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Swedish couple discovers secret to writing as single pseudonym — Lars Kepler

| Wednesday, March 7, 2018, 9:18 a.m.
Author Lars Kepler is Swedish married couple Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril.
Ewa-Marie Rundquist
Author Lars Kepler is Swedish married couple Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril.
'The Sandman' by Lars Kepler
'The Sandman' by Lars Kepler

Scandinavian mysteries and thrillers have been in demand since the success of Steig Larrson's “Millenium” trilogy. Writers from that region, including Jo Nesbo, Karin Fossum and the late Henning Mankell, have emerged. But there's not been a true blockbuster like “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” or any of the other books that featured the characters Lisbeth Salander and Mikael Blomkvist.

Lars Kepler's new book, “The Sandman” (Knopf) might change that. Kepler, the pseudonym of the Swedish married couple Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril and Alexander Ahndoril, has penned a riveting psychological thriller about a manipulative serial killer, Jurek Walter, and the two agents, Joona Linna and Saga Bauer, charged with controlling him. The book will be released March 6 in the United States.

“The Sandman,” critically acclaimed and already a bestseller in Europe, is the seventh book by the Ahndnorils, who answered questions via email for the Tribune-Review.

Question: Was there a single event or incident that inspired “The Sandman”?

Answer: At a dinner party in the Netherlands we met a man who had worked as a secret agent for Mossad. He was very intriguing and told us about that time. It was a long and pleasant evening (even though we might have asked him too many questions) which inspired us to write an undercover story.

Q: “The Sandman” was so intense at times that I had to stop (however briefly) reading it. When you are in the middle of writing a horrific or violent scene, are there times when you have to step away and gather yourself?

A: Absolutely, the writing process is distressing for us. Sometimes you have to stand up and walk away from the computer to be able to just breathe for a moment. Alexandra always experiences nightmares about halfway through the writing process. We've learned to take it as a good sign, since the nightmares disappear once we're done writing. We think that a story should be able to be as exciting as possible, as long as it ends well.

Q: Jurek Walter is an incredible villain, a man with little redeeming qualities. When you were creating him, was it hard to balance the need to make him evil, yet give him some shred of humanity to make him believable?

A: Empathy is definitely the most important element for us when we write. Every single character has to be understandable to a certain extent, even the most sinister ones. The idea that some people are born monsters just isn't interesting to us. We want to know how and why. How did Jurek Walter become the person he is? Although his destiny arouses some sympathy, we can never accept his life choices. For us, the violence is always sinister. That's probably why we are passionate about these kinds of stories.

Q: Scandinavian mystery and thriller writers — from Jo Nesbø to Stieg Larsson to Karin Fossum — have really come to prominence over the last decade. Is there a sense that you have to be at your very best to stand out given the quality of your peers?

A: We have great respect for the Scandinavian tradition, but at the same time we feel free to be ourselves and write about the things we want to write about. You have to draw inspiration from everything around you. For example, we prefer the fast-paced tempo that many American writers have.

Q: Joona Linna and Saga Bauer are finely nuanced characters. As a husband-and-wife writing team, do either of you take ownership of them while writing? Do you, Alexandra, tend to write more scenes with Saga, or do you, Alexander, write more about Joona?

A:That's a good way of looking at it, but we actually write everything together. We sit side by side and exchange passages with each other constantly, edit them, add to them and continue writing where the other one left off. At the end of the writing process we no longer know who has written what. It's at that point we know that Lars Kepler has taken over. But at the same time, you're probably right in that it's still noticeable that our stories are written by a man and a woman – and maybe that's the reason we have equally as many male and female readers.

Q: The act of writing is, in essence, a lonely pursuit. How have you circumvented that aspect of writing? Is it easier to collaborate now than when you started?

A: To sidestep the solitude of writing was one of the biggest motivating factors for us to try to collaborate. But to bring together two writers wasn't that simple. We loved each other, had been married for many years, had had three daughters, but that doesn't mean that you can write together. We can laugh at it now, but we had many arguments and failed attempts before we found the key to the collaboration. The key for us was to create a third writer, with his own name and a style of writing that was completely his own. As soon as we began to write as Lars Kepler the wall between us fell and an enormous sense of creativity took over. There's nothing better than finding yourself in a mutual flow. Of course we disagree on things sometimes, but because the entire collaboration is built on a living dialogue between us, we usually never get stuck.

Q: Alexander, what are Alexandra's strengths? And Alexandra, what are Alexander's strengths?

A: Alexandra: Alexander is in every way a brilliant writer. He has a way of creating authority in a piece of writing while simultaneously making it vivid and striking that very few writers are able to do.

Alexander: Alexandra has an enormous creative momentum which harmonizes with my somewhat slower pace, and she embraces the story with her whole heart — and, in the end, that's what writing and reading is all about.

Q: This is your seventh book as Lars Kepler. Has your writing, your process, changed at all over time?

A: Something we've learned over time is the importance of taking the time to understand the narrative in detail. We write out all of the scenes and plot lines on little pieces of paper, put them up on a wall, stand in front of the wall and start creating the story in its entirety. We discuss, move the pieces of paper around and make new ones. We do this until we feel that the narrative is complete, and then we start to write. This might sound very disciplined, but for us it's necessary, because as soon as we sit down in front of our computers the characters begin to come alive. Something happens which cannot be captured with only the pieces of paper on the wall. That's the magic. Everything begins to move by its own power and at that point it becomes very important to be sure of the narrative so as not to get lost along the way.

Literary vents

March 8: Sewickley resident Marie Benedict, author of “Carnegie's Maid,” reading and discussion. 6:30 p.m., Riverstone Books, McCandless. 412-366-1001, riverstonebookstore.com

March 9: Pittsburgh native and National Book Award winner Nathaniel Philbrick talks about his new memoir, “Second Wind.” 7 p.m., Penguin Bookshop, Sewickley. 412-741-3838, penguinbookshop.com

March 9-11, 16-18: “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,” a celebration of Maya Angelou, presented by Prime Stage Theater. Admission: $12-$30. 8 p.m., March 9-10, 16-17; 2:30 p.m., March 11 and 18. New Hazlett Theater, North Side. 412-267-4245, primestage.com

March 10: Scott Pyle book launch and poetry reading for “Seeking Fire.” Admission: $5 or a covered dish. 7 p.m., Irma Freeman Center for Imagination, Garfield. 412-924-0634, irmafreeman.org

March 11: Young adult illustrator and author Melissa Sweet, Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Words & Pictures. Admission: $11. 2:30 p.m., Carnegie Library Lecture Hall, Oakland. 412-622-8866, pittsburghlectures.org

March 12: Poetry readings with Fred Shaw, John Stupp and Chris Girman. 6:30 p.m., Riverstone Books, McCandless. 412-366-1001, riverstonebookstore.com

March 15: Coffee House Reading Series , featuring Keely Bowers (fiction) and Jim Daniels (poetry). 4:30 p.m., Genesius Theater, Duquesne University.

March 16: Book launch and reading for Sharon Dilworth's “Two Sides, Three Rivers.” 7 p.m., Abandoned Pittsburgh Art Gallery, Homestead. 716-8283, abandonedpittsburgh.com

March 18: Brad Parks, Shamus and Nero Award winning author, book discussion and reading for his new novel, “Closer Than You Know.” Penguin Bookshop, Sewickley. 4 p.m. 412-741-3838, penguinbookshop.com

March 20: Book launch and discussion for James Goldsborough's “Waiting for Uncle John. 7 p.m. Penguin Bookshop, Sewickley. 412-741-3838, penguinbookshop.com

March 22: Book launch for Pittsburgh native Jessica Strawser, “Not That I Could Tell.” 7 p.m., Penguin Bookshop, Sewickley. 412-741-3838, penguinbookshop.com

March 26: Mohsin Hamid, international bestselling author of “Exit West” and “How to Get Filthy Rich in Asia,” Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures' Ten Evenings. $35-$15. 7:30 p.m., Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland. 412-622-8866, pittsburghlectures.org

March 29: Daniel Borutzky, National Book Award winner for poetry for “The Performance of Becoming Human,” University of Pittsburgh graduate, Pitt Poetry Series. 7:30 p.m., Ace Hotel, East Liberty. 412-361-3100, acehotel.com

Events free except where noted.

Fantastic Five book recommendations

“Census” (Ecco), Jesse Ball

Ball, the author of “The Way Through Doors” and “How to Set a Fire and Why,” returns with a novel about a dying man trying to make sure his disabled son gets care after his death.

“The Italian Teacher” (Viking), Tom Rachman

A mercurial artist attempts to distance himself from his son, while also exerting influence on the boy's life. By the author of “The Rise & Fall of Great Powers.”

“See What Can Be Done: Essays, Criticisms, and Commentary” (Knopf), Lorrie Moore

A collection of critical reviews and essays on the art of fiction by the acclaimed short-story writer. Notable is Moore's brilliant essay on Ezra Edelman's “O. J.: Made in America.”

“The House of Broken Angels” (Little, Brown), Luis Alberto Urrea

An ailing patriarch of a huge Mexican-American family must bury his mother as he prepares for his last birthday. By the author of “The Hummingbird's Daughter.”

“Girls Burn Brighter” (Flatiron Books), Shobba Rao

Two girls growing up in a remote Indian village become friends. When one of them is forced to leave because of an act of cruelty, the other girl leaves her family behind on a quest to renew their friendship. Rao will appear at 8 p.m., March 19 at Alphabet City, Pittsburgh's North Side. 412-435-1110, alphabetcity.org

Rege Behe is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.

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