From Iceland — Óttar Martin Norðfjörð

Óttar Martin Norðfjörð

Óttar Martin Norðfjörð

Published December 7, 2007

When did you get the idea to write this book?
The idea first came to me when I was in Scotland, studying for a Master’s degree in Philosophy. It first came to me on an airplane really, on the way to Scotland, when I noticed that every passenger on the plane was either reading Dan Brown or [Icelandic crime novelist] Arnaldur Indriðason. I had just published a book of poetry, and I thought to myself, ‘what am I doing? Why should I have to pigeonhole myself like that, writing for this small audience only?’ I had ideas for other kind of books as well, but I was very arrogant towards that kind of literature, and it took me a while to figure out that there is a difference between what the general public wants to read, and a poetry book that a group of 50 literature friends of yours wants to read. So I decided to swallow my pride, take this seriously and try this genre. Although I’ve always enjoyed reading crime novels, I couldn’t see myself writing them. But, since I had an idea for a book, which is the book I wrote, I decided to do it.
So, you felt a prejudice against this genre?
Yes I did. It’s interesting, and I could discuss this with you all day. You write a poetry book, nobody buys it, but you get a little respect from the literature elite for being the broke artist, thinking outside the box. But there are many prejudices; I had them, partly from the literature elite and cultural apostles, against this genre of literature. This is not really considered literature.
Personally, I thought The Da Vinci Code was an incredibly poor book, and I was a little surprised at how much your book was influenced by that formula. When I read it, I started to develop my own theory that once you had decided to do this sell-out, for lack of a better term, you then just decided to take it all the way.
I read The Da Vinci Code, and I really didn’t like it. It is embarrassingly badly written. But I’m not blind; I could see what effect it had on people. I decided to follow in Dan Brown’s path, but that was also because it fitted the subject, the idea I had for the plot. With the idea I had, I think it was inevitable that the book would be shaped in the
The Da Vinci Code mould, no matter how much or how little influence that book had had on me. Once I realised that, I had no hesitation in borrowing from that formula.
The book reads as though it is written with the idea of being developed into a movie [and in fact, Icelandic film production company Zik Zak has bought the rights to develop a movie from the book]
Yes, it is. There are a lot of cliffhangers and it should be an easy adaptation, so it’s no coincidence that Zik Zak has bought the rights to the story. That’s the bottom line; this is a ‘user-friendly’ book. It’s just that there is such a divide between the general public and the literati. Until now, I have only been writing for very small cultural readership, trying to break up the form. This book is the total opposite. It is geared towards the public. I doubt anyone will think about this book two days after reading it. It is essentially the same as seeing a Hollywood blockbuster. And I’m OK with that. I don’t understand why you always have to position yourself on one side of that divide. I have come to realise that this is exactly how publishing houses work. They publish bestsellers to finance the publication of fine literature. Everyone thinks that is OK, but as soon as a writer does the same thing, people don’t agree.
Have you faced this prejudice from the literary elite? Are you scolded?
Not exactly scolded, but my friends ask me why I want to write shit. Coming from friends, I think that’s OK. Then you have people from the literature circles. For example, I was recently on the literature television talkshow Kiljan, and the host, Egill Helgason opened the interview with the question ‘are you joking?’ That was incredible. Let’s not think about whether I was joking or not for a moment. That is an extraordinarily loaded question and if I’m not joking, it is offensive. I told him I was not joking, that I’ve spent two years on this project and that would be a rather sick joke. Then he starts talking about the book as being clichéd, as if other Icelandic crime novelists don’t write clichés? The difference is that I am writing into an American tradition, while other Icelandic crime novelists write into a Scandinavian tradition. It seems to irritate people endlessly that I wrote this kind of book instead of a Reykjavík novel, where the hero is drunk at Kaffibarinn, finds the purpose of life and falls in love.
How does this affect you? Do you think you will write another book like that to silence your critics?
I’ve already started writing another book like this. The truth is, I had a great time writing that book. I loved doing the historical research, and creating the puzzle. This was fun, so why not do it again. But I doubt I could do this for the next 30 years. This is a formula, I don’t have any reservations about that. It is airport literature, but that’s OK. If I’m having fun writing it, I don’t mind. Although I have been a part of Nýhil, I have not agreed to only write poetry for the rest of my life.
I think on some level, this criticism stems from people’s fear of seeing someone turn their back on their ideals.
I think you are absolutely right. That is exactly the thing. You are supposed to be a struggling writer, there is a level of martyrdom, and you are supposed to suffer for your art. I think this is such a 19th-century attitude towards literature. If there is any ideal behind Nýhil, it is exactly to break these kinds of stereotypes. But I can’t escape the feeling that people think I have betrayed my true colours.

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