“The Book I Said I Would Never Write”: Talking with Karolina Ramqvist
Karolina Ramqvist is a big deal in Sweden, and now she’s arrived in the US. Ramqvist made her English debut in February with the translation of her novel The White City. Already a bestseller in Sweden, the book is the winner of the prestigious Per Olov Enquist Literary Prize and has been praised by Siri Hustvedt, Kirkus Review, and many more.
The White City has all the elements of a thriller, delivered in controlled and rapturous prose that makes it move almost cinematically. The thin book traces a few days in the life of Karin, last name unknown, the girlfriend of a high-level crime boss who is killed. Karin is left alone with her six-month-old daughter, Dream, faced with investigations and no source of income, and has to fight her way out—of her situation, and of a black hole of despair and grief. Tightly wound in Karin’s emotions and thoughts, the book cycles with her through all the levels of grief, and all the fight-or-flight responses of a mother in peril. The White City is a sequel to Ramqvist’s first novel, The Girlfriend (2009), but stands on its own. It is about the ferocious capabilities of women under pressure, and the ties that bind them—physical, emotional, and circumstantial.
A journalist, former editor of Arena magazine, and now fourth-time novelist, Ramqvist is studied, sharp, and has the kind of carefully quick mind you’d expect after reading her prose. I spoke with her at a cafe in the Lower East Side, New York, when she was in town for PEN World Voices Festival, about The White City, The Girlfriend, their differences, and about the idea of a writer’s persona out in the world versus a just being a writer, writing.
The Rumpus: The White City is a continuation of your first novel, The Girlfriend, which I wanted to read and was sad to find isn’t translated into English.
Karolina Ramqvist: Yes, it came out quite a while ago and is only out in Scandinavia and a few other countries. The White City is a continuation of the same story but I wanted it to stand for itself, and because I wrote The Girlfriend it never can in Sweden. So I’m happy when it did well [in the US] because that was my first confirmation that it could.
Rumpus: If you read Swedish you can get the whole backstory, but I can’t. I wondered, while reading, at what English readers might be missing. When writing The Girlfriend, did you think there would be a book two?
Ramqvist: Not at all. When it came out, a lot of publishers asked me if there would be a sequel. At the time, there were agents with that commercial eye asking for this very specific Nordic crime thing.
Rumpus: I guess that would have been around the time of The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo.
Ramqvist: Yes, and that made me very uneager to write anything more on it. But then I had a book come out between The Girlfriend and The White City; it’s called The Beginning of Everything. The title is, loosely translated, from a painting by Gustave Courbet, L’Origine Du Monde. [The book is] about feminism, a coming of age story. I wouldn’t say it’s autobiographical, but I used a lot of facts from my own life. I share a lot of circumstances with the main character. She’s my age, grew up in the same town, went to the same nightclubs. You follow her from when she’s fourteen to when she’s twenty-three. She wants to become a writer and uncover the state she lives in, find out about life and men, go into the world and describe it. Her mom is a radical 1968 feminist, so she’s born into it and has to challenge those ideas within feminism.
Rumpus: To find it for herself.
Ramqvist: Yes. That book came out in 2012 and was very well-received. I had to do so many interviews, and I was asked what my experiences with [the subject matter] were. At that time in Sweden the whole autofiction thing was very big, it seemed as if every novel that came out was really the writer’s own story. So I was very fed up with getting those questions. Especially because they’re questions people don’t pose to male writers as often as female writers, because we have this idea that men write about life and the bigger sorts of questions.
Rumpus: And women only write about “women’s issues.”
Ramqvist: Yes! And because there was the picture of myself on the cover, the publishing house didn’t want to use the painting; for me it was almost ironic. I don’t think anyone else got it, though. [Laughs] The Beginning of Everything was my third novel, and the first time I was really confronted with the writer as a figure, and with the split between being a person who is writing and being a writer in the world. I discovered people have this idea of writers as people who sit in studios or on stage talking and not really of them just sitting in their pajamas at their desk working. I ended up writing a piece about that, about that conflict, for Lit Hub.
So while I was doing all these promotional interviews, I was at my house in the countryside with my family, and I had decided I was only going to be doing that, and that I’d enjoy some free time. This whole thing of becoming the writer persona instead of a person who is writing was so disturbing to me. So I decided I had to start writing something, something that wasn’t going to be published. I’ve always had tons of ideas. I have almost like a bucket list of things I want to write. It’s a little disturbing, almost like a hoarder’s syndrome, you just collect them. I thought I shouldn’t write those, but something I had never thought of. And there was a book that I had said I would never write, a follow-up to The Girlfriend. So I just spur of the moment took to my computer, it was early morning, and thought: Okay, Karin, what’s happened to her? Say it’s been five years. Where did she end up? It was a way for me to handle the whole situation and get back into the writing.
Rumpus: An exercise.
Ramqvist: Yes. At first it had a different title, it’s not really translatable, bytet, which is like the change or the switch. In Swedish it’s used for a small child, or a loot within crime, it’s a very broad term. It was a change for me in the way I viewed the character, and also The Girlfriend is written in present tense and is more of a monologue and contained. It takes place over only three days where she’s in her luxury villa that her boyfriend or husband [John] bought or paid for.
Rumpus: The same house as in The White City?
Ramqvist: Yes. In The Girlfriend the house is perfect, it’s almost like she’s playing house a little bit. Very infatuated with surfaces and materials, and with the idea of being a woman, and that’s part of why she was drawn to this world. Because from a Swedish perspective, or from my Swedish perspective, gender roles are so deconstructed. But within certain areas, for instance crime, and the gangster culture, you’ll have very obvious gender roles.
Rumpus: Like “this is my woman.”
Ramqvist: Yes, which is something you won’t really see. Within the middle class, where I come from in Sweden, we tend not to talk about it. We tend to really stay away from everything that is like that.
Rumpus: The gender roles aren’t clearly defined, or at least not talked about in that way.
Ramqvist: Exactly. So I think Karin had this longing to be that, to do that play. That book is very different from The White City, and at the same time, it’s the same universe, same characters. I don’t know about here, but in Sweden it’s very rare that books have a long lifetime in bookstores. I’ve been very fortunate because all of my books are out now. I think The White City made people want to read The Girlfriend.
Rumpus: That was one of my questions, because I haven’t been able to read The Girlfriend. Part of The White City’s rapture is this calm-before-the-storm aura that permeates it. Karin is both dead inside and very alive, in a well of despair and also very anxious. Here Karin is so grief-stricken and afraid, and I was curious what she was like before, and how writing her in this way differed in writing her before.
Ramqvist: The Girlfriend is a novel about worrying. I felt that that was a sentiment that I had huge experience in [laughs], but I hadn’t really read a lot of novels about worrying. Worrying over someone else, waiting for someone. It has to do a lot with her trying to control her emotions. She has all these different strategies for it, with the house, her clothing, her makeup, her body, how she takes care of everything. That’s to soothe herself, because she’s so worried about what’s happening when John is out working. And she’s also together with her friends because they’re in the same situation as her. They come for dinner and end up partying together. The difference is also that, in The Girlfriend, many readers might have been provoked because Karin is very superior. It’s her way of trying to deal with the moral issues of being married to someone who does these things, and uses his money and lives this way.
Rumpus: And she’s estranged from her family because of that, right?
Ramqvist: She’s about to be. She’s still talking to her sisters and her mom. Her mom is also this very Swedish 1968 feminist, social democrat, and they have very strong ideas about the collective and responsibilities and moral ideas. [Karin is] refraining from all of that.
Rumpus: She and John have their world and their money, they’re so far apart from everyone.
Ramqvist: Yes. She’s trying to diminish her own feelings of guilt. To spread the blame. She’ll say, Oh, what about someone living with someone working at the immigration office who’s deporting people? What kind of responsibility do they have, too? She’s dealing with all these moral issues. In a way, some might interpret it as she’s trying to convince herself. So [The Girlfriend] is a lot more set in her inner world. She’s in the house and also very compacted within herself with all these questions.
Rumpus: But The White City is like that as well. We leave the house here and there, but we’re so in her head, it’s a very close third person narrative and the whole book takes on her mental state. If she hadn’t been dealing with her emotions prior, in this book she’s now only dealing with them, only feeling, in a very deep and specific way.
Ramqvist: I love that, because that’s how I thought of it. The Girlfriend is also told in first person. In The White City, I wanted to take a small step away from [Karin] and look at her from a different angle. With The Girlfriend, I think a lot of people felt really angry at her. They wanted to walk into the novel and shake her, like, “Get out of there! What are you doing? Why are you doing this?” Because she’s this privileged, white, middle-class woman, she’s got all the possibilities in the world. What was interesting to me was that, here in Sweden, the equality of the sexes is very advanced and we have a situation where she can actually do what she wants. So that was a conflict. When The White City came out, I think some readers were happy she was finally thrown down from the pedestal. I got questions of whether I wrote it to punish her. There was a class reading of it, too. She used to live this luxury life and now she’s down.
I wanted to write about weaknesses and pains. Also what happened when I started to write it, where I live in Stockholm is this very quaint neighborhood, kinda of boho-chic area. You have all these coffee shops where people sit, like they do here, with their laptops, and some might go to the restroom and leave their phone and wallet and everything. And a few years ago people started to come from Romania to Sweden and beg for money. They’re EU immigrants who travel around to different countries to sustain themselves and send back money to their families to build houses. That was a complete shift in the public space because even just two streets away we’d always had people doing that, but not in my neighborhood. But I was very interested in this act of begging for help, being helpless and trying to survive and those things. I wanted to know how we would view [Karin] knowing who she is and where she’s coming from, and can we still feel empathetic for her in this situation that she’s in right now. I think in that way I was using the backstory even though I was trying to make something completely new.
Rumpus: I want to shift to talking about some of the characters, starting with Dream. What an amazing pairing. I enjoyed her so much because of the repetition of the breastfeeding. This is a dreamy book, in style, and I don’t think we would have had any sense of how much time was passing without that need for regular breastfeeding and that attachment. Was that conscious?
Ramqvist: I don’t know how conscious it was but I saw it happening and realized I could use it. I was hoping for that reaction and I haven’t actually heard anyone say it before. I said it once to someone. That’s very perceptive that you picked up on that.
Rumpus: Otherwise, she would wake up and we would have no idea how many days had passed. And, too, that physical pain of the breasts always swelling, it’s very body-oriented. Corporeal.
Ramqvist: I think I was attracted to the idea of her body being sort of like an engine.
Rumpus: She’s keeping Dream alive, but Dream is also keeping her alive. If she didn’t have to deal with Dream, would she just collapse? You get the sense she might.
Rumpus: Even though she didn’t particularly want to be a mother in the first place—now that she is, she’s really going to be. Did you plan to end the book the way you did? I certainly didn’t expect the focus to come around to this friendship [between Karin and Therese].
Ramqvist: No, not at all. It just sort of happened. I’m more into style and form and language than plot.
Rumpus: Female friendship novels are a hot ticket item these days. I wondered if that was on your mind at all.
Ramqvist: I think it probably was, subconsciously. Also, The Girlfriend was going to be a feature film; I don’t know if it still is, but I wrote a manuscript for it. And in that novel, [Karin and Therese’s] relationship is so intense and loving. So I think it was my own urge for them to get back together.
Rumpus: This book is very painful, up until the very end. So I liked this idea that women are the only ones who can save each other, though I don’t know if that was your intention.
Ramqvist: I think I had that sisterhood ideal somewhere deep down. Also, because they’re so different, these two characters, there was something catalystic about them. There’s something about them getting back together, making each other change things and wake up. But yes, female friendship can be a very tricky. It’s so overused, in a way. And we have this idea that women should be good and be good friends, and [Karin and Therese] are good friends, but I was a bit bothered by that idea. It’s not always the way it has to be.
Rumpus: It’s complicated. They can be as bad as they can be good. There’s a tremendous capacity for negative power. You see that with them, how it’s soured but love is still there. You really don’t think Therese is going to help her. The end is quite a surprise.
Ramqvist: That’s maybe the one thing that’s less surprising to readers who read The Girlfriend.
Rumpus: When you were writing this, did you have the impulse to write more of the backstory or give more details? It’s very spare.
Ramqvist: I wrote it that way from the beginning, but it became even more so along the way. The Girlfriend is more flow-y, and the novel that I wrote before is very different. More wordy and comforting. More easygoing. A good read. [Laughs] So I wanted to boil this one down to the essential parts, to put everything I had into every sentence. And also to work with the white page, the empty page. It was a way of practicing writing in this style. When I’m going to start a novel, I have very strong feelings about the language and the form and how it’s going to be written, but I have a hard time figuring out what it is I want to reach and what I’m trying to get to. I tried to sit and write and see when that would happen, when I would recognize it. How the language should feel, what the tone would be. I enjoyed writing it in that spare way.
Rumpus: Did that come from it originally being a practice endeavor?
Ramqvist: Yes. I would do these snapshots or small scenes in the beginning.
Rumpus: How did that idea of white space fit with the rest of the book? Why that form?
Ramqvist: It might have had to do with the fact that I knew that she was a person or character who people have a lot of different thoughts about. Who people were a bit angry with. I wanted to put her up on a scene, to sort of just lay her out. Almost like an object, a thing that would just be on display. I wanted to write in a way so the reader can add their own ideas. Do half of the job. [Laughs] That was the first time I tried to incorporate it into the form. I’ve always tried to write that way but using white space I could finally make it more tangible.
Rumpus: At what point did you realize it wasn’t just practice?
Ramqvist: It took awhile. It was summer, and I remember having dinner with my editor in February and she was like, “So can I read this?” So maybe for eight months I was just doing it for myself.
Rumpus: When you got to the point where you realized it was a book, how much changed then?
Ramqvist: Not a ton. But I had to do a lot of research. I had to navigate a lot. There were the most changes made within the plot. Using small details to make everything fit. As I said, I’m not really plot-driven, so I had to go back and be like, okay, someone is actually going to read this and I have to add more. Especially with the whole premise that she’s going to lose her house. Because I hadn’t done any research on how that would work. I was so anxious because I didn’t want to change too much. I wanted it to be able to work but still be realistic. That idea in there of “follow the money,” even though there’s not a lot actually in the book that deals with that, crime investigation and tax laws, I still had to read so much. I figured out there were two scenarios how the government could take the house away from her and one of them could be applicable to her story. So I fortunately didn’t have to change a lot but I did have to go through the story and be very careful.
Rumpus: It can be frustrating. A lot of that research doesn’t end up going into a novel but you still have to do it. I think as fiction writers we want to just make up a scenario and be like, “This sounds good, right?” But you know someone—probably you—has to fact-check it.
Ramqvist: And you don’t want to have to change something that you really want to have in the book just because of real-world circumstances! [Laughs]
Rumpus: It feels frustrating when there’s this whole world you’ve created but then there’s one pesky little thread that ties you back to reality.
Ramqvist: Yes. Actually, to me it was really interesting to get into that subject because in Sweden it’s so new. We haven’t had this way of dealing with organized crime. Only in the last ten years or so. The Girlfriend was a novel I wanted to for maybe ten years, but I couldn’t get to it. I just knew I wanted to write about this girlfriend. It wasn’t until I realized she was going to be very materialistic and loving shoes and clothing and handbags and interior decoration that I got it. It was a way of seeing that she’s like me, she’s like anyone else. We tend to talk about this criminal world as if it is another world. And especially in Sweden, because we all live with very strong ideas of our society and how it’s working. I was very interested in all these little bridges between these two worlds and all the angles where we’re all the same. This “follow the money” thing is so good for that because that’s where the authorities look at what people consume, what relationships they have, they go after relatives and family. So that’s where these worlds meet.
And also, in Sweden that whole operation is very controversial because you have this list, which is in the book. It’s a list that a lot of people think doesn’t exist, but it really does. Usually I think it contains about a hundred names. They don’t have to be very high up, like in Karin’s case, but they have to have key positions within criminal gangs. It’s a tool for the authorities. If someone’s on it, the authorities don’t have to follow certain amendments. They can call and ask about this person in other agencies, which would be impossible to do otherwise. It sidetracks a lot of laws, which is very controversial, of course. In that sense, we can question the authorities themselves, who they are and what they’re doing. These things become a bit complicated, especially when it comes to going after a person who isn’t guilty of anything except loving someone. It was really interesting to look at things that way.
Rumpus: You’re a journalist as well, so I wondered if the overall subject matter was something you’d investigated.
Ramqvist: Not at all. But I have a friend who knows a bit about it, so I was able to ask her. Also, I really wanted Karin to lose her home. We have the immigration debate right now, and the idea of a home or a place to be safe in is big, so I really wanted to take her home away from her and see. Because I realized oh, this is a thing that actually happens now. Even though the book isn’t really set in Sweden, it’s more set in this unknown place.
Rumpus: I was curious about that.
Ramqvist: It could be Sweden; it could be somewhere else. But I was very glad when I found out it was actually happening so I could use it. I thought someone should make a documentary about “follow the money.” I’m not going to write a book about it but you could really do that, it’s so interesting. And you have all these gray areas in it. I’m very attracted to gray areas.
Rumpus: As we can tell in the book. Who are you reading right now?
Ramqvist: I’m reading Rikki Ducornet, her novel Netsuke. It’s about a psychoanalyst who sleeps with his patients to save them, it’s very good. Reading a lot for a Swedish thing. I never used to do this, but for work now I’m reading like, every novel that comes out. All debuts. I never used to read Swedish contemporary fiction that way, so I was so surprised. This is my second year doing it, but I’ll be doing it until I’m fifty-five. [Laughs]
Rumpus: Wow. Contractually obligated?
Ramqvist: No, it’s a great thing to be able to do. I received [the award], and then I got the opportunity to do it. I get to meet with other writers and talk about fiction so I said yes. But now I’m reading a lot of Swedish writers! It’s different, because I was used to reading books that I have and classics and translated works. I read a lot of French authors. I love Marie Darrieussecq. If you haven’t read her, you definitely should. And also Margueritte Duras. I used her book, Writing, a lot in my Lit Hub essay.
Rumpus: Are you finding, in reading so many of your contemporaries, that it’s influencing you at all?
Ramqvist: I’m sometimes very surprised. Very often I look at a book with no expectations and then it turns out to be something completely different. I’m really glad to be able to read this much poetry, because Swedish poetry is very strong and great and I didn’t really know that before. Also with the fiction, I was very taken aback of how publishing works. Sometimes you can see that an idea is great, but the actual writing doesn’t really work. You can see the original promise within the book but that is not really fulfilled along the way. I think that’s a great thing with publishing. You can be a writer and do a brilliant novel then you can do a few not so brilliant ones. That’s very comforting to me in a way. When I first started to read so much I was a bit disappointed, but then I realized this is what it’s all about. If, like me, you’ve been reading mostly translated fictions and classics and books you used to love, then you’re just getting the best. But when you stand in front of this river of what’s out now, it’s a completely different thing. At first I was a bit saddened and confused, but then I realized that this is the way it works. It’s so comforting, to be in that space. I think literature is this counter-course. We’re allowed to be slow and not marketable or perfect. We’re allowed to have a different concept of time.
Rumpus: I think there comes a moment when you’re reading a lot of contemporary fiction where you can find something redeemable in very book, even if you didn’t like the book itself. You think, well, it’s the effort that counts. And I don’t know if other arts are as forgiving.
Ramqvist: No! That can be very hard, too. One of the feelings I got was, it’s such hard work, why do you even want to write? What is the point of this, when the writing isn’t magical or nothing happens on the page? But then I realized, because I found one book that I loved, that one book out of two hundred during the year, maybe that’s the right amount. You all can come back and give it another try. It goes back to what I was thinking about in my essay, the writer as figure or the writer who writes.
Rumpus: Are you thinking about future, or next steps?
Ramqvist: I’m always very ambivalent, so I’m torn between being just a writer and going to a place and writing. I think I did eighty talks and lectures last year, and most of them were on the subject of this book and the impossibilities of even talking about a novel. Especially when you’re like me and you want the reader to create the novel, I don’t want to stand in front of it. It’s a funny and strange situation. But I have this relationship with social media that it’s very odd. I have like 10,000 followers on Twitter but I feel so weird writing there. I don’t really know what to put there and how to handle that. But now that I’ve done my last talk on this essay, I’m thinking maybe I should look into this social media thing again. Or maybe the resistance is a good thing. I’m a very comfortable person. I’m a writer because I wanted to withdraw from everything else. So maybe it’s a good thing for me to get out to these talks, to be more active, not so controlled. I’m very much in my own head and have a hard time seeing myself from outside. I was a terrible journalist because I would just write for myself and not consider the reader.
When you’re a presenter at a book fair and they have these small talks and you have like ten a day where you have to talk, it feels so exhausting and so silly. But then, every time I’ve been to one, after like two days, I discover there is something in it that I find that I didn’t know before, or that I knew and had forgotten, about the work I’m talking about. So there’s always something I think to be found in this. I suppose that has to do a lot with how you see yourself as a person and the space you want to be in. So when you get used to writing novels and doing it the way you want to do it, it’s also very scary to write in other contexts.
Rumpus: To consider the public when you didn’t before.
Author photograph © Jasmine Storch.