“Mister Adler-Olsen will be with you shortly, he’s just wrapping up another interview”, is what we’re told when arriving at the reception of Hotel L’Europe in Amsterdam. “Please have a seat and he’ll come get you.” Karin (Hazendonk) and I (Miriam) flop down on a couch in the enormous lobby, where we don’t have to wait very long before Jussi comes for us and guides us to a table by the window. “Would you two like a drink?”
Have you done many interviews since you’ve arrived in the Netherlands? “Not that many, about five.” We might ask questions you’ve already answered a few times. Sorry about that! “That’s alright. I promise I’ll answer differently!” Have you been in Amsterdam long? “Only since yesterday. A pity, because I love this city. My first question was, ‘where is FEBO?’. I love bamihapjes, when I’m home I dream of bamihapjes. So I’ve been to FEBO today.” You’ve lived in Holland, right? “I lived in Schiedam for about six months. My friend Daan Jippes, a cartoonist and the finest drawer of Donald Duck at that moment, had the opportunity to start at Disney Studios, leaving his flat in Schiedam empty, so I took it. A while later I also lived in Zeist, in another friend’s flat.” Have you ever considered staying here? “Yes, all the time. It’s still very tempting to get a flat here. But I would get fat from all the frituur!”
How would your best friend describe you? “I think they would describe me as very energetic. Too much, maybe. Generous. If they need me, I’m there, instantly. I think they’d have good things to say.
Some of my friends I’ve had for many years. I had a comics shop in the seventies, in Copenhagen, that was a huge success. I had employees and all kinds of people came there – people in publishing, cartoonists. They all had in common that they were a little nerdy. I love nerds! Well, not really “nerds” – people with unusual opinions, reactions, habits. That’s a great source of energy for me. Maybe because I grew up in mental hospitals.” I’m going to come back to that later, that sounds interesting.
How did you make that switch from owning a comic book shop? Have you always wanted to write? No. I saw it as a fair retirement plan. Being free, being able to work in your pajamas. That’s the best part: being free. I don’t mind having deadlines.
“I think I took this path of life because of my father. He was the most educated man in Denmark. He had six master’s degrees from university and five bachelors. He was a conductor for the conservatory, played the violin. A very talented man. Most of his life he spent studying, for fun. I turned to my father after failing the second year of gymnasium. I was a good student, but didn’t go to school in the second year. Instead, I played guitar in a band. I was ashamed, but when I told my father, he laughed. ‘You deserve it,’ he said. ‘You weren’t in school that much. Plus, now you’re around to play the guitar. You have so many talents, don’t you worry. Just do me one favor: follow your talents throughout your life, see if you’re happy doing something. If not, try something else.’ I couldn’t understand that, coming from someone who’d been a doctor all his life. I told him, ‘I have to make a living’. He said: ‘Come on. You have the greatest talent of all. You are lucky.’
I didn’t see it that way at the time, but looking back, I can see he was right. Living in the right country, having the right family, nice sisters – everything was perfect. Later on, I did follow his advice and tried many things, out of curiosity, and I was lucky most of the time. In the comic shop, after three months I had four employees. Because I was lucky; the timing was good. I bought houses and renovated them for fun. In Denmark, we have a tax system where you don’t pay taxes over the profit generated from your own sales, so you can invest it. The houses became bigger.
Then I was in the Peace Corps, because I needed to give back to society, for two years without salary. New people came into my life. It was a never-ending change of habits and surroundings. Maybe that’s also why my wife and I moved a lot. Every third or fourth year, we found another place. Now we’ve been together for 50 years. I guess one of the reasons for that is that our lives changed all the time. And we were in it together.”
Is that when you decided to write a book? “I was a head manager at a big publishing house. It was interesting, but I also noticed that fellow head managers died at 55, from stress. I was 45 at the time. Just to survive, I quit. I asked my wife, ‘We’ll go from a sky-high salary to nothing. How do you feel about that?’. We had only saved money for a few years. She asked me to tell her the story, so I told her the story of The Alphabet House and she told me to go for it. I hadn’t written a single line of the story at that point, I just had it in my head. ‘But,’ she said, ‘if after five years you can’t earn a living from it … We don’t need that much, and we can always move from Copenhagen to the cheapest island of Denmark, Langeland (Long Island).’ It’s very nice, very cheap. So that was our mantra: we can always move to Langeland. All we need is a roof over our heads, some food. Later on that changed, when we had our first child. I took a job in the middle of writing The Alphabet House. Four years later, I went back to writing.
I learned another very important lesson early on in my life. My father was a doctor, who had a lot of Jewish patients because he could speak Hebrew. They admired that. One Friday, a very orthodox Jew phoned him, Finkelstein: ‘You have to come immediately, Doctor Olsen, my wife is very sick.’ My father said: ‘You know it’s Sabbath tonight, you can’t phone.’ So he went to this enormous flat and the employees opened the door. They were not Jewish, so that was fine. Finkelstein came running to my father and cried: ‘Thank you for coming, my wife is so sick.’ And again, my father said: ‘Mister Finkelstein, you cannot run, it’s the Sabbath.’ Then Finkelstein said something that changed my family’s attitude towards life: ‘Mister Olsen, when sickness gets into your house, holiness is kaput.’ If there’s divorce or economic problems, you cannot live like you used to. You have to change your attitude towards your normal daily life. Most people can’t adjust. Now, we’ve lived like that since we met. It’s been easy living like that – and funny. Well, maybe not so much for my wife. We lived in sixteen different houses and I renovated them all, so we’ve lived in dust for 35 years.”
Going back to you growing up in a mental hospital. “Three mental hospitals.” Is that why you write the way you do? Your books tend to be focused on the character’s psychology. “It’s certainly important. My advice to any starting author would be, know your character very well. Let the reader create the character. I don’t know if that period is the reason for that, but it certainly taught me a lot. About human beings and how twisted we can be.
At the first place, they didn’t have psychiatric medication. It didn’t come to Denmark until ’56, when I was six years old, in the second mental hospital. Suddenly, the patients became people I could talk to. Suddenly I had a lot of friends amongst the patients. Like Mørck. He was a real patient, who killed his wife. It started as a normal argument, but ended terribly. That deed drove him insane. But he was nice to me. He came to me with a small kitten and said: ‘I’ll teach you how to take care of it.’
In the hospital, you see things one normally doesn’t see, like shock treatments, autopsies being performed. We would climb up on the roof and look down on that. It was very interesting for me to see what a patient I’d known looked like on the inside. To me, life and death were obvious and meaningful at a young age, and I was never scared. It also influenced me a lot in my understanding of when you’re twisted, how twisted you can be. How normal it can be for even a normal person to have good and evil in you at the same time. It’s only a matter of the wrong incident at the wrong moment that raises the bad in you.” It’s all about the circumstances. “If our children are threatened, we will protect them and kill if necessary.”
That must have been a huge source of inspiration for your characters. “Maybe in The Alphabet House, the first one, but not since then. I prefer creating my characters from nothing. At most, I use the inspiration from the mental hospital to describe the misuse of power. I knew a few doctors who were not okay – I didn’t fear the patients, I feared the doctors. My father was a head doctor and he was very controversial in hospital number 3. That’s what I describe in Journal 64, the fourth book. He was so ashamed of his colleagues, for putting women on this island. The only way they could escape from the island was if they were sterilized. That happened in Denmark, until I was eleven years old. That was the only one I didn’t choose originally in 2005, when I arranged the series. It was not meant to be a part of it. I was writing about German refugees in Denmark after the second world war, but another author took that idea, so I left it. So I wrote Journal 64, as a tribute to good doctors and my father. Misuse of power is something I write about in every book.”
Why do you think the Q series is so popular? “For many reasons, I think. The characters are important. We like Carl Mørck, but not really. We love Assad. He’s a mixture of everything that’s warm and nice, even though we know that his secrets are not. We love his humor and unexpected reactions. We love his impact on Department Q, how important he is for the whole department.
And I think it’s important that I aim so directly at the readers. Journalists tell me I’m so detailed, but I’m not at all. In one mind, ‘a small amount of blood’ can be, you know, a small amount of blood. In another mind, it can cover the floor. By giving people the possibility of creating their own locations and people, I’m giving them the possibility to be surprised by their own ‘wrong’ thinking. The cooperation between the reader and writer is extremely important! That’s why I love John Steinbeck. He’s always challenging me with humor, social topics, serious problems, and blends in stuff, like I do. The writing style is also meaningful. There has been a fashion in writing, for the last decade or so, where you talk about things that are not important to the plot. ‘He got up. It was morning. Coffee was already bubbling in the distance’, and so on. Leave that to the reader. And if you must get a cup of coffee, let it be meaningful to the plot.
I also respect the old standards of point of view and suspense. Having suspense means you know more about this person than the person himself. Point of view is difficult because you have to stick to one person. You can also use it to your advantage, so every chapter keeps the readers on their toes and wanting more.
I try to imagine how people read. Most of the time it’s in bed, just before they go to sleep. They have maybe 15 minutes, because they have to go to work in the morning. There are a few tricks to keep you awake. A small sentence, a cliffhanger, will keep you awake for another two pages. And then I’ll use a bit of humor. A small camel joke, if it’s Assad. If you’re laughing, you’ll be awake again. One laugh takes about 15 to 20 minutes to overcome. Then you put in a crime. Now you’re curious, until the next cliffhanger, joke and crime. Of course, I don’t use it statically, but it works for me.”
Keeps it interesting for you, too! Do you have a routine when you write? Can you just write anywhere? “First of all, I have gadgets. I usually work with a computer from 1992 and an IBM 1988 model keyboard. I plug those into the laptop with my screen and work from there. And I use WordPerfect 5.1. It’s very old, but perfect for work, without a cursor to distract you. Having a blue screen, white letters, the Courier font – I can easily work for ten hours without getting tired eyes.
Then, I edit. I make a lot of drafts in different formats. I do a complete overview of locations, whether the story is interesting enough. The final version, a pdf, I look at as a reader.” So you edit your own work? “Yes, many times. And I stop in the middle of a sentence, half a page before the chapter ends. I’ve never had writer’s block. It’s that simple. And I don’t think of my story when I’m not behind my desk.”
Do you have the story in your head, or do you make it up as you go along? “In 2005, I wrote down the stories for all the main characters. Their backgrounds, the whole storyline. I see it as one story divided into parts. When I know the topic and the story, sort of, I write a synopsis of about 20 pages, and change things along the way if I think of a better idea. Normally, this is also where I solve any problems, and I look forward to that part. Once, a problem took me ten hours to solve!”
Do you let anyone read along with you? Or do you wait until you’re done? “I write the first 35 chapters. After that, I give a chapter per day to my wife. And then I write on. Normally I stop at around chapter 45, so she has about a month to a month and a half, before we both end in the same spot. I learned after a few books that I shouldn’t stand looking over her shoulder while she’s reading, she shooed me away. Every day she gives me feedback, and I listen very carefully. It can be standard editing, she’s good at that. In the first place, she’s good at seeing the character as a whole. If she says she doesn’t believe in the character, and that did happen once, I have to rewrite it.” If she doesn’t believe in the character, who else is going to? “It’s not nice when I’m writing, you know, chapter 40, but I do listen very carefully and any adjustment she suggests, I make. Without discussion. She’s a reader, you have to respect that. I also apply all the corrections my editor suggests. When I leave a manuscript, it should be perfect, though usually she finds maybe four small things on every page. That’s 2000 corrections in total – I make them.
We spend three, four weeks doing that, then I send it to some consultants I have. One is the perfect thriller reader. He knows the standards. If he says it’s okay, good. Then there are some police officers, maybe a specialist on the book’s topic. With the police officers, it’s all about terminology. I want to know, ‘what would you say in this specific situation?’ and ‘what is this called?’. After working together for many years, they don’t find any mistakes.” You know the lingo now. “Sort of, yes.”
Do you do a lot of research for your books? “Yes, I do. Though I have to say, I haven’t been to Syria or Iraq, ever. It was my intention to go to Syria when I wrote the book, but then it was the most peaceful country in the Middle East. Now I don’t dare go. I’ve thought about it, but my insurance company forbade me to go. I was happy about having that as an excuse. But it was a problem, especially the Abu Ghraib prison that I describe in this book, which changed a lot after the Americans took over and after Saddam Hussein was executed. I only had the American plans of the prison. My assistant and I spent about a month trying to find the original plans, so I could find out if it was actually possible to walk from here to here, hear screams from a certain place. But I couldn’t find them, so I had to invent an annex.
Research is extremely important for me. When I wrote the book that takes place here and also in Indonesia, I asked a good friend who knows Indonesia very well to read it. He said, ‘yeah, it’s done well, but I can tell that you haven’t actually been there’. He couldn’t smell the smells or hear the mopeds in the street, he couldn’t feel it. So I said, ‘fine, I’ll go to Indonesia – but give me one example of what’s strange in Indonesia’. He told me that in Indonesia, all the satellites lie on the ground, full of banana leaves.
I made one mistake, in book number three, where there is a chase between a car and a train. So I took that train and then I realized that I was short on time. So I had to change the train to a faster one: the IC3. I hadn’t been on that train. In this book, the character throws a sack of money out of the train window – except, you can’t do that on the IC3. You can laugh, but the book came out a week later! It was a mess, readers were angry.”
“You know, I learned a very important thing in Indonesia, it’s called jam korat. It taught me a lot about why movies work or don’t work. It means, time is like a rubber band. When they turn a manuscript into a movie, they cut the rubber band into pieces and try to glue the pieces together – but it’s not elastic anymore. However, when they make television series like they do now, it’s one cut here, and here, and then it works.”
Have you been involved in the new one, from the series? “Yes, I demanded it from the start, but they didn’t listen. The manuscript for the first four movies are not good. Not worthwhile, in my opinion. Now I’ve changed my production company, so I hope they will do better. They aim to do better, but you never know. I know it can be done. One movie that, in my opinion, was better than the book, was The Cider House Rules by John Irving. Because John Irving wrote the manuscript himself. It took him two years. That means a whole book goes unwritten. I would like to do it myself, but I would have to turn 110 years old to do it all.”
How many books are there going to be in the Q series? That’s the question on everyone’s mind. “Ten. That’s it.” And you’ve got it all sorted out? “Yes. Though it’s a pity that I didn’t know in 2005 that it was going to take me nearly 20 years to do it. I thought it would be ten.” What took you so long, then? [laughs] “Success. Suddenly I had to travel over 130 days per year, taking away good writing time. And every time you go, it takes a few days to get back. Originally, I went from being a publisher to a writer because I wanted time to live life. And for my son, who was five years old at the time. I wanted to be there for him. And I was, throughout the first ten years. Then came Department Q. I switched time for success – and it has been a joy, I can’t complain. It just took so long.
After number ten, I might write a standalone. Or two, or three. I don’t see myself still writing at age 84. I just became a grandfather for the first time, four months ago.” Congratulations! “She’s so lovely. So I want to be there for her. I want to play guitar, learn more languages, be with friends. Building houses, I love doing that. But not to live in myself. We’ve been living in the middle of Copenhagen for three years now. You can bike to the theatre in about five minutes, there’s a small forest three minutes away – it’s perfect. But who knows? Moving is like reinventing your partnership and everything in your life. Many people don’t understand that.”
Are you a reader yourself? “Oh, no, that’s the worst question you could put to me! The problem is, when I read, I’m also editing, rewriting. For the last fifteen years, I haven’t read my own genre, to hopefully be original and not steal anything. It was a shock for me when after number five, The Marco Effect, people told me: ‘This is a new Oliver Twist story.’ Beside John Steinbeck, Charles Dickens is my favorite writer and Oliver Twist is one of my favorite stories. I had it in the back of my mind! That’s why I don’t read my own genre at all. The only thing I read these days is absurd literature and theatre plays, because there is no sense in trying to edit that. There is a nice Norwegian writer called Erlend Loe. His work is so absurd and unexpected, I love it. And then you have Jo Nesbø, Samuel Beckett, Harold Pinter. Still gives me a lot of joy. Maybe it’s because of the mental hospital, ha.
I would like to read more. I would like it if they changed the way they write today, because I don’t find it very interesting. But when I retire, I look forward to reading Jo Nesbø.”
There was one question from one of the readers, Anna, about the typical Assad humor. There’s a lot of Assad humor in the books, but not in the last one. Is it gone?
“That was problematic, because in this book he shows his inner workings. But I have a solution for the next book. So she shouldn’t fear that it’s gone. Most of the (misunderstood) sentences come from my sister-in-law. She’s Danish, very normal, a teacher, but saying things wrong all the time. I make notes of that.
One of my biggest fears was that (with the lack of humor) the people who loved Assad, suddenly wouldn’t love him anymore. Give him a chance.”
Is there something you’d like to ask? “You mean, apart from your phone numbers?”