On May 18th, I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to sit down with Erik Axl Sund, the brilliant authors of THE CROW GIRL, the forthcoming Scandinavian crime tome from Knopf (on-sale June 14). I joined the authors, their editor, members of the Knopf team, and a few other publishing individuals at the Knopf office to discuss THE CROW GIRL.
Erik Axl Sund is a pen name for a writing duo—Jerker Eriksson and Håkan Axlander Sundquist.
The pen name is derived from a combination of their last names: Eriksson Axlander Sundquist.
I read a lot of crime books, and while I might love the action, investigative details, and psychological thrills of many, it’s not often that I experience the unique comfort of finding one that resonates with me emotionally. I certainly didn’t expect to have such an emotional reaction to a dark, graphically-violent 750-page Swedish crime tome, but here I am—almost 2 whole months after reading THE CROW GIRL, and I still can’t stop thinking (and talking) about it.
Why did I love this book so much, and what makes it different from other Scandinavian crime novels? Without spoiling the plot or going into too much detail, my love for this book comes down to one thing: while reading THE CROW GIRL, I felt a connection to the underlying spirit of the novel. As I explained in my review, “[t]his book puts on a gory show for the reader, but at its core it is insightful and surprisingly empathetic.” Not only is it empathetic, but there is a deeply redemptive quality to the story that struck a chord with me, and brought to life an optimism that I have always believed in myself—an optimism that says even the most broken soul can – and should – keep fighting for redemption. This all sounds very grandiose, and it both is and isn’t—THE CROW GIRL is a sweeping, epic story that exposes its readers to brutality, violence, and trauma, but maintains a grounded, underlying hope for its characters to find a different future.
This is ultimately a story about the human psyche: our darkness, the pain we inflict on one another, and our unquenchable thirst for redemption.
I could go on about this element of the book for ages, but for now, that will have to do.
Lunch with Erik Axl Sund:
Let me set the scene for you before I dive into what I learned. I arrived a few minutes early to lunch, walked into the room and… I came face to face with my literary idols, and I could basically feel my face turning bright red. I’ve read all about Jerker and Håkan, and it was surreal to see them standing right in front of me, complete with the trademark black outfits they wear in every photo I’ve seen of them. (And yes, I did wear black to match them!) The Q&A got started shortly after, with their editor leading the discussion, and the rest of us chiming in to ask our own questions.
Without further ado, here is what I learned at lunch with Erik Axl Sund.
- They live in the same town in Sweden. Along with writing together, they also play in the same band, own a record label together, and paint together. Their friendship is completely evident when you see them in person—they are clearly in sync, able to finish each other’s sentences while discussing their book.
- Music had a huge influence on THE CROW GIRL. This was so fascinating to me: they tried to model their writing off of punk music, stripping away all the excesses, and writing short chapters that you can read quickly. As they put it, they wanted to write chapters that read like a Ramones song. I think they completely succeeded.
- Their writing process: I was particularly fascinated by this part of the conversation – I’m so curious how a writing duo manages to produce one coherent story. The pair explained that they play off each other’s strengths—Jerker writes long, verbose sentences (which Håkan jokingly described as sentences about nothing!), and Håkan prefers writing action-packed, shorter sentences. They are always collaborating, editing one another’s work, and re-working what they’ve written until they’re satisfied.
- This story was originally intended to be published as one book, but their Swedish editor preferred to introduce it to the world as a trilogy. The authors intentionally structured the story in three parts, with the first focused on the investigation, the second focused on psychological trauma, and the third focused on catharsis. Interestingly enough, when this book was published in France, it was published as three separate books whose titles reflect those themes: Persona, Trauma, and Catharsis. Both Jerker and Håkan expressed happiness that Knopf has had, as they put it, “the guts” to present the story as it was originally intended: as one tome, divided into three distinct yet complementary parts.
- They did a ton of research for this story, and it absolutely shows—this book is thoughtful at every turn, whether in its portrayal of mental illness, police work, or international cultures. I was particularly interested to learn that Jerker has a family member who was a psychiatrist, and they were able to use her personal library of psychology texts for research.
- One of the story’s most compelling characters was almost never written. The character of Jeanette is one of the story’s main figures: she is the lead police investigator throughout the book. They originally wrote Jeanette as a man, but after 400 pages or so, realized that the character wasn’t coming to life. They then had the idea to make the character a woman, and explained that suddenly the whole story clicked: the character became multi-dimensional, and it added an extra element to the interoffice politics at the police department—scenes through which the authors explore themes of sexism and misogyny.
- Why do they think Sweden in particular has produced such talented crime writers? The pair explained that while they were growing up, Sweden’s education system was one of the best – if not the best – in the world. They had the opportunity to explore and train in many different creative endeavors, and it has led them to pursue music, art, and writing. They feel it also laid the foundation for a generation of talented writers in their country, who could build on the works of the Nordic Noir greats, including Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö. Interesting aside: they predict that the next wave of Scandinavian greats will be coming from Finland, because Finland’s education system is currently on the rise.
- They don’t read many crime novels, preferring to read the classics. Authors they love include Paul Auster, Ernest Hemmingway, and Kurt Vonnegut.
- What’s next for these two? They currently have a standalone novel out in Sweden, and are working on their next book. I of course had to ask when their standalone might be available in English, but they’re not sure yet (which makes sense, as THE CROW GIRL doesn’t release for a couple more weeks!).
When I first cracked open THE CROW GIRL, I never could have dreamed that I would be sitting across a conference table from its authors just a few short months later. Thank you to each and every one of you who has taken an interest in this book, commented on my Instagram photos of it, pre-ordered it, and read my review or this post! This book has a special place in my heart, and I’m so appreciative that you have shared in my enthusiasm for it. And of course, a huge thank you to the generous folks at Knopf, who made one reader’s whole year with this invitation.
Last but certainly not least, to Erik Axl Sund, should you ever read this: thank you for answering my questions, graciously taking a photo with me, and most of all, for inspiring me with your brazen storytelling. I am so grateful.