Lena Andersson is one of Sweden's most talked-about authors – her 2013 novel Wilful Disregard won her the prestigious Swedish August Prize and the rights to it have already been sold to 19 other countries. She's also the country's leading authority on love – her work has an astonishing capacity to deconstruct even our darkest fantasies, creating characters that are passionate, desperate and complicated, while at the same time remaining completely relatable.
I meet Lena Andersson at The Blue Door in Djurgården, Stockholm. The sky is blue and the sun is out but there is a crisp chill in the air, so she asks to sit inside. Our photographer comes over to our table to take her picture. Once it's over she says' thank you' and 'goodbye' and then sighs with relief: "You're usually supposed to stand up and pose for the camera," she says. "But nobody ever actually stands the way they do in photos, in real life."
It's this observational precision that makes her writing so startling. Willful Disregard might only stretch over 200 pages but every sentence is there for a reason. Her main passion, she says, is in the way language can be used to evoke feelings. Her immaculate, almost surgical efficiency at describing the consequences of being desperately in love is a startling contrast to our tendency to think about passion as something warm, comforting, generous. It's a stark antidote to the boy meets girl fantasies that dominate literary fiction.
A relationship is a natural contract between two people who are interested in each other. It's built on shared values which regulate everything that happens before you start calling yourself a couple.
It's almost scary how relatable her book is. And everyone I've spoken to about it so far has had the same experience. It's the kind of novel that forces you to remember every stupid thing you've done in the name of love; Like the number of times you've changed your plans on a night out to up the chances of "bumping into" someone you have a crush on, or the hours and hours you've wasted composing the perfect text message.
Willful Disregard is peppered with text messages that should never have been sent, chance encounters that would more acutely be described as stalking, and borderline obsessional attempts to read hidden messages with every exchange with the object of your affection. We've all been there – moping for an entire week because your work crush hasn't emailed you back, only to be propelled into a delirious state of euphoria because she looked at you across the office. But the real question, and the one you're left asking yourself again and again throughout her book is why do people keep finding themselves stuck in these situations.
This is where Lena's own experiences and research came in handy. Willful Disregard isn't autobiographical but that doesn't mean she's never felt the same. "All of my novels are research projects," she says thoughtfully, sipping her sparkling water and then puts forward a theory: "A relationship is essentially a natural contract between two people who are interested in each other. It's a contract built on shared values which exists in order to regulate everything that happens before you start calling yourself a couple."
"It goes like this: You meet and something happens. That establishes a relationship but not one that is obligating. Then you might meet again and have dinner or something and notice that the other party seems as interested as you are. But you still need to check if it's real because that's part of the natural contract too. So you meet for a third time. That is when you decide whether you want to hang out again," she explains.
The problem comes when one of the people in the yet-to-be-defined relationship believes that such a contract exists. For them, talking, meeting or having sex with the other person means something. This contract isn't constructed but rather something natural that each and every one of us carries inside ourselves.
Take Ester, a poet, essayist and the main character in Willful Disregard. She is certain of its existence, because she has had sex with Hugo – the artist with whom she falls in love – because she has had sex with him three times and that means more than having sex just once.
If both parties were on the same page of this invisible contract, everything would be fine. But Hugo doesn't believe that it exists, claiming that Ester is just making stuff up. It's a similar psychology to the one totalitarian regimes use to torment their citizens – questioning things that are thought to be natural.
But Ester refuses to accept that she might have misunderstood the signals given to her. She is smart, intellectual, philosophical and maintains that her own interpretation of the world is real and that her feelings towards Hugo are reciprocated. How could this guy who texts her all the time to say he's thinking about her and even buys her presents claim there is nothing between them? How can he maintain that there is no contract, no obligation. After a while, her need to have her perception of the world acknowledged turns into an obsession.
Most people have a 'mother of drugs'. Mine is sugar – I love cinnamon buns.
"Ester is getting just enough attention to make her unable to move on and never enough attention to feel safe," says Lena. "It's a desperately cruel psychology." But it's the breach of this natural contract combined with one partner's insistence of its non-existence that is, according to Lena, what can lead to us obsessing over someone.
Alcohol, I tell her, is the main reason I'll text someone I know is fucking me around. "Most people," she says kindly, "have a 'mother of drugs'. Mine is sugar – I love cinnamon buns." But for the male characters in her books, "alcohol is what makes them blunt. Ester is a dependent personality too, but she isn't looking to abuse anything or anyone. She just wants to find peace and harmony. That's her main objective."
Lena has just got back from a stint of traveling to promote her book in different countries so I asked if she's noticed any cultural differences in the reception of Willful Disregard?"There isn't one single difference in how people around the world talk about love or the book," she says. I guess that's the thing about love; We are all as desperate for it as each other. "Love is universal," she smiles.