Lecture with Arne Dahl and Michel Bussi

On Friday 25th of August I went to meet two leading crime novelists in Europe, Arne Dahl and Michel Bussi. The lecture was called "Europe's Most Wanted" and it was organized by Edinburgh International Book Festival 2017. The atmosphere was lovely and the writers were discussing their newest books (Watching You by Arne Dahl and Black Water Lilies by Michel Bussi) and writing styles. The burning questions? Why do they both deal with children in their latest novels? What is the role of time? And what does it look like when writing a crime fiction?

The first question was why children have such an important part in Dahl's book Watching You:

Dahl answered that this time he wanted to write something completely different compare to his previous books. He wanted to dive more into person's dark sides and his psychology. And that is when you always end up with childhood. Compare to his previous novels, in Watching You Dahl tries to avoid political subjects and the contemporary situation in Europe. Instead, he focuses on questions about human nature and how children can be cruel to each other.

The presenter then asked Michel Bussi about the unusual setting, a small village Giverny (the location of Monet's garden and inspiration for his paintings), of his novel Black Water Lilies:

Bussi replied that firstly, he imagined a story without any setting. Then he imagined a small village and the idea of painting came. He wanted to avoid using Giverny as a setting because the village is too well known and it would enclose and limit him during his work. However, the setting had to have an association with Black Water Lilies, the rumoured Monet's painting which has never been found. Bussi needed a village that has not changed much, a place that is almost static. Thus Giverny, which fits it perfectly.

Ever wondered why Dahl is obsessed with time in Watching You? Here is his explanation:

The main character, Sam Berker, thinks that he can control time by collecting watches. This way he can make sure that time is just slowly ticking by, that it stays mechanical and the past is safely in the past. And suddenly things happen and time becomes subjective. The past and time have caught on Berker and there are not predictable like his watches. Dahl explained that a novel is always about time. And crime fiction is about correcting mistakes of the past.

Crime fiction is about correcting mistakes of the past. (Arne Dahl)

And how about Bussi's writing style, slightly playing with his reader?

Bussi admitted that he likes a little bit of magic and manipulation in his work, explaining that a writer is like a magician who makes a trick and there is a big reveal in the end. The "magic trick" always happens in front of the reader's eyes. But it is important that a writer leaves some little clues of which his reader has a little notion throughout the reading, however, they are there! Yet, how Bussi admitted, it is difficult to decide which words insert to make the magic work. It is like a literary play - choosing words and phrases. Bussi concluded that sometimes he is surprised to find out where the reader's imagination can take him. To places which even he, the author of the story, has not imagined.

There was also some time for the questions from the audience. And I absolutely love this question that one of the ladies asked - You both seem to be such nice guys! So how do you get such dark thoughts and themes for your books?

To which Dahl brilliantly answered: oh, you don't know me! But he continued, saying that writers take what they fear most, they write about it and control it at least a little bit in their literary worlds.

Bussi agreed with the lady, explaining that a lot of the crime authors are nice guys because they have empathy for other people as they need to comprehend all the psychopaths they write about. Writers need to understand them, to emphasise with their dark characters so they can reliably depict them in a story. (Which, of course, does not mean that they agree with their actions and murders.)

A lot of the crime authors are nice guys because they have empathy for other people. (Michel Bussi)

Dahl added that the answer to the question, "Why do you like writing about violence?", is that they don't like it. On the contrary, writers like creating justice in their own literary world as an opposite to all that violence.

Another question from the audience was what it is like to be reading their translated books. Does the translation appear almost like a completely new book to them?

Bussi admitted that he does not read any of his books' translations.

Dahl explained that of course any translation is slightly different from the original. But the atmosphere of the translation is still the same, which is the most important. However, if his book is translated to Estonian and the result comes twice the size, then he asks: "And what is this?!". (laugh)

The presenter concluded the lecture by asking about their writing process and what it is like writing crime fiction.

Dahl explained that Swedish crime fiction is specific, regarding their political situation and history. People from Sweden used to have a tendency to view their country and politics as something slightly better than in the other countries. Of course, they were wrong! At certain point they simply had to admit that Sweden is not perfect (for example, after the unsolved murder of their prime minister Olof Palme in 1986). More interestingly, Dahl also suggested that a reader has to have a certain distance to violence in order to read about it and to write about it. He continued by saying that imagine Congo, for example, where people would hardly like to read about violence as it is happening just around the corner. He concluded that you have to feel safe to read a crime fiction.

There are always differences between the perfect imaginary book and the final result. (Michel Bussi)

When Bussi started talking about his writing process, he admitted that he likes to have a structured plan, but for some weeks he just imagines it in his head. He writes notes, but his almost entire book is in his head. The difficult part is to put the perfect image of his book from his head on paper. Bussi admitted that there are always differences between the perfect imaginary book and the final result. It is the same with a painter who reproduces an image from his imagination but the final result is never 100% same.

Here Dahl concluded that if you manage to write a perfect book then you will never write again.


About the writers:

Jan Arnald (using the pen name Arne Dahl when he writes crime fiction) is a Swedish novelist and journalist. He wrote a series about a fictional group of investigators called "the Intercrime Group". The Blinded Man or Bad Blood are only few names of the series' translated books into English. The first five of them were made into television films. His latest book translated into English, Watching You, is the first book in his new series of a planned crime trilogy.

Michel Bussi is a French crime writer and professor at the University of Rouen. His books belong to bestsellers in France. Some were translated into English, such as After the Crash, Don't Let Go or Black Water Lilies.


(The text above is a transcript of what was said on the lecture on Friday 25th August 2017 in Aberdeen, Scotland, as a part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival 2017. I did not manipulate with the text and left it in its pure form as I listened to the conversation between two amazing crime writers Arne Dahl and Michel Bussi.)