Stockholm crime writer Karin Aspenström didn’t want a false identity. She was brave enough to just be herself. Out of her boldness, her second crime novel was born in collaboration with Peter Rätz, who worked for the Swedish police for nine years as an undercover cop, infiltrating criminal gangs like the Hells Angels and the Russian mob. Rätz nowadays lives abroad under different identities, moving from country to country, with constant death threats hanging over him.
When you started the collaboration with Peter Rätz, were you worried that you would turn into a target yourself?
I was a bit scared in the beginning when I didn’t know the scale of the project. People around me were more worried – like my brother, for example, because he has two little kids and feared for them. I mostly feared that they would come after me in order to get to Peter. But in every interview I always said the truth – that I had no way of reaching him, and that he made sure that I would never have his number or know about his whereabouts. But it was really only dangerous for Peter, not for me (even though the police had advised me to publish under a pseudonym). In the end I decided not to use one because I learned that a film was made and a book had been written about Peter before we collaborated. Well, also when the book came out, I was a bit worried that the gangster or the policeman I had created as fictional characters wouldn’t like the way I portrayed them. But apart from some events the characters were mostly fictionalised. Anyway, Karin giggles, some tough gangsters might even like seeing themselves in books.
What was the collaboration like?
Going abroad to meet Peter and staying in a hotel was a bit scary at first. Although he is a sort of macho gangster type, I always felt very safe around him. He was also very good with picking the good bits and dramatising story parts. To my surprise, he left many decisions up to me. I was a little worried he was going to have too many opinions about my choices because in the end it was his life story, but he was easy with it, always saying ‘No no, you are the artist.’ So after interviewing him for days we started to build a fictionalised story out of it. I’m not a journalist, so I wasn’t checking for the truth… I just thought ‘yeah probably true but who knows… ‘. One time we met up in the US and he took me out for some research. We went on a motorcycle and did gun shooting, offering me a taste of a gangster life.
Was there a moment when you felt uncomfortable?
Yeah, the shooting. It was horrible. I never done it before and especially in the US they have these people targets you can pick. It’s up to you if you focus on the head or the heart. In Sweden, I don’t think you’re allowed to have targets with pictures of people on them, maybe in the military but I’m not so sure. I just wanted something abstract, not a person. He found me a silhouette of a man but I still I had to cry when I was shooting. It was suddenly so real.
What type of gun did you use?
A SIG SAUER, that’s what the Swedish police are using. With the guns it was strange because we were so deep into the story, and each gun had a different meaning – as in, who was killing who with which gun. It was hard for me.
With two crime novels Brännmärkt (Skin is marked/burned) and Rättslös (Without Rights) under your wings, how do you now start your day?
It depends what project I’m working on. If I am doing screenwriting I usually get up and work in an office with more people around, co-writers for example. But when I’m writing literature, I often prefer to work isolated, mostly in my home office. I seek the quiet. On good or bad days I usually work 4-6 hours each day. That can include staring at my computer screen for ages wondering what the fuck I’m doing. If that happens, the best thing is just to leave it for a while. Go out for a walk, read a book, talk to someone. The morning hours are best for me because my mind is still cleansed. It’s always dangerous when I go online, it kind of blurs my inspiration. The evenings are usually fine for working as well, just in the afternoon I feel kinda useless as a writer and usually have a snooze.
How do you deal with a writer’s block?
I usually let the project sit there for a while. If I feel the pressure I can’t write. If I don’t have to write it’s much easier to be creative. Sometimes it could also mean you should leave the project entirely. Maybe it’s just not meant for you. It certainly happened to me a lot when I was younger and more restless.
How did you start your journey of becoming a writer?
At fifteen, but I wasn’t sure I could do it. I was too impatient, I hardly finished anything. It took me another fifteen years to finally understand and act on that need. When the first manuscripts I had sent off to publishers were rejected, it was really hard for me to accept because they were very impersonal about it. But after that I coped with it okay because I just wrote on so many different projects at the same time that I managed to get rid of any negative thoughts and just carried on. Eventually I took up screenwriting studies and got my first writing jobs in TV in 2007. From then on I was a paid writer and everything else started to suddenly happen as well. Screenwriting taught me a lot about literature writing, on how to move a story forward and how to create interesting characters. It’s what I wanted.
How did you get your first book published?
Peter and I did a synopsis for three books. Our first book project got sold to a publishing company that I am now still with. I felt very lucky then. So, now they believe in me and I can write my own things. Its hard to get your feet through the door, but once you’re in you get actually paid for your work in advance. It’s a good feeling. I hope my books will be translated so the audience abroad can read it.
How was Brännmärkt financed?
I was approached by someone from within the film production company I was working with asking me whether I wanted to write a book. They couldn’t tell me on the phone who it was about but I was excited and just said ‘Yeah yeah of course….’ That’s how it started. With Brännmärkt we had some money flowing in from a literary agent who paid for the meetings abroad. However, then they suddenly decided that didn’t believe in the project any longer and pulled out. Peter found another person who bought 20% of the rights to it. By then I thought it had been such a long journey to get there that I wanted to do something fun with it. So I went to NY for three months and finished the book. Once it was done, we were lucky that a publishing company wanted to buy it, but at the same time the literary agency took us to court. So I didn’t make any money on the project. In fact, I lost money. But because of it I was able to sign with a publisher and can now write my own stories. It was a good stepping stone and worth all the trouble.
Your thoughts on money?
For a long time I worked in second hand stores while studying Film Studies in London and later on Journalism in Sweden but I stopped the minute I realised I didn’t want to become a journalist. I realised that I hated interviewing people. So, looking back, I took out quite a few student loans but I still don’t mind that I did that. It was part of my journey. I was kind of used to living a low maintenance lifestyle because living in London was so expensive, and at times I had been very poor. But what really drove me to become a writer was my passion for it. I think it would be very stupid to get into writing for the money. You need to love it. And you have to accept the loneliness that comes with it at times. I might be working in a shared office space this summer just to get out of the house for a while and see what it’s like, because it’s also stimulating to mingle and interact with others.
As a female do you find it more difficult to establish yourself as a crime writer?
Most successful crime writers in Sweden are actually female, however in TV and film there is a tendency for men to choose other men to work with. I do find that quite annoying of course. But I think I don’t have to work harder than men to prove myself. Although, when looking at the film & TV industry as a whole, I do feel that men are still in charge. Most shows that are chosen out of those on offer have a male lead rather than a female lead.
Your next book is not exactly crime. What is it about?
‘To my love’ is a dark love story plays in the mid to late 90s in London, set in the midst of the Camden music scene. It’s more of a mystery story about a Swedish boy who loses his Swedish girlfriend only to go back 20 years later and search for her, finding an entirely different London and dark passages of the past. It’s sort of a coming of age story which has a lot to do with myself.
Where do you see yourself in 20 years?
Doing what I’m doing now, but better. I hope I always will have the feeling that writing is like playing when you were a kid: fun and inspiring, but dead serious at the same time. In my dreams I spend every spring in my pied-à-terre in Primrose Hill.
How do you keep fit mentally and physically?
I’m actually doing long distance running. This is the first time in three years that I’m not doing the Stockholm marathon… gotta get back into it!
How do you define success?
To be happy and content with what you’re doing. To keep learning new things, as a writer and a human being. To always stay passionate and not care too much about what other people want from you.
Any favourite hang out spots where you work on your stories?
…plus any cafe connected to a museum is usually a great place to write, especially early on weekdays.
You worked in second hand stores. Do you have a favourite designer brand?
I do really like Rodebjer!
How can readers get in touch with you?
Photos: Eva Lindblad