Hallgrímur Helgason on his new books, and old
Writer/artist Hallgrímur Helgason should be familiar to most of our readers, not the least for his 1996 novel ‘101 Reykjavík’, which along with its movie adaptation managed to define downtown Reykjavík as a party-hearty nightspot full of lovable slackers, a reputation that the area is still coasting on. His first novel written in English, ‘The Hitman’s Guide To Housecleaning’ was recently released by Amazon Crossing and is charting nicely, while on the homefront his latest book ‘Konan við 1000°’ has been well received, while causing a stir. This caused us to think: “this is an excellent time to interview Hallgrímur Helgason.” So we did.
What’s new, Hallgrímur Helgason?
Painting. I’m painting now, for the first time since 2007. I’m having big fun doing crazy coloured paintings, all the things you’re not supposed to do when you’re an artist. I feel like a child again.
Your eighth and latest novel, ‘Konan við 1000°’ [‘The Woman At 1000°’] was released last year. Could you tell us more about the book?
It’s about Herra Björnsson, an eighty-year-old Icelandic woman, who was the granddaughter of the first president of Iceland. She was born in 1929 and grew up on the Breiðafjörður islands. Her father was among the few Icelanders who fought on Hitler’s side in WW2. Her life was very much affected by this fact, and during the war she was left alone, a young girl roaming around Germany. You can say she never recovered from this experience.
After the war she goes from here to there, has many husbands and lives all over the place. She then ends up bedridden, in a garage in Reykjavík, where she spends her last years living alone with a laptop and an old German hand grenade, her sole souvenir from a turbulent life. The book plays out in the present, with her in the garage, doing her tricks on Facebook and such, but also in the past, as she looks back on her eventful life. The novel is very much Herra’s life story, peppered with some eighty years of North European and Icelandic history. It’s very tragic at times, but funny as well, I hope.
THE BOOK IS FICTION
The book created quite a stir in Iceland upon its release, as some of its characters are based on real people. Did you anticipate such trouble?
Yes, Herra is based on a real person, Brynhildur Georgía Björnsson, whose father also fought with the Nazis and whose grandfather also was our first president. I tried to minimalize the damage by stating straight out in every promotional interview that I based my character on her life and her biography, which was published in Iceland in the early eighties. Still there were people who were not happy, and I can understand this. The only thing I can say is: This book is fiction. Though it’s based on a real-life person, the character of Herra is fictional. Half of what happens to her in the book is from my imagination only.
Despite the controversy, both critics and the public seemed to love ‘ Konan við 1000°’ (I agree with them). The book was initially published in German before it was released in Icelandic; is an English-language version in the works?
We have the first nineteen chapters (fifty or so pages) very well translated into English by David McDuff, and now my agent will pass it around, in the hope of getting some publishers interested in the book.
‘Konan við 1000’, with its ultra-dramatic backdrop and female protagonist (your first in a while) is quite the departure from your previous novels. Is this intentional? Does it reflect the times at which it was written?
Well, my first and second novels were about women. ‘Hella’, from 1990, and the comic troll called ‘Þetta er allt að koma’ (“Things Are Going Great”), from 1994 (neither book has been translated). It’s always exciting to write about women, you have to “try to become a woman” yourself, so it’s quite a challenge. It was quite refreshing to do so after writing five books in a row about men. I tried to give it a feminist touch, since I believe so strongly in feminism. I had great fun making fun of the male species.
“A CALF IN SPRING”
‘The Hitman’s Guide to Housecleaning’ is the first novel you write in English. Was the process in any way different from writing in Icelandic? If so, how?
It was a fresh new departure for me. It was quite a ball writing in English. It was like getting a new PC, full of new features. I also felt like writing for a whole new audience. But of course it proved quite difficult in the end. My English is not 100% and in the last version I almost had to google every tenth word. After two years working with the English language I was getting so tired… And when I started to write the next one, I was so happy to get back to my mother tongue that I felt like “a calf in spring” as we say in Iceland. I think you can sense this joy in the style of ‘The Woman at 1000°’. It was a very happy homecoming.
I understand ‘HGTH’ was published in the US as part of a new initiative by Amazon.com’s new publishing firm, Amazon Crossing. Could you elaborate on this?
For four years my agent tried to get a publisher for ‘Hitman’s Guide’ in English, without success. It was already out in Germany, Denmark, Russia, Poland and elsewhere, but the text proved to be too rough for the refined tastes of London and New York. So we found Seattle: On the occasion of Iceland being the guest of honour at the Frankfurt Book Fair 2011, the Seattle-based Amazon decided to publish ten Icelandic novels. And one of them was ‘Hitman’s Guide’.
Amazon Crossing is a fairly new venture, Amazon’s first step into the world of publishing. It is very contested and the old publishers are not happy to see the biggest bookshop in the world becoming a publisher as well. I can understand their point, but I think it might be a process that will be hard to stop. It feels a bit like when the good old furniture factories were complaining about the rise of IKEA. The situation was unfair but in the end it’s all about the people: Do they want to buy cheaper furniture, get an easier access to books in new and cheaper formats, like the Kindle. Being published by Amazon was indeed quite a new experience for me. They work much more closely with the author, keep him updated all the time, with PR-work and sales figures. One even has a say in the cover design. So for me it has been a pleasurable experience. At least I can’t complain about Amazon…
A TSUNAMI OF TOURISM AND MEDIA ATTENTION
The book’s main character, Croatian hit-man Tomislav Bokšić (Toxic) is not far removed from ‘101 Reykjavík’ protagonist slacker, Hlynur Björn. One might imagine Hlynur Björn making some of Toxic’s choices had he come from a similar background, and the two oftentimes seem to share anxieties and ambitions (or lack thereof). Could one imagine ‘HGTH’ as a revisit to some of the sentiments from ‘101 Reykjavík’?
No, you are absolutely right. I even let Toxic visit Hlynur Björn’s old hangout, the famous Kaffibarinn. That is no coincidence. ‘Hitman’s Guide’ is a bit like ‘101’ with a gun. The Reykjavík book was written when Iceland was a more innocent place, like a thousand-year-old maiden in the middle of the Atlantic. Since the mid-nineties we’ve had a tsunami of tourism and media attention. The world has been making love to the maiden for fifteen years now. Then, around the millennium we also saw the rise of the Nordic crime writing. I don’t think I would have written a book about a gunman without this crime wave. I’m not a big reader or an expert of crime novels, and of course ‘Hitman’s Guide’ is not a crime novel in that sense—at the most you can say it’s a crime novel inside out, for here the criminal is the hero and not the police—but still it was influenced by the genre, I would say.
Author Douglas Coupland lavishes you with praise, saying that one of your talents is morphing “the English language into gloriously blunt new forms,” and that he “can’t reccommend [‘HGTH’] enough”. It’s interesting that your English-language début should yield such comments, especially since they are reminiscent about what reviewers said of your early forays into writing Icelandic (i.e your use and reimagining of language). Is this quality of your writing something you feel gets lost in translation (i.e. when translated by others?
Hopefully not, but I guess there is always a filter of some sort, that some of the finer nuances can’t get through. I always try to write in a fresh way, trying hard not to take anything for granted. I simply can not write in a “sober” way, as you say, for me it’s just plain boring to write: “The street was filled with gray mist as he stepped out on the sidewalk.” I would have to find a new way to describe that gray mist, probably comparing it to the smoke from the exhaust pipe, tobacco smoke or “the fart of the city” or something even worse. For me the text has to be “intoxicated” by something special, you may call it inspiration or originality. Of course some people can’t take this kind of writing and prefer the regular and sober way. I hope you can say my style is a bit crazy, at least it should be “tipsy” if not “dead drunk” at times.
Do you consider yourself a moral artist / writer?
Yes. Even though I may deny it myself, as I have in many interviews, you should not really listen to me. I think you can spot an underlying moralistic tone in my books. Even in the dead sarcastic and cool ‘101 Reykjavík’ you can sense a longing for a better world. And ‘Hitman’, despite all it’s gory scenes, is all about the search for happiness and a decent kind of life.
LAXNESS IS CRUCIAL
What other Icelandic novelists should we be reading?
Halldór Laxness of course. His ‘Independent People’ is crucial. Jonathan Franzen rated it as one of his five favourite novels. ‘Blue Fox’ by Sjón is a beautiful little book. He also recently got nominated for the Independent’s Foreign Fiction Prize for his ‘From the Mouth of the Whale’, which I have not read yet. Bragi Ólafsson’s ‘Pets’ is a modern classic as well. And then it’s Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir’s ‘Greenhouse’, also published by Amazon Crossing. It’s a charming tale and was a massive hit in France and Spain. There are more good books from Iceland, but not all of them have seen English translations.
I started with sixteen ideas for a new novel back in January. They have been playing against each other in the preliminary rounds through February and March. This coming weekend will see the semi-finals. And then the final is scheduled for late April, after the opening of my show of paintings. Then we’ll have a winner…
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