Katarina Bivald is a Swedish writer. She grew up working part-time in a bookshop, and The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is her first novel. It immediately became an international hit and is a firm favourite with book groups the world over.
1. Who were your literary influences as you were growing up?
I read almost everything when I was young. I still do, but I think I was even more omnivorous then. I hungered for everything, from Nancy Drew to The Count of Monte Cristo and José Saramago, Dick Francis and E.M. Remarque.
Perhaps it’s because when you’re young, everything you read, and so much of the world you experience, is still brand new to you.
2. When did you know that you wanted to be an author?
I think I have always known - then again, I also knew I was to be a journalist, lawyer or something that allowed me to work abroad for the International Committee of the Red Cross – tragically, they had little need for book nerds to save the world.
I have at least always written stories. I was very much a storytelling child. When I was very young, I used to force my siblings to listen to the stories I made up about whatever toys we were playing with at the time.
When I was a bit older, I forced my parents to listen to my written work – a sort of combination between Nancy Drew and Marshall Grover, that would have the authors turning in the grave had they heard them. My parents were very supportive, but kindly suggested I should, perhaps, write about something a bit closer to home. Of course, I went on to write a book about Iowa, so I guess I never listened to that advice.
3. Sara in The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend is a wonderful character. Did you base her on anyone you know?
I most emphatically did not base her on me.
At least, that’s what I told myself and all my friends. Come on, I said. She has lived only through books! She has no friends, no life, no social skills. And I have friends. Real friends. Outside of books.
But every time I told my friends and family that Sara was not based on me, they sort of shifted, and then they looked away, and then they said ”no, no, of course not” much too quickly.
So I think there is a lot of Sara in me, even though I have never opened a bookstore in the US. So I guess she’s braver than me.
4. Why did you decide to set the book in small town Iowa?
I have always felt that writing a book should be as much of an adventure as reading one. Why would I want to write about something I know, or a place I’m familiar with? I live in Stockholm. I don’t need to visit it every time I write.
The US was a given. I have always loved books that take place in small American towns, like those by Fannie Flagg or Annie Proulx. So I chose Iowa because I knew nothing about the state.
Or, that’s not completely true. I knew two things about it. One, that they had lots of corn. And two, that they once had a library cat named Dewey Readmore Books. And really, what more do you need to know about a place to want to set a book in it?
5. Why is Scandinavia producing so many good writers at the moment?
I don’t know. Perhaps it’s a sort of national-confidence thing? If one can do it, more feel that they can. Or a publisher-confidence thing – if one book has been published, then they are more likely to think that the next will be successful.
We have seen it with Swedish crime, of course, but I think we are also seeing it with Swedish feelgood novels. A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman, for example (if you haven’t read it – do! It’s a wonderful story).
6. Do you think the hardcopy book and libraries can survive in a world dominated by online?
Oh yes. You can’t smell books online. You can’t escape into an online bookshop. And you are less likely to find new authors or unexpected books online than in a physical store or a library. I think they have even done research on it – people go to an online bookstore to buy books they know about, but are more likely to surprise themselves in a bookshop.
I think libraries as a sort of safe space will be even more important in the future, too. As more and more of our public space is commercialized, more groups of people will need a quiet place to escape to, a computer to borrow for work or studies, or a book group to meet and get out of the house.
7. Is there anything you can share about your latest project?
At the moment, it’s going great! That is of course likely to change within the next couple of days – I find that writing is a constant roller coaster of hubris and self-doubt.
It takes place in a small, fictional town in Oregon, at a rather run-down motel that will hopefully bring a strange and varied cast together.
8. If a book group here in Suffolk was considering reading your book what sort of reading experience can they expect?
A happy read, first of all. It’s lighthearted fun. It is not, I think, a book that takes itself too seriously. It is also filled with book recommendations. The people in it are strange and struggling, finding friendship, community and books at unexpected places.
I like to think that there is also depth hidden within in, if a reader looks for it. And if a book group do decide to read my book, please feel free to invite me for a Skype conversation about it. Or send me an email and tell me what you thought of it: firstname.lastname@example.org.
9. Can you describe yourself in three words?
I like to see myself as a strange, kind book nerd (that is only three words in Swedish, as we say ”booknerd”).