Fredrik Backman, ANXIOUS PEOPLE

Fredrik Backman, ANXIOUS PEOPLE

“People affect each other in ways you’re not aware of and in ways that you’re not expecting.” Fredrik Backman, the bestselling author of Beartown and A Man Called Ove, joins Zibby to discuss his latest novel, Anxious People, the #1 bestseller which is now out in paperback. The two talk about the lifelong effects of losing loved ones to suicide, as well as why Fredrik prefers to work through the tragic death of his friend in his comedic books instead of his dramatic stories. They also connect over their shared belief that parenthood is often a thankless job.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Fredrik. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Anxious People, your number-one New York Times bestseller now out in paperback.

Fredrik Backman: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure. When I heard about Anxious People and that it was a hostage situation and the bank, I felt like that was not representative of actually what it’s about. It’s about some seriously deep issues of society and money and suicide and family and all sorts of other things. I feel like the hostage was a ploy to almost — not a ploy, but a vehicle to get to the real story. Did you feel like that, or did I just make that up?

Fredrik: No, but I think all cultures are like that in different ways. All the things that you like, all the things that you really get excited about, when you try to tell someone about them, it’s very rarely that, oh, it’s about exactly the thing that it said on the back. The elevator pitch is very rarely what draws you into something. Most of the things that you get excited about are usually, yeah, it’s about this, but it’s really about this and this and this. People grasp onto different things, different parts of a story. If you want to divide my writing very categorically, I wrote three comedic novels, to begin with. I wrote Beartown and Us Against You, which are more dramatic in their setting. With Beartown and Us Against You, I wrote from a lot of different people’s perspectives, which I hadn’t. I had only written comedies with one camera, so to speak.

Anxious People was the first time I employed what I learned from Beartown and Us Against You, the way of writing from a lot of different people’s perspective. I employed that in a comedic setting. I hadn’t done that before. As soon as you do that, the story starts taking a lot of different directions. There’s a lot of different things going on. It has to be. If you’re writing about seven people, they can’t all be experiencing the same story. There has to be. I think that’s part of where it came from. Then I just try to hold it all together in the end. Part of that is also a trick. Part of that is also because you use smoke and mirrors when you write, especially in this case where I tried to write a locked-room mystery. I tried to distract you a little bit. I need smoke and mirrors. I need something emotional going on over here. There’s something funny going on over here. I’m using that so that you don’t pay attention to where I’m placing the clues of the mystery with a little bit of everything.

Zibby: You did that very successfully because I was totally surprised as things unfolded throughout the book. I just did not see any of it coming, particularly. Well done. Not that you need my praise. I know you’ve had heaps of it. I just thought it was absolutely brilliant, the way it all became clear at the end, what was going on the whole time. It was just brilliant. I thought it was awesome. I really loved the way you talk about parenting and the stress that comes along with being a parent. I have four kids of my own. I’m very familiar with that particular brand of stress. You had one passage towards the beginning that I was hoping to read, about parenting. You wrote, “The man looked at him calmly, almost sympathetically, and replied, do you know what the worst thing about being a parent is? That you’re always judged by your worst moments. You can do a million things right, but if you do one single thing wrong, you’re forever that parent who was checking his phone in the park when your child was hit in the head by a swing. We don’t take our eyes off them for days at a time, but then you read just one text message, and it’s as if all your best moments never happened. No one goes to see a psychologist to talk about all the times they weren’t hit in the head by a swing as a child. Parents are defined by their mistakes.” Tell me a little bit about that and if this is coming from a personal place or not.

Fredrik: No, but it’s coming from a general place. I think you could apply that to being a grown-up as well. That’s a big part of growing up and becoming an adult. In particular, as you become a parent, you start analyzing yourself and your place in the world more because a lot of the things that you assume about yourself and a lot of the things that are important to you, all of a sudden, they come into question. This is really important to me, but this particular principle of mine does not work when I have to be with my kids. This can be however important I want it to be. It doesn’t matter when I have kids. All of a sudden, you have to sort in between your principles and decide, what are the principles that are most important to me? One of the things that you learn fairly quickly is that you’re going to be judged by your mistakes. You also learn very quickly that you have this — how was your day? You were with your kids. How was your day? If you pick up your kids from school and you ask, “How was your day?” they very rarely say, “You know what? For seven hours and thirty-eight minutes, it was awesome, Dad. It was awesome.” They’re going to start with, “This one other kid was mean. This one kid threw sand. The teacher was unfair.” They’re going to go straight to what’s bothering them. If you ask for a review of yourself as a parent, they’re going to go straight to, these are your flaws.

That’s just a thing that I wasn’t as prepared for. I wasn’t as prepared for the thing that — we get zero credit as a parent. It’s assumed that you’re supposed to be a great parent. It’s assumed. I gave my kids home-cooked food every day this week. Well, it’s assumed you’re supposed to. I felt that was something I could use, this everyday anxiety. It’s also the fact that, if you want to talk about the dramatic points of writing a novel, it’s a pretty common statement about writing a novel that something has to be gambled. There has to be stakes. Someone has to be on the verge of losing something to make this interesting or to make us root for them. We call that stakes. I think that was what I could use here to make that obvious, that as soon as your kids are involved, you’re prepared to do a lot of pretty stupid things. As soon as your kids are involved, everything changes. Your whole perspective of, what would I be prepared to do to support myself? that’s a whole different question from, what would I be prepared to do to support my kids? What length would I go to to keep my kids safe? I used those basic emotions of never being good enough and put that into a dramatic setting where, all right, this could be reason why people got put in this situation to begin with.

Zibby: It’s so interesting and so true. It is the most thankless job known to man.

Fredrik: It is. Your kids, they have that perfect argument to whatever you’re upset with them. Why did you have kids? You didn’t have to get kids. It’s not a law that you have to. No one forced you to have kids. You had a kid. I’m your problem now. You figure it out. That’s such a perfect argument, especially if they can say, well, I’m your DNA. If I annoy you, that’s on you.

Zibby: My kids don’t say that to me, but they should. Your kids are a little more manipulative or brighter or smarter or something. I don’t know. They don’t need any more ammunition. Back to the book, which is so fantastic, one of the themes is anxiety, mental illness, what you do with your feelings, how you cope with them. There’s the therapist character and how she became a therapist and why. Then there’s somebody in therapy. Then there’s people contemplating suicide and jumping and the effects of the trauma of that and all sorts of — it’s like different therapy rooms, almost. It could be a comic with the strips of it, how many strands there are, rather. In particular, the suicide element, which I know you touch on also in your acknowledgments and giving resources and everything at the very end, can you talk about your own experience? I lost a friend to suicide also. It looks like from what you wrote, you did as well. I don’t know if you’re comfortable talking about it or if that was sort of the genesis for the plot points or not.

Fredrik: I think I touched on the subject of suicide in almost all of my novels. I’m not sure, but I think in almost all of them. I had a friend who ended his life when I was around twenty years old. I’ve touched on it in different ways all through my career as a writer. In this particular novel, I wanted to write something about it with the ripple effects, with the fact that it affects people in ways you couldn’t imagine, if someone ends their life, because you never get over it. It’s impossible to get past. It’s twenty years ago that my friend ended his life, and I’m not over it. I’m not close to being over it. There’s no, time heals all wounds. There’s none of that. It doesn’t. It doesn’t become logical or clear or fair. You don’t get over it. You can’t get past it. It affects you in ways that are almost incomprehensible if you haven’t experienced it yourself, but in that way that everyone I meet who has someone close to them who has ended their life I think can understand what I mean when I say, after that, you never hear a phone ringing at an odd hour without thinking the absolute worst.

As soon as the phone rings at nine o’clock at night, you assume the very, very worst. If it rings at one AM, then you’re on your feet running through a list of everyone you love. That never leaves. That never ends. You still have those moments where you just assume the very worst. If someone calls you and says, I have some bad news, you immediately go to the very, very, very worst imaginable place. Of course, you can be that sort of person without having lost someone. If you have lost someone, you’re kind of forced into that personality, and it never ends. You’re never going to be past it. You’re never going to get over it. That’s probably the thing that I wanted to touch on in this particular novel. There are people here, and there are ripple effects. Something happened to a couple of these people, and they could never get past it. They could never get over it. It still holds them back. I wanted to touch on that and the anxiety part. Then it is a comedy. If this is the way you’d pitch it, people would not assume, oh, this sounds fun. That’s how I use comedy. I use comedy to be able to talk about the very serious matters. Without the comedic setting, it would almost be unbearable. I use the comedic setting to put us in a place where we can have this discussion without it ending us.

Zibby: I feel like they call that gallows humor. In the depths of despair, you have to joke. Sometimes it’s the only way to get through. It’s almost like that’s this on a broader application of it, if you will.

Fredrik: It’s a defense mechanism more than anything. To me, it is.

Zibby: Yes, for sure. What about writing for you, itself? Has that helped you through some of these — I know you said you can’t get over it, which sounds sort of depressing and discouraging for people who are trying to get through anything. All you can really do is go one day at a time. It’s just today until tomorrow and this endless stream of days. Does writing help you cope with all of that yourself?

Fredrik: I think you get through it, you just don’t get past it.

Zibby: Yes, that’s right.

Fredrik: It gets easier. You develop coping mechanisms. It’s just the fact that one year down the line, it’s still incomprehensible. It still makes absolutely no sense. No matter how much time passes — that sounds so stupid and so — it sounds almost shallow, I guess. When it happens to someone, someone is going through that experience, someone close to them ended their life, they start saying things like, “If I only had… If I had known the day before… I should have… That morning, I was going to…but I didn’t…” As soon as people start that, the only thing that you can tell them is, you can’t do that. You cannot go down that road. I’m only saying that because that road never ends. In twenty years, you’ll be asking yourself the exact same questions. Nothing will have changed. There’s no coming to terms with it. There’s no answers down the line. That might be a strange subject to bring into something that I wrote as a comedy, but it’s the only setting where I could include it. I’d say I can touch on this in a comedic setting because it’s bearable there. I have a very, very hard time touching on that subject in a dramatic setting because it just gets too heavy. It’s just unbearable. For the purpose of the novel, I wanted to touch on the fact it has ripple effects. People affect each other in ways you’re not aware of and in ways that you’re not expecting.

In a comedic setting, I find that helpful because it’s incredibly annoying to people. It’s incredibly annoying to people that you’re affected by others, that you are not this pure little mechanism in the world where you make choices and you — we’re not masters of our own fate. It’s a good motivational speech before sports, before the big game. It’s a great motivational speech, but we are not masters of our own fates. We’re not. We’re affected by what other people are doing all of the time. That annoys us. Part of the comedic setting for this book was that, to begin with, the people who are in the hostage situation are people who are very, very bad at handling the fact that other people sometimes control their fate. Already to begin with, they’re annoyed and emotionally violated by the fact that someone is here with a gun, and now I can’t leave. I can’t go about my day because you decided to take me hostage. That annoys me. That annoys me because I’m a person who, I don’t want to stand in line. I don’t want to wait. I don’t want to be in traffic. I don’t want other people to have this effect on me.

That’s sort of where the comedic structure came from, these kind of people who would get annoyed if you’re in a traffic jam because someone was in an accident. Some people get immediately annoyed that, why would you get into an accident when I’m in a hurry? There’s no empathy there. There’s no, oh, my god, someone was in an accident. It’s like, you’re ruining my day. You drove your car off the road, and now I have to wait because of the thing. That’s the comedic structure. Then I tried to weave that into the thing with, someone ends their life, that doesn’t end it. Your life continues in all of the other people, all of the people around you. Even people you didn’t know are affected by this now because this decision has so many ripple effects. That’s usually my structure. I’ll try to find one comedic structure that I can build into a dramatic structure and try to make you laugh and then make you say, yeah, but I get where you’re going with this.

Zibby: Wow. Well done on that front. I will never sit in traffic the same way. All these shorthands of life, it all becomes about time and whose time is important and how to maximize time. Sometimes in haste, people forget what’s actually important in life, which is other people and connections and all of that. Are you working on anything new now?

Fredrik: Yeah. I wrote Beartown and Us Against You, and I’m finishing the third part of that now, so the third part of that trilogy. I think it’s going to be called The Winners in the US. I’m finishing it now. It’s going to be out in Sweden in October, so I’m guessing next year for the US. That’s about where I am.

Zibby: Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

Fredrik: It depends on the subject. Any advice? Something in particular?

Zibby: Any advice.

Fredrik: There’s a couple of things that I tend to go back to. First of all, finish something. That’s my first advice. A lot of people get in touch with me. They say, “I have this great idea for a novel. What should I do?” You should write the novel. “I’ve written a great outline. Should I contact a publisher?” No, you should write the novel. Finish the story. Then we’ll talk. “Yeah, but how do you go about getting a publisher? Do I need to get an agent?” You need to finish the story because it’s impossible for me to read something that doesn’t exist. Put it down on paper. Then turn to the other problems. Finish it. Also, whatever you’re writing, finish something. That sounds a bit of bland advice. Instead of trying to write this huge, original novel that is going to change the way we look at the publishing industry, try to write a novella. Try to get one story, ten pages. Just get that down on . Finish it so that you can give it to someone and say, here’s something I wrote. Would you read it? Tell me what you think. As soon as you finish a story, you get that sense of achievement. You get that sense of, hey, I finished it. I had this idea. I wrote it from start to finish. I finished it. Even if it’s just ten pages, you have that. I’m putting this aside now. I’m starting my second project now. That does something to you. You also learn so much from having a finished project.

As soon as you finish it, you can go back to the beginning and say, wow, I learned something from this writing process. If I started over now, I would’ve written this another way. You get all these ideas. Then once in a while, something that starts with ten pages, all of a sudden, you realize, I think I could build this into a novel. I think a lot of really, really good novels have a basic idea that you write down into eight pages. Then all of the rest of it, that’s the world expanding. Try to have an idea that’s possible to finish. Try to get your ideas as simple as possible. That’s one thing. Another thing is — I’m not going to give this advice and say this is how you should do it. I can only say that, for me, it helped a lot when I realized that I wasn’t original, that I wasn’t special. That was the turning point in my career. That sounds really stupid, but it really was. Up to a certain point in your life, you want to be original. You want to be special. You want to be Harry Potter up to a certain age. You’re dreaming about the fact that, one day, I’m going to get a letter. It’s going to say I’m chosen. This is where my adventure begins because I’m a genius. No one knew. You might be a genius. You might be, but most of us aren’t. When I figured out in my late twenties that I’m not really special, I’m not really original, I’m probably never going to write a novel where everyone says, wow, this is such an original setting or such an original story — most of the things that I do are fairly conventional. They’re conventional in the way I build them. There’s a very classical dramatical curve to everything I do.

You can fill it with something. You can fill it with something that’s uninteresting. You can fill it with emotions and something that makes people care. Most of the great songs that I like, there are three or four chords. You can play three or four chords. You can play them great if you put everything into it, but not everything has to be complicated. Not everything has to be original or mind-blowing. When I figured that out was when I figured out, the things that I like, a lot of other people like too. It’s very rare for me to, wow, I saw this TV show and I loved it, and then I go on IMDB and, oh, it’s got 3.7. That very rarely happens. Most of the things that I like, I go on the internet and, oh, it’s got 8.2. Guess what? Six million other people loved it too. Most of the books that I love, I go online — yeah, you love it because it’s a classic. You know what? It’s the number-one best seller all over the world because everyone else loves it too. I have the same kind of taste as a lot of other people do. It’s very rare for me to say, I love this obscure thing that no one has ever heard of. When I figured that out, it was, well, that’s good because that means I can trust my instincts. That means when I write, I never have to think, I think this is what people want. I think this is what the audience craves. I don’t have to think that. The only thing I have to do is think, do I like this? Is this the emotional starting point that I want to be from? Is this doing something to me? That was the whole turning point in my career when I figured that out, that I can trust my instincts. If I like this, there’s probably going to be other people who like it too.

Zibby: That’s so funny you say that because I feel the same way. I was talking to a girlfriend of mine this morning about your book and how great it is. Then I was like, but it’s not like I’m discovering something. It’s the number-one bestseller. I feel ridiculous that I’m like, I loved this book, like my taste matters. It’s true. I feel like sometimes I even feel, with emotions too — I don’t mean to ramble. If I have an emotion, if I’m really sad about something or I’m really nervous or worried in a given moment, that just means that there are so many other people out there having the same feeling that I’m having. If I write it down, I know that if I express it, somebody else is feeling it. They’ll feel better because they’ll know that I felt it. I don’t write fiction, but I feel the same way about that emotional authenticity, in a way.

Fredrik: That’s the starting point. I can say that and sound clever. I don’t live by it. My wife has to tell me on a daily basis, when I get annoyed with someone — not on a daily basis because she doesn’t have the energy on a daily basis. Most of the time, she just ignores me. Once in a while, she’ll turn to me and she’ll say, “You know what? Maybe they were going through some stuff. You know what, Fredrik, maybe you’re not the only one having a bad day here. Maybe they’re having a bit of a day too. Maybe cut them some slack. Maybe that job isn’t all that fun, Fredrik. Maybe you take a breath. You make stuff up for a living, so maybe have some patience for someone who’s actually doing a job.” We have that discussion a lot. It’s easy to say, but it’s hard to live by. That comes back to the fact that, in the novel, that’s the thing I keep returning to, that other people affect you so much, that you’re dependent on other people, especially that you’re dependent on strangers. Strangers can make or break your day. That’s an incredibly annoying fact.

Zibby: It’s true. It’s so true. Fredrik, thank you. This has been so interesting. I was excited to talk to you. I loved your book. I am a huge fan. I love the way you think about the world. It’s really awesome. Thank you for chatting with me today.

Fredrik: I hope you got a little bit of what you were hoping for.

Zibby: I definitely did. I just wanted to get to know you better. I hope that you feel that you shared enough that this is the real you.

Fredrik: I hope so. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: My pleasure.

Fredrik: Have a good day.

Zibby: You too. Buh-bye.

Fredrik: Buh-bye.

ANXIOUS PEOPLE by Fredrik Backman

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