Two years ago, David Lagercrantz took up the late Stieg Larsson’s mantle to continue the Millennium book series, which started with the international best-seller The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.
Lagercrantz’s first installment (and the series’ fourth) was 2015’s The Girl in the Spider’s Web, and this fall he released his second, The Girl Who Takes an Eye for an Eye. Earlier this year the author and former crime reporter confirmed that his third Millennium book will also be his last. But his fingerprint on the series will live beyond the books: Spider’s Web is being adapted into a 2018 film by director Fede Álvarez, with The Crown’s Claire Foy stepping into Lisbeth Salander’s iconic tattooed skin.
EW caught up with Lagercrantz by phone during his book tour to discuss what it’s like to continue someone else’s world-famous work, why he’s choosing to walk away, and why we need characters like Lisbeth and journalist Mikael Blomkvist now more than ever. WARNING: There are some spoilers ahead from Eye for an Eye.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Now that you’re two books into this project, let’s talk about your experience: How has it felt to take on this series and this iconic character?
DAVID LAGERCRANTZ: I was scared to death when I first wrote The Girl in the Spider’s Web. Being scared was quite good then, because it’s gotten me to work harder. But this time, after the first book was really a success, it was easier to do [the second], of course. It was more fun, and I was braver!
I say that I have two complexes from Stieg Larsson. He was such a great writer, so I had a quality complex — it had to be a good book. But I also had a quantity complex — his books were so thick! But this time, I was braver to cut away things and try to make the story tighter, more of a page-turner. And even though it is absolutely exhausting, because there’s a craziness about these books, everything is so much more friendly now. There was such a controversy back then, if you remember.
What has it been like to meet the readers over the years?
I think it has been fantastic. There was this period, the first time, when I was afraid — because there were headlines, especially in my home country of Sweden, “Could he do this? Should he do this?” Because people were upset and afraid that I would set out to destroy his readership. So in the beginning, they were quite tense, and I was nervous. But then, after the good reviews were coming in from The New York Times, Le Monde, The Guardian, the wind sort of shifted. And at least when I was out talking, I felt so much love from the readers: “She’s back! The girl is back!”
Do you feel more of an ownership over Lisbeth now?
I mean, I will always credit Stieg Larsson. He was the genius who created her. But she has to feel like mine, because otherwise I couldn’t write the book. So I sort of have her now in my veins, in my DNA. She feels like mine, and I’m braver with her, [so I can] add to her mythology and add darkness to her, so they really feel like mine. They had to.
You have answered these longstanding questions like, maybe the biggest one, why she has the tattoo. How did you know it was time to answer that question?
I thought, “I must!” I’ve said that I was inspired by Christopher Nolan, who tried to add, “What was it really with Batman?” I felt the urge to answer that question. I was sort of obsessed by it, talking about dragons all the time. And then I got this advice to go into the big cathedral in Old Town in Stockholm.
Every Swedish schoolkid has been there. We heard all of the tales — the hero Saint George killing the dragon and saving the virgin, you know. But then I went in and tried to see it with Lisbeth Salander’s eyes. And then I saw something astonishing. I will always remember that moment, because I saw the blank face of Saint George, and I saw the despair and fear in the dragon, and I saw the strange virgin just standing there, who didn’t care at all. I could see that Saint George was really the villain, and Lisbeth Salander certainly could see her father in him, and her mother in the dragon, as the victim. And this lady who was just standing there praying, as if she didn’t care at all, could represent sort of the society that didn’t care, didn’t do anything when her mother was abused and raped.
And then I also thought to myself, “How did Lisbeth Salander survive when she was sent to a mental hospital, you know?” She tried to kill her father and they sent her to a mental hospital and tied her up in a bed. She had a sadistic psychiatrist. And I thought to myself, “Of course she was thinking about the dragon — that one day, the dragon will rise and take revenge.” That was a key moment for me.
Is it easier, in a way, to be creative when you’re working with characters and a world that already existed?
Yes. You have the frame, but in it you can use so much freedom. I love colluding myself with this universe that already existed. And then I could try to understand it, be trusted to it, and add not only to the mythology, but add myself in it. I think I had to, otherwise it wouldn’t be good. I couldn’t just write a copy. And in all kinds of crime stories, we need new characters, new villains, new side characters, new victims, whatever.
For me, it’s a fantastic thing to do, and I was so passionate about the work. People say, “Aren’t they different writers?” But I don’t feel that way, because I’ve been thinking and living with these characters for so long now. Even though he created them, they feel like mine. And then I add new characters that are mine.
You’re probably thinking the way Lisbeth thinks now.
Of course. And she’s always the tricky thing because she’s mysterious, and maybe she always shall be, like all iconic characters. She will always be some sort of enigma, but you should always try to understand an enigma. But if we really understand her, she will cease to be interesting.
We want to understand her just enough.
Just enough, yes. And when we have a character like Lisbeth Salander, an extreme character, we need a more normal character as a sidekick: That’s Mikael Blomkvist. Sherlock Holmes needed a Dr. Watson. We couldn’t be inside of his head. We needed someone from the outside who saw him.
How do you feel like Lisbeth has evolved in your hands?
I think I add darkness to her. I think about all the time how she’s really the traumatized kid who society tried to crush, but instead of getting weaker, she just got stronger. But deep down, there is still something really wounded.
In a way, I think maybe I’ve [written her] more as a female cowboy, a lone rider — but with a lot of better values than the old cowboy. Because in many ways, she’s a feminist fighter. And she’s not just fighting for justice in general: I think what gets her going is when she sees [the abuse she suffered] repeat again, when she sees women that are suppressed, when she sees the old trauma of her mother with the evil father, suppressed and raped and abused.
Claire Foy is going to play Lisbeth in the film adaptation of your first Millennium novel, The Girl in the Spider’s Web. What are your thoughts on that casting?
I think it’s absolutely fantastic, actually. Because we all watch these series on TV, but The Crown was sort of my all-time high. I was absolutely obsessed. She’s great, vulnerable in many ways because she’s a young queen, but also when she had to be authoritative, she was. It’s a big step, of course, going from Queen Elizabeth to Lisbeth Salander.
The costumes and makeup alone!
Yeah. [Laughs] It’s a big step! But there’s “Lis-bet” in both names.
They’ve been working with the script for two years now, I think. They started even before The Girl in the Spider’s Web was published because they read it, you know, secretly. It’s their movie, but I talk to [the producers] all the time. I had a long lunch with them yesterday, and they were scouting to shoot a bit in Stockholm and Berlin and Prague as well.
It sounds like it’s going to be beautiful.
Hopefully. I think that was important for them, because they really want — and I think we really need — a hero like Lisbeth Salander that will go on in a franchise. We have too many male characters, don’t we? Superman, James Bond, Spider-Man … We need a girl like her.
I think that’s why Wonder Woman did so well! There’s an appetite for this.
So, you’ve said the next book, after the The Girl Who Takes An Eye For An Eye, will be your last in the Millennium series.
Yes, it will. I’ve said it in interviews — it made headlines in Stockholm that say, “Never again!” But you never know. When I’m 70, maybe I’ll miss it. But for me, it’s so important to move on, because I develop myself when I write something new. I respect writers who can write the same book all over again, but I couldn’t.
I think part of the reason this book was such a success was because I didn’t do it because of the money or anything. It was just pure passion. I felt I had to do it. And I don’t want to lose that energy. So I think three is good. Now I have a good story for the third one.
Do you have an idea in your mind of how you want the series to end?
Yes, I certainly will. I can tell the you what we do know, and what Stieg Larsson invented, is that Lisbeth Salander has an evil twin sister. She doesn’t really turn up in my second book, but she will certainly turn up in the third book. So I think you can see a great standoff between these sisters, who really are on opposite sides: Camilla took the father’s side in the fight, and of course Lisbeth took the mother’s, the victim’s side. So we will see that.
And of course I have to have another good story, but I think it will be even more about journalism, because I’m really quite passionate about it. I think we live in a time when we need good journalists more than ever, with all the fake news and misinformation, and the president of the United States calling journalists the enemy of the people.
I think Lisbeth Salander and Blomkvist are the heroes that we need. We need hackers, and we certainly need good investigative journalists nowadays. And there’s so much bashing of journalists, isn’t there? It’s horrible. We have to make them heroes again, as they were when I grew up — the Woodward and Bernstein era.
I’ve actually started a foundation now, with part of my royalties, for journalists to have education and have scholarships for doing investigative journalism. It’s vital for democracy, actually. Democracy is under threat all over, so it’s so important to have good journalists, and to have people also pay for good journalism. Because journalists are actually revealing the injustice, the corruption, the lies. I think it’s more important than ever.