Described as the “The undisputed queen of Icelandic Noir”, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir is the multi-award-winning author of the fantastic Thora Gudmundsóttir series, the brilliant Freyja & Huldar series, and a superb collection of standalones.
Her latest book, ‘The Fallout’, again translated by Victoria Cribb, was published on 12 May 2022. Nordic Watchlist were able to speak to Yrsa about her recent travels, her approach to writing and whether there are any up-and-coming Icelandic authors we should be keeping an eye out for – clue, there are!
Nordic Watchlist: Did I see on social media that you made the trip over to Prague recently for their Crime Festival? How was that?
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: I did and it was great! I love Prague, it’s a lovely city and, for me, one of the most beautiful in Europe. I’ve been to the festival a few times now and its always great fun.
Nordic Watchlist: I guess it must be a nice feeling getting to meet readers again after the pandemic?
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: Oh, absolutely. Book people, no matter where they come from, are the best people! I will never tire of meeting readers and it’s great to have all the festivals and tours up and running again.
Nordic Watchlist: Going back to when you first started writing, did you ever think that your books would one day be read all over the world?
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: Not at all, no way. I actually started out writing children’s books and I found, with children, that they prefer to read about their own country and things happening within their community that they can directly relate to.
Either that or about fantasy worlds that are nothing like what they are used to. They’re not all that interested in reading about children in other similar locations, so I as I was writing about Icelandic children in Iceland I thought my audience was going to be limited to Iceland and I was quite content with that.
However, this changed when I switched from writing children’s books to crime fiction. The first in my Thora series, ‘Þriðja táknið (Last Rituals)’ was published in Iceland in 2005 and international publications came soon after, the US in 2007 and the UK in 2008 to name a few. The opportunity to reach more readers really came through working with great translators.
Nordic Watchlist: Sticking with the theme of festivals then, what can you tell us about ‘Iceland Noir’? How did that all start?
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: It started back in 2013 and was an idea of mine and Ragnar’s (Jónasson). We thought it would be a good way to celebrate Crime Fiction in Iceland. It all moved really quickly and the first festival actually took place just four months after we came up with the idea!
We really started from scratch. Thankfully it’s grown since then and we’ve now got fellow crime writers Óskar Guðmundsson and Eva Björg Ægisdóttir involved. I might be biased but I think we’ve got a fantastic line-up this year. And it’s not just authors either, there will be some big names from television and film joining us.
Nordic Watchlist: I have looked at the guest list and it is seriously impressive! There were a few Icelandic names I didn’t recognise though. Are there any authors that haven’t yet been translated that we should be keeping an eye on?
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: Ha, they’re all brilliant. If they weren’t they wouldn’t be in our programme!! I actually think most might now have been translated. Perhaps not published yet though? I love María Elísabet (Bragadóttir). She’s fantastic. And then there’s Kamilla Einarsdóttir and Emil Hjörvar Petersen too. Plenty to look out for.
Nordic Watchlist: What do you think it is about Iceland then that keeps producing such fantastic crime writers?
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: I think part of it’s down to the fact we were late to the party. We’ve only been writing crime on a regular basis for about 20 years so a lot of the ideas are still fresh. Originally, I don’t think publishers believed that it would sell because the crime that takes place in Iceland isn’t interesting enough. That all changed when Arnaldur wrote his books and became so successful.
The problem we have here in Iceland as crime writers is that you can’t write about a serial killer. It just wouldn’t work because of the few degrees of separation between people. This would make it impossible for a serial killer to operate without being caught for any amount of time. But on the other hand, what would be a really unbelievable coincidence in other countries wouldn’t necessarily be one here. So, it is all a question of using the cards you are dealt in an inventive way.
Nordic Watchlist: Turning to your books, you’ve now written two series and a whole host of standalones? Do you find a series easier to write than a standalone or vice-versa?
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: There are pros and cons to both. You get a certain freedom with a standalone as you don’t have to commit to certain characters surviving so the death count tends to be higher. Everyone in the book is disposable. With a series you have to plan ahead. You need to have an idea how your characters are going to develop and evolve but the flip side to that is when you start the next book you don’t need to worry about new names or back stories.
My next UK release is a standalone and it’s sort of inspired by the Dylatov Pass Incident but it takes place in Iceland. Loosely, the premise is a group of friends that follow a geologist on a research trip into the highlands of Iceland in the middle of winter but don’t return. Their tents are then found, cut open from the inside and one by one their bodies are uncovered from the snow in various different states.
Nordic Watchlist: What made you decide that it was time to end the Thora series?
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: I just felt the time was right. To keep ideas flowing I think you need change and a new focus. I also thought that series was perhaps a little cosy or light? Though, saying that, I made that comment to a friend not long ago and they reminded me that in the first book one of the character’s eyes are removed with a teaspoon. Apparently that does not qualify as a cosy.
I’m writing a new series at the moment but it’s a little different to anything I’ve done before. It’s a four-book series revolving around a police force but each book will have its own protagonist from within the team.
In the first book I’ve set them in a fjord outside of Reykjavik that comes under the control of the Akranes police and actually spoke to Eva (Björg Ægisdóttir) to ask if I could borrow some of her characters as extras as she has a series based in Akranes. She said yes, so we’ve almost got a sort of Marvel universe of Icelandic crime fiction characters which I think is quite cool.
Nordic Watchlist: Do you have a favourite that you’ve written?
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: Probably, ‘I Remember You’ because I was so surprised that it worked and was so well received. I was really worried that people wouldn’t find it creepy but I think that was because I had read it so many times by the time it went to print. I even got to the point where I was trying to get my publisher not to publish it.
Nordic Watchlist: That one made its way over from the page to the screen. Are any others going to go the same way?
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: They are! I am very happy to tell you that, ‘The Undesired’ is being filmed as we speak and I think that should be released some time next year.
Nordic Watchlist: By my count, not including your children’s books, you’ve now written and released seventeen books! How do you keep coming up with new ideas?
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: A couple of ways really. I find unsolved mysteries really fascinating so that’s one area I find inspiration. Also, if there’s a topic that’s particularly prevalent in the media I like to work that in… and then find a way to make it go horrifically wrong. In, ‘The Fallout’ for example that topic is surrogacy because there was a lot of debate at the time I wrote it surrounding potential changes in the law here in Iceland.
Nordic Watchlist: A question I like to finish with, and I know it can be a difficult one but, do you have a favourite author or favourite authors of your own?
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir: I absolutely love Sara Blaedel from Denmark and also Ragnar Jonasson. I would definitely recommend you read Sara’s ‘Louisa Rick’ series and Ragnar’s ‘Dark Iceland’ books. Ragnar actually asked me if he could name a character after me in one of his books. I said yes, but I won’t tell you what happens to her. I don’t think it is a spoiler to mention that it wasn’t pretty.
Interview by Marc Harries