An Interview with Jussi Adler-Olsen

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There was a great turn-out for Jussi Adler-Olsen’s stop at Once Upon a Crime in Minneapolis this weekend. I had the pleasure of interviewing him and he graciously allowed me to record it all. What follows is a more or less accurate transcript.

You’ve written a lot of books, including two books on Groucho Marx, an encyclopedia of cartoons, and three thrillers, one about two British pilots who landed behind enemy lines in World War II Germany, one about a Dutch character who goes to Indonesia –

Yes, made in 2000, one year before nine-eleven, and the subject was about an airplane falling into a high tower and distributing anthrax letters. [expressions of awe and astonishment from the audience]

And you wrote one about an American president –

Yes, this one – it could be today it was published. It’s very controversial.

So you have a crystal ball. And now you have started the Department Q books. What led you start writing a police procedural series set in Denmark?

Ah, many things. First of all, a Danish film producer called me and asked me if I wrote the best books in Denmark, and I said “certainly, yes, I do.” [audience laughter] He said “I would like you to do the follow-ups to the old Sjowall and Wahloo series. He asked me to do the follow-ups to them because he hated to work with Swedish people, and I understood him so perfectly. [more audience laughter] So I came to this company and he said to me, “I would like you to do police stories.” And I said “I’m not interested. I hope you would make grand thrillers with, you know, supertankers being smashed in the open sea . . . you can’t afford what I’m doing.”  “Well, but I can see you are interested” – but I wasn’t. He didn’t know the difference between a crime story and a thriller. You do, of course. Crime stories, solving a crime and that’s – pfah! – but a thriller, trying to prevent a crime from happening – that’s another thing, then you are turning the pages quicker. I like the old stories, old stories, real stories, the bible: did Abraham kill Isaac? The Red Sea, did he cross it? So these are the real stories, like Victor Hugo and The Count of Monte Cristo – we want to know the end. In Denmark, you have to work with specific regions and specific types of crimes, and I said no. I wanted to be free. I’d had great success with the first three novels, bestsellers all over Europe, so why should I?

Anyway, I wondered “could you do this? Could you be free and still do this? So I invented a police officer who didn’t care, pardon my French, a shit about being fired. So he’s doing whatever he likes, and there’s the story. He sits in the cellar being lazy, smokes cigarettes, everything I would like to do. But I don’t allow him to do that very long because there’s another guy, Assad – well, I guess I answered your question.

Yes. So it took that to get you to stay home in Denmark.

It’s true, because the reviewers, everyone was so annoyed that nothing happened in Denmark and no Danish characters at all in my books. I wanted to go to America. I started film in university and wanted to make a Hollywood movie with Daniel Day Lewis and Ralph Fiennes in the two parts of the pilots [in his first thriller], I wanted that – but in Hollywood, with CinemaScope, you know, everything. It didn’t happen, but it will, I know it will.

I wouldn’t mind seeing the Department Q books in film, too.

They are going to be. The first one will come out in the autumn, [Here we had some top-secret off-the-record discussion of other film possibilities. My lips are sealed.]

Your father worked as a psychiatrist and you and your sisters lived in hospitals around Denmark.

Yes. That’s why . . . [audience laughter]

So how did that influence your career as a writer?

Well . . . in 1955 I was five years old. There psychopharmica [pharmacological treatments for mental illness] hadn’t entered the world. So you could strap down people, you could give them shock treatment and stuff like that. It dropped them totally down, but they couldn’t come back to reality. So therefore they were in cages. In the summertime, the women here, the men over there – screaming and spitting at us. And my father said “you must realize, those people were like you, once.” And that made a big impression on me. I learned a lot about empathy for weird and odd people. You should see my friends, for instance. They are very odd. I had a shop like this with comics – you can imagine. My friends are like you! [audience laughter]

In 1956 we moved to another hospital and there they had psychopharmica. We had a very nice patient there. He wasn’t that nice, actually, because he killed his wife. My father said, to undramatize it, “you know, they fought like dog and cat. He was a dog, and he won in the end.” He wasn’t insane before, but he became insane after the murder, Having psychopharmica after ten years in the hospital, he came sort of back to normal. This person was called “Mørck .” Do you know what “mørck ” means in Danish? Dark. This is a coincidence, but I learned a lot from him because in him I could see good and evil very well combined, and I see that, in fact, in every person. So I learned empathy, i learned every aspect of human beings.

My best friend . . . he was very tall. A very strong man who had killed a man with one blow. I was impressed by that. He was my body guard in one of the hospitals. I was five or six and I could walk around like this [he holds his arm up, as if holding the hand of a giant] and no one would interfere. I learned a lot. I learned to be afraid of authority. I wasn’t afraid of the patients, but the doctors – they were scary. The ones with rubber stuff and pills and could press the button and not all of them in the fifties had empathy at all. My father, he had it, and I learned a lot from him.

Can you tell us a little bit about the Department Q series? There are three now in English. Are there more to come?

Yes, I am writing number six now,  This started as an experiment. First of all, could I find a way to do what he wanted, this producer, without working together with him. (I never saw him again, actually). Then I thought, maybe I should do the longest story ever made in the world, 5,000 pages. I know people here would say “oh, Raymond Chandler, he wrote that many books,” but we’re talking about one story with one plot line for each main character, being well combined and stretched – and we’re not talking about being divorced or having children, Real stories. Those were the first I made, the stories of Carl Mørck, Assad and Rose. Every book is one chapter, every book is part of the dramatic curve, and this one, number three, it’s a little up; the next one is a little down.

You know the first one, that’s a platform, right? Therefore the case must be very simple: the woman in the cage. Number two, there you can show the borderlines of how violent you can be, It must be number two. If you’re going to write [he’s confiding in the audience, now], number two must be the violent one. No splatter – no, no.  Number six is hard, because the stories are coming to an end. Number seven, you have the story of Rose. Rose is two-dimensional, we are not in her head, so we have to wait for number seven, and eight is Assad. [Much audience commotion: “we have to wait until number eight?!”] Oh, you know what’s going to happen! And then number nine, it’s the story of Carl, and then number ten is fireworks. [From the audience: “Are they all going to live through it?”] Shhh! Are you someone who reads the ending first? Okay, I’m not going to tell, and I’m the only person in the world who knows, so if I’m doing a Stieg Larsson . . . [he shrugs; audience laughter] We have the storylines put in a safe in Denmark and I’ve already appointed my successor if something should happen to me, like being shot here in Minneapolis or something.

Also sometimes known as “muderapolis” . . . 

Murderapolis? Oh, it’s only the tenth murder, I think. We can do much better in Denmark.

There’s a lot of Scandinavian heritage here, so –

And they’re the ones killing each other, yeah? You know, this is Viking blood [pointing to himself]; this is a Dane. The Swedes? Phht. The Norwegians? [shakes his head] It’s us! We own all the stuff there. And that’s why we’re such good storytellers. Because we have nothing to do. And that’s the same for Wallander, you know, and Jo Nesbo and all. We had nothing to do, it’s simple. The Vikings, they’re good at murders, they killed people just to keep warm.

Some really terrible things happen to people in your books. When I started the first one I thought, Oh my god, where are we going with this? A woman in captivity, and it’s a very long book – but they’re also very funny.

We are funny in Denmark. That’s the difference between Swedes and Danes. The Swedes, they are so formal on the outside. I am a very big success in Europe, most of all in Germany. And I thought “Germans, that’s a problem.” Because how can you enter that formal society, with Herr Professor and Zie and Doktor, even if they were acquainted for many, many years. But I found out that inside they were like Danes in disguise. That’s not the same with Swedes. You read Henning Mankell, that’s funny?  And the Norwegians, they’re just crazy. Jo Nesbo – nice guy, but crazy. No, he’s sweet.

Hakan Nesser –

He’s Swedish.

I know, but he’s funny.

No. [there is absolutely no room for debate in his voice.] I met him again at Frankfurt last autumn. We had always been sitting down. This time he rose to embrace me. And he rose and rose and rose . . . He’s like [indicates a giant size].

This mix of humor and darkness, how do you combine them? How do you keep it from being violence as entertainment? Is there a way to balance that?

Yes, there’s a way to balance everything. I am a former publisher. I was a publisher at the biggest publishing company in Scandinavia, and I’ve been everything in this business, even a bookseller and a printer, an editor and a publisher. Do you know what I know? Readers. They are wiser than most authors think. They are much cleverer and you have been reading much more than the authors. So you have to respect that you want specific stuff to happen in specific places, but not too much of it. The first mantra of mine is what I call “the missing voice.” If you see a painting, most of them are lousy to be frank, but if you melt into it, then there’s a missing voice. If you listen to music – I love classical music. If you listen to Beethoven, my  god, after two hours you are tired. It’s good, but overproduced. Every line in the composition is there. But Mozart, he took two or three voices out, and he knew which. Those are the voices you hum, and you can listen to him for hours and hours. In stories, in literature, that’s you. That means to treat the fantasy of the reader, to treat certain elements, like being scared, sorrow, laughing, The first goal of an author should be to respect the readers.

I write in a system you all know. WordPerfect 5.1. [audience laughter] It’s quite old. I know every other system, but WordPerfect 5.1, you don’t have to move the mouse, so therefore you don’t lose your concentration, just write, write, write, and ten hours – that’s it. Blue screen and white letters, you can do that forever. In Word, you write and after ten minute it looks marvelous. “This is a book I made, fantastic!” I know mine is shit. I meet with other authors to read from our work, and I can’t be hurt because know mine is shit, but they are hurt because they don’t know theirs is, too. The difference between me and them is that I am changing, changing, changing and they are not. Then I convert it to Word, and suddenly I see it in another way. I throw a lot over the shoulder. The third time I convert it to PDF, and it looks like a book. And I try to imagine you, the reader, lying in bed (because you are) and you are reading, and after five minutes your head is falling down, and I put in such a short sentence you can read it and then you can take one more half page and . . .  you’re doing it again and again. Sometimes its very necessary to use humor and sometimes you just must be scared. I can so clearly see what is necessary when I’m reading it in PDF.

Carl Mørck: why did you choose that person for a hero? He sits around, he puts his feet on the table, he doesn’t want to do any work.

No. He’s totally free to do nothing.

So, he’s liberated?

He’s liberated. He’s liberated from the standards of the police story, right? I didn’t know of cold cases when I wrote this. Later on, I found out there are 2, 450 series about cold cases. I didn’t know, actually. I never read thrillers and crime stories anymore. I haven’t done that for ten years, so I know nothing. I’m just scared of being influenced. I want to feel original. We are making a main character and a sidekick. Do you know who’s Watson and Sherlock Holmes here? [audience laughter] Because they don’t know. Assad is very skilled and has a lot of secrets, and Carl does as well, so the interaction between them can be quite a lot, but it’s not enough. After a few books, every couple like that, they become stereotypical. So therefore I had to place secrets so that they can use different parts of their personalities to be different to each other. But I knew this wasn’t enough. We needed something totally chaotic – and that’s Rose. Rose is pure anarchy. With those three persons, it’s endless, the possibility of interactions between them, and that’s what I wanted. So – and Carl, of course, is a combination  of this insane person and this fantastic writer – me, called Carl Waldemar Jussi Adler- Olsen, this is my real name – very short and clear. The part  of me in Carl is, of course, very obvious. He’s humorous, nice . . . no. [laughter]. He came from William H. Gaines. Do you remember him? Mad magazine? The owner himself? He was a very dear friend of mine, because I published every magazine in Scandinavia including Mad magazine and he said once – well, he said many things. He said once, “do you want to have a really nice and lucky life? Please buy 400 pairs of socks that are the same. Then you don’t have to look for the one that’s missing.” He said to me, “Jussi, please remember ‘the shadow knows.'” It was made by Sergio Aragonas and it was a little comic strip at the side of the pages and [he acts out] “Oh, Barbara, how nice to see you” but the shadow knows [he acts out a crazed attack]. And this Carl. He’s so frank, It’s not very practical for the boss, but he doesn’t care. That’s me. Do you know how I invented Assad, by the way?

No,  I was going to ask.

I knew him, but I knew there was something missing. Who is he, actually, I can give you a tip. If you really want to know a person, have a single sentence that tells everything about him.  I have this sentence from an American translator. His name is Steve Schein. He lives in Denmark and has been there many years. He doesn’t translate my books, but he helps with the translations. I said to him “Steve, I have missed you. I think of you all the time.” And he said (in his San Francisco accent) “What a coincidence. I also am always thinking of me.” [laughter] So, take this sentence and think of Assad. He doesn’t think so much of himself, but he’s quite unexpected. And then Steve said another thing that characterizes Assad quite well. I said “How are you, Steve?” and he said “Actually, I’m quite fine. But that will pass, I’m sure.”

Assad is a very cheerful person, he’s always eager to please –

He makes Carl think he’s eager to please.

Ah. He’s a hard worker, and he’s always cooking odd-smelling food. And he’s from the Middle East –

Maybe.

He’s not Danish born.

Who knows?

He’s a man of mystery.

That’s true.

But he doesn’t appear that way. He seems very, he’s always so pleasant, cooking some food or “I made some tea; here, have some.” But every now and then he comes up with something amazingly intelligent.

He’s not dumb.

No, he isn’t, but in some ways he’s a stereotypical immigrant figure who’s Danish isn’t terribly good, who makes funny mistakes, who drives badly. How do Danes respond to this character as an immigrant? 

They love him completely. They took him so much to heart. Also, the immigrants. “Oh, I’m so much like Assad.” This year in Frankfurt [the international book fair] two tall Egyptians surrounded me like a sandwich. I was a little hesitant about that because being published in Muslim countries can sometimes be a little bit problematic when one of your main characters is named Hafez el Assad. [pause, followed by audience laughter] I said “you know, you don’t know why he’s called that, and you will learn later on, but if you must, you can call him something else in Egypt. And they said “oh, we already have reflected about that, and we’ve decided we are going to call him Mubarak.” I didn’t answer. I escaped.

A lot of people have immigrated to the Scandinavian countries, and there are tensions – 

We have a problem. It’s not like in the United States where anyone can come but they must take care of themselves. In Denmark  we have a health care system – I am playing 68 percent in tax myself – please clap – and that means anyone comes to our country and we will help them in any way. If they are unemployed they will get support and if they are sick, we will get them well again. It’s very, very expensive. Nowadays, I feel so fantastically happy about the immigration because suddenly Denmark is a little more colorful than it used to be. We are the Latinos of Scandinavia in Denmark. We are the ones who can tap dance and do the flamenco. We perhaps didn’t need the color, but . . .

There is a big gap in Denmark now, politically, disagreements. People are shouting over this gap, and I realize – and this is why I use humor so often. You know how when you are discussing with your family and suddenly your finger is raised, right? Then they don’t listen anymore. So I don’t point fingers. I tried to make a little bridge across this gap of laughter. And it worked. Now we can discuss it a little better.

Should we read a bit from your new book?

[Here I read the first paragraphs in English. “This is very close to Fifty Shades, isn’t it?” he joked before picking up the Danish version. “Now you are going to hear a very old language. Lots of words in English are Danish.  It’s a German language, or so they say. I’m very popular in Germany, but I try to explain, “listen here, this is the original German.” He thumped his book. “To prove it to you, it’s without grammar. No grammar in this language at all.”  He began to read, then paused. “Listen to those nice vowels. I’m sorry for you that you don’t have them anymore.” He came to a recognizable word in the passage: “shit!” and added, “a good Danish word.” He asked if anyone in the audience was Danish and had a short conversation with a woman in Danish before saying “then I have to take a little care.” He added, “It’s very important to know that you can be more scary in other languages. If you take the first sentence of the first book . . .” He recited it in Danish. “Now in Norwegian.” He read it again, emphasizing the rising and falling pitch characteristic of Norwegian. “It doesn’t work! But in German . . . ” He recited it, playing up the sinister sibilants. “Now you know why I’m a great success in Germany.”]

A Conspiracy of Faith involves people with fundamentalist religious beliefs, involved in sects and very deeply involved in religion, and I’ve noticed that quite a few writers from Scandinavia have an interest in fundamentalist religion such as Asa Larsson, Anne Holt, Camilla Lackberg’s Preacher; one of the killers in The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo is a bible-thumping serial killer. Yet my sense is that Scandinavian countries on the whole are fairly secular societies compared to the United States. Why did you decide to bring religion into this book? 

It’s not. It’s about misuse of power and it is only by coincidence it is this setting, In my opinion, people can believe in what they want. If they aren’t proselytizing me, please do. No, this is about misuse of power. And a funny thing about this, it could have been Microsoft, for instance, Apple. Whatever company we are talking about, having power. Because if you have power in a sect or in a company, then you can use the power in the company itself or in the outside world. But what’s interesting in my book, this guy is using the power of the company against itself. That’s like judo, right? That was what I wanted to describe. Most of the sects in the story doesn’t exist, and I’m so sad I used the term “Jehovah’s Witnesses” because I have no problem with them, no problem. So that was a mistake of mine. I admit it. They should have been “the Jehovah’s Funny Guys” or something like that, something different anyway. The Mother Church in this book, it’s actually the Father Church in Denmark – clever choice, you couldn’t recognize that, eh? So I’m not aiming at that specific stuff.

It’s more someone who knows that culture being able to get inside it to do mischief. 

Yes, that’s a theme.

Scandinavian crime fiction, which I gather you have not read – 

No. Not recently.

It’s usually thought of as being gloomy, with glum detectives . . . 

That’s Henning Mankell.

Okay, that’s Swedes. But also serious about social issues. 

Well, we have social issues. Compared to many other countries, we have some. Political and social topics being blended with very fine dialogue and humor we learned from Sjowall and Wahloo. They taught us in the seventies that this combination is usable, very, very fantastic. The fifth book I wrote, it’s called The Marco Effect, the reviewers said “well, it’s gorgeous, this book, but it’s actually Oliver Twist, with Fagin and everyone. This is down the line of literature, what you’re doing, combining The Count of Monte Cristo or Les Miserables. Jean Valjean, he has to know what happened and who’s following him and so forth. It’s the same stuff. Real literature, that’s what you’re reading, not the kind like Hemingway – oh, sorry, sorry! I didn’t say that.

But in a way, this makes sense because what you are saying is that these are the big nineteenth century novels –

Yes, classical novels being converted into WordPerfect 5.1.

Some people have said the social novel of the nineteenth century has become the crime novel of the twentieth century. 

Yes, it’s so true.

So you can do this entertaining engagement with social questions. 

The fantastic thing about a thriller is that you can write about everything. You can do whatever you like, and therefore I prefer it. John Irving is a favorite writer of mine. He wrote The Cider House Rules. It’s a good thriller, yeah? Who raped whom and what is going to happen in the end? Even Forrest Gump, that’s a thriller. [audience laughter]

You were involved in publishing before you started the writing part of your career. Why do you suppose the British and the American titles are so totally different? 

Like always, the British and the American publishers think they are much wiser than the other. The Keeper of Lost Causes – the original title was The Woman in the Cage. It’s a boring title, they said quite openly. Thank you.

And the British title is Mercy. 

Yes, what a swell title. I found more than twenty books with the title Mercy, ten movies, and a lot of lyrics. Did they listen at Penguin? No. They want to have one word titles in Britain these days, and in Germany. Here in America you just want to have literary titles. How can you remember after ten books what is what? The second book in Danish is called The Pheasant Killers.  And what is that? It’s a symbol of the ruling class – killing for fun. Number three – yes, I know there’s a novel called A Message in a Bottle, but mine was called A Message in a Bottle from P. That’s better. But it’s called A Conspiracy of Faith. I think they are good titles, anyway, though I can’t remember what’s what.

I was wondering, since you have this publishing background, what do you think about the current state of publishing, what the future holds? 

Oh, it’s so problematic. I am fighting so much for what it takes to survive a few decades more. I’m fighting mostly for the bookshops in Denmark and Germany. In Denmark, we don’t have fixed prices. That means everyone can compete on prices, and the supermarkets, they love people to come in and buy my books. Even though they lose money on them, they love people to come in, and that means in the end that bookshops in Denmark will disappear. I have fought hard for fixed prices, and I think I am going to lose the battle. Then there’s the e-books. I don’t mind the e-books, it’s okay, but it’s a little problematic for the booksellers to sell e-books and if it hadn’t been for the booksellers, I wouldn’t be here today. My first book, The Alphabet House, the first edition sold 1,800 copies. That’s very good in Danish, but it’s not very good for survival. They hand sold it, mouth by mouth, slowly, and suddenly there was an audience there that I could live from. So we need the booksellers very much. Walking around, I signed a lot of books lately. Barnes and Nobles, they are totally empty. Not here in Minneapolis, but in the other cities. No one. “Oh, you are coming here for signing. Take two copies of this and one of that. That’s all we have.” And I understand they can’t have stock. I fear very much for the chains. It’s good for you, my dear Gary [points to Gary Shulze, who with Pat Frovarp owns Once Upon a Crime], but it’s not good for small authors. I can’t live without reading the small authors. I’m not reading crime and thrillers, but I’m reading a lot of absurd literature, and there is a lot of absurd literature in the world.

And then the publishing houses. They are a little arrogant. They believe that they can survive without the booksellers. But we can survive, we bestselling authors, without the publishers. J. K. Rowling, she did it. She took away a lot of sales from the publisher who helped her up. I’m never deserting the ones who helped me up and I’m fighting very heavily for that, so I’m trying in the different unions in Denmark to let them speak a little better to each other and to find solutions with consensus, and that means totally new solutions. Fixed prices for a period of time. And I tried even to say that there must be a gap between the printed book and the e-book, three or four months, to keep a little space for the booksellers of the printed books. It was in Germany I tried that. I’m selling 1.3 million of each book in Germany and 300,000 e-books, so I took a chance, and within three days I had many, many emails saying “you are disloyal to your readers and we hate you for that. We don’t want to read you anymore. We are not waiting. That’s discrimination.” And they are right, it is discrimination. And then they phoned me from the publishing house to say the book had been scanned and there were 400,000 downloads within four days, so I had to say “okay, I understand the message.” So now it’s like it was before. It’s very, very difficult. But then you are there, you lovely people who buy the books and pass the word.

[A question from the audience: “How do you feel about the people who get the book from the library and then tell everyone to get it?”] 

I love them. Libraries, that’s a blessing. So if we have the libraries, that’s all right.

The interview was followed by some excellent questions from the audience, stories from Alder-Olsen about growing up on hospital grounds and being able to peer through the basement windows with his friend Erling to watch autopsies, his father sending them out to look for a missing patient who was suicidal and his friend finding him by walking into the dangling feet of the hanged man. (“That’s my daddy!”)  In response to a question, Adler-Olsen said that it was a good idea to start the series with the first book, but after that it didn’t matter – until book four. Though it was clear from the questions that many members of the audience were well up on the stories and had filled in some of the gaps about Assad’s background, Adler-Olsen closed by indicating that he has things up his sleeve that will slowly be revealed. His final word on that subject was “Hah!”

All in all, it was a delightful evening with an author who is entertaining and funny and sometimes a bit serious – just like his books.

jussi and me

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9 thoughts on “An Interview with Jussi Adler-Olsen

  1. Very good interview, which I read with tongue plated firmly in cheek. What a person is Jussi Adler-Olsen, who seems to think and speak on several levels at once. The first Merck/Assad book, whatever one titles it was quite good – riveting to the nth degree. I look forward to the entire series.

  2. Pingback: » Join Third Thursday Mystery Book Club September 19 for ‘The Keeper of Lost Causes’ PlanoReads

  3. Pingback: The Purity of Vengeance by Jussi Adler-Olsen | Ms. Wordopolis Reads

  4. You mention Steve Schein. I’m trying to get in touch with him, after many years. He was my best friend in elementary school in Berkeley, and I’d love to get his email or other address.

  5. I’m curious if you have written anything about the popularization of Scandinavian Crime in translation. How and when did it become popular? What started it? Was it Stieg Larsson’s books? Thanks.

    • I have not, though Barry Forshaw’s book might be useful (Death in a Cold Climate). I know that the Martin Beck series was translated into English back in the 60s/70s, but until Henning Mankell (RIP) there wasn’t a huge international audience for Scandinavian translations of crime fiction. In the US, Mankell wasn’t as popular as he was elsewhere, and really it was Knopf’s belated publication of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo that suddenly opened the floodgates in a big way. Of course, in the Scandinvian countries crime fiction has a different history. I highly recommend Kerstin Bergman’s Swedish Crime Fiction: The Making of Nordic Noir, which includes a capsule history of crime fiction in the other Nordic countries.

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