interviews / Q&A's



Today, we’re delighted to welcome acclaimed writer Gunnar Staalesen to The Literary Lounge. Born in Norway, in 1947, Gunnar began writing at an early age. He has published poetry, plays and novels, but is probably most famous for the Nordic Noir series featuring Varg Veum. Published in more than 24 countries and adapted for television in Norway, the books are set in Gunnar’s native Bergen. Big Sister, Varg’s latest outing, is published this month by Orenda.

Gunnar, thank you for joining us.



LS: Seasons of Innocence was published when you were just 22. Was that the first novel you had written? How did the Varg Veum books evolve from that?

GS: I tried to publish a collection of poems when I was 17 and I wrote my first novel when I was 19. Neither was published. My third manuscript, Seasons of Innocence, was accepted by the third publisher I sent it to. I had no thoughts of being a crime writer at that time. My inspirations – and I think you can see it if you read the book – were Jack Kerouac and Knut Hamsun. This novel has no connection to Varg Veum at all – except, I suppose, in the kind of metaphors I used, and the somewhat poetic language.


LS: You’ve said that the excellent Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s books, such as Roseanna, told you ‘that it was possible to write the sort of crime fiction that later became known as Nordic Noir’. Why?

GS: I have often said that the books of Sjöwall & Wahlöö were a watershed for modern crime fiction. They showed that it was possible to write entertaining crime novels while still having literary ambitions and while being critical of the society and the times we live in. I think this idea is central to all modern Scandinavian crime fiction – the genre which, outside our countries, is called Nordic Noir. We all write in the wake of Sjöwall & Wahlöö.


LS: The first Varg book was published in 1977. Did you envisage then that he would have such longevity as a character?

GS: I looked upon the first book as an experiment. Was it possible to transport the archetypal American private eye to the Norway of the 1970s? It seemed it was; readers loved it. After that I became sure I would continue to write about him. That I would still be doing so 40 years later, I could not envisage at that point of time. Varg has grown older, of course, and he has learned many life lessons, but overall he is the same character as in the first books.


LS: Your protagonist lives and works in Bergen, like you. What is it about the city that makes it so special to you both?

GS: Bergen is the town of my birth, and I have lived here all my life. I never considered setting the books anywhere else, although the plots do sometimes lead Varg out of town – to, for example, Oslo, Stavanger, and the rural parts of the west coast with its fjords and mountains. I know Bergen very well – it is a noir city, with a lot of rain, dark nights and narrow streets – the perfect background for the kind of books that I write.


LS: As far as I’m aware you don’t describe Varg in your books, rather like Ian Rankin with Rebus. Were you consulted when the statue of Varg Veum was erected? Does it look like your Varg?

GS: Well, in the very first book, Varg looks at himself in a mirror when shaving. I think that might be the only time there is a description of how he looks. But yes, I was consulted when the sculpture was made, and the Varg it represents looks like a mixture of the two actors that have played him (one on the screen, the other on the stage and in adaptions for the radio) and the writer. It’s Varg at around 45.


LS: Can you sum up Varg as a man in five words?

GS: Curious, kind, stubborn, empathic and witty … These are his best traits, I guess.


LS: What are Varg’s main demons – personally and/or politically?

GS: Personally there are, of course, his periodic problems with hard liquor. There are times at which he could be described as an alcoholic. And he is a lone wolf who will never be completely happy, I’m afraid. Politically, I am not sure. He fights against injustice, and he is always on the side of the weak in the society, very often against people who possess money and therefore power. And I think he is a kind of a feminist, too.


LS: Chandler’s Little Sister resonates particularly with you: is Big Sister a nod to that?

GS: Yes, it is definitely a nod to the Master. I have a sentimental relationship with that book, because it was the first one of Chandler’s that I read. After the first chapter I was sold. This was my way of writing, and I have been inspired by it ever since.


LS: You have said that the Varg books pay more of a nod to American crime fiction, such as that of Ross MacDonald and Chandler. Is your style different then to other Nordic Noir writers?

GS: Yes, I think you can say that. I write in the Chandler/Ross Macdonald tradition, with a private eye as the main character (I don’t think any of the other big names in Nordic Noir have such a protagonist). You can see that my language, with its use of metaphors and one-liners, is closer to the work of Chandler than to that of Sjöwall & Wahlöö, even if the political inspiration comes from them.


LS: How long does it typically take you to write a book?

GS: It used to take almost a year. In recent years it has taken more or less six months, but with very concentrated writing. Big Sister was no more difficult to write than the ones that I wrote before that. My mixture of routine and a fondness for writing means I rarely have any significant problems when it comes to getting on with the job.


LS: Several of the books have been successfully adapted for television in Norway and star Trond Espen Seim. In your ‘Field of Dreams’ English-language adaptation, who would play your protagonist?

GS: When we started the filming in Norway, we got a message that Brad Pitt was interested in reading the script, and thinking about adapting it as a US film. He would be an OK Varg Veum, I guess. I am more interested in who will play him in Norway next, as that will not be Trond Espen Seim. There will be news to come on this in a year or two …


LS: John Harvey’s Frank Elder books recently came to an end. Have you ever envisaged killing Varg off? And if so, what would be next?

GS: I have no plans to kill off Varg. And I have no other series in mind, but perhaps a couple of stand-alone-thrillers.


LS: I believe you love jazz. What does Varg play at the end of a case? And at his funeral?

GS: He always listens to Ben Webster – somebody should play ‘Body and Soul’ at his funeral.

Well, that would be a very fine send-off.


Gunnar, thank you so much from all of us at The Literary Lounge. It’s been an absolute pleasure spending time with you. We wish you every success with Big Sister


Big Sister by Gunnar Staalesen •  June 2018 • Orenda • Paperback •  £8.99

See review: ‘Staalesen’s Big Sister – a nod to Chandler





Music: Ben Webster’s version of ‘Body and Soul’ (1944)


Acknowledgements: Thank you to Gunnar Staalesen and to Anne Cater. Photo: The author with the statue of Varg Veum in his native Bergen. Photo: and is used for publicity purposes only.


Also of interest: Elder’s last stand: John Harvey’s Body and Soul’; ‘Meet Gina Kirkham: The Literary Lounge Q&A‘;  ‘David Stuart Davies – The Literary Shed Q&A‘; ‘Ian Ridley: The Literary Shed Q&A;John Fairfax: The Literary Lounge Q&A‘; ‘Johana Gustawsson’s Keeper – indie publisher Orenda does it again‘;  ‘Finlay’s last stand – Matt Johnson’s End Game‘; ‘Letters of Note‘; 20 books this summer challenge.


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