By Grant Nicol
It wasn’t all that long ago that Arnaldur Indriðason came up with the idea of setting his own brand of crime fiction stories in Iceland. At the time people here thought he was joking and laughed at him. None of them are laughing any more.
The Sigurðardóttir code
At the recent Iceland Noir Crime Fiction Festival in Reykjavík the most amusing anecdote came during the first panel of the first day when Lilja Sigurðardóttir, author of ‘Steps’ (2009) and ‘Forgiveness’ (2010) described how she got published. When she saw an ad from a publisher saying that they were “looking for the new Dan Brown” she decided to send her manuscript to them hoping that they would decide that she was to be the author of the next ‘Da Vinci Code’. When they got back to her they said that while she wasn’t “the new Dan Brown” they were going to publish her anyway.
Five years later and she is in the process of adapting that first novel, ‘Steps’ for television. When asked how screenwriting differed from writing novels Lilja said that it was important in an adaptation to “leave room for the other artists to bring their talents to the project”. It is after all a collaborative enterprise unlike the daily solitary pursuit of novel writing. She also said that crimes do not necessarily have to be the result of a criminal act, “Crime in Iceland can just be an accident. It doesn’t have to be an evil force” and spoke of the alternatives to the traditional publishing route, “A lot of people self-publish in Iceland.” Not everyone is lucky enough to not be the next Dan Brown.
Certain things happen to your brain when you decide to start writing a book. There are the obvious speed-humps along the way known as self-doubt and any number of potentially traumatic fears that you will make a giant arse out of yourself as well as the nagging questions along the lines of why the hell am I doing this when I could be at the local beach/pub/art installation? Sverrir Berg Steinarsson admitted to something I felt very strongly when I was working on my first book. He said “When I started writing it I didn’t tell anyone about it because I didn’t know if I was going to finish it.” Either did I, for three long years. Fear of failure does strange things to your behavioural patterns.
There are other more subtle things that happen to you as well. As a crime fiction writer you will find yourself staring out of a window, into a construction site or an area of wasteland and thinking about how the next murder victim in your book is going to die. As Ævar Örn Jósepsson said, “You go from “What a lovely lava field” to “That’s a great place for a body.”” I find it difficult to even visit the local swimming pool without dreaming up strange new ways for people to be kidnapped or pass from this world to the next. It’s not that you become unnaturally gruesome, it is just as he also said, “You never look at places the same way again.”
Everywhere in your life becomes a potential location for your next chapter. Your whole world becomes part of your next book which rather than being odd and disturbing, not for you anyway, becomes a hugely cathartic release. I don’t recommend telling too many people about these things though, not even close friends. No matter how much they love you, they will think you have lost your mind. Even if we know that it is not what is going on in our heads that is dangerous, they may not see it that way. Jón Óttar Ólafsson said it best, “It’s the real world that’s scary.” If you want to be really freaked out, pick up a newspaper.
The method behind the eyes of the madness
It must be easy for people who think along the lines of normal human beings (that’s our friends, not us) to wonder why we do it. Is it a compulsion, an addiction or something else altogether? I’m not sure that I can answer that myself but I will make an attempt using a little story that one of the panellists at Iceland Noir shared with us. Johan Theorin summed it up succinctly with another of the more memorable anecdotes from the festival, “People tell stories so as to not be forgotten.”
He once worked in an old people’s home and sometimes the staff were the only people left to hear the stories that the inhabitants had to tell before they died. They had no one else left to turn to and needed to pass on to someone what they had been through and what they had achieved with their lives. An eleventh hour narrative last will and testament. It is an experience that has stayed with him ever since and one that taught me a very valuable lesson about why I do what I do.