The Five By Five Interview with Lilja Sigurðardóttir
(“Five By Five?” Um, well… I wanted a name for this (hopefully regular) feature, and as well as being a big crime fiction fan I am also a big Buffy The Vampire Slayer fan, with a soft spot for “rogue slayer” Faith, who uses the phrase constantly – though she never explains what it means, it’s an expression used in telecoms/military coms to confirm a signal is being received clearly, so hopefully this means we’ll get a clearer picture of our interviewees!)
I have enjoyed Lilja’s books after Karen Sullivan from Orenda pressed one into my hand and urged me to read it, but she will also always be a particularly special author to me as she was part of the first panel I ever chaired, in 2019 at Bute Noir. I was so nervous, but Lilja and the other panellists, Liz Nugent and Alexandra Sokoloff, were so nice to me, and they gave the audience a great event. If you get the chance to see Lilja on a panel, you should grab it, for as well as being frequently hilarious, she is also very thoughtful in her comments.
Lilja Sigurdardóttir was born in Akranes, about 50km north of Reykjavík, in 1972 and raised in Mexico, Sweden, Spain and Iceland. An award-winning playwright, she has written five crime novels (all translated by Quentin Bates and published by Orenda Books), including the Reykjavik Noir trilogy Snare, Trap and Cage, and standalone thriller Betrayal, all of which have hit bestseller lists worldwide. Snare was longlisted for the CWA International Dagger, Cage won Best Icelandic Crime Novel of the Year and was a Guardian Book of the Year, and Betrayal was shortlisted for the prestigious Glass Key Award and won Icelandic Crime Novel of the Year. The film rights for the Reykjavik Noir trilogy have been bought by Palomar Pictures in California. Her latest novel, Cold As Hell, is the start of a new series, and has just won the Icelandic Crime Novel of the Year award. She lives in Reykjavík with her partner. Follow her on Twitter @lilja1972 and check our her website (in English!) at liljawriter.com
First, the sensible questions…
Q1 Tell us a bit about your journey to publication and how you got to where you are now. Why crime fiction rather than another genre?
My journey as a published author started when I entered a manuscript into a competition. My first two books got really good reviews but didn’t sell much, then my third book, Snare, got instant international success. Since that one I have been a full-time writer – a privilege I am aware of; it is rare and precious. I love crime fiction. It is for me a great entertainment kind of literature that is also thought-provoking, as it shines a light on many social issues. I cannot see myself being any other kind of author. Even if I do write other kinds of texts – I have written an award-winning stage play, screenplays and now an audio series – I will always see myself as a crime writer.
Q2 What was it like sitting down and writing your first novel, and what is it like now?
It is so much easier now! My first two books I wrote on my lunchbreaks as I was working as a school inspector, so the time issue is one thing – I have more time to write now. But writing is like any other skill, you get better with practice. I feel it is much easier to write now. And it gets easier with every book. At least, it still is that way for me, as I still have a head full of ideas!
Q3 What’s your favourite part about being a writer?
Writing is my favourite thing about being a writer. I am lucky that way, because many writers do not enjoy the writing process, strangely enough. I love beginning a book, but then I sometimes find it hard to finish as I usually have a new idea in my head, and I am excited to begin working on that one. But towards the end doubt also creeps in, and I have a hard time recognising if a story is good or not. But beginning a story and the writing itself are a joy for me. I also like meeting readers, and I am always humbled and grateful when people tell me they enjoy my books.
Q4 What’s next for you, in terms of writing?
My third book in the series that begins with Cold As Hell is just out in Iceland. It is called White As Snow (Náhvít jörð), and I have “book flood” promotions to do. Meanwhile, I am plotting the next one in my head and look so much forward to start the writing!
Q5 It’s coming up to Christmas, and books do make great gifts – but Iceland goes one better. Can you tell us a little about Jólabókaflóð (“book flood”)?
There is a general excitement about the book flood. As it is almost the only time of year that books are published, readers wait excitedly to see which authors have a book this year. Many of the crime writers, myself included, have a book every year, and all the books are published in hardback to be better gifts. Some 70 per cent of yearly book sales in Iceland take place in the week before Christmas, so it is an important time for authors to promote their work. It is a lovely tradition to give books as a Christmas gift and I would not want it to change. People do a lot of reading at Christmas, including on Christmas Eve and there is nothing better than to crawl into bed with a stack of new books to choose from. It is so cosy!
Now for the quick-fire round…
Q1 Who are your favourite characters in crime fiction?
The ones I am writing at each given moment.
Q2 What book have you reread the most?
Independent People by Icelandic Nobel Prize laureate Halldór Laxness. I have been working on a screenplay for a TV series based on it for years with director Baltasar Kormákur, so I have reread it probably ten times in that process and it was already my favourite book. It is a multi-layered masterpiece.
Q3 What’s your favourite method of killing off characters?
I don’t kill many characters, do I? I might need to work on that as I am, after all, a crime writer!
Q4 What is your most over-used phrase, in life or in writing?
I guess it must be the small convenient Icelandic word “að”. It serves many purposes and is the perfect addition anywhere. My editor disagrees.
Q5 Do you use a bookmark or do you fold down the page corner?
I am afraid I’ll get hate-mail, but yeah, the page corner. I also scribble in books…
So many thanks to Lilja for answering my questions – I may not be keen to lend her a book (she SCRIBBLES in them? <faints>), but I think we can all get behind the Icelandic idea of the “book flood”. Getting nice and cosy with something new from a favourite author for Christmas sounds perfect to me!
Lilja latest book is Cold As Hell: Icelandic sisters Áróra and Ísafold live in different countries and aren‘t on speaking terms, but when their mother loses contact with Ísafold, Áróra reluctantly returns to Iceland to find her sister. But she soon realises that her sister isn’t avoiding her, she has disappeared, without trace. As she confronts Ísafold’s abusive, drug-dealing boyfriend Björn, and begins to probe her sister’s reclusive neighbours – who have their own reasons for staying out of sight – Áróra is led into an ever-darker web of intrigue and manipulation. Baffled by the conflicting details of her sister’s life, and blinded by the shiveringly bright midnight sun of the Icelandic summer, Áróra enlists the help of police officer Daníel, as she tries to track her sister’s movements, and begins to tail Björn – but she isn’t the only one watching…
The English edition, translated by Quentin Bates, is available in print and ebook direct from the publisher, Orenda Books: https://orendabooks.co.uk/product/cold-as-hell