From Iceland — A Crime Writer With A Day Job

A Crime Writer With A Day Job

Published March 19, 2024

A Crime Writer With A Day Job
Photo by
Art Bicnick

A closer look into the double life of Yrsa Sigurðardóttir

Many writers start writing as a side pursuit, with most of them trying to quit their day jobs as soon as their writing career takes off. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, who initially emerged as a children’s writer and then moved on to become the country’s most prominent crime novelist, didn’t follow that path. Despite her books being translated into more than 30 languages and a few of them being adapted into movies, Yrsa has continued working as a civil engineer. “This is just so much a part of who I am,” she says, jokingly complaining that she no longer has an assigned desk at the office after recently reducing her hours at the engineering firm Verkís.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, 60, a civil engineer

It has changed. The writing used to be the side hustle. But now writing is the main job and engineering is my side hustle.

This is what I studied. In 30+ years since I graduated, I have worked mainly in the construction side of things — project management, procurement, conflict resolution and that type of thing. My job is not so much the design, but the actualisation of the design. 

I’ve worked on a number of power plant projects, both in design management and construction management. But when the publication started abroad, I’d go a lot abroad to launch books or go to festivals. I felt like I wasn’t doing anything well. I didn’t have time to do my job as well as I wanted and I was always stressed with the writing. So, I had to cut down. I had to face the reality that I couldn’t do as much as I wanted and stopped working on these really big projects that require a lot of effort. What I do now is come in and help with various projects that other people are working on.

“There’s no stress — if I don’t write a book, then I’ll just go back to working full-time.”

I had started to decrease my hours before the pandemic, but when COVID-19 came I was working from home. It’s quite comfortable to do it from home when you’re not working full-time — you don’t have to spend time going to the office and back. But once everything was returning to normal, I just continued working from home and realised that you slowly fade out. It’s really important to be in the office and visible because I found that slowly my work input was less and less required because people forgot I was there. Now I’m working on trying to get back to being in the office half of the time. My New Year’s resolution is to be here half a day and then write in the afternoon.

Reality check

I don’t need this job to sustain myself. It’s more to sustain my brain. Writing is a very lonely job — you’re at home with your characters. I need the social aspect of a job and to work with a team and other people. At least for me, this is very important and it keeps me more grounded with reality, with the real world, not to be always just inside your made-up world and the pages that you’re writing.

I’ve never gotten writer’s block. I think it’s because there’s no stress — if I don’t write a book, then I’ll just go back to working full-time. It takes away the pressure.

At my house and at my job, the writing doesn’t really matter. I don’t get any slack because I’m a writer so that I can do a worse job than somebody else. At home — I’m the mother and the wife. It’s a little bit like living in two worlds — with the writing, the travelling, meeting readers and other writers being one world, and the other world being my home and my day job.

Keeping the creative spark alive

People tend to think that engineering is not a creative field, which is so far from the truth. Creativity is not only about the arts, it’s a much wider concept. Many of the things that are done in engineering are highly creative, although restricted within safety standards. It’s a really creative and a very fun job.

“I wish there were more hours in the day, so that I could work more and still maintain the same level of writing.”

My favourite thing is working with people and working on a team. The thing that also makes engineering fun, is that you’re always working on a project. You’re not working on the same thing always and forever — you work on a project and the project has a beginning, a crescendo, it rises and then it has to wind down. One of the things with projects is that they are always unique. It’s never completely repetitive. I love to always be working on something new. It keeps you motivated.

I wish there were more hours in the day, so that I could work more and still maintain the same level of writing. The one thing that I don’t like is having to do timesheets. I really hate bureaucracy in any form. I understand that it is required, but I just don’t like it. 

I’ve gotten lots of pointers for my stories at work. For example, in the book The Prey, the idea for the radar station in Stokksnes was suggested by someone who had worked there on a control system. It was the weirdest place — totally isolated and a great setting for a book. In my books, I don’t shy away from tech and I can easily get information that I need on various aspects of radio signals and all kinds of things.

Photo by Art Bicnick

Word of advice

I think what would help young aspiring writers that are working on their first attempt at a novel would be to try to maintain the focus. It’s so easy to give up when nobody’s waiting for your book. And the hardest one is the first one. First of all, to finish it and also to find a publisher, which is a whole lot more difficult than when I was starting out.

Want to share how you’re making ends meet? Email us at grapevine@grapevine.is with the subject line “Side Hustle.” We’ll happily keep your identity anonymous.


Curious how people are following their passions to make ends meet? Follow along with The Grapevine’s Side Hustle series right here.

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