Iceland Noir 15-17 November 2018 @IcelandNoir

I decided early on that I would go to Iceland Noir, a festival I have never been to in a country I have wanted to visit for a while. So I paid my festival ticket very early and planned for a trip that I knew would be expensive but which I really, really, wanted to go to.

This is just a flavour of who was there and what went on, but I wanted to get it down on paper so I can remember it forever.

Fortunately, I could fly Iceland Air from Glasgow direct to Reykjavik and so on Thursday I set out for a mid-day flight. I was a wee bit anxious, because I suffer from a dodgy hip and a badly arthritic knee, so my mobility is nowhere near as good as I need it to be, and I’d worried that an icy Reykjavik would be too much for me. Fortunately for me, it was not as cold as forecast, and though it rained most of the time I was there, I was at least able to walk to and from the venue to my hotel.

 After checking in late afternoon, I took myself down to the hotel bar, where I was lucky enough to bump into Kevin Wignall and Simon Kernick. After a couple of Moscow Mules, all was looking good and we were joined by Mary Torjussen, Danielle Ramsay and Ed James.

Moscow Mule Reykjavik style

 I was keen to go to Noir at the Bar in a local hostelry, Bryggjan brugghus, so Mary and I repaired there to have dinner and then joined many others for my first event of Iceland Noir, a great ice-breaker, Noir at the Bar, compered by the inimitable Jacky Collins and ably assisted by her glamorous assistant, Yrsa Sigurdardottir.

The first tranche of readings were from Solveig Palsdottir, MarkBillingham, Oskar Gudmundsson and Liz Nugent. What a way to start a festival! Then it was on to Sheena Kamal from Canada, Max Seeck from Finland, Christian Atlee and Hilda whose surname I have forgotten.

Finally we had readings from Johana Gustawsson, Jonina Leosdottir and Antti Tuomainen. A brilliant evening making new friends,laughing and generally getting into Festival mood. It was great to see such a good turnout from #TeamOrenda who never fail to be both friendly and very funny.

Team Orenda

Friday 16thNovember and Go Berserk!

 Into bed just after midnight and up again with the lark to go to the venue, Idno, for the first panel of the day at 9am. After collecting my goodie bag from resident house elf Ewa Sherman it was time for the Go Berserk! panel. This was moderated by William Ryan with Max Seeck, Luca Veste, J.D. Fennell and Solveig Palsdottir. Max Seeck’s The Angels of Hammurabi has not yet been translated into English, but I hope it will be soon. By all accounts it is a nail–biter and has already won Max an award for debut thriller of the year. Set in former Yugoslavia amidst the atrocities of that war, Max’s book looks at what is right and what is wrong? If a bad person kills bad people, can that ever be justified?

Luca talked about finding flawed characters interesting and says that in his Rossi and Murphy books, both these characters are different facets of himself. Laura Rossi is Luca at the weekends while David Murphy keeps his anger bottled up inside, not something Luca could ever do with his Italian heritage. Max says that everyone tells him that his vigilante character is him, but he is less sure.

 J.D. Fennell’s Will Starling reflects some of J.D.’s traits –he says small things like moods, humour and the kinds of decisions he makes. Solveig Palsdottir writes about people she knows and enjoys most writing about ordinary people in ordinary situations who are driven to the edge and what they then do when faced with impossible choices.

The panellists discussed the nature of evil, researching psychopathy, nature versus nurture and how safe we really are, even in one of the safest places in the world – Iceland.

 Quitting Your Day Job? In Conversation with Iain Reid

 Time for a quick coffee and then straight into the second session which was the First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, talking to her brother, novelist Iain Reid. Iain kindly stepped in to replace Hugh Fraser, who was sadly unable to attend, but it was a great treat to hear brother and sister in conversation.

 In his deeply suspenseful and unnerving debut novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things a man and his girlfriend are on their way to a secluded farm. When they take an  unexpected detour, she is left stranded in a deserted high school, wondering if there is any escape at all. What follows is a twisted unravelling that haunts long after the book is over.

In this smart, suspenseful, and intense literary thriller, Iain Reid explores the human psyche, questioning consciousness, free will, the value of relationships, fear, and the limitations of solitude.

 Iain describes his books as philosophical suspense . In his next novel, Foe, he set out to look at isolation, loneliness, solitude and reality and as he says, he got ‘a bit obsessed’.

Set in the near-future, Junior and Henrietta live a comfortable, solitary life on their farm, far from the city lights, but in close quarters with each other. One day, a stranger from the city arrives with alarming news: Junior has been randomly selected to travel far away from the farm…very far away. The most unusual part? Arrangements have already been made so that when he leaves, Henrietta won’t have a chance to miss him, because she won’t be left alone—not even for a moment. Henrietta will have company.

An exploration of the nature of domestic relationships, marriage,self-determination, and what it means to be (or not to be) a person, Foe is described as an uneasy read and a suspenseful page turner.

Already I am beginning to realise that Iceland Noir is offering a rare opportunity to hear authors I have not previously known and introducing me to books I have to read. This is terrific!

Arctic Noir

 The Arctic Noir panel was moderated by our own JackyCollins, aka Dr. Noir, who also doubled as a house elf during the conference.  On the panel were Michael Ridpath, Christoffer Petersen, Oskar Gudmundsson and Quentin Bates.

 Michael Ridpath is the author of 8 financial thrillers and after publishing these he decided he wanted to write about something he didn’t know much about. So he looked for a small, defenceless country and settled on Iceland, where his Magnus Iceland Mysteries series is set. These feature his Icelandic-American detective Magnus Jonson.

 Quentin Bates was offered the opportunity to spend a gap year working in Iceland and jumped at the chance of escape. That drifted into a gap decade during which he worked as a netmaker, factory hand and trawlerman, started a family and generally went native.  His principal character, Gunnhildur and the book that became Frozen Out grew out of a university creative writing course that enabled him to take an afternoon off work once a week.

 He had always seen fiction as a mug’s game. There was so much competition and the odds against becoming published were so slim yet he had to give it a try.

 Christoffer Petersen lives in Denmark but also lived and worked in Greenland for 7 years. He met his wife in the Scottish Highlands while working in Aviemore and on returning to Denmark found the country just a wee bit too flat, so they went off to Greenland for some hills. He taught there and found that Greenland was a place that really seeped into his consciousness.There the sun goes down in October and doesn’t come back up until February, so writing just made sense.

Oskar Gudmundsson wrote as a teenager, but for himself only.Then, at 50, he thought that the time had come – ‘it was now or never’ to go down the publication route. His debut novel HILMA was chosen as the best criminal novel published in 2015 and in June 2016 he received the Icelandic crime fiction award, Blóðdropann (Blood-drop).

 Christoffer Petersen told us that in Greenland they have to predict how many graves they will need for the year, because they have to dig them in summer – the ground being too hard in the winter. His books are steeped in themes of language and identity, not least because many residents of Greenland do not speak Greenlandic.

Oskar talked about his theme of domestic violence, which he found difficult to write about, but which he wanted to write as a tribute to those who suffer from it.

 Quentin also talked about his other role as a translator and how difficult it can be to get the author’s voice right. Lilja’s books he found easier than some when translating.

Capital Crime

David Headley, publisher, agent, MD of Goldsboro Books and one of the founders of the new London based Capital Crime Festival, quizzed Mari Hannah, Karin Salvalaggio, Margaret Kirk and John Courtney Grimwood on their most murderous locations.

Karin Salvalaggio says her books are a love letter to rural America. She doesn’t labour the detail of locations in her books, but Jack Grimwood does.  His globetrotting as a child instilled a wanderlust in him. For Nightfall Berlin he spent a lot of time in Germany, walking the streets in what used to be East Berlin before reunification, to get a sense of where his characters would be. He stayed in old brutalist hotels in the former eastern section, immersing himself in the memories of the divided city.

To get a sense of history and place, he likes to walk around that place and speak to people. Dismissive of what he calls ‘stroogling’ – strolling around google – he says you need to hear the voices and meet the people.

 Margaret Kirk researches obsessively for her Inverness set books, but makes sure that she doesn’t specifically link any really nasty crimes directly to the city. Margaret explained some of the differences in the Scottish jury system including having 15 jury members and the controversial not proven verdict. She says the average reading age for a young man in prison is 7 years and many suffer from mental health issues. She wonders whether some of these people should even be in prison.

Mari Hannah sets her novels in her beloved Peak District. A former probation officer who had to give up her job when she was she subject of a violent attack, she  talked passionately about her belief in rehabilitation of offenders, but found that in her probation officer role she met so many people that she instinctively felt would be released and re-offend.

Karin talked about the huge growth of meth addiction in the States, especially among the disenfranchised, forgotten people who never recovered from the 2006/7 financial crash. These are people who are barely hanging on in 2018. Left behind, with no hope, dying from opiate abuse, it is not difficult to understand where their anger comes from.

All the authors talked about using humour to leaven the darkness in their books. Jack Grimwood also used a character on the autism spectrum saying that heightened things considerably, looking through the eyes of a small child seeing the world.

So, here I ducked out for a much needed bite of lunch with Timea Cassera and Louise Mangos at Bergsson, which was pretty much the canteen annexe for the Festival. Delicious home-made food, fresh and tasty. I kept going back it was so good!

 Then it was back to Idno for the first of my afternoon panels


 This was a very lively panel, ably moderated by the lovely Abby Endler, aka Crime By The Book. With Alex Sokoloff, Kevin Wignall, Sheena Kamal and Simon Kernick.

The authors started by talking about what informs their writing. Alex writes about atrocity in her Huntress series. She believes in evil and evil people and her experience in the prison system has helped inform her writing.  Kevin claims his books are based on him, and he looks for a story that can really get under his skin. Simon’s books are based on things that he has experienced including that awful real life story where he was abducted, beaten up and bundled into the back of a van at only 16. He thought he might die and unsurprisingly that feeling has stayed with him. It is constantly there and he remembers exactly what it felt like – it is something he will never, ever forget.

 Sheena Kamal volunteers at a rape crisis centre. She writes a lot about fear and uses the things she is afraid of to fuel her writing. She has relatives in the Caribbean who believe in the supernatural and she has elements of that in her writing.

Did they know they were going to write a series? Kevin starts with an idea then considers whether it could be a stand-alone or a series. He writes once in a lifetime events though and then prefers to move on.

 Sheena was asked by her agent if her first book was the start of a series, so she just said yes and then wrote the synopsis for two further books in an afternoon!

 Simon’s first book was written as a stand –alone but he then brought back some of the characters from that book. He prefers having what he describes as a ‘loose series’ so that his books are unpredictable and he can choose to use his characters as he likes.

Alex always knew hers was going to be a series. She describes the Huntress series as ‘the right idea for the time’.

There was a big laugh when Abby asked the panel if they were ‘plotters or pantsers’ and Simon thought he’d been asked if he was a panther –an idea that really appealed to him! Alexandra, of course, is such a good plotter that she has written three highly regarded books about how to do it.

Kevin thinks for a very long time, then writes his book in 6 weeks. Sheena does very detailed plot outlines and then writes. Simon is a massive plotter, even though he would like to be a panther….

Puffin Panel

Onto the next panel with the truly delightful Roxanne Bouchard, moderated by Jacques Filippi and with Iain Reid, Jonina Leosdottir and Liz Nugent.

 Would these writers ever eat a puffin was the premise, but of course it soon got into the nitty gritty of writing. Roxanne won the puffin eating answers by telling us a wonderful story about her grandmother, a ship’s cook who used to make a range of puffin dishes and who has handed down her recipes to Roxanne.

Jacques asked about the author’s writing processes. Iain Reid confessed he would be very happy revising a book for the rest of his life.Liz Nugent hates writing. She has a real fear of opening her laptop, being full of doubt about whether she will have anything to write. Jonina Leosdottir finds that her back hurts when she is writing (I know what she means – this post is so long my back hurts, too!).

 Liz says that she still doesn’t have an actual routine. On the days when she doesn’t write, she makes sure that she reads. When she is ‘in the zone’ it can be pleasurable, but that’s very rare.

Roxanne writes 8-12 hours a day. While she is writing her husband brings her coffee, lunch , dinner and does the shopping and the washing.Then after the plot is written, she adds in the voices, poetry, sounds and lyricism and then she can make her own coffee. Liz edits as she goes along.

 At this point, there were three more panels to go before the end of the day, but I’m afraid, gentle reader that by this point I was exhausted, so I went for a rest and a small libation.

Saturday 17thNovember

Yes, you guessed, I missed the hangover panel. But who in their right minds starts a Saturday panel at 9am in Reykjavik after the night before? I ask you!

The Hot-Pot

So my first panel was moderated by the Sunday Times Karen Robinson with Felicia Yap, Jeffrey Siger, Louise Voss and Stuart Neville. Talking about twists, Felicia Yap says that the best twists are not just the ones that readers didn’t see coming, they are the ones that surprise the writer, too. On writing, Stuart Neville says he’s not a planner, but he does need to know how his book is going to end before he starts. Felicia writes anywhere – on trains,planes and even ferries, whereas Louse Voss thinks she needs to get out more as she writes on her kitchen table.

Would the authors be offended if a reader forgot the names of one of their characters? Well, Louise Voss wouldn’t, she can never remember them herself. On the other hand, Felicia Yap put the name of someone she doesn’t like into Yesterday.

Buried in the TurfHouse

Michael Nevin of the FCO, Ambassador to Iceland, moderated the Turf House Panel with Louise Mangos, Sarah Ward, Sandra Ireland and Mary Torjussen.

This was a fun panel which focussed on location and settings but with a side competition running for mentions of Iceland, turf houses and Vikings. Sarah Ward’s books are set in the Derbyshire Peak District and her descriptive prose really does provide a perfect picture of the countryside and surrounding areas. Sandra Ireland spoke about her novel Bone Deep, set by an old water mill and with a historical folk tale running alongside her contemporary story of sister rivalry. Louise Mango’s book is set in the Swiss Alps where she lives. Switzerland is still quite a strong patriarchal society and she wanted to write about what happens when on small white lie escalates.

 Mary Torjussen set her book in a place she knows and with a job she understands. Her mum was Suzy Lamplugh’s teacher and she wanted to further explore what a dangerous job working in an estate agent could actually be when you have to show complete strangers round an empty house.

What do these writers do when they get stuck and need a procrastinating diversion? Louise swims. Sarah takes to social media, Mary e-mails a chum about why she’s stuck which usually helps her to start again and Sandra pretends to write in coffee shops.

Otter or panther? Louise is a plotter, Sarah a pantser, Mary knows the end before she begins and Sandra plots.

Audiobook panel

This was an interesting panel moderated by LiljaSigurdardottir, who has just finished recording her own novel in Icelandic,with Ed James, Karen Sullivan, Publisher of Orenda Books, Stefan Hjorleifsson from StoryTel and Yrsa Sigurdardottir.

Icelanders have a long tradition of reading aloud to each other and Icelanders have taken to audiobooks in a big way. Stefan runs StoryTel as a subscription streaming service based on an ‘all you can eat’ model. Originally Swedish and co-founded by Iclanders, StoryTel now operates in13 countries. Yrsa says she doesn’t listen to her audiobooks – once she has finished writing a book, she is onto the next one and doesn’t like to go back. Ed James doesn’t either, he says he’d want to edit them, though he does read his books aloud as part of his editing process.

StoryTel don’t usually use authors as readers, but prefer to use actors. 10% of their books are in the crime genre, listened to by 30% of their subscribers, though Karen pointed out that in the UK 42% of all audiobooks listened to are crime.  An average audiobook is 9 hours in length. StoryTel has power users; and they can see when people stop listening – information Stefan said they could make available to authors. He says that 20% of their subscribers are new readers and that readers are now climbing after a decline. Their listenership is split evenly between men and women with the biggest growth among males in the 18-24 year old category.

 A representative from the German authors Union asked about authors remuneration and  Stefan says that StoryTel pays out at least 50% of royalties direct to authors. This is also a problem with Audible, as is the 99p e-book phenomenon. Karen says that Orenda hands over 95% of audio book royalties to its authors. Yrsa talked about an incredible misuse of audio books for the blind by the general public and wished there was a way to police that better. Stefan offered the thought that StoryTel’s streaming service with audiobooks is a good way, like Spotify, to decrease the incidence of piracy.

The Scottish Invasion

 Icelanders feel closely connected to Scots. Not only do they like their whisky, just as Icelanders like their Brennavin, they even have their own version of Haggis, called slatur. Michael Malone, Chris Brookmyre,Doug Johnstone and Craig Robertson were the invading horde for this panel. Doug Johnstone had the edge on connections, because he has just written about volcanoes, which he thinks are ‘very cool’.  Craig talked about the latest in his Winters and Narey series, The Photographer, the inspiration for which came from a real life case in the US of Rodney Alcala. After his arrest, police discovered more than 1,000 photographs of women and teenage boys in sexually suggestive poses.Police publicly released the photos found in Alcala’s storage locker hoping the people on photos could be identified, or confirmed missing. Craig especially wanted to confront issues of cyber stalking and trolling on social media, which he finds increasingly disturbing.Chris Brookmyre agreed, saying that the old adage ‘give a man a mask and he will play himself’ was true of social media.

The authors discussed the term ‘Tartan Noir’ which Brookmyre described as ‘chromatically impossible’ though Johnstone said that the term was very useful internationally and as a brand that was easily understood. It also promotes Scottish literature  and lets Scottish voices through into the education system, creating a book reading culture. Brookmyre talked about attempts to drive out dialect from the Scots education system and said that the perception of what literature is for is now very different.

Craig worries that ‘Tartan Noir’ does not gel with books discussing contemporary social issues, and is concerned that it can be perceived as a bit of ‘Scottish cringe’; an anachronistic stereotype whereas Scottish literature is a lot more progressive than that. There then followed a really interesting discussion around the theme of Scottish writing, class and dialect driven confident Scottish writing which is working class. A literature that belongs to Welsh, Kelman, McDermid, Alasdair Gray among others, that reflects the culture Scots know and which is more authentic and uninhibited.

 Asked by Michael Malone to talk about the book that first made an impact on them, Craig referenced Stevenson’s Kidnapped. Doug talked about Ian Banks The Wasp Factory which he said was a book in which he recognised his own environment and made him feel that his life was worth writing about.

 Chris Brookmyre loved Asterix in Britain for its anarchic humour and The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, alongside Lanark and The Wasp Factory and Consider Phlebas, a space opera novel by Scottish writer Iain M.Banks (Iain Banks writing sci-fi). These books made him feel that he could write what he liked.

Asked about their writing environment, Craig says he types around the cat, Chris walks and dictates and Doug works in a windowless room with his drum kit for diversion.

The Agatha Panel

 I’m a big fan of the fact that Scotland’s First Minister has such a positive impact on books, so it was wonderful to see Iceland’s Prime Minister, Katrin Jakobsdottir, moderate the panel on Agatha Christie with Ragnar Jonasson, Martin Edwards and Armann Jakobsson. I needed lunch so could not stay for it all, but there was a great deal of love for Agatha on the panel and to prove it all of the authors admitted they had written their own Christie inspired book, though they won’t be published!

Super and Natural

Many Icelanders believe in ghosts, elves and trolls and other things that go bump in the night. David Headley began by asking Michel JMalone, William Ryan, James Oswald and Connie di Marco about their books. Talking about House of Ghosts, William Ryan declared himself a Georgette Heyer fan. He stayed at The Tyrone Guthrie Centre at Annaghmakerrig in Co Monaghan which is famously haunted.

James Oswald deliberately set out to write a paranormal element in his novels, which, he says, is why he wasn’t published for so long. Even now, after a hugely successful ongoing crime series with his detective Tony McLean, there is no mention at all of the paranormal villain in his publicity.All this despite his selling 400,000 e-books in his first 6 months as a self-published author.

Michael Malone’s first novel. Blood Tears had a paranormal element, but his publisher didn’t like the psychic stuff. His novel House of Spines came to fruition when he found a note in his hand writing that he had no recollection of writing that had the basis for the book. In House of Spines, he deliberately lets the reader make up their own mind about whether there is something supernatural present or whether it is a consequence of his protagonists bi-polar condition. Connie di Marco’s smart and sassy protagonist is San Francisco astrologer Julia Bonatti who stars in a series of cosy ghost mysteries which are hugely popular.

Eurovision Panel

The Eurovision panel was the most brilliantly bonkers panel I have ever attended. Presided over by Yrsa Sigurdardottir, resplendent in silver sequinned light up heels and a multi colored sequin dress, complete with wind machine (hair dryer to you and me), she proceeded to cover panellists Antti Tuomainen, James Oswald, Johana Gustawsson and Lilja Sigurdardottir in lashings of glitter while she quizzed them on the influence of Eurovision on their books. Do James Oswald’s cows listen to Eurovision songs, she wanted to know? Antti claimed that Eurovision had a huge influence on the development of his characters, perhaps because the Finnish entry did look a lot like flamingos. In Iceland, Lilja told us, the whole country knew the Happy Bank song by heart,Champagne sold out in anticipation of a win and no-one to this day can understand why it didn’t win, though many put the blame on the costume designers.

 Of course, as James pointed out, the fact that Britain is leaving the EU can be directly attributed to all those years of getting nul points and feeling unloved. Johana and Antti treated us to a rendition of their own special song, Incy Wincy Spider, sung in beautiful harmony.

I Remember You

After the Eurovision panel we were all feeling very jolly, so then we hared off to local art house cinema Bio Paradis to watch I Remember You,  the Icelandic mystery-horror film co-written and directed by Óskar Thór Axelsson. The film is based on the novel of the same name by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. It was deliciously creepy and very well made and the experience was only enhanced by a short session in advance of the screening chaired by Jacky Collins with Yrsa and actor Þorvaldur DavíðKristjánsson. (Thor Kristjansson)

 I was fortunate to get a lift to and from the cinema (thank you) and afterwards, Yrsa, Oli, Abby and I grabbed a quick burger before returning to Idno for the last panel session of the day.

The Drunken Authors Panel.

Jake Kerridge tried, almost successfully, to keep Karin Salvalaggio, Stacy Allen, Kevin Wignall and Aevar Orn Josepsson in some kind of coherent order.  There may have been bookish chat; it may have been hilarious, but my outstanding take out from this event is the fact that Kevin Wignall once woke up in his own fridge. Top that, if you can.

Fun Lovin’ CrimeWriters

Of course, we all missed Val McDermid, but nonetheless, the last session of Iceland Noir was a roaring success as the Fun Loving Crime Writers strutted their stuff on stage, joined by the Iceland Noir founders in a musical collaboration of Sympathy For The Devil.

The whole Iceland Noir Festival was amazing. I had such a great time. I met a lot of people I hadn’t met before, hung out with some great writers and even better humans and got to meet bloggers Timea Cassera and Ewa Sherman as well as see Abby Endler again. It was an event full of joy and delight, camaraderie and love of books. Can’t really say better than that. Would I go back? In a heartbeat!

Roll on 2020

Published by marypicken

Passionate book reader. Love all kind of books from 19th century novels to crime thrillers. My blog is predominantly crime, psychological thrillers and police procedurals with a good helping of literary fiction thrown in.

4 thoughts on “Iceland Noir 15-17 November 2018 @IcelandNoir

  1. It was great meeting you in Iceland, Mary. Thanks for sharing an in-depth coverage of Iceland Noir. It really was a fantastic experience.


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