The Swiss thriller writer on his memory for details, why jealousy is helpful, and his love affair with America
Jol Dicker, 31, is the author of two twisting American mysteries 2012s international hit The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair, which sold 2m copies, and a new novel, The Baltimore Boys. Yet Dicker is Swiss, writes in French and lives and works in Geneva. His suspenseful plots revolve around the privileged life of an American writer called Marcus Goldman, who, like Dicker, must write a follow-up to the bestseller that gave him fame and fortune.
What is the draw of America for you?
It has a specific resonance of summers and of dreams. For 20 years in a row, I spent all my vacations in Maine at my uncles home on the ocean. And summer is a special time for anyone. Its quiet and you have nothing to worry about. School seems a lifetime off. I was free to dream and figure out what I would like to be. So, for me, America is a land of dreams. Not the American dream, though. When I am writing in Geneva, going to America in my mind helps me break away again.
Are you a natural storyteller who entertains your friends?
My friends tend to suggest I keep it short, otherwise I can be never-ending. On paper I am more efficient. Print allows me to think about what matters, especially when there is a lot of going backwards and forwards in time. The most important thing for me, though, is that a reader enjoys it and then wonders what to read next.
An elderly character in The Baltimore Boys, Leo, struggles to start a second career as a novelist. Is writing harder than people think?
Strangers often come up and tell me they have an amazing plot in mind. Leo refers to all that. They ask me how to write it and I say they have to find their own way. They tell me theyve worked on a book for years and yet only have 10 pages. If they areso stuck they are coming to me for help, maybe it is not meant to be. On the other hand, it is nice that people want to express themselves through books. It is better than Facebook.
Are childhood memories as important in your life as in your stories?
We live through our past. It forms the complex magma of who we are. Unfortunately, I have a very good memory and can remember the most irrelevant details. My friends think I am a freak. I remember the dates things happened, even days of the week or what outfit they may have been wearing.
Do you find mystery in your daily life?
We are each very pleased to create our own little mysteries. We are all curious and like to gossip. It is a form of being a detective we can all enjoy. We call someone up and ask, Did you hear? Is it true? And yet we also need security, so we go to work and stick to a regime. But in the end, it is repetitive. So we find something else to start building stories around. Perhaps someone we see in a restaurant: is he cheating on his wife? Such things are just our own perceptions and most of the time are not discussed. We keep them to ourselves for a long time and then find they were only one side of the story.
Envy between friends seems to be a big theme for you
I am very competitive. If I am going to the park to run and see someone faster is going to run past me, I will stop and pretend I was planning to do some push-ups. And I am a jealous person, I have to say. But it can be positive. It is a way to test our relationships. We should allow ourselves to be jealous when a friend has some good luck and then to think, well, good for him.
If a planned film of The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair comes out, will confusion about the distinction between you and Marcus Goldman grow?
I write books to escape, whereas Marcus does it to explain his own life to himself. If I wrote about my real life, it would be so boring. I want to write about people who have never existed. And I never write with a plan. One idea leads to another and the story changes every day. So far, Marcus is not in my next book, but I need to write it before I find out.
The Baltimore Boys by Joel Dicker (translated by Alison Anderson) is published by Quercus (20). To order a copy for 17 go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over 10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of 1.99