Pay close enough attention, and you’ll notice that many writers have themes they return to. Stephen King writes frequently about weak characters who are victims of stronger ones. Jodi Picoult writes about family issues, often involving a court of law. Then there’s Fredrik Backman, a Swedish author who comes back to the theme of belonging, especially belonging within unconventional groups. Backman is the author of eight novels, and his first and sixth novels, published four years apart, are great examples of how an author’s work can evolve within the same theme.
Two Novels, Similar Themes
A Man Called Ove (2012) is Backman’s first. In it an elderly Swedish curmudgeon takes great offense to just about everything in his life – until a young couple with two daughters moves in next door, and his experience of life flips. In Backman’s 2016 novel Beartown, a tiny town in the woods bands together so that their high school hockey team might win the national semifinals.
Beartownis much darker than A Man Called Ove. In the latter, the main character, Ove, wrestles with his wife’s death and at times considers ending his life. Beartown deals with the effects that a ‘hockey above all’ mindset has on the players, coaches, and entire town. For one high schooler, this means a violent act that leaves her traumatized. For her parents, it means deciding if they love their hockey town above all things, even their daughter.
The two books, both originally published in Backman’s native Swedish, aren’t similar in terms of plot. An old man learns that there is more good in the world than he thought, and a hockey team in the Middle of Nowhere, Sweden, has their sights set on a national title. But they both deal with loyalty and found family. A family, Beckman’s stories suggest, doesn’t necessarily need to be the people you are born to; it can be a youth hockey team or the people who live in the house next to you.
Connecting with the Characters and the Readers
During a Q&A about the book, Backman told attendees that he was interested in writing stories about conflict, and he felt that a hockey team was the perfect arena for doing so, since conflict is used as a strategy in sports. Much like “Friday Night Lights” is about more than just a football team, Beartown is about more than a team vying for a national championship. It’s about family and challenges and emotional self-discoveries and growing up.
Last year, Backman told Goodreads that he initially tried to write Beartown as a television series and couldn’t make it work. It wasn’t until someone suggested that he write it as a novel that it began to take shape. The novel is told from multiple points of view, which gives the reader insight into characters’ minds and gives the added bonus of knowing what’s happened before some characters do.
Talking about his writing process in the same interview, Backman said this: “When I write, I imagine myself writing for 20 people, and 18 of them like me, and that’s my crowd. I want the book to feel like you and I are sitting down at a table, we’re having a beer, and I’m telling you a story… You have to remind yourself that a book is an experience between two people—a reader and a writer.”
Backman carries this feeling throughout all his books, new and old. The intimacy of the work and its focus on interpersonal dynamics communicates his desire to connect and form a sort of family, with his readers.