Iceland Noir Dispatches #1: New Blood panel and Val McDermid


iceland_noirIceland. It’s hard to believe I’m here. I’ve wanted to come to the island for a very long time, and here, sitting in my Airbnb apartment in the heart of Reykjavik, it’s still strange to think I’m really here. As readers of this site will know I’m a sucker for a crime literature festival, and I’ve reported from places like Bristol and Harrogate before. Why? Because the two mediums are closely connected, often one feeding the other. You never know which novel will next be adapted into a TV series, and, well, it’s just fun, interesting and often inspiring to hear talented people talk about their craft. But now I’m in Iceland – for its very own crime literature festival, Iceland Noir – and there are two days full of amazing guests to listen to.

It was quite cold in Reykjavik today, not least because it was blowing a gale. I gingerly made my way along the icy pavements (resisting the urge to fall arse over tit) to the Nordic House, just south of Reykjavik Pond, to sit in on the first panel of the festival – New Blood.

New Blood panels are always interesting events, and often feature debut authors who haven’t been worn down by the festival circuit. They speak honestly and candidly, and provide interesting stories on how they came to be published, which, for a room mostly filled with aspiring crime writers, is often inspirational.

20161117_155953Today’s panel comprised an Icelandic quartet of ‘new’ writers: Hildur Sif Thorarensen, Ingvi Þór Kormáksson, Óskar Guðmundsson and Kristjan Atli Ragnarsson. As ever, each had their own stories; their own reasons for writing and their own journeys for publication.

For Hildur – a medical student – she wanted to inject humour into the crime genre; a genre she loved but felt ‘too gloomy’ sometimes. So she set her book in Oslo, and gained inspiration from a friend who told her about a ‘real life’ vampire. Yes, Hildur’s book features a vampire. Ingvi Þór (author of The Night Step), meanwhile, explained that he was a very reluctant crime writer. Or any writer at all, in fact. A librarian by trade in the city’s, well, library, he’s also a songwriter. He made the jump into writing fiction by winning a short story competition, and developing his skills into the longer form.

Óskar’s story was also interesting. He hit his 50th birthday and wanted to give writing a go. After gaining approval from his wife, he set about constructing his story, admitting that the whole process took three years, one of which to develop and nail down his tone. What was interesting was that Óskar (authout of Himli) paints, and saw the creation of characters as similar to creating something on the canvass.

Finally there was Kristjan Atli, who, by day, sells fish at Reykjavik’s fish market. He explained that he had always been a writing maniac – he wrote obituaries for family members when he was 10 – and has continued by blogging heavily about everything from politics to football ever since. This guy LOVES writing and saw it as a natural progression to write novels. He came up with the quote of the day for me when describing the leap from writing in your spare time to writing a novel: if you go for long walks you eventually have to climb up a mountain. What a fantastic metaphor.

After the panel, which was expertly chaired by ace translator and event co-organiser Quentin Bates, we made our way down to the City Hall, where the festival was officially opened by the British Ambassador (no less), with a keynote speech by the irrepressible Val McDermid.

Val is just so great. A hugely talented and experienced writer, she’s also a person who’s fully immersed in the genre; a person who genuinely loves what she does and what she writes about it. In her wide-ranging speech she made references to her love for Agatha Christie, her discovery of Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö when she was a teenager in her local library, her love for recently deceased ‘Tartan Noir’ legend William McIlvanney, and the links between Tartan and Nordic noirs. The link? Yes. Both regions share a history rich in storytelling and myths, and recently a concentration on what Bridge creator Hans Rosenfeldt calls ‘the second story’ – a socio-political dimension that sets them apart.

So a good first day (well, afternoon). I’m off to find some birch schnapps.


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