Thirty miles from Stockholm, the island of Runmarö — now the Nordic equivalent of Martha’s Vineyard — squats in the Baltic shallows. The land technically belongs to the Swedish government, but it has been quietly conquered by the naturalist Fredrik Sjöberg, the world’s greatest expert on Runmarö hoverflies and an unlikely literary celebrity on the rise.
Sjöberg has found more than 200 species of Syrphidae on Runmarö; he studies them nowhere else. He’ll be quick to tell you the little creatures are only props, as if he were a stage magician, and his rabbits simply happened to have wings and compound eyes. But Sjöberg’s magic is writing, and he conjures words with a showman’s aplomb in The Fly Trap, his best-selling Swedish book that made its way into English and across the Atlantic this summer. Like the book — which weaves memoir, travelogue, a biography of fellow Swede entomologist René Malaise (1892-1978), musings on island life and the vanity of collectors, and, yes, flies, to the point where the reader can’t help but stare at the tapestry laid out before him and wonder fuck it, why are we so obsessed with genre anyway — Sjöberg is insightful, wry, and only very occasionally exasperating.
How did you end up on — and forgive me if I can’t pronounce it —
It’s impossible for Americans.
I’ve been living on the island for 30 years. My wife and I, we were young and foolish and didn’t have money, and we needed some place to live. Back in the mid-‘80s it was still rather cheap to buy a house out here. Even though it’s pretty close to Stockholm, it’s 50 kilometers east out in the archipelago. It’s a paradise. Really. Especially now in the summertime.
I didn’t want to live in the middle of Stockholm, since I had this interest in nature. I was raised in a landscape like this on the east coast in southern Sweden. It was the landscape of my childhood, in a way, and if you grow up in a certain landscape it’s very easy to end up in the same landscape later. Already by then I was writing. I didn’t make any money from my writing, until I published The Fly Trap. But I wrote.
I had been collecting insects as a little boy, as boys did in the ‘60s. Of course I didn’t continue collecting insects as a teenager since, as everyone knows, it’s impossible to make an impression on women when you’re collecting insects. But when we had been living here on the island for a few years, it in a way came back to me. We have three kids and a small house, so I need a room of my own, you could say. I started to collect again. And by coincidence it became science.
For some reason I wanted to write about my collecting since it was great fun, and it was relaxing and rewarding and all of that shit. I mean, this is not a book about flies; it’s about islands, vanity, and ambition and whatever.
Have you been surprised by the reception of The Fly Trap?
From the beginning I didn’t believe it was possible to sell this book nor did my publisher. He printed some 1,600 copies and thought it might take him five years to sell them. So I’m still a bit surprised; in a way, it’s almost embarrassing with all the reviews. Nowadays I don’t read them all. Many of them are written in languages I cannot read, so I don’t have to. But my agent is reading them and I get reports all the time about those reviews. Now I’m just starting up in the U.S. And it was a wonderful start, wasn’t it?
You definitely caught the attention of a few big U.S. publications.
Flies in the Wall Street Journal. [Laughs.] It’s a crazy world.
In the ten years since this book came out in Sweden, have you kept up collecting hoverflies?
The first seven years before I wrote the book were very intense. I was a hoverfly maniac. Spending my summers doing more and more snuffing out and collecting flies. [Sjöberg’s preferred method is quick death by cyanide.] When I wrote the book, in a way I gave it away, because it wasn’t mine anymore.
But of course I still collect. I don’t walk outside on a summer day like this without my net. Because you never know. And once in a while there is a new species that shows up. I haven’t found any new species yet this year, but I took one last year. When there is a new one now, it’s always a very rare one because I have all the common species.
I use my knowledge as a glossary. I’m reading the landscape. Because I know the species, whether it’s a species of hoverfly or any insect, for that matter, it’s like a glossary for me. I use my knowledge, and I have to use it otherwise you forget.
Having walked through forests with biologists before — who, say, might be an expert on snakes but also know all the flowers and lizards and birdsong in the area — I’d say you’re exactly right when you describe the ability to read nature like a glossary.
It’s pure joy, isn’t it? To know a language, for example if you are fluent in French, it’s wonderful. It’s a great thing to know. And it’s the same with nature. As all language knowledge is, it’s very pleasing to know.
Is that why you chose an island? Because you could become fluent here?
I wanted to be master of the universe, and then I realized that if my universe is too big, I will never be the master. But if you have an island, a pretty small island, I know no one in the whole world knows more than me about the hoverflies of this island. In some respects, I’m the master. But not on the mainland. There I’m just an ordinary loser.
That’s part of the reason why I’m always looking for islands. Even in New York, you know? Central Park is a wonderful island, isn’t it? It’s marvelous as an island. If I lived in New York I would end up in Central Park, collecting insects, probably.
Just to linger a little bit more on the insects, you say at one point the flies are only “props” — which, maybe I’ll believe that more or less [coming from someone who’s collected more than 200 species of hoverfly] — but I am curious why, exactly, you picked hoverflies compared to, say, parasitic wasps or fungal gnats.
It was a coincidence. Two books were published in the ‘80s or ‘90s, one Danish book on hoverflies and an a wonderful book on British hoverflies. There weren’t any Swedish books about those flies back then — well, there was an older one from a hundred years ago, but it wasn’t of too much use. But the Danish and the British book had made it possible to determine almost all species around here. And also I had a friend in the fly high society; he’s dead now, he was the world’s foremost expert — I think he shows up already in chapter two. The guy who comes out to the island when I made my first major catch. He taught me. He was my master, you could say.
It could have actually been anything. It could have been beetles or whatever. But it became hoverflies. And of course there are other things to it. This mimicry thing is interesting, I think. They all pretend to be someone else, just as we usually are as we are trying to pretend we that we are something we’re not. They are beautiful, many of them, and of course quite a few species among the hoverfly are very rare. They are ecologically very interesting; some of them live inside hollow trees.
But they are props, nothing more. The hoverflies are props. The book is about something else. All right, it’s mainly about the author himself, isn’t it?