Image: Golli

Ghost Writing: Yrsa Sigurðardóttir writes Nordic crime with a creepy twist

 In Culture, Interview, Magazine, Magazine Intro

Nordic crime fiction has swept the world in the past few years. Even in Iceland, a country with approximately two murders per year, thrilling stories of murder and mystery usually top every best-seller list and have even become one of our most popular cultural exports. One of those best-selling authors, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, is known as the queen of crime.

Telling ghost stories

Yrsa’s stories tend towards the thrilling and suspenseful, and she has even taken a few steps into supernatural territory in her novel I Remember You: A Ghost Story. “I like the concept of ghosts and ghost stories. I like the different elements that they bring to the table.” So where does her infatuation with horror come from? “I’ve always loved horror, ever since I was a little kid. Even in history classes, I couldn’t pay attention unless there was something dramatic going on, beheadings and other horror stories.” She stresses that it’s the fiction of horror she’s after, not the reality. “I think that many of us love experiencing horror from a place of safety. I know I would never be interested in walking around a war-torn area, witnessing the real horrors of war. But peeking at them through the veil of history, getting the chance to be a voyeur through books and films, from a place of safety and security: that I like.”

Fairy-tale endings to grisly tales

An underlying current of ghosts and horror fits well with the type of writing Yrsa does, namely classified under the genre sometimes called “Nordic noir.” According to Yrsa, “it fits well into the darkness and our folktale traditions. There are plenty of ghosts, monsters, and trolls in our folktales, which makes sense in the winter and the darkness.” In her opinion, the ghosts represent past sins and repressed issues and she suggests people find reading stories that tackle past grievances soothing. “I like playing with the idea that old sins will resurface and be resolved. That doesn’t really happen in reality so it’s nice when it happens in fiction.”

Writing about issues


Books by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir on a shelf.Golli

Yrsa is a prolific author.

But why is the Nordic crime novel so popular? Yrsa has her theory. “I think many crime writers, at least the ones writing here and in Scandinavia, are dealing with contemporary society and its issues in their work. You can increase awareness of injustice in society more effectively when your book is a page-turner than when it’s an official report or the news.” According to Yrsa, “news media are vital to society, but they don’t put you in the shoes of the victims they report on. Not every book under the umbrella of Nordic noir tackles societal issues, but many do, and that’s perhaps what makes them so alluring.” She goes on to explain that it makes even the villains more three-dimensional. “It’s not a lust for pain or death that drives the violence in Nordic crime novels. There’s usually something more, it is spurred on by one of society’s ills or some unfortunate circumstances that maybe could have been prevented.”


What’s real and what’s believable

Her writing differs from reality in some ways, the most glaring one of which is the frequency of intricately planned murders, which are extremely rare in Iceland. She found a way of writing that allowed her to write about highly implausible murders, explaining, “you have to do it in a way that people can read the book, and find the characters, setting and storyline, aside from the murder, realistic enough that they think ‘ok, this hasn’t happened but it could.’”

It’s not just the frequency of the murders that’s unbelievable, Yrsa is well aware the murders that happen in her books aren’t exactly compatible with how most murder scenarios actually go down, even in places where they are more frequent than Iceland. “There aren’t many places where premeditated, well-planned murders happen every day. Most murders in the world are simply violent. It’s not plotters and well-prepared murderers seeking their next victim.” She is quick to add however, that she is very much fine with her murders being divorced from reality. “I wouldn’t want a murderer like the ones I describe in my books to be loose on the streets of Reykjavík.”

Research and ideas

For Yrsa, the work on a new book starts almost as soon as she hands in the finished manuscript for her last one. “Most of the time, I’ve figured out what the story is before I start writing. I start thinking about exciting storylines and concepts, trying to find some new elements to incorporate into every book.” Researching for the book also takes up a lot of time, although it’s important to find a balance. “If you do too much research, you start feeling like you’ve put so much effort into gathering all this information, you have to find a place for it in the book. You also start to lose sight of how familiar the general public is with your topic.” Yrsa has already started work on her next manuscript but she’s not ready to share much of the details. “I’m thinking very hard about my next book. There’s going to be a lot of snow, I think.”

This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.

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