Historia talks to Martin Holmén about his HWA Debut Crown shortlisted novel, Clinch, and his path to publication.
The HWA Debut Crown celebrates new voices in historical fiction. Have you always been interested in history?
Oh yes, for as long as I can remember, and especially the modern era that is still just beyond my reach, the time when my great grandparents lived, when you sort of loose your own connection to the past. I studied it at university, along with literature, specialising in social history around that time. Nowadays I teach history a few days a week at an upper secondary school here in Stockholm.
How did the initial idea for Clinch come about?
I had the idea for a very long time. Crime fiction from Scandinavia is often labeled “Nordic noir” abroad. I think the best authors within the crime genre are those that wrote hardboiled American detective stories in the twenties and thirties, so I wanted to write a proper, profiled noir, merging that tradition with a truly Swedish expression.
Historical research: a pleasure or a chore?
Definitely a pleasure! Sometimes I work at the Royal Library but nowadays, since a lot of the material is digitised, I can work from home. It’s a bit like being a detective really. If you are looking for a specific environment from 1932 you might find an article about it that leads to a picture that might lead you to a photographer who lived in the area in question, documenting everyday life. Unlike my hero Harry Kvist, I don’t have to chase around Stockholm in the biting winter, for which I’m happy.
Did your research turn up anything unexpected?
Creative freedom. Since I was writing about a working class man who prefers other men sexually I was researching that part of history but could not find anything except police reports on the matter. There were quite a lot about the upper classes, where, to quote the juridical paragraph eighteen, this “crime against nature” was socially accepted, though forbidden by law. Due to the lack of a voice of their own, there was almost nothing about men (and women) from the lower classes. After a couple of weeks of research I knew that there was a story to be told.
Antonia Senior, Chair of judges said, ‘Our shortlisted writers, although very different in subject and style, all share a talent for making the past holler to the present.’ Were you conscious of any modern day parallels when writing the book?
Very much so. Back then Sweden went from an economy based on farming to an modern, industrialised nation and now we are leaving that era for a digital, globalised one. In every structural adjustment you will have winners and losers and some will reject change. The right-wing nationalist party is on a rise never seen before over here, and elsewhere. We live in worrying times.
What was your path to publication?
Early on I pitched my idea to a small, underground publisher who was interested so I kind of felt safe doing my thing. I’ve got some friends who are authors and they were kind enough to read it and give me pointers. Writing is basically re-writing so I did that a couple of times and two years later, more or less for the sake of it, I sent it to some other publishing houses, along with a detailed summary of the following instalments in my trilogy, and ended up with the biggest and most prestigious one. Nobody was more surprised than me. After that other countries followed.
What advice would you give someone starting work on a first novel?
Just do it, or don’t. There is nothing in between. And if you decide to, don’t think there’s a short cut. Don’t waste money on a writing classes where you get two or three lessons on how to write dialogue. To master dialogue you should read Hemingway’s short stories and Moby Dick, for example. It’s time consuming, but probably cheaper, more fun, and in the long run, worth your while.
What do you think the historical novelist can add to the study of the past?
Sensing and feeling it – few historians can bring that to the table. Fictional writers can make the people of the past come alive again. That’s pretty cool.
What’s next? What are you working on now?
The third and final instalment about Harry is finished and will be released in October in Sweden, but I have planted a female character in all three books, so there might be a spin-off. It’s set during the Second World War. Even though Sweden was neutral Stockholm was, for that reason, an interesting place. Every intelligence service was represented here – the Brits, the Germans, the Yanks, the Soviets and so on – and could operate quite freely. I really like the black and white spy noir movies from that era so I think I’ll go in that direction.
And finally, just for fun, can you describe your book in five words?
Dark and gritty yet humorous.
Martin Holmén teaches History and Swedish at an upper secondary school in Stockholm. His Stockholm Trilogy (Clinch, Down for the Count and Slugger) is described as gritty, historical, queer noir fiction with a unique Swedish flavour. Available, or soon to come, in Australia, France, Italy, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, Sweden and the United Kingdom.
Author photo © Peo Bengtsson