Sara Blaedel, Denmark’s Queen of Crime — sure. Super talented, internationally bestselling author of the crime series featuring the tough, smart, and all-too-human Louise Rick — yes! But more than any of that — she is a great spirit, a wonderful friend, and one of the people I am most happy to have in my life. Let’s hang out with her a little while, shall we, and learn all about her latest spine-tingling novel, THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER.
Lisa Unger: So, Ilka is living a modest, somewhat regimented life in Copenhagen when her orderly world is upended by some unexpected news. The father she never knew has died, and left her an inheritance. A funeral home. In Racine, Wisconsin, USA. Hmmm. For me, there’s almost always a germ, a moment when I get a little buzz of excitement — it might be something that I read or see, a line of poetry, even in one case, a piece of junk mail. If that seed finds fertile ground in my subconscious, I start hearing a voice, or voices and that is usually the beginning of a novel. Is that how it works for you? If so, what was the “germ” for THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER?
Sara Blaedel: Like yours, the seeds for my ideas, which grow and form and become the concepts for my books, are borne of everyday life. I hungrily read everything, and pay close, at times obsessive, attention to all aspects of the news, both local and international. Again, and again, I am struck by how much the truth is stranger than fiction. Sometimes I am particularly captivated by a story that is ripped from the headlines; sometimes it’s a socio-political issue (like assisted suicide) that gets under my skin and consumes me. In the case of THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER, it was a family matter that took root in my mind, wouldn’t let go, and demanded to be brought to life.
It was after the deaths of my parents, one after the other tragically, that I first made contact and then connected with undertakers. I was a novice, and hadn’t the slightest understanding of what these heroic artisans and brilliant technicians really do. Whether preparing bodies for viewing and burials, helping loved ones to choose coffins and plan for the worst, most heart-wrenching days of their lives, or handling the arrangements for cremations, morticians carry heavy loads. Those who handled, with grace, sensitivity, and profound respect, my parents’ final send-off left me in awe and brimming with gratitude. I was moved and inspired, and it wasn’t long before I realized that undertakers would play a huge role in my next book. I was as surprised as my editor and publisher; I’d never seen this coming. It happened organically and with a great sense of urgency.
Have you founded any of your novels upon a deeply private and personal experience, and if so, did you find the writing process somehow different given your insular connection to the subject matter?
Lisa Unger: Ah, I’m so sorry, Sara. That must have been such a difficult time for you. I am always amazed by the people who stand on the portals of life — doctors, nurses, midwives, hospice workers, and undertakers. It’s so rarely discussed — but how important these people are, ushering us through the most difficult moments in our lives. Their work is so critical. I am glad that you found inspiration in the sad passing of your parents, even though it must have been so painful.
I completely understand, of course. I think that all of us who are writing authentically are drawing from the experiences of our lives. Even if it’s not an entire book, perhaps it’s a character, a scene, a setting. FRAGILE is probably my most personal novel, drawn from the dark inspiration that when I was 15 years old a girl I knew was abducted and murdered. This nightmare experience stayed with me but it was many, many years before I was ready to write about. It was as if I need to be a wife, a mother, a better writer to do the story justice. All my novels draw from an inner place; and there’s always a great sense of urgency, as you say. If I’m not connected to some element of the story — even if it’s just allegorically — I can’t write it.
I know your son is grown now. But how did motherhood affect your life as a writer? Do you feel like it made you a better writer? What where the challenges and how did you balance them early in your career?
Sara Blaedel: Oh my goodness, Lisa! What a nightmarish trauma for you to have lived through. All of the unthinkably dreadful things that happen, which permeate our news and both fictional and reality-based crime shows, they haunt and horrify us even as we don’t know the victims involved. It’s all so distressing and frightening, but sometimes it can seem surreal somehow; just too terrible to believe. I cannot imagine how terrorized you were- how unsafe you must have felt as a teen, when this person you knew vanished and was killed.
Your question is provocative and so insightful. Of course, when we write crime stories, which include so much loss and suffering and heinous and degraded acts committed, it is impossible not to personalize them. We live with these characters for so long (they reside in our heads and get under our skin). These are the children and friends and lovers of other characters; they are loved and matter, and when they are lost, they are missed and grieved for. As I wrote The Running Girl, my darkest fear became ever-present- losing Adam, my little boy. I tried to work through this anxiety, but returning to my writing each day made that a great challenge.
It was often difficult for me to leave the story behind after a day of working on it. Adam frequently asked me if I had killed anyone that day, and I knew the question was sparked by my moods. That he could sense I was affected or unable to shake things off. In general, when I execute a first draft, I tend to become so consumed that I am distracted from other, oftentimes important, things going on in my life. I am not proud to admit that I’ve forgotten things like appointments of events at school with Adam. Lisa, you are such a devoted and inspired mother; I cannot imagine you missing anything with your daughter.
That said, I do firmly believe that being a mother has made me a better writer. During this wonderful and enlightening journey of having a son, I have discovered new and deeper elements within myself- a greater capacity to love, and far more intense compassion and connectivity. All of which have informed the material I choose, and the way I explore and dive into it.
As a mother, are there subjects and details you won’t touch because they’re too sensitive, perhaps, or hit too close to home? Is there anything that you strictly relegate to an off-limits position because they’d cause panic within you, or a debilitating pain?
Lisa Unger: I know that you, too, are a wonderful and devoted mother. Your close relationship with your grown-up Adam is a testament to that. Of course, as a writer and a mother, there is always conflict within. Because the life of the writer and the life of the parent are both all-consuming creative enterprises. But I agree completely that motherhood can only make us more compassionate, more connected to the human condition, with a greater capacity to love. This must in turn take us to deeper places on the page.
Yours is such an interesting question, and it’s such an interesting time to be asking it. As the mother of a young girl, I must have so many conversations with her about dark and terrifying possibilities from which we’d all rather turn away. Maybe especially because of the things I experienced as a teenager, and what is happening in our culture right now, it’s important to me to have a dialogue with her. Teaching her how to protect her body, mind, and spirit from predators, from people who might wish to use or abuse her, is a painful but necessary thing. And I am a firm believer in open communication with our girls, in giving them the resources to defend and speak out, or yell and fight if necessary, to keep themselves safe. Monsters survive and thrive in the dark. It’s our duty as women to shine the light.
I used to think that there were places that I wouldn’t or couldn’t go with my fiction. But as I tend to write about the things that terrify me or confound me, things I’m trying to understand, I have found myself on some dark paths. The temptation is always to pull away – because some things, as you say, are too horrible to imagine. There’s been chatter online about an award The Guardian wants to give to crime fiction novels that don’t feature violence against women. And on the one hand, I understand this impulse; it’s a positive one. But on the other hand, I think: We’ll stop writing about these things when they stop happening. We’ll stop writing about violence, when we’re no longer terrified for ourselves and our girls. Fiction is where we metabolize the world, where we order chaos, where we dive into emotional truth. I’m not sure that silencing voices was ever the way to solve a problem. So, I suppose I’ll continue to follow my characters down dark paths, but always with the intention of bringing light there.
So, just like Ilka in THE UNDERTAKER’S DAUGHTER, you, too, have made a move to the US. Not to Racine, Wisconsin but to New York City. I know you are loving your new home away from home! What are the most striking differences between American and Danish culture? What do you miss most about home when you are here? And what do you miss about the US when you’re back in Denmark?
Sara Blaedel: I absolutely do love living in Manhattan, which is such an exciting, diverse, energetic, and fascinating city. It’s never dull here; that’s for sure. The idea that anything goes here just speaks to me. I’m drinking it all in, thrilling to every second of it. There are endless opportunities and varieties of nearly everything – fabulous museum exhibits, gallery showings, author readings and events, concerts, political demonstrations, women’s marches, shopping… This list goes on, but let’s not forget one that’s dear to my heart: the incredible food. I’m an eater, and an adventurous one at that. In New York City, right along with the fancy, highly reviewed, three, four, and five-star restaurants, are more modest-seeming places that serve up some of the most delectable ethnic dishes I’ve ever tasted. Then, of course, there are the scrumptious food trucks, where you can get lobster rolls on one corner, and empanadas on the next. I’ve only just begun testing my way through the treats here, but already have a few favorites: Asian-fusion and juicy, saucy chicken wings. Their counterparts in Denmark are small and dry.
I do miss my Danish favorites, most especially stegt flaesk, which is positively succulent roasted pork belly and potatoes, cooked in a creamy parsley sauce. Thinking about Danish smorrebred, an open sandwich on dark rye bread, makes my mouth water and leaves me ravenous. The very best dinner I’ve had in NYC so far was at the 2-star Michelin restaurant, Atera, which is the baby of Danish chef, Ronny Emborg. That tasty and satisfying meal transported me home.
I love living in the heart of publishing, which allows me to meet with my amazing team of superstars at Grand Central, as well as my incredible literary agent. I am overjoyed and profoundly grateful for the warm reception I’ve received from the crime fiction community. I find Americans to be more open and welcoming in general. In Denmark, people are more reserved at first, until they get to know you. Then, of course, they’re wonderful. But no one I’ve met on the street or in a shop in Denmark has ever called me “sweetheart,” “darling,” or “honey.” I love that! It’s so affectionate and intimate. It puts you at ease and brings a smile to your face.
On a socio-political note, the healthcare in Denmark is more protective and secure. People there don’t worry about the financial burdens of getting sick or medical emergencies. As I’ve dug into research for The Undertaker’s Daughter, which is set in Wisconsin, I’ve been intrigued by the vast differences in how the deceased are handled. In Denmark, there are no wakes or shivas; there are no ceremonies that are packed with mourners; no viewings of the late loved ones. I love how the Americans approach this aspect of death, which feels more sensitive and reverent for the grief-stricken survivors.
I miss my friends in Denmark, though it hasn’t been too difficult to convince them to come here to NYC to visit me. I do long for the quiet time spent in my Danish summer place, a beach house on the north coast. It is wonderful and lushly beautiful. I am crazy about my long walks along the shore. Walking up there, my very favorite place to start a new book, is what I miss the most about my homeland. So, as I dig in to begin writing now, that yearning is particularly intense.
When I am in Denmark, I miss the energy in New York City, and how everything is within walking distance. Whether you need dinner in a hurry, a late-night snack, or headache pills in the middle of the night, they’re all just around the corner. Everything has a close sensibility; I love that!
Lisa Unger: Wow — you just managed to make me hungry and homesick all at once! We’ve had a number of fabulous food experiences together, haven’t we? But my favorite with you has to be the jazz brunch at Mr. B’s Bistro in New Orleans! Gumbo, fried oysters, bloody marys! Yes! This must be why we’re such great friends – we love to talk, and eat, and talk about eating!
Time to do it again, I think. I’m going to book a flight and come up to visit. Get ready!
Thank you, Sara, for sharing yourself with me. I’m reading your fabulous book right now. Lucky readers, it goes on sale today. Rush to your favorite bookseller and grab your copy. And for more about Sara, visit SaraBlaedel.com.