Consisting of questions that I have been put to me before, and some that hasn’t
When and where were you born?

I was born on 4th April 1957 in Boden, in the northern province of Norrbotten. 

What do your parents do, and what is their background?

When I was a small boy, my father used to work for the local brewery. My mother was a housewife. My family on both my mothers and my fathers side are working class. My grandfather on my mothers side was a construction worker, among other things, my fathers father a lumberjack. Later on, my father attended evening classes and studied engineering. He was then employed by the Swedish Fortifications Agency. My mother gradually started working again and until a few years ago she was the one responsible for answering calls if you rang the exchange at fire brigade in Boden.

What about your familys history?

Both my parents come from a small village about thirty kilometres to the north east of Boden called Niemisel. And both sides of my family come from the Råneå river valley, where I also spent many summers during my childhood. Any my family have had their roots there since at least the 17th Century. One of my forefathers on my mother’s side was a soldier in the Västerbotten Regiment during the Thirty Years’ War and then marched into Warsaw with Charles X in 1655. Another one participated in Charles XII’s invasion of Russia, and eventually ended up with the king in Turkey.

The Swedish Fortifications Agency? Boden is, after all, a military town. Do you think that this has influenced you in any way?

Quite likely, but I’m not entirely sure how. One of my earliest memories is how I am lying in my mother’s bed and outside the window, a seemingly endless column of military vehicles is passing, and one after another, the beams of their headlights sweep across the walls of the darkened room. On another occasion, I accompanied my father on a fishing trip down to the falls – this was before the dam was built across the river – but got bored and started wandering through a series of trenches and suddenly came eye to eye with a group of soldiers, fully kitted out in battle gear and wearing what I later understood to be gasmasks. I turned on my heels and ran away, cutting myself on the rusty barbed wire, which was lying in loops all around.

Could your family be regarded as a military one?

Hardly. Despite the fact – or because? – that my father was working in a civilian capacity for Defence, he would often strew around bitter comments, and at any time you like, detonations could be heard from the hill at Boden that is crowned by the fortifications there – and this happened often – and dad would always say, as if in passing, “well, they’ve just gone and shot an unemployed worker”. (But I must add that one of my brothers, Mats, became an officer at the local artillery regiment. For a while my other brother, Anders, worked there as well.)

What subjects did you take at secondary school?

Several subjects, actually. I studied nursing for two years, but although I passed the exams, I’ve never practised this skill. I started from scratch instead studying what could be termed humanities at the Tallbo School in Boden.

Have you always been interested in history?

Well, I was what young people tend to and ought to be: curious about all sorts of things, so I didn’t go in any particular direction. When I started to study at Tallbo, history became a somewhat more important subject for me, and my interest came from the various studies I did there, so I got beyond the basic facts as set out in the usual books and also had a good history teacher – you can often find such below the surface of the average history teacher – called Ivar Åkerlund. When I later discovered that I got the majority of the answers right in more or less every history exam, a vague idea of history as something that would be fun to do began to emerge.

A “vague idea”?

I come from what is termed a non-academic family where no one studied at university and where study was by no means taken for granted. There were, therefore, few genuine alternatives. I suppose you could become a teacher. I was not even aware of the fact that you could do postgraduate studies and become a PhD. It is rather fashionable nowadays to grumble a bit about how difficult it was to come from such a background and then go to university, and there are certainly drawbacks. But in my case this also meant a liberating lack of heightened expectations and well-meaning prohibitions. One girl in the room opposite on the student corridor was more interested in history than I was, but her father had forbidden her from coming home with “a useless BA”, which is why she was by that time on her way to becoming a lawyer. No one stopped me when I gradually began studying towards such a “useless BA” – and what’s more, in the subject of history, archaeology and theoretical philosophy.

You say “gradually”.

I was going to stay put in Boden for several reasons. There was quite a lot to keep me there. I did my military service for 15 months, and was given the opportunity of becoming a regular officer. Moving away just didn’t tempt me: I had all my friends up there, no one thought about doing anything different and besides I was pretty deeply committed politically.

Tell something about this last subject.

In the early 1970s I was only a young puppy, and like so many others born in the 1950s, I was swept along with the wave of left-wing radicalism. I was active in both in a group movement that was against the Vietnam War, and in the Swedish Social-Democratic Youth movement – SSU. After a few spats with the omnipresent maoists, I got to hear that I was no longer welcome in anti-war-group. (What I saw there gave me a life-long feeling of disgust for all types of political extremists. There was a lot of real hard-core stalinists up there in Norrbotten as well at that time, true believers, and they were really creepy.) The SSU threw me out a good while later. I had joined a left-wing Social-Democratic faction that was tinged with Trotskyism, there was a lot of in-fighting and eventually I left, without ever looking back. Since that time I have never again joined a political party.

I see, so after school you started to study at university?

No, as I said, I first did my military service, as a platoon commander. Fifteen months in the artillery, three of which at the Artillery Cadet School in Jönköping. I drove past there a couple of years ago. The barracks where I had once served and scribbled down “For so cruel is life, that we will one day yearn to be back here” had been transmogrified into a huge effing shopping mall. And where the sentries had once stood, there was now a McDonalds., while the tree-lined dale through which you would walk over to the mess, and used to be full of black leathery slugs, had been flattened out, and a broad motorway ran through the area, grey with rumbling cars.

So you mean it had all been a waste of time?

Not at all. First of all, this was during one of the really bad periods of the Cold War, and war was a real risk, and I was quite convinced to ”do my bit”, if the Soviet Mechanized Divisions suddenly started pouring over our border. Secondly, that summer in Cadet School was not too bad. In my memories from those days, I always seemed to have a book under my nose. The months in Jönköping were my second summer in the army, and demob was still some months away. During that year I had managed to adjust to wearing a green uniform, but by the time it was time to complement my military service with cadet school, the wind had gone out of me. To this day, I don’t really know what happened. I suddenly lost all interest, and in through that hole in my enthusiasm for things military seeped apathy. So I started reading to kill time. During lessons in logistics and fortifications etc I would sit right at the back in the stuffy attic lecture room, with a book hidden behind my waterproof signals bag; I’ve seen a photo from that summer, with me lying stretched out next to a mortar, completely engrossed in what looks like Laxness’ “Gerpla”; and in my bookcase I have another copy of the same novel, badly stained with gun grease. Since that time, there have been plenty of periods where I have read as intensively, at least technically speaking, but never one where I have read with that same simple joy.

One clear memory is of a warm evening where I am crossing the dale, making my way past the big black slugs on the path: the sun is low in the sky, the shadows are long across the raked gravel of the square, and from the open windows “Knock on Wood” can be heard. The book in my hand was, if I am not mistaken, “Carolingian Diaries”, a small publication with hard covers. I had been tempted into borrowing it when I had recently chanced upon Frans G. Bengtsson’s biography of Charles XII, but I must now admit with hindsight that I never did read the whole series. But the seeds were sown there for my first book, ”Poltava”.

But then came university. Why did it end up being Uppsala?

To a certain extent, thanks to my girlfriend at the time – later to be wife. She got a job as a laboratory assistant at the big Academic Hospital there. I got a room in the residence block at Studentvägen 26 (room 53, as I remember to this day). It was easy to obtain student accommodation then. I started studying archaeology and drink grog at the Norrland Student Nation (i.e. club). Both of these activities were quite pleasant and harmless pastimes.

How did it go with your archaeology?

Not particularly well. It didn’t really suit my temperament. I felt that the subject dealt too much with objects – a fibula here and a tibia there – and far too little about the people and the society in which such objects were housed. The digs were actually quite exciting, but at the low level I was at it seemed that more energy was put into digging up the objects than analysing them. So you’re lying there, your knees are aching, and are brushing and brushing and brushing the soil away. And then… a nail. Another nail. Swedish depositories are swimming in nails. And potsherds. And pieces of bone.

Did anything else happen?

Well, I suppose so. This was further proof that my mentality just wasn’t suited to archaeology. We were doing a dig on an 11th century site. Well, this was my first dig and I was quite enthusiastic, even though we weren’t expecting to find anything of major significance – these were, after all, Christian graves – because I had found the head end and the cranium. All that was left of the coffin was the rusty heads of nails, of the corpse nothing more than a vague grey shadow in the sandy earth. (“Earth to earth…”). But the skull was extant inasmuch as there was enough left over to work out that these were the remains of a young man the same age as I was then – and interestingly enough of the same height as myself, judging by the length of the coffin and the shadow in the sand. But when the whole cranium had been exposed, the head of the dig came over and looked at my hole, and clicked his tongue. In my eagerness, I had scalped the skull. 

So after that came history?

Yes, after that came history. It nearly felt like coming home. Afterwards, I realised that I had been lucky. I had begun to read history at just the right moment. (If I had begun only three years earlier, I don’t think I would have continued studying it.) The hangover after scientific quantative history was making itself felt. And old-fashioned marxism was giving way. At last. There was a lot happening, intellectually speaking. Quite exciting times.

What do you mean by “scientific history”?

During the 1960s, a kind of “scientistic” dream was realised where people began to change the subject of history in a scientific direction. (The famous French historian Emanuelle Le Roy among others said that within a decade a historian would be working with numbers or would no longer count.) Quantification of every kind became the order of the day. To put it in simplified form, it could be said that unless something could be quantified it wasn’t worth studying. It cannot be denied that during that time some important theoretical and methodological progress was made, achievements that coming generations of historians have been able to benefit from.

However, there was a negative side to this phenomenon. The results became bleak, predictable and uninteresting in many cases. And the scientific method came to be associated with a particularly dry and inflexible form. I’ve heard horror stories from people who attended seminars and were rapped over the knuckles because their essays were a little bit too easily read. I too was warned in the early 1980s  by my first course leader Kurt Ågren that what I was writing was a little too lightweight: if I wasn’t careful, people wouldn’t “take me seriously”.

What did you think of studying at university?

I had a great there. You have the rights of an adult with the duties of a child. And Uppsala is a good place to study: student clubs, herring lunches, meandering discussions in the Ofvandahls café, the miles of books on the shelves of the university library Carolina Rediviva, the feeling that you are standing on the shore of a global sea of knowledge and that all you had to do was jump in. And not least the opportunity to hone one’s intellectual abilities. I should never be able to do what I am doing nowadays, i.e. writing and researching, without the education, the learning, that I had the opportunity to obtain. Yes, I enjoyed myself. I can really recommend that sort of life, not only as a way of obtaining an education for your career, but also as a way of life for a few years.

But you did leave it all behind…

To and extent. Working on my dissertation went well, I liked the subject…

Which was?

I was researching into the world view of the nobility in 17th century Sweden, or rather into their image of society.

That sounds very analytical.

It does. And it was. But the subject was of such broad scope that I could poke my nose into a whole lot of source material if I was beginning to get desperate. I remember spending a whole spring term sitting in Hall C of the Carolina Rediviva library where I ploughed my way through 21 volumes of Baroque poetry. And learnt to appreciate it too. I still have a weakness for it.

Sorry, you mentioned dropping out.

Dropping out is putting it rather starkly, but that’s what it probably amounted to. After a few years had passed, I underwent a mild crisis. One morning I went as usual up to the tall dark brown wooden doors of the Historical Department, and the thought struck me that I could be carrying on like this for ten, twenty years into the future, even until I retired if I played my cards right. And that thought – insight maybe – jolted me out of my complacency. I like routine. I am a creature of habit. But that did scare me. It was simply too predictable. Was this really what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life?

So what did you do?

I took a job with military intelligence.

Why in particular?

It happened partly by chance, and to that we have to add the general state of the world at the time.

How do you mean?

It was the 1980s, the Cold War was in full swing and had reached one of its least attractive peaks. I wanted to not only study reality out of interest, but was also tempted to take part in it. Not be on the spot 300 years too late every time, but also see things as they developed and for once avoid the writing-desk perspective of the eternal academic.

So what happened?

I ended up being stuck behind a desk (laughs).

Could you go into more detail?

I’m afraid I can’t, without breaking a number of laws. All I can say is that I mainly worked with analysis.

So in you ended up doing your PhD?

Yes, I defended my thesis  in May 1989. I remember the day being sunny and warm.

But before that your first book had appeared?

That’s right. Poltava. It had been published the previous autumn.

Why did you write Poltava?

I’ve been asked that question on many occasions, and there are several answers.  One of them is straightforward: I wrote the book I had always wanted to read but had never found, either in the library or in any bookshop. Also to survive those periods when work on my thesis had become sluggish or when I had simply got fed up of expressing myself in a strictly analytical manner. A dose of “first-this-happened-then-that” restored the balance, and then I could wander back up to the minutes of parliamentary sessions in the university library.

The success of the book surprised you. Why is that?

Well, I more or less knew the conditions under which books were published here in Sweden. As a beginner in the field, you have to be satisfied if your book vanishes like a stone in water. An edition of some 1,000 copies is quite enough in such a context. If you then have the chance to write more then maybe, you will make a breakthrough with, say, your fifth book. And then the number of copies printed does rise as a rule, maybe a five-figure sum, rarely more.

No, getting a large readership was hardly something I had thought about, few authors get that far. Nor did I think about earning money with it. For a long time I had pinned a ten-kronor banknote up on my noticeboard in our student residences at Studentvägen 17. I had won it as a bet – about some detail involving the Teutonic Knights if I remember rightly – and when people asked me about it I said that this was the first money I’d ever earnt by studying history, and presumably the last. Poltava was a labour of love.

Where do you think the current interest in history in Sweden has come from?

That is a very difficult question for this historian to answer, someone for whom it is self-evident. You will have to put the question to someone else.


But as I get the feeling that you will not be satisfied with some half-hearted answer, I will try to come up with a more exact one. I think that it can’t be explained by looking merely at one factor. It depends on the existence of several strands of historical interest. Part of the answer involves questions of identity. In a context where globalisation is advancing and the nation state retreating, questions about who we are become acutely interesting and it is inevitable that we start looking at our origins – where we come from. (For better or worse. Because the temptation of course arises to believe that the solution to our anxiety and confusion is to preserve everything there is to preserve, or even worse, return to something that never actually existed. We end up being changed into nostalgic or antiquarian beings, or members of a masquerade whereby we make do with the superficial forms of the past.) There are other aspects of historical interest that are simply unavoidable, whatever the politics or economy of the time. Human beings would not be human without their remarkable memory, and giving utterance to this in what could be called collective wise is something I regard as an extension of this wonderful quality. Simply put: we are interested in the past because we can do no differently. Then there are other motivations beyond taking stock of the experiences of our forebears for reasons of self-preservation. History is also chock full of fantastic stories which, in a world that is flooded with fiction, receive their special electrical charge from the very fact that they really happened, and that people have actually lived them. Facticity has its special charge – you can’t get round that. And, it all becomes a jolly good read.

Returning to Poltava. Why do you think the book was such a success?

I really can’t answer that question.

Have you no speculative suggestions of your own?

No, allow me to pass the cup on that one: I wrote the book I myself wanted to read. And when I saw it as an object for the first time, it seemed very odd. I mean to say: something starts out as loosely connected thoughts and wishes, but materialises and finally becomes an object. Well, I had seen it up in the offices of the publishing house, in Kjell Peterson’s large room to be exact, a room looking out over the park. It was he who gave me the first copies, and I was so excited when I took the commuter train back to Uppsala. Sitting there in the gloom of the evening I opened the book, the one I had always wanted to possess, and started reading, but simply to discover it… And that didn’t work. I can read my book and those written by others in the technical sense of the word, but not really. It doesn’t sink in. It doesn’t affect me.

And why is that?

The reason is relatively simple: I know every single sentence, know what was weighed up to create each of them. A watchmaker can never see the mystery of a timepiece. Especially one he himself has put together. That holds also for me.

But why did you continue writing?

Good question. I still think there a number of other books that do not, but ought to exist…

Stop there. How does this all fit together? You have just said that you are incapable of reading your own books.

…sure, sure. But this does not mean that I am unable to feel that something is missing. Furthermore: with regard to writing books the very journey is worth the effort. The work itself is its own reward. It may sound boastful or silly, or both. But it is true. If you don’t like this strange kind of work, if you don’t like writing as such, then you would get yourself an ordinary, sensible job. As I believe. I like doing it. Because when the writing is going really well, when it’s really working, there’s nothing that beats it. It’s almost better than sex.

Nothing is better than sex.

I did say “almost”. If you have the temperament, the inclination, you can put up with your own company for weeks or months at a time – because it is all part and parcel of a lonely profession, “this lonely art of ours”. It can be the most satisfying thing there is.

That does sound rather vague. Could you be a little bit more specific?

The urge is there at several junctures. Partly in the joy that arises when you succeed in taming your words, and get them to do what you want. Really succeeding with a formulation, a phrase, a paragraph, that is all so satisfying. In part it is the truly intellectual adventure that history is. Or to paraphrase the poet Gunnar Ekelöf, the intoxication of thinking to pieces and thinking together, when you put a question, and then succeed in answering it. In part, in the almost childish joy at reconstructing a world, or the world on a grand scale. What can that be compared to? Painting a vast landscape. Doing a vast jigsaw puzzle. Building a cathedral. All on one’s own.

So how do you actually write? By hand? On a keyboard?

Stupid question. A computer keyboard, of course.

It wasn’t such a stupid question. Many people do so.

That’s true enough. I wrote my first book on a typewriter. That was before the days of computers..

Can you compare them?

I personally prefer a computer to a typewriter, as I think your writing become more flexible on one, more probing, more in line with those thought processes that are constantly going through your head. Writing on a typewriter is more like carving out letters in stone. Click, and it’s there, irretrievably – if you don’t indulge in the long-winded process erasing things with Tippex, of course. In the case of a computer, it’s easy to just bash out some words, have a look at them, get rid of some of them, try, bounce the ball around, test things out, turn things about, move things. Making large-scale changes in a typed manuscript ion an ordeal, and needs strong nerves and plenty of time. With a computer it’s easy as pie.

Are you a pedant?

God, no. But I have found that doing the cleaning, tidying up and – especially – sorting things do definitely decrease your anxiety. Putting lots of little things in lots of little boxes, that is my Prozac. So sure, anal retention is one of my traits.

What is your favourite dish?

I can’t see that anyone could be interested in that!

What is your favourite colour?

You really will have to pull your socks up.

Let’s see, what are your hobbies?

Mmmm, that really was the limit. Well, I play computer games, but only in phases. Partly because it’s difficult to find a computer game that really interests me. Partly, because after a heavy working day, the last thing I want to do is to sit even longer at my computer, and tap away for ever. You need change. Sometimes simply: peace and quiet. Or an hour in the bath with the Times Literary Supplement. 

What is the oddest thing you own?

I’ve got a pair of Israeli night vision goggles.

And why did you get those?

It was after an unpleasant incident at the front in Afghanistan, when my photographer was out one night with a group of mujaheddin, and I strayed away from them. It was pitch dark and there were landmines in the area.   

So, what are you thinking of doing after you left your job as a Permanent Secretary?

Well that won’t happen for many years, but it’s still a fair question. I have a number of projects on the boil, including a Cultural History of Snow and a book of Losers – but what will actually get completed I don’t know. I saw a programme on TV some years ago where a writer showed us viewers a flow chart of what he had done and exactly what sort of book he was going to write, year after year, right up to the 2020s, I think it was. That is a pure vision of hell for me. I cannot in any way imagine myself as a “one-book-a-year” author. Apart from the pressure involved, I can’t imagine having that much to say. I think I have three or four books left in me. After that I don’t know. Anyway: my job as Permanent Secretary will keep me occupied for great many years to come…

What is it like to participate in the selection of the laureate for the Nobel Prize in Literature?

It’s a big responsibility, of course, but it is also pretty exhilarating. Reading all these great works of contemporary literature, and constantly getting in touch with new ones, is a reward in itself.

I can’t resist myself: do you and the other ones in the Swedish Academy have some kind of bias against authors from the USA, Canada or Australia?

No, of course not!

So there are authors from these countries that could actually win the Nobel Prize for Literature?

Yes, certainly! But don’t ask about names. The contents of our current lists of candidates are a secret. Together with minutes, papers etc. And will stay secret for 50 years. That’s the rules for the Nobel Prize.

You’ve written some film scripts and a spy thriller for TV. Does this mean that your first novel is coming soon?

No, it does not. I am partly too respectful of the genre to try to add to it myself, and I think partly that there is so much already that is well written, even very well written. Why become another apple in a world of windfall fruit? The most I can do in the realm of fiction is to write manuscripts for film and TV.

Is there something in the offing on that front?

I have written a movie script about some prisoners fleeing the Soviet GuLag, that the director Tarik Saleh wants to do. And in addition to this there has been some interest from some TV-companies about doing something on the basis of The Beauty and the Sorrow. A documentary series perhaps. But all that is very preliminary and vague. No deal has been struck.

Are there no drawbacks to being a Swedish Academy member?

Well, people here in Sweden do tend to pick you up very quickly on language mistakes. If there’s a comma missing somewhere and you have written “who” instead of “whom”, you can be pretty sure that someone will turn up to point it out with ill-concealed tone triumph in their voice. I guess it comes with the territory.  

You have been in various theatres of war as a journalist over the years, Iraq was the latest. Why do you go seeking out such places?

There are a number of reasons. In the first place: even though I defend the right – even duty – of the academic and intellectual to sit in his ivory tower and observe the world around him, it is, for me at least, impossible to stay in that tower the whole time. Especially when seminal events are occurring. Then I feel I must see at least some small part of this reality with my own eyes. I cannot resist, I cannot just ignore this all (c.f. when I left university in the 1980s and joined military intelligence).

Secondly, I have writting several books on wars and dramatic events and it would be odd were I to merely observe them from a distance. In time and space. My own personal experiences of war zones have made me into a better historian. I am absolutely convinced of that. I have seen what many others have merely read about.

So, what are you writing now?

Not that much, I’m afraid. My job as a glorified beaureaucrat doesn’t give me much time for that. But as mentioned in the Beauty and the Sorrow FAQ I try and add new material, i.e. a new person, to the book every time it gets translated into a new language. This procedure also gives me an excuse to return to those masses of material that I gathered while I wrote the book. So in one sense it’s still a work in progress.

But no, right now I haven’t got any time to write another book. But it will come, eventually. When my work as permanent secretary is over.

Can you tell us about that next book?

No, I rather not. That book is still just a jumble of ideas in my head, some rough sketches on paper and couple of files in my laptop. I can say as much as the forthcoming book will, of course, be work of history, the subject comes out of the 20th century, and the form will be a bit unusual.