Q+A: Thomas Enger

Dec 1, 2023
Dimitris Passas

1) Let me begin by stating that I'm a massive fan of your novels both those written individually and the arresting Blix&Ramm series that seems to keep getting better with each installment. Reading the first chapter, I traced an authorial quality that I've come across only in the finest pieces of crime fiction: boldness. You begin the story with a scene describing the preparation and execution of a patricide. Was that a conscious choice? Was the sequence meant to achieve a symbolism of sorts?

T.E.: First of all, thank you so much for your kind words. Yes, it was a conscious choice, in the sense that we wanted to bring the reader to the heart of the matter, so to speak, at least the core of the killer’s rage, from the very first page. What happens in that first scene is the result of what happened the summer before, and it will have consequences for more or less everything which follows later. So that was the motivation for the choice. It wasn’t meant as a symbol in any way.

2) Apart from this divergence, in "Stigma", we encounter tropes that are common among the representatives of Nordic crime fiction: family secrets and their fallout, oppressive fathers, closed-knit communities filled with concealed menace etc. What is your opinion on employing conventional storytelling means when writing fiction? How do you avoid coming across as a cliché?

T.E.: Good question. It’s a question we ask ourselves every single time we write a new book: How can we spin this differently from our previous novels or from the “rules” of crime fiction in general, the Nordic one in particular? The simple answer is that we don’t really have one, as it all comes down to what we think serves and fits the story the best, and it needs to fit in with the storylines of our characters as well, how we want them to evolve over the course of our series. We’d like to think, Jorn and I, that we’ve developed a certain sense for what works or not, given that we’ve been doing this both together and individually now for quite a few books. And sometimes it’s unavoidable to go down a familiar path, because closed-knit communities, for instance, have their own little mechanisms which may not stray too much from one another, and it’s impossible to be 100 percent unique in absolutely everything we write. But I can promise you that we try our very best. Every single time.

3) Speaking of boldness in theme selection, I found it somehow cruel on your behalf that you put one of your two protagonists, Alexander Blix, in the most dismal of predicaments: losing his own child and then landing in prison for killing his daughter's murderer. Were you aware that you stray from the norms of the genre, taking a risk in respect to readers' reactions? Did that frighten you perhaps a bit?

T.E.: It didn’t frighten us, on the contrary: This is what we believe to be the key to any protagonist: You need to push him or her into a corner, with not too many possible escape options, to see how they react. It would be a bigger risk for us not to do that, because the risk would lie in the possibility of boring the reader. And that, for us as crime fiction writers, is the deadliest of all sins.

4) Blix is a police officer; exactly as Mr. Horst. Ramm is a journalist; exactly as Mr. Enger used to be. So is it natural to assume that each one of you is responsible for the crafting of the character who feels closer to him in terms of vocation?

T.E.: That was certainly the plan from the onset, that Jorn would write Alexander Blix while I would take care of Emma Ramm. We had to throw that plan out of the window probably in week two of writing book one, as we found it better for ourselves not to put any boundaries on what we should or shouldn’t write. As we are each other’s first editors as well, we do write into each other’s chapters all the time, and more and more as we’ve gotten to know and trust each other during the years of working together. There is still a majority of the Blix chapters being written by Jorn, because he knows the cop linguistics and the procedural stuff much better than I do, but I quite like to play a little with Blix as a character from time to time as well. Especially the scenes which don’t require too much policing. The emotional stuff, for example. I tend to write those.

5) A major part of "Stigma's" plot unfolds within the confines of a prison. Did you have to do research for writing the scenes in a way that is convincing and rings plausible? Or did you just employ the machinations of your imagination?

T.E.: The prison scenes are mainly drawn from experience, not that we’ve been inmates (haha), but Jorn has for obvious reasons visited prisons from time to time in the line of his previous work, and I have as well for research purposes (earlier books). Jorn was the primary writer for the prison scenes. I did the ones with the psychologist.

6) Blix and Ramm lives are interconnected and their relationship is founded on a tragic event that dates back to Emma's turbulent childhood. Why was it necessary to insert such a device? Do you believe that such events add dramatic tension to the text?

T.E.: Oh, for sure it does. It lends plenty of drama, because it was a case that traumatized Blix as a police officer, it ruined his relationship to his police partner at the time, and in the end it also ended his marriage and to a certain degree also messed up his relationship with his daughter. There is plenty emotional baggage there for a main character. And for the other main character to be so closely and personally connected to that event … we thought it’d be a perfect set up for two protagonists in an ongoing series. Loads can happen, and will, between the two of them. They form kind of like a father-daughter relationship with lots of care and love, which was very interesting and fun to shape and to see evolve.

7) Missing persons, unsolved cases of rape, a dash of the whodunit element but also a socially aware text with attempts at making social commentary about some truly scorching issues. How difficult was top find a balance between all those aspects, given that this novel is a product of the collaboration between two writers?

T.E.: I think we’re both quite trained now to look for ways to construct a story, and the more we work together, the more we see and think in the same way for our characters. I always compare being a writer to being a carpenter. We have a box of tools at our disposal, which we may or may not use. For most carpenters, the first house they build may not be perfect, but it teaches you something that you can put into the construction of the next. And the next. And the next. Maybe one day that house will be the exact mansion we always hoped we would manage to build. It’s what we aim for anyway. But as to your question, how difficult it was to find a balance between everything? Well, it’s always difficult, but I think STIGMA probably was the novel which offered us the least resistance along the way. Why is very hard to say.

8) "The answers can always be found in the past". That's one of Blix's thoughts/musings that I found to be an omnipotent law for humans in all its simplicity. So, is this one of the cornerstones of fiction in general?

T.E.: I think we can all agree on that, to be honest. We are all products of what we did earlier in life and whose paths we crossed.

9) My final question for both of you concerns your future writing plans. Will there be more Blix&Ramm published in the following years?

T.E.: Oh yes. Jorn and I published book number five in the series here in Norway earlier this year, which probably will hit the UK shelves in 2024. We have also signed up for three more books in the series, so we’re definitely going to be around for a while.

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