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 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 four-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 number seven, 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.
You began by writing screenplays: how did you move into writing crime fiction?
My early attempts at writing were rather half-hearted and very much took second place to my rather successful apprenticeship in Sydney as a social butterfly.
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.
I think most visitors to Reykjavik, where you live, would have trouble imagining the cute and quirky city as being inspiration for crime fiction like yours. 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.
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 [drug dealer], the police only really have to worry about booze-driven domestic violence and a few methamphetamine labs.
What was it about Reykjavik that made you want to settle there permanently?
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 six trips in the space of five years. The turning point came in 2012 when I saw Sigur Rós play here. They blew my mind. I mean totally. I spent six 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.
Many people would see more than a few parallels between New Zealand and Iceland. How different are the countries?
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.
The people and the language in Iceland are both very different from back home but there are definite similarities too. Icelanders are about 50 per cent Irish/Scottish and 50 per cent 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.
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 Bridge and there were also Stieg Larsson’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.
My Scandinavia: Grant’s top five
1) Told og Snaps in Copenhagen for the best open sandwiches, craft beer and small batch schnapps in Denmark.
2) Restaurant Zeleste also in Copenhagen for the best lobster lunch anywhere.
3) Svartkulp, just to the north of Oslo, which is my favourite deserted forest hideaway.
4) Huk Beach in Oslo, which is an incredibly relaxing little spot so close to the city centre.
5) Being on-board the Arlanda Express (Sweden) – I just love really fast trains!