Fredrik Backman became a dad, had no clue how to handle it and ended up on the floor of a grocery store, defeated by a dozen types of formula looming on the baby food shelf overhead. Those who find the experience familiar will appreciate his analysis of new-parent whiplash:
“We actually haven’t got a clue to what we’re really doing — having kids is in many ways like trying to drive a bulldozer through a china shop,” he writes in his new essay collection, “Things My Son Needs to Know About the World.” “With broken legs. Wearing a back-to-front ski mask. While drunk.”
In his foray into nonfiction, Backman, the Swedish writer known for “Beartown” and “A Man Called Ove,” grapples with the highs and (literal) lows of parenting, and the overarching goal to raise a child who’s “better” than he is. The book is equal parts love letter to his wife and then-1½ -year-old son; apology for all the times he’s screwed up — and will again; and essential advice: Don’t pee in the ball pit, and make sure to pick a band name that’ll look good on a T-shirt.
Backman’s wit and candor shine as he turns mundane errands, such as couch shopping, into tender musings chased by sharp humor: “I allow myself to imagine once in a while that one day I might have the joy of walking around here, missing Manchester United games while we look at things for my grandchild,” he writes, reflecting on a day at Ikea. “Because one day I’ll look away for two seconds and when I turn around again you’ll be all grown up.
“And then I’ll get my . . . payback for all this.”
In a phone interview from Stockholm, Backman discussed his books and why he’s trying really hard not to become an ice cream dad. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
You wrote these essays years ago (the collection was published in Sweden in 2012 and has since been picked up by international publishers). What inspired you to sit down and start writing this tribute for your son?
I had written the manuscript for “A Man Called Ove” and sent it to several Swedish publishers, and no one wanted to publish it. I was waiting for a reply from one publisher who said they might be interested, but other people at the publishing house still had to read it. I had a blog at the time with a lot of jokes about parenting — because most of the things I read about parenthood were serious and gloomy. So, I didn’t think I was going to get the novel published, and while I was waiting, I figured I would try to write something else that I enjoyed working on and that my blog readers might want to read.
The publisher ultimately came back and said they wanted to publish “Ove.” And I had a small publisher who said they’d like to publish this dysfunctional parenting guide, as it was labeled. So, I told the bigger publisher, well, I want to publish this as well. And they really didn’t want to, but I argued for a while and in the end — I think some people at that publishing house would say there was extortion involved — they decided to publish them both on the same day.
Will you encourage your kids to read your books when they’re older?
If they’re interested. When the movie version of “A Man Called Ove” came out in Sweden, my son went to see it with his grandmother. When he came home, we talked about the story — he liked it very much. But there’s one scene where someone throws a rock at a cat, and he didn’t like that. He still holds it against me. “You could have written anything, dad!” But we’ve had a lot of discussions since about the imagination, because that’s what I try to teach my kids: If you want to do something creatively in life that involves telling stories, the most important thing for you to have is imagination.
You describe plenty of new-parent challenges in these essays: some lighthearted, like bathroom drama, and some with more gravitas, like wanting a sense of belonging for your son. What’s your biggest parenting challenge right now?
Whenever something bad happens to your kids, you have this instinct to tell them to shake it off. If someone is mean to them in school, you want to say, “Don’t worry about it, just let it go. Let’s go have ice cream and do something fun.”
But I have to sit down with them and say, “Yeah, I know, it sucks. It sucks! I know that person was mean to you, or you got taken advantage of or betrayed or whatever, and it sucks. It sucks that life is like that because people are morons, and you’re going to meet a lot of them. But it’s all right to cry, it’s all right to be sad and angry, and we’re going to talk it out, and then tomorrow it will feel a little better.” But that whole discussion is way harder than just saying, “Forget about it, let’s go get ice cream.” And I’m trying not to be the ice cream parent so much; I’m trying to talk to them and make them emotionally ready to face disappointments.
How do you balance your two full-time jobs: writing and fatherhood?
It’s way easier now than when I wrote the book we’re talking about, because I had a full-time job and then I came home, and we had just had a kid. So, the big difference now is that I can leave my kids at school, go to my office and write all day. I get to spend a lot of time with my kids. And that’s what I keep coming back to. I have so many qualities and characteristics that make me unfit to be a parent — I’m not suitable for parenting because I live in my head all the time. I’m making up a story or I’m somewhere else in my head because I have a very active imagination, which makes it hard to live in the now. And the only way I know to make up for that is: I’m here all the time. I’m going to do a million things wrong, but I want them to at least be able to say, he was here, he was around so much that we got fed up with him.
That’s also why I rarely go out on tour or do book festivals — because those things would interfere with the time that I have with my family. And I just decided at one point that this career, this whole thing of being a commercially successful writer — that has no value to me if I can’t stay at home with my wife and kids and play games and be stupid.
Angela Haupt is a writer and editor based in Washington.
By Fredrik Backman
Atria. 208 pp. $24