Iceland Noir Dispatches #4: Queer crime with Val McDermid, Mari Hannah and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir; The Swearing Panel

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iceland_noirApologies for posting this last dispatch from Iceland Noir so late. Pretty much as soon as the festival had finished I found myself with zero time to write it up because I got out of Reykjavik and explored some of the incredible countryside and wilderness the island provides. But these two (final) panels of the festival are worth writing up because a) they covered important subjects and, b) they were hugely entertaining.

After the big main event at the city’s magnificently shimmering Harpa concert hall (which featured an incredible panel involving Ann Cleeves, Val McDermid, Danish best-seller Sara Blædel and Finnish best-seller Leena Lehtonainen), it was back to Nordic House.

The first post-Harpa panel was Queer Crime, which was very well moderated by Jacky Collins. The panel comprised Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Britain’s own Mari Hannah, the US’s David Swatling, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Val McDermid. All of the panellists were gay, bar Yrsa. Once of the island’s best-selling novelists and well-known global name made it clear she wanted to be on the panel; she wanted to be there as a heterosexual voice who is open and inclusive because at the end of the day we’re all human beings. Panels talking about gay people shouldn’t just have gay people on it, she argued. Why does it matter the sexuality of the writer and the characters? After all, you’re not going to have sex with the author, or their creations, so what’s the bother? She’s right, of course, and Mari agreed somewhat: she told us that she doesn’t set out to write a lesbian novel… she sets out the write a crime novel, first and foremost.

Mari continued by paying tribute to Val, and the way she had opened doors for writers like her – Mari hadn’t had to go through the route of the women’s and gay press to get published because of the work Val had put in before her. In turn, Val paid tribute to writers like Stella Duffy, Amanda Scott, Jackie Kay and Charlottete Mendelson, who all blazed a trail in the 1990s.

Val stated this: at the end of the day, though, if you write a good book mainstream publishers will publish it now, regardless of the gender or sexuality of the protagonists – those mainstream publishers have an eye on what will sell, that’s their bottom line.

Lilja Sigurðardóttir – whose books will be published in the UK by Orenda next year, which is terrific news – said when it comes to Icelandic crime fiction, she’s the only lesbian in the village, which drew chuckles from the crowd. Lilja said that she has experienced some markets being open, but some that are still closed. That’s why panels like this are still important and writers like Lilja and the rest of the panel still need to be heard.

Val, as ever, was full of fantastic anecdotes, recounting what it was like in the early days to be a gay writer on the scene and told us that books and stories are one of the ways through which anyone struggling with persecution or discrimination can cope with life. Books and well-written characters can be such a help to those who feel they live in the margins of society (or at least told that’s where they should be) – if they read about someone in a book that’s like them, suddenly they don’t feel so alone anymore.

Amen to that.

Finally, it was The ****ing Swearing Panel. Hosted by co-creator of Iceland Noir, Grant Nicol, it featured Val McDermid, JS Law, Craig Robertson and Derek Farrell. There was some nominal chatter about the rhythm of swearing and how it fits into language, where Val said that there was a kind of poetry to Scottish swearing (“aca-fucking-demic” “unbe-fucking-lievable”). However, things soon descended into hilarious anecdotes filled with juicy swears. JS Law, in particular, regaled the audience with tales from life onboard a submarine (he’s ex-Royal Navy), which seemed to mostly consist of games revolving around the fine art of masturbation (“I have a degree from Oxford for THIS?” asked Val, exasperated, as he told his stories). There was also a brilliant story from Craig, who told us about a Scottish football commentator describing a Scotland game against Italy. The commentator, struggling to recognise an Italian player, asked his co-commentator the player’s name. “Fucked if I know,” he replied. The commentator then said: “That was Fuckedifino on the ball, there…”

There were snorts, there were giggles, there were many gut laughs. It was a fine end to a fine festival.

Held at the Nordic House, right next to the city’s university (a good tip for any future visitors to the festival who want cheap(er) eats) and the Reykjavik Pond, the festival was very good value, and featured some of my favourite writers, as well as some intriguing newcomers in the Icelandic field. It was very well organised by Quentin Bates and his team, and the panels were interesting and fun, and also, befitting in a country that’s proud to be one of the most gender equal around, open and inclusive.

Held at the Nordic House, right next to the city’s university (a good tip for any future visitors to the festival who want to find cheap(er) eats) and Tjörnin (aka the Reykjavik Pond), the festival was very good value, and featured some of my favourite writers as well as some intriguing newcomers in the Icelandic field. It was very well organised by Quentin Bates and his team, and the panels were interesting and fun, and also, befitting in a country that’s proud to be one of the most gender equal around, open and inclusive.

Iceland Noir will return in 2018, with Jo Nesbø as one of the guests.

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