I was lucky enough to get a chance to throw some questions at Quentin Bates, who lobbed back answers with great speed and gusto. (I’ll bet he plays a dab game of tennis, too.) I recently read a copy of his excellent mystery, Frozen Out (titled Frozen Assets in the US, and will be posting a review of it here soon. Meanwhile, I was curious about his relationship to Iceland and his take on the recent financial meltdown and how it has changed the country. Fascinating stuff
You chose to write a book set in Iceland. What about the country seized your imagination? What surprised you about it when you first moved there and what do you feel is most interesting about the landscape and culture? How have you kept in touch since moving away?
When I went to Iceland first (in the late 1970s), it was a very different place to what it is today. It was remote. There were no faxes or emails. Letters and newspapers didn’t reach the Westfjords for a week or more at a time in the winter, and making an international phone call was a major undertaking.
The landscape largely speaks for itself – mountains, fjords, glaciers, etc, but there is so much about the culture that is fascinating. There’s strange a blend of world view and small-town attitudes that sit uncomfortably together. I found it fascinating that the place was so small and informal, with even government ministers listed in the phone book, and it was a very compact society with one phone book for the whole country. Back then it was very close to being a very equal society. Nobody was obscenely rich, while there was no abject poverty either. Of course, that’s all changed now and watching the changes take place has been an intriguing process.
We left in 1990 and have return regularly for visits – extremely expensive flights permitting, but that has improved considerably since the main airline finally found itself with some competition. Right up to the Crash in 2008, every summer saw a fairly steady flow of relatives and other visitors from Iceland, but with the króna having lost a lot of its former value, overseas travel is more of a problem for Icelanders and the flow of visitors has slowed to a trickle.
I was the first one in our street here to have internet access sometime in the mid-1990s, which was at the time primarily so that we could read online Icelandic newspapers, which then were text-only versions, but still invaluable. It has been a lot easier to stay in touch since airfares became more affordable and the internet expanded. Skype is a big help and despite my reservations about it, Facebook is something that has become an essential in Iceland.
Your protagonist is a woman. Why did you decide to write from her perspective, and what makes her heroic (however you want to define that term)?
Right at the very beginning when I was tinkering with what became Frozen Out/Assets, Gunna wasn’t supposed to be the main character. But she practically jumped off the screen, fully formed, demanding attention and as she came to life, Gunna just became more and more interesting. On a purely technical level, I wanted to see if I could meet the challenge of writing convincingly from a female perspective. There are several male protagonists from female authors and I wanted to see if I could do it as well.
I’m not sure how heroic she is, although I keep piling problems on her. I suppose that the heroic part is that she does cope with all the flak that comes her way and all the brickbats that life in general throws at us. I certainly didn’t set out to make her a heroic figure – although what I see as heroic is to take a stand and not follow the herd. Demanding answers to the questions that others don’t think or want to ask is heroic in my eyes.
English-language readers of mysteries have had the chance to read two popular but very different Icelandic writers in translation: Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir. Are you familiar with their work? What do you think of it? – and any other Icelandic literature you might be familiar with.
I’ve read most of Arnaldur’s books and some of Yrsa’s. In fact, years ago a British publisher had clearly gone to pains to find an Icelandic-speaking Englishman and commissioned me to write an appraisal of Arnaldur’s first book. I reported back that the book was interesting, in spite of what I felt was its far-fetched ending, and that this guy was someone to watch. As far as I know, that book never appeared in English, but that publisher is still publishing Arnaldur in English today.
I certainly enjoy Arnaldur’s and Yrsa’s books. Even if I don’t get round to reading it straight away, I am one of those who wait for the new Arnaldur to appear on the 1st of November every year. This has become a fixture in Iceland and for the first week or two in November there’s a lot of discussion of ‘the new Arnaldur.’ ‘Is it as good as the last one…?’ ‘What d’you think happened to Erlendur, then…?’
The latest one is called ‘Furðu Strandir’ (something along the lines of ‘Strange Shores’) and I’m keeping it back for a suitable opportunity, like a long flight, to find out what did happen to Erlendur.
I also enjoy the books of Árni Thorarinsson and Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson, and there are now a good few Icelandic writers of thrillers and crime stories who have not (yet) made it into English translation.
Incidentally, Arnaldur and Yrsa both had the tremendous good fortune to be translated into English by the mighty Bernard Scudder, who did a magnificent job – to the extent that their books are as good, if not better, in English than in Icelandic.
I agree with you there. He was one of those translators who readers really appreciate, and we were terribly saddened when he passed away. Are there other crime fiction authors you particularly enjoy reading?
The Scandinavians I’m particularly fond of are Sjöwall and Wahlöö, Matti Joensuu, Arnaldur Indriðason and Henning Mankell. But the detective I keep returning to who never goes stale is Maigret.
Recently I’ve also been reading Ian Rankin and Kate Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie books – and can’t help but be deeply envious of just how well those two write.
I have to admit that although I have the books here in the constantly growing ‘to be read’ pile, I still haven’t yet found time to read Stieg Larsson.
The spectacular financial meltdown is a backdrop to your story, as are environmental issues, yet neither really takes the foreground or takes over the story. How have recent events in Iceland influenced the direction your writing is taking? How well do you think Iceland is recovering from the years of excess and the banking crisis?
When the banking crisis happened (and I was in Iceland that week when the banks admitted that they’d gambled other people’s money and lost the lot), Frozen Out was close to being complete, but was re-written to make full use of events.
To be brutal, Iceland is still in turmoil following the crisis as things lurch from one crisis to another and new revelations are still coming to light. In all honesty, Iceland isn’t recovering. Ordinary working people are getting extra taxes heaped on them while education, healthcare, law enforcement and pretty much everything else is being cut to the bone. At the same time, those responsible for the present situation don’t appear to have lost out in the least. There is, understandably, a huge amount of bitterness directed at the present Icelandic government who took over an absolute unholy mess from their predecessors, the business sector and the financial sector in particular, as well as the former leaders who were supposedly at the helm in the run-up to the Crash. The IceSave issue is huge at the moment, with plenty of fury directed at the UK and Dutch governments. But in all fairness, there are bigger issues that are getting little attention and I guess it suits some people to have all that anger channelled against some bogeymen in Amsterdam and London.
Public life is in chaos as political games and vendettas are being played out at the expense of actually getting to grips with the realities. The government is largely hamstrung and not capable of taking big decisions, and is getting a vast amount of criticism for it. The whole thing is quite complex, with all kinds of bizarre loyalties along party lines, deep cronyism, a great deal of unobtrusive corruption, etc.
The crisis (or the Crash, as it’s referred to) has become an absolutely pivotal event and will remain in the national psyche for decades to come. Everything changed over the course of a matter of weeks, the rulebooks went out of the window and there was a vast blow to national pride that people are struggling to come to terms with – and probably will continue to struggle with for years to come.
I admit to what might seem a ghoulish curiosity about how Arnaldur will describe events in future books. A rather trivial question: do you prefer the UK or US title? What about the different cover art?
The original title was Frozen Assets, and I was dubious about it as one of the former Icelandic bankers, or banksters, had used the same title for his memoirs.
In the event, the UK publisher decided to change it shortly before publication. A new author doesn’t get a lot of input into these things… and the cover art was also the publishers’ decisions. My own preference is for the UK title and the US cover.
What’s next for Gunnhildur?
The second book, Cold Comfort, is in the copyediting process now and is due to be published in January 2012. This one sees Gunna dealing with the murder of a fitness guru with a murky past and back in her old territory in Reykjavík that has changed a great deal since the Crash. We have corruption, greed and self-interest, as well as both new and old murders. This time there are some of the original characters, plus a few new ones.
A third book, provisionally entitled Chilled to the Bone, is now about three-quarters written and this takes Gunna out of the city and back to her roots in the western fjords of Iceland – although I’d prefer not to give to much away at this stage.
I guess we’ll just have to wait, then – but it will be worth it. Thanks so much for an absorbing glimpse into your work and its world.