Magazine Extras: Author Dan Burstein Answers Our Questions About His Stieg Larsson Nonfiction

Stieg Larsson mania continues, with speculation about the late author's "lost fourth book" and film adaptations from both Sweden and the United States (the first U.S. film is scheduled for a December release). Fans of Larsson and his trilogy will certainly want to check out the new nonfiction title, The Tattooed Girl: The Enigma of Stieg Larsson and the Secrets Behind the Most Compelling Thrillers of Our Time by Dan Burstein, Arne de Keijzer and John-Henri Holmberg. In our September issue of RT BOOK REVIEWS magazine, RT's Managing Editor Liz French excerpted Dan Burstein's answers to her emailed questions about the book; here is the complete, unedited Q&A with the author.

LF: Normally my first question would be, WHY cover this author and his books, but it’s a no-brainer — megabestseller, tragic early death, contentious heirs, kick-ass heroine, etc. But I would like to hear how you came around to liking the series so much that you devoted a book to it.

Dan Burstein: I had actually managed to avoid The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo when it first came out, thinking it was some violent, troubled, tattooed girl's coming of age story that was not particularly relevant to my life. Then, in May 2010, an old family friend from California visited with my wife and myself in New York. This is a woman whose humanistic, aesthetic, intellectual and literary values I have admired for the 50 years I have known her, since the days when she and my mother were in literary book groups together. She was shocked that we had not read these books and started to tell me about her fascination with the Lisbeth Salander character and with some of the intriguing facts about Stieg Larsson's biography. On her recommendation, we immediately read all three books. I was riveted by Lisbeth, who I have referred to in our book as the 21st-century continuation of characters like Huck Finn in the 19th century and Holden Caulfield in the 20th century. I also developed a great interest in all the political, social, psychological, cultural and gender issues raised by Larsson’s trilogy. Within two weeks after reading the opening scene of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, I knew I would want to create a guidebook in the format of our prior “Secrets” series books--and thus was born The Tattooed Girl, which has just been published by St. Martin’s.

LF: Tell me a little bit about your research for your book. Did it entail any travel to Sweden? If so, did you visit the locations he mentions in the books, or visit his old haunts?

DB: Yes, we (myself, my co-author, Arne de Keijzer, and our spouses Julie and Helen) visited Sweden and did extensive interviewing there. We visited many of the locations where important scenes in the Larsson books are set. I wrote a piece for The Tattooed Girl called “The Moral Geography of Stieg Larsson,” (which appears in chapter 11). This part of the book takes our readers on the walking tour of Stockholm to gain insight not only into the locations but their significance in Larsson’s thinking. (You can watch Julie’s slideshow here.) We interviewed numerous Swedish writers of thrillers and crime novels, including some who are just beginning to receive attention in the English-speaking world. We met the real-life boxer and martial arts champion, Paolo Roberto, who figures in the plots of the novels. In all of our work in Sweden, we were greatly aided by our co-author, John-Henri Holmberg, a Swedish writer, publisher and translator who knew Stieg Larsson (and Stieg’s life partner, Eva Gabrielsson), for more than three decades. John-Henri met Stieg when Stieg was still a teenager and they were both interested in science fiction. They remained in touch until Larsson’s death in 2004. Just before he died, Larsson had discussed publishing strategies for his then-unpublished Millennium novels with John-Henri, and even shared with him a few tantalizing clues about what was going to be in the fourth novel, which remains an unpublished enigma today. For The Tattooed Girl, John-Henri wrote a number of important pieces, including an extensive intellectual biography of Larsson, as well as pieces on Larsson’s early years as an aspiring science fiction writer, and a fascinating analysis of what we can hypothesize might have been the content of the fourth book. 

LF: How is this book different from your “Secrets of” series?

DB: The Tattooed Girl is similar to our other Secrets books in that it is based on taking a deep, analytic, intriguing look at all the issues related to a huge pop culture phenomenon, and using leading experts in a wide variety of fields to contribute articles and interviews. John-Henri’s contributions make this book a little different than our previous titles in that he has deep first-hand knowledge not only of the Swedish milieu in which the Larsson novels are set, but of Larsson himself. I would also note that, while women have been a major part of every Secrets book we have done, not since our Secrets of Mary Magdalene title have we had such a compelling, complex, and profound character as Lisbeth Salander to focus on and think about. 

LF: Do you have a favorite Millennium trilogy book? If so, could you explain your choice?

DB: For me, it’s The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. This is in some part because the third book ties together the plotlines that have been slowly revealed throughout the first two books. In larger part it is because Larsson worked with a wide variety of subgenres within the three books, but Hornet’s Nest has most in common with an international espionage-type thriller, which would generally tend to be among my favorite genres within the thriller category. I am a huge John le Carré fan, for example.

LF: Which myths or misconceptions do you and your contributors address in The Tattooed Girl?  What item in the book do you think will shock and/or surprise readers?

DB: I think there’s a huge amount of material in our book that fans of the Larsson books will find new and revelatory. As I have indicated above, we probably have the best detail and analysis of anything that has yet been published from any source on the “mystery of the fourth book.”  We also have the most carefully researched, factually accurate biography of Larsson himself — including his childhood years, his interest in radical politics, his travels to Africa and elsewhere, the ideas in his early science fiction writing, his relationships with Eva Gabrielsson as well as the other important people in his life, etc. We have some remarkable insights into small details: As many readers know, the first book was supposed to be titled Men Who Hate Women (and that is the title it had in Swedish — Larsson was adamant that the title not be changed). Soon after Larsson’s death, the UK publisher decided to re-title it The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. Many people have heard this story. You can think what you want about whether we ever would have known about these books if the original title had been retained. But an important detail that will be new to readers of our book: Lisbeth’s tattoo, for which the UK and U.S. books ended up being titled, is described dramatically differently in English translation than in the original Swedish. In English, Lisbeth has a dragon tattoo on her shoulder blade; in Larsson’s original she has a huge dragon tattoo that sweeps all across her back from her shoulder to her buttocks.

I also want to call attention to “The Death of Stieg Larsson: Mysteries within the Mysteries,” an essay by Laura Gordon Kutnick in Chapter 8 of our book. In this piece, Laura describes one uncanny coincidence after another surprising irony about how the trilogy mirrors events in Larsson’s real life.  From the number of times people have sudden heart attacks and die, to the frequency with which wills and estates are discussed, to the details of characters’ lives that parallel what has happened in the aftermath of Larsson’s death, you will be amazed at how art preceded life events in Larsson’s case.  

LF: Have you seen the Swedish movie versions of the books? If so, what do you think of them? What do you think about the upcoming American movie versions, specifically the casting thereof? Did you picture any actors or actresses in particular while reading the books?

DB: I have seen all three Swedish movies and have enormous respect for Noomi Rapace, the actress who plays Lisbeth in those films. Noomi gives a tremendous performance that is at ones innovative and yet remains hyper-true to the Lisbeth of the novels. We have a piece in our book on the challenge facing Rooney Mara, the actress playing Lisbeth in the David Fincher/Sony/Hollywood movie of The Girl Wth the Dragon Tattoo, to measure up to the standard Noomi set. Having said that, I think Rooney Mara is a very promising star, and David Fincher has a certain genius for both human psychology and the noir vision of crime stories. I expect this to be the rare case where much-loved books lead not only to one set of great films, but two. 

LF: As you mentioned, a lot of people are touting any and all Scandinavian/Icelandic authors as “the next Stieg Larsson.” Can you weigh in on that, do you think there’s anybody who fits that bill? Are there other Scandinavian authors that you’d like to do a “Secrets of” or profile book about?

DB: In The Tattooed Girl, readers get introduced to a variety of Swedish writers who knew Larsson or who have been influenced by his work. Among these are: Anders Roslund and Börge Hellström (whose book, Three Seconds, was recently on the New York Times bestseller list); Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril (who write under the pen name, Lars Kepler, and whose book, The Hypnotist, has just been published in English); Karin Alfredsson; Veronica von Schenck; and Katarina Wennstam. All of these writers are doing various forms of crime fiction that has meaning and social significance beyond just being “a good read.”

LF: Lastly, is there any question I didn’t ask that you’d like to “answer?”

DB: In addition to deeply enjoying Stieg Larsson’s books as a reader, I discovered as I worked on The Tattooed Girl that my life had certain parallels with his. We were born in the early 1950s, less than one year apart. We were both “always writing something,” even as teenagers. He sets the disappearance of Harriet Vanger in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo in September 1966 — the time when he received his first typewriter. Right around the same time I got my first typewriter (mine was electric, his was manual). Stieg created mimeographed science fiction and political newsletters in his small town in the north of Sweden in the early 1970s that look a lot like an underground newspaper I published in California the same era. We both met women who would become our life partners when we were still teenagers; I met Julie in 1971 and he met Eva in 1972. As it happens, Julie and I were traveling around Europe when we met, and we spent some important days of our early life together in Stockholm in 1971, so we actually went to Stockholm as a couple before Stieg and Eva did — but anyway, I know and understand the Sweden of that era. Although Julie and I married in 1975 and Stieg and Eva never married, we all experienced the joys and shared worlds and shared adventures of having one life partner for four decades.

You can read the excerpted interview — and enter to win a copy of The Tattooed Girlin the September issue  of RT BOOK REVIEWS, which hits stores early next week. For more Mystery Month coverage — and your chance to win a five-book prize pack of new mystery releases — click here!