Sasha's Second Chance
Interview with Freddy Milton
Conducted by Claes Reimerthi, Erik Overgaard and Anders Christian Sivebaek.
How long did it take after finishing your first book before you found an idea for your second book?
Only a few months, but the reason is probably that I have gotten more time over to think, now that the kids have left home and I no longer have commissioned works. I have simply gotten the opportunity to work longer without interruption, and this is important when you have to devise the larger and more intricate pattern of a novel.
Is 'Sasha’s Second Chance' the book you had in mind when you had finished your first book?
No, back then I thought actually of another idea for the next book, but then 'Sasha’s Second Chance' came in the way. It's also about life and death, but in a different way.
Is the book based on a true story?
Not directly, but there are references to others who have experienced the same kind of transgression that we encounter in my version, including among other things, a rather famous girl from somewhere near the country where half of this book is taking place.
With that title, one might think that it is mostly a book for girls?
In a way it is probably more a book for girls because it's a teenage girl who is in the center and tells the story, well, actually two girls.
Can you write this? Girls are probably quite picky about what they want to spend time on? Do you think they buy your picture of a teenage world of this nature?
I hope so. I've really done my best. I have had two daughters growing up in my family, and a third is in her tweens. So I been confronted with a bit of everything, I know how teenage girls talk and behave in our day what they allow themselves and how conflicting and self-conscious they can be, especially at that age as Matilda ha, so the tone should be credible and self experienced. There are even situations in the book that is autobiographical. Matilda is somewhat of an outcast in class but a very thoughtful girl.
I would like to know how old is Matilda?
I imagined her as being about 16 years old. It also has the advantage that it is appealing to girls who are younger since they strive a little older to the age they would like to get to know. And I've made certain that there is a substance on roles and romance, emotion and sentimentality. It is in no way something I've put in, for the narrative core is simply focused on introversion and how to learn to know yourself and experience life. But Matilda is on the outskirts of this social adolescence, she is marginalized because of her obesity.
Why is Matilda overweight, quite a lot even?
I have sympathy for outsiders. They lie closest to my heart. I can best identify with them and it is therefore easier to describe them. Also she is in great need of the boost that the story provides.
What kind of book is it?
If it should be placed in one genre it may well be classified as a melodrama. When trying to capture the deep emotions you have to lay aside some humor. It was no coincidence that the ancient Greeks discovered that they were forced to divide the dramas in 'comedy' and 'tragedy'. Here it is most surely a drama with thriller elements. My good friend Jussi Adler-Olsen, with whom I share a studio, said that I had caught the zeitgeist concerning the story subject matter. I presented it to a film producer who stated that the idea would be fine for a motion picture, but it was not quite up her alley.
I've noticed places where you used the stuff from your own life - as with puzzles, and the house you live in. It's pretty interesting to be able to recognize that stuff.
That’s how writers are, involving elements from their own sphere that they can use, but things usually get a twist to fit the tone of that part of the book you just have to write. If you want to signal an interaction between the girls in a little old-fashioned environment making some puzzles would be a reasonable choice.
Everything about bikes and repairing them as Malick does reminds me that I have learned the same things from my father. Where have you learnt it?
I’ve also learnt it from my father. In some old home movie material I have found during the cleanup in my childhood home there's even a scene where my father is patching a bike.
You get to know there is a gap in time between the two parallel storylines now does some of it take place in the future?
No, it has only come to be like that because the plot made it necessary. And then I also play upon the uncertainty that exists about the evolution in the world and where I come up with a suggestion. But it's not something that lies in front in the reader’s attention.
'Sasha’s Second Chance' has that in common with your first book that it takes place at various levels...
Yes, there is an additional dream level in Matilda’s mind, and it's something she feels she must relate to, because it becomes more and more urgent as time passes. So it also becomes a detective work to find out what is actually the matter with her and why. It is a character development story with a kind of mystery to it.
I probably do not reveal too much by saying that the novel seems to revolve around different levels of consciousness?
No, it's okay, and it has always intrigued me, what consciousness basically is, and how it manifests itself. The borderline this time is related to how the subconscious makes itself known and how that affects people's lives. It becomes a rather spiritual journey, but I choose to handle these issues in a neutral and practical way. This will also produce a tension between the earthly and the spherical, which may characterize the individual's life. These levels are weighted differently from person to person, but here we're actually dealing with a girl, who to her surprise discovers that she is more open to alternative phenomena than she has previously realized. It thus becomes an inner journey where you explore yourself.
It sounds pretty weird. Do you think girls care about these things?
Yes, I'm convinced they do, in any case some of them. The teenage years are characterized by trying to find out more about personal matters so here I think this angle will be experienced as very exciting and relevant, even for readers who do not have this so close in life as Matilda who is undergoing a critical phase .
What about this Sasha girl?
She belongs to another culture and has a totally different background in time and place. She comes from a developing country Goristan with a strict authoritarian tradition and a situation of civil war over several decades. Her options are more limited than Matilda’s are. If the situation was normal it would almost be predetermined what her fate would be in life, but she is a very cheerful and determined girl who even tries to push the limits to what options she has. This corresponds to a large degree with the conflicts that exist in the surrounding community. I am fascinated by such a parallelism between the individual's dreams, hopes and ambitions, and the community striving for something similar. This Middle East world has an additional parallelism when contrasted with the situation in the Western world.
How old is Sasha?
I think Sasha is slightly younger than Matilda, but it may also be because girls in that part of the world seem to be more reserved than they are here.
Thinking back, I remember that I have had the weakness for that from my childhood. Like my Mom, I shed a tear during sad movies on TV. I also remember I had a lump in my throat when our high school film club was screening a 16 mm version of ‘Les parapluis de Cherbourg’. The mood survived the many shifts of reels, and Michel Legrand's music emphasized the uncanny mood of sadness, so it was a dear return to old patterns of emotions to write the sad section of 'Sasha’s Second chance', I even pinched a tear during rework.
Why does it take so long before we find out what is really going on?
All exciting books have a building phase where you are presented to the characters and their backgrounds. One must know who you are dealing with before you can engage in what is going to happen to them when things get under way, and that is in fact the most important part of the book. For once, the story really picks up it's the action that requires space and determines the course, and here I have two people from different cultures who must get placed in time and space in a responsible manner before the story gets under way. Still, one should also be careful that you do not overwork that part of the story. There should be just enough to establish the characters in our mind. You must actually, as a storyteller remember to concentrate on those items that you want to return to later, so you do not lose the drive and momentum, but the parallel action on the two levels should be made to fit with the transition between two critical chapters in which the drama takes a new turn.
Matilda gets a portion of the necessary background information through immigrants from Goristan. Is that description not conspicuously neutral? Should we not expect it to be described more subjective when it comes from people from that area?
Maybe, but I dare say that some immigrants who have lived for 20 years in our western world is actually able to look quite neutral at the situation in their ancient homeland and comment on it in a less dramatic way, so I have given priority to show a picture of serene and levelheaded immigrants that I know also exist. If you continue to be bitter and hateful, you end up getting your life ruined.
It strikes me that the tone in much of the book is understated, especially in those parts of the Middle East, where Sasha fate really gets to be tough. Would you not expect more despair in the description of the part of the book which takes place in a war torn country?
I've thought about it, and the balance, I finally have decided upon I felt natural to me. I think people who live in a country that has been in a state of war for decades have incorporated a deep sense of resignation regarding human destinies and the price of life. In our world here and now such incidents naturally will be seen as very disastrous and lead to large emotional gestures. Also the fact that some are willing to undertake suicide operations tells us about an attitude to life where each individual's role and importance is not paramount as is the case within our culture, it's at least how I see it. I hope to gain more through a description of an understated despair than by a highly leveraged emotional presentation, but some readers might probably have preferred a more grandiose emotional view. I could also argue to my defense that all terms from Sasha is going through Matilda, and thus are coming to us through flashbacks and dreams, and in this context, Sasha does not express herself very emotionally, because Matilda is because of the conceptual understanding fully able to perceive the situation without having to describe it in very florid style. It is best seen as an internal communication between them, which we as readers happen to be connected to, but what do I know about this, I come from a region where life in many ways is commented upon in an understated way...
Is the character of Miss. Winterbottom inspired by a real person?
No. At some point I wanted not to determine her destiny, but I let that be Uncle Mustapha instead. You must always leave some loose ends, or else everything comes to look too thoroughly arranged. The uncertainty goes for Nadia’s father as well.
There is also a short side story with Esben, which is completed quickly at the very end…
I thought the whole issue of immigration inspired me to an extra angle, as it in the final part could contribute to a picture of a society where people are eagerly waiting for a little progress. A real life story like the one in the book had left a deep impression on me when I heard about it in the press. Unfortunately, there have been several incidents of the same kind and they are deeply tragic.
What has your research consisted of - when it comes to 'our' world with Matilda’s school, classmates, bullying etc. and what about Goristan, 'The Righteous', the flight etc.?
I have not done any specific research on social and political conditions apart from what comes with news coverage, but I've watched a number of documentaries about the elements I use in the book. There is some necessary explanation of factual issues about the Middle East in the book's first part, and because the time structure it must necessarily be placed there. The situation with illegal satellite dishes and video films and the woman running around in the mountains with her ballot box and the provocative in the girls' first bicycle ride on their own I have seen described in documentaries. As for the world of teenagers here in the West, I have myself four children aged 12 to 25 years, and I use of course the knowledge I have gained during their upbringing. Still, I have studied the issues dealing with the psychological condition, Matilda is in, and it is actually not so very rare if you go in depth with it and examine case stories.
Have you thought of Sasha’s and Matilda’s homelands as specific locations? You also said in the beginning that Sasha has made anonymous the names of persons and places, but there is probably another reason?
Of course there is, I wanted simply not to get hung up on something specific in relation to a position on current events. There are words that I deliberately abstain from using, such as ‘fundamentalists’ and ‘terrorists' because that is words used by those in power, where opponents would rather use words like 'autonomy' and 'partisans'. Also 'politics', ‘regime’ and 'democracy' I use very sparingly, and I do not use the word ‘Islam’ at all. As a Western writer you can easily be accused of partiality so my presentation is deliberately cool and neutral. But then I might disappoint those readers who might wish for more subjectivity and emotional engagement in the description. You cannot make everyone happy. When I as a necessary consequence of the concept allow myself to predict the development, I would risk being blamed for it if the story took place in some specific geographical location. There are people and groups who are hung up, concerning the state of affairs in the Middle East, and the meaning of my book could risk being overshadowed by some superfluous references to specific issues and strategies. The problematic double life of Matilda must be in focus.
The book still ends on a note of optimism...
I have obviously taken care of that. I will not leave the reader out in the cold. With all the adversity that has been in focus in the course of the story it would be heartless if the conclusion would leave us feeling low. Half a box of paper towels should be enough! So hang on there! There is a deeper meaning to it all, although I do not understand myself how this can possibly be!
You reveal a weakness for the melodramatic and sentimental feelings, is that something new?
Since you have now put 'Between Life and Death' on your current releases, then you have probably more in store?
Yes, I plan to do about ten titles in the series. I have written most of them and they are all very different. I have wondered why this issue fascinates me so intensely, but it must be something concerning fate and a higher meaning to things in life.
You share each week a studio with a colleague who has experienced a big international breakthrough. Are you a little envious?
Absolutely not, if you have to develop that kind of flaws, it requires that someone else has success with something that you yourself would have liked to be successful with, and maybe even think you could have done better yourself, and I've never felt that. I've never had any ambition to do something which colleagues have succeeded with. On the contrary, I am pleased when someone gets ahead in a troublesome business. Concerning my studio companion I have followed him from before he became rich and famous and he had written three excellent thrillers before he really got things going for him. As it happened, time had become ripe for his angle and he was at the right time and place with the right product in the slipstream of a success a deceased thriller colleague had just gotten into place, and this is often the case with these kinds of things. Susceptibility must be present, otherwise it does not matter how good your stuff is, but in my friend's case, there are of course the important thing that he aims at an adult audience that will pay dearly for the books. It is generally difficult to succeed in what is judged to be juvenile literature, for the users usually not buy their reading material. They are often dependent on intermediaries in public libraries, and it's their taste that determines things. There is unfortunately no way round that.