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A corpse discovered in a flooded mine shaft. A secret organization with mysterious links to Nazi Germany. A fatal nineteenthcentury polar expedition. These are the foundations for Jan Wallentin’s thrilling debut novel, Strindberg’s Star, a masterful blend of history, mythology, and adventure. Already an international bestseller, the book crosses all genres, weaving a multilayered story that will leave readers breathless.
During a lonely cave dive, Erik Hall finds a dead body floating in a flooded mine; clutched tightly in the corpse’s hands is an ankh, an ancient Egyptian symbol of life and mythological key to the underworld. Religious symbol expert Don Titelman reluctantly agrees to examine the artifact but before Erik can provide any more information, he’s killedand Don becomes the prime suspect. A loner haunted by his grandmother’s stories of her gruesome torture at the hands of the Nazis during World War II, Don is dependent on a cocktail of medications to keep his demons at bay, yet now finds himself at the center of a rapidly expanding international mysterywhat is the ankh and who does it belong to?
With a sharp ear for dialogue and a keen sense of detail, Wallentin has created a broad cast of unique and memorable characters, and he deftly teases out their complicated relationships. After a threatening conversation with a shadowy figure named Eberlein, Don joins forces with Eva, a Swedish attorney, in order to track down the ankh’s companion piecea fivepointed star procured by Arctic explorer Nils Strindberg. A faded postcard stolen from Erik’s home reveals an illicit affair nearly a century old and in the process provides the shocking location of the star, bringing Don and Eva one step closer to solving the mystery. But Don and Eva must still unravel the purpose of the ankh and star before the artifacts fall into the hands of a malicious secret society, and finally reveal an interconnected web of mythology, science, and power.
Strindberg’s Star is crisply written and lavishly detailed, and the book is a literary novel as much as it is an adventure story. Wallentin’s work is built on careful research and an uncanny talent for intrigue, and he has crafted a plot that is intricate and precise yet moves with exhilarating speed. As the novel builds toward its astonishing conclusion, a series of twists, false leads, and surprises defy readers’ expectations, taking them on an international thrill ride. Bold and intelligent, Strindberg’s Star is a remarkable achievement that announces an exciting new voice in fiction.
Jan Wallentin is a journalist who lives in Stockholm. He is currently working on his next book. This is his first novel.
Q. What was your inspiration for Strindberg’s Star?
Strindberg’s Star essentially started out with a simple question: “Would it be possible to create an irresistible story of suspense, with an ever increasing forward momentum, without resorting to a plot built on violence?” This got me thinking about trying to write something extremely unpredictable. The reader would have no choice but to keep on reading this shape shifting book, because it would be impossible for him or her to predict the direction of the intrigue.
It would begin as your ordinary crime story, a whodunit with all the common ingredients. Then, after about eighty pages, when the reader would be relaxed and somewhat bored, the genre of the book would suddenly switch into a Hitchcockstyle thriller, an innocent man on the run after being accused of a crime he did not commit. This thriller would then gradually evolve into a roller coaster adventure story, a search for an ancient artifact with magical properties and suspicions of a great conspiracy, only to yet again shift into something completely different.
I also wanted to write about historical topics where the reader would have a hard time distinguishing between fact and pure fiction and lies. Getting into the bizarre world of the Nazi esoterica and the Andrée Arctic balloon expedition of 1897 suited this purpose perfectly, I thought.
Q. The book has had great success in Sweden and is poised to do the same in the United States. Do you see any differences between Swedish readers and American readers?
I’m happy that the Swedish and the European readers seem to have enjoyed the book so much, and I do hope that the American readers will respond to this genre bending adventure as well. The United States is the grand origin of these kinds of stories of course, so I’m somewhat humbled. It’ll be the definitive test, a bit like trying to sell a new variety of bread to very accomplished bakers.
Q. Your novel has been translated into many languages. Do you feel that the text changes in any way during the process of translation? How did you choose a translator for the book?
I’m not a polyglot by any means, so I have only been able to read the Scandinavian translations and the American one. I think those translators have done a magnificent job, but as a writer I can’t help but enjoy the original most. When a book is rewritten in another language it changes, and in a way it seems to become a cooperative work of the author and the translator. I’m therefore extremely happy with having Rachel WillsonBroyles as the American translator. She has a great reputation, and has done a very good job with of other Swedish authors, so I was confident that she would manage Strindberg’s Star quite as superbly as she did.
Q. From nineteenthcentury Arctic exploration to World War II Nazi atrocities to Norse mythology to modernday cave diving, your book covers a breathtaking number of topics. How much research did you do before writing the book and how long did it take?
I have always been intrigued by the Arctic balloon expedition of 1897. It has such a romantic quality, very much like a Jules Verne novel in real life: three Swedish gentlemen trying to sail by the mercy of the winds to the North Pole. Long before writing this book, I had done some pretty extensive reading about this voyage, and about the esoteric dimension of the Nazi movement. Having worked as a journalist I knew I was pretty good at handling huge amounts of information, and this part of the writing process was in a way the most rewarding for me, personally. Writing the book took about two years, and during that period I researched continuously.
Q. While you include a variety of literary references in the novel, Baudelaire’s Les Fleurs du Mal plays a key rolein particular, a gruesome poem called “Dessin d’un Maître inconnu.” Why did you decide to use this work?
The main theme I saw in Strindberg’s Star was one of falling down, loosing your grip, and the inevitability of aging, decline, and death. Baudelaire’s haunting poetry about rotting flesh and decaying corpses was the perfect expression of that, I thought. “Dessin d’un Maître inconnu” is gruesome, yes, but it also contains some exquisite writing, an evocative riddle of lust and loss.
Q. Strindberg’s Star is a monumental, multilayered work and yet manages to maintain a brisk and thrilling pace. Was it a challenge to sustain the story’s suspense with so many different plotlines involved? When you are deeply engrossed in writing, how do you manage to keep your perspective on the tone and pacing of the plot?
The most difficult thing about writing Strindberg’s Star was making all these very different ideas and topics come together in a natural way, supporting and enriching each other and keeping the reader’s suspension of disbelief. The pacing of the story was challenging, as I knew that I needed to give the reader a great deal of information without boring him or her to death, while at the same time keeping the plot moving forward. I made a gigantic scheme that contained all the bits and pieces of this jigsaw puzzle before writing the first word of the manuscript, and this was my salvation when the story, at times, seemed to get out of control.
Q. You’re not only a fiction writer but also a journalist. In terms of your writing style and process, how does writing novels differ from journalism? Are there any similarities?
I had written some extremely long and tedious novels in my early twenties, and one of the lessons of that was that it’s very easy to get lost, to literally drown in your own text. Some authors love that, I guess, but to me it’s a turn off. In journalism, on the other hand, you’re always trying hard to focus, to narrow things down, wary of the readers’ lack of patience. I tried to use this technique, dividing the writing of Strindberg’s Star into sections, never concentrating on a wider area of the story than five to ten pages at a time. This made the process more similar to writing an article or a short story than a novel. This was helpful to me psychologically, because I knew I would never loose control of the story. In the research I had good use of traditional journalistic methods as well, but to be completely honest, the greatest thrill of going into fiction was the very unjournalistic opportunity to lie and deceive, to play around with fact and fiction, to blur events of real history into a hallucinatory dream.
Q. Speaking of journalists, your depiction of journalists in the novel is less than flattering. For example, on page 54, Erik Hall thinks, “Journalists were so damn sloppy and completely lacked professionalism.” Was it amusing to poke fun at your own profession?
It was unavoidable, I’m afraid. But the demeaning description of journalists is allfictitious of course. A goddamn lie, actually.
Q. Don and Elena’s paths are interconnected throughout the events of the novel. Without giving away too much of the plot, in what ways are their emotional journeys similar? Do you see them as equally sympathetic characters?
Their emotional journeys are similar in the respect that they both need consolation in order to heal their childhood traumas. Elena is cursed with a gift of great power, and Don is the quintessential antihero, a guiltridden character who basically by chance gets drawn into this great conspiracy, triggering a chain of events which to him turns out to be a total nightmare. To me Elena and Don are both sympathetic, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have some serious flaws. Don’t we all?
Q. Are there parallels that could be drawn between the underworld in Strindberg’s Star and the myth of Pandora’s box?
Well, that’s an interesting thought, but personally I don’t want to decipher the story too much, because then it’ll loose some of its magic. Luckily it’s up to every reader to decide for him or herself what the bottom line of Strindberg’s Star really is.
Q. Do you plan on writing a sequel to the novel? Will we see any more of Don?
Not at the moment, no. Right now I’m working on a novel with a very different theme, and I think that Strindberg’s Star contains about everything that I have to say about the Nazi esoteric, the Arctic, the underworld, and Mr. Don Titelman. But then again, there might be one more thing . . . Yes . . . Well, you see, at the end of World War II there were some whispers about a group of sectarian Tibetan monks with truly astonishing mental powers working in league with the SS in Berlin who . . .
- All the characters in Strindberg’s Star are complex and multifaceted. Is there a singular hero in the novel? Who? How do you define a hero?
- What is the significance of the epigraphs at the beginning of the book?
- As discussed in the novel, the symbols of the star and the ankh have deep mythological importance. Are there any religious or cultural symbols that are meaningful to you? How do you respect or observe these icons?
- Who are the foundation? What is their relationship to Don, Elena, and Eva?
- Since childhood, Don has suffered psychological damage from the stories his grandmother told him about World War II. Why did she tell him such horrible things? What is the meaning of the collection of Nazi memorabilia he finds in her closet?
- The term “red herring” refers to characters or events in a novel that are made to seem more important to the plot than they are in order to mislead the reader and prolong the suspense; for example, because of the way the novel begins, a reader might assume that Erik Hall will play a more active role than he does. Were there any moments in the novel in which you felt you had a firm grip on the plot only to have your expectations upended?
- Elena has an unusual poweris this a gift or a curse? If you were offered the ability to do the same, would you take it? Would you want to live a long life like the whalers?
- While they are brief and key to the novel, Strindberg’s Star contains scenes of graphic violence and cruelty. What was your response to these moments?
- The novel is built upon mysteries: secrets, legends, confessions, and deceit. Don says, “I really have a problem with walking away from dark hidden secrets. My experience is that they are better off being exposed to the light” (p.226). Do you agree? Have you ever been in the position of having to decide whether to keep or expose a dark or potentially damaging secret? What did you do?
- What do you think the significance of the novel’s final dialogue? Why did you think the author chose to end the book this way?
- Strindberg’s Star has all the ingredients of an exciting adventure movie. If you were making a film adaptation of the book, which actors would you cast in the lead roles?