Jonas Bonnier – the author behind the true-crime novel The Helicopter Heist – picked up his phone in Sweden to discuss the upcoming Netflix original with The Cheat Sheet. From the literary geniuses he admires to the “criminals by nature” he had to fictionalize, Bonnier’s sense of awe concerning the power of language seeps through my iPhone speaker.
Endearingly dismissive of his own command of the English language, Bonnier depicts himself an extension of the novel; he may be the creator, but it is the creation that gives the writer his credence.
Bonnier has written quite the masterpiece for his U.S. debut The Helicopter Heist; however, his humbled excitement carries nothing but a sense of appreciation, for he was offered the story as a response to a failed pitch. When asked how he found his way to this true-crime tale, a narrative existing in a genre disparate from his other Swedish works, Bonnier explained:
“I sat down and said to myself, I have to really write something that will work internationally: a big smash hit. And I thought I was so smart. I thought I had done something that would make Harry Potter look like some sort of niche, literary stuff that nobody paid attention to. I was ecstatic about it. In Sweden, I didn’t really know who to turn to. This one agent. He was sort of regarded as the number one guy here in Scandinavia, so I went to him with the script. To my amazement, he read it, and he called me back in seven days and said ‘let’s talk about it.’ He said, ‘this is really good and you’re a really great writer, and this is wonderful.’ And after 15 minutes or so, he said, ‘well you understand nobody will publish this.’
When I grasped what he was saying, I realized that this meeting was over. I was reaching for the door, and at the same time, when I was about to leave, he asked me are you interested in writing about The Helicopter Heist? Truthfully, I never heard about The Helicopter Heist, so I turned around and said yes, of course, I want to do that.”
Bonnier goes on to recount the nerve-racking phone call that came the following day. Asked if he would like to interview one of the criminals he would fictionalize, a meeting was arranged before Bonnier could process the conversation.
He met one of the most notorious robbers first: “tall, very slim” and “intimidating” would be his everlasting impression. He eventually met with all four subjects, in a room together:
“I asked them if they could assemble the four of them and we can talk through that night, and the preparations. And they did. But, at that time, they had been in prison for seven years, so that was actually the first time they met after the prison sentences, so they were sort of confused, but finally they got the story together. I was thrilled, so that’s why I wrote it. I wrote it because I fell in love with these characters. They lent themselves so well because they were so individually different. and at the same time, they were all, to me, who had never been exposed to any crimes, they were sort of mysteries.”
The Cheat Sheet: When writing about each person, what did you feel you owed the real individuals? How do you both pay homage to their lives, and their story, while turning them into dramatized characters?
Jonas Bonnier: It was kind of weird. Getting into the writing process after a couple of months in my studies, I had sort of turned them into my characters. I was feeling that I wrote some really private, personal things. I felt sort of strange about that. I was writing this in Miami, and I actually went back to Stockholm and read a couple of chapters back to them just so they knew how it sounded.
I mean, with all of us, we were so aware of the fact that I’m turning them into fictional characters, and I’m not trying to do a nonfiction book about what actually happened. I’m trying to write a novel. For me, that was obvious, but I was amazed that even for them it made sense.
The Cheat Sheet: There’s one line in the book that I’d like to direct you to, in which you describe the scar on your character’s head as a fallen halo that had branded him for life. When did you realize language had the ability to transfer such a poignant sentiment? When did you discover the power of language?
Jonas Bonnier: I wrote music and I wrote lyrics. And, performing in all these small venues where people got drunk and couldn’t care less about my sufferings, that I tried to convey on stage, I realized that a three-minute song is not how I can express myself. And then I realized also that If I wanted to get into writing, I had to read.
The Cheat Sheet: So, what did you read? What were your early inspirations?
Jonas Bonnier: I’m a big missionary when it comes to books. I read something I really like, I can’t stop talking about it. I can’t stop buying that book as a gift to my friends. John Fowles:The Magus. I remember when I read that, how absorbed I became. Early Salman Rushdie books. I’m a big reader, and I read to love it. That’s my whole purpose. The power of the word is so profound; the skill is something you sort of acquire through writing and writing and writing and writing. That’s my process.
The Cheat Sheet: How did you feel about molding these four people who were criminals into protagonists, or at the least, people you could root for?
Jonas Bonnier: I think that I poured a lot of respect, but I don’t think that I enhanced them. You laugh with them, and you laugh at that sometimes. They’re not portrayed in a heroic kind of way. At least I don’t think so. I think they’re portrayed in a sort of basic human way. I think that what I did is that I turned the robbers into human beings, rather than I turned them into protagonists or heroes. And to me, I don’t think it’s morally questionable to turn them into human beings.
You root for them because you feel them. You feel connected to them. You can identify with them, but again, not in a sort of I want to be that guy way, but rather I could be that guy way.
The Cheat Sheet: Do you have any specific hopes or concerns regarding the Netflix original?
Jonas Bonnier: Fortunately, I’ve done some work in Hollywood, and I’ve worked as a screenwriter, and I’ve been in the position where somebody acquired the option for a novel, and I was the one who would turn that into an 8-episode TV series, so, to tell you the truth, I don’t have any ambitions whatsoever about the movie, because I’m only the writer of the book. That means, that I don’t have anything to say about the film. To be totally honest, whatever it turns out to be, I’m 100% sure that I will not see it on the first day.
Jonas Bonnier, from working as a screenwriter, knows the amount of work that goes into transforming a novel into a screenplay; thus, he wishes the movie nothing but the best and goes onto explain that the journey, each step that has been taken towards the film, has already been an enjoyable and exciting experience.