Lars Kepler is the pseudonym of critically acclaimed husband and wife team Alexandra Coelho Ahndoril (b. 1966) and Alexander Ahndoril (b. 1967), authors of the No. 1 internationally bestselling Joona Linna series. With seven installments to date, the series has sold 14 million copies in 40 languages. The Ahndorils were both established writers before they adopted the pen name Lars Kepler, and have each published several acclaimed novels.
In the summer of 2009, the authors Alexander and Alexandra Ahndoril went into hiding with their three daughters in a little house on the Swedish west coast.
It was August, and the bright nights had started giving way to darkness once again. Late one evening just before bedtime the husband and wife saw a flickering light at the far end of the garden. The light came from a torch. Someone approached the house between the trees and across the lawn. Until the very last moment they kept hoping that this would be no more than some neighbour looking for a runaway dog, but when they heard the knocking on the door they realised it was all over.
They looked at one another, Alexandra went in to their sleeping children, another knock rang out, and Alexander opened the door.
“How did they find us? No one knew anything, not even our own children,” says Alexandra.
“We worried that everything had been ruined,” Alexander added.
That summer, an almost unbelievable hunt for the identity of a certain Swedish author’s pseudonym grew to near hurricane strength. Earlier in the spring, during the annual London Book Fair, Albert Bonniers förlag had marketed an upcoming Swedish crime novel by the mysterious Lars Kepler, and the book had sold for record-breaking sums to a large number of countries. The title of the book was “The Hypnotist”. Even before it was published in Sweden, the media had begun speculating about the identity of Lars Kepler. One British newspaper came up with a theory that the author hiding behind the pseudonym was Henning Mankell, and before long a large number of well-known Swedish writers had been drawn into the frenzy.
But it was with the release of the book in July and its climb to the top of the bestseller lists, that curiosity was transformed into pursuit. A famous criminologist structured a profile of Lars Kepler in a live broadcast on television, and the biggest tabloid newspaper in Sweden set up a 24 hour hotline for tip-offs from the general public.
In the darkness outside the door of the holiday cottage stood two journalists from this same tabloid newspaper. One of them held the torch, the other a camera.
“Admit it, you’re Lars Kepler,” said the man with the torch.
In the morning the family got into the car and drove to Stockholm. Throughout the six-hour journey their telephones kept up an incessant ringing. The publisher had arranged a press conference where Alexander and Alexandra told the truth, which turned into the biggest news story of that summer, trumpeted on all the TV channels, the radio, and in the press.
Alexander and Alexandra grew up 650 kilometres away from each other but there are remarkable similarities between them. They were born within a year of each other, and come from solidly working class families. Both have green eyes, are left-handed, and have a strong dependence on books.
Alexander’s father was the first in his family ever to stay on at school past the age of 16, and Alexander was the first to attend university, where he studied film and philosophy. Alexandra’s grandparents on her mother’s side were illiterate whereas Alexandra wrote a doctoral thesis.
Alexander went against the stream in his struggle to express himself artistically, which was unheard of in his family.
“Everyone else went into the construction business, I also worked on building sites from the age of fourteen, but it wasn’t the sort of thing I dreamed of doing; I was painting in oil and reading books.”
Alexander debuted with a novel before he had even turned twenty. He wrote the book on a typewriter and, because he could not afford to photocopy the manuscript he submitted the original, still with tipex on it and glued-on rewritten sections, to a large publisher. The book was accepted, and by 2009 he had written nine novels attracting a great deal of attention, twenty plays for the theatre, and an opera libretto.
Alexandra had the same hankering for the arts while she was growing up. She does not know where this longing came from, but it could not be denied. She borrowed plays from the public library, Chekov and Shakespeare, practised speaking the lines in her bedroom, contacted a theatre, and was offered a trainee position. She trained as an actress and was offered a place at the country’s most prestigious theatre school on her first attempt. By 2009 she had worked as an actress, literary critic, had written a doctoral thesis, and in addition had published three award-winning novels.
Only a few days after moving to Stockholm she went to a party where she met the author Alexander Ahndoril.
It was love at first sight.
The year was 1992. They have been together ever since.
They both lived for artistic self-expression, and together they felt insuperable, because finally they had found the understanding and support they had been missing.
Alexandra left the theatre and debuted as a novelist in the early 2000s. They worked side by side, and both she and Alexander wrote a number of highly praised literary works. The married couple were now critically lauded, and they bumped along on grants and the proceeds of the doctoral position Alexandra held at a university.
“The driving force is the magic created in the act of writing – the emotional power of fiction. Everything else is secondary for an author,” Alexander explains.
“For eight years we lived in 23 square metres,” says Alexandra.
“… And we wrote at home,” says Alexander.
“And then we lived in 46 square metres when our first two daughters were born within a year of each other,” says Alexandra.
“… And we wrote at home,” says Alexander.
“We bought a double bed that could be folded down from the wall in the living room,” says Alexandra.
“… And we wrote in the hall,” says Alexander.
The married couple seamlessly complete each other’s sentences, as if in telepathic contact. They sit next to one another and occasionally exchange glances when talking about how they have always loved doing things together.
They cook together, they refurbished their holiday cottage together, and they took care of the children together. They were always the first to read each other’s writings, but never until the manuscript was actually ready, there was no other way.
“Fundamentally it’s very lonely being a writer,” says Alexander. “You can’t let anyone else into what you are doing until it is finished, otherwise you risk dispersing the magic.”
“But we just couldn’t accept that isolation of writing,” says Alexandra.
In 2008 it so happened that they both finished their writing projects at the same time and handed in their manuscripts to the same publisher. Heading back into the emptiness that follows the completion of a book, they decided instead to write something together. They set about working on a children’s book but quickly found that it did not work, it was quite impossible for them to agree on anything.
“We just couldn’t get our styles into harmony,” says Alexander. “Our individual literary voices were too defined.”
They decided to write a play instead. Alexander had written a great deal of drama, and Alexandra had been an actress for a long period of time. It ought not be too difficult, they thought, but in this they were much mistaken. Their collaboration was a disaster. They argued about every possible detail.
“It’s odd when one respects someone’s writing so much, and yet finds there is no way of collaborating,” says Alexandra.
Not being the sort of people who give up easily, they determined to make another attempt, but this time they would give up their individual authorial voices. Together they invented a third author, one who was neither Alexander nor Alexandra, but a person in his own right.
And so Lars Kepler was born. The name Lars was a homage to Stieg Larsson, while Kepler was a nod in the direction of the scientist, Johannes Kepler.
Lars Kepler was provided with a life story of his own: he had once been a teacher at upper secondary level, who had become a lonely, retiring person after a personal tragedy he did not wish to talk about. Now he works nights at a homeless hostel and writes in the daytime – crime novels.
“We have always loved thrillers, we grew up in the 70’s with Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s ground-breaking police novels,” says Alexander.
“Suddenly we had broken down the wall of loneliness experienced by almost all authors,” says Alexandra.
“It was so fantastic writing together, almost as if we had fallen in love again,” says Alexander.
Everything was working well, the inspiration was flowing, and the first thriller began to take form. They understood that the key to their shared creativity was Lars Kepler, and they felt they had to keep him a secret and never reveal who was hiding behind him.
Once they had finished “The Hypnotist” they registered the e-mail address Lars.Kepler@hotmail.com and sent the manuscript to the Fiction editor at their own publisher, without revealing who they were. The editor handed out copies of the manuscript to all the editors at the publishing house, and asked them to read it over the weekend.
What followed is regarded as a part of Swedish publishing history. All the editors agreed that the book was a sensation. They had the first half translated and took the manuscript to the London Book Fair that same month, where it became “The Book of the Fair”.
After being found out in the summer of 2009, Alexander and Alexandra were worried that they would not be able to write together again. They believed that their anonymity, protected by the name of Lars Kepler, was a necessary safeguard of the collaboration. In fact, as it turned out, they need not have worried. The obstacles had already been torn down. As long as the writer was Lars Kepler, their creativity kept flowing.
“The Hypnotist” became the year’s bestselling crime novel in Sweden, Time Magazine hailed it “one of the ten best novels of the year” and the Wall Street Journal included it in its list of “the ten best crime novels of the year”.
“The Hypnotist” and its five sequels have today sold more than ten million copies and are released in more than forty languages. All the titles have had the caption “No. 1 International Bestseller” splashed on their covers, and readers across the world are now familiar with the determined Finnish detective-superintendent, Joona Linna, and his colleague, Saga Bauer.
With the benefit of hindsight, Alexandra and Alexander have come around to thinking that being uncovered was actually good for them. The biggest advantage is that they can meet their readers. They can travel about, meet journalists and readers, and take part in book fairs and festivals. Many readers contact them, many admit that they can’t read Kepler when they are alone, and daren’t keep the books in the bedroom.
“We write about things that also fill us with fear, it has to be the real thing, our hearts have to beat very hard,” says Alexandra. “For us, writing is about empathy, and putting oneself so totally into individual destinies and characters that the experience becomes immersive.”
Some writing teams carve up the books into separately written parts or take responsibility for particular characters, but this is not how Alexander and Alexandra work. They share everything, from the first idea to the last line. When they finish a book there is not a single sentence in it that one of them has written alone.
“And we do all our research together, we visit prisons, we read forensic or post-mortem reports, and we talk to doctors and police officers,” says Alexander.
“We act out fighting scenes together and we go to the shooting range together,” says Alexandra. “Authenticity means everything to us.”
Alexander and Alexandra are keeping all this success at arm’s-length, they feel they are much the same as ever, they still write at home, they love books, suspense, and strong emotions. At this time they are working on the seventh book and they have a strong idea for the next one. The world can look forward to at least ten books from Lars Kepler.