Interviewing Fredrik Backman

I love when the local bookstore asks me to interview a visiting author, making it a Q&A-style event instead of a reading. I like that better in my own events too, more of a  conversation than a monologue. That unscripted quality is probably why the back-and-forth of questions at the end are often the best part of a reading.

Yesterday bestselling Swedish author Fredrik Backman came to town, his only stop in the Boston area. I had three months’ notice to read his latest book, BEARTOWN, plus his backlist: A MAN CALLED OVE (once and for all settling any debate that existed over the pronunciation — it’s Ooo-veh), MY GRANDMOTHER ASKED ME TO TELL YOU SHE’S SORRY, BRITT MARIE WAS HERE, and others).

I especially enjoyed BEARTOWN, about the effect of youth hockey enthusiasm on a small town. It was darker than his earlier books, and examines the pack mentality of a team, and the way loyalties can divide a community when one player is accused of a crime. A member of the audience asked Backman how the book was being received by male athletes. He said he was a bit surprised that it hadn’t been an issue, but wondered what the reception would have been if it had been written by a woman. “It might have been challenged more, which is a shame but true.”

The main character is the town itself, and it works well. The narrative lens is like a camera suspended above, dipping in and out of each house, observing how the residents respond to the crisis. There is much hand-wringing over what’s happening to the community and laments of how can the community let this happen, which sounds eerily familiar in 2017 America. But groups are just a large number of individuals, and Backman doesn’t let personal responsibility off the hook: “Community is the sum of moral decisions made by the people who live there.”

Backman is charming and self-effacing, very at ease in front of a crowd, making it hard to believe his assertion that Ove was based on his own inner curmudgegon. “I’m not very socially competent,” he says. “There’s a lot of me in him.”

Considering the number of people in this sold-out crowd lined up for selfies with the author, it looks like socially incompetent is the new black.

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My study companion

Born at our house, going to their new families in a month. Already sad to let her go. I hope they appreciate what a literary soul she is.

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Birds and bees

This morning I was carpooling my 8yo and his friend, whose mom is expecting a baby.

Me, to the friend: “So, do you think you’re getting a brother or a sister?”

My 8yo: “You should ask your parents for a sister.”

Friend: “It doesn’t work that way.”

My 8yo: ?

Friend: “I know how it works. Don’t ask anything else. You don’t want to get your head in that place.” 

*        *         *

The 5th grader is having THAT health unit in school.

Him: “Mom, we had that class again. The one with the jungle book.”

Me: “What jungle book? You mean the puberty and development class?”

Him: “Me and my friends call it the jungle class.”

Me, afraid to ask but taking the bait: “Ok, why do you call it the jungle class?”

Him: “Because it leads to dark places and never know what horrible thing is around the bend.”

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On the first morning of 2017

obamaLast night (New Year’s eve) I dreamed I was working back at the travel magazine of my 20s, and Barack Obama was the editor in chief.

The office was in a skyscraper the size of an entire city block, and I’d walk the large square perimeter of hallways with an exotic young owl-hawk on my shoulder.

We all had one—an editor had rescued a nest of them on some remote assignment. Mine was a badly behaved alpha that didn’t play well with the others. But he was mine, perched on my shoulder in his cumbersome endearing way, and it weighed on me that I was responsible for finding him a home. Once during lunch I’d tried taking him on a walk in the jungle-like forest adjacent to the building. There were similar owl-hawks in the distance and I tried setting him free, but he wouldn’t go.

That afternoon I was called into Barack’s office. He was packing his belongings, loading boxes onto the helicopter pad that extended from one wall. owlhawkGoodbye, he said. He was leaving the magazine, going to the small village in Africa where his father had lived. In his memoir Dreams From My Father, he wrote that he’d lied to his elementary school class, told them his father was a Kenyan tribal chief. Turns out it was true, after all, and he was going to Africa to assume the position of his successor. He handed me a photograph of someone who looked exactly like him in a navy blue cylinder-shaped beret.

Even though we’d only had Barack at the magazine a short while, there was disappointment and a small sense of abandonment. I handed him back the picture, and asked the only thing I thought of to put into words: if he’d enjoyed being with us.

He stared at me a long time, beyond what was comfortable. I focused on a glass cabinet of medals to avoid meeting his eye. His silence meant he thought it was sort of a silly question, and that he also knew what I was really asking: Whether he was going to be as sad to leave as I was to have him go.

He put out his arm to my owl-hawk. “I’ll take him,” he said, and it stepped from my shoulder to his forearm.

*     *     *

When I woke up it was 6 a.m. on New Year’s day, still dark. I went downstairs to write by the glow of our wobbly imperfect Christmas tree. There was a low, reverberating call from out back. Hoo-hoo, hoo. Behind our house there are 12 acres of undeveloped woodland, unusual for the suburbs, with two abandoned houses that were once a farm. We’ve seen deer and coyote, heard the fisher cats scream in the night. Later this year developers will be razing the woods to build homes, knocking down almost all the native pine and shrubs (“junk trees”) to create a more manicured cul de sac. The uncultivated woods will be reduced to about 50 feet. Sometimes my children talk about where they imagine the animals will go. Will the deer and coyote have to share a den?

Somewhere behind the house another owl answered the first and then another, a volley of airy staccatos in the dark. At this time next year there will be houses where the junk trees were, and someone else in the White House. Some things will change, some won’t. Most of us will walk our office hallways and city blocks and suburban jungles just as before, things will grow and other things will be cut back or cut down, and deer might have to bed down with coyote. I don’t know where the owls will go.



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Leaving the Martha’s Vineyard fair at sunset













My car is a glider on farm roads, up into the pinking clouds

and away



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Dirty hands

L13A month ago I started doing a CSA workshare at a local farm one morning a week in exchange for a full share of weekly produce. I wanted to get my hands on the fresh vegetables and learn a few things about growing, plus I tend to find when I put myself in new settings learning new things, I can just feel my brain expanding. The first day I harvested hundreds of bok choi, beets, turnip, radishes, lettuce heads and chard fronds, but after two hours on my knees weeding I couldn’t stop thinking of all the other things I could have been doing with my time not to mention work deadlines looming and said to myself, I CAN’T DO THIS IT ISN’T WORTH IT.

Each Thursday since then I’ve given myself over to the rhythm of the morning and brought home funky vegetables like kohlrabi and garlic scapes, and introduced my kids to hand-shelled peas and dried-on-the-cob popcorn and the world’s largest zucchini. I come home filthy and exhausted working side-by-side with the college-kid crew, feeling badass with a mini-machete until my back and knees remind me I’m old enough to be their mom and possibly their grandma.

This morning while we were cutting cilantro, a guy who’s a  history major at Dickinson asked me what L20bands I like and a Tufts OT confided her misgivings about grad school and I love being wrong, especially about new experiences.


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Cocky blooms









Second grade poetry.

“Pink peony
sleeping in the
blooming in the
garden like a

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Fowl haiku

CamChickCropMy boy palms the chick
Heat-lamp sleepy, slow blinks of
sunflower seed eyes

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Not just the facts


Notes before the interview

I was getting ready for an interview recently, a follow-up phone call for a magazine piece profiling a semi-famous person. An entrepreneur who’d started off on the completely wrong foot before finding the right calling as a television personality, and on the way, happened to become a helluva great bartender.

I love this kind of journalism. It’s real-life storytelling, all the messy and gorgeous stuff of human nature that reminds us it’s never really just the facts ma’am, it’s the facts behind the facts. How people do what they do, and what drives them to do it. The times of struggle and stagnation, and the innovation that follows. It’s the story of the Olympian and the visionary, and it’s just as much the story of the murderer and the spy. Real life is as crazy and rich as any fiction. 

At any rate, this is what my pre-interview notes look like (pic above). Sloppy, one freely associated thought leading to another, all needing to be written more neatly and put into sequence before I pick up the phone. These are the building blocks of the process, or at least my process. And it struck me that no matter how much I love technology — and oh do I, the convenience and connectedness, the smart phones and e-readers, the fitness apps and spreadsheets — the concrete thing always comes before the computed thing. First comes the spark, the action, the motivation. The legwork. Next comes the technology that organizes the action, bring the idea to fruition.

Not too long ago, my recording of an interview somehow turned itself off mid-conversation, and I discovered I’d lost an hour of material. After returning to my car and pounding the steering wheel like a raging cartoon character, I sat down and wrote out the skeleton of our conversation, everything I could remember. And then I set out to write around the lost interview, which is actually more laborious and creative than writing from an interview using quotes (which I could call back and get, later). The confidence gained from the legwork years made the loss much less of a big deal than it would have been,  younger.

Because in the end there are conveniences, but there are no real short cuts. No matter what kind of technology you have supporting you, you still have to germinate the idea, have the epiphany, put in the practice time, collect and interpret the facts, mix the drinks if you have to, to pay the rent. The technology helps us get where we need to go, no doubt about it. But when all else fails, there’s the scribbly paper. You’re the only one who can make the scribbles, and no battery fail can take that away from you.

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Snapshot of a morning

Screen Shot 2016-01-07 at 1.39.50 PMThe 6yo hops into my room in a tote bag, sack-race style, a beanbag chair strapped to his back.

Me: “What are you doing?”

Him, deadpan: “Living wild.”

A minute later the 8yo comes in, not wanting to go to school.

Me: (Blah blah blah)

Him, changing tack: “I don’t even know why you trust these strangers to take care of us. It isn’t safe.”

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