From the ice of the glaciers to the black church near the lava fields and on to the steaming hot pools of the blue lagoon, Iceland is a country of stark natural beauty and interesting folklore.
In this interview, Michael Ridpath talks about the hidden people, the trolls, and the ghosts in the mist, as well as the landscape as a character, and why he keeps returning to the country for inspiration.
Michael Ridpath is a British author of crime and thriller novels. His Magnus crime thriller series is set in Iceland. And he has a website, WritingInIce.com, which features articles and pictures from his research travels.
- Why Iceland is so compelling to visit
- Suggestions for the most beautiful places to visit in Iceland
- The Hidden People, and other interesting folklore of the region
- How long winters impact the Icelandic temperament
- Things to see and do in Reykjavik
- How to write evocative stories where the landscape is a character
- Recommended books about or set in Iceland
You can find Michael Ridpath at MichaelRidpath.com
Transcript of the interview
Jo: Michael Ridpath is a British author of crime and thriller novels. His ‘Magnus’ crime thriller series is set in Iceland. And he has a website, writinginice.com, which features articles and pictures from his research travels. Welcome, Michael.
Jo: It’s great to have you on the show. So, first up, you’re British with close ties to the USA.
What drew you to write about Iceland in the first place and to keep going back there?
Michael: I think your question kind of encapsulates it because I knew nothing at all about Iceland, that was its attraction. They say when you start writing, you should write about what you know.
I used to be a banker a long time ago. I wrote a number of financial thrillers, which were set all over the world in places like Brazil, and Wyoming, and South Africa, and the Czech Republic. And those were really well to start with, and then they kind of run out of steam, as these things do.
So, I needed a new plan. And I decided I would write a detective series. I had the same main character in each book, which seemed like an interesting idea. But I needed the detective to be distinctive.
And because I like writing about foreign places, I thought, well, he needs to come from an interesting country. And I had two ideas, the first one that came to my head, which you should always go with the first thing that comes to your head, was Iceland because I’d been on a book tour there in 1995 and it was the weirdest, most surreal book tour I’ve ever had.
I thought, well, one day I’ll write about that. And I did lots of analysis and thinking and came up with an idea about an honest cop in Saudi Arabia, which seemed like a really good idea for a story. And then I decided I would make sure people would buy the book when I’d written it. So I asked people whether they prefer to story about an Icelandic detective or one set in Saudi Arabia, and there was a huge, huge majority in favor of Iceland, which people like me didn’t know about but wanted to find out about and no one was interested in Saudi Arabia. So, Iceland, it was.
Jo: Fantastic. That’s really interesting, because in my head, Iceland versus Saudi Arabia, these are two very different temperatures, let alone anything else. And you mentioned that you like traveling to foreign places.
What was it about the foreignness of Iceland that attracted you?
Michael: It’s because it’s a totally weird place. I found some people love Iceland and those are people who like the quirky and strange and some people find Iceland rather dull because the weather is appalling. It’s wind and rain and it’s not even that snowy most of the time.
But as I said, it’s an odd place, it’s a mixture of the old and the new. The landscape looks really bleak and old because there are all these lava fields and fjords and glaciers. But actually, that’s mostly a result of the fact it’s new, geologically, it’s a work in progress.
There’s volcanic eruptions and earthquakes all over the place. So, all these volcanoes are producing, essentially, a new country.
And the people as well. Iceland used to be the poorest country in Europe about 70 or 80 years ago. And it’s now about the richest country in Europe. Modern Icelanders they’ve been on social media for a decade, and they are very high-tech and so on.
But you don’t have to go back very long when they were living in turf houses and just eking a very, very tough living. So it’s an interesting contrast. And it’s one of those things the more you find out about it, the more you want to find out about it, which if you’re going to spend a whole series over 10 years writing a series of detective novels, you definitely need that to be the case.
Jo: And you mentioned lava fields and the volcanoes there. I guess one very famous thing about Iceland is the hot springs, that’s something that I’ve certainly read about.
What part does the lava fields play, and if people are visiting, where are the ones you recommend?
Michael: One of the best ones to look at is when you’re driving from the airport, the international airport is 40 kilometers from Reykjavik. And there’s a drive that you have to do somehow, on a bus or in a taxi or somehow, and you go through this amazing lava field, which has no trees, no grass, it’s just kind of black and brown ridges and folds and so on. That’s quite spectacular.
But I think my favorite lava field is in a peninsula called Snæfellsnes, which is about 100 kilometers north of Reykjavik. And there are two farms there, which have been there since the settlement of Iceland 1,000 years ago.
And on these two farms 1,000 years ago, one of them brought some berserkers back from Sweden. And he told the berserkers to cut a path through the lava field between these two farms, which the berserkers did. And then after doing that, one of the berserkers wanted to marry the other farmer’s daughter, and he didn’t like that, so, he killed the berserkers.
Berserkers, if you don’t know, are Viking warriors who go crazy and get tremendous energy and then exhausted. So after they were exhausted, one of the farmers killed the berserkers and buried them in the middle of the lava field.
That was 1,000 years ago, and it’s detailed in the Sagas. But if you go there now, you see this amazing lava field, this one’s full of folds and pinnacles, about 20 or 30 feet high. And it’s called the Berserjahraun, which means the berserkers lava field.
And you get to a certain spot and there’s a tiny little sign that says, ‘Berserker Garter,’ which is the ‘Berserkers Path.’ And there’s this path cut through the stones of this lava field and you walk along it about 400 meters, and you come to a grave. It’s a stone square grave.
About 100 years ago, some British archaeologist dug down and found two oversized skeletons down there. So, that is the most atmospheric lava field in Iceland. One I heartily recommend because it’s one of those places that isn’t on the tourist track but is really, really atmospheric.
Jo: Oh, wow, that sounds great. I love that. It’s a great story. In my mind, again, the blue ice is one of the images that you often see on tourist photos.
What are the stunning natural places to visit?
Michael: The fjords are stunning, that blue ice actually is just in one place, which is called the Jökulsárlón, which is Glacier Lagoon, which is in the southeast of Iceland. And there, a massive glacier comes down from Central Iceland and just falls apart into a lagoon which then as the ice melts, it crashes into this lagoon and then that goes out to the sea.
Because you get these tiny little icebergs, which are a little wonderful translucent blue color. And once again, if you go a little bit away from where all the tourists are and just sit and watch it, you can see the lovely ice but you can also hear this, sort of, tinkling sound of the ice melting and dripping into the water. So that’s, I suppose, the famous ice place.
But there’s one place, I think my favorite and most beautiful place in Iceland, it actually isn’t too far from the Berserker’s lava field on Snæfellsnes, and there’s this one spot where you can see all the best in Iceland, it’s called the Hotel Búdir. And just all by itself, it’s a hotel and a tiny little black church and they’re isolated on the south coast of Snæfellsnes, so you can’t really see any other buildings at all.
On one side you can see miles of beach with horses riding along it. Then if you go south is the fjord and on the other side, you can see a bit of ice just over the field. And then if you go round you see a lava field and then you see a kind of massive crater and behind that, that’s something called Snæfellsjokull, which is a perfect volcano and a bit like Mount Fuji with a kind of glacier at the top and the cone and a stone which is a little bit like a question mark.
That was used by Jules Verne for his place for ‘Journey to the Center of the Earth.’ So, that was the entrance down to the center of the earth. And that looks magical.
Then to the north, there are these amazing waterfalls coming off the mountains and there are sea eagles there. It’s absolutely an astounding place. And I go there every time I can because in summer, it’s gorgeous, in autumn, it’s gorgeous, at nighttime, I saw the Northern Lights over the Snæfells Volcano once. It really is, I think, about the most beautiful place in the world. So, it’s called Hotel Búdir, on Snæfellsnes.
The hotel itself is a great place to say. It’s slightly expensive but worth it. And then there’s this tiny little black church, which is right next to it. There used to be a village there, but that’s kind of disappeared. And so there were ruins there instead.
So, there’s this church, which stands up on top of a hill, and that’s quite dramatic. That’s the most beautiful place I know in Iceland.
Jo: Oh, wow. And it’s also very evocative. And you’ve put this vision of this berserkers’ grave and this black church and the entrance to the center of the earth. And it just sounds mythological and folklore-ish.
What are some of the interesting myths or folklore things that you find fascinating that are quite specific to Iceland?
Michael: There are an awful lot of them and one of the big ones are the trolls. So, that’s a fairly basic idea where there are these giant trolls that are caught in the sunrises and they freeze into stone.
A lot of the lava fields have these stone pinnacles that from certain angles look like people so those can be trolls, and there are famous stone trolls all over Iceland. But the big thing is the Hidden People. Have you ever heard of the hidden people?
Jo: No, I haven’t. Sounds fascinating.
Michael: I went to a publishers’ dinner and the head of marketing started a story about hidden people, I really thought she was just taking the mick. But anyway, Iceland has got a population of 300,000 real people, and 10,000 hidden people. And these hidden people live in stones.
Every farm will have a stone with its local hidden person family that the farmer will have known for generations. And the hidden people are obviously hidden most of the time to most people, so you can’t see them.
They’re a bit like elves, and they’re sometimes called elves. And they generally keep themselves to themselves, but sometimes they’ll help out if they’re in trouble. So, if people get lost in the mountains, the hidden people will help them back to wherever they’re supposed to go.
One common thing they do is, when a woman is expecting a baby, the hidden person will come to the mother, or more often the grandmother, and say what the name of the baby should be. I met a woman called Raga, who is called Raga because her grandmother was told by a hidden person that’s what she should be called.
So, these hidden people are everywhere and I went to a farm and the first thing I asked the farmer was where are the local hidden people? So, the problem is that, obviously, this is well-integrated into Icelandic society.
But there are the elf deniers who are the sort of modern Icelanders who can’t stand the idea of hidden people and think the whole thing’s a tourist rip-off and that no one sensible believes in them anymore.
It’s a bit of a minefield where you’ve got the classic old mythology and folklore and the modern Icelanders I was talking about earlier where they think it just makes it a bit of a laughingstock. But actually, I met the number two in the British Embassy, he was very fluent on it. As I say, my publishers are fluent on it.
So, I think a lot of modernize Icelanders like the idea of the hidden people and don’t want to deny them, a bit like denying Father Christmas, so I think they will live on. But you have to be a little careful when talking to Icelanders about them because some of them are quite upset.
Jo: I love that. I think that is fascinating. And this does happen so often in many cultures, there are things that have persisted a long time. And then there’s a layer on the top of more institutionalized religion, I guess because you mentioned that church. So, clearly, there are Christians in the country.
How does that layering of belief work in the culture?
Michael: Well, interesting. Christianity came twice in the year 1,000 where the law speaker of the Icelandic parliament put a cloak over his head and sat there for three days thinking about whether they should all become Christians. And then he decided they should.
And then, of course, they will have to get baptized but the river by this outside palm is really cold so they went 10 miles to a local…you’re talking about hot springs, there’s a hot lake that they will jump in to get baptized. In a way, that kind of sums up their attitude to religion.
They had all this Viking folklore that they more or less kept going with a kind of religious veneer, which helped them deal with Norwegians politically. And the Christianity in Iceland is Lutheranism, which I’m told by Icelandic priests has a good line in dealing the devil but a rural priest in Iceland will know a lot about various ways of essentially exorcising the local devils and demons and getting on with the hidden people and so on.
So, they co-opted the local folklore and made it part of quite a fire and brimstone religious thing. And a lot of the old folk stories in Iceland have priests as protagonists. So, they’ve been quite clever at doing that. I think that happens in other remote areas. Christianity can be quite flexible in the way it deals with local conditions.
Jo: Oh, absolutely. And it is interesting. Even here where I live in Bath, we’ve got the ancient Roman spring to a pagan goddess right next to the Abbey. And I always think this is the layers of history where the ancient is right next to the new and, of course, you started out saying that, that it’s a layered place of old and new.
You’ve mentioned several things, darker things. I keep coming back to this black church and these black lava fields and the entrance to the center of the earth. You write crime thrillers, and I’ve read a couple of your books, and you write about the darker side of human nature, that is crime and thriller. That’s what we do.
How do you think that darker side plays into the Icelandic character, especially given the long, dark winters and these long summers?
Michael: For example, I don’t believe in ghosts, except when I’m in Iceland and then I do believe in ghosts. Because there’s one place I put one of my books where it’s…once again, it’s one of these places where there’s no one there but you drive on a little side road and you drive down the track, and then you park against some rocks and then you walk down to the seashore.
It’s a place called Seijala Tonga on the south shore of Iceland. And once again, it’s a lava field that tumbles into this black, frozen stone that tumbles into the sea. And it was used as a fishing station by Icelanders and so there are these things that look like rock turned out to be kind of hobbles and people live there.
And then you’re walking through that and then this mist comes in from the sea. It’s really scary. And there is a ghost there, called Seijala Tonga Thomas, or something, which doesn’t surprise me.
So, yes the weather does lead to a sinister attitude. And of course, the winters. One way of understanding Icelanders is to think of farming because before they were fishermen, they were farmers. And their farming involved…in the winter, basically, they would sit in their farmhouses, which were the bottom were the animals and the top were the people, and basically just stay there whilst the snow outside, hibernating.
They would read, and they would spin, and do nothing for six months, or four or five months, six months. During the winter, they were living off all the crops that they had harvested in the summer. So, in the summer, they all had to work furiously hard, 23-hour days, because it was daylight, to get all the hay in and all that sort of stuff. And so they were all working very hard, more full of energy.
And so that has carried on into Reykjavik now. Even within the city during the wintertime, it gets light about 9:30, 10:00, gets dark about 3:00, 4:00. People spend a lot of time in their rather scruffy-looking houses, which are very cozy inside, lots of candles.
And then in the summertime, there are people bouncing around all times of day and night. Everyone seems to be on speed, essentially, it’s a whole lot of taking amphetamines, it’s because the long days give them so much energy. And so during the winter, they’ve developed the reading habit because they always used to read to each other.
During the summer, they’ve developed this habit of being very active and doing a lot. So, they will have two or three jobs, have a job during the day and they’ll be playing in a band or singing or playing football in the evening. So, they’re very active and busy people. And that does come out of this weather that I was describing.
Jo; Well, that intriguing. How is that affected you when you visit?
Do you visit at specific times of year to participate in these various seasonal shifts?
Michael: Yes, interesting. I started off by visiting in May and June, which are obviously the longest periods. And one of the things used to irritate me about Scandinavian fiction, it’s not really a bad thing, but it tends to be wintery, it tends to be dark and gloomy, and my experience of Iceland and Icelandic society and Icelandic people was they weren’t dark and gloomy.
They’re incredibly optimistic, they were jumping around everywhere, full of energy and vitality because that was summer Iceland. So, I wanted to write about a place where people are doing things and are active and optimistic.
Having said that, I’ve been a few times in November, and that has its own kind of mystery, and the sinister appeal. I think the book I’m writing at the moment will take place then. And that’s requiring a sort of very different mindset because obviously, everything happens indoors, and it’s cold.
Jo: Do you have a title for that one yet?
Michael: Death in Dalvik, I think is what it starts as. I don’t know if it’ll finish that way. But there’s a town called Dalvik, and whenever I came across it, I thought, one day I’m going to write a book called, Death in Dalvik. I’ll work out who dies there and take it from there.
Jo: Absolutely. I do that a lot.
You’ve mentioned Reykjavik, so what’s particularly interesting there? You mentioned it was more modern.
What things are there to do in Reykjavik?
Michael: Well, it’s interesting. There’s an old bit in the middle, which it looks a bit like a toy town, really, it has these metal houses, the old houses, and they’re not that old, they were built, sort of, 1880 to 1920 were made of wood. And then they were clad in iron on the roof, corrugated iron on the walls and the roof, and painted bright colors.
It looks quite jolly. So, you’ve got these little houses that with bright red roofs and bright blue walls and so on, and they’re on a hill in the middle of town. That creates a nice atmosphere. And the reason they had to clad the walls is that the rain in Reykjavik falls horizontally rather than vertically so the walls were rotting unless they clad them in corrugated iron. So that’s the central bit.
The outskirts are really East German in their concrete dreariness. But there’s a lot of amateur art in Iceland, in Reykjavik. So it’s a bit like a whole town has got involved in a GCSE project or maybe an A-level art project. There are all these funky, quite quirky little artistic sculptures or graffiti or little semi-humorous ideas around the place, which make it a nice place to look around in, lots of galleries with imaginative pieces of lava stone or fish skin and paintings and so on.
And then there’s one good gorgeous bit of art, which is something called Harpa Concert Center, which was built in the middle of the crash, actually, which is a tremendous, huge concert center built of blocks of glass by Olafur Eliasson. And the way the sunlight goes through that, it’s sort of like a multitude of rainbows. It really is gorgeous.
That’s one piece of really dramatic world-class art right in the middle of the city. But I mean, it’s a capital city, but it’s also like a sort of small Yorkshire town a bit like, I don’t know, Huddersfield or something.
So the parliament looks like a county hall in Yorkshire, it has that same kind of stone, which is black, and a lot of those Yorkshire towns have. So, in some ways, it’s an international capital city, on the other hand, it’s just a small town. It’s interesting.
Jo: It does sound interesting. In some countries, I talk to people when we’re talking about there’s so much to do, someone will email me from America and say, “I want to come to England for a week, how do I see everything?” And that’s really difficult.
How long should people go to Iceland for if they want to get a good sense of it because it’s a lot smaller, really, isn’t it?
Michael: Well, it is. But if you’ve got time, the best thing to do is to drive.
Basically, there’s only one road in Iceland that goes around the outside. So, the best thing to do is do a trip around that. And you could easily spend two or three weeks doing that because there are all these tiny little byways and there’s a lot of really dramatic scenery to see. So, you could spend two weeks there.
The problem with it is it’s quite expensive. In a way, it’s the kind of place to go for four or five days, maybe spend a couple of days in Reykjavik and then hire a car and drive…I would say drive to this place I described in the North Snæfellsnes, which is a peninsula 100 kilometers north of Reykjavik.
That’s a two-hour drive, which is doable, and then you can stay there and then there’s a lot to see there and then come back.
The other thing that a lot of people do in Iceland is what’s called the Golden Triangle, which is to see Gullfoss, which is a massive, very powerful waterfall. Geysir which is a geyser. And the third thing is Thingvellir, which is this outdoor parliament I mentioned earlier, which is in a sort of rift valley with a dramatic gorge, which is where Vikings used to have their annual parliament. And those three are well seen, but they’re very touristy.
Of course, the other thing is the Blue Lagoon, which is a hot lagoon, which is actually artificial. It’s the runoff water from the local geothermal power station. But it is a pretty amazing place, very expensive. And that’s like a massive swimming pool of very hot, steamy water, which is best seen in winter when it’s so steamy you can’t really see beyond it. And that’s very atmospheric there. That’s quite expensive.
Those are the options if you’re going to Iceland, but you can easily spend two weeks there or longer. And I haven’t yet made my way all the way around the island because I’m never able to go for more than four or five days, which is a shame. One day.
Jo: One day! But you have been there a number of times.
How do you keep notes about your trips? And have you any specific techniques for describing places in an evocative way as you have been sharing with us?
Michael: I think one thing that I’ve discovered, I read it in a book once, and it’s one of those things, sometimes you read how to write book and it really sticks, it really works. When describing places, I try and make places seem familiar to people.
I’m not trying to make somewhere sound beautiful. I’m trying to make it so when someone reads a book, they think, ‘Yes, I know that place.’ So, usually, when I go to a new place, like Reykjavik, say, I’ll look out for a couple of things which can act as symbols that I’ll repeat.
In Reykjavik, there are two of them. There’s a mountain called Mount Öskjuhlíð, which is just over the Bay from Reykjavik, and it’s a long, broad mountain but it looks different every time you look at it. Sometimes it’s gray, sometimes it’s white, because the sun is so low there, sometimes it’ll be pink.
If you’re feeling sad, it’ll look gloomy, if you’re feeling happy, it can be blazing golden. And what I tend to do is I mention that early on in the book, and then again, and then again, and then again, describing it in different ways.
I think what happens then is the reader sort of sees Mount Öskjuhlíð to start with and thinks, ‘Okay, that’s fine.’ And then they see it again, they think, ‘Oh, yeah, I remember that mountain.’ And then by the time they’ve seen it for the third or fourth or fifth time, it’s a bit like they’re actually visiting the town, they feel that they know the city.
I find whenever I go to a place, whether it’s big or small, I’m looking for that one symbol of the place which I will pick on and mentioned many times, and I think doing that makes the reader feel familiar with it. So, it’s looking for candidates for what is it that’s going to sum up this place? And normally, it’s something that can be described in different ways by different characters, so it can also, kind of, move the story along.
Jo: I like that because, of course, when you’re visiting at different times of year as you are or the scenes in a book are at different times and different people, the light is different and there’ll be a different emotional resonance.
Michael: Yes. Absolutely. And some people think it’s kind of corny but actually, using weather and landscape to help the way a reader feels the atmosphere of the story they’re reading is very effective. It’s so true to life.
Iceland is an incredibly atmospheric place.
And if you go there and walk around the place…I felt like I could feel the ghosts or if you’re walking through that berserkers’ lava field, you actually being there are really feeling something from the atmosphere. And so when you’re reading a book, I think it’s important and perfectly valid and legitimate to transfer that mood onto the characters and how they feel about what’s going on in the story.
Jo: And actually, somewhere sort of incredibly different as Iceland, the landscape itself is a character. So, it has to be evoked in that way.
Michael: Yes. And it’s a character that changes. I’m sure it’s true of the books you write too. But these characters change, the landscape changes and the characters do. So yes, that’s definitely true.
Jo: And then, importantly, food and drink because when I travel, you have to try some of the local stuff, but it’s always good to get a view of what is worth trying and what is best avoided.
Michael: Well, they come in two families, food and drink. There’s the traditional Icelandic fare. And if you remember, I was saying Iceland was a very poor country with people sitting out the winter in turf huts, so their food wasn’t that great.
The local specialties are things like boiled sheep’s head, sheep’s testicles, or the worst one is fermented shark, which is shark which has been left to rot for six months. Because before it’s left to rot, it’s poisonous, it’s Greenland shark, but then if you leave it for long enough, then it all turns to ammonia.
If you eat that, it sort of blows your sinuses out. And you’re supposed to have that with something called Crendon, which is an Icelandic spirit, which also blows your sinuses out, but the combination is quite good. So, that’s the traditional thing, which of course, they still push and still eat.
So, the lamb and the fish is really good and some of the high-priced restaurants have extremely good fish and lamb with some local samphire, for example, which can be good. The vegetables are a bit dodgy, they all come from greenhouses which are geothermally heated so they’re all right, or else they’re imported from Spain or something and they’re not all right. So the vegetables aren’t so good, but the lamb and the fish is very good.
Jo: Any spirits or local beer? What do they drink in a local tipple?
Michael: It’s really not very good for that, they didn’t even allow beer until, I think, the 1980s. Scandinavian countries sadly suffer from alcoholism and have done for centuries. So, the Icelandic response to this was to ban alcohol, essentially, until quite recently, which means that they don’t really have much of a local drink culture apart from this Brennivin, which is basically moonshine, which they would ferment on their farms.
The beer-drinking started in the ’80s and there were 2 or 3 classic lagers. More recently, in the last few years, they started the microbrewery thing. And because Icelanders are quite enthusiastic about that stuff, some of that is actually quite good. This might change quite soon.
I wouldn’t be surprised if in 5 years’ time or 10 years’ time they actually have some pretty good microbrewery type beer. The beer is incredibly expensive, too. One rule if you go to Iceland, never ever buy a round. It’ll set you back 35 quid. The Icelanders looked at me like I was nuts. So basically, in Iceland, everyone buys their own drink.
Jo: Right. Well, that’s good to know. But it is interesting because, of course, with the purity of water kind of coming off the ice and the glaciers and things, you would expect some kind of whiskey and beer and things where the purity of the water is part of the process. I wonder if that will happen over time because as you said, it’s quite an entrepreneurial culture, isn’t it?
Michael: Yes. It’s interesting, this purity water thing, and the Icelanders have started trying to sell that and it sounds pure. But when you think about it, there are basically two types of water in Iceland.
There’s the stuff that comes out of the shower, which comes from geothermal places. And so in Reykjavik, if you have a shower in Reykjavik, you smell slightly of sulfur. The whole city smells slightly of sulfur. It’s not dangerous, but it’s not super pure.
I was very taken by the idea of this pure water coming from for glacier until someone pointed out that water fell to snow 10,000 years ago and it’s been sitting around, grit and grime, and so they have to filter it, essentially, and then give it to you as glacier water.
The fact it’s 10,000 years old doesn’t make it super clean. I’m always a bit skeptical of Iceland glacier water, but they did do a good job of marketing it.
Jo: I was going to say, tourist marketing is a good way forward!
Apart from your own books, what are a couple of books that you recommend either set in Iceland or about Iceland?
Michael: The main ones are the sagas. These were stories that were told about 1,000 years ago and written down about 800 years ago. And they’re mostly about the settlers of the Vikings who came to Iceland then, 1,000 years ago, and it’s about their families, and saga means saying a story but obviously our word ‘saga’ comes from the Icelandic sagas.
I was a bit nervous about reading those to start with because medieval literature can be a little dull sometimes. They’re actually very taught thrillers, the characterization is great. What goes on is exciting, and the people’s thing really real. Especially in modern translations because in the original Icelandic, they’re full of short sentences like a modern British or American thriller, and those are really good.
So the most famous one is Njal’s Saga. Njal was a lawyer. And it’s essentially a legal thriller set in the 970s. It’s really good. I recommend that one.
There was a book called Independent People, which is Iceland’s greatest work of literature by Halldór Laxness who won the Nobel Prize. And that’s about this very independent farmer called Bjartur, who is a really tough guy living in about 1920 who just puts up with all kinds of misery and yet fights on through it and he has the true Icelandic spirit.
And actually, sometimes it can be a bit of a struggle to read, but it can be extremely funny. It’s one of those books once you’ve read it…and I’ve read it twice. Once you’ve read it, you’re really glad you read it. And I got more out of it the second time.
And then the third thing I should mention is, for such a small country, there are a number of really, really good crime writers. Arnaldur Indriðason won an International Dagger in…Crime Writers’ Dagger in 2005 for one of his books. But there’s three or four others, Ragnar Jónasson, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, and Lilja Sigurdardóttir and an Englishman called Quentin Bates who has an Icelandic wife.
Those write really good interesting crime novels set in Iceland, which they also seem to think is a good backdrop. So, I’d recommend any of those.
Jo: If people want to get started with your Iceland crime series, which book should they start with? Tell us a bit about that.
Michael: Well, the first one is Where the Shadows Lie. When I decided to write my first book about Iceland, I thought, what’s a really big kind of story…this is, sort of, verging into your territory as J.F. Penn…a bit like The Da Vinci Code, where there’s some sort of big myth that I could apply to this small country?
And the obvious thing seemed to be Lord of the Rings, and what if Lord of the Rings was inspired by saga? And that was a lost saga that someone discovers and gets murdered for. Of course, with a bit of research, I found out that Lord of the Rings was inspired by saga and that Tolkien was an expert on Iceland and on the sagas himself. And so it was one of those things where reality neatly fit into my plan for a novel.
So, basically, it’s about a lost saga, which Tolkien used to write Lord of the Rings, which is discovered in Iceland today, and people get slightly overexcited about it. So, that’s the first in the series, Where the Shadows Lie. And it introduces Magnus as he comes…he’s an Icelandic American. So, he’s an Icelander who’s working as a homicide cop in Boston and then he moves back to Iceland, and that’s his first case.
Jo: That sounds great. And you have this website now, Writing in Ice.
Tell people what they can find there and where else they can find you online.
Michael: Writing in Ice is on WritingInIce.com. I’ve done so much research over the last 10 years about Iceland and I thought maybe I can make that more freely available. And I realized that if I did that through the eyes of a crime writer…what a crime writer needed to do in order to research a country, it’d be quite a nice perspective of a way of writing, essentially, travel books.
So, it’s a blog and I will probably turn it into a book where I go through how I decided to write about Iceland and all the ways that I learned about the country, its history, its people, traveling around, looking at the different settings in which I was going to set the stories, the different kinds of people I met there, the different characters.
And otherwise, I have my website, MichaelRidpath.com, which has all my Iceland books and all the others I’ve written, which are piling up.
Michael: They are indeed. Well, thanks so much for your time, Michael. That was great.
Jo: Thanks very much, Jo. I enjoyed it.