Rewriting Jönsson’s Life: The Back-story

I moved from Sweden to the United States in 1986 and lived in Los Angeles at the time, when I caught wind of a movie called “My Life As A Dog.” It was based on the book with the same name by Swedish author, Reidar Jönsson. Back in those days, it took a lot longer to get foreign movies to the United States – sorry to say, no iTunes. I finally saw the movie and fell in love with the story about Ingemar.

Many years later, my wife, our daughter, and I moved from Los Angeles to Oregon to be closer to family. We left the big city for a much smaller town in rural Oregon, but I kept up with my contacts in Los Angeles. A couple of months after getting settled, I got a fax from my editor at Scanorama. He asked me to write an article about Reidar Jönsson, who at the time was working on a sequel to “My Life as a Dog.”

I contacted my good friend Thor-Björn Hansson, an excellent photographer I had worked with on several occasions. At the time, Reidar and his wife Donna lived in Los Angeles, so Thor-Björn set up the interview since he knew the couple.

Here’s a secret I have to admit to: I’m horrible at taking notes and don’t trust my memory, so I always record my interviews to be on the safe side. I brought along my trusty cassette recorder to Los Angeles. Remember, this is in 1991, long before digital recording equipment was built into your phone. When Thor-Björn saw my tape recorder, he told me flat out I couldn’t bring that “thing” to the interview. It was old and beat up.

I persisted and brought along “the brick” to the restaurant where the interview was going to take place. A bit embarrassed, I put the tape recorder on top of the table, but no-one took notice. Thor-Björn and I had a wonderful time talking to Reidar and Donna. The interview was a breeze and everything was recorded on “the brick.”

After the interview, we said our goodbyes and left the restaurant. I can’t remember what Thor-Björn and I did afterwards, but at some point, I realized I forgot the tape recorder at the restaurant. I immediately called and asked if someone had found it. Unfortunately, no! The only redeeming part of the story was the fact I had taken the cassette tape out of the recorder after the interview and put it in my pocket.

Not too long after the mishap, I bought a new, similar size tape recorder since I liked the rugged construction and the fact that the old one never failed me, no matter where the story took me. By the way, I still have that recorder (see picture below).

When it comes to recording devices, technology has changed rapidly since my interview with Reidar Jönsson. My old cassette tape recorder and my newer, much smaller digital tape recorder (even though I mostly use my iPhone nowadays).

Here’s the article I originally wrote about Reidar and Donna, which was drastically cut for space by the time it was published in Scanorama. Enjoy!

Reidar Jönsson: Rewriting His Life

Swedish Academy Award-nominated author Reidar Jönsson is busier than ever. Currently occupied with the movie sequel to critically acclaimed My Life as A Dog, he is also working on a screenplay for Richard Gere as well as starting a literary agency for Swedish authors.

Born in the southern part of Sweden in 1944, Jönsson left his homeland in 1960 for a career as a merchant marine, choosing the same career as his father. Jönsson claims the career choice was twofold. He was driven by the quest to get closer to his dad. He also wanted to follow the footsteps of famous writers, like Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad, who were sailors before they became writers.

At the age of 23 he returned to Sweden. Though the book, and later the movie, put Jönsson in the spotlight, his literary career spans several screenplays and plays, three poetry collections, and eight books.

Though the book ended up being very successful, he originally had no desire to turn into a screenplay. In fact, he admits he made the story line in My Life as a Dog so complex and difficult, he thought no one in their right mind would turn it into a movie. Swedish director Lasse Hallström took the challenge and the book ended up being an Academy Award-nominated movie.

Writing is a slow process for Jönsson. He takes his time and wants to explore the possibilities in the story. Jönsson readily admits, some of the material in his latest book My Father, His Son was written during the 70’s, but at the time he did not have the right book for the story line.

My Life as A Dog has been translated to several foreign languages, and My Father, His Son has just been released in the United States.

In what will eventually become a trilogy, much of the material in the first two books are drawn from Jönsson’s own life experiences. Even though it is easy to find similarities between the fictional character Ingemar Johansson and Jönsson, he rejects any resemblance, stressing he is writing fiction, not an autobiography.

“It is true that I used stories from my own life when I wrote the book, but I am re-writing my life, as I would have liked it to be, to fit the life of Ingemar,” said Jönsson.

The meeting between father and son in a port in Africa is the climax in Jönsson’s latest book. The young merchant marine Ingemar, has been looking forward meeting his father, plotting revenge for deserting him during his childhood. Meeting his father, Ingemar finally understands his father is trapped in his own inability to express feelings. With that in mind Ingemar can finally put the anger behind him and concentrate on his own chaotic life. The moral of the story, being that everybody must come to terms with their parents sooner or later

Admitting he is still learning the trade of good story writing, Jönsson claims he is merely practicing for books yet to come.

American-born Donna Matson Jönsson is the second half of the husband/wife screenwriting team, a necessity to bring the Swedish and American cultural framework together and transform it to the screen. Says Jönsson, “It is a fruitful cultural exchange.”

Jönsson is taking the exchange one step further, collaborating with Swedish literary agent Bengt Nordin. Reading through the output of contemporary Swedish writers, the new literary agency is scouting for stories that can be brought to the international audience.

As for the movie sequel to My Life as a Dog he is still looking for a suitable title. Says Jönsson: “There has to be ‘dog’ in the title, toying with A Buried Dog (Swedish proverb meaning, There Is Something Rotten in The State of Denmark).

Reidar and Donna are determined to get their own financing for the movie project to retain the artistic control over the production.

“I want to recognize the story when the movie is done,” said Jönsson, stressing that movie producers tend to re-write story ideas to conform with their ideas, and in the process losing the original story line. Still negotiating with possible financial backers, the movie production is almost ready to start.

The team is currently involved in a project writing a screenplay for New Regency/Warner Brothers and Gere Productions, with Richard Gere cast in the leading role. The pair is also in the process of writing and producing a movie adapted from Swedish author Kerstin Ekman’s book “Dödsklockan.”