Yrsa Sigurdardóttir, Icelandic crime novelist, joins us today on Scene of the Crime. The author of numerous children’s books, Yrsa has also written a popular crime series featuring lawyer and single mother of two, Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. Of the five that have been poublished in her native country, two have thus far appeared in English translation, Last Rituals and My Soul to Take. The third, Ashes to Dust, appears this summer in English.
Yrsa’s books have won critical acclaim not only in Iceland, but also abroad. Publishers Weekly finds her work “engaging,” and further states that the author “keeps readers guessing.” Similarly, the London Observer calls her work “both frightening and funny – a terrific trick if you can pull it off.”
Welcome, Yrsa, to Scene of the Crime.
First, please talk about your connection to Iceland.
I write about my home country Iceland, where I was both born and reside. I have written 5 books for children and 5 for grownups, all of which are set here – aside from one which takes place in Greenland. I have tried to take my readers to varying locations within my country as there are remarkable differences in both the landscape and the social aspects, depending on where you chose to wander.
What things about Iceland make it unique and a good physical setting in your books?
Iceland is a very beautiful country, sparsely populated and thus in most part untouched by man’s endeavors. It has long been known as the land of ice and fire, being the home to i.a. the largest glacier in Europe and being situated on the boundary of two tectonic plates, a location which provides the country with more than its fair share of volcanic eruptions. These have left their mark on the land, spectacular lava fields with their irregular surface formations offer up a smorgasbord of eerie scenery, not to mention the visual marks provided by the numerous geothermal fields. The almost utter lack of trees adds to the majesty of the landscape as it ensures an uninterrupted view. Iceland is therefore a joy to write about, not to mention the opportunities its harsh landscape provides for murder, getting rid of bodies and other ingredients necessary for a good mystery.
Did you consciously set out to use Iceland as a “character” in your books, or did this grow naturally out of the initial story or stories?
It grows naturally, when you live in a small, geographically isolated country the locality itself becomes integrated into your being. When I wrote the first book about Thora it sold abroad before I was done and this put some pressure on me to include aspects regarding Iceland I would not have considered when writing purely for my countrymen. It was solely an internal anxiety, i.e. no one asked me to do it but nonetheless I had some sleepless nights thinking about how I could best incorporate tourist information into the plot line. Thankfully I got over it and stuck to the original plan and as a result I believe the book is more true to my intentions and for readers interested in Iceland the information contained within the novels pages should not feel contrived.
I am absolutely conscious of the local when writing. As mentioned before I try to move between places to keep it interesting, for the readers and myself as well. There are always scenes where the location itself plays a big part, when you want the reader to visualize the surrounds to build up suspense and in retrospect these are usually the scenes in which someone gets hurt or something bad is about to happen. The background of each story is very much integral to the backdrop in which it takes place as almost the same amount of time goes into my research of the area I intend to focus on, as goes into the actual writing. I look into issues big and small, not always things specific to the plot but things that I hope will give me a feel for the place and the people inhabiting it. This works quite well as it not only helps me to get ideas for subplots, twists and turns but also provides the building blocks from which I can make plausible, local characters.
How does Thóra Gudmundsdóttir interact with her surroundings?
My protagonist is a native so she interacts with familiarity with her surroundings. However, her boyfriend side-kick is a foreigner so he often serves as the eyes of the outsider, commenting on oddities and asking the questions that need answering in order for the foreign readers to better understand the society and surrounds.
Has there been any local reaction to your works?
Icelanders seem to accept my writing so the local approval stamp is in the bag. This is very important to me as annoyance or comments regarding an implausible or unauthentic backdrop would equate to a mission ill accomplished.
Of the novels you have written set in Iceland, do you have a favorite book or scene that focuses on the place? Could you quote a short passage or give an example of how the location figures in your novels?
It is hard to pick one book above the rest although I have very warm feelings towards the location chosen for the third book, Ashes to Dust. It takes place in a small fishing village on the Westmann Islands off the south coast of Iceland, an island on which a volcano erupted with much ado in 1973. Being pretty used to lava and seascapes it was an archeological dig called Pompeii of the North that intrigued me the most. The dig involves excavating houses from underneath massive layers of ash to showcase them in situ, while my story adds a fictional twist when something other than broken roof beams and rusted iron is unearthed. On every visit to the dig I was just as impressed as the first time I laid eyes on the huge, deep canal, as the blackness of the all-encompassing ash and the effect it had on sounds was intimidating, not to mention the graphic reminder of nature’s not so gentle treatment of the houses we intend to keep us safe from the elements. The below describes a trip in the middle of the night to the dig by Thóra and Bella, her “secretary from hell”:
“The excavation site was completely silent, except for the creaking beneath Thóra and Bella’s shoes as they walked through the slag on the pathway. It was as if they were travelling through a deep valley: nothing could be seen of the world around them apart from a clear sky and the faint traces of a street that had disappeared from the surface of the earth a third of a century ago. Thóra couldn’t block out the uncomfortable feeling that they were being watched through the broken windows of the empty houses as they walked by. Of course she knew that there was not a living soul here apart from herself and Bella; nevertheless unease plagued her. She got goose bumps when a light breeze stirred a loose paper plate lying in front of the wide door of a little house. The house looked as if it had once been yellow, but the catastrophe that had overwhelmed it had given it a dull green appearance. This decrepit shack looked so sad and neglected that Thóra had to stop for a moment and stare at it. It was easy to imagine a dust-covered middle-aged woman standing at the window in her dressing-gown, waiting for life to pick up where it had left off in January of 1973. Thóra shook off the image. She wasn’t used to letting her imagination lead her astray – it must have been the guilt she was feeling over their business in the area. At best, it was immoral. The oppressive silence also played a part. Thóra was so unused to it. Even in the quiet neighbourhood where she lived one could always hear the sound of traffic, even at night an indistinct hum from cars driving down the neighbourhood’s streets managed to reach her ears. Here, there was no sound, although the town was just below them and everyone could have barely gone to bed. Ash and slag clearly swallowed all the noise, even the creaking of their shoes. It was like watching television with the sound muted.”
Who are your favorite writers, and do you feel that other writers influenced you in your use of the spirit of place in your novels?
I don’t have any particular favorite writers, the ones I like are too many to list and to complicate matters further, when I really like a book it is the title I remember, not the author’s name. However there is no question that I am influenced by other authors regarding the spirit of place since I mostly read in English as not enough mysteries are published in Icelandic to soothe my appetite. As a result I am usually reading about fictional events in places that are foreign to me and have learned to appreciate the added dimension this gives the text for the reader.
What’s next for Thóra?
Thóra is now going into yearlong hibernation, having been pretty busy for five books in a row, in as many years. This vacation of hers will not be noted on the foreign market for some time since the translation process delays publication by a year, at the very, very least. If I take the English market as an example, there are three books yet to come out before this blank spot arrives as only the third in the five book series will be out this summer (Ashes to Dust). The book I am writing now and is due out in Icelandic this fall is a horror story (ghost story) which takes place in a deserted town in the Westfjords in Iceland. It will contain main characters set forth for the purposes of this book alone and I am enjoying immensely the freedom provided by such disposable protagonists.
Thanks once more, Yrsa, for taking time out from the writing to share your view of Iceland with us.
You can follow Yrsa’s blogs most Wednesdays at Murder is Everywere.