Hi and welcome to my Q&A with the queen of French noir: Johana Gustawsson! Johana is the author of the Roy & Castells series, starting with Block 46, then Keeper, then last month’s Blood Song. I absolutely adore Johana and her books, and I had a lot of questions I wanted to ask her, so I was over the moon when she accepted my invitation! Without further ado, here is Johana:
Hi Johana! Welcome to FromBelgiumWithBookLove! I’m honoured to have you here! How are you today?
I am great! Thank you. Started my day with my twins smiling, what could be better than that? Hope you are well too! Thank you for the invite, I’m very pleased to spend that time with you.
Aww your boys, I spot them on your Instagram sometimes, they’re adorable! I’m great too, chuffed to be talking to you today! Tell me, if this were an actual meeting in real life, where would we be now? Would we be out for coffee, would we go for a bite to eat? Where would you take me, and why?
Can we dream a bit, then? Let me take you to Falkenberg, in Sweden, where Bergström and his team work, because it will set our day perfectly as this place is heaven on earth. You might a bit chilly, that’s all. So come and join me at my mother-in-law’s house, please. We are taking our coffees and kanelbullar and walking towards the pebbled beach, which is just twenty meters down the house. The day is gorgeous: the sky has been brushed with a timid blue, the sun is shining softly and a caressing breeze is making our hair dance. We would walk and chat, coffee in hand. How’s that?
That sounds divine! But who would I be meeting, who is Johana Gustawsson, how would you describe yourself in 5 key words?
Mother. Wife. Friend. Writer. Cheese-lover.
Cheese-lover! Must come with the French territory, although to be honest, I’m quite fond of the stuff myself! What quality are you most proud of?
I cannot think of any quality I’m proud of. But when you say pride, though, I think of my three sons.
And what is your biggest vice?
Oh god. I have so many. But let’s mention the most annoying one: I’m totally OCD. Super tidy. Poor hubby, utterly traumatised.
I can relate! (And my hubby too!) If you were to find a bottle with a genie willing to grant you three wishes, what would you wish for?
I’m going to give an answer that would belong to a beauty-contest. But never mind: I’m totally owning it! With all the poverty in the world, don’t you think we should take care of that first? Then, I would ask the genie to go around the globe and grant a wish to every single kind soul. Then, I would make my wish, which would be for my children to have a long and happy life.
It might be a beauty-contest answer but I love it! How much of yourself and the people around you do you put in your characters?
Quite a lot! I pick and choose some expressions, facial or verbal, some situations, some life experiences… Blood Song, the last instalment in the Roy & Castells series, is deeply me, us, my family. It was actually a very cathartic book to write. Even more than Block 46, and that says quite a bit about it!
You write thrillers that often go down a very dark path. Still, there is humour in your stories too, tongue in cheek remarks, comic relief, amidst all the horror of concentration camps and serial killers and cannibalism, you regularly make me laugh. How important is humour to you, in your books as well as in your private life?
Humour is key to me. It lightens everything as life bears enough we have to cry for! A good laugh will clear the sky! My father used to, and still is, making jokes constantly (and my mum still falls for it after fifty years!) and I think he just gave me the virus. As you imagine, I chose a husband who is a complete clown and smiles from the moment that he opens his eyes, every single morning.
So true, when you can’t change your circumstances it’s a good thing if you can at least have a laugh! My hubby is less Viking than yours, but also a complete clown 😂 Your stories are intricately woven, a present-day narrative alternating with a historic one, and in the end all the pieces of the puzzle fall neatly into place. I assume that means you’re a planner, not a pantser?
Oh god. Yes I am. I’m a planner. I think I have to: the plots are tricky to build, as there are three of them and taking place in different time periods. So if I don’t want to pull my hair and rewrite for three years, I have to. Then I take pleasure within the structure and characters keep on surprising me.
What sparked the idea of that alternating narrative? You could have written modern thrillers, or historical fiction, what made you want to mix them?
I think what sparked that structure was a double desire: I wanted to write a novel about my grandfather experience in Buchenwald, the Nazi concentration camp; and at the same time I wanted to write a crime novel… so I guess I just coupled my wishes!
Block 46 left me craving cinnamon buns, the opening scene of Keeper describes the cooking of earlobes with parsley and mash. Are you a foodie? What is your favourite food (if it’s lobes and mash home-made style I’d rather not know!)? And what is your least favourite food?
Oh yes, I am a foodie; I think it comes with the “Frenchness”! But, do not panic, I have never tried earlobes, despite being a real carnivore. A rare steak with Stilton sauce and gratin Dauphinois (potatoes and cream), a glass of full-bodied red, like a Barolo, and some bread, of course (NEVER EVER without my bread), and I’m in heaven. I’m not fond of fish though…
I’m not really a carnivore but I’ll take that gratin! But not when I’m reading your books though, there’s usually a bit too much blood and gruesomeness involved to be able to enjoy a meal while reading, especially not a rare steak! You’ve written about a whole array of atrocities, ranging from Jack The Ripper, over concentration camps, serial killers and abuse, to cannibalism. Is there any topic you don’t see yourself writing about?
No, actually there is none. What I won’t do is just to write about anything gratuitous.
I’ve said as much in all my reviews of your books, there’s a fine line between noir and gratuitous gore and somehow you always manage to stay on the right side of that line. What is your writing process like? Do you have a regime you try to adhere to, certain habits to get the words flowing, a writing cave, a favourite drink, some music? And what is your favourite aspect of the writing process?
I sit at my desk at around 9AM and stay there until 16h, when it’s kids time. I wake up very early though, at 5am, and exercise for almost an hour. This is key for me, it gives me the energy I need for the day and clears my mind. At 9, I usually bring my coffee with me (that will get cold and that I never drink), I put my ear pods and listen to music whilst I work. I wrote Blood Song listening to Thomas Enger’s music. He is a crime writer as well, part of our dear Team Orenda, and writes stunning and moving pieces. And then, I sweat words! I love the whole writing process: the research, the plotting, the writing, the re-reading, the editing… But what makes me thrill, is when I find the twists that will make the reader say: “WHAT???? NOOOOO!!!”
Ah yes, I’ve been that reader! As an author do you have a role model? An author you look up to and think: that’s who I want to be when I grow up?
Agatha Christie. She made me want to write. I read The Affair at Styles very young and I completely fell in love with Poirot.
The little Belgian detective, of course he’s a favourite of mine too! As a reader, what is your favourite genre? Do you have a favourite author, or a favourite novel?
I do love crime, but I could not live without poetry. It’s like music to me: it makes me shiver and cry. Baudelaire is the author I’d choose if I’d have to choose one. There is also Edmond Rostand, a French playwright (see, I cannot choose). He wrote Cyrano de Bergerac, which is the most delicate play in verses and it’s like poetry. And of course, as I cannot choose at all, I’d add the queen of crime, Agatha and her Poirot. I may have never written any crime without her Belgian detective.
If Netflix wanted to make a Roy & Castells TV show, would you want them to?
They are! Not Netflix exactly, even if it will end up on it eventually. But a French actress, the wonderful Alexandra Lamy, has fallen in love with the Roy & Castells series, and she has bought the adaptation rights with the Banijay group, to adapt the books into a TV series; more likely four episodes per book. It will be a French, UK and Swedish coproduction.
Really?! I can’t wait! Will you be involved? Who do you want to play your characters? Did you have anyone (famous or not) in mind when you created your characters? And if you had to choose, what would be the title song?
I’ll be involved yes, but to a certain degree only. As far as actors and actresses are concerned, when I wrote it, I couldn’t picture Emily funnily enough, I felt her more than I could picture her. But I could really see Emily Blunt as Alexis and Joel Kinnaman as Olofsson! And I’d pick one of Thomas’ pieces for the title song.
What does the future bring?
The future is bringing more Roy & Castells stories, the next one taking place in Emily’s land: Canada and the Paris of the Belle Époque. And the Roy & Castells TV series! Which is extremely exciting! But no more children, hahaha!
No, I’m sure your three boys keep you entertained enough! I’m very much looking forward to more Roy & Castells books AND to the TV series! What makes you happy? What are your favourite things?
I love hearing my boys laugh, there is nothing that makes my heart sing more than that. I love also meeting readers and being able to write full time. I feel very grateful to make a living out of a passion. And if I could write in front of the sea, then I would be stepping on paradise. Wait: just add a cheese plate and some bread, and a glass of a divine red. There we go: Paradise!
Swap the red for a glass of rosé and I’ll join you! Please share an anecdote with me, what is the funniest / weirdest / most shocking / most emotional / … thing you’ve ever experienced as a published author?
I’m sharing then my most emotional one. Keeper, my second book was just out and I was invited to “Quais du Polar”, which is the biggest crime writing festival in France. I was then pregnant with my twins and quite sick every morning (sorry for the TMI) so I arrived at my signing table 5 minutes late (which, as a proper OCD, felt so late!). And as I had to cross the Palais de la Bourse, where all the authors signing tables were and slalom around a huge queue to get to my spot. When I finally sat down, Lilas Seewald, my French editor, looked at me, smiling, and emotional. I apologised for being late, adding that there was a huge queue of people. She smiled even more widely and said: “they are here for you, my Jo”. I was so surprised and shocked that I stood up to check before sitting down again, with teary eyes. I could not believe readers were here for my books!
Well of course they were, you are hugely popular and rightly so! Anything else you want to share?
I think we talked about everything. What about having lunch now, facing the sea?
That’s the best idea I’ve heard in ages, let’s go!