Three years ago Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson, and I were talking over a curry, and the subject of why Iceland had never had its own crime fiction festival came up. A few weeks later we met again at Crimefest and by that time it seemed that we had all had similar thoughts and the idea of Iceland Noir, a small crime fiction festival in Reykjavík, almost appeared by itself. As we were at Crimefest and Ann Cleeves was there, we asked her if she’d appear, providing we could get the venture off the ground, with less than six months to get everything fixed up.
There was no hesitation. She didn’t think about it and didn’t check her diary, but just said “yes” on the spot. If she hadn’t have done that, we wouldn’t maybe have been quite so ambitious. Ann was undoubtedly the star of the first Iceland Noir. Her Shetland series had just been shown on Icelandic TV and people definitely wanted to meet her. She went home from Iceland having made a great impression and many new friends.
The spin-off has been Shetland Noir, as she made the remark that maybe we’d let the 2015 slot go to Shetland for its own crime fiction festival. It wasn’t as if we could say no after all Ann had done for us, and there was something undeniably exciting about the prospect of being involved with a festival in another of these weatherbeaten north Atlantic locations. So we asked Ann what we can expect from these remote islands and the festival that Shetland Arts is organizing for 13-15th November.
Was this something you had already had in mind when we asked you to if you’d take part in the first Iceland Noir?
No! I loved Iceland Noir and it was just a flip remark that started the whole thing off. I’m not really involved with the organization of the festival— I’m program chair of the Harrogate Festival this year, so I’m rather busy but once July is over, I’ll be getting behind Shetland big style. So the Shetlanders are doing all the planning and programming, and that’s how it should be. Shetland Arts runs lots of festivals so I knew we’d be in safe hands.
Could you tell us something about your links with Shetland?
I first went to Shetland exactly forty years ago. I’d dropped out of university and quite by chance met a guy who’d just got a job as assistant warden in the bird observatory in Fair Isle. I thought that sounded fun—I was working for Camden Social Services as a child care officer, which was pretty demanding— and he said if I was really interested the observatory was desperate for an assistant cook. I don’t think I knew Fair Isle was part of the Shetland group at that time, but it sounded like an adventure and I was young with no ties, so off I went.
To put things into perspective, the Shetland Islands sit a long way to the to the north of mainland Britain and are closer to Oslo than they are to London. The Nordic links are very close to the surface, the Faroe Islands are a step away, and Shetland only became Scottish (and belatedly British) in the fifteenth century when Norway’s King Christian I pledged the islands as the security for his daughter’s dowry in her marriage to James III of Scotland. As the cash was never forthcoming, the archipelago became forfeit to the Scottish crown.
Do you see common influences linking these windswept island locations across this part of the North Atlantic?
I guess it’s the Viking influence that links them all, through songs, place names and that open landscape. There was a project looking at the genes of Shetlanders and those with four Shetland grandparents all shared characteristics with Icelanders. The dark nights encourage storytelling with a tradition that goes all the way back to the Sagas.
Raven Black wasn’t your first book by any means. Was it written as a standalone novel?
My editor thought it would stretch credibility too far to have more than one murder in the islands. But I write traditional crime fiction and we expect people to buy into the format. If the story’s good enough they get lost in it. When Raven Black started getting good reviews and won an award, my publisher decided it would run to a short series. I’ve written six books so far, the latest is Thin Air, published in 2014, and I plan another two.
In fact, Raven Black was a career changer for Ann, winning the CWA Gold Dagger in 2006, and it became a series in spite of her editor’s initial misgivings. Since then White Nights (2008), Red Bones (2009), Blue Lighting (2009), Dead Water (2013) have followed Raven Black, with Red Bones dramatized for the BBC and broadcast as Shetland with Douglas Henshall in the lead role as Detective Inspector Jimmy Perez.
What triggered the ideas behind Raven Black and the Shetland series?
I was in Shetland between Christmas and New Year. It had snowed and then frozen on top of the snow and there were ravens. I’m a crime writer and I thought if there was blood as well it would be very mythic, like the colors of a fairy story, snow white or sleeping beauty. That’s how it started. The result was Raven Black. People were attracted by the background, I think. I have every reason to be grateful to the islands. The BBC is now about to start filming the third series of Shetland.
Is Shetland a peaceful place, or is there much real crime there?
A lot has changed and there is some drug-related crime now. Especially away from Lerwick people do leave their doors open. On the smaller islands they leave their keys in their car. When I first went to the islands, oil had just been discovered and though it wasn’t coming ashore then, there was a huge influx of construction workers, giving Lerwick the feel of a gold rush town.
There was a big contrast between the town and Fair Isle which was still very traditional— one woman milked her cow by hand, there were still strip fields of mixed crops, nobody did any work on a Sunday, the whole community came together to clip the hill sheep, which is something that still happens. Although there’s a lot less oil now, a big new gas terminal is under construction and that’s meant another wave of outside workers. It’s always tricky when you get lots of single, mostly male workers in a small local population but the energy companies have a strict policy about crime—one strike and they’re out.
Do the Shetland Islands share much with the neighboring Orkneys and the Faroes in terms of their remoteness, the proximity to the sea and nature?
I love the drama of the place and the fact that it’s so far from the rest of the U.K. The islands of Shetland are all very different. There’s something haunting about a landscape that’s so open, and because of the voes that cut like fjords into the land and the shape of the place, you’re never more than a few miles from the sea, even though it’s more than a hundred miles from the North of Unst to Fair Isle in the south. I’ve only learned about the history more recently, though you do bump into it as you walk around the islands. Shetland holds more than five thousand prehistoric sites, for example and there’s an Iron Age broch (tower) in Clickimin Loch right in the middle of Lerwick. Jarlshof in the south shows a settlement that’s been inhabited at different times by Picts and Vikings and is fascinating. But it’s the people that draw me back. I’m still friends with people I met on my first visit forty years ago.’
What can we look forward to at Shetland Noir?
It’s the first crime fiction festival to be held in the islands and there’s an impressive line-up, with headliners Arne Dahl, Håkan Nesser, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Stuart McBride, Alex Gray and Denise Mina giving the whole thing a deeply Nordic/Scottish flavour. It’ll be an adventure and it’ll be fun!
The festival is being held in Mareel, the brilliant new arts centre right on the water in Lerwick, the main town. It has an auditorium, lots of meeting space and a bar. There are already plans for some live Shetland music, a final party and coach trips to show visitors more of the islands—including the places which were used a locations in the TV drama. The BBC’s local fixer Davey Gardner is planning that.
So if writers and passionate readers have spouses who aren’t quite so keen, there’ll still be plenty for them to do. Shetlanders are great readers though and they love their Nordic Crime, so I know we’ll get a great local audience besides our friends who are flying in from outside.
According to organizer Donald Anderson of Shetland Arts, Shetland Noir tickets are selling steadily with more than half of the seats already accounted for.
“We have a growing list of participating writers and as well as our headline authors, we have Shetland’s own Marsali Taylor, Ann Cleeves, Ragnar Jónasson, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Quentin Bates, Craig Robertson, MJ McGrath, Louise Millar, Helen Giltrow, Sarah Ward and Valerie Laws, with more names yet to be confirmed,” he said.
In addition to the crime fiction writers, CSI expert Helen Pepper and leading forensic scientist Dr. James Grieve are joining in.
“There is also a lot of interest in the festival here in Shetland and there’s a population of avid readers. The Shetland library has set up a special book group, which will focus on books by the headline authors, following a suggestion by Stewart Bain from Orkney Library and Archive, that Shetland could mirror the success of Orkney’s Saturday Slaughter book group,” he said.
Both Orkney and Shetland book groups will read and discuss a book by each
of the six Scottish/Nordic headline authors, Håkan Nesser, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Arne Dahl, Denise Mina, Stuart MacBride and Alex Gray, with the opportunity to hear them read and answer questions at Shetland Noir in November.
More information and the full line-up to be announced on the Shetland Noir website.
Shetland Noir is in co-operation with Iceland Noir
Ann Cleeves is the acclaimed author of the Inspector Ramsay series, the Vera Stanhope series and the Shetland series, plus a number of standalone novels. Raven Black, the first of the Shetland novels, won the CWA Duncan Lawrie Dagger Award as well as the Martin Beck Award for that year’s best novel translated into Swedish. Her books have been translated into twenty languages and regular bestsellers in Scandinavia and Germany, as well as in the U.S. Her Vera novels have been televised and a fifth series is in preparation, while a third series of Shetland has been announced. Her latest book is a Shetland novel, Thin Air, and was published in September 2014. Last year she was also awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by the University of Sunderland in recognition of her achievements as a crime writer.
To learn more about Ann, please visit her website.
Quentin Bates escaped English suburbia as a teenager, jumping at the chance of a gap year working in Iceland. For a variety of reasons, the gap year stretched to become a gap decade, during which he went native in the north of Iceland, acquiring a new language, a new profession and a family before returning to England. He worked as a truck driver, teacher, netmaker and trawlerman at various times before falling into journalism largely by accident. He has been the technical editor of an obscure nautical magazine for many years, all the while keeping a close eye on his second home in Iceland, before taking a sidestep into writing fiction. Frozen Out, Cold Comfort, Chilled to the Bone, Winterlude, Cold Steal and Summerchill, a series of crime novels and novellas set in present-day Iceland have been published in the UK, the USA, Germany, Holland and Finland, with the next in the series, Thin Ice, due in 2016. He has translated a great deal of news and technical material into English from Icelandic, as well as one novel (Gudlaugur Arason’s Bowline) and is now translating Ragnar Jónasson’s Snowblind and Nightblind novels.
To learn more about Quentin, please visit his website.
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