Fredrik Backman: The Man Behind ‘A Man Called Ove’
By ALEXANDRA ALTER
Fredrik Backman got tepid responses when he sent out the manuscript for his debut novel, “A Man Called Ove.” Most publishers ignored him, and several turned it down.
After a few months and a few more rejections, he began to think perhaps there wasn’t a market for a story about a cranky 59-year-old Swedish widower who tries and fails to kill himself.
“It was rejected by one publisher with the line, ‘We like your novel, we think your writing has potential, but we see no commercial potential,” said Mr. Backman, 35, who lives outside Stockholm with his wife and two children. “That note I kept.”
In hindsight, that critique seems wildly, comically off base. Four years later, “A Man Called Ove” has sold more than 2.8 million copies worldwide, making the book one of Sweden’s most popular literary exports since Stieg Larsson’s thriller “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.”
“Ove” became a blockbuster in Sweden, selling more than 840,000 copies. It was adapted into a successful stage production and an award-winning Swedish feature film, which recently opened in the United States. Translation rights have sold in 38 languages, including Arabic, Turkish, Latvian, Thai and Japanese. Mr. Backman has gained a passionate fan base in South Korea, where the novel became a huge best-seller.
“No one really knows why,” Mr. Backman said in a recent telephone interview. “Not even the Korean publisher understands what the hell is going on.”
In the United States, “Ove” got off to a slow start. For months, it sold steadily but in modest numbers. Then sales surged. It landed on the best-seller list 18 months after it was first published and has remained there for 42 weeks. Demand has been so unrelenting that Atria Books has reprinted the novel 40 times and now has more than a million copies in print.
Peter Borland, who acquired United States rights to “Ove” for Atria, said he was struck by the book’s pathos and humor.
“It had a great voice, and it was different from everything else I was reading,” he said. “It wasn’t Scandinavian noir; it was Scandinavian” — he paused, searching for the right description — “something else.”
Mr. Backman didn’t fit into any obvious genre mold, and there was no guarantee that his whimsical, oddball sense of humor would appeal to Americans. Atria was cautious at first and printed 6,600 hardcover copies, a decent run for a debut novel in translation.
The novel got a boost from independent booksellers, who placed big orders and pressed it on customers. The Book Bin in Northbrook, Ill., has sold around 1,000 copies, largely based on word-of-mouth recommendations.
“I passed it around to the rest of the staff and said, I think this is absolutely wonderful, am I crazy?” said Nancy Usiak, a bookseller at the shop. “There are 10 of us, and this was one of the rare occasions where we all agreed.”
The novel’s protagonist, Ove, is a lonely curmudgeon who screams at his neighbors for parking in the wrong place and punches a hospital clown whose magic tricks annoy him. Six months after his wife’s death, he’s planning to commit suicide and has turned off his radiators, canceled his newspaper subscription and anchored a hook into the ceiling to hang himself. But he keeps getting interrupted by his clueless, prying neighbors. He strikes up a friendship with an Iranian immigrant and her two young daughters, who find Ove’s grumpiness endearing.
Once it became clear that there was an appetite for Mr. Backman’s quirky misanthrope, Atria asked Mr. Backman if he was working on any other novels. As it turned out, he’d already written several more.
“I write pretty fast, because I’m high strung,” Mr. Backman said.
Atria bought them all. Last year, it published his novel “My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry,” about a girl named Elsa whose grandmother dies, leaving her with a batch of letters to deliver to people her grandmother had wronged in life. The book now has nearly 500,000 copies in print and has spent 26 weeks on the paperback best-seller list. In May, Atria released a translation of his novel, “Britt-Marie Was Here,” about a passive-aggressive woman who leaves her cheating husband and ends up coaching a children’s soccer team in a backwater town.
Last month, Atria bought four more books from him, including the novella “And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer,” a surreal story about an elderly man with dementia who adores his grandson, which is to come out on Tuesday.
Mr. Backman got the idea for “Ove” five years ago, when he was freelancing for the Swedish magazine Cafe. A college dropout, he once worked as a forklift driver at a food warehouse, taking night and weekend shifts so that he could write during the day.
A colleague at Cafe wrote a blog post for their website about seeing a man named Ove explode with rage while buying tickets at an art museum, until his wife intervened.
“My wife read the blog post and said, ‘This is what life is like with you,’” Mr. Backman said. “I’m not very socially competent. I’m not great at talking to people. My wife tends to say, your volume is always at 1 or 11, never in between.”
Mr. Backman started writing blog posts for Cafe about his own pet peeves and outbursts, under the heading, “I Am a Man Called Ove.”
Mr. Backman realized that he had the blueprint for a compelling fictional character, and the novel began to take shape. “There’s a lot of me in him,” he said of Ove. “When we get angry, it’s about a principle, and we get angry because people don’t understand why we’re angry.”
After getting a few rejections from publishers, Mr. Backman tossed the manuscript aside and started working on a comic memoir about the challenges of parenthood. He had already finished the second book when a Swedish publisher, Forum, finally made an offer on his novel. Mr. Backman insisted that the publisher buy both books, and the novel and memoir were released on the same day.
Mr. Backman still hasn’t adjusted to the life of a famous author.
“Everyone keeps telling you how great you are and what a great writer you are, and they want selfies, and that’s not healthy, because you start liking that,” he said. “You still have to write like you’re writing for 20 people, or you’re going to freak out.”
This article was originally published in the October 28, 2016 issue of The New York Times.