Arnaldur Indriðason

The Sound of Creation

“It ought not to be possible to write crime fiction in Iceland because nothing happens here. And it's extremely difficult to convince readers of anything else. This is the challenge you're faced with,” says crime-writer Arnaldur Indriðason.

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Arnaldur indriðason

Interview: Pétur Blöndal

Photos: Kristinn Ingvarsson

The writer Arnaldur Indriðason has made himself comfortable in a cosy armchair in the lounge at Hotel Holt.

The walls are decked with paintings by many of Iceland's best known artists. This used to be the smartest place in Reykjavík before the nation severed the bonds with its cultural heritage and embarked on the race for fool's gold. Then ultra-modern places mushroomed but, as is often the case, that was when writers and artists began increasingly to frequent Hotel Holt.

It comes as no surprise that Indriðason prefers the interview to take place here rather than in his home; that is as sacrosanct as the man himself, who hardly ever grants interviews.

“I'm comfortable sitting here,” he says.

His manner is calm, as most people imagine Indriðason to be. The New York Times reported that in his works he captures that melancholic sensitivity you would expect to find in Iceland. In person, however, he proves to be completely devoid of the arrogance or condescension which sometimes characterise best-selling authors – on the contrary, his demeanour is warm and genuine.

“There is never anybody here. I like having meetings here and sometimes I work here. It was here that [film director] Óskar Jónasson and I wrote the script of Reykjavík Rotterdam.  I really enjoyed working with Jónasson; he combines professionalism and imagination. And it was a respite from the books, especially the series. But you need completely different thinking and format in films. So it was good to collaborate with Jónasson, who is a very experienced filmmaker.”

– How did you collaborate?

“Some people split chapters or scenes between them, or the first and second halves of the work. But Óskar and I did nothing without meeting together and discussing everything thoroughly, we worked painstakingly through all the dialogue – this suited us well. The work was rewarding, and shooting ideas back and forth was fun.”

– A change from a job that tends to be solitary?

“Yes, it can be a solitary job, especially when you write a lot. I need peace to work, and that seclusion mustn't be broken. It was a relief in that this was a collaborative project. Having said that, I have always worked from home. I'm a family man with three children but I don't mind having people around me. I used to be a journalist, where there is constant rush and hubbub and race against deadlines, and what you take from that world of experience is the ability to work in total peace even if everything is going haywire. You manage somehow to shut yourself off from everything that's happening, whether in the press office or at home. Having tradesmen or the kids' friends around doesn't disturb me. I have always worked in an open plan space rather than an office and that's worked remarkably well.”

Trusting the Reader 

Arnaldur Indriðason– Was it formative for you to be brought up in a writer's home?

“Yes, consciously as well as subconsciously. The first sounds I remember hearing are from my dad's typewriter. He was an editor of [the newspaper] Tíminn and a journalist, but he worked from home a lot. It was a very attractive sound, that click that came after sentences, paragraphs, articles and stories. This is the creative click, the sound of creation which has always accompanied me. This...” he says, pointing at the interviewer's keyboard where the words are tapped in as we go along, “This is a specially nice sound. It was not by chance that I chose to study history after Hamrahlíð High School, and ended up going into journalism and film writing. I think it's just a continuation of what the old man was doing. One never got stuck into anything definite, never signed on at an office, just freelanced, apart from two years as an employee at [the newspaper] Morgunblaðið. Thinking back, it was probably always at the back of my mind to create something – do something else. The urge to write books was of course there, but when you look at parents and children you find that the children don't always want to do the same as their parents. I held back, perhaps because the old man was so well known. He was very prominent, often for positive reasons and often for negative reasons, and taking that on didn't seem very tempting.”

– But then it became inescapable?

“Yes, it happened when I was thirty-four. It did seem a bit old for a writer. But then I started to get these ideas, always to do with crime fiction.

But first I had to answer two questions. The first was whether I was capable of this. Is it possible to create a 300-page manuscript from one small idea? The other was what was needed to do it – how to go about it. While still working on other things, I sat down and started at the beginning and it turned out to be easier than I had anticipated. The book simply wrote itself.”

– How does the story come about?

Silence of the Grave“It is great fun being a writer, especially writing thrillers. During the process I have no idea what is going to happen or who the murderer is, not even who has been murdered. You don't  know who will die until the story itself lets you in, as in Silence of the Grave.  There are a lot of other surprises, for me as well, and I don't know everything. I know perhaps that the theme is abuse in the home, that Erlendur will be there and the police team, and more or less what characters are involved, not everybody by any means, and then you just begin. And by writing, tapping the keyboard, a million little ideas spring to life. That's why it's an enjoyable job. You are always discovering something new, new solutions that surprise even yourself. I know of writers who have everything plotted out, chapter by chapter, who committed the crime and how the story ends, but I don't do that at all. I have a few loosely formed ideas – and then the creative process begins. The whole thing is contained in this work process.”

– Your style is terse!

“I can't stand bombast. Of any kind. Especially in films and books. It gets in the way of the narrative. That's why the Icelandic Sagas are so entertaining, they keep to the subject matter, are written using wonderful language and there is no hesitation. If you want to learn how to write a story you should read the Sagas. My rule is to say as much as possible in as few words as possible. Rather than doing it to death writing about the ambience or the essential idea of it, I give it a life of its own and leave it to the reader to fill things in – the reader is left with his own version. You can create all manner of beautiful descriptions and kill them with verbosity, but you can also do it with a few well chosen words. To me, that's much more effective.”

– So it's not always necessary to spell everything out?

“The reader is there, have faith in him. There are so many that don't trust the reader, regurgitate everything for him. The reader is at least half of the whole thing. He is the one who brings the text to life. And I don't care for beating about the bush. Erlendur has just once bedded someone in this series and Erik, my French translator, you know what love stories are like in France, he was translating Erlendur's sex scene which was one word, completely matter-of-fact. Which is how I think it should be. The Frenchman was beside himself!”

He laughs.

“And just get on with it. Martin Scorsese can't stand love scenes in his films. As soon as the actors are in bed I've thrown the film away. Unless it's done as in Don't Look Now; Nicolas Roeg with Julie Christie and Donald Sutherland in Venice, the best thriller ever made.”

There was something missing from the flora

– Did you seek your father's guidance when you began writing?

Operation Napoleon“I didn't tell him I was writing Synir duftsins (Sons of Dust). I didn't say anything about it  until I brought him the script, 300 pages. The book then existed in manuscript and I took it to his home. He was very surprised and extremely happy, he read it avidly and was very pleased, especially that I was undertaking the effort to become a writer. He read all the manuscripts after that, Dauðarósir (Silent Kill), Napóleónsskjölin (Operation Napoleon), which he liked an awful lot – we concocted the name between us, and Mýrin (Tainted Blood) which was the last script he read. He died in 2000. I remember him coming to see me and saying, in his deep voice: “Arnaldur, I think this is your best story.” He was always very encouraging and was pleased that I ended up on this path. His father was a skilled versifier, my grandfather Þorsteinn Magnússon from Gilhagi in Skagafjörður, so this has passed down the family.”

– When did you become interested in crime fiction?

“I haven't really read that much of it. I just buried myself in the books that children and adolescents read, and upgraded as the years passed. The first film I remember seeing, I must have been three at the time, was Little Caesar with [Edward G.] Robinson. He plays a crook in Chicago and I remember one or two things from that. That could have been the beginning of things. Later I wrote a piece at school called On the Way to School. Its idea was that some children walked past a place where a violent crime was being committed. When I am contemplating writing a book, it is usually in this crime fiction genre and I don't really know why.

The obvious explanation is that Icelanders had not succeeded in creating any kind of tradition of crime fiction writing. Such books were published at ten-year intervals and hardly looked at – they were considered odd. Writers didn't consider crime fiction to be a challenging art form, they looked to [Halldór Kiljan] Laxness, a great and formidable writer. The other view was that there weren't enough crimes committed in Iceland to provide a basis for a whole book to seem realistic and believable. Iceland wasn't that sort of a country.  But this was a complete misunderstanding, as has become clear.

These two things were very inhibiting, there was something missing from the flora, but at the same time the fact that these books didn't exist aroused interest. So you had to create something new, with a beginning, a middle and an end – and a plot. It had to be a strong construction that didn't leave any loose ends, and with a narrative structure. Writing a series about Erlendur hadn't occurred to me, but I wanted to create an interesting character who cared about people, and then put him into unusual and dangerous circumstances. These are not superheroes or superhuman people who can deal with anything, but ordinary people like you and me who unfortunately find themselves in the middle of chaos.

This is what I set out with. In the second book Dauðarósir (Silent Kill), Erlendur had become a very interesting character and by then I had decided to create a series round him.”

– On average there are somewhere between zero and one murders committed in Iceland per year. How did you manage to create a believable setting for crime fiction in this small country?

“It is very rewarding writing for an Icelandic readership which, because of its small size, is probably the most difficult in the world for crime fiction. It ought not to be possible to write crime fiction in Iceland because nothing happens here. And it's extremely difficult to convince readers of anything else. This is the challenge you're faced with, to be realistic and believable, otherwise it doesn't work. I must get people to believe what I tell them. That's why you can never use easy solutions, solve the matter with a gunfight or a car chase, as is acceptable in the outside world. You need to burrow into the characters, look for a psychological, intrinsic solution rather than an external, explosive solution. This can be very difficult, but keeping that Icelandic readership in mind makes you a better writer. I'm grateful to them, the books turn out much better as a result.

But then Erlendur was born and the idea was straight away to somehow embed him into Icelandic society, the society we know from the postwar years. He is born after the war and experiences the great migration from country to urban areas. As is usual during such social upheavals there are individuals that are left behind, and Erlendur is one of those. He isn't part of the evolution, he hates the present and he hates Reykjavík. He lives quite a bit in the past, in the sagas and in his own childhood haunts in the east. He often immerses himself in stories of adversity; Icelanders have whole series of books about these, landslides and avalanches, adversities on highland roads, narratives of people that freeze to death, whole groups that are perhaps not even found for half a century. To me this was the only way to make him a believable policeman. We have Morse, Beck, Taggart and the American heroes, Bruce Willis and whatever they are all called. If you want to create a policeman, your own, then he must be local, local to the environment he comes from. The main emphasis was always on making him deep-rooted, and I think that is the key to the success, not just in Iceland but also abroad.”

It's not about always being at full throttle

– The Icelandic farmhouse is featured on many of your book covers in Germany?

Tödliche Intrige“They prefer turf houses. I kicked up a bit of fuss with them but they said that a million titles are published each year, they all ended up on a shelf getting lost, but if we published the book as Icelandic and ethnic in Germany, from this paradise in the north, with its clear air and beautiful landscape, then maybe we would manage to catch buyers. And it worked! You should always leave each nation to their own thing – not interfere too much. But you sense when travelling abroad, because publishers like you to present these books, that in most people's minds Iceland represents innocence. I get asked whether crimes are actually committed in Iceland. Here at home these are realistic works, while abroad the books shock many people – they draw a very different picture of Iceland from what they had imagined.”

– You don't often do interviews – why is that?

“I have done it at the request of publishers when the first books are published in a country, I go and introduce them. But I do as little as possible of this, I turn down a great deal, all sorts of trips and interviews. Here in Iceland I have basically shut myself off, just to have peace to work. I don't want to be part of the media circus or media discussion – it's just distracting. I also think that when everybody pushes themselves forward with whatever, and you don't need anything to get to be on television or in a pop music programme, it's good that someone keeps quiet and does something else. I'm very happy with that. I have never enjoyed talking about myself or about the books. They just lie there and they are for reading. I can add very little to them in interviews and have no interest whatsoever in continually talking about myself and what I do from day to day. So it just comes naturally. And I need peace to work. As everything builds up, the pressure on you becomes more and more and you need to be tough to get the peace to work, to do what you started out with – to write. It is not about always being at full throttle.”

The interview, of which this is an excerpt, is from the book Literatur der Gegenwart – 22 Autoren im Gespräch (Fabulous Iceland: Snapshots of Modern Writers) by Pétur Blöndal, with photographs by Kristinn Ingvarsson.