The marketing director of Sjóvá, one of Iceland’s largest insurance companies, surprised the country with his remarkably strong debut novel earlier this year. ‘Whitesands’ is a paranormal thriller with a dark noir detective atmosphere evoking films like ‘Seven’ and ‘Silence of the Lambs. In short; it’s merciless.
Jóhann Þórsson was born in Keflavík (now Reykjanesbær) but grew up in Israel, in a tourist town near the Lebanese border.
“I moved to Nahariyya when I was nine years old, and I think it’s safe to say that it’s a wonderful place to grow up,” Jóhann says when asked about his upbringing. Jóhann’s childhood was quite different from that of other Icelandic children. His father worked for the United Nations and regularly travelled to Lebanon and Israel. Jóhann’s family later moved to Zagreb, Croatia, only a few years after a bloody civil war, though he says he was living in a very American bubble.
“I was in an American private school, [like the ones you’d] see in movies and TV shows,” he explains. “It broadened [my] world in a very effective way,” he adds. Interestingly, he says that he was only ten, then living in Israel, when he made a life-changing decision, becoming atheist.
The reason wasn’t really complicated, he says. “Why believe in anything just because someone says you should?”
The plans we make
When Jóhann and his family eventually returned to Iceland he was, unlike most Icelanders at the time, fluent in English, which was like his first language. Jóhann quickly found out that he was strong in math and science and went to university and studied molecular biology and genetics. “But in the end, I graduated in computer science,” he says with a chuckle. “That’s a good example of how life often turns out differently than expected.” Little did he know. After a short stint working for deCODE Genetics, he found himself running the marketing department at the biggest insurance company in Iceland, pursuing writing as a hobby.
Over a decade in making
It’s clear when reading ‘Whitesands’ that this is not Jóhann’s first book and I ask him how many scripts he has hidden in a desk drawer.
“Well, I have been writing for a long time, and this novel has been in the making for around a decade. I haven’t really published anything except when [submitting to] short story competitions,” he explains.
And it’s safe to say that Jóhann didn’t even realise the strength of material he actually had in his hands when it was published by a small publishing house in the U.S. But the road was rocky. The book is a supernatural detective thriller, somewhat of an odd niche within the Scandi-Noir realm that Icelanders are expected to adhere to.
Not only that, his main character, John Dark, is Black and located in an unnamed American city, not Iceland, although there are some connections with Iceland. Agents pointed this out, it was odd that a white Icelander was writing about a Black protagonist in America, and the book was written in English, not Icelandic. Fair enough Jóhann thought, while wondering why the character would have to be white.
“We always assume that these protagonists are white, but there is no specific reason it should be like that.”
Just to be sure, Jóhann had a close African-American friend in the US, to read over the book and help him shape the character. The result is more than convincing. John Dark is a remarkably well thought out character for a crime thriller like this. And it’s not the colour of the skin that defines him in the story, but the loss of his daughter.
No world for children
The world of ‘Whitesands’ is conspicuously grim. This is a world where children do not fare well and adults are seriously broken. On top of that, the boundaries between the living and the dead are blurred. Without saying too much, John Dark investigates a brutal murder, while at the same time trying to find his lost daughter who disappeared without a trace a few years earlier. The detective is overburdened, only to spiral down in desperation.
To complicate things even further, a serial killer might be on the prowl, and John is the only one who can stop him. Jóhann says that he doesn’t shy away from his influences. “Some writers try to read nothing while writing, but I take very strong influences from Jeff VanderMeer and movies like ‘Seven’’ and Silence of the Lambs’. I like the dark horror atmosphere,” he explains. And although the book has a dark atmosphere, this is a very different story from the others.
Visited a medium
Some of the strongest chapters in the book evolve around mediums and the otherworldly. I can’t help but ask Jóhann if he himself visited a medium while working on the book. “I did, actually,” he says. “I watched the people in the meeting, and how the medium acted,” he explains. But it feels like Jóhann is trying to be polite when asked about the experience. As an atheist, he rejects the idea of mediums that can talk to the dead. “If everybody in these meetings is aware that this is not real, then fine, but if you’re there, believe this, and someone is profiting from that, well, I think it’s a pretty grey area,” Jóhann says.
There is no God
That said, it’s a bit odd that a strong atheist is writing a supernatural novel, and not only that, God hardly appears in the book except for in the context of atheism, which is unusual when it comes to supernatural elements in entertainment. Jóhann points out that ghosts are not really Christian phenomena in Icelandic history. And he is correct. We can go way back to Glámur the ghost that wrestled the Viking, Grettir the Strong, or to the ghost stories in the folklores of Jón Árnason. Religion doesn’t often have anything to do with Mórar and Skottur (the Icelandic poltergeists). And Glámur, well, he was just pure f$%ing evil. A pagan on top of that.
TV show in the making?
It doesn’t come as a surprise that Jóhann is writing a sequel to the story. And it’s even less of a surprise that he will probably move to a bigger publisher. He was contacted by another literary agent following ‘Whitesands’ publication and negotiations are ongoing about TV rights and such. After reading the book, this is a very obvious next step, for it’s written in a very graphic way and the story is intriguing and well thought out paranormal detective story. On top of that, the emotional breadth is surprising.
Jóhann plans to write two more books about John Dark and his grim adventures in a world where supernatural beings may be lurking on the horizon. But after reading the book, it’s not really the paranormal that sits with the reader, but longing to see John getting closure on personal matters. The book has a strong narrative and offers a cruel and vivid world of violence and supernatural elements. So, don’t read this one in the dark, unless you are prepared for a sleepless night.
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