Interview with Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

The combination of civil engineer and professional writer is one I have never heard before! How did that come about?
I started out as an engineer, the writing came later. It was not planned at all; I was very content being an avid reader. Although there are not many engineers writing novels I think crime fiction writers have a very mixed background, more so than writers of fine literature for example. I know crime writers that have careers ranging from being lawyers, doctors and actors to fishermen. There is no one correct career that leads the way for writing good crime fiction. This is one of the reasons it has such variety and often good insight.
Do you think having a background in engineering has influenced or helped your writing, or vice versa? Do they have complimentary skill sets?
I think there is a bit of overlap, for one, having pretty good oversight of the big picture. I also think my professional side has helped me when it comes to doing research, I know when to stop and can pretty easily pick up on the bits that matter. But in most other aspects the two are different, a difference that makes it easier to do both in conjunction, i.e. work a full day as an engineer and then come home to write. Because of the difference in the two tasks, such days do not feel too tedious. I have never had any problem regarding separating these two professions, it just happens automatically. This being said I must note that in the beginning of my writing career my editor pointed out to me that I had to stop describing rooms using measurements.
How did literature and stories play a role in your life when you were young? Do you think Icelanders have continued to value literature as much as they have in past decades?
My entry into writing came about from a longstanding love affair with reading. I have always been a very enthusiastic reader, from the time I learned to read. The year I turned twelve I gave myself the challenge of reading one book a day for one year and only real books counted, i.e. no graphic novels, comics or picture books. I managed up until my birthday in August when my aunt gave me Gone with the Wind as a birthday present. It was hundreds and hundreds of pages but so engrossing that I couldn’t put to down. But I lost some days and was unable to recuperate from that so I failed my challenge.
Regarding Iceland, literature has long had a very high standing here. It is a large part of our heritage and has remained important even to this day when competition with various other forms of entertainment or leisure are now available. A book for example is still a very traditional Christmas gift and probably the most common thing to be found under the Christmas tree in most Icelandic homes. A Christmas where you don’t get a book is considered a flop.   
What drew you into crime fiction? How did you decide to pursue that after children’s books?
When I decided to put children’s books to one side and write for adults it seemed sensible to write the sort of book I would like to read and that is crime fiction. I think most authors would agree with me that it feels most natural to write the type of work one enjoys and respects.
Were you expecting your novels to be such a success internationally?
My international success came as a complete surprise to me and I have never even given it a thought as it seemed so outlandish. It still does, to be honest, and I continue to write for my original audience which is the Icelandic reader. I think if I tried to write something I believed to be successful abroad I would probably shoot and miss. One must be authentic if one’s work is to be any good.
Why do you think that Iceland, a land of incredibly low crime rates, has become so engrossed in crime fiction stories, both readers and authors?
I think that Icelandic readers are no different from readers elsewhere when it comes to what they like. Crime fiction, with its feeling of justice at the end of the books, appeals to people in most parts of the world. Prior to the rise of local crime fiction such novels in translation were very popular. As soon as the realization came that it really does not matter what the actual crime rate is when you base a crime novel in certain location then the writing of Icelandic crime fiction took off. The thing is that crime fiction is just that, fiction. It is not true crime. As long as the story has the feel that it could happen you are OK.  
Why do you think that genre has become so popular on the island? Do you still think it would be as popular if crime was more prevalent?
I do not think that the popularity of crime fiction is related in a big way to crime rate. The format is simply compelling, it engages curiosity and allows the reader access to a much more in-depth analysis of what serious crimes like murder entail than what one reads in the paper, although imaginary. Crime novels have also proven to be a very effective method of social commentary that is relatable to most. The characters, often flawed, are also an important part of the appeal, as is the sense of justice that is so often lacking in real life.
Why do you think the crime rate has stayed so low, even the Reykjavik, compared to other locals of a similar size?
I think the low crime rate is really a byproduct of the minuscule population size. We are around 320.000, living on an island. It is easier to monitor those that are about to go off track in such a small group of people than in larger cities or countries. Also, solving crime is easier as the pool of suspects is not that large. Coupled with these demographics we have a stronger social system in place than many other countries, so desperation is usually not an incentive for criminal behaviour.
How do you engage in the creative thinking process, or idea generating?
It really comes down to thinking in my case. I get a seed for an idea and then I focus quite rigorously on how to expand the idea and bring other things to the table until I have a wider ranging storyline. Getting a fully formed idea in one go is the exception for me, not the rule.
When writing crime fiction, do you usually work the story around a pre-decided conclusion? Or do you start with your characters and see where they go?
Once I have formed the story in broad strokes in my head I begin to write. I might write the first one or two chapters without knowing the conclusion just to get the thought process going but when I start writing for real I always know who did it and why. That is not to say that I never veer from the original plan reading the body of the work. Much to the contrary, I very often add various twists and turns I had not originally envisioned during the writing process. But very seldom do I change the planned conclusion.
Do you ever draw inspiration from actual crimes you read about?
Yes, I have done that on occasion. Usually I prefer to come up with an idea of my own making but I have taken elements from actual events and spiced them up a bit. I do however make sure to never use actual people as characters as I do not want to add to the hurt of those that have already been through an ordeal.
What is the best investment you have made to increase your writing success?
I think the biggest difference to my career was realizing that one needs an agent for the foreign market. In Iceland there are no literary agents as these are not needed due to the small scale of things.