Writers & Company

Bestselling Swedish writer Fredrik Backman on the personal story behind his hit novels

The author of the literary phenomenon A Man Called Ove spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about how his personal life has influenced his work, including his latest novel The Winners.
The Winners is a novel by Swedish author Fredrik Backman (Simon & Schuster, Linnéa Jonasson Bernholm)

Fredrik Backman became a literary phenomenon with the publication of his debut novel, A Man Called Ove, 10 years ago in Sweden. The book spent 90 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and the movie adaptation was nominated for best foreign film at the Oscars, with an upcoming American remake to star Tom Hanks. Backman's subsequent titles — including Beartown and Anxious People — were also hugely popular and have been adapted as series for HBO and Netflix.  Altogether his books have sold 12 million copies globally, in 46 languages.

As an awkward, anxious child, Backman fell in love with sports and books. His latest title, The Winners, concludes his powerful Beartown trilogy, which focuses on a small town and its junior hockey club in the forest of northern Sweden. Sensitive and timely, it explores both the bright and dark sides of "hockey culture." 

Backman was born in Stockholm in 1981. Eleanor spoke to him from his home there.

The people of Beartown

"I think first and foremost the residents of Beartown are resilient. It's very, very cold. It's one thing to live in the countryside. But it's a different thing entirely to live in the middle of the forest. You're kind of isolated. I liked telling a story about people who are so affected by nature.

There's a certain sense of pride that it's a tough town — and it's also making them a tough people.

"What I'd like to explain about the people of Beartown is that they live there voluntarily. They live there by choice. They like that it's hard. Not everyone can do this. There's a certain sense of pride that it's a tough town — and it's also making them a tough people."

Almost a fairytale

"The fable or or the fairy tale way of telling a story, that's the way I always tell stories. I don't think it's always intentional. I always fall back into that. I think it comes from the fact that I don't want to be an author. That was never my goal. I want to be a storyteller.

"When I tell you something I want it to feel like I'm telling this story just for you. I want it to feel like we're sitting across each other at a table and I say, 'You wanna hear a story?' And you go, 'All right.' 

"Then I try to tell that story as well as I can, as entertaining as I can, as exciting as I can, as suspenseful as I can. I try to tell you a really, really good story."

The power of sports stories

"The best sports stories are always mythical. It's always almost supernatural, unbelievable. All the great sports stories are about an unbelievable shot, or an impossible catch, or something happened at the end of the game and it changed everything.

The best sports stories are always mythical. It's always almost supernatural, unbelievable.

"That's why we watch sports — because we wait for those moments. That's the reason I fell in love with sports and literature at the same time. When I was about five years old, I fell in love with both because they were my escape from reality."

Writing out of anxiety

"I had my breakdown in the winter of 2017. My career had started to go very well abroad. I had done two American tours and I was incredibly uncomfortable. I did interviews, or I went on tours, or I sat on stage and I felt like an actor. I felt like, well, I'm pretending to be the author that you want me to be. And I had an identity crisis and I was so uncomfortable. I'm still very uncomfortable on stage.

"I needed to write, not to write a book, but I just needed to write because that's the way I organize my thoughts. I started doing that, and that was the start of Anxious People

"I had this idea that I'll write a comedy. I'll write something simple, a straightforward comedy. Of course, I failed horribly. It's not even considered by many as a straightforward comedy. It's a lot more serious than I intended it to be. That became Anxious People. I couldn't help myself from involving all of the things I was thinking about during my breakdown and during my recovery, all of these things that I was struggling with."

Closing a trilogy

"[Writing The Winners] was scary because I've never written a series of that sort. I felt like, 'Can I find that tone of voice again? Can I find these characters and make them believable again? Can I step back into that world and make it real again? Or is it lost now. Can I do it without disappointing people?' That was my fear. 

I don't want to do this if I don't have something new to tell. There has to be a new story that's worth telling.

"I don't want to do this if I don't have something new to tell. There has to be a new story that's worth telling.

"It has been a scary and exhausting experience. My only hope is that people feel when they read The Winners that this is written by someone who gave his everything. He didn't leave anything behind. This is all he had. He gave this 100 per cent. Because I did."

Fredrik Backman's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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