In the fourth interview in our blog series 'Meet the Icelanders', we speak to writer Emil Hjörvar Petersen. Emil is very well known in Iceland, and has had huge success with his unique mix of crime-horror and speculative fiction that subverts the traditional crime-fiction genre, and sets him apart from his peers.
We are thrilled that Emil will be making his Iceland Noir debut in November and hope to see his work published in English in the near future.
Hello Emil! Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
I’m an Icelandic author. I grew up in Kópavogur, one of four siblings, and I had this crazy unrealistic dream of becoming a writer. I’ve always been fascinated by storytelling, myths and folklore, and how these universal phenomena at their core show us common human traits all around the world.
For me, 'The Fantastic' is a tool to approach things from different perspectives, often surprising myself; I follow the sense of wonder. I tend to mix fantasy with realism, and I mix genres as well. I’ve written a post-apocalyptic fantasy trilogy, a crime-fantasy series and now crime-horror. Also, I’m writing an original screenplay for a TV-show. Sagafilm bought and will produce it.
For more than a decade I’ve been one of several authors on a mission to write speculative fiction in Icelandic. Horror, fantasy and science fiction were practically non-existent in our small market, just as was with crime fiction at the turn of the century. We keep going and now I think it’s safe to say that Icelandic speculative fiction is here to stay.
Two years ago, after living in Sweden for a decade, I moved back to Kópavogur with my wife and two children. These days, I’m embracing my hometown as a setting for stories, namely horror!
You have published eight novels, and have a new crime-horror book coming out this year as a Storytel Original - Can you tell us a little bit about it?
As with other speculative genres, horror was largely neglected in Iceland. Which is surprising, since our folklore tends to be quite horrific, weird and gruesome. You might say I’m in a horror-phase right now, finding ways to trigger fear and exploring the psychological aspect of it. Last year, Storytel published two horror novels by me. The first one is a grotesque folk horror (Ó, Karítas), the second a historical ghost story (Hælið or The Sanatorium). What I try to do is to bring horror tropes to an Icelandic setting. Now I’m merging crime with horror.
The crime-horror novel is about a detective who is put to a case which is eerily similar to a traumatic event from his childhood. He’s determined to solve it and, maybe, he will finally find out what happened in the past. But he starts to experience very unsettling things whilst investigating. I really wish I could say more. I’m very excited to unveil it when the time comes this autumn!
Your previous novels have been in the crime-fantasy genre. Can you tell English readers about them?
My first speculative work was a post-apocalyptic fantasy trilogy called Saga eftirlifenda, a tale about the Norse gods who survived Ragnarök, and their struggles and voyages in a world they lost control of. It was really well received and exciting things are brewing related to the trilogy.
When I was almost finished with Saga eftirlifenda, a question sprung to my mind: Why has no one written an Icelandic crime-fantasy? We have all these mystical folktales, there are modern mediums who are hired, for real, to investigate when certain things go wrong, for example when roads are being built and construction equipment fails. The mediums try to see if hidden creatures are living in rocks that are about to be removed, and roads have been built around alleged hidden settlements. Some Icelanders are superstitious, and even though most of them don’t believe, I think most wish there were elves and hidden people living in rocks and hills.
So, I decided to mix Nordic noir with urban fantasy and write a crime-story in an alternate contemporary reality, where the hidden world really exists. I wrote Víghólar (Crimson Hills), the first novel in a series I like to call The Shroud. It was awarded and Sagafilm is developing a TV-show. Bjartur & Veröld published the novel, and also two sequels, Sólhvörf (Solstice) and Nornasveimur (Witchfires).
The Shroud follows Bergrún Búadóttir, a broke medium who is sometimes hired by the police to investigate supernatural occurrences, and now the case she gets involved in is much more serious than before. Gradually Bergrún becomes a medium-detective. She’s divorced and consumed by her work. Brá Bjarkadóttir is Bergrún’s restless daughter who lives with her father’s family. Her unstable powers are manifesting and as the story moves forward, Brá’s role grows; it becomes clear that she has a specific destiny. In each book there is a new case and a new theme, related to specific creatures and mysteries from Icelandic folklore. The series is correlated with the dramatic story of mother and daughter: their struggles, their relationship, their flaws, hopes and dreams.
I have planned two more books in The Shroud, where the story of Bergrún and Brá is concluded. But I’ve also started writing spin-offs in this world. One has been published in English, it’s a long short story about recurring extra characters in the series: the cryptozoologist Aldís and her dwarven assistant. It’s called “The Cryptid” and it was published by Head of Zeus in the anthology The Best of World SF last year. The paperback version was published days ago.
Iceland is famous for its crime-fiction. What do you think it is about living in Iceland that brings out so much creativity?
Creativity surely is brought out everywhere else, in different ways, but as for the style and the atmosphere of Icelandic literature, one can’t ignore the effect the landscape has on us. The magnificent mountains always there on the horizon, the cold sea surrounding us, the vastness, all the uncanny and unique places. We’re so few but we have so much space; untouched nature that both nurtures and screams at us. And then there’s the drastic shift of light and dark. The claustrophobic winter dark versus the everlooming summer light. The dark is both cozy and creepy, the midnight sun never wants us to leave the party. This messes with our heads. I guess many of us try to shift that condition to creativity.
Can you tell us a little bit about the crime-fiction writing community in Iceland?
I’ve been more involved in the speculative fiction community. I’m relatively new to the crime-fiction community but from what I’ve gathered, it’s especially inviting. The crime authors are all very nice and helpful people, and there seems to be this collective thinking: we’re in this together. As it’s with the speculative community. As it’s supposed to be!
Who are you most looking forward to seeing at the festival?
From the authors that have been announced, I’m really looking forward to seeing and listening to Bernandine Evaristo. Her career is fascinating! In general, I look forward to absorbing all the panel discussions and seeing how different authors approach the crime genre. Like Sjón, one of my favorite authors. Usually he has very interesting takes on literature.
If our visitors do one thing in Reykjavík, what should that be?
Here’s a good plan in downtown Reykjavík: a burger and a beer at Ræktin on Laugavegur (one of the best burgers I’ve had), walk the street afterwards, visit the old bookshop Mál & Menning which is now a cozy live venue, have a coffee there, maybe there will be live music or poetry reading, walk down to Austurstræti, browse at the bookshop Eymundsson, and then go to Skúli Craft Bar near Ingólfstorg. They have a large selection of Icelandic craft beer on draft and you can taste before deciding.
Emil will be appearing atIceland Noir on Thursday the 17th of November.