Robert Karjel talks about the inspiration behind The Swede/ My Name Is N.

1) Some have described The Swede as a thriller, and others as a novel. How do you see the book?

I call it a literary thriller. The book is meant to be a page-turner, but for those who want more, The Swede has serious political and psychological themes.

2) You wrote the book while a helicopter pilot and Lt. Colonel in the Swedish Air Force. How did your military career intersect with your writing?

I wanted the book to feel real. For the details, I drew on my inside knowledge of the War on Terror, intelligence training, and the U.S. military system. Also, because of networks I’ve developed in my military and writing work,  I was able to interview a number of operators in this ongoing war. Including a pilot who flew people to secret CIA sites around the world.

3) Is The Swede a love story?

Relationships between people are built on trust. If you want to get somewhere, you have to establish that first— even between interrogators and those being interrogated. That is the real theme of my book. And love is the supreme example.

4) How much of Grip is you?

Putting myself in Grip’s position, under extreme pressure, I tried to imagine what I would be willing to do for my friends or my family. I thought I’d be willing to do anything, except possibly kill. And that’s how you understand Grip.

But there’s also another dimension. Before I wrote the book, I spent ten days interviewing a dying American homicide detective named Hugh Swaney. There are spoilers involved in his story, so if you want more now, click here.* So I take the best in me, I take the worst in me, I push it to an extreme, I apply it to Hugh, and that’s Ernst Grip.

5) In The Swede, several characters disappear and reinvent themselves. What drew you to this idea?

Much of the book was written at Amherst College, where I spent five months on a fellowship. For the first time in my adult life, I stepped out of everything familiar to me in Stockholm—family, friends, military career. I was a clean slate. I realized I had the chance to be whoever I wanted to be.

6)  The Swede also explores doubles and duality.

Exactly. I used a lot of opposites in the book. Terrorists and innocents. Survivors and the dead. The magical and the real. Ernst Grip and Shauna Friedman. There are characters in The Swede who lead double lives. I’m convinced that that’s more common than we think, or would like to think.

7) Art plays an important role in the book. Why Edward Hopper?

I’ve always been drawn to Hopper’s sense of solitude and silence. In his paintings, every figure stands alone—a defining symbol of the human condition. Everything in life is done in opposition to, or because of, this aloneness.

8) What is the most dangerous thing you’ve experienced?

One time I was in a taxi in Djibouti, returning to my ship after a night out on the town. The driver was high as a kite on khat, driving 80 mph on dark unpaved streets, alternately laughing and insisting that what I needed most right now was a visit to a brothel outside of town. During that ride, I imagined a dozen ways I would die. Also I crashed a helicopter once, a long time ago.

9) You published three previous thrillers in Sweden, but The Swede gave you your big break. What made the difference?

Although I often think of myself as a loner, the book’s international success is a story of two old friends of mine.

I’ve known my agent, Jonas Axelsson, since we got in a fight when we were 6 years old. He ended up in the emergency room and still has a scar on his forehead. A few years ago, after a long career in publishing, Jonas started a new literary agency. I guess he had forgiven me. We teamed up.

My translator, Nancy Pick, is an American writer I’ve known for 25 years. She doesn’t speak Swedish. But when I needed a fast translation of The Swede for a shot at Hollywood, she knew I was chasing a dream. So she offered to try, basically using Google Translate. For five weeks, we bounced drafts between Massachusetts and Stockholm, working 24/7. It was exhausting, but we did it—Twentieth Century Fox bought the option for an American TV series.

10) Will Ernst Grip return?

Absolutely. One of Grip’s characteristics is that he never gives up. In my next book, the sequel to The Swede, he travels to the coast of Somalia. The narrative draws on my experiences in the Air Force, as unit commander and helicopter pilot on the Swedish ship Carlskrona, fighting piracy.