A Q&A with Stefan Ahnhem, author of Victim Without a Face
We recently talked to Stefan Ahnhem, an established screenwriter for both TV and film who has worked on a variety of projects — including adaptations of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series — about his transition from screenwriter to author. In Stefan’s first novel, Victim Without a Face, the body of Jörgen Pålsson, one of Criminal investigator Fabian Risk’s former classmates, has been found with both hands missing. Soon the bodies of more old classmates are found, and Risk finds himself in a race against time to find the murderer before the entire class is killed. Here’s what Stefan had to say about writing his first novel, the elements needed for a great crime fiction/mystery book, and the differences in writing for the screen versus writing a book.
1. You are an established screenwriter and have worked on variety of projects for film and TV, including adaptations of Henning Mankell’s Kurt Wallander series. What are the major differences between writing your own novels and writing screenplays and adaptions?
A novel is bigger and goes in so many different directions. When you write a screenplay, the director, actors, musicians, the photographer, and so on, all contribute to make a movie out of your script, but when you write a novel you have to do it all on your own. It’s your words and nothing else that meets the reader. When you’re working on a screenplay you’re the fly on the wall looking down on the characters, describing what they’re saying and what they’re doing. Writing a novel is completely different — you’re inside the head of one of the characters and see the scene through his or her eyes. You have to know what the character thinks and how they’ll react to everything that’s happening. Coming from the movie business, I believe I have the best of both worlds. After writing screenplays for over twenty years I’ve learned what a good story is, and how to tell it in the most effective, interesting, and exciting way. Even though my novels in the Risk series are quite long, they’re a fast read.
2. You’ve done so much writing over the past twenty years. Where did the inspiration for writing the Fabian Risk series come from?
In Scandinavia the movie business is really small and a couple of years ago I hit the ceiling of what I could do. It was almost impossible to develop my screenwriting so I had two choices — move to Hollywood or start writing novels. And because I have four kids — a big family — I really didn’t have a choice, which I’m really happy about now!
3. Victim Without a Face is the first in a series of three books: The Ninth Grave is a prequel to Victim Without a Face, and the third book picks up where the first book left off. What was your process like when writing Victim Without a Face? Did you have everything mapped out?
It almost evolved by itself. When I wrote Victim Without a Face small parts of the novel alluded to something that happened back in Stockholm. Fabian obviously has some skeletons in his closet, things that make you wonder about his past. Even I started to question what really happened in Stockholm six months prior, so I decided to find out by writing that story. The third novel will take place two years after Victim Without a Face. I don’t believe in serial killers that turn up once a year, just because I’m writing one book a year.
4. Considering all the writing experience you have, can we expect to see novels from you in the future in different genres (e.g. comedy) or formats (e.g. short-story), or are you going to continue to build a niche in thrillers?
I will continue to write Fabian Risk thrillers until I get tired of him. I have no idea when that will happen. Right now I love it more than ever. But I’m sure I will write in other genres as well. Science Fiction is definitely one of I’m interested in.
5. Your wife read Victim Without a Face during a night that you and her were staying over at your parents’ place — in separate beds — and got so scared that she didn’t want to sleep alone. Jumping off from that, what are the necessary elements for a truly great (and unique) thriller?
You could fill books with answers to that question, which many people out there are doing. The short answer is that I try to visualize myself reading the novel and getting scared. If I’m not able to do that, the book’s not working. I also try to take it one step further. I strongly believe in making the unbelievable believable instead of taking out everything that’s a bit over the top and larger than life.
After writing screenplays for over twenty years I’ve learned what a good story is, and how to tell it in the most effective, interesting, and exciting way.
6. Did you plan out the twists and turns of Victim Without a Face prior to writing the novel, or did they occur to you as you were writing?
No, I don’t plan all the twists and details before. They come when I write. Often I don’t how know it will end or what will happen in the following chapters. In Victim Without a Face it would have been impossible for me to decide the ending in advance. And if I couldn’t figure out the ending then the reader won’t either.
7. Which authors or books would you say have had the most influence on your own writing?
This might be a boring answer, but Henning Mankell is definitely one of them. And Stieg Larsson of course. I think my writing has much in common with both of them. Phillip K. Dick was truly amazing, and it was his writing that got me interested in storytelling at the first place. I also think Gillian Flynn is one of the most interesting writers out there right now.
8. What are you reading right now?
I’ve just finished You by Caroline Kepnes and absolutely loved it.
The first book in the Fabian Risk series, Victim Without a Face is a chilling novel about the ultimate revenge.
Criminal investigator Fabian Risk has left Stockholm with his wife, Sonja, and their two children to start fresh in his hometown of Helsingborg. He has planned a six-week vacation before he starts a new job at the Homicide Department. But after only a few hours in their new home, he is asked to investigate a brutal murder. The body of Jörgen Pålsson, one of Risk’s former classmates, has been found with both hands missing. Soon the bodies of more old classmates are found, and Risk finds himself in a race against time: Can they find the murderer before the entire class is killed?