By Ekta R. Garg, Dreamer
November 25, 2020
Anxious People by Fredrik Backman
Release date: September 8, 2020
Genre: Mainstream fiction
Writing advice often tells us, “Write what you know.” A few years ago, I did a podcast interview in which I said I don’t think that advice is wholly accurate. After all, while Stephen King has an incredible imagination and canon of work, I highly doubt he ever terrorized children dressed as a clown in order to gain the experience needed to write It. Nor did Stephenie Meyer date or become a vampire before penning the Twilight series.
My recommendation was to write from what you know. Another way to say that is make the experience universal while keeping it specific to the story at hand. In the case of Twilight, Bella and Edward each want to know they can be loved for who they are as they are. It’s not hard to relate to that at all.
In that regard, Anxious People might be Fredrik Backman’s most personal book yet, because it’s about the anxieties people face. In a personal blog post from two years ago, he shares his struggle with his own anxiety and what sounds like depression (I’m not linking to the post specifically because he asked journalists not to do so. If you Google it, though, you’ll be able to find it.) Backman talks about how his emotional and psychological challenges brought him to a place that made his family intervene for the better.
Some of that could be attributed to the fact that he was on a book tour for Us Against You, which is the sequel to a hard-hitting book about a horrible crime. In Beartown, a local hockey star commits the crime, and his team’s hometown has to grapple with whether they should help him cover it up or whether they should stand up for the victim. Us Against You continues the story and, even though I didn’t think it was possible, takes it further. We get to know the characters even more, and our hearts break for them in a whole new way.
These two books came back to back, and for those of you who have read some or all of Backman’s work you know how immersive his storytelling is. If we, as readers, feel like we’re fully engaged with his stories, I can’t even imagine how he must feel in creating them and the characters who populate them. Writing such heavy material would send anyone into an emotional retreat for a while.
For Backman, the challenge contributed to the revelation of larger problems he didn’t know he was grappling with. His wife and other loved ones stepped in to help him where he needed it. Now he’s doing better.
It makes sense, then, that after Us Against You he would write a comedy but that it would, at its core, relate to the very challenges Backman himself was experiencing.
As a Dreamer of stories, my heart yearns to do the same. To take my personal experiences and turn them into stories for everyone. In the new novel idea I’m working on, I spend big chunks of my day considering how to do just that.
Right after the release of Anxious People, I got to attend two different virtual events to hear Fredrik Backman speak about the book and his writing process. He was forthcoming about how he was emotionally wrung out after Beartown and Us Against You and that part of that had to do with his longstanding challenges as well as just needing a change. I don’t know if psychologists and psychiatrists are in the habit of “prescribing” books along with medication or therapy, but they’d do well to prescribe Anxious People to patients. It’s written by someone who has been in therapy and knows that world somewhat along with understanding people (which is the superpower of all successful authors.)
It must have been scary, on some levels, for Backman to revisit his anxieties and his challenges in order to write this book. It must have been therapeutic too. Because I think that’s what the best writing does. It allows writers to release all of those pent-up emotions into the world in a healthy way.
I dream of writing books that are as well received as Backman’s work with the same beauty of universality. Most of us haven’t headed a major bank as one of the hostages in the book has, but we can probably identify with making a mistake and wondering how we make it right. Or, as two other characters do, anyone in a relationship can tell you about a time when s/he wished for the “old days” to come back.
As for the guy in the rabbit suit who was hiding in the bathroom? Well. Even his anxieties are universal.
(You’ll have to trust me on that until you read the book yourself.)
All that to say that the best books—and all of Fredrik Backman’s books—work like a spiral. You start with the smallest, tightest end of it in the middle. By the time you get to the last page, you realize the spiral has come around you too. That you’re a part of it, because you can identify with what happened.
I dream of writing stories like this, of being known as this kind of author. Reading Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People reminds me to strive for it every day.