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Swedish author set novel in a place of her imagination: Iowa

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Swedish writer Katarina Bivald
Swedish writer Katarina Bivald says her international bestseller "The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend" was meant as a "practice novel."
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Swedish author Katarina Bivald had to ignore the adage "write what you know" for her novel "The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend." It's the story of a shy Swedish woman who changes a small Iowa town by opening a bookshop.

Bivald wrote what became an international hit without visiting the Midwest. Now she's here to see the real thing.

"The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend" is an unorthodox novel. For one thing, Bivald kills off one of her main characters in the first few pages. 

"That's the worst thing about being a writer," she said. "That you have to be so mean to your imaginary friends."

“The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend” cover
Cover of the international best-seller "The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend" by Katarina Bivald.
Courtesy of Source Books

The book is the story of Sara, a timid woman from Stockholm who prefers books to people. She travels to Iowa at the invitation of her pen pal Amy, who lives in a small town called Broken Wheel. Bivald says that  for Sara, going to Iowa is an attempt to shake up her life. 

"For one thing, she has no social life. She has no social skills. She has no life," Bivald said. "And practically no friends. And I would like to take this opportunity to state quite firmly that I have friends. Real friends. That exist outside of books." 

On the day Sara arrives in Broken Wheel, the town is empty. Amy had neglected to mention that she was very ill. Everyone is at her funeral. 

Sara wants to leave. But the townspeople insist she stay, as that is what Amy would have wanted. Thus begins her awkward Iowa life.

Bivald said when she started writing "The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend," she didn't intend for it to be published. She called it her practice novel. She was 25 and working in a bookstore in Sweden at the time.

"I had always dreamt about being a writer," she said. "And somehow I'd always known that someday I would write my book. It's just that I didn't really work on it." 

She thought a practice novel would let her learn the writing process before she wrote her real book. She would just cram it with her favorite things in books.

"And I basically love books about small American towns, like Fannie Flagg's 'Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café,' and I love quirky characters, like in Annie Proulx's 'The Shipping News,' and of course I love books about books," she said.

But she had never been to the United States. She had to decide where to place the story. 

"And I chose Iowa because I knew absolutely nothing about the state," she said. "Well, that's not true. I knew two things: I knew that they had lots of corn, and that they once had a cat named Dewey Readmore Books. And what more do you need to know about a state?" 

It turns out: a lot. She did a lot of research, reading a lot more books. And she wrote. Bivald said that for four years, she spent half her time in Sweden and half in an imaginary Iowa town she invented. 

In the story, Sara decides she wants to help the town, but the only way she can think of is by opening a bookstore. But the people in Broken Wheel don't read. She decides she needs to jazz things up by posting signs in the store to draw people in:

"Think Sara, think. What would convince someone to buy a book? What convinced people to watch movies? How hard could it be? She laughed, picked up the pen, and wrote in big clear letters 'Sex, violence and weapons' and pinned the piece of cardboard above the thrillers. After that it was much easier."

The story is a humorous love letter to small towns, and to the power of books. When it was finished, Bivald decided it might be more than a practice novel. She began submitting it to publishers. Many publishers.

"In fact I think you can safely say that there isn't a publisher in Sweden, big, small or medium, that hasn't at some point or another rejected my novel," she said.   

After many rewrites it was accepted, and now has been published in 26 countries. She'll tell that story when she reads at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Edina at 7 p.m. Tuesday. 

She's visited Iowa now — twice, in fact. She's seen corn and visited the Spencer Public Library, where the cat Dewey Readmore Books once presided. And she's writing her next book.

"I know it's going to be set in Oregon," she said. "I've actually visited that state before I started writing. Let's see if it makes a difference."