Matthew Turbeville: Yrsa, I am so excited to talk with you about your work. You have an amazing history of publishing some of the best in crime fiction today. I would love to start with how you found yourself a professional writer. When did you realize you were a writer, and when do you feel you had your breakthrough? What novel do you feel is the book that really set you up for being one of the most important voices in crime fiction today?
Yrsa Sigurdardottir: I never imagined myself becoming a writer, not as a child, not as a young adult or as a semi grown-up. I was very content being an avid reader. I read non-stop and as an example, the year I turned twelve I set myself a goal to read one book a day – no graphic novels or baby books were allowed. I managed all the way to my birthday in August when I was given Gone with the Wind as a birthday present. I started reading and was immediately hooked, but the sheer number of pages meant it took me three days to finish instead of one and I was unable to recoup from that. Having spent my childhood with my nose between the pages of a book I was certain that the best way of becoming an empathetic person with broad horizons was to read. It allows you to place yourself in a variety of situations by entering the characters’ minds in a way that movies, TV and computer games do not – much less life as it is limited by your surroundings and individual circumstances. I also believed that if you do not read as a child you will not read as a grown up. When my son was about eight and showed zero interest in reading I became extremely stressed that he would grow up to be a bad person. I found that the books available to him at the time were not likely to fuel his interest and decided to write books for kids like him. I ended up writing five kids books and winning the Icelandic Children’s Literature prize for the last one (and the least one in my opinion). But my son never read them. He did however to my great surprise ending up becoming a reader when he was older. So I was wrong in assuming that just did not happen.
With regards to my realizing I was a writer and when I felt I had broken through – oddly enough I have a hard time seeing myself from the outside and in (if this makes any sense). I just love to write – when I don’t hate it. The hate bit helps because at some point during the writing process of every book I feel that I am not doing a good enough job and wallow in depression for a few days. This keeps me on my toes and ensures that I am very critical of my work. No author wants to write a bad book so I am sure I am not the only one that goes through the wringer while writing.
MT: You write multiple series, and also standalone novels as well. How do you decide which mystery or storyline belongs in a standalone novel, as opposed to one of your series? How do you determine what story belongs with what character or set of characters?
YS: Usually I make a conscious decision to write a standalone or not before I start thinking about the story itself. This happens during the writing of the book that precedes it. There are differences in the setup of each as the characters in a standalone have limited space for their “journey”. Their story must fit into one book, along with the developments in the underlying crime investigation. Characters in standalone novels are furthermore disposable which allows for more freedom in a way – as the writer you can kill them all off if that fits or feels right. In a series however the main characters have more space to develop and an added bonus is that you have them set up already when writing all other than the first installment. The downside to this is that it can be tricky to introduce these characters in a way that explains them to someone entering mid series without boring to death the readers that have read the previous installments.
MT: When writing so prolifically, and having characters so diverse, complex, interesting—how do you keep up with so many characters, and stay true to how you’ve envisioned them? Do you ever find problems with keeping up with so many different characters’ worlds in your novels?
YS: I do not find this difficult because I purge the previous book from my head when I am done – aside from the central characters if I am writing in a series. The fact that the characters in each book relate to the topic I am addressing helps a lot as well. A book that revolves around bullying for example (The Absolution) will introduce a very different set of characters than one about surrogacy for example (the book I just finished – working English title: The Fallout).
MT: One of my favorite of your novels, I Remember You, is labeled “a ghost story.” First, I’m wondering how you think literal ghosts are connected to crime fiction, but also, in film school we were always taught every character has a “ghost,” or a history which propels the character forward in their journey. What do you think the importance of this sort of ghost—a haunted past, for example—in crime fiction, and why do you feel it’s necessary for a mystery or crime novel today?
YS; I love stories where old sins or “ghosts” come to life and refuse to stay buried. To me it is a form of justice that you seldom witness in real life and I prefer my alternative reality to be different. If perpetrators of evil within my pages think they got away with their bad deeds, they should think again. However, this is not a universal truth. Occasionally the bad guy does get away in my books - to keep the readers on their toes.
MT: When you are in contact with fans from different countries, or me now, speaking English, do you ever feel more pleased with the translations of some books over others? I remember Boris Pasternak’s daughter being displeased with one of the English translations of Doctor Zhivago. Have you ever felt that way about a book having been translated?
YS: The only translation I am able to read with any sort of success is the English language one. Although I could worm my way through the other Scandinavian languages and the German one, I would not be able to judge their quality at all. I would be lucky to follow the storyline, even if it is my own. But I am extremely lucky with Victoria Cribb who does my English translations as she is just fantastic to work with and very, very good at what she does. In general, it is the translators that I never hear from that I worry about. There is always going to be something in the Icelandic text that needs explaining as the books are written for the original Icelandic readers. Victoria spots the places where someone not local will not understand what is being referred to or is not explained due to familiarity with Icelandic society and/or geography. She will point these places out and give me the opportunity to pad the text so that all readers will get my drift.
MT: Of all your books, which is your favorite? Which are you most proud of? Which do you think will have the most long-lasting effect? What is your writing process like, and how do you balance so many different books and projects? Your mysteries are obviously layered endlessly and brilliantly, and I wonder how you map out these vast, complicated, and expansive worlds. Do you mind briefly elaborating on this?
YS: I have a very hard time picking a single book but as the thumb screws are on I am going to say “I Remember You”. This is due to two things, the first being that I am a horror aficionado and it was such fun to write. Secondly, I built the book up in accordance to a theory I had regarding the difference between thrillers and clean-cut crime novels. By running the story through two separate threads where one followed a thriller structure (abandoned town) and the other, opposing story followed a crime structure (dead hide-and-seek son) – I was able to keep the tension high throughout.
I do not have a hard time layering or keeping track of threads etc. as I work in project management for large, mostly power plant projects, and a storyline is child’s play in comparison regarding complexity. I have this dream of setting up a huge idea board and connecting stuff with string in my office when working on a book idea. But it has never come to fruition. Presently my office has been taken over by a squatter (my daughter) so this is not likely to change very soon.
MT: Returning back to I Remember You, there are two separate storylines inside the novel (or so it seems) which intersect and affect one another in various ways. How do you go about making this work, and how does this affect real life? I’ve recently been watching The Bridgeafter my mentor suggested the show, and it’s so interesting to see so many different lives in the show playing out, intersecting, and bringing a massive story together. How do you feel your fiction, and your favorite crime fiction, reflects real life?
YS: I try to keep everything that I possibly can realistic and thus a reflection of reality. By this I mean the characters, society, landscape, culture, dialogue, and urban settings. Doing so one obtains a single degree of freedom that allows you to make the crime/murder more elaborate than what commonly happens.
To set up and connect various storylines or threads, a lot of thinking is required. As the author you control everything, the magic is in finding a way to weave everything together so that it does not appear random. It helps to keep in mind that none of us are exempt from the butterfly effect and therefore not masters of our own universe. Other people’s actions and decisions will affect us so it is not hard to see this happen to one’s characters. So I spend a lot of time thinking about how character A’s life can intersect or collide with character B and end up acting as a catalyst for the misguided actions of character C etc., etc. etc. It helps that I know what I am attempting to do, i.e. I know how what the end result of the intersections is supposed to be.
MT: What are your favorite books you return to when you need inspiration, if you cannot figure out a plotline or story problem, or perhaps if you’re exasperated and need a reminder of why you write? I know a lot of different writers have different books they turn to for this last question, the reminder for why they write. Do you credit any books for your need to become a writer, and for your success? What books helped inform you most in your formative years?
YS: Well. Although it might sound odd the writers that influenced me into becoming a writer were really the crap writers. The writers of boring children’s books. If it were not for them I would still be a very content reader. Today there is an abundance of fantastic book for kids so I guess I am lucky to have had my son when I did. But with regards to my go-to book I can’t recall any single novel that I revert to when I am feeling exasperated. There are so many good books available that I tend to read something new when I want to refresh. When it comes to my informative years, I know exactly the book that sent me on the path that I now tread, i.e. that of fascination of all things horror. This was a text book for doctors belonging to my father who was at the time taking a specialist degree in medicine and it was called something like The Complete Clinical Collection of Infectious Diseases. It contained the most horrible photos of boils, ulcers, pox, rotting digits etc. and me and my sister (aged about 10 and 7) would use every opportunity we had to peek inside. This lasted until my dad found out and removed the book from our house. It was however too late. We had been introduced to the lure of the awful and there is no going back. Decades later I still remember the page number with a picture of a girl our age missing a cheek, the back row of molars all visible.
MT: You’ve begun a new series featuring psychologist Freyja and the police investigator Huldar. The series is widely celebrated and here in the US much anticipated—with every new volume a welcome relief from all the crime fiction that seems like a regurgitation of the same plots and ideas. The first two books in this series released in America have been widely embraced and loved, and I wonder how you developed this series, and where you send it going, and if you have a specific end in sight?
YS: Just over a week ago I finished the last book in the series, number six. I find that it is best to quit before I get tired or the characters get stale. I chose to write this series with themes where the central crime revolves around social injustice or social ills. This made writing each installment interesting and fun. Soon I must decide what my next series will be like, who is the protagonist, will it be urban or more remote and so on. Once I have something that I feel very enthusiastic about I can start thinking about the first case. But I have a year to do this as my next book is to be horror, something akin to I Remember You.
MT: What’s your biggest criticism about crime fiction today? What do you love most about fiction in general—crime fiction and any other genre as well? If you were to give one of your books to everyone in the world in the hopes of creating some kind of change, or perhaps developing an understanding of some sort—what book would you suggest, and what effect would you imagine?
YS: I thought hard about criticism and must say there is nothing glaringly obvious that I don’t like about the genre status today. This is probably because it is so diverse, i.e. as a reader I am able to select what I am likely to enjoy reading and leave the ones I certainly won’t on the bookshop shelves. Sometimes I do get annoyed at the “necessity” to insert a “defective detective” into the mix as all of the good defects are already taken and hence they become increasingly outlandish.
The book of mine that I believe could have an effect would be the Absolution – the book about bullying. But as I mentioned earlier, bullies are not readers so they are unlikely to be affected. If they did however I would hope to scare them into being better people and draw their attention to the fact that they are pitiful. No content person bullies others. The book also contains a harsh solution for parents of children that are subject to horrendous bullying, i.e. lawyer up. Sue the bully for the loss of a life ruined. As parents are responsible for their kids in most legal systems this is a surefire way of getting them to address their problem kid. When faced with losing material possessions or money, the problem will suddenly become real and urgent to amend. As much of bullying is now online the burden of proof is simple, as is proving damages. Lost time off work, falling grades and so on. If a kid breaks your window or scratches your car you seek compensation from the parents. I do not see it is much different if a kid breaks your child’s happiness. I should note that I have never been bullied and my kids are lucky enough to have escaped this as well. But I have seen a few of my friends’ kids go through hell because of bullying and I cannot begin to describe how much I detest this behavior. It is unacceptable, no matter what your age.
MT: Before you published your first novel, how many drafts did you work through, and how many books did you write before your first book was actually published? What advice do you have for new authors? Anything from larger, broader advice and to perhaps very specific and unique suggestions are certainly welcome here.
YS: The first book that I wrote was published so I was one of the lucky few or perhaps it is easier here in Iceland to reach a publisher’s attention. I don’t do drafts. There is no first draft, second draft etc. There is only the one draft that I edit regularly while writing. I write ten chapters, then I read them through and distance myself from the authorship, i.e. read it like a reader. This helps me pinpoint pacing lags and storyline lacks and I amend this before continuing. I do the same after twenty chapters and after thirty. Usually my book is thirty something chapters so following the third review there is little left to do - other than taking the story by the hand and leading it across the finishing line.
This process includes sending each chapter to my editor when it is finished. Because I do it this way, once done I am done. There is no dreading the return of a redlined manuscript or the horrid re-write. The book I just finished was sent to print less than a week after I wrote the last word. For me this is the best way of doing it because you catch problem areas or dead ends, before they grow a strong root system that is entwined into the whole manuscript.
My recommendation to new writers are many. For one, write the book you would like to read, not the one you think will sell or be commercially successful. Authenticity is something you cannot fake when it comes to writing. Another thing that is very important to keep in mind if not yet published, is that a lot of aspiring authors start writing a book but not many finish it. It is hard to find the drive to keep going but persevere. Writing is hard, ungrateful work the first time around, no matter who you are. Keep in mind that your effort will be in vain unless you finish what you started.
MT: When completing a novel, how do you decide, “This novel is done. The climax matches everything the book has been building up to be—everything pays off, and I’ve accomplished a great novel, a great story, a great piece of writing I’m sure people will enjoy”? What do you do when you doubt yourself, and how do you decide when something needs to be changed, as opposed to a period of insecurity or doubt about your work in progress?
YS: Oh I am always filled with doubt and I never experience the feeling of having written a great book. My editor says he has kept the emails that I write him at the end of the writing process and will hand them over to me one day. They are extremely critical and every time I am trying to explain to him that the book should not be published because I am so afraid it is shit. Thankfully he is more grounded during this period of the process and manages to calm me down.
But I am in a better place when I am not about to hit send for the last time. As described above I quell doubts by reading what I am writing as a reader and amending when I find it not up to par or boring. This systems suits me very well and keeps the writing process challenging as to fix a lagging story I sometimes add something into the story that I have no idea how I am going to make work for the whole. After adding something like this I take a few days to think about how this will be seamless and fitting. Being the puppet master of what transpires on the pages it is always solvable.
MT: If you were a detective or investigator of some sort like in your novels, and able to solve any case in the world, cold case or new unsolved case, what might you start off with? What true crime case, solved or unsolved, intrigues you most?
YS: I heard the story of the Mary Celeste as a child and have ever since been absolutely enthralled by the mystery of what happened to those on board. Although there is no way that this can be solved today, I would so dearly want to know what transpired. Also the unsolved Hinterkaifeck murders in Bavaria come to mind and I would not be Icelandic if I did not want to know what happened to both Guðmundur and Geirfinnur, two men that disappeared in Iceland in the 70s. Recently, the convictions of those found guilty of these murders at the time were overturned, but the fate of the two missing men is still unknown. The official handling of this case has thrown a cold dark shadow over Icelandic society for decades and still does.
MT: Can you give us an overview over what we can expect from you in the coming years? The US is very often last to have translated versions of your novels released here, so we are lucky in already having books ready for our consumption. Your books are always stunning, and I’m sure your fans are eager to have some clue at what they might be able to expect from you in the future. Do you have any big books up your sleeve?
YS: Due to the translation process there are still 4 books in the Huldar and Freyja series yet to be published in the US. The next one to hit the market will be the Absolution which takes on social media bullying. I hope it will be well received although I do not think it will have an impact on those who bully as bullies are not typically readers. This is followed by Gallows Rock, The Doll and the Fallout – the last book in the Freyja and Huldar series.
The next book I will be working on now that I have put Freyja and Huldar behind me will be a standalone horror novel that I am presently mapping out in my head and very much looking forward to writing. It will however be some time before it will be available in English. I am also going to work simultaneously on another project that might be available sooner in English but that is sort of undercover at present. Long term (before I die) I hope to manage another six book crime series, an apocalyptic novel and possibly one sci-fi book. Being a smoker it remains to be seen if I can fit this all in.
MT: Crime fiction is now known to be read most widely by women, and the best books—in my opinion and others—are written by women. While this could be a random trend, do you have any opinion why minorities are turning toward crime novels, thrillers, suspense, and mysteries, and dominating the genre over the major writers a century ago, mostly straight white men?
YS: I am not sure why this is the case but I would assume that part of the success of women crime writers (and by success I mean the quality of the work, not only commercial) would be the fact that women are more inclined/adept at writing psychological angles and credible character traits. This is likely related to women having to solve issues through other means than force through the ages as well as being more disposed to empathy. But I should note that I do not see women as being a homogenous set of angels that always surpass men in the emotional department. An individual is an individual. There are shitty women out there as well as shitty men. Also, with regards to minorities in general, I think the crime novel is a fantastic venue for airing social injustice and ills - something that minorities get more than their fair share of. So this would very likely encourage good writing, i.e. personal experience of being wronged and a deep longing for justice.
MT: Yrsa, thank you so much for taking the time to be interviewed for Writers Tell All. We love your books, your writing, everything about you. We cannot wait for more of your work to be translated and published here in the U.S. Your books are not just our favorites, as you’re something of a celebrity in the literary world here. We can’t wait to see what you release next, and feel welcome to leave us with any closing words, thoughts, ideas, or anything else you might want to add.
YS: Thank you so very much for all the kind words contained in the questions. I’m blushing a bit since I am of the generation when compliments were kept to a minimum as they were considered dangerous. They could end up causing people getting big heads you know. I could feel mine expanding as I typed.
But joking aside, thank you for your insightful questions and the opportunity to reach out to readers. I hope whoever reads this will find an interesting tidbit in at least one of my answers.