SPECIAL NOTE: Beartown and Us Against You made such a big impression on me that I’m dedicating a week to them. Check out the other posts here:
I attended my very first author event last weekend (I’ll admit that I have seen David Sedaris live in the past, but I consider that to be more of a show than an author event.) Meeting Backman was an absolute joy. I loved the way he spoke and how authentically himself he was – it lets you know that the amazing voice that you hear in his books is him. Nothing about him was “put on” and although I know speaking in front of large groups of people is his absolute worst nightmare, I am beyond thankful that he does it for us – his readers. Hearing him speak for an hour was incredible and I wanted to highlight some of his thoughts for you.
Where does he start a book?
The common places, of course, are the story or the characters. Backman’s answer to this was, both but really “the feeling he wants you to leave with as you’re closing the book”. For Beartown and Us Against You the feelings were: Punched in the gut, sad, scared, but also full of hope. He also said he wants you to close the book and think to yourself “I need to talk to someone about this.” I cannot express how strongly I felt each of those emotions. His writing is good.
How does he feel about sports?
This may come as a surprise to some, as it did to me, but Backman actually loves sports. Growing up he played “everything. Except hockey.” What he wanted to do in the Beartown trilogy was many-fold but I want to highlight two in particular.
1 – He wanted to write a book to highlight how important sports are. His wife and his father, he mentioned in particular, don’t enjoy sports and he wanted to write a book to show his wife how important sports are.
2 – He wanted to tackle the issue of damaging sports culture. The way he talked about it was so incredible. He started to describe how the ideal hockey player is tough, and violent, and wins, and doesn’t take no for an answer, and goes out there to fight every day, etc etc. And then he slowly transitioned to “what happens when a girl says no to him? Did we ever have a conversation with him about that? At 17 years old.” The way he ended with “at 17 year old” gave me chills the way his most powerful passages in the book did. It was at that moment that I realized edited or not, this man is the real deal. It also let me know that he doesn’t hate Kevin (from Beartown). It gave me the impression that instead of viewing Kevin as inherently evil, he genuinely felt that sports’ culture had failed him. “Had we ever had a conversation with him about that?” Wow.
As we all know and love about Backman’s books, particularly the early ones, he uses humor to offset sadness. I particularly loved this in his first book, A Man Called Ove, where every sad moment was brought back to being humorous relatively quickly. While I didn’t notice it as much in Beartown or Us Against You, this was the opening topic of the discussion last weekend. Backman said that as an awkward kid, humor was a way in. “You like people who make you laugh. That’s just normal social behavior.”
But Backman pointed out that it can also be a weapon, and that joking in the locker room as middle school boys and making homophobic jokes is “just a joke” to the people making them, but is destroying the person who’s affected by it.
Also on the topic of humor – Ove is apparently the most common middle aged man’s name in Sweden. It would be like calling the book “A Man Called Mike” in America. Apparently Backman thought it was a funny joke that didn’t translate in to any other language.
This was a total curveball in the conversation – it was the final question of the night and a woman from the back row asked how he’s overcome any issues with self doubt. I naiively thought that it was a silly question, but then was humbled by Backman’s honestly.
At first he said “I haven’t” and the audience laughed.
Then Backman said he struggles with serious anxiety, and there’s nothing funny about not overcoming self doubt. After events like we had today – which were full of respect and openness – he feels the way he does the morning after a party when he drank too much. “Why did I say that? Did I have to …? I wish I hadn’t… .”
He shared that on his last book tour he called his wife crying in the middle of the night (Swedish time) because he had so much anxiety that he has panic attacks – so this time his wife is traveling with him.
One thing that I found truly remarkable and I have so much respect for him sharing is that he’s in therapy because he doesn’t know how to deal with success. His exact words were “I’m in therapy for not being a failure.” It was amazing to hear someone open up about the topic of mental health and answer the question with so much honesty.