How did a Kiwi (New Zealander - if you prefer) end up in Iceland?
I left New Zealand about 22 years ago when I moved to Sydney to broaden my horizons and to continue working as a roadie for indie Australian band ‘The Clouds’. In 2005 I relocated to Belfast. Once again the idea was to experience something new and Northern Ireland has a bitter and intense history that appealed to me in a twisted kind of way. After the financial crash of 2008 Iceland became an affordable holiday destination and it as it had always been a place that had intrigued me even though I knew very little about it. On my first visit here I fell in love with the place and wound up returning every year for the next five years. Eventually I had to face the fact that I couldn’t live without the place and once my British citizenship came through all I could think about was moving here. It is a thoroughly intriguing country that is so different from New Zealand in so many ways and yet so similar as well. I read somewhere recently that home isn’t necessarily where you were born but rather where you finally stop trying to escape and I reckon that’s exactly what I’ve found here. I no longer want to be anywhere else.
It's been said of Nordic Noir that the genre owes something to Scandinavia’s political system where the apparent equality, social justice, and liberalism of the Nordic model is seen to cover up dark secrets and hidden hatreds. What are your own thoughts on this and/or insights into the cultural landscape of your chosen second home?
For me Henning Mankell was the beginning of my Nordic Noir experience. His tales both in his books and his storylines for television set in and around the town of Ystad really encapsulated the idea of the dark side of Scandinavian life simmering just below the surface of the idealistic façade that is presented to the rest of the world. For me his stories are so much more than crime fiction. They are based upon a strong sense of social responsibility.
He focuses on the problems facing modern day Sweden such as people smuggling, domestic terrorism, corporate embezzlement and fraud, political corruption, child abuse and the drugs trade. While Iceland is small enough and remote enough to have avoided most of these ailments it will not be able to do so forever.
My first book ‘On A Small Island’ deals with child abuse and the scandal surrounding the historical abuse at a state-run home for wayward boys in Breiðavík that was shut down after the horror stories from within its extremely remote walls came to light. I discovered the story behind the place through the outstanding documentary ‘Syndir Feðranna’ (Sins of the Fathers) which traced the lives of the boys who were abused in the house in the far western corner of the country where they were thought to be out of sight and out of mind. People smuggling is touched upon in ‘The Mistake’ and drug-smuggling and high level political corruption feature in my third and as yet untitled book. Even the most idealistic countries have to face these problems sooner or later and Iceland is no different.
You write about recurrent themes of justice and vengeance - these are definitely my kind of books! - and Aidan Thorn, author of Criminal Thoughts, called Larsson, Mankell and Nesbo 'pretenders to your crown'. That's high praise indeed. You must have been thrilled by that. What topics and authors have had the most influence on your writing?
There are common themes in ‘On A Small Island’ and ‘The Mistake’ of people taking the law into their own hands because they are afraid their need for justice will be ignored if they simply let events unfold. The vigilante-type desires are quite different in each book though. In ‘The Mistake’ it is an impetuous and impatient need to see justice done as quickly as possible while in ‘On A Small Island’ it is and extremely different feel altogether with an incredibly drawn out and patient plan that is put into place to see that things are put right.
Justice and vengeance are themes that are addressed by some of my favourite authors including Henning Mankell and Stieg Larsson who I have been compared to by Aidan Thorn as you pointed out. Other authors I am fond of who also deal with these themes include Dennis Lehane, James Ellroy and Jim Thompson. To be compared to some of the greatest Scandinavian crime writers of our time is of course very flattering and if I ever bump into Jo Nesbo I intend to ask him for my tiara back.
I'm intrigued to hear your thoughts on writing a character of the opposite gender as you do in On A Small Island. How did you find the experience?
After reading ‘On A Small Island’ several of my female friends commented that they were impressed by the way I had written the book in the first person from a female perspective. One even asked if I had a wife hidden away somewhere that no one knew about. To be honest I didn’t find it all that difficult. Creating characters is a process of amalgamating bits of different personalities from all sorts of different people who you have met over the years. When you get that mix right the person you are trying to imagine comes to life. I find that ex-girlfriends are an endless source of inspiration when it comes to creating female characters. You don’t need to recreate a person cell by cell in a book, what you’re looking to do is borrow the bits required to create the character you have in mind. Writing that book the way I did was a slightly worrisome task as well. Not only was I speaking in the voice of a member of the opposite sex but I had to become someone from a country I had only visited for short periods of time. The challenge was to free the 27 year old Icelandic woman within and I think I did a pretty good job. She must have been in there all along.
Your second book, the novella The Mistake, was picked up by Number Thirteen Press. How did you guys get involved and how has the experience differed from self-publishing?
I first saw an announcement somewhere on social media that Number Thirteen Press were open for submissions. At the time I was working on what would become ‘The Mistake’ and the idea that Number Thirteen Press seemed to stand for really caught my eye. As a new author it can be very difficult to get publishers or agents to read your work beyond the first three chapters if at all. Nobody accepts full submissions any more so the idea of a new publisher specialising in Noir novellas was too good a chance to ignore. The idea of thirteen works once a month over thirteen months was really appealing too. Something different, something imaginative. ‘The Mistake’ had been shrinking in length with each successive draft so I reworked it with Number Thirteen Press very much in mind aiming for a final word count of about 35,000 words. I wanted it to be short but not too short and punchy and just too good for them to turn down. I realised that at that length it would have to be self-published if it was rejected so it was a bit of a gamble but I had real confidence in it.
As for the experience compared to self-publishing I found that the main difference was that someone had taken that leap of faith with me and the feeling that someone had that confidence in me was priceless. It doesn’t take much encouragement to sustain a writer but it does take some. Chris Black who runs Number Thirteen Press couldn’t have been a better guy to work with. A writer himself who is obsessed with all things Noir I found that we were on the same wavelength straight away. His editing suggestions were straight to the point and all right on the money. They helped me make the book even better and as a result I was really happy with the final product. I think he’s put together a great selection of Noir novellas and I’m proud to have written one of them.
Describe your writing journey so far.
I began writing for fun while I was living in Sydney probably about fifteen years ago. I started off writing screenplays inspired as I was by the words of Robert McKee. I thought at the time that I was taking it seriously but I wasn’t really. I was young and too busy having a good time to really apply myself to it. It took a life-changing experience while I was living in Belfast for me to change my mental approach to life and start putting in the effort required to actually get anything done. An old schoolmate of mine from Auckland was killed in a car accident back home and to see how easily your life can be over just like that made me realise that it was time to do what I really wanted to do and that was write. So that’s what I did. I decided that I was going to write a novel even though I had no idea what it would be about and had never done it before. I started writing again but this time with a real sense of discipline and purpose and I was determined to finish it and to make it something I could be proud of. It took me three years to do it but I got there and the feeling of accomplishment the first time you do something like that is hard to describe. It was probably the first time in my life that I was really proud of myself.
What do you do for fun when you're not chained to your desk?
Movies at Bíó Paradís the home of independent cinema here in Reykjavík, swimming at Sundhöllin my local swimming pool and watching local rock bands play. The fantastic music festival Iceland Airwaves each November is the highlight of my year. On top of that there is always the phenomenal countryside to explore here in Iceland.
What are your future plans and ambitions for your writing?
I am presently working on my as yet untitled third book. It is a continuation of my crime stories set in and around Reykjavík. My first two books were quite different from each other and this one will be different again. After that I have ideas for two more books which will break away from the traditional ideas of crime fiction. Although both will have crimes in them they will focus on the stories of the people around these crimes and not necessarily those who commit them. I plan to pull away even further from the traditional paradigm of crimes, investigations and resolutions. I suspect that this will make it even more difficult to be picked up by a major publisher but it is what I want to do. Publishing houses all say that they are looking for the next big thing yet they tend to turn down anything that doesn’t fit their preconceived ideas of the formula that a crime novel should follow. It seems to be have been that way for some time now even though most of the really great books I’ve read in my life have succeeded because they’re dared to be different somehow and innovative. I guess that it’s just that time again for something a little different to come along.The original interview can be seen in it's entirety on Eden's website at: http://www.edensharp.com/interview-with-author-grant-nicol/