Lisa Fransson

Lisa Fransson (Russian and Linguistics 1995) is a translator and author. In her native Swedish, Lisa is an award-winning children's author. She recently published her debut novel in English, The Shape of Guilt.

Headshot of author Lisa Fransson.

Lisa's story

Lisa started studying a BA in Russian and Linguistics at Sussex in autumn 1995 as a mature student. After completing her course, she began working as a technical translator. In between her translation projects and raising three children, she managed to find moments to write, publishing several children’s books in Swedish inspired by the landscapes of her childhood. Lisa’s recently published novel The Shape of Guilt is her first in English and charts a story of secrecy and trauma through the narration of Robert Bunny, a toy bunny rabbit.

What made you choose Sussex?

I had left Sweden at the age of 19 and was working in pubs and hotels as a waitress. After three years I decided I wanted to make a better life for myself, so I ordered a bunch of prospectuses from all over the country and started flicking through them. I had always been interested in languages and Sussex had an excellent Russian department.

What was it like studying at Sussex as an international student?

I had lived and worked in England for three years, and because both the UK and Sweden were members of the European Union (EU), I wasn’t considered an international student. But in reality, I was. My English was very good, but it wasn’t academically good – learning a new language through one that wasn’t my native tongue was a real challenge. Back then I didn’t think too much about it, I just studied to the best of my ability, assignment by assignment.

After studying, you originally worked as a translator. What motivated you to make the transition to creative writing?

I’ve always written creatively, but coming from a working-class background and growing up in an extremely remote location, I didn’t have any role models to look up to. I thought the names on books belonged to some sort of otherworldly beings with the magical powers to turn the written word into books.

Ever since I graduated, I’ve worked as a technical translator, but recently I received my first literary translation project and that is hugely exciting to me. I’m hoping to be able to do more of that in the future alongside my own creative writing.

There is no giving up, not for me. Keep trying to be that bumblebee butting against the window until it either dies or finds a way out.”

How did your childhood in Sweden inspire your books in Swedish?

It was instrumental, because even though there were no role model authors to look up to, I was immersed in nature. I started reading and writing at the age of four and wrote my first stories back then. They’re barely legible, but they are stories. I remember the feeling of first touching pencil to paper.

My childhood in Sweden also led to a natural division: I was only ever a child in Sweden, which is why I write children’s books in Swedish, and I was only ever an adult in the UK, which is why I write for adults in English.

Your debut novel, The Shape of Guilt, is your first novel in English. What drew you to writing a novel in English?

When I took up creative writing again after building a career and starting a family, it seemed the natural choice to write in English. It was my everyday language, and I felt out of touch with my Swedish self. When my youngest child started school, I embarked on The Creative Writing Programme, a two-year course here in Brighton, to learn the craft, meet like-minded people and make time for writing. It was during this course that I wrote the first draft to The Shape of Guilt.

The Shape of Guilt is told through the voice of a toy bunny, Robert Bunny. What drew you to this unusual choice of narrator?

The Shape of Guilt is the story of a crumbling family, of Alex who has attempted suicide to protect the world from the monster he believes lives inside him and of his mother Debs, who will go to any lengths to protect her son - even from himself. I needed a way to be inside both Alex’s and Debs’s heads, to get close to their characters.

Robert Bunny was born during a conversation with a friend who I met during the Creative Writing Programme. It came from the idea of a cuddly toy to act as a communication device between Alex and Debs, but Robert Bunny is much more than that, because his own story, how he came to be that communication device, is the most heartbreaking story of all in the book.

Tell us about the launch of The Shape of Guilt.

The launch was at Waterstone’s in Brighton, and it was the best night of my life. About a hundred people came and although I was nervous to start with, I’ve never enjoyed myself so much.

Stacks of Lisa Fransson's book The Shape of Guilt on a table.

Do you have any standout Sussex moments?

My fondest memories are studying in the library – it felt like home.

I also remember sitting on the grass outside Falmer Bar on my last hand-in day, drinking beer with my friends and watching the last-minute students run from the printer to the office with their essays.

What are you currently reading?

Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman. It was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2019 and consists of a single long sentence that runs over 1,000 pages.

Do you have any top tips for how to keep motivated as a writer?

  • Find your tribe of writers to share ups and downs with, to solve problems with and to meet and write with.
  • Most importantly, there is no giving up, not for me. Keep trying to be that bumblebee butting against the window until it either dies or finds a way out.

Favourite place in the world?

West Penwith in Cornwall. That’s where the novel I’m working on now is set.

What advice would you give to those looking to start a career in writing?

Keep writing and submitting. Some people find submitting frightening, but it’s the road to getting published. Eventually rejections become part of everyday life.

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