Yrsa Sigurdardottir has been described as the Queen of Scandinavian mystery writers and she certainly has the credentials. She is an international bestselling crime writer from Iceland. She has written six books in a series about her protagonist, the lawyer Thóra Gudmundsdóttir. Yrsa’s standalone horror novel, I REMEMBER YOU, was nominated for the Scandinavian crime fiction prize, the Glass Key, and has recently been published by St. Martin’s Thomas Dunne line in the U.S. It is presently being adapted for the big screen, and the Thóra series for English-language television. Yrsa is also nominated for the U.K. Petronia award, for Best Scandinavian Crime Fiction, to be awarded this spring.
Beyond that, she is a director of a large Icelandic engineering company and has a family. How she fits all this into twenty-four hours is hard to fathom. She is also the most delightful person you could hope to meet.
Yrsa recently visited South Africa to take part in the Knysna Literary Festival, promote her books here, and see the country. Between game viewing trips one day, I asked her about her thoughts on South Africa, writing, and her books.
You were recently a featured author at the Knysna Literary Festival. How did you find the responses of local readers and authors compared to those in other countries?
The local readers were wonderful. No one asked me, “Where do you get your ideas from?”, which is highly unusual, and in the question-and-answer part of my appearance there was a lively discussion about sex, which is also pretty much out of the norm. I must add that the festival was excellent and I really enjoyed the literary dinner which took place in three different homes by the shoreline—the appetizer in one, the main course in the second, and the dessert in the third. The houses were all breathtaking, in particular one that I though must belong to Justin Bieber, Abramovich, or someone endlessly wealthy. It turned out to belong to a British kitchen cabinet maker.
A feature of your books (and those of most other Scandinavian mystery writers) is that the dark and cold of northern winters seeps chillingly into the story. Is this something that is deliberately planned or is it intrinsic to writing stories set in this environment?
In my case it is intrinsic. It just feels right to enter the cold aspect of my surroundings into stories that usually concern some elaborate form of awfulness. When I wrote children’s’ stories that were humor-based, I tended to place them in the summertime. The cold and darkness of winter just go hand in hand with murder. If I were to murder someone, it would definitely be during winter. The summer I would spend regretting it.
By contrast, mystery stories set in Southern Africa often have backdrops of arid heat. Do you think this has the same sort of impact on European readers or is it too alien?
I think almost everyone can relate to extreme temperatures of both sides of the spectrum. We have all been cold and very hot at some point in our lives. Even if we have not, a well-written description will conjure up the feeling. Both extremes invoke a sort of claustrophobic atmosphere that is enjoyable in a book centered on crime. I am very impressed with extremely hot settings as these are more foreign to me and not my cup of tea in a physical sense. Blistering heat is not part of life’s curriculum when you live in Iceland.
Your wonderfully atmospheric novel I REMEMBER YOU has a supernatural backstory, but neatly superimposed on a traditional mystery. Would you try something like this again?
I would like to. I am a big horror fan but sadly there is not much quality horror out there so I have little to read, which is probably why I wrote it in the first place. It was a big surprise to me when it became a success internationally. I should obviously try to capitalize on that and continue in the same vein, but planning my writing in advance is not my forte—every time I sit down to decide the premise and content of my next novel I cannot escape following whatever urge seizes me at that point in time. I cannot force myself to come up with a story made to order; I write what I feel like in each instance. I have written for children, a mystery series, horror, standalone thrillers, and just recently a sci-fi short story. But all the same I do think I will write the occasional horror novel in the future, similar to I REMEMBER YOU, i.e., a blending of mystery and dread. But not this time around; now I am preparing to write a new crime series.
Several African mysteries (including some of our Detective Kubu books and Kwei Quartey’s Ghanaian mysteries) involve the pervasive belief in witchcraft and the supernatural in Africa. What would be your impression of readers’ reactions to this?
I would assume readers would welcome such an angle. Anything that adds flavor to a story is in my mind a benefit, and one that involves something very much out of the ordinary should go down well. There is too much ordinary in everyday life as is. Odd and peculiar are much more interesting.
Thóra not only has a difficult work situation with challenging cases, but also a complicated family life. Can you give us some clues about what’s ahead for her?
Thóra is in freezer storage in my brain at present, but there are two books in the series that are yet to be published in the U.S. One is about the burning down of a home for the disabled where Thóra attempts to get the case reopened for a young man with Down’s syndrome who has been convicted of the crime. This book was chosen the best crime novel in 2013 by the Times in London so it is pretty good. The other Thóra book is my take on modernizing the tale of the Marie Celeste. It involves a luxury yacht that sails into Reykjavík Harbor, all on board having disappeared. It was the bestselling book in Iceland the year it came out and people really like it despite it being pretty grim. It will be interesting to see how American readers take to these two books.