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Interview: January 21, 2016

Swedish author Katarina Bivald grew up working part-time at a bookshop, so it’s no surprise that her heralded debut novel, THE READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND, is a sweet, smart story about how books find us, change us and connect us. What is surprising, though, is that it’s set in Broken Wheel, a small Iowa town, considering she never even had been to the United States. In this interview with’s Melanie Reynolds, Bivald reveals why she finds small American towns so charming and how Broken Wheel came alive so vividly in her imagination. Although she can’t quite decide what her favorite books are, she knows precisely what she likes to read about and shares some details about crafting all those elements into her own work. For someone who’s not an American, you’ve described American culture with vitality and flair in THE READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND. Has this come through experience or excellent observation?

Katarina Bivald: When I first started writing THE READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND, I had never even been to the U.S. And yet, in a way I guess you could say that I had grown up there: with LITTLE WOMEN, FRIED GREEN TOMATOES, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN and the Nancy Drew series. We get so many American movies and television series in Sweden that it’s easy to start thinking that we’ve actually visited all the places we’ve seen on TV or read about, a sort of half-real memory of yellow cabs, Main Streets and diners.

BRC: How did you come to select small-town Iowa as a setting for your book?

KB: I decided to write about things I love in books, and I love small American towns, quirky characters, unexpected friendships, love and books. I also firmly believe that writing books should be as much fun as reading them --- a chance to visit a new place in my imagination, rather than write about a place I already know. So I chose Iowa precisely because I didn’t know anything about the state. Anything, that is, except that they once had a library cat named Dewey Readmore Books. And really, do you need another reason to set a book there?

BRC: The characters who populate Broken Wheel are unusual and unique, yet still quite believable. Do you have a favorite of your characters, or one you can relate to more than the others?

KB: That is sort of like asking a parent who their favorite child is. Or worse, because I’m sure some parents actually have a favorite child. I love all my characters. The best thing about writing a book is that it’s a socially acceptable way of having imaginary friends as an adult.

That being said, I find myself talking most with Caroline and Amy nowadays. Whenever I wonder what to do in life, together they offer me great advice: Amy is mostly supportive, Caroline mostly demanding. It makes for a good balance.

BRC: You’re a master at unfolding a story. Did you know at the beginning where the book would end up?

KB: No. When I started writing, I had no idea what I was doing. I still don’t. I just re-wrote it and re-wrote it, and then edited it some more.

BRC: THE READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND is a booklover’s dream. (And many thanks, by the way, for the book mentions in it; a number of them are now on my wish list!) Did you write for the lover of books, the person you’d like to introduce to the joys of reading, or both?

KB: Both, I think. For the booklover, of course, but also for the people who, like the good people of Broken Wheel, can’t really see how books are supposed to help in their life.

BRC: I don’t know if I’ve ever read a story in which characters who aren’t actually present are so impactful --- from Amy, to Miss Annie and her bicycle, to the absent Sophie. How did you decide to weave in these missing yet vital characters the way you did?

KB: I don’t know, really. I think all of us have missing people in our lives, or unfinished relationships or experiences or memories we don’t really know what to do with. I wanted my story to reflect that.

BRC: When we meet Sara, it’s hard to imagine either the experiences or the effect that she’ll have…or the love for her that the reader will develop. What do you think Sara most illustrates to the reader?

KB: I know what her story means to me: It’s a reminder of the possibility to find community and friendship, and a happy ending of your own.  

BRC: Even though we learn a lot about the characters through their experiences, there are many things that have shaped them (like Tom or Amy, for example) that we never learn about. How do you decide how much of a character’s backstory to reveal?

KB: Honestly, I have no idea. I’m never sure myself if I have managed to hit the right note or the right balance, and trying to explain it to someone else would probably sound like one of those vague recipes that I never understand (“add a little bit of this” or “some of that” or “cook until ready”). I’ve tried not to add background until it was needed, using it to introduce people or a theme or provide information that is necessary to heighten the conflict in any scene, but I’ve also tried to leave some of it open or unfinished, letting the reader fill in the details themselves.

BRC: I loved the way you initially connected Amy with Sara, and the direction you took the story from there. What inspired you to create these women and their stories?

KB: I love friendships between women --- in real life, as well as in books --- and between people of different ages. The letters from Amy, which in a way tells part of Sara’s story, too, practically wrote themselves. I liked thinking about how much those letters must have meant to both of them --- Amy, stuck in her room, and Sara, stuck in her life.

BRC: Unexpected pairings pop up all over THE READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND, in all sorts of relationships. Are you a person who believes that opposites attract?

KB: I’m not sure. I know they sometimes do, but then again, we tend to like people who are similar to ourselves as well. I think what I believe most firmly in is unexpected attraction. 

BRC: You have quite a knack for creating atmosphere and a sense of place (I especially loved Amy’s room and Tom’s home and workshop). Do you write these scenes, or sketch them out in advance?  

KB: I see them in front of me, spend some time in them, and then I do my very best to get it down in words. And then I re-write it.

BRC: Your descriptions of the book experience are so flavorful. What are some of your favorite books? Have you read all of the ones that you included? Was there a favorite you left behind?

KB: I can’t possibly answer what my favorite books are. I would change my mind 15 times before this interview was even published, forcing you to update the information every time, and continue to do so for years. It would require too much work on your side.

I have read all the books that are mentioned with some sort of opinion or interpretation (Sara’s view on books and authors are almost always my own, except since I was published myself, I’m not half as harsh toward authors as she is…).

I have not read REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST. Yet, of course.

BRC: In THE READERS OF BROKEN WHEEL RECOMMEND, one person’s life and choices have a remarkable effect on an entire town. Have you ever seen something like this in person, or in your own life?

KB: I think we influence people and places all the time, but are seldom aware of it in real life. Or perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe in real life people struggle more not to be influenced, being determinedly set in their old ways.

But this fall, local news has been filled with stories about how small communities in Sweden have reached out to and been changed by the arrival of refugees. That is perhaps the closest thing I’ve come to seeing something like it in real life.

BRC: What can we expect from you next?

KB: My second novel, LIFE, MOTORCYCLES AND OTHER IMPOSSIBLE PROJECTS, was published in Sweden this fall. I am now working on my third one, which (so far, unless I change my mind) takes place in Oregon.