Doris, the vibrant nonagenarian at the heart of Sofia Lundberg’s The Red Address Book, lives by herself in her Stockholm apartment, sustained by the weekly Skype sessions with her beloved grand-niece Jenny. Her thick address book stands as a testament to her rollercoaster life, which include stints as a housekeeper for a famous artist in Sweden and a fashion model in 1930’s Paris. Filled with the names of people long passed away, the address book soon becomes a vehicle for Doris to tell Jenny not only the stories of her daring past but also to fill in the gaps of their family’s painful history. What follows is a beautifully rendered love story between great aunt and grand-niece that stretches across continents. The Red Address Book was a hit in its native Sweden, and now readers in the States can fall in love with the book that The New York Times calls “the sort of easy-reading tale that will inspire readers to pull up a comfy chair to the fire, grab a mug of cocoa and a box of tissues and get hygge with it.” Brendan Dowling spoke to Sofia Lundberg via telephone on December 17th, 2018.
I wanted to start by asking how your aunt’s life inspired the character of Doris?
That’s always hard to answer. For me as a writer, I always try to borrow stuff from my own life, because I want to get the emotions right. Sometimes it’s someone I’m close to or something I heard. I mix everything together so it’s all fantasy, but it’s important for me to capture the emotions authentically.
When I was about fourteen, I got sent from Stockholm to Paris to work as a model, just like Doris. I know the feeling of arriving in Paris just like Doris does. I’ve worked with the photographer who’s pinching your cheeks and all of that. Of course, the modeling business was different back in Doris’ days. I had to do a lot of research to figure out how it would work in those days.
The book spans so many time periods and countries. What was your research like to capture the details of these different time periods?
I’m a very observant person and I’ve traveled a lot. I’ve been to all the places that I write about, and I also tried to travel to them while I was writing. I did tons of research by going to the library, looking at old pictures, Googling pictures, talking to people who remembered those days—what they wore, all the clothes. I’m a journalist, so I like doing research. I think I do it automatically. When I write something I have to check and see if I’m getting it right.
Did your aunt have a red address book like Doris?
My grandmother passed away when my father was only eighteen, so my great aunt moved in with my grandfather to take care of the household. She was also working at the same time. She was an amazing person. She really baked and cooked and did everything. She liked taking care of others. We became very close. I’m the third child—my sisters are seven and ten years older—so I was with her on the weekends.
When she became older and I was in my early twenties—you know how it is, you travel and you party with your friends. I felt that I didn’t visit her enough. When she passed away, we cleaned out her apartment. She had a tiny bookshelf in her hallway with cookbooks and crossword dictionaries. I cleared it out and I found her address book hidden in the shelf. She had crossed names out and written “DEAD” next to the them in capital letters. I just got this image of her sitting in her kitchen, going through this book, and there was no one left to call. For me, it was heartbreaking. I couldn’t stop crying.
Time went by. Many years later I got divorced. I have one child. When you’re divorced and your child goes to sleep in the evening, you get very lonely. I found myself sitting at home alone and this memory came back to me. I realized how she must have felt; how lonely she must have been.
One day I went out jogging. I came up with the idea that I would honor her with a novel and would use the address book as a structure. I ran home as fast as I could, because if you don’t write those ideas down, they just kind of drift away. I remember running as fast as I could to find a piece of paper and pen and structure it down.
Did you research any of the names in the book?
I didn’t. She had a sister she was close to, so I guess Agnes is somewhat inspired by her. As I said in the beginning of the interview, I tend to mix everything together. My imagination and I have been through a lot. (laughs)
What are the elements of Doris’ outlook on life that you hope readers will carry with them?
When I wrote the book I was very concerned about age discrimination. How when someone gets old we can sometimes ignore them, how we prioritize youth. I hate the word “anti-age,” it should be “pro-age!” Age is something beautiful! The older we get, the more experience we get! I like the wrinkles between my eyes, because that’s where my books come from.
When people tell me how they react after reading the book, they say that they started to ask more questions of older relatives and older people in their lives. When you ask them about their childhood and their youth, you realize that these people—who are old and grumpy and repeat the same things time after time—have so much to tell you.
I’m very happy that this book creates these storytelling moments where readers get more stories from other people. It’s a complicated answer but I hope you understand what I mean.
It seems like the book is a great jumping off point for conversation with your parents and grandparents.
And also that you should become more curious about people around you. Doris’ story might seem adventurous, but it’s not unique. Most old people have been in love or had their hearts broken or they’ve traveled or done adventurous stuff. I think it’s amazing that we carry so many stories with us, like a treasure box.
What role has the library played in your life?
I grew up in a family who didn’t have any books at home. My parents didn’t read any literature at all. When I was very young, I had this one picture book that they read to me. They read it to me so many times that I learned how to read, because I knew what the words said.
When my mother went shopping at the department store, I would go to the book section. I sat on the floor and read books until they threw me out. When I started school I found the library. Books were like diamonds to me, I was drawn to them. When I found the library and met people working there who loved books as much as I did, I spent as much time possible there.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Tags: Sofia Lundberg