The Bandwagon reviewer Chris Douglas interviews Ragnar Jónasson, author of the Dark Iceland series.
Tell us a bit about yourself: what are your influences, and is there a pivotal moment that brought you to writing the Dark Iceland series?
I’ve been reading crime fiction for as long as I can remember. At first I mainly read Agatha Christie but later on I started reading some of her contemporaries in the field of golden age mysteries, such as Ngaio Marsh, Ellery Queen, S.S. Van Dine and Josephine Tey. As a teenager, I translated a few Agatha Christie short stories into Icelandic and at the age of 17 I got a chance to translate a full novel by Christie, and over the course of the next fifteen years or so I translated almost one Christie novel per year.
I have also always been writing. At the age of twelve or thirteen I tried writing crime fiction for the first time, handwritten stories with a golden age feel to them, which have of course never been published. Later on I started writing short stories, some of which were published in magazines in Iceland, but none of those were really crime fiction. At some point, after I had translated over a dozen Christie novels, it did occur to me that maybe I should try to write a full length novel, a mystery, but there was little time to do so, as I’ve been working full time as a lawyer since graduation from law school. However, a crime writing competition held by a major publisher in Iceland – the first for many years – prompted me to finally finish my manuscript, and a year later the book had been published. This book was called Fölsk nóta (A False Note) and tells the story of a young man, Ari Thor, a theology student, who gets a clue – in the form of a credit card bill – relating to the disappearance of his father, who vanished without a trace many years before.
Although I didn’t realize it at the time, this was really the beginning of the Dark Iceland series, although this particular book wasn’t set in the north of Iceland. Following the publication of Fölsk nóta, my publisher in Iceland asked me if I could write a sequel. I wanted to use the same character, but a theology student can only solve so many murders, so in between books Ari Thor quit his studies in theology (he wasn’t interested in theology anyway!) and went to police school, and got his first job as a policeman in Siglufjordur. That second book was Snowblind, the first in the Dark Iceland Series, and my first novel to be translated into English.
Who has influenced your work? What authors do you enjoy reading?
In terms of influences, I have already mentioned some of my favorite golden age writers. I also read quite a lot of contemporary crime fiction, with P.D. James being my favorite writer in the recent era. Other crime novels which have impressed me in recent years include Peter May’s The Blackhouse, Andrew Taylor’s Bleeding Heart Square, Peter Temple’s Truth and Craig Robertson’s The Last Refuge, but that list could go on and on. I am also a big fan of Nordic Noir, of course. I read as much Icelandic crime fiction as I can, including the two big names of Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir, who have been great pioneers in terms of Icelandic crime fiction. Other Nordic writers I enjoy reading include Jo Nesbo, Johan Theorin, Vidar Sundstol and Antti Tuomainen to name a few.
How did you go about choosing Siglufjördur as the setting for the book?
Siglufjordur was always the obvious location for me when I started writing Snowblind. My father grew up in Siglufjordur and my grandparents lived there. I have been visiting it since I was probably around 3 months old, and it’s one of my favorite spots in the world, a place of utter beauty and tranquility. It is also a perfect location for a crime novel, surrounded by mountains and sea and only accessible via a mountain tunnel (in Snowblind; actually now two tunnels, as can be seen in Nightblind). All historical and geographical references in the books are accurate, so Siglufjordur is a very real place, the streets are real, the bakery is real and the herring era was real. So if you ever visit Siglufjordur, you can literally walk in the footsteps of Ari Thor.
Growing up in a small village myself, the way you write about Siglufjördur made me realise how much I’m like all of the locals; you captured the mentality perfectly. How did you go about creating this experience?
The small town experience is of course mostly a fabric of my imagination, and the characters evolve as I write the story and one is able to imagine their reaction to certain things and the things which define them. One point which I have thought a lot about is the impact of isolation on people, and this is partly explored in Snowblind and Nightblind, but also in other books, such as Broken, where the isolation is even greater.
You make your characters believably flawed, allowing them to not be perfect. What is your process in creating your characters? How did Ari Thór come into being?
As I mentioned above, Ari Thor wasn’t a detective to start with, but a theology student looking for his father. That is basically his origin, so he was just a normal guy, a student, tackling an unusual problem or a mystery. When he returned in Snowblind, as a policeman, I had this back history to work with. I think it’s very important that all characters are flawed in one way or another, that’s what makes them human. Some start as minor characters but demand a bigger role as the story takes form, and vice versa, and in all cases it’s important to be aware of their back story, why they behave as they do.
What do you find most challenging about writing? How do you overcome these challenges?
The challenges in writing can be very different, based on the project at each given time. Sometimes the challenge is the start of the book, for each book you want to find the right tone and the right voice. I remember that in one case I had to write the first chapter again and again before I could continue with the book, because the beginning is so important, the basis for the whole book.
Are there any tips you would give to aspiring writers?
I would simply encourage any aspiring writer to write, keep at it and make time every day to write.
Other than the Dark Iceland series, do you have any other projects planned?
Yes, I am now working on a new series in Iceland, the Hulda series. The lead character is a detective called Hulda, who in the first book is 64 years old, on the verge of retirement. She takes on one last case when she is forced into retiring a few months early. A young girl, asylum seeker from Russia, is found dead in a cove near the airport and foul play is suspected, and a couple’s trip to a cold and isolated cabin in the Icelandic highlands in dark winter ends in terror. Horrible events from Hulda’s past, the death of her husband and daughter, prey on her mind and she makes a drastic mistake during her investigation … The first book is called DIMMA, which means Darkness. DIMMA was published in Icelandic last year, and the plan is to do another book in the series this year.