Nordic Noir has become a staple genre within both the literary and film / TV worlds, with some books making it on the big screen (think Jo Nesbo and 'Headhunters' per se) and yet with each passing year there are new authors and visual material coming out. Turning the attention towards Iceland and you have the prolific authors in Ragnar Jónasson and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and it is the latter who we speak to. Yrsa tells us about how she became an author and what it means to write in the Nordic Noir style, the future of Icelandic literature with a slew of upcoming authors, the challenges she faced in seeing her works reach the English-speaking world and the build-up towards the English edition of "Gatið" ("Gallows Rock") which comes out this year.
Could you tell us how you first became involved in writing crime novels based in Iceland? Where did your inspiration come from?
"I began my writing career by writing children’s books. After writing the fifth and last I won the Icelandic children’s book award and decided this was a good cut-off to my writing career. The books were humour based and I was tired of being funny. But after a year’s hiatus I had a very strong urge to continue writing and this time for a more mature audience. The choice of writing crime was an easy one as crime fiction is my preferred reading material. I think most authors write the books they would like to read and I am no exception. With regards to inspiration I wanted the book to have a historical connection, so I paged through Icelandic history books in search of something interesting. The decision to involve the witch hunts of the 1600's was an easy one as not much else seemed interesting. Iceland was pretty isolated for centuries and the goings on rather tame. The witch hunts however were anything but."
Initially what were the challenges you faced when drafting your first novel "Þriðja táknið", how long did it take to write?
"The challenges involved in my first crime novel were mainly getting over the fact that Iceland is not exactly murder central. To counter this, I added a foreign angle as this felt more credible to me at the time. Now, many, many books later I have come to realise that this is not necessary. Crime novels are not telling stories that have happened, the magic lies in making the novel credible enough to come off as something that could happen. The book took me about a year to write when everything is taken into account, the thinking, the research and the actual hammering out of the story."
When your first novel "Þriðja táknið" ('Last Rituals') translated into English, what was your reaction? Surely you must have been excited at this news?
"Oddly enough, this crime debut of mine had sold to a number of countries before I had written it, based on a synopsis and two sample chapters. This was of course a fantastic feeling but also very unreal. As this was prior to Iceland becoming a popular place to visit; I got it in my head that I needed to write in bits where I introduced the wonders of my country. I thought about having the characters go whale watching, taking a hike behind a waterfall and things like that. But then I sat back and gave myself a hauling over and reset my focus. The foreign publishers did not buy a tourist guide but the book I originally intended to write, i.e. a crime novel set in Iceland and written for the original readers, i.e. Icelanders. So, I stuck to that and the writing flowed easily. I believe that this was the right decision."
It has to be said that Nordic Noir has become such a huge genre internationally in literature, TV and film, for you what is it that makes Nordic Noir what it is?
"The difficulty in defining Nordic Noir is the fact that it is a pretty variable group of crime novels that are jointly classified due to their setting and the authors’ nationality. That aside, the majority of these books have certain elements in common, namely bleak grimness, realistic and relatable characters, as well as the added spice of social critique. Snow is also very often present, if not within the pages it will often still find its way onto the cover."
Nordic Noir has been taken up by writers outside of the Nordics, what advice could you give budding authors if they wanted to write in the Nordic Noir style?
"I would recommend steering far clear of protagonists that are perfect. Damaged is the key word in this respect. Go for the defective detective – but do not go overboard with this and be aware that alcoholism has become an overused cliché. Base the story somewhere that is not a sweeping metropolis, i.e. not in a large city and during winter. If the town is depressed due to changes in the economy or the environment, all the better. With regards to the murder involved I would also recommend killings that relate to injustice of some sort or downright cruelty. Keep the writing style sparse and avoid overextending with too-detailed descriptions."
Are there any upcoming Icelandic authors that you could recommend? Not only just in Nordic Noir but in general?
"I would recommend an up and coming author named Eva Björg Ægisdóttir, whose debut “The Creak On The Stairs” is now available in English. Eva Björg is the first author to win the Blackbird prize, a competition for best Icelandic crime novel manuscript from a first novel author, established by well-known crime author Ragnar Jonasson and myself. She is a wonderful author and her second novel proved that she is not a one hit wonder. The second book will be out English next year, but I do not know the working title. There are of course other Icelandic authors I would like to recommend but unfortunately very few are translated into English. This is the most difficult market to enter due to the size of the language, i.e. the market is pretty much self-sufficient due to the number of authors native to English. But with regards to Icelandic novels that are not crime novels, I can recommend Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir and Ólafur Jóhann Ólafsson."
What plans do you have for the second half of 2020 going into 2021? Will Thóra Gudmundsdóttir have another crime to solve?
"Thóra is no more. I have concluded that series and do not think she will feature in my novels again. I have also finished the series I wrote after the Thóra series, featuring policeman Huldar and child psychologist Freyja. Presently I am writing a stand-alone “horror” novel and having a blast. If anyone that reads this is into this genre, I can 100% recommend my previous ghost/horror novel “I Remember You”. Although I cannot judge its contents, I often hear from readers that want to let me know that it is the scariest / creepiest book they have ever read. I very much hope this applies to readers in general. But my next title out in English is “Gallows Rock” which will be out this summer and I hope the readers like it as much as the pre-publication critics have."
Do you have any greetings or thanks that you wish to send out to friends, family or your readers?
"I would very much like to give my foreign readers a special thank you for showing interest in translated fiction from small countries such as Iceland. It means a lot to be able to extend one’s readership outside the boundaries set by our language. But without translators this would not be possible so I would like to extend this thank-you to my wonderful translator Victoria Cribb."