Acclaimed Icelandic author talks about his influences and being published in the UK.
One of 2015’s stand out literary débuts, in a short space of time Ragnar Jónasson has become one of the most exciting voices in contemporary Nordic Noir. The first instalment in his ‘Dark Iceland’ series Snow Blind was listed as one of the year’s best crime novels by The Independent and reached the top 10 on Amazon’s ebooks chart.
Jónasson’s second book Night Blind offers a return trip to the northern fishing town Siglufjordur for another supremely crafted whodunnit. This cold, dark, claustrophobic region is backdrop to a tangled web of secrets and lies.
Set five years after the events of Snow Blind, Jónasson’s hero Ari Thor is no longer a rookie cop. Now a seasoned offficer he has to battle extreme weather and uncover a secret from the past that may destroy the community.
Tense and thrilling this second ‘Dark Iceland’ novel trounces its predecessor. Orenda Books have announced that they will publish the final three volumes in this series.
At the launch for Night Blind hosted by the Embassy of Iceland in London Ragnar Jónasson discussed the journey to publication, the authors who have had the most profound effect on his writing, and how he feels about being one of Iceland’s most famous authors.
It took quite some time. As you can understand not many people read Icelandic so it has to be a leap of faith basically to buy a book that you cannot read but you can maybe read a summary of it but not the whole book. I had basically invested a lot of time going to events, crime festivals, in the UK and the US just out of interest and also to get the book noticed. There was probably a few years before I started actively to do that and it was picked up.
When preparing your first novel did you come up with the setting first or the plot first? Was it both at the same time?
I think it was a bit of both. The setting was obvious to me right from the start. It was process of ideas in a notebook coming together.
You were quite visible on the crime fiction circuit. You’re an Icelandic author but you’ve got a lot of UK influences. Readers may not be aware that you translated Agatha Christie’s novels into Icelandic.
Yes. From the age of 17. It was when I had nothing to do one summer so I went to the Icelandic publisher of Agatha Christie and I saw that it had been translated by different people every year so there was obviously no one in particular so I offered my services so he thanked me for coming by and I thought I would not hear from him but then he called me a couple of days later and said I could start and pick any book. That was a collaboration we had for fourteen, fifteen years. I managed to do that as a hobby while I was in school and then in law school and then working. I managed to find time to do one translation each year.
With Snow Blind one I noticed is that you are really good on story structure. I’m wondering did you subconsciously absorb that from translating Agatha Christie?
What I learnt from Agatha Christie is firstly I think just by translating so many books whether it was Agatha Christie or someone else you get a feel for the structure and length of a book. Suddenly you see that maybe it isn’t such a big undertaking after all to write a full novel. When I was starting to translate Agatha Christie I would probably never have thought that I had it in me to write a full novel because it’s slightly overwhelming when you haven’t done it. When you’ve done so many books and you see the structure you see that if you can translate it maybe you can write one so that’s what I did. What I hope to have learnt from her is, as you say she was marvellous on plotting, so that’s what I try to do with every book is have as strong a plot as I can and a twist at the end. That’s always my aim. The second point I think Agatha Christie was very good on and I hope to have learnt something from her was the setting. The setting was always very distinctive whether it was a train or a country manor or a boat or something. It was always a big part of the story. In my case it’s a village with the nature and everything. As the series goes on it’s a bigger portion of Iceland that is visited in the books. I always try to describe the setting and visit the setting. It’s always real places that you can look up and see.
Aside from Agatha Christie what other UK authors influenced you?
I would say PD James. She is one of my all time favourite crime writers. She had the best characterisation you can find in crime novels. I was lucky enough to meet her a couple of times and interview her. It was really a dream come true. She really is one of my favourites. I also read a lot of golden age crime. Not necessarily UK but even as well American like Ellery Queen, S.S. Van Dine. Slightly obscure authors now. Then more sort of contemporary UK fiction. I’m a fan of Andrew Taylor. Bleeding Heart Square, I thought that was really good. Then I read a lot of Nordic crime as well of course.
Readers may not be aware of the Sagas influence on not only your work but Icelandic culture in general.
I think there is a lot of influence because that really is our heritage. When other nations may have like great works of art and buildings… The oldest buildings in Iceland are fairly recent compared to other nations. The Sagas are basically what we have to be proud of from history. I think that’s why a lot of people buy books, read books, write books. Everyone feels a connection to books. I think it also impacts the writing style. We tend to write shorter sentences because that’s the way the icelandic Sagas were written. They are short sentences and to the point. Back in those days you had to be careful what your wrote because the material was expensive. It was maybe out of necessity that it was short. I think it sort of impacts the Icelandic writers and this makes a headache for Translators.
I think it’s fair to say that in the UK at least, alongside Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Arnaldur Indriðason you are one of the most visible Icelandic crime writers. You’ve been interviewed in high profile publications and appeared on the BBC World Service. How does it feel to be, in effect, Iceland’s cultural ambassador? Do you see yourself as that?
No, that’s the answer. I don’t. I sort of feel a slight obligation when I’m discussing my books with anyone whenever, wherever on Twitter or in person. I sort of turn the conversation into a conversation about Iceland unconsciously. There have been readers from the UK who have actually gone over to Iceland after reading Snow Blind. That’s really brilliant. That’s sort of a nice addition or a nice bonus to know that people actually just pick up a book and read it and feel inspired to visit the place. In that way if I can be in any way an ambassador for Iceland I’m happy to do that to encourage people to visit what they’ve just been reading about.
Many thanks to Karen Sullivan at Orenda Books and the Embassy 0f Iceland in London for making this interview possible.
Night Blind is available to order from Amazon: