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"I Hate Super Human Characters"

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Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, considered to be Iceland's answer to Stieg Larsson, is known for her crime-fiction and children's books. She has been writing since 1998. Her début crime-novel was translated into English by Bernard Scudder. The central character in the crime novels so far is Thóra Gudmundsdóttir (ÞóraGuðmundsdóttir), a lawyer. Yrsa is a civil engineer in her day job and loves it with a passion. Her books have been translated into 34 languages and the print runs vary greatly between the countries, Germany being the largest market so far for her books. Though she doesn't have an exact figure, Sigurðardóttir thinks she has sold somewhere between 1.5 to 2 million books to date. Her books are available as e-books in some of the translated languages, English for one. As she told me, "the revenue is enough to make me happy, but less than people generally think." Her children's books are only available in Icelandic aside from one that has recently been published in Germany. As the Icelandic market is not very huge the crime books have been a lot more successful based on the number of copies sold.

Yrsa was in New Delhi in February 2012 to attend the International Crime Fiction writers conference, held at St Stephen's College, University of Delhi. I met her when I chaired a panel discussion of crime writers that included Madhulika Liddle and Partha Gupta.In an email interview with Jaya Bhattacharji Rose, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir talks about how she alternates between her passion for civil engineering and writing, her emphasis on research and attention to law, and how she conceptualises characters and real-life situations 

When did you begin writing? When do you find time to write? Do you come from a writer's family?
I began writing late in life, so to speak, as my first novel was written when I was in my early 30's. I have since then written 12 books: 5 for children/preteens, 6 in my crime fiction series and a single stand-alone thriller, basically writing one a year. Despite this I have managed to work full time as an engineer, a job I love too much to give up or put on hold while I pursue the lonely task of writing. Instead I use my free time in the evenings, weekends and vacations to write. Regarding my family, my mother's family is very artistic which includes many classical musicians and painters while my father comes from a family of seamen and captains. No writers exist in my lineage to my knowledge however.

How do you write? How long does it take you to write a novel?
Writing takes me the best part of a year, a year and a week to be exact as my deadline has been pushed back by seven days for the last six years running. I spend about half the year thinking about the book and do the necessary research while I use the other half to pound out the words of the story.

Does your academic training as an engineer influence your writing in any manner? How does an engineer become a crime fiction novelist?
I am not 100 per cent sure exactly what I use when doing the actual writing but I find my training has helped me greatly when it comes to research as I know how to do the right amount of it. One does not need to be the world's foremost expert in an area one intends to touch upon in a novel and I believe if you know a subject matter too well you are more likely to either bore the reader or forget how little he might know about the subject and forget the basics. For some reason engineers are not very prominent as writers, unlike lawyers, journalists and even doctors. I do not know why this is the case as engineering is quite an art form at times, requiring solutions that call for inovation and thinking outside the box.

Writing crime fiction is never easy, since the eye for detail is crucial. Does this require a lot of research? Who helps you research about law?
The research required for a book very often requires a lot of work, although it is often quite fun and interesting. I like to spend time on location and find this part of the research process to be one of the most important as you cannot get a 3D feel for a place from looking at photographs or reading about it. With respect to law, I read some of the laws and regulations that I might be using and speak to a very good friend of mine who is a lawyer. Occasionally, when I have needed an in-depth evaluation of some aspect of the law that was too much work to ask a friend to do as a favour, I have purchased legal opinions from law offices.

Why opt to write crime fiction? Why did you make the jump from children's stories to murder stories?
My children's books were humour based and after writing five humorous books I was really tired of being funny and needed the freedom of not having to worry about the subject matter; if it was appropriate for the reader or not.  One does not want to write something for a child that will taint his/her innocence or leave the child a worse person as before he or she picked up the book. With grown-ups this is not a worry. Most of us are quite jaded from real life and fiction does not hold a candle to the horrors of what is in the papers for example. When I moved from children's fiction to writing for adults I wanted to write a book I would like to read and I love crime fiction.

A woman investigator ThóraGudmundsdóttir (ÞóraGuðmundsdóttir), a lawyer, she has a sense of immediacy and does not waste time. I like it, but why create such a woman investigator? Is she based on you or is she a composite of women you know?
I believe I write more compellingly about a woman protagonist than a man as I know better what this slot in life entails. Also at the time all Icelandic crime fiction writers were writing about men and I did not think I would add anything to what they were doing quite okay. Thóra is based on numerous women that I know or have known and she is considered a very believable character in Iceland where women in her situation would behave in much the same way as she does, juggling work and family.

I liked the concept of a woman, a single mother, a professional (lawyer), and to top it a crime investigator, who happens to find herself in that role, as if it were foisted upon her. Did you create her this way because it is a reflection of contemporary trends among women or were you influenced in the creation of the character by other well-known women crime fiction writers?
I was not knowingly influenced by any particular character in crime fiction at the time of putting Thóra together as a character. I just wanted her to be a normal person as I hate super human characters that are the best in one or more fields, something I find quite unbelievable. She was meant to portray a typical Icelandic woman who faces various challenges in her family and professional life - the professional challenges being a bit more elaborate than what her family dishes up for her to work out.

Henning Mankell said last year, when he was in India, that his character grows from book to book. Do you feel that is true of Thóra as well? What are the changes that you notice in the development of the character? Are these done knowingly by you or at times you do you feel that the character is pulling you in a particular direction?
Thóra has changed a bit although not in a drastic way. In some ways these changes have been hers and in some way mine. I throw her obstacles and she works them out, often with some assistance from me but at times in a way that surprises me.

Your novels are not very blood and gore as a lot of contemporary crime fiction, particularly the Nordic school, tends to be. Was this a conscious decision to veer away from such literature and create something your very own?
I am not a huge fan of gore and find it more compelling and dramatic to leave this up to the reader's mind if he or she wish to think about such things. Writing out every single blow and cut adds nothing to the dramatic feel of the text and often what is not written is much more powerful.

Do you visit the places you set your stories in because the detail is tremendous? It is easy to visualise.
As noted above I always visit the places I write about and find this extremely important.

Why do you set your stories in smaller places?
I like many of the elements of small places, they close knit connections of the inhabitants and the importance of each individual. Also in Iceland most towns or villages outside the suburbs of the capital are not tightly populated. Iceland only has 315000 inhabitants so even area of the city of Reykjavík where about half of the population resides would be considered small in most other countries.  So small also feels right for novels taking place in Iceland.

Will you ever set a story outside Iceland?
In The Day is Dark I wrote about east Greenland. I am not sure I would go further afield as most populated countries have lots of writers that take care of the location much better than I would as a visitor.

You do not seem to admire policemen. Has the Icelandic police resented your depictions of them?
Icelandic policemen get the comeuppance in the police procedurals that are written by others and do not seem overly upset about not being the heroes in my books. It depends on the book who they are portrayed though, at times they are quite helpful to Thóra, in particular when she is involved in a case that is not defending a murderer on trial but trying to get to the bottom of murder from another angle.

Are your characters based on real people? For instance, a tiny detail like a girl rubs her left hand between the forefinger and thumb.
My characters are a mosaic of people I know and have met. I do not use a single person or his/her traits to build any one character as this is a bit like cheating.

Do you help with the translation of your books?
I am unable to comment on translations other than English and do get to read this particular translation. I do get e-mails from translators from other languages, asking for explanations and try to help out as much as I can.

Have your children's books been translated? Why are the books not listed in the usual place along with your 'adult' novels?
One of my children's novels has been translated into German but they are not available in other languages. This is probably why they are not listed.

Do publishers give you a maximum page limit?
No not really, I follow my own feeling and know by now what is too lengthy to be enjoyable.

Jaya Bhattacharji Rose is an international publishing consultant and a columnist.