Authors, like cats, have territories about which they like to prowl. Danish author Sissel-Jo Gazan has marked out her own unique space in crime-fiction — biological science.
Her first bestseller, The Dinosaur Feather, was voted Danish Crime Novel of the Decade, no less, and the much-anticipated follow-up, The Arc Of The Swallow — which is out tomorrow — leads her detective Søren Marhauge into the murky, cut-throat world of the pharmaceutical industry. Published by Quercus, it’s available in hardback at £16-99.
A biology graduate from the University of Copenhagen, Sissel-Jo lives in Berlin. She gives us the intel on why science is fertile ground for crime fiction, on why sometimes you’ve just got to let go of months of work, and why she’d happily fall in love with her dreamy detective…
Tell us about The Arc Of The Swallow…
Personally I am not into blood and violent crime very much, and I’ve been told several times that The Arc of the Swallow is unusual for a crime novel. I use the crime genre as a hook to tell a story. I love writing about different characters and their secrets. I love to explore how they make life difficult for themselves, and how they manage when their closet is full of skeletons and there’s simply no more room for any more.
The Arc of the Swallow is all about the characters. It begins with a suicide. My protagonist is a biology graduate Marie whose supervisor, Professor Storm, is found hanged in his office. Everybody seems to accept the fact that he has taken his own life, except Marie. She knows Storm was just about to publish his breakthrough research, a paper that questions the WHO’s vaccination programmes in Africa and shows that some of the vaccines harm children.
It’s a highly controversial paper, and since Professor Storm is dead, Marie is the only one who has the evidence he was right. Determined to prove Storm was murdered, Marie begins her own investigation. She gets help from police investigator, Søren Marhauge, who was introduced in my previous book The Dinosaur Feather, and who also believes there is something suspicious about Storm’s apparent suicide.
How would you describe your detective Søren Marhauge to a new reader?
Søren Marhauge is strong and weak at the same time; very smart, but also very human. He’s a great stepfather and an interesting character, because he is very reflective. I tried to create someone I would have definitely fallen in love with, if I had met him in real life. I often get a very good response from readers towards Søren Marhauge. Women love him, and men really like him too!
Your thrillers are set in the world of biological science – what makes it such a fertile ground for crime thrillers?
Science is much more passionate than you would think, and when I discovered that – while writing my biological thesis – I decided to set a crime novel in exactly these surroundings. I wanted to capture the fight over foundations grants, the envy among the scientists, and all the things they are willing to do to promote themselves. Then there is the physical setting – the biological institute – where there are lots of dead animals in glass cases, weird sounds and smells in the hallways and a scared night watchman always patrolling. It’s just the perfect setting for a crime thriller.
Well, science doesn’t happen as fast as you might think, especially with the research group I followed which had such difficulties making progress with their observations. I did sometimes think: ‘Oh no, what if someone gets the same idea, and writes the novel faster than me!?’ But then I kept reminding myself that my story is my story, and only I could write it. So it wouldn’t really make a difference if someone picked up the same theme and wrote a novel about it – it wouldn’t be my novel.
Your first book The Dinosaur Feather won Danish Crime Novel of the Decade – how daunting was it to write a follow-up?
It was quite daunting – at least until I stumbled on the vaccine story and knew I had material enough to write a novel just as well researched as The Dinosaur Feather. Of course I was nervous prior to its release, and very relieved when it got a great reception. But I also know you can only ever do your best and try not to compromise or get slack no matter how successful you are. That’s the way I was raised, and I always really make an effort; whether I’m baking a cake, helping my daughter with homework or writing a novel. I do believe you can’t fail if you don’t let success go to your head and begin from a humble place every time.
Take us through a typical writing day for you.
Well, I have two children so my work hours are limited to between 9.00 and 16.00, when they are in school and nursery. I try to concentrate during these hours. When I’m finishing a novel, I need more time of course, and then I just work flat out, with help from my wonderful husband. I’m almost always inspired, but beginning a novel is never easy. Then there’s a long period of time where I just waste time and that can be very frustrating until all of a sudden the novel begins writing itself.
What’s the hardest lesson you ever had to learn about writing?
That sometimes you have to trash six months of work no matter how frustrating that can be. When you don’t want to compromise – and I don’t want to – you have to be able to say: ‘I thought it was good, but I went too far in the wrong direction, and this has to go.’
It’s the disadvantage of a writer’s solitary profession: there is no one to reel you in while you write your novel, so you are pretty much your own judge, which is a risky business. Luckily I am very self-critical and I know how to criticize myself when something is bad. Once it took six months before I realized it, and that was a hard lesson.
How do you deal with feedback?
I don’t like bad reviews, and luckily I haven’t had many in my time as a writer. If reviews are critical however, I make use of them if they are relevant and constructive. I like giving talks in libraries, because people often ask me really interesting questions, and make me reflect on my novels in new ways, or make me see symbols in them that I hadn’t even intended. It’s always very interesting.
Who are the authors you admire, and why?
I have great admiration for all writers who don’t get sloppy. Writers who can reinvent themselves over and over again and never repeat themselves, just because they have had success. There are a lot of good writers out there! Recently I read The Book Thief which is an outstanding novel. It’s so well written, so gripping and so cool that Markus Zusak was able to write yet another novel about Nazi Germany, which we have never read before. It’s a pearl.
Give me some advice about writing…
Never ever give up, even during the phases where what you have in front of you is rubbish. My personal metaphor is to imagine long tangled hair and that all you have is a very small comb. With moderation and diligence you comb and comb and comb, even when it seems not to help, and all of a sudden the hair is less tangled. It might be a very bad metaphor, but it’s useful to me, because it keeps my spirit up to keep combing! And also you should only write if you can’t help it. If it doesn’t just pour out of you, if it’s something you have to force because you like the idea of becoming a writer, then don’t.
What’s next for you?
I’m at the tentative beginnings of a new novel. It’s set in Berlin and it’s about street art and people’s secrets.