Tuesday, 30 December 2014

And the Ass saw the Angel

   "...because once you've got one scar on your face or your heart, its only a matter of time before someone gives you another - and another - until a day doesn't go by when you aren't being bashed senseless, nor a town that you haven't been run out of, and you get to be such a goddamn mess that finally it doesn't feel right unless you're getting the Christ beaten out of you - and within a year of that first damning fall, those first down borne fists, your first run out, you wind up with flies buzzing around your eyes, back at the same place, the same town, deader than when you left, bobbing around in the swill - a dirty deadbeat whore in a roadside ditch.

   "But a little part of you doesn't die. A little part of you lives on. And you make an orphan of that corrupt and contemptible part, dumping it right smack in the laps of the ones who first robbed you of your sweetness, for it is the wicked fruit of their crimes, it is their blood, their sin, it belongs there, this child of blood, this spawn of sin..."

                                             Nick Cave

'The Mistake'

My new novella, 'The Mistake' will be published by Number Thirteen Press on the 13th of January.
Many thanks go out to Chris Black for his tireless efforts in helping me prepare the book.

Sunday, 28 December 2014

A House is not a Home

I was in Reykjavik four years ago for Christmas on what was my second visit here. I had seen that there was a service in English at Hallgrimskirkja in the city centre on Christmas Day and decided to go. Those plans fell through as plans often will. I wound up going out to lunch instead and never made the service which I regretted. So I promised myself I would make amends this year and today I did just that.

I haven't been to a church service in ten years. It's not a fact I'm overly proud of but living in Northern Ireland did a pretty good job of putting me off organised religion. I found it had less to do with peace and unity than it had to do with one-up-man-ship and division. For far too many people there it is nothing more than a banner to hold over your neighbours to remind them that even though you don't know each other they aren't good enough for you and never will be.

In a country where children are segregated at primary school I saw very little to convince me that religion could do anything to help the scars left behind by six hundred years of sectarian squabbling. It would be wrong not to acknowledge the strides forward that Northern Ireland has taken in recent times but if you keep picking at old wounds some of them will never heal.

Today was a different story altogether though. The Reverend Bjarni Þor Bjarnason led the Holy Communion accompanied by organist Friðrik Vignir Stefansson and leading singer Arni Gunnarson. The awe-inspiring interior of Hallgrimskirkja is home to a seriously impressive 5,275-pipe organ. The combination of the grand visual style of the church and the heavenly sounds of the organ leave you in little doubt that you are in a very special house of the Lord. It left me feeling humbled in the best possible way. It's Christmas, you're a long way from home and you feel tiny under the enormous weight of concrete that hangs majestically above you in there.

Bjarni Þor spoke eloquently and succinctly about the distinctions between having a house that one can fill with furniture and other worldly possessions and the concept of creating a home. A home can only be achieved by filling the house with the right kind of atmosphere brought about by meaningful and caring relationships. His message was simple but all the really important lessons in life are.

One of the most fundamental of all human traits seems to be that we require the basic elements of our relationships with each other pointed out to us over and over again in order to get them right. Or more correctly, to not get them wrong so consistently. Our self-centred ways make us immune to each others needs when it is these very relationships that will define our time on this planet. It is who we surround ourselves with and how we treat them that matters the most.

The things around us make no difference to who we are as people nor are they capable of making our lives any better in the same way that not having something you want is incapable of making it any worse. Except perhaps in our own heads.

I left feeling refilled and with a redefined set of expectations for those around me, and probably more importantly, myself.

Today went a long way towards rebuilding my faith in the role that religion can play in modern society as well as in my own life.

Thank you Iceland.

Tuesday, 16 December 2014

Review of 'The Harrowing' by Alexandra Sokoloff

‘The Harrowing’ by Alexandra Sokoloff

Reviewed by Grant Nicol

It’s Thanksgiving and all the residents of Baird College are going home for the holidays. All of them that is except for the disenfranchised and discarded boys and girls of the Mendenhall dorm. The five members of Sokoloff’s very own ‘Breakfast Club’ stick around in the dark, lonely rooms and empty corridors of the old building rather than heading home to households they no longer want to be a part of. It appears that for each of them a lonely four-day weekend in the deserted building is preferable to having to endure the torments of spending time with their respective families.

Martin, the overly-serious, studious and withdrawn Jewish law student is undoubtedly the brain of the outfit hiding himself away in the library hunched over law books in his self-imposed scholastic solitude. He would prefer no company at all to frivolous company and is more than happy to point this out to the others if not with words then with his body language and unmistakable withdrawal.

Patrick, the jock of the ‘club’ is a stereotype and an enigma all at the same time. His princess girlfriend Waverly is one of the ones heading home for the break and he is happy to see the back of her. Yet for whatever reason he would rather stay and drink on his own instead of seeking out like-minded company elsewhere.

If there is a basket case in the group then it is definitely Robin Stone who starts the story off with an aborted suicide attempt with her roommate’s (Patrick’s girlfriend, Waverly) spare medication in the dark as soon as she thinks she’s alone. When she discovers that she’s not the only one hiding out in the building for the Thanksgiving break she hides the pills and attempts to cover up what she was about to do but still harbours a dark desire to die.

Then we have our two other outcasts to make up the five members of Sokoloff’s ‘club’. Cain, we’ll call him ‘the musician’, is a brooding, intellectually superior artist with a cynical heart and a mind to match. Lisa, we’re going to have to call her ‘the promiscuous one’ because I don’t think I should call her a slut. She is damaged and loathes many things in her life but probably herself most of all.

Five disparate individuals and highly unlikely allies thrust together by fate and boredom and loathing who ostensibly have nothing in common until they decide to sit around in the dark together after a power cut and share a few beers and joints. As you do. I certainly did a lot of that in the dark when I was their age. Despite their uneasy alliance they find themselves initiating a séance with the help of an unearthed Ouija board and a distinct lack of anything better to do.

Scepticism is slowly replaced by an uneasy feeling that they have really stumbled upon something and their lives soon begin to run in an agonizing parallel with the original users of the board. From here on in there is a comparison to be drawn with William Peter Blatty’s great novel of 1971 but to say anything more would be inappropriate and might get me in trouble in this life as well as the next.

The main problems that the characters face throughout the remainder of the story is finding a way to cooperate with each other. They are all just so different but that is the fun of what is basically a locked-room mystery with supernatural overtones. Only the room isn’t as singular or as locked as you might think. Sokoloff does a great job of building tension between the characters as they attempt to navigate their way through a hazardous minefield of conflicts and arguments with each other, the tension between Lisa and her polar opposite Patrick being particularly delightful to watch unfold.

I actually read this over Thanksgiving in the middle of a really nasty storm in Reykjavík and for much of it I was actually there with them. Locked away in my 4th floor attic bedroom the banging windows, the flickering candlelight, the howling wind and pounding rain took me into the heart of their nightmare. Once alone in their brave new world their struggle to get on with each other is soon superseded by a struggle just to survive. Haunting, engrossing and thoroughly spooky this is exactly what a horror story should be like.

Monday, 15 December 2014

Words from the Dalai Lama

"After all, death is part of life; there is nothing strange about it; sooner or later we all have to pass through that gate. At that time, whether or not there is a life after, it is very valuable to have peace of mind. How can we achieve peace of mind at such a moment? It is possible only if we have some experience in ourselves that will provide inner strength, because no-one else can provide this for us - no deities, no gurus, and no friends."

Friday, 12 December 2014

The Healer by Antti Tuomainen

A Review of ‘The Healer’ by Antti Tuomainen

By Grant Nicol

Question: ‘Which was worse – complete certainty that the worst had happened, or this fear, building up moment by moment? Sudden collapse, or slow, crumbling disintegration?’

Answer: You’ll need to read this book to find out for sure.


We are in Helsinki. It is three days before Christmas and the whole world has gone to hell. At some point in the not so distant future mankind has finally achieved what it has been striving to do for so long now. Through its greed and seemingly endless reserves of stupidity it has made vast parts of the planet uninhabitable and it is working hard to render the rest unusable as well. Pandemics are sweeping the planet and medical resources are stretched to breaking point everywhere.

Many of the inhabitants of Finland have become refugees in their own country due to the deteriorating condition of much of the infrastructure and housing. The police are so ineffectual that those who can afford them have hired private security firms to protect their property. The people who have the money to leave Helsinki are moving to the north of the country. It is the last safe place to live, for now anyway.

Tapani Lehtinen has an even bigger problem though, he can’t find his wife. Johanna is a reporter at a local newspaper and is working on a piece about a serial killer known as ‘The Healer’. An idealist who kills businessmen and their entire families to help heal the planet. One massacre at a time. As the hours since her last phone call to Tapani tick by he gradually becomes more and more concerned for her well-being. He knows that something has happened to her and that if she is to be found he will have to do it himself.

The local police have so much to do and so few detectives left to do it that Chief Inspector Harri Jaatinen is unable to help even though he knows Johanna personally. He is simply being overwhelmed by a system that no longer even pretends to work. Unable to contemplate life without her, Tapani sets out on his own to solve the mystery of her sudden disappearance.

He enlists the services of a North African taxi driver called Hamid. Together they form a bizarre yet oddly effective team as Tapani lurches from one disaster to the next on his quest to find his beloved wife. The lengths he is willing to go to in order to achieve this end grow in stature as the obstacles placed in his path do the same.

‘On the other hand, I had heard that there’s something in all of us that’s ready to do almost anything.’


This is a surprising book in many ways. It is the first thing I have read in the now hugely popular genre of Nordic Noir that has tried to paint outside the lines and try something a little different. And that is why it is so good. It’s not even really crime fiction. The story is not driven by the need to solve a crime. It is a love story. It is the story of a man in a world that is falling apart whose own life in the process of doing the very same thing. It is tender, it is thought provoking and it is alive.

Tapani’s first person narration is infectious and captured me from the very first chapter. You want him to succeed because you like him and more importantly, you understand him.


 ‘I thought about how it’s not the things that are new to us that surprise us, it’s the things we think we know, and find out we don’t.’

Chapter 14 of Part 2 in particular was one of the most touching pieces of literature I’ve come across in some time. It is predominantly Tapani’s reflections on his relationship with Johanna that makes this story so wonderful.

 “What if one of us dies?”

“The other one will still be alive”

“No, really.”

“Life goes on,’ I say.

“You always say life goes on.”

“Because it always does.”

“Except when it doesn’t.”

“I don’t know,’ I say. “Everything in its time, I guess.”

“If something happens to me,” she says, “I hope it doesn’t get you stuck. I hope that your life will go on.”

“Likewise,” I say.

The dust motes have less sunlight shining on their dance.

“But then,” she says, “if something happens to me and your life goes on in the wrong direction, I’ll definitely come and say something about it.”

“I knew there was a catch.”

“Naturally,” Johanna says. “There’s always a catch.”

I rub her feet and watch her close her eyes. The soft, safe darkness surrounds us and Johanna’s lips curl into a little smile. She’s about to fall asleep, or about to laugh.


This is not just one of the best examples of Nordic fiction I’ve ever read, it is simply one of the best books I’ve read in years. Compared to so many others in the same genre it is strikingly original and succeeds simply because it dares. Antti has invented a strange and yet thoroughly believable world because it is only a few steps away from the one we presently inhabit. As in Cormac McCarthy’s fantastic masterpiece ‘The Road’ you buy into it because it’s just too damn likely to happen to us at some point or other. Mankind is blissfully ignorant of the precipice along which it teeters because it doesn’t want to know. And that is our great shame, because one day, like Tapani we will turn around and find that that which we loved the most is gone.



Poles Apart

The world is smaller than you think

By Grant Nicol

There’s a gentle yet remarkably cool breeze blowing across the faces of the locals as they soak in pools of warm water alongside tourists from every corner of the world. They listen intently to the foreigners’ tales of adventure from around their beautiful country with a quiet and unassuming pride. They know it’s a great place but it’s always good to hear it from others especially when their memories are still so fresh in their minds.

Tall tales and true ones too

One of the visitors has been fly-fishing, standing waist deep in freezing cold water in one of the many rivers that hide the prestigious prey he has spent the last four years chasing all over the world. He’s never short of a tall tale to tell about a huge trophy fish he caught ‘back in the day’ or an even larger but ever-elusive ‘one that got away’. After a while no one’s listening to the story of the rainbow trout the size of a cocker spaniel he had on the end of his line once but they’re all pretty sure he’s had a good time telling his outrageous lies.

One couple has been living their outdoor adventure dream. Walking across an ancient glacier, staring into the caldera of a fearsome volcano, walking along volcanic black sand beaches and watching geysers erupt. On top of that they’ve seen awe-inspiring waterfalls and majestic whales. They never imagined they would be able to do so many spectacular things in the one country, “all under the same roof” is the way they like to describe it. They’ll be recommending the place to their friends when they get home there’s no doubt about that.

 Business before pleasure

Another one of the visitors, a more pragmatic businessman has visited a huge hydroelectric power plant with the largest freshwater dam in the country as well as the unsightly smelter that its electricity feeds to help it turn bauxite into aluminium. It doesn’t sound like much of a holiday to some of the other tourists but he insists he’s had a great time, mainly because it’s all been on the company’s expense account. There are a few muted concerns that the sort of business he’s in doesn’t always take into consideration the natural landscapes that it affects but these complaints soon dissolve away into the warm, mineral rich water.

A younger quietly spoken couple have been visiting the shooting locations of one of their favourite fantasy sagas. They’ve always wanted to see the locales where the scenes of adventure, romance and high drama that fill their weekends were really played out. Now they can go home and brag to their jealous friends until everyone’s sick to death of listening to them. Then they’ll play the DVDs and point out to anyone who’s still listening what they were doing the day the two of them were actually there.

Confused yet?

I wouldn’t blame you one bit if you were. I’m talking about Iceland, right? Or am I talking about New Zealand? Well, as a matter of fact I’m talking about them both. Whether it be the hot springs at Reykjadalur or the ones at Hamner Springs, the trout-fishing heaven of the Minnivallalækur River or the Tongariro River. I could be talking about the mighty Vatnajökull or the Tasman Glacier, the infamous Eyjafjallajökull or Mt. Tarawera, the black sands at Reynisfara or Muriwai Beach. It could just as easily be the world famous Geysir or the Pohutu Geyser in Rotorua I’m referring to or the staggering Gullfoss or Huka Falls. The whales off the coast near Húsavík or possibly Kaikoura on the east coast of New Zealand’s South Island. The Kárahnjúkar Hydroelectric Plant or the one at Lake Manapouri.  

There are shooting location sites from The Game Of Thrones in Iceland as well as the ones from The Lord Of The Rings in New Zealand. There are so many similarities between the two countries that if you weren’t careful you could get them confused and I didn’t even mention the sheep, or the thirteen ‘Icelandic Christmas hobbits’. Of course you’d have to completely forget which side of the planet you were on momentarily and not listen to anyone speak for say, a month or so, but in theory it’s possible. Unless you started counting trees, but where I come from we only count sheep.

Saturday, 6 December 2014

Don't Die Wondering

Recently at the Iceland Noir festival in Reykjavik I was approached by a young lady who had a question for me. Luckily it had nothing to do with books. She had been thinking about moving to Denmark and wanted my advice. Yeah, I was a little surprised too.

She had overheard me telling someone about my relocation to Iceland and was curious. What she wanted to know was whether she should make her move or not. Some of her friends had been telling her that it was a big risk and now she was having second thoughts.

One thing I've learned in life is that with the exception of a very, very small number of people (normally only one or two at any given time) you should never listen to what others think you should do with your life and that's what I told her.

I said she would never regret any of the things she did with her life, only the things she didn't do. Recent events in my life have proved to me beyond the shadow of any doubt that I was right. Never die wondering. No matter the perceived risk or potential cost of failure find out one way or another. It will make you a better person.

Listen carefully to your instincts.

They are never wrong. If you fuck up, chances are you will learn something, perhaps even something that will change your life forever. If you don't fuck up you will change your life too and either way it will be for the better.

Thursday, 4 December 2014

The Sins of the Fathers

The beginning was the end

This is my favourite review of my book yet. Hannelore has obviously enjoyed reading it which was great but just as importantly she really 'got' the ending. One of the main things I wanted to explore while writing and researching this book was why people do the terrible things they do. Not just in my story but in life in general. The crimes in 'On A Small Island' are admittedly gruesome and required serious justification if they were not to be exploitative.

The inspiration

One of the main reasons I wound up setting the book in Iceland was that I found I could write a sympathetic 'bad guy' more easily here. There's a humanity about the people in Iceland that is extremely difficult to find elsewhere. Like all the best things in this country, it's not something you can hold in your hands or buy in a shop, it's all behind your eyes and between your ears.
A documentary, Syndir feðranna (The Sins of the Fathers) proved to be a major turning point in the creation of the book. The international release title was, 'The Edge of the World'.


Click on the 'View Trailer' link to get a feel for the documentary.

I've seen many documentaries about child abuse but this one touched me the deepest. The dignity with which it was handled was amazing. It skilfully avoided melodrama and yet was still enormously upsetting. The story of these young lives destroyed by the ignorance of the Icelandic authorities and the cruelty of those handed the job of 'retraining' them for society was one that will stay with me forever. Most of the 'crimes' committed by the young boys that led to them being sent to Breiðavík were extremely minor and the damage done to them permanent.

The Review

Dec 01, 2014 Hannelore Cheney rated it 5 of 5 stars            
Once I started reading Grant Nicol's On a Small Island, I could not stop. A well-written, claustrophobic (in a good way), and very tense read with a terrible crime. However, I ended up feeling sadness for the 'bad' guys and the ending was quite poignant, with redemption and hope. A thrilling read...highly recommended. 
Amazon US:       http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00I8LM48Y
Amazon AU:      https://www.amazon.com.au/dp/B00I8LM48Y

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Everything As It Should Be

Allt í lagi

By Grant Nicol

The rough and tumble of your first few weeks in a new country is unavoidable. The struggle for control of your self-belief and the battle to keep your wits about you is ongoing. Learning Icelandic as a foreigner is a daunting prospect for many new arrivals. Far from allowing this to put you off moving to Iceland it should inspire you to push yourself further than you ever have before. It is now time to dispel a few misconceptions and tell you what it’s really like.

We are jolly green giants walking the earth

So, you’re new in Iceland. One of the first things you’ll want to do is start learning Icelandic. It is after all the passkey you will require to get along with the locals on their own level rather than expecting them to switch to English every time they see you. So the sooner you get started the better. Icelandic is however a complicated beast. Many years ago I tackled German vocab and grammar in high school and that now seems like a week on the shores of Lake Como compared to my new self-inflicted regime here on my very own North Atlantic version of Parris Island.

“You will give me the correct version of the number two that we use when counting librarians, which are of course of the masculine gender, or you will be standing tall before the man”. The first thing people do in a situation such this is panic. So that’s exactly what I did. At least I was doing everything in the right order. I knew that if I got this one wrong the whole platoon would be back over that obstacle course first thing tomorrow morning and I would be beaten in my bunk later that night with packets of harðfiskur stuffed down someone’s socks. I never let them see me crying myself to sleep but I’ll always know the truth.

Do you think I’m cute Private Pyle?

Tveir? Tvær? Tvö? Tveimur?  My brain fumbled through all the options available. Not wanting to disrespect the man’s beloved Corps I dug deep and struggled to find the only Icelandic phrase that comes to mind easily in times of crisis. “Ég veit það ekki”, I spouted defiantly. It wasn’t the answer he’d been looking for but at least I’d used the right verb and as a sentence it was technically correct because, I didn’t know the answer. There were groans from the rest of the platoon and I saw the devilish glee in our drill-sergeant’s eye that told me that we would be back on that course again soon enough and the harðfiskur would definitely be coming for me again tonight.

As basic training, or as they call it in Iceland, Íslenska fyrir útlendinga 1 progressed we became more familiar with changing the gender of our numbers depending on what was being counted (only for 1-4 or anything that ends in 1-4 of course), finding the accusative at will and deducing which preposition to use whether we were sitting on a peninsula or at the bottom of an old swimming pool on Barónsstígur. Confusing superlatives were overcome and daunting but delightful declensions were also tackled head-on as though they were old friends and not bitter enemies.

It was a war that was getting tougher and tougher to sell to the folks back home but it was one worth fighting, of that I was sure. It was just hard to get your head around it unless you’d been face down in the mud with the rest of the grunts.

The deadliest weapon in the world is a marine and his umlaut

Finally after seven weeks on ‘The Island’ it looked as though the end might just be in sight. After this Viet Nam would be a doddle I was assured. And I believed them. That was until the day we were exposed to our drill-sergeant’s favourite joke about Icelandic grammar. “Have I told you the one about the umlaut that disappeared into the banana”?

Every man has his breaking point and this was clearly mine. I had travelled as far up this river as I could go without losing my mind. Captain Willard never had to put up with this. All he had to deal with was Dennis Hopper and a boat full of rock’n’rollers with one foot in the grave. I was tired, I was hungry and I no longer loved the smell of plokkfiskur in the morning. They had lied to me. It didn’t smell like victory. It smelled like fish. Thankfully right on the stroke of klukkan hálf átta Walter Cronkite declared the war to be unwinnable and it was decided we should all go home and call it a draw. Looking back on it now my only regret is I never found out what happened to that umlaut, or the banana. But life is full of regrets.

A Long Time Listening (To Your Heart)

From dark waters of tragedy to the bright white light of love and beyond

By Grant Nicol                                                                                                 

The first time I saw Agent Fresco live it was a Friday evening in a hostel in Reykjavík and don’t get me wrong, they were good but they didn’t steal my heart. That night. It wasn’t until I saw them much more recently at Iceland Airwaves that I finally ‘got’ them. And boy, did I ‘get’ them then. The magic that surrounds this band is nothing short of amazing.

The task of connecting

Agent Fresco are Arnór Dan Arnarson on vocals, Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson on drums, Vignir Rafn Hilmarsson on bass and Þórarinn Guðnason on guitars and keyboards. Their first single was 2008’s “Eyes Of A Cloud Catcher” which was written about Arnór Dan’s family gathering at his father’s death bed. Arnór Dan was six years old at the time. It’s not unusual for musicians to write songs about a great loss in their lives. What is extraordinary is the ease with which Arnór Dan approaches this task on stage. The task of connecting.

Some singers wear their hearts on their sleeves. Arnór Dan hands his to the crowd and watches it as it’s passed around the room amalgamating with the other souls present. The night I saw them his affection for the audience lit up the room like a supernova at its standard candle mark. And it was repaid. Tenfold. Back at you, Arnór Dan. He makes the job look ridiculously easy and for him it probably is. That’s why he’s doing what he does

Take my hand

“Eyes Of The Cloud Catcher” was followed up by a second single, “Translations” along with a full-length release, ‘A Long Time Listening’ in 2010 and then the title track from the album in 2011. The song, “A Long Time Listening” is where Agent Fresco really hit their straps showcasing their unique power-rhythm section of bass player Vignir Rafn Hilmarsson and drummer Hrafnkell Örn Guðjónsson. It is Hrafnkell’s drumming in particular that sets their sound apart from other local rock bands. The unorthodox poly-timing and staccato precision brilliantly counterpoints Arnór Dan’s emotional floating vocals.

The choruses are anthems designed to be sung along with. “A Long Time Listening” in particular begs to be mimicked by the crowd as the song powers through its chord structure and allows the chorus to roll over the top of it all. Underneath it all Hrafnkell’s drumming urges us to never forget that this is rock. To be played fast and hard. There is a pace to be kept up with here and to falter even for a moment would to be left behind. And yet it is never allowed to become predictable or heaven forbid, easy.

Mourning light

2014’s “Dark Water” heralds a new phase for the band. The production is huge and clear, the piano urgent and teasing. Arnór Dan’s vocals are once again a plaintive call to join the band on its quest for emotional integrity. This is not music to be merely listened to, it is music to be absorbed. In the same way that their show at Airwaves was much more than just an opportunity to have a good time, and I can assure you that everyone did just that, it was an opportunity to do something more.

It was a chance to embrace the collective ambition of a group of people not content with just having another great night out at Gaukurinn. It was an opportunity to revel in each other’s presence at a special moment in space and time. Arnór Dan revealed that his favourite ever Airwaves memory was getting the crowd at NASA to sing “Eyes Of The Cloud Catcher” for them. So at just before 3a.m in the huddled confines of Gaukurinn they gave it another shot. When the time came for the collected mass of humans to take over they did so with such gusto that the band were left with no option but to cede complete control and walk away from their own creation. A dream was realised as the song continued long after their departure from the stage leaving them fulfilled and yours truly reeling from the beauty of it all.

The Genesis Device

From hell’s heart I stab at thee

By Grant Nicol

It wasn’t all that long ago that Arnaldur Indriðason came up with the idea of setting his own brand of crime fiction stories in Iceland. At the time people here thought he was joking and laughed at him. None of them are laughing any more.

 The Sigurðardóttir code

At the recent Iceland Noir Crime Fiction Festival in Reykjavík the most amusing anecdote came during the first panel of the first day when Lilja Sigurðardóttir, author of ‘Steps’ (2009) and ‘Forgiveness’ (2010) described how she got published. When she saw an ad from a publisher saying that they were “looking for the new Dan Brown” she decided to send her manuscript to them hoping that they would decide that she was to be the author of the next ‘Da Vinci Code’. When they got back to her they said that while she wasn’t “the new Dan Brown” they were going to publish her anyway.

Five years later and she is in the process of adapting that first novel, ‘Steps’ for television. When asked how screenwriting differed from writing novels Lilja said that it was important in an adaptation to “leave room for the other artists to bring their talents to the project”. It is after all a collaborative enterprise unlike the daily solitary pursuit of novel writing. She also said that crimes do not necessarily have to be the result of a criminal act, “Crime in Iceland can just be an accident. It doesn’t have to be an evil force” and spoke of the alternatives to the traditional publishing route, “A lot of people self-publish in Iceland.” Not everyone is lucky enough to not be the next Dan Brown.

Parallel Universes

Certain things happen to your brain when you decide to start writing a book. There are the obvious speed-humps along the way known as self-doubt and any number of potentially traumatic fears that you will make a giant arse out of yourself as well as the nagging questions along the lines of why the hell am I doing this when I could be at the local beach/pub/art installation? Sverrir Berg Steinarsson admitted to something I felt very strongly when I was working on my first book. He said “When I started writing it I didn’t tell anyone about it because I didn’t know if I was going to finish it.” Either did I, for three long years. Fear of failure does strange things to your behavioural patterns.

There are other more subtle things that happen to you as well. As a crime fiction writer you will find yourself staring out of a window, into a construction site or an area of wasteland and thinking about how the next murder victim in your book is going to die.  As Ævar Örn Jósepsson said, “You go from “What a lovely lava field” to “That’s a great place for a body.”” I find it difficult to even visit the local swimming pool without dreaming up strange new ways for people to be kidnapped or pass from this world to the next. It’s not that you become unnaturally gruesome, it is just as he also said, “You never look at places the same way again.”

Everywhere in your life becomes a potential location for your next chapter. Your whole world becomes part of your next book which rather than being odd and disturbing, not for you anyway, becomes a hugely cathartic release. I don’t recommend telling too many people about these things though, not even close friends. No matter how much they love you, they will think you have lost your mind. Even if we know that it is not what is going on in our heads that is dangerous, they may not see it that way. Jón Óttar Ólafsson said it best, “It’s the real world that’s scary.” If you want to be really freaked out, pick up a newspaper.

The method behind the eyes of the madness

It must be easy for people who think along the lines of normal human beings (that’s our friends, not us) to wonder why we do it. Is it a compulsion, an addiction or something else altogether? I’m not sure that I can answer that myself but I will make an attempt using a little story that one of the panellists at Iceland Noir shared with us. Johan Theorin summed it up succinctly with another of the more memorable anecdotes from the festival, “People tell stories so as to not be forgotten.”

He once worked in an old people’s home and sometimes the staff were the only people left to hear the stories that the inhabitants had to tell before they died. They had no one else left to turn to and needed to pass on to someone what they had been through and what they had achieved with their lives. An eleventh hour narrative last will and testament. It is an experience that has stayed with him ever since and one that taught me a very valuable lesson about why I do what I do.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Frozen Treats

This is my local supermarket at the Kringlan shopping mall in Reykjavik. Christmas is almost upon us so the stores are full of Christmas treats of all sorts. There are the usual cakes and cookies but also a huge selection of books for sale. Now that's the kind of treat I want to find in between the frozen goods and the toiletries.

The two on the end are new books by Iceland's two biggest selling crime writers, Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardottir. At Iceland Noir at the weekend Yrsa said that hers contains a murder where someone is killed in a way that has never been done before. Apparently it involves duct tape and a vacuum cleaner and makes absolutely no mess at all.

There are many things I love about this country but the number of books read here is right up there. There is nothing better than being a writer in a land where books and authors are so well-regarded.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

20,000 Days And Counting

The life and times of Nick Cave according to the man himself

By Grant Nicol

‘20,000 Days On Earth’ directed by Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard, written by Nick Cave, Iain Forsyth and Jane Pollard. “At the end of the 20th century I ceased to be a human being”, says Nick Cave at the beginning of the movie. To be honest, I never really thought of him as one anyway.

You are a little mystery to me

The secret to song writing according to our narrator is counterpoint and through the years that is what his songs have all been about. His first album with The Bad Seeds was 1984s ‘From Her To Eternity’, his latest one with them ‘Push The Sky Away’ is the band’s fifteenth studio album. It is not just the volume of work he has produced that is impressive though, it is the sheer quality of these recordings that he will be remembered for long after he has left us behind for a deserved place beyond the stars. His first will was drafted in 1987, a year he spent in an attic in Berlin and remembers remarkably little of.

As he drives his friends including Kylie Minogue and Ray Winstone around Brighton where he now lives, “You’ve got to drop anchor somewhere”, they discuss their lives and fears. Kylie’s is worried about being forgotten or winding up lonely. Either seems highly improbable, while in another scene Nick tells his psychiatrist that his greatest fear is losing his memory. He hints that without those tiny building blocks of our past in our heads we will lose our identity. He feels that everything that defines us is hidden away in the things we have done and said or heard or otherwise experienced over the years, and he’s right.

Come sail your ships around me

His writing is undeniably beautiful, it is often angry. It is enlightening and uplifting and often as dark as the wrong end of a mine-shaft. There is always a feeling of destiny, an unfolding of fates happening before us as we listen. They are not just songs, they are stories designed to fill us with joy as well as dread. “All things move towards their end. On that you can be sure”.

There is a sense of imminent destination about his work as if the characters that inhabit what he refers to as his other world can’t leave it quickly enough. They hurry through the folly of their torrid lives, hungry for an end to the unsatisfactory roles they have been bequeathed. It is a world, he tells us, where everything is inflated, distorted and monstrous. “A place where people rage away and God actually exists”.

Everything, it comes tumbling down

God inhabits this other world of his the same way his father did his real world. Often present but not seen until such time as he chose to reveal himself. Colin Cave was an English teacher in Victoria, Australia and used to read to Nick from Vladimir Nabokov’s novel, Lolita to expose him to the beauty of the written word. When Nick started performing with The Boys Next Door, Colin would secretly go to see his son perform and then casually bring the show up in conversation at a later date when he felt the time was right. He once described him as being “like an angel” on stage. A fairly dark angel one would imagine.

Colin was killed in a car accident when Nick was nineteen, creating a vacuum in an already troubled young man’s life. He was told of his father’s passing as his mother bailed him out of the St. Kilda police station in Melbourne. Nick believes in the idea of a greater being watching us all from above and keeping score. Who that is looking down on him is a matter of opinion but there is definitely a divine being of some description judging all those below him in Nick’s other world. One who stands back and waits for the right time, certainly not an interventionist God.

Euchrid’s woes

On top of his musical achievements Nick has published two novels as well as two screenplays for Australian director John Hillcoat. The most remarkable of his works is undoubtedly 1989s ‘And The Ass Saw The Angel’. A southern gothic tale of abuse and revenge which one strongly suspects was dropped from the final edit of the Bible only to land in a Florida swamp up to its neck in quicksand in the same fashion as its deaf-mute protagonist, Euchrid Eucrow. Nick wrote it along with the first draft of his last will and testament in what he describes as a crawlspace in Berlin which he filled with soft-porn and religious icons that were purchased from a local flea market. These images fill the novel as Euchrid struggles to escape his tortured existence after the death of his baby twin brother.

We define our moral ground

“The only time I believed in anything like that was when I was using drugs”, he says as he explains how he visited church and listened to a sermon before going out to score heroin in his younger days. His logic being that if he did a little bit of good as well as a little bit of bad then everything would even itself out. It’s hard to argue with his logic considering the way things have turned out. That balance is a big part of Nick’s success. None of his work is beautiful without being scary. None of it is romantic without being lonely and desperate for an end to that solitude. He has written some of the most beautiful songs ever crafted but they could just as easily be the soundtrack to a lover’s suicide. And all inside 20,000 days.

For Sheree

This blog is for Sheree, without whose constant 'encouragement' it may well never have happened. Thank you.

My first post will funnily enough have nothing to do with Iceland whatsoever except that it's about a movie I saw here at Bío Paradís (the home of independent cinema here in Reykjavík). This man has moved me in ways I can barely describe ever since the release of 'Jennifer's Veil' in 1983.
At the time my friends and I would gather our resources and contacts every Thursday to vote it to the top of the local student radio's Top Ten and we did it with great success. It was number one for over two months, thanks to us.

You can listen to Jennifer's Veil here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XP9-OiUr1TU