears. I think we tend to hide or bury our so-called weaknesses and this produces nothing good. Just the contrary. And The Chestnut Man is very much about that issue.