Iceland is a country that has loomed large in my imagination since I was a young child. My father was stationed on a United States military outpost near Reykjavík in the mid-sixties. Heavily pregnant and unable to return to Pakistan to be with her parents, my mother and older brother went to live with my paternal grandparents in Beckley, West Virginia. I was born there a few months later. When my father returned he told us stories of Iceland, a country that in my imagination was forever covered in snow. I remember finding his high tech, military-issue snow boots stored in the back of cupboard in the house where we lived in Florida. For a girl who barely wore shoes, those boots were the pinnacle of exotic footwear. Though I loved my home state of West Virginia, I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed that I hadn’t had a slightly more interesting start in life. By all rights, I should have been born in Iceland.

So imagine my delight when I found myself sitting at Iceland’s table at the 2017 Crimefest Awards Dinner in Bristol. I’d already met Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Ragnar Jonasson, two of Iceland’s most popular crime writers, but that evening I also had the privilege of being introduced to Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Sólveig Pálsdóttir, and Jónína Leósdóttir. Honestly, I couldn’t believe my luck. I’d been waiting years to meet someone from Iceland and I suddenly found myself in the company of a half a dozen of them on the same evening.

The following day I attended a panel featuring Lilja, Yrsa, Sólveig, and Jónína. Moderated by Barry Forshaw, it was aptly entitled The Ice Queens Cometh. Though I’d read several of Yrsa’s novels, I was unfamiliar with the work of the other panellists. This was to be my introduction to Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s thriller Snare, the first in her Reykjavík Noir Trilogy now published by Orenda Books. Snare is a welcome entry into the world of crime fiction for so many reasons, one of which has to be Lilja’s choice of protagonist. I have to admit to sitting up in my chair when Lilja described her central character Sonja. You know you’re living in the middle a major paradigm shift when a successful publisher puts their considerable weight behind a crime novel whose central protagonist is a cocaine-smuggler who happens to be a lesbian.

The majority of crimes are committed by people who are in essence good, but just human and therefore prone to errors.”

Lilja Sigurðardóttir ­­­­­­has an engaging smile and wonderful, infectious laugh with an outgoing personality and intelligence to match. You can’t help but be drawn to her. I noticed that she rolls her r’s ever so slightly when she speaks English, which is perhaps a result of living in Mexico as a child. Though new to English readers, Lilja has been published five times in Iceland and her critically acclaimed debut stage-play Stóru Börnin (Big Babies) won the Performing Arts Iceland award Gríman as ‘best play of the year’.

I was lucky enough to find a moment to sit down with her at the Iceland Embassy in London prior to Snare’s launch party.

KS: You’ve taken a great deal of care in introducing Sonja, a female character I look forward to seeing more of as she grows in strength and her story progresses. She is likeable, yet flawed, and though she has very good reasons for breaking the law, she is indeed a criminal. I really shouldn’t have been cheering her on, but that’s exactly what I found myself doing. It is a difficult trick to pull off and you succeeded. Did you have trouble finding the right balance? What specific things did you do to get the reader on Sonja’s side?

LS: I think it stems from my belief that people generally aren’t either good or bad but somewhere in between. The majority of crimes are committed by people who are in essence good, but just human and therefore prone to errors. Most drug smugglers for example don’t see themselves as career smugglers but tell themselves they are just going to do this one thing or take this one trip and then that will fix everything that has gone wrong in their life. But then it can be a downward spiral as we see with the protagonist in Snare. I think the likeability of a character is based on how human he or she appears, and therefore readers identify more with a flawed character, even if she is a criminal, than a ‘good’ and virtuous character who seems to be perfect.

The sexual relationship between Sonja and her lover Agla is unlike any other I recall coming across in the world of crime fiction. There seems to have been a great deal of shame associated with their lesbian relationship, especially on Agla’s behalf, and I wasn’t entirely sure whether this was stemming from their individual circumstances or Iceland’s attitudes as a whole. Perhaps it is a reflection of the time when the book is set, which I assume to be around 2008/9. Have attitudes in Iceland changed in the intervening years? And if so, how have these changes manifested themselves?

Iceland has changed dramatically in two decades regarding gay rights and attitudes towards LGBT+ people, and gone from stigmatising to it almost being a non-issue. It is one of the best places on earth to live in if your orientation or gender identity differs from the norm. But still it seems that the personal journey of coming out is always difficult and painful and it doesn’t stem from the society’s prejudices but one’s own. This is especially true of middle-aged people and older. I wanted to portray this journey by giving people insight into what goes on in a woman’s mind who surprises herself by falling in love with another woman. This is very dramatic but at the same time quite funny, as in Agla’s case she has other things in her life that she should be more ashamed of but isn’t.

As a mother, I found Sonja’s situation particularly poignant, as I know from personal experience how easy it is to clutch at any offer of help when you are at your most vulnerable. She of course ends up being caught in the ‘snare’ when that same offer of help turns out to be a ruse. Agla, on the other hand, is so uncomfortable with her sexuality that she allows herself to be manipulated by her colleagues, one of whom happens to be Sonja’s ex-husband. These are two strong, independent women who are keeping secrets from each other as well as from others. Both face uncertain futures. I’m pleased you didn’t give them a ‘happy’ ending as that wasn’t ever going to be a plausible outcome. Were you ever tempted to make it work for them as a couple? And will we see more of Agla in future books?

Yes, we will be seeing all the characters in the following two books, although the focus or the perspective on them changes. I like happy endings, and in a way I feel that Snare has one, although some things have not finished. But remember it is only the first book of a trilogy.

Agla is banker who finds herself caught up in Iceland’s financial crisis. You write in great detail about her bank’s financial manoeuvring and the investigative process that follows. Do you have a background in finance or did you base your writing on research?

I did research. As is now famous, Iceland handled the meltdown of the financial system by investigating what went wrong, and this resulted in many bankers being prosecuted and sentenced to prison. I have followed many of the court cases closely, to learn, and I also had to read quite a lot about finance and bank systems. What fascinates me is that these are complicated crimes that really can blur legal and ethical lines, and the people committing them can so easily tell themselves that this is just about money and that there is no harm done, everybody was doing it, et cetera. But then the consequences are huge, like we saw in Iceland, where a whole financial system collapsed and the country’s economy with it. Financial crime does not sound very interesting but I have tried to present examples of it in Snare in a way that is understandable and also enjoyable to read, so I use the drama of it and the personal aspects.

Iceland adds some exoticism as it is a remote and strange land that people are curious about, so that is an advantage.”

Icelandic Noir is incredibly hot right now. Your country has a population of less than 330,000. On a per capita basis you probably create more quality crime fiction than any other country on the planet. Why do think Iceland stands out in the crime fiction community?

Per capita Iceland probably has the most writers in the world, of all genres. Icelandic crime fiction is relatively new and has been gaining ground both at home and worldwide. In a good year between 15 and 20 crime novels are published in Iceland, I don’t know how big a percentage that is of the whole book business but it’s very small portion as every year hundreds of books are published. Internationally we have had some success and I think it is in line with the success of Nordic Noir as a whole. Iceland adds some exoticism as it is a remote and strange land that people are curious about, so that is an advantage.

I also had the pleasure of meeting your translator Quentin Bates at Crimefest. He has a big personality and is a crime writer in his own right. Your English is good, which does put you at an advantage. When the German and French editions of my novels came out I had no idea if the translations were true to my intended style, a situation I found to be frustrating. Did you have any input on the English translation?

My books have been translated into many languages but it has been a very different experience having my work translated into a language I can actually read. It is such fun but at the same time nerve-wracking. But I am very happy with the outcome and I think Quentin has done a splendid job. I feel he has caught my style well, but maybe it’s just a case of fitting an author and translator together. He loved translating Snare as he likes the book, and I love his books so we are a perfect match, I think.

Snare is the first book of a trilogy. What do you suppose makes this series stand out in an already crowded market? Without any spoilers, could you give a hint as to where Sonja’s character goes next?

She goes to Florida! The second part of the trilogy starts just a couple of weeks after Snare finishes and we see Sonja quite literally trying to run from her situation. But as is often the case, life catches up with her. Agla will also be facing consequences for her actions in the next book and there will be a follow-up of Bragi the customs officer’s story. I don’t really know if the book stands out in the crime fiction market, as there are so many excellent crime authors out there, with incredibly good ideas and remarkable skill, but I do hope Snare has some freshness to it, and that my love of writing it delivers all the way to the reader.

Finally, I’d like to hear about the research you’ve done into the drug smuggling business. Did you base Sonja’s various methods to evade detection on actual cases?

Snare is based partly on research and partly it’s made up, like good fiction should be. I had really good sources in the three professions depicted in the story, and some of the incidents described are real stories, but some I made up and had my contacts read over and tell me if they sounded plausible or not. Of course I do stretch the limits of possibility, as that always makes a better story.

 

Lilja_290Lilja Sigurdardóttir was born Akranes in 1972 and raised in Mexico, Sweden, Spain and Iceland. An award-winning playwright, she has written five crime novels, with Snare now hitting bestseller lists worldwide. The film rights have been bought by Palomar Pictures in California. Lilja has a background in education and has worked in evaluation and quality control for pre-schools in recent years. She lives in Reykjavík with her partner. Snare, translated by Quentin Bates, is published in paperback and eBook by Orenda Books.
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Karin Salvalaggio is the author of the Macy Greeley mystery novels Bone Dust White, Burnt River, Walleye Junction and Silent Rain and a contributing editor at Bookanista. She lives in London.
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@KarinSalvala

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