About The Author
Jonas Karlsson is one of Sweden best-known stage and screen actors. After widespread acclaim for his 2005 debut as a playwright, Nocturnal Walk, he turned his hand to fiction and has now published three novels and three short story collections. His writing has been compared with that of Paul Auster and Raymond Carver
The first of his books to be translated into English is The Room, a brilliantly conceived Kafkaesque novella set in an unremarkable government office in Stockholm. New employee Björn is failing to bond with his colleagues: a control freak with firm ideas on the on many matters, he finds his brusque criticisms and suggestions falling on deaf ears.
But then he finds a quiet office, empty save for an a desk, a chair and a computer, to which he can retreat and work undisturbed. The only problem is that, far as everyone else is concerned, the room doesn't exist....
In this exclusive interview for Foyles, Jonas talks about the idle obervation that gave him the idea for the book, the human capacity for empathy and what acting can teach us about writing.
- Watch the promotional video for the book that won Vintage Books' annual award for Kingston University animation students here
Listen to Jonas reading from The Room:
Questions & Answers
The concept of a room that only one man can see and enter is an immediately arresting one. Where did this idea come from?
I was playing Edmund in Eugen O'Neill's Long Day's Journey into Night at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, and in the second act there's about half an hour before Edmund is on stage. So I used to sit in the wings watching my colleagues on stage, leaning my head against a wall. One evening when I was sitting there, it struck me that on my side the wall seemed a bit short when you compared it with the other side - which was the corridor to the Main Stage, where, among other things, there was a huge sofa where all the actors used to sit and gossip about each other. I walked back and forth a few times comparing them and, sure enough, it was longer on the other side. So there had to be something else at the end on my side. I started to fantasise that there was a secret room there somewhere. I could imagine Ingmar Bergman sitting there, all alone, writing in his little black book. After the performance I went round the corner and discovered an old smoking room that I'd never noticed in all the years I'd worked at the theatre. But by then the idea was already in my head. So I started to write. At the time I had no idea that the room would become even more secret....
Björn is a difficult individual to like, both for his colleagues and the book and your readers, but the bizarre conundrum of the room would be traumatic for anyone to deal with. Have you found that readers are sympathetic to his problems?
Doesn't Björn have characteristics that we all have from time to time - just taken to extremes? I thought occasionally while I was writing the story: Is he too strange? How mad and unpleasant can he become before we stop feeling any sympathy for him? But it has to be a good thing - as I think you imply in your question - that we as readers feel empathy for him (and his problems with the world), despite the fact that he's so peculiar and disagreeable. I think that says something very positive about us as empathetic creatures...
I wonder if part of the unsettling nature of the story isn't just the obviously bizarre idea of being someone who sees things that no-one else can see, but also the fear of being as socially inept as he is? Isn't it a disturbing thought that we might be even a little bit like Björn? (As well as being rather nice to be able to think: at least I'm not like that.)
When I started writing, I pretty much imagined that the man walking into that room was me. Then I picked a few of my own worst qualities and made them worse, the story took over, and the protagonist became more and more eccentric. But he was still me.
At one point I tried rewriting the whole story in the third person (because it was such a narrative challenge to describe everything through Björn's eyes alone), but it was impossible! All of a sudden it was as if I was picking on him, making a spectacle of him, pointing at him and saying: look at this crazy bloke and all the weird things he does! I had to be inside him the whole time.
Before you turned to fiction, you were an actor and playwright. Has this very different medium influenced your approach to writing at all? For instance, we learn about Björn form his words and actions, rather than much in the way of description.
Yes, it has. I've always read a lot of books. But I think the most important things I've learned about writing, I've learned from the theatre. The theatre is very good for writing, in the sense that you have to spend a great deal of time on a text. You have to analyse it, read it out loud, learn it off by heart, and learn to hear what's being said between the lines. You really have to spend a lot of time with the text. You could probably say that my way of writing is typical of an actor. We don't want a lot of stage directions. We want the meaning to be conveyed between the lines.
Reviewers have compared your novella with works by Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett and Raymond Carver, among many others. Do you feel there are any particular writers who have influenced you and is your voice rather more your own?
I'm hugely flattered even to be mentioned in the same context as such heroes of mine. I'm also very fond of Dostoyevsky, Harold Pinter and David Mamet.
This is not your only story to be set in the workplace and from what we see in English translation, it seems that contemporary settings are more frequent in Swedish fiction than in Britain. Is fiction seen as an important medium of social commentary in Sweden?
Yes, that's probably a fair assessment. There's a lot of interest in documentary or semi-documentary literature. These days a lot of books are written as contributions to ongoing social debates. What isn't as common, for instance, are new interpretations of historical events, which there seem to be a lot of in the UK.
In my stories I take care not to have an agenda or a specific message. I don't want to have a set of answers that I hope the reader will discover. One of the best things about the response I've had to The Room has been the number of people confidently telling me what the book is really about. So far, no two interpretations have been the same.
Finally, did you, as the writer, feel you knew whether or not the room really exists?
Ha ha! I always had my doubts.