The development of Little Star (from Fail Again, Fail Better)

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The development of Little Star (from Fail Again, Fail Better)

Post by Siggdalos » Mon Mar 01, 2021 8:53 pm

Around two months ago, in the thread where I compiled LTROI development info from JAL's 2018 book of notes Misslyckas igen, misslyckas bättre ("Fail again, fail better"), I wrote that I would make another thread summarizing the development notes for Little Star, following a request from CyberGhostface. I've been putting it off for a while, but here is that overdue thread.

LS's notes range from March 2008 to October 2009. Just like in the LTROI thread, I'll distinguish between the actual notes John made during writing and current-day (or rather 2018-era) John's commentary by referring to the latter as "current-JAL".

Like JAL has said many times in other places, he long considered Little Star to be his best novel (though it has recently been surpassed by The Kindness). He writes in Misslyckas igen that his love for the book likely stems from the fact that he considers himself to have succeeded at believably writing about two teenage girls—people who (at least from the outside) seem completely unlike him—and the fact that he allowed the story to be so consistently dark and depressing. However, he also admits that he can't objectively judge the book's quality since it was at times very challenging to write, but this also makes LS the novel that has taught him the most about writing; he mentions that his notes for it take up more than 200 pages. (Misslyckas igen only contains a small selection of the notes for each novel.)

  • JAL's original idea for the story, which he got several years before writing Little Star, was that of a 15- or 16-year-old singer and her slimy manager. From the outside it would look like the manager was parasitizing off of the girl, but in reality it would be the other way around: the girl would be some kind of monster who had attached herself to the manager and was slowly sucking the life force out of him. Almost nothing remains of this idea in LS, and in the notes it seems like JAL had long abandoned the concept by the time he started actually writing it, but it's nonetheless what kicked off the whole thing.
  • March 3: JAL's ambition was to make LS a dense, concentrated novel of only around 200-250 pages with not a lot of detail. However, complications snuck in over time, he ended up taking the subject more seriously than expected, and it ended up having to be much longer. He had a similar failed ambition with I Always Find You. Right now he's planning for The Value (the novel he's currently working on as of me writing this post) to be that short, concentrated book, but it remains to be seen how that goes.
  • March 3: Long before coming up with the Sing-Along at Skansen prologue seen in the final book, JAL planned for the prologue to consist of two separate quotes which would resemble each other on the surface: the first a number exercise about the Sing-Along (number of artists, audience size, cost, etc.), the other a matching description of a hand drill (drill size, power, battery lifetime, etc.).
  • March 3: Current-JAL says that it took him a while to realize that the book should be as dark as it is, and when he first tried writing the opening it had a fairly different tone:
    Current-JAL wrote:I had as a test written the first six-seven pages and read them to Mia. Lennart's sense of inferiority and Christer Sjögren complex when he's shopping at ICA. It was so darn funny! We have never laughed so much at anything I've written and rarely been as much in agreement that it was the completely wrong way of doing it. Nothing to do but throw it all out and start over.
  • March 3: One of the central questions John spent a long time struggling with was who Tesla (Theres) is and why she would want to drill holes in people's heads. At first he wasn't even sure if she would be a normal girl (which he later settled on) or a supernatural being, and he briefly considered having a Stephen King-style ending where she would use that which had been sucked out of people's brains to transform into "the massive demon she really is", but decided against it. More on this below.
  • March 4: When he was a child, starting at the age of 12, John regularly snuck into the movie theater to watch R-rated horror films. Needless to say, this has had a major influence on him and his writing. The famous exploding head scene in the movie Scanners made a deep impression on him (current-JAL describes it as one of his most cherished childhood memories and that he was practically high when walking out of the theater) and that scene is likely partially responsible for why he wanted to write a story featuring holes in people's heads.
  • March 4: JAL briefly speculated that Tesla would be a literal star, fallen from the sky and in need of energy to return ("A reverse E.T."), the idea being that someone with exceptional talent is not of this world, but he thought there was something off about making her essentially an alien. On the topic of E.T., current-JAL adds:
    Current-JAL wrote:Considering what I said above [about Scanners], it might be cozy to know that E.T. was my favorite movie for a very long time. If I was high after Scanners, I literally stumbled out of the Draken theater after watching E.T. for the first time. I still remember the light that evening, how the air felt. The world was transformed. I had never seen anything as wonderful as that movie. All of existence felt like a promise and a waiting opportunity. I was so happy.
    Around the age of 13-14, when other boys my age started putting up posters of scantily clad girls, I still had a big picture of E.T. above my bed. It was with a dull ache in my chest that I eventually took it down. Something was over.
    In my head there are many links connecting Little Star and E.T. An ocean of blood separates the two, but what one would call the stories' DNA is of the same character. Even if no one else can see it, I can, and that is a joy to me.
  • March 4: More interesting speculation about Tesla's motives:
    2008-JAL wrote:What is fame? Admiration? If you, like me, dreamed of fame and then achieve it. How can you see and feel this? Not at all, is the answer. Everything fundamentally stays the same. People's "love" isn't tangible. In every artist there has to be a desire to be able to perceive their own fame, to eavesdrop on conversations, which the web has partially made possible. Tesla crushes people's heads, kills them to see how much they love her. "The teenagers who love you, they will wake up, yawn, and kill you." The audience's fickleness and danger.

    It's about the insecurity you feel when you're 15, the same insecurity that causes young girls to pose in front of web cameras. To want validation. If Tesla manages to convince her disciples that there is a secret you can access. I think that I, in this way, don't need to use anything supernatural. Or maybe I do. That there really is something you can obtain.
  • March 5: JAL initially feared that he wouldn't be able to come particularly close to T&T as characters due to how different they are from him, at least at first glance. As an emergency solution, he considered including an author character who would talk directly to the reader and reflect on T&T's actions, and whose own life would also be described in part; a kind of alter ego of himself. Another, related idea was to depict "the other 15-year-old" (Teresa) through interviews with her family, diary excerpts, chat transcripts and the like. However, JAL felt that he got so close to the characters while writing that he lost the need for these kinds of solutions.
  • On June 2, JAL decided that he wanted the story to not have anything supernatural in it, only a fairy tale-like tone and improbable but nonetheless possible events. This still left the question of Theres' motives. For a while, his thinking was that what Theres wanted to access was the music in people's heads (he mentions this in an October 10 note as well). Current-JAL adds that the problem started direly needing a solution when he was going to adapt LS into a TV screenplay and the producers refused to let a massacre occur without a good reason. In the end, he had to make a concession and add something magical in the form of the red smoke. However, current-JAL points out that the smoke could might as well be something that only exists in the eye of the beholder, in which case LS is his only novel without anything supernatural in it.
  • June 2: A lesser-known fact about JAL is that his maternal uncle was the rock singer Boris Lindqvist (1940-2017), who served as a bit of a template for Lennart and Laila since John decided that they should also be born in 1940. For those who have read the Places trilogy, it might also be fun to know that Boris' best-known song, (Isn't it) All right Svensson from 1967, was written by Peter Himmelstrand.
  • September 3: Besides E.T., another, drastically different source of inspiration for LS was the French horror film Martyrs, which John had recently watched at the time and which he considers to be the scariest movie he knows of. He already had the story for LS before he watched Martyrs, but the film likely strengthed his ambition to keep LS' tone pitch-dark.
  • September 3: John had a vague idea that Laila would sometimes retreat to an imaginary place in her head called "Rosenlandet" ("the Land of Roses"), where all schlager songs are true and where she would wander around holding hands with Lasse Lönndahl as he sings Tusen och en natt, but admitted to himself that he didn't know how this could be made relevant to the story and that it had some overlap with the Field in what would later become the Places trilogy.
  • October 22: JAL intended to insert a number of very short vignettes from the Skansen massacre throughout the book. Each one would include a couple specific details from the preceding chapters, thereby creating a visual connection and a vague feeling that all of the events in the novel are somehow connected or predetermined by fate. For example, right after Lennart finds Theres buried in the plastic bag, there would be a passage describing a plastic bag getting tossed around in the wind at Skansen and maybe even flying up towards the stage. Current-JAL comments that this idea is similar to how one writes a certain type of film screenplay and that he doesn't know if it would've worked in text form, but adds that he can't remember why he abandoned it.
  • November 11: When JAL wrote the scene with Teresa and the yellow pearl, he was envisioning The Aleph, a short story by Jorge Luis Borges about a single point that contains everything in the universe (or nothing).
  • November 16:
    Current-JAL wrote:
    2008 JAL wrote:Suddenly I saw yet another big theme in this story. Butterfly Kiss. It made me utterly happy. Because this, too, is a love story. Between Tesla and Teresa. A friendship or a symbiosis so deep that it can go in any direction. These two girls' deep dependence upon one another. Their shared fate. Hence Butterfly Kiss. They're going to do such horrible things. And it should not be depicted in such a way that you like them. Especially the killing of Johannes should be such that you almost hate Teresa. But there is going to be something reconciliatory, something twistedly beautiful in their relationship anyway. Something that makes you root for them.
    This was the decisive click for this tale and I'm surprised that it took so long before it arrived. It's so central to the story and seems so obvious. But as might have been made apparent in these notes, I can keep writing on a story for quite a long time without actually knowing what it's about. From this point onward, Little Star became the story of Theres and Teresa. Where they came from, how they met and what they then did. Butterfly Kiss by Michael Winterbottom is one of my constant reference points.
  • November 21: As part of depicting her repressed violent tendencies, JAL would've liked to have Teresa search for depictions of violence on the internet if it hadn't been too similar to Oskar from LTROI. Her habit of burning flies was added as a replacement.
  • Up until November 28, JAL experimented with depicting Theres' thoughts using a fragmented, naive kind of language, but he decided to leave out her point of view since he thought it was better if she was a mystery to both the reader and Teresa, partially because Teresa ended up being more of a main character than he'd originally planned.
  • In a note from December 8, JAL writes that the core of Theres' character is not the opening but the searching; that she is "essentially an autist" trying to get in contact with a reality that doesn't feel like anything to her and that she's "an empty container searching for her contents".
  • December 15: A problem that can appear from time to time when two authors live together and frequently discuss their writing with each other, as with JAL and his wife Mia, is that they can inadvertently copy each other's ideas. JAL wrote a chapter in which Theres "conjured memories" but then realized that this was taken straight from one of the central ideas in Mia's book Älska Vingåker, which was released 9 years later. Mia told him that she didn't mind, but he didn't feel good about it and so cut that aspect of Theres. The notes and commentary don't elaborate on what "conjure memories" (Swedish: framkalla minnen) means, other than that it was apparently only a short phase in Theres' development, so I'm not sure what it meant in concrete terms.
  • February 13:
    Current-JAL wrote:
    2009-JAL wrote:Lennart says that people have love in their heads. Later people will say that they love her voice. But she wants to see it. She wants to feel it. She hears so much about love, but the only love she experiences is the one people talk about. She never sees or feels it. Through Lennart's story we've seen that she can perceive love as an independent substance inside the cranium. Something that can be let out. She doesn't actually have any evil intentions.
    Theres' brand of autism is based in a philosophical problem that can be expressed as the gap between the descriptive and the described, that is the ability for language to express something. In everyday life we accept a number of linguistical constructs and believe ourselves to be in agreement about what they mean. The concept of "Love", for example. We talk about heartache, how love strikes like lightning, etc. The problem occurs when someone perceives these images and provisional solutions as something literal and acts based on that. Like Theres.
  • March 25: JAL started out thinking the Skansen massacre would be committed by around a hundred girls. He later reduced them to fifty, twenty, and finally fourteen inclduing T&T, since he realized that he had to depict each one of them as individuals.
  • March 25: It was important to John to let the girls "win" by having a brief moment of triumph after the massacre, to prevent the story from becoming even more depressing. He thought about having this triumph be something slightly supernatural, like having all the girls get Theres' singing voice and join in a single pure tone. He then thought that this could be depicted in such a way that it's not necessarily supernatural and came up with them howling like a pack. Note that while he knew this would work nicely with the ending when T&T enter the wolf enclosure, he didn't come up with the idea of Teresa being interested in wolves beforehand until...
  • ... April 7. In the notes, John implies that he had previously thought about writing a werewolf novel and jokes that it's a good thing he didn't have LS' wolf motif in mind from the start, or else he might've been tempted to have Theres be an actual werewolf and that that would be the reason she was buried as an infant. (Note that John did later write an actual werewolf tale in the form of the short story Hår, which hasn't been published in English as far as I know.) Current-JAL says that he likes when an important theme shows up late in the writing process, since he likes going back and tinkering with the text to sneak in the new theme and because it can be used to strengthen weak parts of the book and by extension the entire story.
  • September 10: John came up with an amusing idea for a weapon: cutting off part of a pair of compasses and then attaching the compass to a finger to create claws. Current-JAL says he has no idea why he didn't include this and that maybe he just thought it was too similar to Freddy Krueger.
  • John didn't seriously consider the problem of how Theres would convince the other girls to commit the Skansen massacre until September 17, when he wrote the scene where they all meet up outside the wolf enclosure for the first time. Current-JAL says that this, too, might be a good thing, since he might never have even started writing the novel if he'd had the problem in mind from the beginning. To make each girl's actions seem reasonable he would've needed perhaps 200 more pages to describe each one's life situation, but the detailed depiction of Teresa was intended to be representative, and on September 22 he came up with the idea of the burials (inspired by the symbolic burials found in many cultures' traditional rites of passage) as a "fast-forwarded" version of the development Teresa had gone through. This was the last major idea he got for the story.
  • October 1:
    Current-JAL wrote:
    2009-JAL wrote:I of course have no idea, but I've really put in effort and I think I've managed to make a good portrait, a description of how a girl is born, grows up and becomes a murderer. This is, in the end, Teresa's book, which I wasn't counting on at the start. But her childhood images turned out so good that she got more space and now it's ended up being about her. Completely in order, but at the start I thought it was about Theres.
    Like I've said, even if the ending was given, there was a lot that changed during the journey. That's why I'm so hopelessly bad at writing synopsis. I quite simply don't know what's going to happen before I've written it. Had I, for example, been forced to write a synopsis of the whole book after writing 100 pages, Teresa would only have been a side character instead of the novel's main protagonist.
De höll om varandra i tystnad. Oskar blundade och visste: detta var det största. Ljuset från lyktan i portvalvet trängde svagt in genom hans slutna ögonlock, la en hinna av rött för hans ögon. Det största.

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Re: The development of Little Star (from Fail Again, Fail Better)

Post by CyberGhostface » Tue Mar 02, 2021 10:14 pm

Thanks for posting this, it was very interesting. Crazy to see all the different angles that were considered.
No banaaaanas?

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