Was Stieg Larsson’s niece Therese a model for the character of Lisbeth Salander?

Stieg Larsson didn’t have children of his own. He appears to have been an intellectual pied piper to a group of young people in the 1990s—but they were almost all young men who wanted to work with him at Expo on researching, exposing, infiltrating, and fighting the neo-Nazis. So where did he get his deep insights into the character of this unusual young woman, Lisbeth Salander? From many life experiences, from much reading, from thinking about Pippi Longstocking as a young adult, as he told several friends and interviewers.… But one more important influence may have been Larsson’s niece, Therese, the daughter of his brother Joakim.

Now in her mid-20s, Therese would have been in her teens when Larsson was writing The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. According to Nathaniel Rich, the first U.S.-based journalist to interview Therese Larsson, her uncle Stieg was aware that she had often talked of getting a dragon tattoo, and that in the end, she had chosen to have a “large rose…tattooed on her shoulder.” Rich’s report, which appeared earlier this year in Rolling Stone, suggests that teenage niece in remote northern Swedish city and middle aged uncle in the capital city with adventurous life stories to tell had a special relationship, which included exchanging a lot of emails. “Larsson didn’t visit Umeå often.… But he corresponded regularly with his niece by e-mail, Therese sending short notes and receiving what seemed to her like novel-length responses. He was an adult she could confide in, a role model and teacher who wasn’t a parent, with whom she could discuss life as a teenager in Umeå.”

According to Rich’s account, Larsson e-mailed Therese with questions that seemed designed to fit into his research for the character of Lisbeth. The responses he received included information about Therese’s struggles with anorexia and her interest in kickboxing. Rich quotes Stieg Larsson as telling his niece, “Lisbeth Salander is like you”—soft on the outside but hard on the inside. The same quote appears in a 2008 article from the Swedish newspaper Expressen, which went on to say that “Stieg Larsson used his niece as a model when writing his books….”

The Expressen article also says, “In hundreds of emails they discussed all that courses through the mind of a teenager.” In 2009, with the Millennium books huge global best sellers and Lisbeth Salander arguably the most famous Swede who never lived, the Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter weighed in with a report indicating that Therese says that she and Stieg “emailed a lot and talked on the phone.” This report notes that Therese was a rebellious teenager, wearing black make-up, with black hair and heavy boots. She was anorectic and so very thin, but always wanted to help the weak. “I often interceded in fights. It didn’t matter if those fighting were 7-feet guys. I was just angry and felt no fear,” she says in a self-portrait reminiscent of Salander.

Others wonder how close Stieg’s relationship really was to this niece in his faraway hometown. Skeptics would like to see the email correspondence archive. Unfortunately, the emails appear to be gone, lost in a hard drive crash.

Larsson gave exactly one interview to the media about his novels prior to his death. It was with Lasse Winkler, editor-in-chief of Svensk Bokhandel, the Swedish book trade magazine. Winkler recounted his experience in a 2010 article for the UK newspaper the Telegraph. According to Winkler, at some point in the early to mid-1990s, when Larsson was working at the news agency TT, he and his colleague and friend Kenneth Ahlborn, were developing an article about the classic detective stories that were popular with young readers in Sweden in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s:  Larsson is quoted as saying, “We were kidding around, talking about how you could write about those characters” who would now be much older. “That planted the seed, but nothing materialized back then.” It was not until 2001 that Larsson stumbled upon the spark that would bring the Millennium trilogy into being. “I considered Pippi Longstocking,” he said, referring to the most famous creation of the Swedish children’s author Astrid Lindgren, a girl so strong she could carry a horse. “What would she be like today? What would she be like as an adult? What would you call a person like that, a sociopath? Hyperactive? Wrong. She simply sees society in a different light. I’ll make her 25 years old and an outcast. She has no friends and is deficient in social skills. That was my original thought.”

In Larsson’s talk with Winkler about Lisbeth’s archaeology, he did not mention Therese, at least not according to the published accounts. Nor did he mention her in any other correspondence that has yet come to light. Of course there could be many reasons why he might not have mentioned a young family member in public discussions. As with so much else in Stieg Larsson’s fiction, we are left to guess at what the real facts are.

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