Thursday 16 February 2023

Tove Alsterdal on Researching for You Will Never Be Found.

Until recently, far up north in Sweden there was a mining town called Malmberget. It was one of those places with a huge sense of pride; in the hard work in the iron ore mines, the ice hockey team, the sports hall, and the musicians who became famous. 

What it also had was a high rate of suicides among young men in the 1980's. By then the town had started to fall into the ground, literary. The main iron ledge passes beneath and bit by bit, houses were torn down and childhood memories fell into the expanding hole that split the society in two parts.

When I went back there to do research for my latest novel, You Will Never Be Found, Malmberget was almost abandoned. The whole town is now being demolished, apart from some houses of historical value that have been moved to new locations. 

The novel begins with a crime in one of those houses. When police investigator Eira Sjödin hears of it and draws parallels to a murder in her own region many miles south of Malmberget, the crime scene is already gone. It has been moved to a clearing in the forest, eight kilometers away.

Researching a place is so much more than walking the streets, it goes far beyond what my eyes can see. Even more important when I write about a place is to find the memories and stories of the landscape.

My main character Eira Sjödin was born and raised in a small town in an area called Ådalen (River Valley), by the High Coast in northern Sweden. This used to be the artery of the wood industry in Sweden for more than 200 years, now the remains of the era are scattered and overgrown in the forests, hidden on the bottom of the river, and fading in the memories of people. Luckily, I could give Eira the long memory of small towners. In her blood runs the stories her parents and grandparents told her, and their grandparents before them, so from her perspective every tree or bump in the road can hide a story from long before she was born.

In the research I of course read a lot; history, facts about birds and gunshot wounds and timber rafting, poetry, anything I can find about a place, but the best details might not yet have been written. So much only exist in the memories of people. When I hear those stories, it's like finding hidden treasures, they take me beneath and beyond the common clichés of the place.

I named my heroine after a victim of a shooting in Ådalen in 1931 - an event that shook Sweden and changed our modern history. Workers in the paper mills went on strike and scabs were brought in, the confrontations led to the death of five workers, shot by military forces. One of them was a 20-year-old girl, Eira. This is a well-known story in Sweden and the monument commemorating the event is now a tourist spot. A number of books, even PhD’s, have been written about it, but I recently came across an untold detail. Not far from the monument there is an overgrown stone. One of the victims were carried into a house nearby where he died on the sofa. The next day the mother of the house scraped the blood from the floor and buried it on the spot where the man had been shot. She told no one but their closest relatives, and one of her children told me and suddenly a story that had been told a million times over came to life again.

In the next book in the series that I’m working on now, The Deeper You Go, some divers will find an old body on the bottom of the deep river, among the hundreds of forgotten wrecks that remain there. I have taken a course in diving, dug deep into the heritage beneath the water surface and lots more, but when it comes to the time when the victim was alive there's no such source as those who remember. Where did they dance and fall in love, what music was played when it happened?

Even if the stories are fictional, they are closely linked to reality. I want to write about real places, places that have remain unsung. I want readers who live there to recognise themselves and those who don't, feel like they do for a moment.

But in the end, it's a novel. In You Will Never Be Found a man is found dead in the basement of an abandoned house in the forest. He was locked up and tried everything imaginable to survive. During autopsy an earthworm is still alive in his stomach.

"Would that be possible?" I asked the coroner.

"Well," she said, "the earthworm needs a damp environment so maybe it would feel like home. I can't say I'm sure, but on the other hand: Who would check?"

You Will Never Be Found by Tove Alsterdal (Faber & Faber) Out Now.

He was locked inside an abandoned house. But he's not the only one . . . When a dead man is found locked in the basement of an abandoned house, deep in the woods, there is no evidence of what happened beyond his name - scratched into the wall before he died. The regional police can't find anyone who knew him. But no-one knows the locals like tough, smart, and determined Detective Eira Sjoedin. When her expert knowledge of her home town is again called in, she knows one of them must have seen something. Then, a shock: before she can uncover the truth, someone close to her disappears. Has he fallen victim to the same criminal they've been chasing? And can Eira put the pieces together in time to save him? 

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