Author Interview with Mats Strandberg and Sara B. Elfgren

Author interview Mats Strandberg and Sara B. Elfgren

Author bio's:

Mats Strandberg is an award-winning novelist and journalist. He is a regular columnist for Sweden's biggest evening newspaper, has been named Columnist of the Year by Sweden's Newspapers and Magazines organization, and had published three previous novels, with rights sold in numerous countries.

Sara Bergmark Elfgren started her career in the film industry as a screenwriter. As a script doctor, she has been involved in several Swedish film and television productions. She has a degree in Film Studies. THE CIRCLE is her debut novel.


Hi Mats and Sara, welcome over at The Book Plank and for taking your time to answer these few questions for us. 

BP: First off, could you give us a short introduction as to who Mats Strandberg and Sara Elfgren are? What are your likes, dislikes and hobbies next to writing?
MS: I had written three novels prior to the engelsfors trilogy, none translated into English however. I love reality tv, horror films, and books of course – any genre, really, as long as there’s interesting characters. I am addicted to social media. I want to live in Vermont for a couple of years in the future. I am about to get married to an amazing guy. I eat way too much ice-cream.
SE: I started off in the film and TV industry, working as a screenwriter and a script editor. I have a degree in Film Studies. I like books, graphic novels and movies and I also enjoy playing video games. The Last of Us was probably one of my greatest cultural experiences of 2013. I like music, everything from black metal to opera. I like broccoli and peanut butter, but not combined. Or wait … Maybe I should try this?

BP: What gave you the idea behind the Engelsfors series?
MS: It was a long and organic process. We knew we wanted to write about teenagers in a small town. We wanted them to come from from very different social groups, and be forced to really get to know each other – and themselves – while working together for a higher purpose.
SE: One day Mats said: “What if they’re witches?” And then I said: “Yes, but then we have to write a whole trilogy, three really thick books.” We didn’t realize what a huge project we were undertaking. I guess one could say that we were protected by our enthusiasm and naivety.

BP: You are both the authors of the Engelsfors series. How did you come up with the idea to coauthor writing Engelsfors series?
SE: Mats and I had gotten to know each other through our jobs and we had this amazing work-chemistry. Both of us felt that we wanted to work together. But it was Mats who suggested that we should write a novel. Which was quite brave of him considering that he was an established author, and I had, apart from working as a screenwriter, only received encouraging rejection letters from publishers.
MS: It wasn’t brave at all! It was a no-brainer. Our minds really clicked. Ideas snowballed. We just had to do it. And we were both at a point in our lives when it made sense to try something new. I had just finished my third book and I wrote columns for a newspaper and it was just me alone with my brain, all the time – I desperately missed working with someone. And then Sara appeared as an angel of light and beauty.

BP: When you write a book for yourself you can have everything to your own idea’s, how did the planning in cowriting the Engelsfors series work?
MS: It was so much fun! We were like two kids, creating our own world, playing with our characters. Of course we didn’t always agree, but that just led to discussions that made our ideas even better. I mean, we have discussed everything, from philosophy to physics to really personal, deep experiences from our own life regarding love and friendships and parents.
SE: We had a basic idea of what the main conflict would be in each book. When we worked on each individual book, we started off with a rough outline. Then we wrote and edited about four chapters at a time (two each). After about 100 pages we reread the whole draft from the beginning, discussed and made changes, and then we went back to the four chapter-method for another 100 pages.

BP: The Cirle, the first book in the Engelsfors series was originally published in Swedish, when you heard that a big publishing house in England wanted to publish your book in English, what were your first thoughts?
MS: Everything happened so fast with Engelsfors, that it just became part of this huge emotional rollercoaster for me. After a while, it was sort of like thinking about space. Your mind can’t really grasp it.
SE: It was huge, of course. Like Mats said, we were rather overwhelmed by everything at that time. I was very, very pleased. It felt so unreal. The book hadn’t even been published in Swedish yet.

BP: Often books written in the original language are best, when it comes to translation some parts can be missed or not as well interpreted when it comes to puns and jokes. How does this relates to the English version of Engelsfors?
MS: Well,  of course it’s hard for us to tell how some things “work” in a non-swedish context. It is strange to read ones own words in English, but it also feels weirdly natural – me and Sara both read a lot, especially in this genre, in English.
SE: Of course the translator had to change some things. For exampel, the rundown park Kärrgruvan where they meet, is called a “theme park” in English. In fact it is a “folkpark” (“people’s park”), a very Swedish phenomenon. Almost every Swedish town has one. It was a place where people went to dance, drink (lots of that going on) and listen to bands. They were often owned by a labour organisation. Nowadays the glory days of the “folkpark” are definitely over. But it has a very strong meaning for many Swedish people.

BP: The Key is the third and final book in the Engelsfors series and is published this month. If you would have to sell the book with a single sentence how would it go?
MS: Engelsfors with extra everything.
SE: More of the stuff you liked.

BP: If you would be given the chance to retract The Key from publishing and make one final adjustment would you do so and if yes which parts and why?
MS: I honestly can’t think of anything. We rewrote stuff days before it went to print, and this is the book that it is supposed to be.
SE: I agree with Mats. We did our best, and when you’ve done your best, you have to be satisfied. We’ve left the story with the readers now.

BP: Did you encounter any specific difficulties when you were writing The Key?
MS: Tying together this huge story. Being constantly afraid of discovering a huge plot hole that we had somehow missed all these years. And really, being so exhausted after three years of an immense amount of work. It has been an amazing adventure, and it has changed our lives for the better in so many ways, but it has also been relentless. We haven’t hardly had a life outside of Engelsfors.
SE: Yes, like Mats said, keeping the story together, and keeping ourselves together were the greatest challenges. Luckily, we have a wonderful work dynamic. When one of us is tired the other one always manages to find extra energy. We take care of each other.  And also, we laugh a lot, which probably helps.

BP: What has been the hardest part in writing the Engelsfors series?
MS: Anything to do with mythology and magical rules. Luckily my partner has a superbrain. 
SE: I enjoy solving problems. It’s a blessing and a curse. Mostly a blessing. There is a section of the book where the characters visit a non-ficitonal town for the first time, and writing and especially editing that was intense to say the least.

BP: Besides the hardest part, which chapter, scene or character did you enjoy writing about the most?
MS: It’s so hard to say, because the faves change every time. Anything to do with the relationships between the Chosen Ones, really. And I can’t really say what it’s about, because it would be a huge spoiler alert, but chapter 95 in The Key always makes me laugh.
SE: Yes, chapter 95 is a bright spot in a very dark section of the book, even though it has darkness too. I also enjoyed doing the research for The Key. It was never one of my favourite parts of writing before, but working on The Key completely changed that.

BP: Now that the last book in the Engelsfors series has been published do you have any new projects that you wish to pursue in the near future?
MS: I have just finished the first draft of a horror novel. It’s set on a cruise ship, and the whole plot takes place in 12 nightmarish hours. It has been so much fun channeling my inner Stephen King. I have also finished the first in a trilogy of children’s books. Plus, I have some other ideas … also, me and Sara will work together again in the future. We’ll see when, but we have already started talking about the kind of story we would like to explore.
SE: I’ve been very busy working on the film adaptation of The Circle, which opens in Swedish theatres the 18th of February. I co-wrote the screenplay together with the director Levan Akin, and I’ve been very involved in the project. Fun fact: the owners of the production company are Benny Andersson of ABBA and his son Ludvig - and Benny has written the score! Sorry for going off on a tangent, but the film has dominated my life for a long while now, and now I’m working on the screenplays for the sequels which we will hopefully make. But I’m also working on a high fantasy graphic novel about Nordic gods, giants and vikings together with artist Karl Johnsson, a picture books for children together with artist Maria Fröhlich and I look forward to writing my next novel, which is kind of in the same genre as the Engelsfors books. But answering these questions about The Key really makes me want to write a book with Mats again – right now!

BP: Everyone enjoys fantasy in their own way, what do you like most about this genre?
MS: I love seeing the world from new perspectives, and when fantasy sheds a new light on very real problems and situations. Me and Sara both love when the magical elements are used to challenge characters.
SE: Yes, I really enjoy fantasy that is grounded in some kind of “reality”, because that’s when the magical things feel the most magical to me. For example, the science fantasy comics Saga by Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples is so imaginative: trees turn into rockets, there are talking (and super-cute) seal-people, but the characters are completely psychologically believable and that’s what makes everything feel so real. 

BP: if you would have to give your top 5 favorite books which would they be?
MS: Gaaah, I hate this question because it’s so hard to answer! I’ll cheat a little bit and say the five best books I’ve read this year (the books themselves aren’t necessarily new, though): The Fever, by Megan Abbott. Feed, by M T Anderson. Bird Box, by Josh Malerman. The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker. The Hellbound Heart, by Clive Barker.  
SE: I completely agree with Mats about the question being stress-inducing and The Fever, Feed and The Hellbound Heart being excellent books (I haven’t read the other ones he mentions– yet).  I’ll give you five more spec fic titles that I read and really liked last year: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer, The Privilege of the Sword by Ellen Kushner, Ms. Marvel: No Normal by G. Willow Wilson & Adrian Alphona, Saga by Brian K. Vaughan & Fiona Staples. Last but not least: Maresi (part one in the Red Abby Chronicles) by Maria Turtschaninoff, a beautiful Finnish-Swedish YA high fantasy novel that will be published in the UK by Pushkin Press. Keep your eyes peeled for this one!

BP: And just lastly, can you give us a short sneak peek of what will be in store for the readers of The Key?
MS: Well, the most fun part of writing the key was that we finally could reveal all the secrets that we had been keeping for the first two books. And sort of burn off all the fireworks.
SE: Also there will be kissing.

You can find Mats on Twitter and Instagram with matsstrandberg_ and on Tumblr:
You can find Sara on Tumblr, Twitter, Instagram with sarabelfgren


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