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 interests 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 it to live  in both Africa and Sweden? Does one place feel more home than the other?

A: To divide my time between Africa nd Europe has given me perspective and distance, and I think it has made me a better European. The frozen winter landscape of Härjedalen and the barren landscape in Mozambique can sometimes remind me of each other, and 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 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.

Biography

Snow, deep snow, is one of Henning Mankell’s first memories, and later in life, after choosing to divide his time between Mozambique and Sweden, Henning stated: “I stand with one foot in the snow and one foot in the sand.”

Henning Mankell was born in Stockholm on the 3rd of February 1948. When Henning was barely two years old his father, Ivar Mankell, was offered to serve as a court judge in a small town in the north of Sweden called Sveg. This is where Henning spent his childhood. In many ways Sveg was a wonderful place to grow up and Henning has looked back on the dark winter days as among the happiest of his life.

– We were not rich, but we did not lack anything either.

Nevertheless, his childhood was also affected by the fact that he grew up without a mother present.

– My mother did what many men do, she left.

Hence, Ivar Mankell raised his children himself and he always encouraged them to read, but he never told them what to read. So Henning Mankell read a lot about the African explorers and imagined that the logs in Ljusnan, the river that runs through Sveg, were crocodiles in the Congo.

– Africa was the most exotic place I could imagine – the end of the world – and I knew I would go there one day.

He also learned that imagination could be an instrument of survival, not just of creativity.

– In my mind I created another mother for myself to replace the one who had left. And I think this was me at my best, when the forces of imagination had the same value as the real world.

At the age of six his grandmother taught him to read and write and for Henning Mankell that was a profound experience.

– I can still remember the miraculous feeling of writing  a sentence, then more sentences, telling a story. The first thing I wrote was a one-page summary of Robinson Crusoe and I am so sorry I do not have it any more; it was at that moment I became an author.

Growing up in a flat above the law courts it was almost inevitable that Henning Mankell would be interested in the justice system and how it works. One time his toy cars were needed to demonstrate how a traffic accident occurred. Another time, the children’s school holidays were prolonged as Henning’s father investigated a local murder.

The four books in Henning Mankell’s series about the boy Joel are set in Sveg, and walking through Sveg it is possible to locate some of the places in the series. Moreover, in 2007 a cultural centre was inaugurated in Sveg named after Henning Mankell and it hosts a permanent exhibition about him and his work.

When Henning Mankell was thirteen his family moved to Borås, a city 50 km north west of Gothenburg on the Swedish west coast. Henning Mankell was soon bored with secondary school and left at the age of 16 for Paris. Shortly after he left Paris to work as a merchant  seaman. He worked for two years as a stevedore on a Swedish ship ferrying coal and iron ore to Europe and America.

– I loved the ship’s decent hard-working community. It was my real university. It was also a romantic Conradian dream of escape, though there were long, boring times too.

After having signed off, Henning Mankell settled in Paris in 1966. He stayed there for a year and a half in a constant shortage of money, although he also experienced activism and political debate. Thereafter he went to Stockholm to work as a stagehand. While working as a stagehand he wrote his first play, The Amusement Park, about Swedish colonial interests in  19th century South America.

In 1973, shortly after his father died, Henning Mankell’s first novel The Stone Blaster was released. It tells the story of an old man looking back on his life and on Swedish society and the need for solidarity, a theme that is frequently recurring in Henning Mankell’s works and in his life.

– Although my father passed away before my first novel was published I knew he believed in me and was confident that I would have success as a writer.

Having published his first novel Henning Mankell realized his dream of going to Africa and arrived in Guinea-Bissau the same year as The Stone Blaster was published.

– I don’t know why but when I got off the plane in Africa, I had a curious feeling of coming home.

Henning Mankell subsequently spent a great part of his life on the African continent. After living in Zambia and other countries, he was invited in 1986 to function as artistic leader for the Teatro Avenida in the capital of Mozambique, Maputo. Since his arrival in 1986 he spent at least half the year in Maputo working with the theatre and writing.

– One of the greatest adventures and challenges of my life has been my work with the Teatro Avenida. Working with people from different cultures make you realize that there are more things uniting us than separating us.

Living and working in Africa gave Henning Mankell another perspective on Sweden and Europe.

– I am like an artist who must stand close to the canvas to paint, but then take a step back to see what I have painted. Africa has provided my life with that movement. Some things you can only see at a distance.

 

The Teatro Avenida has since the beginning been concerned with the political and social issues that are topical in Mozambique. Manuela Soiero, the founder of the small theater company, states:

– We look at the issues which are affecting the people and then think about how we can tackle those issues. I write many of the plays myself, or co-write them with Henning.

From the early 1970’s Henning Mankell divided his time between writing novels and directing at various theatres. His ambition to expose the lack of equality in society has also been the same, regardless of artistic expression and context.

In 1979 Henning Mankell published his first novel for the Swedish publishing house Ordfront, The Prison Colony that Disappeared. This is also where he met his editor and good friend Dan Israel. In 2001, after more than 20 years with the publishing house, Henning Mankell and Dan Israel left Ordfront to start a publishing house of their own, Leopard.

In the beginning of the 1980’s Ordfront published one novel a year by Henning Mankell, among them the novel Daisy Sisters, released in 1982. This novel has meant very much to Henning Mankell. It is a story about two generations of working women in the era after the Second World War. The inspiration for the novel was a meeting with a group of female overhead crane drivers at a factory in Borlänge, Sweden. They met to discuss the difficult questions of their day and Mankell took part. He was very impressed with the women and decided that he wanted to know and understand more about them and their situation.

In 1984 Henning Mankell became the head of Kronobergsteatern in Växjö, Sweden, where he introduced a new view of what to perform. He wanted to produce only Swedish plays, which turned out to be a success. His work at the theatre resulted in a pause in his writing between 1984 and 1990.

In 1990 Henning Mankell made an effective comeback, publishing two books in the same year, The Eye of the Leopard, a haunting novel juxtaposing a man’s coming-of-age in Sweden with his life in Zambia, and the first book in the series about Joel, A bridge to the Stars. A Bridge to the Stars won the prestigious Rabén & Sjögren award for best children book that year. The year after the first novel in the series about the detective Kurt Wallander, Faceless Killers, was released.

– I had been away from Sweden for some time. When I returned I became aware that racism was exploding and I decided to write about that. To me racism is a crime, and I thought: Ok, I’ll use the crime story. Then I realised I needed a police officer, and I picked the name Wallander out of the telephone directory. On May 20th 1989 Kurt Wallander was born.

In Faceless Killers, an elderly couple are murdered on an isolated farm after being brutally tortured and the woman’s final word ‘foreign’ unleashed a ferocious anti-refugee sentiment in Ystad. The novel was an immediate national success claiming several awards. However, it was not until the third book about Wallander, The White Lioness, that the series about the detective from Ystad became the international bestseller it is today.

– The novel is partly set in South Africa and was published in several countries. It blew out the gates. I wrote The White Lioness as an invocation, that nothing would go wrong during the South African election.

While the Wallander-series gained international interest Henning Mankell kept writing other novels as well. In 1991 the second book in his series about Joel was released, Shadows in Twilight.  In the years following 1991 Henning Mankell published one Wallander-detective story each year.

In 1995, in addition to the Wallander mystery Sidetracked, Henning Mankell released two other novels. One of them, Secrets in the Fire, was the first part of the trilogy about the African girl Sofia, the girl who lost her legs when she accidentally stepped on a landmine.

– Sofia is one of my closest and dearest friends. No one has taught me as much as she has about the conditions of being human. Nor has anyone taught me more about poor people’s unprecedented power of resistance. Those who are forced to survive at the bottom of society in a world we all share and inhabit; so unjust, brutal and unnecessary.

In 2007 Henning Mankell completed his trilogy about Sofia with the novel The Fury in the Fire. The second part, Playing with Fire came in 2001, and the first part, Secrets in the Fire, came in 1995. All the books about Sofia separately adress issues close to Henning Mankell’s heart. In the first one it is landmines, in the second one AIDS and in the last one Sofia has grown to become a young woman and mother of two children and struggles to make ends meet.

The books about Sofia have been a great success and are read by school children all over the world, raising awareness of some of the problems that the people of Africa face in their daily struggle for survival.

Since he came to Africa Henning Mankell was been passionately dedicated to fighting the problems tearing the continent apart. He was especially committed to the fight against AIDS and devoted much of his spare time to his “memory books” project, which aimed to raise awareness of this catastrophe. Parents dying with AIDS are encouraged to record their life stories in words and pictures, not just for the children they leave behind, but also as a human chronicle.

– Maybe in 500 years these “memory books” will be a great record of African times. My hope is to store them in the new Alexandrian library in Egypt.

In 2003 Henning Mankell published a book entitled I Die, But My Memory Lives On which he hoped would raise awareness of AIDS in the West. The foreword of the book is written by Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Henning Mankell is also a firm critic of the West’s apathy towards solving the AIDS-issue.

– In our wealthy European enclaves, new drugs have almost turned AIDS into a chronic disease. Nowadays, an HIV-positive European can almost expect to live a relatively normal life. In Africa, people just die. I can’t imagine a more cynical image of injustice, and it’s one with which our cynical society controls us. We just stubbornly refuse to admit it.

Henning Mankell’s tenacity to African issues resulted in him being invited by the former Federal President of Germany Horst Köhler in 2005 to join his initiative Partnership with Africa. Among the other participants were the former Secretary General of the UN, Koffee Annan, and Ghana’s President, John A. Kuffour.

– What Africa has taught me is that the worst thing in the world is the fact that there is so much suffering that is absolutely unnecessary. We could stop it tomorrow. No child needs to die from malaria. It would cost the same amount of money as we spend on pet food in the West to teach every child in the world to read and write.

The Partnership with Africa conference was at that time located in Bonn, Germany and it was the first meeting of a collaboration for an equal partnership between Europe and Africa. Köhler was confident that the international association signaled an important message. He spoke about global environmental problems, AIDS, and the need for cooperation across borders.

Afterwards Köhler said:

– The Conference triggered off a clear awareness that we are interdependent. Africa needs support from the outside, but Europe needs Africa just as much.

Henning had been asked to hold an initial presentation at the conference. He concluded his speech with an anecdote about a poor man he had met once. A man who had painted shoes on his feet. The man had thus found a way to maintain his dignity. This story of resistance and dignity of the painted shoes became a symbol for many of the speakers at the conference.

– The power of maintaining one’s dignity under the most appalling conditions is crucial for the future. Those who believe that this force is missing on the African continent are wrong. Still there are too many people in Europe who only know how Africans are dying, not how they live.

In October 2007 Henning Mankell and his wife Eva Bergman, a Swedish theater director, donated money to the Swedish welfare organization SOS Children’s Villages to fund the construction of a village for orphans in Mozambique. The village, built in Chimoio, was finished in 2012.

– There are 800 thousand orphans in this country. I can’t help them all but that doesn’t mean that I shouldn’t help some. To me this is no sacrifice, it’s a privilege.

His experiences in Africa had a great influence on Henning’s work. His award winning novel The Chronicler of the Winds (1995) is set there, and is deeply influenced by traditional African storytelling.

As the Wallander-series was published in more and more countries, Henning Mankell also became an increasingly public figure. However, it took quite some while before Henning Mankell became more familiar to the public than his fictious creation, Kurt Wallander. Henning Mankell himself wasn’t sure they would get along that well.

– I am not sure we would be friends if we met in real life. We share a love of music and a Calvinist attitude to work, but otherwise we are quite different and I don’t like him very much.

The nine Wallander stories are set in the small town Ystad in the county of Skåne on the southernmost tip of Sweden. Henning Mankell lived there himself in the 1980’s.

– Skåne is the place where Sweden ends – a sort of Baltic Texas. Border areas have their own dynamics: they set off a sense of unease.

Henning Mankell’s Wallander is not only a literary success; in 2008 BBC adapted three of the Wallander stories into 90-minute episodes for TV, starring Kenneth Branagh as Wallander. The three novels are; One Step Behind, Firewall and Sidetracked.

As the Wallander-series have attracted millions and millions of readers, Henning Mankell’s other literary productions have also come into focus. Although his series about Joel and Sofia have been read by children and adults all over the world, his fans are now beginning to discover the immense width of Mankell’s authorship.

After Henning Mankell completed the Wallander-series in 1999 he wrote twelve novels and a number of plays. In 2004 Depths was published, a lyrical and evocative novel about a Swedish naval engineer during World War I and his devastating plunge into obsession. In 2008 Mankell released a thriller, The Man from Beijing. It was published in seven countries simultaneously and apart from being a crime story it also discusses the tremendous transformation undergone by China in the last twenty years and the repercussions this has and will have domestically as well as globally.

– The free market has provided China with more freedom and a tremendous economic rise. However, this economic rise has also resulted in increasing gaps and social injustice within the Chinese society and the communist party is guilty of committing horrible injustices. Nevertheless, the party has enabled one billion Chinese to leave poverty behind and is still regarded by many Chinese to be the guardian of solidarity.

On the third of February 2008 Henning Mankell celebrated his 60th birthday with a party in Maputo. Among the guests were his family, colleagues and friends.

– I usually do not celebrate my birthdays but this time I was persuaded to have a party. At first we talked about having a big party in Stockholm. But it was better to have the party in Maputo. There were fewer people and it was possible for me to limit it to close friends and colleagues. It was also an excellent opportunity for many of my friends from other parts of the world to visit Africa and Mozambique for the first time.

For 50 years Henning Mankell dreamed about going to Timbuktu in Mali. In May 2008 the journey finally happened.

– This was the final step on a long journey through many African countries.

The purpose of the trip was not only to fulfill a dream, but also to take the opportunity to speak freely in two one hour-long programs about the Africa Henning had lived in since 1972. However, a condition for his participation in the two programs was that they would let him include Timbuktu.

– In Timbuktu it is possible to expose one of the great lies about the Sub-Saharan Africa. One of West’s lies about the poor world.

Timbuktu was during the 14th and 15th centuries a meeting place for poets, architects and intellectuals. Then the downturn came and all the institutions of education in Timbuktu were destroyed. Numerous of manuscripts were buried in the sand. Transcripts that today have been found again and still new discoveries are made every day.

– The lie about an Africa without written traditions is being crushed in Timbuktu. Once and for all. The history is being rediscovered, the one that has been hidden in sand or been denied by Europe.

A few years ago Ahmed Baba’s Institute in Timbuktu was inaugurated, and that is where the retrieved writings are collected. But Mali is a poor country and the safety of Ahmed Baba’s institute is low in relation to the manuscripts actual value. Henning has sent letters to universities that cooperates with Timbuktu, including the university in Oslo, to stress the importance of the manuscripts’ security.

– It is important that the world takes responsibility for this heritage. And for that, money is needed.

Right before Henning left Timbuktu, he spent several hours in one of the rooms where broken manuscripts are repaired.

– They sat there in the present, with the past on the table, in the process of repairing them to make them legible for the future. But do we realize that their findings in many ways mean that our history also must be rewritten? A history never stands for itself. One cannot be written without the other.

Henning Mankell was in June 2008 given an honorary doctorate at St Andrews University. Past honorary doctors at St Andrews is the Dalai Lama and Bob Dylan.

2009 Henning Mankell received the honor to sit in the jury of the Berlin Film Festival, Berlinale 2009. The jury consists of several of the film industry’s most significant personalities.

Also, his novel The Man from Beijing was released in the US, the UK and Canada in the end of February 2010. The very last novel about Wallander, The Troubled Man, was released in the US, UK and Canada in the beginning of 2011.

 

Author

“Although my father passed away before my first novel was published I knew he believed in me and was confident that I would have success as a writer.”

Henning Mankell was born in Stockholm 1948. When he was two years old the family moved to Sveg where the father worked as a court judge. The family lived in the court house in Sveg and young Henning much enjoyed listening to the grown-ups discussions on crime and punishment. At age 16 Henning Mankell dropped out of school in order to work as a merchant seaman for two years before settling in Paris. After a year and a half in the French capital, Henning returned to Sweden and got a job as a stagehand in a Stockholm theatre.

In 1973, Mankell released his debut novel, Bergsprängaren (The Rock Blast). In the same year, he went to Africa for the first time. Ever since he has divided his time between Africa and Sweden and since 1986 he is the artistic leader of Teatro Avenida in Maputo, Mozambique.

In 1991, the first novel in the Wallander series, Faceless killers, was published. Since, Henning Mankell has written ten more novels in the series, including the novel Before the Frost, about Kurt Wallander’s daughter Linda. Next to the Wallander novels, Mankell has also written more than twenty novels and a dozen children’s and youth books. In addition, he is also one of Sweden’s most frequently performed dramatists.