A beautiful day awaits us as we step off the train in Stirling to bright sunshine. Coming to the Bloody Scotland Book Festival seems quite appropriate just a couple of days after Scotland decided to stay as part of the United Kingdom, as it could have been the words used by around 45% of those who voted.
It’s the 3rd Bloody Scotland, established by Scottish crime writers Alex Gray and Lynn Anderson and the second I have attended after going to see Jan Arnald (Arne Dahl) and then Jo Nesbo last year. Last year both the events I attended were in the Albert Halls whereas both of this year’s events are in the same room at the Stirling Highland Hotel. I’m not doing it on purpose.
Lasting for 3 days, there are a large number of talented authors in attendance from Scotland and beyond. Being the only festival in Scotland entirely devoted to crime writing, it always seems to be well attended and there are some great venues in Stirling to host it.
Additions to this year’s programme include a play at Stirling Sheriff Court where you get to be the jury in a performance about the trial of Peter Manuel, one of Scotland’s most notorious serial killers who was arrested in 1958 and convicted of 7 murders, a football match between Scottish authors and English authors (which the Scots won 14-1) a tour around Stirling Castle where a recreation of a real murder scene from the castle’s bloody history would be performed and a Bloody Cinema event.
There’s 45 minutes between the two things I’m attending which is actually a bit of a relief, as the hill to get to the hotel is not for the faint hearted. My lack of fitness means an oxygen tank would have been a useful accessory by the time we get there.
Things aren’t exactly well signposted either but we manage to embroil ourselves in the queue, which is expanding quickly.
Sunday 21 September 2014 – Icelandic Noir – Ragnar Jónasson, Quentin Bates and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Academy Suite, Stirling Highland Hotel, 12.45pm
It’s disappointing that more consideration wasn’t given to the many fans of Nordic Noir in Scotland with this event being put on at the same time as an event about Finnish writing.
Three authors for the price of one (4 if you count host Michael J Malone) for my first event of the day and each known slightly differently in Scotland.
Ragnar Jónasson was born in Reykjavik in 1976 and is a lawyer. He also currently teaches copyright law at Reykjavik University and has previously worked on radio and television, including as a TV news reporter for the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service.
He isn’t well known in the UK. He has had the short story Death of a Sunflower published in the renowned Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, the first story in the magazine by an Icelandic author. Another short story Party of Two was published in the Crime Writers’ Association 2014 anthology Guilty Parties. He is most well known in his native country for the Dark Iceland crime series set in Northern Iceland, but these novels have only been published so far in Iceland and Germany. A leading Icelandic TV production company are developing a TV series based on the series, so hopefully we will see translated versions of the books and also television versions on the 9pm BBC4 slot in the not too distant future.
Quentin Bates was born in England in 1962. In 1979 he was offered the opportunity to spend a gap year working in Iceland and that year turned into ten. During these years he worked as a netmaker, a factory hand and a trawlerman. He also met and married an Icelandic girl and began a family.
For the last 15 years Quentin has been a journalist writing for a nautical trade magazine. He goes back to Iceland twice a year and the Icelandic financial crisis inspired him to try his hand at fiction.
His debut novel, Frozen Out was published in 2011 and since then Cold Comfort, Winterlude, Chilled to the Bone, and this year’s Cold Steal have followed. His books have been published in the USA and Canada and translated in Germany and Holland with Polish and Finnish versions on the way.
Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, born in 1963, is the most well-known of the trio. She works as a civil engineer in Reykjavik, the city in which she was born and is married with two children. She is an international best selling and award winning crime writer and writes the Thóra Gudmundsdóttir series as well as several stand-alone thrillers. She made her crime fiction debut in 2005 with Last Rituals, the first instalment in the series, and has been translated into more than 30 languages. She also writes children’s books.
Five of the series have been published in the UK as well as two stand-alone novels, including her most recent release, The Silence of the Sea.
Today’s host is Michael J Malone. Michael was born in Ayr and has published over 200 poems in literary magazines throughout the UK. He has written two books featuring his Detective Inspector McBain as well as, earlier this year, The Guillotine Choice, a novel based on the true story of an Algerian man’s years in one of history’s most notorious prisons.
Michael first asked, what makes Nordic Noir so popular? Yrsa answered that she thought it was because the scandic society was perceived as a good society, but she thought it was nice to find the worms and maggots hidden away under the carpet. Quentin added that it was down to the quality of the writing, which was so good, and straight to the point. Ragnar added that for him it was about the settings – they could be extreme, from really cold winters, to 24 hour daylight during the summer (and lots of mountains to get lost easily in).
The discussion moved on to whether Iceland was different to the other Nordic countries. Quentin said Iceland was indeed very different, but that each one had a distinctiveness from the others. When asked about Iceland’s USP, Yrsa said it was that they didn’t have guns – there are very few murders with guns there. There’s also the closeness of society, where we would normally talk about six degrees of separation, in Iceland, it could be as little as two, so there was a risk that someone would always know who you were. Ragnar added that whilst there might not be very many guns on the surface, there were certainly a few if you took into account the hunting fraternity.
So, did that mean there tended to be a depressing stupidity to any murders in Iceland? Yrsa agreed with that, adding it all tended to be drunk people arguing and then pulling a knife, so she was often disappointed that a real life murder wouldn’t be enough, even for a short story. That was the challenge for writers in Iceland – to write something which was believable enough for the reader to think that it could happen. Quentin added the other challenge was the size of the place, for example, you couldn’t rob a bank, as what would you do with the money? You couldn’t spend it, nor could you take it off the island easily.
Michael asked Quentin if he saw Iceland differently from the two writers who lived there (Quentin now visits to do his research and then comes back to the UK to do the writing) He said he thought he did, although when he visits, he tends to go a bit native again.
Michael tells the audience that Ragnar started translating Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic when he was in his late teens, and Ragnar adds that his publisher just told him to pick any book he wanted – he ended up translating around one a year. Ragnar thinks that doing this has influenced his writing in a number of ways – he realised the importance of setting the scenes and he always tries to have a twist at the end. He was also keen not to kill too many people off in the one place!
We move on to talk about the Icelandic Crime Festival, the second one taking place in November this year. Quentin tells us the idea was born over a curry and a beer one night and that Ann Cleeves (author of the Shetland series) was instrumental in making it happen – when asked if she would attend she accepted straight away, without even asking when it was. There was no crime writers community, so they have set up an arm of the UK crime writers association, to network and get to know everyone writing crime in Iceland a bit more. The media have taken an interest with both TV and radio interviewing Yrsa and others about it.
Quentin pointed out that only 4 Icelandic authors have actually been translated into English (a few more have been translated into other languages though, such as German). Yrsa reckoned that that was because there are so many good crime writers already published in English that there wasn’t the same urgency for even more. There used to be a bit of a divide between Icelandic literature and crime writing, and the only cultural show on TV tended to concentrate a lot on poetry. According to Quentin though, when he was first over, cultural heritage was popular, but now there are lots of crime books.
Quentin talked about how he had resisted for a while from setting his books in Iceland, however he eventually realised he should write about what he knew. Yrsa pointed out that they considered Quentin to be Icelandic as he could speak the language, which was a really important thing for him to have done. He told us how he had gone to work in a net loft at first and had struggled to learn the language in the first few months, as the Icelanders speak very fast and it’s often difficult to work out when one word ends and another one starts. Yrsa asked him if the locals had laughed at him at first and Quentin said they had, it’s all to do with hearing your own language spoken back to you and because not many people took the time to learn it, it would have been a novelty to them. He of course learned the swearing first, but we hear from Yrsa that swearing in Icelandic is rubbish – Quentin adding that their swearing tends to be more blasphemous whereas ours is more gynaecological. Nowadays, the youngsters tend to just swear in English.
The next sets of questions are about the main characters the authors have. Ragnar’s is a young guy, just graduated as a policeman, and working in the northernmost village in Iceland, which is actually where his father grew up. It’s a very cold, snowy and dark place, and can only be accessed by sea or over mountains. His main character, who has left his girlfriend behind, becomes very isolated and depressed. When the murder takes place, his boss doesn’t appear to be particularly bothered and he ends up having to do a lot of the investigating on his own.
Quentin’s character is a large, ordinary female copper, with nothing remarkable about her at all. He tells us that originally she was going to be the sidekick, but when he realised his main protagonist was just a series of clichés, he decided to bring her to the centre. He goes on to say that two thirds of the way through writing the book, he decided to do some research, so he arranged to meet someone from the police in Iceland, and she was exactly as he had been writing the character. He ended up having to change loads of what he had written as a result. Yrsa and Quentin discuss the egalitarian attitudes in Iceland, talking about how women have a hard time in the police and there’s often a glass ceiling in many jobs. Only 14% of the police force is female. Yrsa’s character was always going to be female, and she decided to go from a different angle, by making her a lawyer. Her latest book was inspired by the story of the Marie Celeste which she has always been fascinated by. She even took a diving course as part of her research.
Quentin’s latest release has been published as an e-book only, and is about a burglar who breaks into a house one day and comes face to face with someone he really doesn’t want to meet. Encouraged to talk about the last book to be published in hard copy, that’s ‘Shot to the Bone’, about a dominatrix and someone who has a heart attack.
Ragnar’s last book was a selection of short stories, including one about New Year’s Eve. The book he is writing now is set in the south east of Iceland, near some glacial rivers and is about an elderly gent who welcomes an old friend from 30/40 years ago, there are some unresolved issues and the obligatory twist at the end. The best thing about writing a series, Yrsa says, is that you have a suite of main characters ready and waiting, but the worst thing is keeping them interesting enough. Ragnar says that having a main character can have its strengths and weaknesses – you have to use him, but as you go along you gather more background on him. But, it’s also important to make sure that even though you are writing as part of a series of books, each one also has to stand alone as not all readers will read all of the books or necessarily in the right order. Yrsa agrees with this adding that she actually wrote a stand-alone book after writing five in the series. She found this gave her a great deal of freedom and she just wanted to kill everyone off!
What are the weirdest things the authors have done by way of research? For Yrsa it was watching a gallbladder operation (It wasn’t that interesting). For Quentin, he reckons the research tends to just jump at him, rather than him going to look for it (he has some questionable contacts, about whom I won’t go into detail here!) Ragnar uses his friends in the police force and medical profession. We finish this part of the session by discussing how important good translators are.
The questions section covered the following:
- what did the writers think of Burial Rights by Hannah Kent, set in early 19th century Iceland. Yrsa commented that this had only just been translated and there appeared to be a sense of amazement that someone would be interested in writing such a thing.
- how do the writers feel when handing over a book to be translated, and did the sales of Agatha Christie books increase as a result of Ragnar’s translations? Ragnar tells us that no, sales did not increase but that was because more and more people were reading in English. His books are also translated into German, however in one case he had written a joke which was a play on Icelandic dialect, and this has just been completely left out by the German translator.
- if murders are generally simple in Iceland, where do you get your plots from? Yrsa says they can come from anywhere, as long as she can find something interesting, but not completely unbelievable (she’s killed someone off using Botox before…) Ragnar says he gets a lot of stuff from British newspapers, and that it doesn’t necessarily have to be a crime headline that sparks off his imagination.
- has there been any animosity towards Quentin as an outsider writing about Iceland and did he ever consider using a more Icelandic sounding name? It’s been more puzzlement than animosity, and he has been accepted as one of them, given his learning of the language. He wishes he had used a pseudonym now.
- would Quentin translate his own books into Icelandic? No, he would want Ragnar to do it.
-reflect on the similarities between Scotland and Iceland. Ragnar says he is fascinated with The Black House, by Peter May, which could easily have been written about Iceland. The far north of Scotland is very similar in landscape to Iceland. Yrsa added that there had been discussion about if Scotland had voted for independence whether it could have joined the Scandinavian culture, giving there are lots of things in common such as fishing, agriculture and the landscape. She adds that of all the countries she has visited outside Iceland Scotland is the one she has most affinity with, and could see herself being Scottish. Quentin adds she would make a better Scot than a Norwegian and there’s no disagreement from Yrsa on this point!
A very interesting event with very likeable authors.
Sunday 21 September 2014 – John Gordon Sinclair and Arild Stavrum, Academy Suite, Stirling Highland Hotel, 2.30pm
John Gordon Sinclair first broke into our consciousness as the star of one of Scotland’s best-loved comedy films Gregory’s Girl, which he now won’t mention by name. Lots of TV work and film roles followed. He has just finished a role in a West End production of Jeeves and Wooster. Now 52, he has published his second crime novel Blood Whispers, the follow up to debut Seventy Times Seven.
Arild Stavrum was a professional footballer who played in his native Norway as well as Sweden, Turkey, Germany and Scotland. He scored 26 goals in 54 appearances for Aberdeen between 1999 and 2001. He also had two games for his national side. After trying his hand at management he has turned his hand to crime writing. Footballers are traditionally not considered to be the brightest.
Now 42, he has had 5 books published in his native Norway. His second novel Exposed at the Back has now been translated into English and has been released in the UK.
Host this time is Craig Robertson. A former journalist who reported on many major stories including 9/11, Dunblane, the Omagh bombing and the disappearance of Madeleine McCann. He has interviewed three prime ministers, spent time on Death Row in the USA and dispensed polio drops in the backstreets of India.
His own crime novels are set on the streets of Glasgow. His first novel, Random, was shortlisted for the 2010 CWA New Blood Dagger and longlisted for the 2011 Crime Novel of the Year. He is also the author of Snapshot, Cold Grave and Witness the Dead.
Arild was asked about his new book. He said that he had had a long life in football, from 5 to 32, so it had been a big part of his life. The football language was something that was familiar to him so he wanted to use that in a setting for the book. There are lots of relationships in a changing room, from jealousy, tensions to who is getting paid the most, so lots of possibilities to make up a crime story. He touched on the corruption in the game, finishing off by saying that football should be the beautiful game and not about the money/professional side.
Craig then asked John about his, which is a thriller involving Albanian gangsters, to which John said he couldn’t tell us if he knew any personally. Different from Arild in that he wanted to write about something he didn’t know much about at all. He also wanted his book to be something he would like to take on his holidays, and referred to books he had read where he had enjoyed the ride, but didn’t feel like he had made a connection with any of the characters – he wants people who read his books to feel something. Arild talked about the corruption that goes on in his book and tells us that not everybody was happy with what he’d written. He wrote about match fixing, was told that that would never happen in Norway, then two months later it did. He likes to explore the darker side of football, some of which was based on real life situations, like the agent who was banned from dealing in players, who a few years later was brought back to negotiate the TV rights, and subsequently conned the football association out of a substantial amount of money.
Craig highlights the plight of young footballers who don’t make the grade and are kicked out onto the street. Arild added that no one cares, you can go to Barcelona and there will be a whole warehouse full of African players whose careers have been affected by the recent goings on. What happens then is that a fair number will turn to drugs and prostitution. Arild is really animated about this subject and tells us he is really angry with the top of FIFA which just seems to be getting bigger and bigger. There is some human trafficking at the beginning of John’s book Blood Whispers. Taken from a Herman Hess saying, the book is about a female lawyer who represents a drug trafficker/drug lord. As a youngster this lawyer killed someone so she begins to question whether that is something she would be prepared to do again. John gives his character a hard time, but has never really thought about whether it’s different or difficult to write as a female character, as he just thinks about how a character would react to that type of environment. Craig adds that he chickened out writing with a female lead, much preferring to write from a serial killer’s point of view…
Arild said that he had received really good feedback from some people who had read his book, saying that they found the setting realistic.
We are then let in on a little secret – John studied Norwegian when he was 15, being the only pupil in Scotland to do so. He also talks about part of his new book being set in the very hotel we are holding the session, remarking that he wanted somewhere which looked good, just in case it ever got made for the telly. He throws in another fact for us at this stage, which is that Cornton Vale is the only female prison in Scotland.
When asked about why both authors changed from sport and acting to writing, John says that he is currently 50/50 split between the two, but that he would want that to tip towards writing in the future. For Arild it’s about keeping some of the discipline football has (getting up at a particular time etc and sticking to your writing plan). But he had also written stories and articles for a number of years.
We then move on to talk about John’s shed at the bottom of his garden, something which as a qualified electrician he (eventually) wired himself. He uses his shed to do the writing and was pleased that he got to choose everything about it. And because you aren’t restricted to a particular budget when writing, you can have whatever you want in each scene. He adds that when he writes he has the film playing in his head and when editing it he thinks about what a friend in the advertising world would do in each scene.
When asked if they had learned any new skills, Arild said that it was a natural transition for him, as football and writing are both quite instinctive. John said he just sat down and wrote the book without telling anyone he was going to do it. He said that it’s better to just to start writing, you will find your authorial voice and then the story might just take on a life of its own. John said he sometimes found he could make himself laugh or cry when writing and Arild added that he would often talk to himself and treat the characters like real people.
The writers talked about whether or not they should do readings as part of these sessions. Both did not like to do them, with John adding that when he read a passage out loud his voice did not fit with the story. A straw poll of the audience seemed to suggest quite an even split for and against readings.
As a detour from crime, Arild is now writing some children’s books before going on to do another crime novel. John says that his books are not a trilogy but they do link. The stage show he just finished is off on tour so he will be writing in order to tie off a few loose ends when that is on.
Questions from the audience:
- which crime writers inspired our authors? Arild said there wasn’t one, but many, including Carl Hiaasen. He writes nothing like him, but is really dark and concentrates on the environmental issues in Florida. He is also a big fan of Elmore Leonard, who John says he was about to say and that his books often tip a hat to him.
-how do you research books? John reads a lot of stuff. One of his books, based on Ireland in the 70s, was something he had to research a lot as he didn’t know a lot about the country or the bombings at that time.
- what’s been the pinnacle of your careers? For John selling the first book and getting a badge at the Edinburgh book festival which said “author”. Also he worked on “The Producers” with Mel Brooks in London, saying that was the best year of his life. For Arild, a goal to win the Swedish championship, and a goal in the Scottish cup final. Taking a penalty in front of 30,000 is an immense feeling when you score. But he also adds seeing his book in print – and confirms that he thoroughly enjoyed his time at Aberdeen.
-what books have you not read and you think you should? John’s reading factual stuff at the moment as he doesn’t like to read fiction when he’s writing. Arild says he is reading John’s book at the moment, and that he has to read something completely different to what he’s working on. You can’t get much more different than children’s books and Albanian gangsters!
Another entertaining hour positively flew past.
As well as the authors I went to see, at various points I saw James Oswald, Doug Johnstone, Malcolm Mackay and Kati Hiekkapelto.
After getting something to eat, there was still time to meet up with local and fellow Nordic Noir fans Miriam and Siobhan Owen to sample the local beer.
I’m sure we will be back next year.