Saturday, 11 June 2016

My interview with Scandinavia On My Mind

Crime writer Grant Nicol on Reykjavik’s mean streets, leaving behind New Zealand and the birthday that changed his life.

Grant Nicol was celebrating his fortieth birthday in Reykjavik when he decided he wanted to make Iceland home.

Some might think that the New Zealand writer had merely swapped one volcanic island for another but, after leaving his homeland 23 years ago to work in both Australia and the United Kingdom, Grant knew instinctively that Iceland was a country he didn’t want to say goodbye to. It’s probably a good thing Grant came back, considering his three crime novels are all set in Iceland.

Below is our interview with Grant:

You moved from New Zealand to Iceland, swapping one volcanic island for another. How different is life in Reykjavik?

Well, I actually left New Zealand 23 years ago. I spent time in both Sydney and Belfast before settling here in Reykjavík. About ten years in Australia and then ten in Northern Ireland as well. Iceland and New Zealand have a lot in common but they’re really different too. They are both the result of some serious volcanic action but New Zealand as a land mass is much, much older. On the other hand, Iceland has been settled much longer than New Zealand. Geologically Iceland is the youngest country on the planet while New Zealand is the youngest as in the most recently inhabited. There is geothermal water abundant in both countries although it is much more abundant in Iceland where we would struggle to survive comfortably without it. Without all the underground hot water here to heat our homes and provide hot water for our showers and taps life would be infinitely more expensive. They even use the geothermal hot water here to heat the public swimming pools and underneath the footpaths in the centre of town. In New Zealand there’s a few hot pools and geysers but nothing like Iceland.

The people and the language in Iceland are both very different from back home but there are definite similarities too. Icelanders are about 50% Irish/Scottish and 50% Viking so they’re not as different as you might think. I’m from a Scottish background but my family name was originally abbreviated from a Norwegian one. We descended from Vikings on the Isle of Skye and then somehow worked our way to New Zealand. And now back again.

The weather here is colder than back home and yet very familiar. The speed with which it can change here is very like New Zealand. Both countries are surrounded by huge expanses of water. The climate in Reykjavík wouldn’t be all that dissimilar to say, Dunedin. I’ve seen snow at the beach in both cities. Both nations are quite small although Iceland’s population is really tiny and we both seem to share a real ‘can do’ attitude simply because in both countries there is a real history of having to do things yourself if you want them done at all.

Reykjavík might be small but it has everything you would want in a city including art galleries, theatres, opera, independent cinemas and a world-class concert chamber that houses the Icelandic Symphony.

The main differences that any Kiwi moving here would notice would be the daylight hours (super-short in winter and never-ending in the middle of summer) and the almost total lack of tress. In some ways Iceland is a mirror image of the North Island of New Zealand where anything and everything you throw at the ground can and will grow. There is so little topsoil in Iceland that most of it is imported. And the trees. I was in Oslo recently and it was just so amazing to be able to get on the train for 20 minutes and be in the middle of a giant forest. The real deal, just like back home.
And beaches, there no beaches in Iceland that you would sunbathe on except for Nauthólsvík in Reykjavík which was manmade with imported sand; and like the South Island of New Zealand most of the time it is way too cold to sunbathe here anyway. And there’s very little in the way of rugby here but I did notice recently a poster advertising for a women’s rugby team so there’s still hope.

What was it about Reykjavik that made you want to settle there permanently? – 

I first visited Reykjavík in 2006 for my 40th birthday. I absolutely loved the place and immediately started sprouting thoughts of moving. At the time I still only had my New Zealand passport and so any such plans had to be put on hold until I had been in the UK long enough to apply for citizenship. Once that was achieved and I had that British passport in my hand I started thinking about it much more seriously. After that initial trip I revisited Reykjavík once a year until I had made a total of 6 trips in the space of 5 years. The turning point came in 2012 when I saw Sigur Rós play here. They blew my mind. I mean totally. I spent 6 years working as a roadie in the 90s and have seen hundreds of rock bands live.

Sigur Rós inhabit the heady stratosphere of modern rock somewhere between Radiohead and heaven. I decided that night as I left the gig that any country that could produce a band like that, I want to be part of. And so serious plans were finally put into action and a year and a half later I made my move.

You began by writing screen plays: how did you move into writing crime fiction? –

My early attempts at writing were rather half-hearted and very much took 2nd place to my rather successful apprenticeship in Sydney as a social butterfly. I never really let the writing get in the way of going out and having a good time so unsurprisingly the screenplays never really amounted to anything but they were good practise for what was to come. In 2011 a really old friend from my school days at Northcote College in Auckland was killed in a car accident. Simon’s death was a huge shock and really drove home the point that your life can be over and done with at any time. It was then that I decided to prioritise my life and put all my free time into writing. And this time novels, not screenplays. When I was looking for somewhere to set my first book Iceland came to mind because I was spending so much time up here every year and so it became the location for book ‘On A Small Island’ and the story pretty much had to be crime fiction because that was what I’d grown up reading. From the Alfred Hitchcock and the Three Investigators series to true crime books about Jeffrey Dahmer and Andrei Chikatilo to the works of James Ellroy and James Thompson, crime both real and imagined had always been my literary world. A lot of the ideas for my books still come from true crime. I have always been, fascinated by the extraordinary evil that men do.

You said your first book, ‘On A Small Island’, took you longer to write than anything else. Can you tell us how you got from page one to getting published? – 

‘On A Small Island’ was a 4 year project for me. A lot of that time was spent wondering what the story was actually going to be about and writing my way through the doubts I had about my early storyline ideas. The first two or three drafts bore no resemblance to the finished product at all.
By the fourth draft my story finally started to appear. It was heavily influenced by an Icelandic documentary on child abuse called ‘Syndir feðranna’. This true story provided the backstory for the book and became very important to me. It’s a poignant and harrowing tale about a home for wayward boys that used to operate in Breiðavík in the Westfjords. Today it has become a guesthouse for tourists. When I was happy with what I had written which was about draft #7 I started looking for an agent and/or publisher. Nothing happened for me so I decided to self-publish the book. It was a really good learning experience and definitely helped me find Number Thirteen Press who published my second book ‘The Mistake’. I have recently agreed a deal with Fahrenheit Press to publish my new book ‘A Place To Bury Strangers’ and to re-release ‘On A Small Island’ so it’s been a complicated story and one that’s still not over.

I think most visitors to Reykjavik would have trouble imagining the cute and quirky city as being inspiration from crime fiction. Does the city have its mean streets? Is there a darker side (not talking about winter!) that tourists may not be aware of? – 

Not really but as with any city there are definitely people you would to avoid. There is very little in the way of crime here but it does exist. To imagine otherwise would be naïve in the extreme. There is a drug dealer who lives right across the street from us in what is otherwise a lovely, leafy suburban street. Not only does he constantly deal to his customers on the street in broad daylight but the police won’t do anything about it. He has been in and out of Litla Hraun so many times that he has his name on one of the cell doors there and they know he is selling drugs out of his apartment but still they do nothing. The guy knows every junkie and lowlife in town and occasionally makes amphetamine-fuelled threats to the neighbours so despite what most visitors might think, Iceland is no paradise. It’s just a whole lot nicer than most other places I’ve been. Apart from idiots like this guy the police only really have to worry about booze-driven domestic violence and a few methamphetamine labs.

6: Why do you think the rest of the world is so in love with Scandi-noir? – Scandi-noir is enjoying the success it is because of what the rest of the world has seen in the last ten years or so coming out of Sweden and Denmark in particular. The foundation of this, for me anyway, was the Wallander novels by Henning Mankell and the awesome Swedish television series starring Krister Henriksson. That series was followed by the awesome ‘The Bridge’ and there were also Stieg Larson’s books that really put it on the map worldwide. It has been a heady mixture of literature and television that has done it and long may it continue.

Do you think that Iceland will continue to be the setting for your future crime novels? – 

For my next three books at least. ‘A Place To Bury Strangers’ is set there, my next novella ‘Out On The Ice’ is set there and the book after that is as well. After that, who knows? I had dreamed that at some point I might drift around Scandinavia and my stories would just follow me. That might still happen. I’ve found over the years that it’s not always wise to plan too far in advance.

What are your five favourite places anywhere in Scandinavia and why? –

In no particular order whatsoever… Told og Snaps in Copenhagen for the best open sandwiches, craft beer and small batch schnapps in Denmark, Svartkulp just to the north of Oslo which is my favourite deserted forest hideaway, Restaurant Zeleste also in Copenhagen for the best lobster lunch anywhere, Huk Beach in Oslo which is an incredibly relaxing little spot so close to the city centre and on-board the Arlanda Express – I just love really fast trains!

Svartkulp, Norway

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