Q+A: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Jul 15, 2022
Dimitris Passas

She is the unequivocal Queen of Icelandic crime fiction and her work has been a beacon that illuminated a wild landscape that became the setting of her chilling thrillers. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir belongs at the forefront of the Nordic crime writers who conquered the world with their distinct writing style, choice of themes, the embedded social commentary, and the quirky protagonists. She is the author of two series of books, each comprising of six installments, the Þóra Guðmundsdóttir novels and the more recent "Children's House" saga. Furthermore, she has authored several exquisite standalones, the most popular being the iconic I Remember You which has been adapted into a feature film by Óskar Thór Axelsson in 2017. Her name is often included in the lists of the most influential contemporary Icelandic authors, regardless of genre, and her books have been translated into several languages, travelling their way into the remotest corners of the globe. Today, I feel supremely honored as Yrsa accepted to answer my questions in this Q+A that accompanies my review of the last volume in the "Children's House" series, titled The Fallout (full review here). Enjoy!

1) "The Fallout" is the closing chapter of your "Children's House" series. The six novels that comprise the totality of the Huldar and Freya saga bear some pivotal differences if compared with the Þóra Guðmundsdóttir books that preceded them. While the latter balanced delicately between psychological thriller and horror fiction, incorporating popular crime fiction and suspense tropes that boosted the text's tension, in this latest sequence of novels, one can't help but realize a critical shift in relation to the mood and tone as it seems that you moved closer to the typical police procedural. Was that a conscious choice or did you let the stories themselves dictate the overall genre context and style? Furthermore, why did you suspend the employment of the horror element that became one of your trademarks during the earlier stages of your career?

Y.S.: Although much of the mood and tone of the two series occurs organically, the major shift between the approach was a conscious decision. With the Thora series, I did not want to use a policeman/woman as a protagonist as this had already been done here in Iceland. It should be noted that when I was originally contemplating and making the major decisions for the Thora series, I did not think for a second that I might be writing for a larger audience than the Icelandic public. So, I chose a female lawyer as my main character to differentiate from the Icelandic crime novels already out and make the series “my own thing”. However, after six books I increasingly came to realise that by doing so I had made my life much more difficult than it had to be. Not only did I have to come up with a good plot for each novel, I also had to find a credible way of injecting Thora into the investigation for the case at hand as the books did not involve court proceedings. As lawyers here do not usually go around doing any leg work this was pretty tough at times. So, when I tired of the Thora series and wanted to do something different, I decided a police procedural was the way to go – however as fingerprints do not exactly seem exciting to me, I added a child psychologist, Freyja, to be able to address less mundane topics and approaches than evidence gathering and so on. I also wanted the series to be urban and based in Reykjavík, as opposed to the Thora series that travelled all over Iceland and even to Greenland.

With regards to the horror element, the original idea of using horror in the Thora series was not a conscious decision. It just happened because I really like horror. But it had begun to try and take over the narrative and I realized that I needed to purge this out of my system and simply write a straight up horror novel. That book became “I remember you” and then later followed by “The Undesired”. This cleansing worked as In the Huldar and Freyja series there is no horror aside from the horror that stems from human deeds.

2) Tell us a bit about your thoughts and feelings after the end of a multi-year process of writing the "Children's House" series. Are there any traces of sadness or nostalgia when you look back at the beginning of this literary journey? Will you miss the two protagonists, Huldar and Freya?

It is a mixed bag of feelings that arise when I abandon a series and start something new. There are pros and cons to having to start from scratch. The most obvious “con” is having to come up with new characters and a new approach which is followed by a certain sadness and regret as I am saying goodbye to protagonists that I liked a lot. But the “pros” more than make up for it. They are mainly the fact that starting anew keeps the mind fresh and you feel more creative. Repetition is something that I try to avoid as I find that this works the same way as water that stagnates if still. So I had decided from the get go that the Huldar and Freyja series would be six books max. And I stuck to it despite possibly having one or two left in me.

3) Did you have from the beginning a clear picture about the ways in which the complex relationship between Huldar and Freya would develop and eventually conclude or did you improvise along the way while writing each installment?

Y.S.: It was part improvisation and part decided from the onset. The biggest decision regarding their relationship that I made before writing a single word was that they would not fall into each other’s arms except maybe in the last instalment. I knew that if they became a happy couple, I would get really bored with them. Writing about them deciding what was for dinner did not appeal to me.

4) Reading the whole of the series, it becomes evident that you are more than familiar with the procedures followed by the authorities during the conduct of a criminal investigation. Did you have to do some research on the subject or did you have someone close to you working for the Icelandic police?

Y.S.: Each book always requires research and also each series. I do a lot of this so as not to get things wrong and it also helps in order to provide the framework for the goings on, i.e. establish boundaries for what can happen and what cannot. I am pretty good at the research part as my engineering background helps me not to groan when trying to familiarize myself with the technical side of things which is increasingly becoming a greater part of investigations, to the point of surpassing the “grey cells” approach that used to be all that investigators could rely on. So I read up on everything to do with the tech, the internal structure of the police as an institution as well as child protective services, the biology of death, court documents, post mortem reports and basically anything that relates to the story I am working on each time. I also speak to people that work in the field of whatever it is that I am interested in each time, including police. But what I find to be extremely important when it comes to research is physically visiting each location that is involved in a scene. Reading about places and looking at photos is fine and all but it does not compare to seeing places in 3D and experiencing the ambiance that the locations invoke.

5) You have a knack for writing intense, hair rising introductory chapters and "The Fallout" is no exception to that rule. Do you think that a strong opening is essential in order to engage the reader and hook him to the story?

Y.S.: Strong introductory chapters are essential to me as the author. They are the fuel that provides the interest for me to roll up my sleeves and get started. Sometimes I write an introductory chapter without having any preconception of how the rest will pan out and then sit down to think about how the hell I can make this work and figure it out. Luckily this works the same way for the reader (I hope), i.e. that if it is very intriguing it propels you onwards. But a strong start can only take you so far, the story must continue to provide interesting content if it isn’t going to become boring and “put-down-able".

6) Throughout the entirety of your work so far, you have frequently chosen to include children characters in your stories which, in other respects, are somber, sometimes even disturbing in terms of main themes and atmosphere. Do you believe that the juxtaposition of innocence, inextricably linked with childhood, can become a useful tool in the hands of a crime writer in order to enhance the emotional effect of their novel? Did your experience as an author of children's stories helped you to more thoroughly understand their vulnerable psychology?

Y.S.: I think that I am influenced by the Iceland murders and crimes that have impacted me the most emotionally, i.e. those that impact children in one way or another. I guess it would be fair to say that this is not an Icelandic thing, murders everywhere often occur in a sphere containing children. They can be the offspring of the murder victim or the murderer, a witness and in the worst cases of all the murder victim themselves. So I think the juxtaposition of innocence against appalling grownup actions provides an interesting platform to view, and write, the story from. Furthermore, I think that my children’s books origins have less to do with any insight that I may have into their psychology than being a mother and having been a child myself. Those experiences have provided me with an understanding of what it is to be a child and how they approach difficulties.

7) In contrast with several prominent Nordic crime writers, your novels feature crimes which are motivated chiefly by subjective human passions rather than being rooted on social injustice or a flawed politico-economic structure that suppresses the individual and leads him astray. Nevertheless, in the dense plot of "The Fallout" you elect to touch a burning, topical social issue in the Covid-19 era such as the battle between those in favor of vaccinating and those who strongly oppose the needle. What made you sensitive regarding that particular problem and prompted you to use it in one of your novels?

Y.S.: The anti-vax angle in the Fallout was a by-product of the main theme of the book which was surrogacy. The Fallout was written long before Covid and the anti-vax movement was only focused on the vaccination of children and some ridiculous connection they believed these shots had to autism. Little did I know that this topic would be pushed to the forefront of news with a pandemic no one asked for or wanted. But because I am not interested writing about gang related crime or organised crime – which is not really a big thing here anyway – I am constantly on the lookout for subjects that might bring out the worst in people. At the time when I was thinking of what to write about for the Fallout, a woman came forward with a heart-wrenching story of surrogacy gone bad. I found it to be a premise that I could build upon and set up a scenario that was even worse than the one this woman had described. At the same time our parliament was discussing whether or not to allow surrogacy for close relations, i.e. making it legal to do it for your sister or daughter. So, this was quite at the forefront of current issues at the time. When looking for subject matter I don’t always seek out current affairs, sometimes it is a place, sometimes an old case, other times something I see or hear and on the odd occasion just something that I come up with on my own somehow. What appeals to me when writing a series or a standalone is different for some reason as my standalones tend to be about vulnerability, i.e. placing characters in situations where their safety nets have been removed. The death count also tends to be higher in the standalones. Every character is disposable as no one has to come out of it alive.

8) Do you think that there are any parallels between the character of Thora, your earlier fictional creation, and Huldar or Freya?

Y.S.: They have a common element that is their imperfectness. Not exaggerated imperfectness but human imperfectness. When reading I very much dislike characters that are too perfect at what they do and I also find that in some instances authors have gone a bit far in making their detective the “defective detective” that was all the rage some years ago.

9) Tell us some names of Nordic crime writers with whom you feel some form of kinship and you consider that you share similarities in regards to writing style and storytelling techniques.

Y.S.: This is a very difficult question to answer but I will do my best. As I mentioned above, I have chosen to write differently between series as well as using a different approach when writing standalones. But I would probably say that there is no one single writer that writes exactly in the same manner as I do – or at least I hope so. I believe that the good thing about the Nordic crime writers as well as crime writers from other places is that we each have our own individual voice and take on the genre. I tend to be macabre when it comes to the crime but cheerful when it comes to the character development of the protagonists in the series. In the standalones there is however no space for light-heartedness. With this in mind I would probably say that I have a kinship with Johan Thorin (macabre) and Lars Kepler (macabre) as well as Sara Blædel (protagonist development and realism). But if I were to list all of the crime authors that I admire and read the list would be too long and most write totally differently than me anyway.

10) What are you working on these days? Can you share your writing plans about the near future?

Y.S.: At present I am writing the second of my latest series – I think it will be called the Black Ice series in English (not 100% sure if this is the case). But regardless, this series will comprise of four books with different protagonist from an investigative team at the forefront in each book. It also has an overarching mystery that will only be solved in the last instalment and this is the first time I am attempting to do this. It provides a challenge but complex tasks are usually more fun than easy ones so that is fine. As soon as I am done with this I will finish a children’s book that I have in the pipes, the second one in a series that I started while bored during Covid. That will act as a reprieve as my children’s books are not gruesome at all and writing them is a bit like a vacation in La-la land after writing for so many years about horrible things.

However, the next book to come out in English will be The Prey which is a standalone. As mentioned above these tend to be about vulnerability and The Prey is no exception. It was inspired by the Dyatlov Pass Incident, an old unsolved mystery about a group of students that go on a hike through the Ural Mountains and do not return. My book is not a recap of this story aside from the fact that it involves two couples that accompany a geologist in the middle of winter into the Icelandic highlands to conduct glacial research. They are found dead in varying locations after having cut their way out of their tents and braved the elements in various states of undress for some inexplicable reason. As no one is left alive to divulge what happened, the story of the unfolding events is provided through the eyes of these very, very unlucky people, alongside the investigation into what happened. There are also other threads, one involving a baby’s shoe unearth from a house garden and odd happenings at an isolated radar station.

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