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Interview: June 16, 2016

International bestselling author Emelie Schepp introduces us to the enigmatic, unforgettable Jana Berzelius in MARKED FOR LIFE, the first installment of a chilling trilogy. Schepp didn’t take the traditional route to publication; instead of being deterred when her manuscript was rejected or ignored by major publishing houses, she published her work online and became one of the most popular self-published authors in Sweden. In this interview with’s Joe Hartlaub, Schepp opens up about her unique --- although increasingly less so --- path to success, why she feels inclined to explore the theme of envy between women, and what we can expect from her next. You are a very successful author in Sweden, having published three bestselling novels to date, the first of which has just been released in the United States under the title MARKED FOR LIFE. This is an amazing book, by any standard, especially for the well-crafted characters who we’ll discuss in a minute. But first I’d like to talk about you. What made you want to become a writer? And what led to your interest in mysteries?

Emelie Schepp: I have always loved writing. As a child, I wrote a lot and often, made up my own stories, wrote dozens of articles and competed in short story contests. In 1998, when I was in high school, I participated in a contest that a big theater announced. It was a drama prize competition, and all the participants had to write a play about meetings. I won first prize, and my play was produced the same year. 

After having worked as a project manager in the advertising industry for 10 years, I came to a point where I was tired of the profession. I simply wanted to do something new. And I wanted to write again. I had written a number of articles, but when you are writing articles, you only have a limited space. I dreamed of having the freedom to write as many words as I wanted. But I did not yet know what kind of writing I would dedicate myself to.

One day, I saw an advertisement for a course on how to write screenplays. The course was led by a comedy writing guru. I attended and was so inspired that when I came home, I wrote two scripts and sent them to various Swedish production companies. But shortly thereafter, I read about a famous director in Sweden who said that it is very difficult to finance films and get funding support. I remember thinking If he has trouble getting financial support, how will I?

For each additional scene in a screenplay, the more expensive it is to produce the movie. It is quite obvious. But in a book, you are free to write as many scenes as you need to tell the story, without worrying too much about the length or expense. So I decided to write a novel instead. I thought a lot about the best way to learn how to write a novel, and I decided that the best --- and only --- way is to learn from the authors themselves. So on my kitchen table I put those books that I had liked as a teenager, along with books from bestselling authors. These were almost all crime novels.

I have always loved reading suspense, so once I really thought about it, there was never a question for me about what genre I would choose. I knew straightaway that I wanted to write crime fiction. I began to study all the novels on my table by looking at the characters, the dialogue, the setting, etc. After about two months of intensive reading, I was eager to get started on my own book. Since I still worked full time, I had to make time for writing at night. Every evening at 8pm I sat down in front of my computer and wrote. I started in May 2012, and in September that very same year I held the first draft in my hand. I then sent it away to the biggest publishing houses in Sweden and waited for them to get back to me.

In Sweden, it takes at least three months before you can expect an answer from publishers. But it took only two weeks before I received an envelope. I wasn't home, but my husband called me up and shouted that it was incredibly awesome that I had received an envelope from one of Sweden's biggest publishing houses. He did not open the envelope, but he was already thinking of buying champagne and investing in a house in France. I wasn't as excited because I knew that if it only takes two weeks to hear back, there is a good chance the response is "Thank you, but no thank you." And it was.

I waited the full three months, and during that time no other publisher had gotten back to me. So I decided to call each one and ask if they’d had the opportunity to read my novel; I was told that they had not yet had the time. When I hung up the phone after each call, I was a little bit depressed. I had learned how difficult it is to get a publisher in Sweden. And what would I do if every publisher said no? Would I give up? No. I knew there had to be some way to get my book published. So I searched the internet for alternatives and learned all about self-publishing.

When I followed up a second time three months later and discovered none of the houses had read my book yet, I decided not to wait for them any longer. I told them I was withdrawing my submission and would be publishing my novel on my own. I would make my own success. Today I am one of the most successful self-published authors in Sweden. My books have sold more than 500,000 copies and in 29 countries around the world. Now I am really looking forward to meeting my readers in the US, and I do hope that they will enjoy MARKED FOR LIFE and the story of Jana Berzelius.

BRC: MARKED FOR LIFE is one of my favorite books of 2016 thus far, and public prosecutor Jana Berzelius is a most fascinating character in a novel that is just overflowing with them. Where did you get your inspiration for her?

ES: I decided early on to write about a woman who was brilliant, physically strong and striking, yet by necessity odd, even secretive. But I did not know how odd until I read an article about child soldiers and realized how dark Jana’s background would have to be. Many readers are fascinated by her. Perhaps it has to do with her personality; that she has two sides to herself. On one hand, she is a famous and successful prosecutor working hard to maintain law and order in society. And on the other hand, she is tough, a fighter who doesn't hesitate to break laws in order to hide the shame of her dark past. 

BRC: As the investigation into the murder of Swedish government official Hans Juhlen --- and that of the young boy who apparently killed him --- progresses, the team and Berzelius uncover a longstanding criminal enterprise that is responsible for an ever-increasing body count and intersects with Berzelius’ past. The ending of the novel is ultimately far removed from its beginnings. Did you work on MARKED FOR LIFE from an outline, having a good idea where the book would go, or did you find that the story and its characters took paths of their own?

ES: I worked on MARKED FOR LIFE from an outline, and I still do. The most important thing is the story. An outline gives you time to think about the story and how everything fits together with the characters, their paths and so on. Rearranging the order is also much easier when outlining than after a book is written. But even though I know where the book is going, a character always takes a path of her or his own, and the path the character takes is almost always better than the one I have planned for her.

BRC: I also enjoyed Detective Inspector Maria “Mia” Bolander and forensic expert Anneli Lindgren for very different reasons. Bolander has attitude problems, particularly toward Berzelius, and her personal affairs seem to be in chaos. Lindgren is darkly comedic without intending to be, given that she is able to jump into the most grisly crime scene --- literally --- without hesitation. Without giving away anything specific, will the tensions between Bolander and Berzelius --- created primarily by Bolander’s envy --- escalate as the series continues? And will we see more of the nonchalant Lindgren in the future?

ES: I wanted to write about a subject that we rarely dare to speak about: envy, in particular the envy women feel toward one another. It is hard to manage envy, and it strikes back at us and makes it difficult for us. At worst, it can undermine our self-esteem and destroy our relationships with others. It can lead to gossiping and being left out in the cold, and often occurs when a rival is successful. Envy, as a subject, is loaded, and I'm aware of that. In my case, it’s Mia Bolander who is jealous of everything that Jana Berzelius stands for (money and success). Jana, on the other hand, does not care about Mia at all, which angers Mia even more. The two women are extremes, and I know that many readers appreciate the dynamic between the two of them. So do I, and the tension will escalate as the series continues. You will also see more of the nonchalant Anneli Lindgren in the upcoming books. In MARKED FOR REVENGE (book two), she makes a huge slip.

BRC: MARKED FOR LIFE is primarily set in the Norrköping municipality in southeast Sweden. Norrköping, as described, seems to be small, at least relative to Stockholm, yet somewhat diverse in its population and economics. Will you be sticking to this area in future books in the series, or might you send them to other parts of Sweden?

ES: I will stick to Norrköping. It is a relatively small city where both good and bad things happen. But I do send my characters to other parts of Sweden. For example, in MARKED FOR LIFE, Jana is heading to a town called Södertälje, south of Stockholm. 

BRC: Some of our readers are aspiring authors. Could you share with us how you started writing MARKED FOR LIFE, in terms of what sort of schedule you used to get the job done and how you worked around scheduling obstacles when life got in the way? Has that schedule changed at all between the time you first started writing this book and now?

ES: To set time aside to write a book is very difficult, especially if you are working full time, which I was when I decided to write MARKED FOR LIFE. My first idea was that I should get up at 5am and write for two hours before I sent my kids off to daycare and school. It really sounded like a good idea to me, and it really is, but it only worked for me for a day or two. Then I started to question myself about what I was spending my time on in the evenings and the answer was: TV. It is quite scary when you think of how many hours we spend watching TV series and movies. Facing the number of all those lazy, non-productive hours, I decided to turn the TV off and instead turn the computer on. So every night when my kids had fallen asleep, I sat down and wrote. No one, except my husband, knew that I was writing MARKED FOR LIFE. I didn't want to tell anyone. I wanted to work with the story in silence.

Now, as I work full time as a writer, my schedule has changed a lot. I get up early in the morning and write until lunch. I love early mornings, and I believe that I write my best then. After lunch, I read the text through and edit it. Now, everybody knows that I am a writer, so I can't keep it a secret any longer.

BRC: The publication of MARKED FOR LIFE has an interesting trajectory. You self-published the book in Sweden and achieved widespread notice for it on your own, acquiring the much-deserved success that you and the series currently enjoy. Looking back, was there anything you would have done differently when you published the book? And is there anything you did that you now feel made a major difference in your career?

ES: I really don't think I could have done anything differently. I put my whole heart in publishing MARKED FOR LIFE, and I have always been very determined. My goal was to become Sweden’s most successful self-published author, and I succeeded. That made a major difference in my career. When the traditional publishing houses in Sweden and other countries started to call me, I knew I had already achieved recognition on my own. If I hadn't written a story that the readers loved, if I hadn't put my effort into self-publishing it, then I believe I wouldn't be where I am in my career today.

BRC: MARKED FOR LIFE was originally published in Sweden in 2013. Since then, you have written two more books in what we would call the Jana Berzelius series. Please talk about the plans to release those books in the United States.

ES: There are plans to release more books in the Jana Berzelius series. In late February 2017, my second novel, MARKED FOR REVENGE, will be released by MIRA in hardcover, and in 2018 you will be able to read more about Jana in MARKED FOR DEATH.

BRC: Are there any authors who have influenced you?

ES: Yes, I have been influenced a lot by the Swedish writers Stieg Larsson, Lars Kepler and the Norwegian writer Jo Nesbø. But I have also been influenced by movies.

BRC: I’m very much a fan of Nordic noir, specifically Swedish crime fiction, of which MARKED FOR LIFE is an excellent example. I’m always curious as to how American mystery and thriller authors are faring with readers in other countries. Who would be the most popular American mystery/thriller authors in Sweden at the moment?

ES: I would say Gillian Flynn. She has many fans in Sweden who love her way of writing.

BRC: While there is quite a distance geographically between Sweden and the United States, the world becomes smaller every day. Is there any chance that you’ll be doing a book tour of the Americas in the near future?

ES: I always attend international festivals, book fairs and so on. I just visited Iceland and Turkey, and now that my third book has been released in Sweden, I am traveling all around the country to meet my readers. Meeting my readers is what I love to do the most. And I would love to do a book tour in the US. As a matter of fact, I will be in New York City in the beginning of July to attend Thrillerfest where I will be on a panel and sign books. I will also sign my books in some local bookshops. In the near future, I hope to visit many more cities in the US.

BRC: Our readers are always looking for new books to enjoy. Have you read any this year that you would care to recommend to us?

ES: I have read Roger Hobbs’ GHOSTMAN. It is a fast-paced thriller that I recommend.

BRC: What are you working on now? Do you have an end in sight for the Jana Berzelius series, or do you plan to continue it for the foreseeable future?

ES: Right now, I am working on the plot for my fourth book in the Jana Berzelius series. It will be released in Sweden in May 2017. My plan is to continue with this series. I don't have an end in sight. Not yet.