It’s the most shocking story to come out of the literary world in decades — and it’s not even fiction. On November. 9, 2004, a relatively unknown Stockholm journalist named Stieg Larsson died suddenly of a heart attack. It was a heartbreaking moment in more ways than one: He was only 50; until then, he’d never shown any sign of illness; and his partner of 32 years, Eva Gabrielsson, wasn’t home during his final hours. “It was incomprehensible,” Gabrielsson wrote about his death. In the following days, she noted, “I went through life like a zombie. Every morning I woke up in tears, although my nights were dreamless. Absolute darkness.”
As sad as the situation was, it would have been a standard personal tragedy except for the fact that before Larsson died, he had sold the manuscripts of the three mystery novels he had worked on when he wasn’t exposing right-wing extremists in Expo, the magazine he edited. Defying anyone’s expectations, Larsson’s Millennium Trilogy, starting with The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, quickly burned up the bestseller lists as his kick-ass computer-hacker heroine, Lisbeth Salander, captivated audiences in 42 countries. (In fact, the last volume, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest, is still in the top 10 in North America, more than a year after its publication here.) Some estimates suggest that the Larsson industry is worth $42 million. “We thought it would be successful in Scandinavia and Germany, but that’s it,” Gabrielsson says.
That dearth of expectations would prove to be Gabrielsson’s catastrophic bad luck. Call it lack of foresight or bad planning, but Larsson never made a proper will. According to the country’s laws, that meant his estate was divvied up between his father, Erland, and his brother, Joakim — his only legally recognized relatives, since he and Gabrielsson never married and had no children. Although the couple had been together since meeting at a Vietnam-protest rally in 1972, they never wed, because doing so would force them to register their address, and they believed that could make them targets for the violent groups Larsson reported on.
At first, Gabrielsson says, Erland claimed “he didn’t want any part of Stieg’s estate.” Joakim, too, suggested that they were going to try to follow Stieg’s wishes, meaning making Gabrielsson the sole heir. But as the months dragged by, the first book was published, sales started skyrocketing and negotiations among the trio grew frosty. In 2009, the Larssons offered Gabrielsson just over $3 million for her moral, if not legal, claim on the estate. She refused, more concerned about who was going to manage Stieg’s literary legacy, which she felt was already being exploited with a rushed Swedish film series and the sale of the Hollywood-movie rights. Then, in summer 2010, the Larssons issued a press release, copying Gabrielsson’s lawyer, stating they were breaking off negotiations. With the world watching, Gabrielsson was suddenly the Girl Left Out in the Bitter Scandinavian Cold.
In response, Gabrielsson, like her famous partner, turned to writing. In her case, the work is a memoir, the newly released “There Are Things I Want You to Know” about Stieg Larsson and Me. But her book is not about revenge. It is, like Larsson’s crime-fiction books, the story of a woman who is wronged by the system and is determined to seek justice.
Q: Why did you write “There Are Things I Want You to Know” about Stieg Larsson and Me?
A: I badly needed to understand the situation I was in two years after Stieg died. The only record I had of what happened was my diaries, so I started to rewrite them to get an overview of everything, and in that process I realized the story of grief and losing somebody was documented there. I was also trying to answer my own questions about why we met and stayed together for so long. It just grew from there.
Q: In the book, you describe how Stieg was raised by his grandparents until he was nine, and his feminist beliefs. What was he like to live with on a day-to-day basis?
A: He was very easygoing, sociable, funny. He had a great sense of humour. He had a lightness in his social contacts and a charm that affected everyone. He was not one of those isolated researchers, journalists or authors who exclude themselves from the world. He always had time for people he liked; people he didn’t like, he had no time for. He was easy to live with in that respect. The difficult thing came from the outside, the threats from the extreme right wing.
Q: You write that the reason you never married was that you were worried about being targeted by Sweden’s right-wing groups. Do you regret not getting married?
A: I don’t; we chose that. We were considered married during our life, so it wasn’t a question of being treated better on the street or by our families. We already had that respect from everyone. I was normally introduced as his wife when we met others.
Q: You were together for 32 years. What was the secret to making the relationship work?
A: We had the same basic values. We come from the same northern area, and in those harsh conditions, with the Bible as comfort, you had to rely on each other, be good neighbours, treat each other with respect — otherwise our ancestors would have died. So it was just a question of respect and being continuously interested in what the other was doing. Even the last night I saw him, the first thing he said to me was, ‘Hi, you’re home; what have you done today? What have you found out?’ And I was the same. It was genuine interest. There were no tricks to it. We were blessed in that way.
Q: In your book, you say you haven’t heard anything from Stieg’s father, Erland, and brother, Joakim, since last summer, when they broke off negotiations. Why do you think they’re behaving this way?
A: They think since they have the law on their side they don’t have to do anything else. It’s a strange argument: If that’s the way you see things, then we wouldn’t have had the Nuremberg trials, since people were just behaving according to the law at that time. Laws are always outdated, and there is always room within all laws to act differently. There’s nothing in the law that says you’re forced to inherit.
Q: Is it true they suggested you marry Erland to become legally part of the family and eligible to inherit?
A: Yes, it’s true. If I had done that, the inheritance would have stayed within the family, so they wouldn’t lose anything. I felt like some kind of remote clan possession — the widow handed down. It was very strange.
Q: Your case has attracted quite a lot of international attention. Is there a chance that Sweden might change its inheritance laws?
A: I went to Parliament the summer after Stieg died and asked them to do something, and first of all they simply couldn’t believe that I was telling the truth. Cohabitation is quite common and respected in Sweden….The law is outdated and out of line with common sense and with the way we actually live.
Q: Have you gotten anything at all from Stieg’s estate?
A: After almost three years, they signed over Stieg’s half of the [600-square-foot] apartment to me, mainly because it’s illegal to be the part owner of a cooperative apartment like that; you aren’t allowed to own one unless you live there.
Q: How involved were you in the creation of the books?
A: I discussed the manuscripts with him. I never tried to formulate the sentences or change words as opposed to things that were there. Writing books is not just about being a good craftsman in the actual technique, it’s also the content, and a lot of the content comes from me. Some of it is purely Stieg’s experiences and conclusions and some is also purely mine. Much of our life is there, including some of the characters.
Q: You’ve said that some people from your life show up as characters in the books, such as psychiatrist Svante Branden, who helps Lisbeth in The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest. What’s the most significant part of your life that wound up in the books?
A: It’s the “outdated morals,” you could say — [the idea] that you are personally responsible to change yourself and change your surroundings if you find things that are obviously unjust. It’s not right to not do anything, and it’s absolutely not right to stay silent when you see injustice around you.
Q: Have you seen the Swedish films?
A: Yes, but I didn’t pay to see them.
Q: What did you think of the movies?
A: They were done in haste. The Larssons sold the film rights before the very first book was published in Sweden….And the fast sale had consequences in the quality of the films.
Q: And what did you think about Noomi Rapace as Lisbeth Salander?
A: She made the movie. She really took it seriously, put her own opinion on the character. I think she did very well.
Q: How do you feel about Hollywood remaking the films?
A: I’m kind of intrigued. They have a huge budget, obviously….They have the resources, and the director seems quite ambitious. So it might be good, or it might be Hollywood. We’ll see.
Q: In your book, you mention that after Stieg died, you discovered he had written 200 pages of the fourth Millennium book on a laptop belonging to Expo, the magazine where he worked. What’s happening with that manuscript?
A: I’d better not say too much, given that I was under such pressure to exchange the laptop and its possible content and any kind of scrap of paper that Stieg may have written for the half of the apartment. I don’t want to open that avenue anymore, or be in that position again.
Q: Do Erland and Joakim have the fourth manuscript?
A: No, they don’t have it.
Q: So who has the manuscript?
A: I’m not answering that. [I will say] I think the three books should stay as the finished books, and there shouldn’t be five or 10 or 20 more.
Q: Do you have any regrets?
A: My only regret is about being so angry about the continuous priority on his work, and leaving our life on the side too many times. Once, I was so angry that I left him for a few weeks. And I regret doing that because it wasn’t until after his death that I understood how upsetting that must have been. I could have handled that better.
Q: What does the future hold for you? Are you still grieving?
A: I will always miss Stieg, and miss that our plans for a new life together did not come true, and that we cannot develop each other further in new ways. I will always grieve him, but maybe not as often as I used to. It used to be every second and then every minute. I still think of him and there are still places I can’t go to because they remind me too much of what we did there, or that he’s not here with me. But I have rebuilt my life.
Fast facts and figures:
Years Gabrielsson and Larsson were together: 32
Age Larsson was when he died: 50
Date Larsson died: Nov. 9, 2004
Date first Millennium novel was published in Sweden: August 2005
Books produced in first round of printing: 100,000
Copies of books sold (as of June 2011): Nearly 60 million
Settlement Eva Gabrielsson was offered by Stieg Larsson’s father and brother: Over $3 million
What Daniel Craig is reportedly being paid to star in the first film of the trilogy: $5,850,000
What the first Hollywood film version is estimated to cost: $98 million
How much the Swedish films have grossed worldwide: $210 million
Pages of manuscript for the fourth novel on Larsson’s laptop: about 200
There are Things I Want You to Know About Stieg Larsson and Me, by Eva Gabrielsson, $27