Monday, June 10, 2019

Ragnar Jónasson at The Poisoned Pen!

Since Ragnar Jónasson wrote my favorite book last year, you have to know that I did a supreme happy dance when I discovered that this Icelandic author would appear at my favorite bookstore, The Poisoned Pen. Denis and I showed up early to get our preferred seats, and I noticed that the author, his wife, and two daughters came in early, too. The family had come in a few days early to enjoy our beautiful spring weather and to see some of the many sights the state has to offer. I was happy to see that quite a few people came to see Jónasson, and there's only one more thing I'm going to say. There are times that Icelandic words and phrases are used, and since I have no clue as to their spelling, I've had to avoid them. If you'd like the "fully leaded" version of this event, please don't hesitate to watch Ragnar and Barbara on The Poisoned Pen's Youtube channel. Now, let's get right down to his interview with The Poisoned Pen's owner, Barbara Peters!

Ragnar Jónasson talking with Barbara Peters
Barbara: Good evening, everyone. This is such an exciting occasion. This is our first visit from an author from Iceland! I'm going to try once again. Ragnar Jónasson. Is that close?

Ragnar: Yes, very good!

Barbara: You're just being kind. [audience laughter] Do you want to introduce yourself and then I'll know for sure?

Ragnar rattles something off.

Barbara: See!?! [gales of laughter from audience]

They then compared their pronunciations of Norwegian author Jo Nesbø's name.

Barbara: So is Icelandic in any way related to Norwegian?

Ragnar: They are very much related. Icelandic is basically Old Norwegian. Norwegians settled Iceland about a thousand years ago, and the language has more or less remained the same.

Barbara: Did you have fewer incomers for centuries?

Ragnar: Yes. It being an island way far away there wasn't a lot of tourists until recently. So we can still read books that were written eleven hundred, twelve hundred years ago. The old Icelandic sagas? We can still read some of them fairly easily. With something like Old English, it's much more difficult because the language has changed so much over the centuries.

Some of the sagas are like the crime novels of their age, or basically a legal drama in a way. And a lot of people are killed.

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Barbara: I'm going to betray my ignorance here. Doesn't Iceland have a large Parliament that meets somewhere, and do the sagas relate to that? Is that form of government tied into all this?

Ragnar: It is in a way. We do have the oldest sitting parliament in the world, from the year 930, and it used to meet at this old site in Iceland. Obviously, now it just meets in Reykjavik in the parliament building.

Barbara: Crime fiction was primarily an English form. For a long long time, it was exported to other countries and translated into the native languages. But there's been a big turnaround, and now authors are writing crime fiction in their own language and it's being translated into English here. I meant to ask you, I first heard of Quentin Bates when he wrote a book... I thought it was about Alaska for Soho Press. Am I right, Cathy, you're nodding your head over there?

Cathy: I remember him from a series he wrote set in Iceland.

Ragnar: Yes.

Barbara: Iceland rather than Alaska?

Ragnar: Yes.

Barbara: Doesn't he translate your books into English?

Ragnar: Yes. He did my first series. I have a different translator now because it's a different publisher. He did the first five books and then he wrote books set in Iceland. He used to live in Iceland, but he's British and his wife is Icelandic. So yes, he writes this series about a policewoman called Gunnhildur. [Good series!]

Ragnar Jónasson with Barbara Peters
Barbara: So you started out writing... is it five books now?... in the Dark Iceland series? And the principle character is Ari Thor?

Ragnar: Yes, that's right.

Barbara: What was your inspiration for Ari Thor?

Ragnar: When we meet him, he's a young guy moving to the northernmost town in Iceland called Siglufjörđur. That's actually the town where my grandfather grew up and where my grandparents lived most of their lives. It's a place I'm very familiar with.

It's a very beautiful place. I also thought it would be a good place for a crime novel setting because you can only get there through a tunnel. It's very isolated. In the winter, it gets very dark. There's a lot of snow there. Avalanches that close off the road into town. In the summer, it's very bright, often even warmer than in the south of Iceland. It has almost twenty-four-hour daylight in the middle of June and July. So it's a place of great contrasts.

That's basically why I decided to set my first series there. Ari... I thought I would have a young guy. I'd been translating Agatha Christie-- I'm a big fan of her books-- and I remember that she said in her autobiography that she always regretted making her detectives too old at the beginning of their careers so she couldn't grow old with them. They're retired, in a way, when we meet them, and then she wrote about them for fifty years.

Barbara: Just one day or one month at a time. [audience laughter]

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Ragnar: So I thought that if this should become a series, it would probably be a good idea if I kept this guy a little bit younger than I am so he can grow a bit older with me and also we can have some shared experiences. But then I turned that upside down when I started my new series. When I write about a sixty-four-year-old woman...

Barbara: Who's growing younger.

Ragnar: She grows younger in every book. That series is written in reverse. We start with her at sixty-four when she's retiring and working on her last case. Then she's fifty in the next one and then forty and then in her thirties in the fourth book.

Barbara: A certain fantasy element creeping in there. We're all looking envious. [audience laughter] Siglufjörđur can also be reached by sea, correct?

Ragnar: Yes, they do a lot of cruise ships now in the summer. You can reach it by boat. The tunnel was built in the 1960s, I think, and before that the only way you could reach the town was by boat or by crossing a big mountain. Since I wrote the first book-- almost ten years ago now-- they've actually built another tunnel. So they have two tunnels from different directions. So unfortunately for crime fiction, the town doesn't really get closed off anymore.

Barbara: But that could be a bonus, too, because now you have more people coming in who can get killed off. Otherwise, you'd be faced with the Cabot Cove Syndrome.

Ragnar: I know, I know! I was very conscious of Jessica Fletcher. [audience laughter] Agatha Christie fascinates me. The fewer suspects the better, I think. If you can have a closed environment in some way, so the story is basically about the psychology of a few people-- trying to find out how or why something happened instead of going all over a big town.

Barbara: You also drill down deeper into those few people.

Ragnar Jónasson
Ragnar: Absolutely, yes. You can look further into each person. Actually, for the new series, I'm working with that. There's a book coming out in May called The Island. We have a small island that's a real place off the south coast of Iceland. We have just four people who spend the weekend there, this island where no one lives. There's just one house there. One of them dies, so there are just three people who could have done it.

For the third book in that series, The Mist, we have only three people in a house at Christmas in the Icelandic countryside far from everyone. There's this couple who lives there and a stranger knocks on their door on Christmas Eve.

Barbara: You can't reasonably take it down any lower than that. [audience laughter]

Ragnar: That's what I've been thinking! Can I pull it off with like two people? Or one? I don't know.

Barbara then told us an anecdote of a trip she and her daughter had made to Iceland that featured puffins and also how atrocious the weather had been.

Ragnar: That's why I'm here. The weather is much nicer. [audience laughter] We actually have a lot of puffins in the next book because it's an island where they live. It's a treacherous place with all these puffin holes in the ground. They roam freely there and build their burrows wherever they want, so it's easy to break your leg if you're not careful when you're out walking.

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As I said before, there is just one house on this small island. It's a hunting lodge and was originally used by people coming to hunt the puffins.

Barbara: For food?

Ragnar: Yes.

Barbara: I remember when we went to the Faroe Islands, people were eating puffins like we eat Kentucky Fried Chicken. It was so depressing, but it was a major protein source.

Ragnar: They don't do it anymore because the puffins are endangered. In the book, I was going to describe or to at least say that the hunting lodge was used for hunting puffins, but then I remembered talking to a room full of readers in the UK back when I was thinking of writing this book and I told them that there was this place where people hunted puffins, and there was a big GASP! from everyone. [audience laughter] To everyone in that audience-- I don't know about here-- the thought of killing puffins was such a horrible idea that I deleted all references to puffin killing from the book. [audience laughter]

Barbara: I would imagine that this is the Icelandic equivalent of killing a cat in an American mystery. You can kill any number of people, but if you lay a finger on a cat, you're doomed.

There wasn't a lot of homegrown crime in Iceland, but I would imagine that the financial collapse in 2008 changed that and at least gave you the possibility of writing about crime.

Ragnar: I don't know if it's surprising or not, but the financial collapse hasn't been used a lot in Icelandic crime fiction. There are authors who have touched upon it, but maybe it's too close to us in time. Maybe it's not exciting enough.

Ragnar Jónasson
Barbara: I think for many Americans Iceland really came to their attention when the volcano erupted.

Ragnar: Yes! We have a volcano go off every three to five years. During the last decade, I think we had two or three eruptions. But this one was particularly strong, and this was in 2010 so it was two years after the financial collapse.

All the big banks went bankrupt. The currency weakened by, probably, 100%. It became very expensive for Icelanders to live and very cheap for tourists to visit for the first time in a long time. It had always been an expensive destination before. Many people thought this would be the end of us because the only thing anyone would remember was the volcano and no one would want to visit. But it had the exact opposite effect. After that, we had a tourist boom like we'd never had before. And it hasn't stopped. It's basically been the biggest reason for the revival of the economy in Iceland.

Iceland is a big country, but we only have a population of 350,000 because no one lives in the highlands. We live in towns and villages along the coast all around the island. The highlands are really pristine. If you're lucky, you can go there and see places that no one else has ever seen.

Barbara: What made you decide to write a second series?

Ragnar: I had been writing about Ari Thor for about six years. I just felt it was time for a change. Hulda just came to me in a way. I had all the elements for her backstory even down to the smallest details of her life-- what type of car she was driving. I wrote it down on a piece of paper for my publisher in Iceland that this is the next series I want to write. This woman, her whole life story... and I want to tell her story in reverse. Start with her last case and work backward. So that's how she came about. The series is like her life's story, but it's also three or four big cases she's worked on. A big part of it is just getting to know this woman and why she has had such a difficult life.

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The series starts when she's sixty-four. She's alone. She's lost her husband. She's lost her daughter. Gradually we see what happened, even back to her early childhood.

Barbara: In the latest dramatizations of Miss Marple, they try to give her a whole backstory that she never had in the books. She never really changes from the first book to last. Do you think you can write someone that way now, or do you have to give a character a much more challenging life to make it interesting?

Ragnar: In a way, I think you must dig a little bit deeper. I think you have to tell the backstory of the main protagonist. It doesn't need to be filled with horror, but there has to be something there. I think you have to empathize with the hero. You have to understand him. I think the same goes for the killer in a modern detective story. You have to be able to understand why he does the things that he does.

Barbara: I think in all the great crime novels, you also have to mourn the victim.

Ragnar: Absolutely.

Barbara: Sometimes Christie's victims were just... convenient. It's good if your victim can touch our hearts as well.

Ragnar: Absolutely, and it can be a problem because often there's this need in a crime novel or thriller for an instant thrill, so you often have to kill somebody at the beginning of the book to get it started. But for me, the best thing is if you can get to know the victim a little bit.

Barbara: What is your background? What did you bring to writing crime fiction?

I think I've been spotted.
Ragnar: I'm a lawyer by training, but I don't think I've really brought a lot of the law into my books. I've more or less tried to stay away from it. I've tried to keep these two worlds separate.

Barbara: Why did you decide you wanted to write mysteries?

Ragnar: Because I love mysteries. My big hobby in life is reading good crime novels. Ever since I was a young boy. Those were the stories I always wanted to write, and I've always been writing as well ever since I was six years old.

I've been translating Agatha Christie novels into Icelandic for years. Again, as a hobby, while I was in law school and while I was working. I had this idea for a story with Ari Thor, and I had started to write it. Then there was this competition in Iceland ten years ago. A publisher was looking for the next Dan Brown. This was after The Da Vinci Code had been popular for a few years and Dan hadn't written another book at that point, and people were waiting for his next book. So this publisher had an idea to look for the Icelandic Dan Brown. That's basically the reason why I finished my book-- the deadline for this competition. I knew someone would actually read the manuscript.

In the end, they didn't find the Icelandic Dan Brown, so there was no winner. But I did get my book published, and then they asked for another one of the same caliber. I'm still with this publisher in Iceland.

The conversation then turned to Iceland Noir, a festival of crime fiction in Reykjavik. The thought of being able to go made my mouth water. I'm not going to include it here, but I do encourage you to watch the event on The Poisoned Pen's Youtube channel. If you're interested only in the conversation about Iceland Noir, it's at the 29:00 minute mark.

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When Ragnar mentioned that Anthony Horowitz was going to be attending the next Iceland Noir, talk turned to him.

Barbara: I would come for Anthony Horowitz. He's only been here once. I'm such a fangirl for Foyle's War. And what is the other one? Midsomer Murders, which has gone on forever. He wrote the screenplays, Caroline Graham wrote the actual books.

I was on the River Dart with Caroline Graham while we were attending a CWA Conference. We were floating down the river to Greenway, Agatha Christie's house, and Caroline Graham, who had written this first book-- I won't tell you the name so I won't spoil it-- that was powered by incest. At that time, incest was still an uncomfortable topic for a novel. She announced that it was going to be a television series, and we almost fell into the river because we couldn't imagine how they were going to film this story. And then Anthony Horowitz appeared on the scene, and they did, and they actually leave it in the episode although it was lightly touched upon.

But he, too, [Anthony Horowitz] is writing Agatha Christie!

Ragnar: He's writing Sherlock books.

Barbara: But he's also done...

Ragnar: ...he's also written for the Poirot series...

Barbara: But he's also written a book where he's doing himself as a character. Isn't that the one that's likened to a Christie?

Ragnar Jónasson
Ragnar: Yes, and it's a fantastic series. The Word Is Murder, and The Sentence Is Death. I was actually reading The Sentence Is Death this week.

Barbara: It's coming out at the end of May here in the U.S.

Ragnar: Okay. I can absolutely recommend that series. It's really well done. It has this Golden Age touch to it. It's so cleverly done.

Barbara then asked Ragnar to pronounce the names of some of the other Icelandic crime fiction writers. Once again, I'll refer you to the link above for the event on Youtube!

Ragnar: There's Arnaldur Indriđason. Yrsa Sigurđardóttir. Lilja Sigurđardóttir. They are not related in any way. [He also mentioned some other authors, but none of the names were familiar at all and he didn't mention book titles, so I couldn't look them up. Sorry!]

Barbara: Iceland has one of the highest reading rates in the world. What do the people in Iceland read? Do they read your Icelandic authors or crime fiction from other countries?

Ragnar: We actually read a lot of crime from other countries. Mostly Scandinavian in translation. But every year, the bestselling books in Iceland are Icelandic novels. Crime novels are usually three or four of the top five bestselling books every year.

During the short Q&A session, one person in the audience had a question that many of us have had.

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Fan: I have a question about the publishing of the series. I kind of like to read my series in order. You had Snowblind, then you had Nightblind, and there were books in between, and one that hasn't been published yet... is it going to be?

Ragnar: I don't know about that one [False Note, the first book in the Ari Thor series]. I hope so! You're going to have to ask my publisher about that.

The reason why books are published out of order in the U.S. is because they copied the U.K. model. The reason why we published them out of order in the U.K. is that Snowblind, the first one, and Nightblind, the fifth one, are pretty similar. They're both set in the same small town, and so I think the idea from my publisher in the U.K. was that if readers liked Snowblind, we'll give you one right after that's pretty similar, and then we'll take you on this journey with the other three books where we travel the north a little bit more.

Some countries where I'm published, they do it in the original order and some countries don't. There is no proper explanation. I'm sorry!

Barbara: There are some truly bizarre decisions made by the sales departments who actually determine-- more than editorial-- and a lot of it I've never figured out. They're all about positioning and branding. It's the whole James Patterson influence. It's hard just to publish a book anymore.

Fan #2: How important is it for you to follow police procedure?

Ragnar: Police procedure is a big headache for me. I don't like it. That's not the interesting part of the crime novel. I'm more interested in the plot, the psychology, why things happened rather than the C.S.I. elements. I have a friend who works for the police, and I send her all my books before they are published. She reads them and tells me if I'm way off in anything.

The last few books I've written are set in the 80s and 90s before mobile phones and I've really enjoyed writing them. You get more of a classic detective fiction without all that stuff.

When the questions were all asked and answered, it was time for the signing line. What a lovely evening!

Ragnar Jónasson. Courtesy of The Poisoned Pen.


  1. What a treat, Cathy! And it sounds like it was also a very interesting evening - informative, I should say - along with everything else. Little wonder you like the PP so well.

    1. It's a little slice of heaven right here in the Phoenix metro area.

  2. Bet you had such a good time! I'm determined to read his books. Love the idea of a 64-year-old woman's story told in reverse.

    1. I really like his Ari Thor series, but I love his Hulda series. That telling a story in reverse? Wow!

  3. Fascinating interview. I have "The Darkness" on library reserve.

    1. I look forward to hearing your opinion of the book once you have a chance to read it.


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