Interview by Carl Marsh - July 2014
as you know, I am a big fan of books, and your book The Swimmer has just been released in the English language. It is a remarkable debut. It's written brilliantly, has plenty of twists, and the ending, cracking! Surely this cannot be your first book, as it is just too good?
Thanks, I am blushing now… Well, yes, it is my first book.
Would you please let everyone know a bit about your background, and how you got into writing?
I grew up mainly on the east coast of Sweden, not far from the islands where the ending of The Swimmer takes place. But since my father worked a bit for the United Nations, I spent some time in the Middle East as a teenager. Later on I was an exchange student outside of Washington D.C., and after high school I studied law in Uppsala in Sweden and Maastricht in the Netherlands. Following my law degrees, I worked for a about ten years in Brussels for the EU. All of those experiences found their way into the The Swimmer in one way or another. Books and writing have been a major part of my life for as long as I can remember. Ever since I read Enid Blyton and the Biggles books as a child, I have known that I wanted to be a writer, but I never thought that it could be a career. Therefore all my adolescent poetry and half finished short stories remained firmly in note books and on hard drives. Until I finally got the idea for The Swimmer...
I know you work as a lawyer for the EU in Helsinki, so how did you find any time to write?
I wrote The Swimmer mainly at night, when my family had gone to sleep. I didn’t know if it was going to amount to anything, and I didn’t want the writing to interfere too much with my work and family life. When I began working on the book, I think I had hit a point in my life where I felt that I really needed to give writing a serious shot. I read Stephen King’s On Writing where he recommends that you set a word count for every day, and stick to it no matter what. So that’s what I did. I decided to write 1000 words five days a week no matter what. Without that kind of discipine I would never have got beyond the first three chapters. Once I got started, I began to write on every little scrap of time that I had to myself. Lunch breaks, airports, while I was waiting for work meetings to begin… As soon as I had half an hour to myself, I wrote. It became pretty intense, like an addiction, but it was the only way to do it at the time.
What advice can you give to anyone planning on writing a novel, and anything they should avoid doing?
I would definitely recommend discipline over anything else. Keep pushing forward no matter what. Inspiration is a fickle friend, hard work is not.
The book is called The Swimmer, so are you much of a swimmer?
Haha, no not really. I swam a bit as a child but no more than anybody else. But swimming suited the nameless spy in the book. The repetitiveness of it, the submersion in water. It helps him hide from the choices he has made, and has come to regret.
Of the characters in the book, did you base any of the characters on yourself, or people you know?
Most of the characters have elements of me in them, I think. But I have definitley used parts of people that I know or have met through work or studies. The lobbyist, George Lööw, for example is a composite of many lobbyists and lawyers I have met throughout my career in Brussels. I constantly make mental notes on how people behave or speak, what kind of clothes they wear, what they drink, etc. I think most writers do.
Can I ask you what your favourite book(s) is/are, and why?
That is such a hard question. I have always read a lot and I have so many favorites. But I will never forget the first time I read Le Carre’s The Spy Who Came in from the Cold as a teenager. To merge language and style with such a thrilling story was incredible to me the first time I read it, and it still is. I always return to J.D. Salinger and the Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert. Currently I am awed by the language, honesty, and humanity of Gary Shteyngart.
What are you currently reading at the moment?
I am just finishing Eliza Granville’s unsettling Gretel and the Dark, and I am about to begin Spanish writer Javier Cercas' Outlaws. I was incredibly impressed by his Anatomy of a Moment, and I can’t wait to read his latest.
Apart from the recent release of The Swimmer, what do the next 12 months hold for you, Joakim Zander?
Wow, that’s a good question… It’s going to be an interesting year, to say the least. I am about to go on leave from my day job as a lawyer and pursue writing full time. We are also moving from Helsinki, Finland to southern Sweden where my wife has a new job. The Swimmer will be published in 28 countries, so I hope to do some publicity in connection with those publications. And, most importantly, I will focus my attention on my second novel...
Lastly, if you could be an animal, what would it be, and why?
An animal? Let me think… I saw a hare today and the speed with which it took off when it noticed me, reminded me of how much fun it was to run when you were a kid. I see my kids doing it now, how they run across the grass for no other reason than speed, how it frees them. I’d like to be something fast. But maybe a hare is too mundane? I’ll be a cheetah.
If I can end by saying thanks for giving me a week's worth of escapism with The Swimmer, I really enjoyed it, and I look forward to reading more of your work.
Thanks a lot for taking the time to read the book and to do the interview Carl! I am really happy you found the Swimmer to be a worthwhile read!