By Marty Mulrooney
Alternative Magazine Online recently reviewed The Killing by British author David Hewson, describing it as “an unputdownable page-turner that deserves as much recognition as the television show that inspired it.” AMO is therefore proud to present an exclusive online interview with Mr Hewson, where we talk about the process of adapting the hit Danish TV show to the written page and his writing career as both a journalist and author of popular fiction.
Hello Mr Hewson, thank you for your time and welcome to AMO. Can you please tell our readers a little bit about yourself please?
I write for a living and always have done. At the last count I’ve written 22 books, all but one fiction starting with Semana Santa in 1996 (later made into a rather iffy movie). For quite some time I was a journalist on national newspapers, latterly a columnist on the Sunday Times. Most of my books are set in Italy, and all but one abroad. My one UK novel Native Rites is currently appearing for free scene by scene on the web if anyone’s interest – davidhewson.com/blog.
How and when did you first become a journalist?
I left school at seventeen and joined a little local newspaper in Yorkshire where I lived. I wanted to write for a living and journalism seemed the only solution.
Was it difficult writing fiction at the same time as working on newspapers such as The Times and The Independent?
I didn’t start writing fiction until I was working for the Sunday Times actually. By that stage I was a contracted columnist so I worked from home. Which meant I could juggle my time better than when I had to trek into an office. I don’t know if I could have written books alongside being a full-time reporter. But I fell into a routine on the Sunday Times: books in the morning, paper in the afternoon.
Is writing fiction more satisfying than writing factual stories?
The two things are so different it’s hard to compare. Journalism is more important – we need good journalism to function as a society. Books are entertainment. At least I hope they are. Important but not so important, and what makes them success are the very things that get your fired in journalism – imagination and yarn-spinning.
What made you decide to leave all of that behind and become a full-time fiction writer in 2005?
I felt the time had come. The books were popular enough for me to live off them alone, and I wasn’t getting as much enjoyment out of journalism as I was. I think papers have got tame in recent years unfortunately. And Leveson probably won’t help. Newspapers exist to tell people what they need to hear, not what they want to. Too much of the latter of late.
You are perhaps most well known for your Nic Costa series of mystery novels. How would you describe this series to newcomers?
The Costa books are a crime series set in contemporary Rome that bucks the trend for middle-aged, melancholic, alcoholic protagonists. Nic Costa is young, a bit naïve, a vegetarian and a long-distance runner by nature. A good man in a fractured world. While each book’s an individual story, there’s a theme across them all which is in a way Costa’s growing up and how his integrity affects those around him. It’s also an ensemble series; other characters are important too.
You recently adapted the first series of the critically acclaimed Danish TV drama The Killing into a standalone novel. How did this opportunity arise?
There was a big international auction for the book rights to The Killing. Macmillan were intent on buying it and came to ask me if I’d be the writer. They regarded me as the first candidate because a) I’m used to foreign locations and b) I write strong female characters.
What was it like travelling to Copenhagen and consulting with The Killing writer and creator Søren Sveistrup?
Fascinating. I’d never set foot in Denmark before. Søren was very busy making Killing III so his time was limited. But we managed to discuss the important issues, principally some questions I had about the narrative. And I was able to visit all the key locations such as City Hall, the police station and the woods where Nanna was killed.
Were you already a fan of the TV show before being given this unique opportunity?
I was in Italy when it was first shown so I missed it. Macmillan sent me the DVDs when the auction was starting up. So I came to it fresh which was good. Only took a brief look to see I’d want to do it.
What were the main challenges in adapting the TV show to the written page?
So many… length. Twenty hours of TV is epic stuff. I have knocked one day out of that in the book but it’s still the longest novel I’ve ever written. And I had to do something which TV can’t which is go behind the eyes of the characters and find an internal life for them. It was quite a challenge but I like that kind of thing.
Were you given any of the original scripts to use for guidance when consulting with Søren Sveistrup?
No. They would have been in Danish anyway and they weren’t readily available – remember this was made in 2006 or so. So I worked off the DVD with subtitles. I was writing a book of what was on the screen, not the script.
The book is largely faithful to the source material but has some major deviations and several unique twists entirely of its own – how much free rein were you given on this project?
I was given completely free rein and wouldn’t have undertaken the project otherwise. Books are always changed when they are made into TV shows or movies. It has to happen the other way round too. These are different media and what works in one may not in another.
Has Søren Sveistrup given you any feedback now that the book has been released? The feedback from the British press has been overwhelmingly positive!
He came over for the launch and has been incredibly kind and generous about the book. It’s had a good reception in Denmark too – it was simultaneously published there in Danish, and is now appearing in all the main European markets too. The reviews everywhere have been quite amazing.
Was there ever the temptation – or pressure from the publisher – to deliver a straightforward adaptation with no changes whatsoever?
No temptation and no pressure. We all knew that couldn’t be done from the start. Søren said to me at the very beginning, ‘I want this to be your book.’ A literal adaptation simply wouldn’t have succeeded, and would have been pretty pointless too.
How would you describe the main character Sarah Lund?
Unique, infuriating, impossible not to follow. Lund’s a pathological obsessive who makes you share her obsession, and she has absolutely no regard for herself or those around her. All that matters is the chase and she’s a hunter supreme, always watchful, always looking for the next opening.
Was it a challenge writing with previously established characters?
Not really. The Killing was shot in a very unusual way, with scripts written as episodes were shot, not prewritten as is usually the case. This made characters a bit fluid on screen; on the page I had to nail them down a bit more.
How did you approach translating the episodic nature of the show into chapters and parts?
By not copying the episode structure. Those 60-minute slots don’t translate into conventional narrative breaks – The Killing is much too adventurous to bung in cliffhangers at expected moments. So the parts of the book break down into the actual chases of the story. Essentially The Killing is a succession of chases – the killer chasing Nanna, Lund chasing Nanna, Lund chasing the first suspect, second suspect… Those become the parts, and the chapters divide into the days of the story.
You are also adapting The Killing II into a novel – will you be approaching that project in a similar manner?
Exactly the same way – the book is now done and I think will be out in January. And yes, it diverges from the TV in crucial ways at times for the same reasons.
The Killing III is due to be shown on BBC4 at the end of 2012. Would you like to adapt this third and final series as well?
Too early to say – I’d like to see it first! The whole project is surrounded with secrecy so even though I’ve been on set I’ve no idea what it’s about. I do know it will be the last though.
What is next for you Mr Hewson?
Two huge books in a year were pretty exhausting frankly. I’ve got some other projects to work on, but nothing I can talk about publicly at the moment. I’m never comfortable talking about work in progress until there’s a publication date, and my book for next year will be Killing II.
Thank you for your time and I shall look forward to reading and reviewing your adaptation/reinterpretation of The Killing II next year!
All publicity shots © photographer Mark Bothwell.