Tuesday, 17 March 2015

"Iceland seemed too good not to use..." - Interview with Quentin Bates

Interview with Quentin Bates
by Katarzyna Chojecka-Jędrasiak

Quentin Bates is a British author of crime fiction, whose books are set in Iceland, which feels like another home to him, as he spent there ten years in the 1980s.

Katarzyna Chojecka-Jędrasiak: You come from the south of England. Can you tell us then about your links with Iceland?

Quentin Bates: The links with Iceland go back a long way. I went there in 1980, expecting to stay for a few months as I had been offered a job there for the summer, and ended up staying for ten years. I met my wife there and two of our children were born in Iceland, so the links are very strong... The internet has been a huge help in keeping the links alive. Apart from going there once or twice a year, we can listen to the radio, see some TV and read Icelandic newspapers online. It's a huge difference. Back in the 1970s-80s Iceland was a long way away. Now it seems very close.

Katarzyna Chojecka-Jędrasiak: In your biography you mention quite a lot of jobs you’ve done in your life. Why did you eventually decided to become a writer? Is it something you’ve been dreaming of as a child?

Quentin Bates: I'm not completely sure on this. I think my mum knew long before I did that one day there would be a book with my name on it. I didn't exactly decide to be a writer, although I had already been working as a journalist for quite a few years when I started writing fiction. On the other hand, it had always been at the back of my mind somewhere and for years I had been making notes on strange things that might come in useful one day, without consciously expecting to use those notes in a story. But then it was as if there was a point when for some reason it seemed the time had come to start writing a story, which turned into a long novel that was never published (I think every writer has at least one of these hidden away somewhere). Once I saw that I could manage such a long narrative, crime fiction came next.

Katarzyna Chojecka-Jędrasiak: Is there any author that has influenced you most? Whose prose do you feel closest to?

Quentin Bates: I think everything you read influences you in some way or another. I grew up reading Somerset Maugham and Kipling (who were unfashionable then, and are even more unfashionable now. Incidentally, both of them wrote spy stories, some of the best ever written, in my opinion) as well as Joseph Conrad, John Steinbeck, Anthony Burgess Then came Sjöwall & Wahlöö and Georges Simenon, who are the crime writers I still keep coming back to.

It's difficult to say whose prose I feel closest to, but I admire Simenon's work in particular, especially the way he makes everything seem so effortless, painting a complete picture in a few lines. But I could write a huge long list of writers whose work I admire...

I'm very much aware of the whole Nordic crime genre that has exploded in translation into English, and take care to avoid reading other Nordic writers when I'm working on a first draft, as I really don't want to have anyone else's ideas or style creeping in.

Katarzyna Chojecka-Jędrasiak: Why did you decide to set your novels in Iceland? Do you feel comfortable and sure enough in the cultural context or maybe sometimes some help from your wife’s family or friends is required?

Quentin Bates: Iceland seemed too good not to use. I just knew so much about the place and it seemed wrong not to use all that knowledge and experience. At that time, nobody was writing anything about Iceland and there were only two Icelandic crime writers translated into English (Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir), although there are a few more now. When I started writing Frozen Out, this whole Nordic crime fiction thing hadn't yet happened in English, and Stieg Larsson hadn't yet been published... So I suppose I should have started a year or so earlier to be even more ahead of the game.

I'm very comfortable in writing about Iceland, although I deliberately wanted at least part of Frozen Out to take place outside Reykjavík, as the coastal places are that parts of Iceland that I'm most familiar with, and rural/coastal Iceland is very different to Reykjavík. There were a few headaches when it came to the second book as the publisher wanted that to have a city setting, so I had to do a lot of walking around, checking locations, and I have a few people I can always call on if there's something I need to find out or check on.

Katarzyna Chojecka-Jędrasiak: Gunna the Cop is a very strong, sensible woman. Why did you choose a female protagonist?

Quentin Bates: Almost by accident... In the original first draft of the book, the main character was a male police officer and Gunna was the sidekick, the secondary character. After a while I realised that the main character was a bundle of clichés – OK, I admit I had been reading too many Wallander books... The male character I had created to start with just didn't come to life, while Gunna was a far more interesting character who almost jumped off the page. So I got rid of him and promoted Gunna to being the central character.

Katarzyna Chojecka-Jędrasiak: In “Frozen Out” you relatively often mention Polish workers, usually showing them as not qualified, having language problems and generally being a kind of a problem. Is that how Icelanders see people from Poland? Can you tell us a bit about the contact you’ve had with Polish so far?

Quentin Bates: Iceland went through an economic boom that came to a sudden end when the banks crashed in 2008, and there was a shortage of labour, so immigration filled the gap and a lot of it came from Eastern Europe, not just Poland but also Lithuania, Estonia and a few other places, as well as which there's a sizeable community of people from the Far East. When things went wrong, it was noticeable that a lot of the immigrant labour disappeared immediately. They were getting fewer € for their króna, so I guess most of them may have moved to work in Germany or elsewhere in Europe. But a lot of people stayed and there's a large immigrant population in Iceland.

It has been a problem for Iceland, as until the 80s there were relatively few foreigners living there, and the influx was quite sudden. There are people who are uncomfortable with this, although most people have no real objection to foreigners moving in. There are certainly tensions; not with Polish people in particular, but with newcomers in general, although in general terms these people have been accepted surprisingly quickly and I suppose without them there's a lot of work that wouldn't get done. Some workplaces are overwhelmingly staffed by people from overseas. Poles are seen as people who work hard. It's my guess that in one generation these immigrants will be entirely assimilated and nobody will see any difference.

Then there's the crime... There's a criminal element and it's actually another Baltic nation that has a poor reputation here. Part of the drug trade is controlled by these people and one day it will overlap with the local criminals' activities, which is going to be interesting.

I have a few Polish friends in England who are wonderful people. Plus I have dear friend who is now a very old man, who came from Poland originally, escaping from the Warsaw Ghetto at the age of fourteen, one of the most remarkable people I have ever met. When I wanted to send out some books to people in Poland, I found the Kumiko bookshop on the internet and was hugely impressed with how quick and efficient Małgosia and Angelika at Kumiko were. They did exactly what was needed, right away, and the books were sent the same day.

I'm really hoping that Na Dno sells well in Poland, as I'd really like the opportunity to go there and sign books one day... I've  only been there once, for a very quick work trip, and I'd love to go there again.

Katarzyna Chojecka-Jędrasiak: The next two books from Gunnhildur series are going to be published in Poland this or next year. Can you tell us about them?

Quentin Bates: I still don't know what the Polish titles will be, and as far as I know they are being translated now. Cold Comfort takes place in Reykjavík when a fitness instructor is murdered in her apartment and Gunna has to work out which of her gentlemen friends was responsible for her death. Chilled to the Bone also takes place in Reykjavík, and starts with a man found dead in a hotel after meeting a dominatrix there. Then there's an Icelandic criminal who has recently come home after being in prison abroad, plus a scandal at a government department, and it all comes together, plus Gunna gets the shock of her life... But I can't say too much without giving the plot away.

Then there are a couple more books, plus a short e-book (Summerchill) that's published this year (which has some Polish characters and takes place partly in Poland), and a new full-length novel (Thin Ice) next year that I'm writing at the moment.

Katarzyna Chojecka-Jędrasiak: And the last question. On your website you use a nickname Gráskeggur. Can you reveal how you got it and what it means?

Quentin Bates: Ah.. a problem for me in Iceland is that there's no letter 'Q' in the alphabet. My wife's grandmother always struggled with my strange name, as did so many people... One day she greeted me by saying 'Góðan daginn, Gráskeggur' which means 'Good morning, Greybeard.'

OK, I have beard, and it was starting to go grey back then. I liked the name so much I decided to use it for my website, email address, etc. And the beard is a lot greyer now...

Katarzyna Chojecka-Jędrasiak: Thank you a lot for the interview!

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here

Tuesday, 3 March 2015

Readers have been very surprised to learn about this part of history...

Interview with Greg Archer 
by Agnes A. Rose

Greg Archer is best known for his award-winning features on agents of change, celebrities, and health and environmental patriots, near and far. His work has appeared in Oprah Magazine, The Huffington Post, San Francisco Examiner, The Advocate, Palm Springs Life, Bust, Prevention, VIA Magazine and other portals. As host of GTv, he frequently covers arts-related events and other red carpet fodder around the United States and Canada. His latest book Grace Revealed: a memoir was released in January 2015. He splits his time between his hometown of Chicago and Palm Springs.

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you so much for your accepting my invitation to this interview. I am very honored to host you here. The American premiere of your book took place a few weeks ago. In “Grace Revealed: a memoir” you describe the dramatic history of your family. The story goes back to the Second World War and refers to the mass deportations to Siberia. Could you tell us what motivated you to write this book?

Bedford (USA) 2015
Greg Archer: Growing up, I always heard stories from my family about some “adventures” they had when they were younger. At first, these stories were about their time in Tanzania, Africa, living in an orphanage. I was very curious. How did they get to Africa? Why were they there? By the time I was in high school, after asking for more details, I learned so much more – that they were among 2 million Polish people deported to Siberia by Stalin. And that after the Poles had been granted an “amnesty” in 1941, they became refugees and somehow wound up in a British-run orphanage in Africa. I felt that this under-reported chapter in history needed to be told; that the Poles should be given justice. I also wrote the book as a kind of catharsis; to heal myself, too.

Agnes A. Rose: I am very interested to find out how your American readers understand your book. Could you tell us about it?

Greg Archer: Readers have been very surprised to learn about this part of history. It’s not in the mainstream. Many people are aware of what Hitler did during the 1940s, but few people are aware of the full extent of Stalin’s wrath and the people it affected. So, there is, first, surprise. I am also finding that my generation – the offspring of those who may have endured this; those now in their late 30s, 40s, and 50s who have an interest in ancestry and genealogy, are particularly curious, too. Because the book also explores my own journey uncovering this information and bringing it to light.

Agnes A. Rose: It seems to me that we sometimes forget a little bit about the mass deportations of 1940s. I think that much more often we talk about the Adolph Hitler’s unimaginable suffering inflicted upon both the Polish people and the entire world. Why is it so? How do you think?

Greg Archer: It’s fascinating to me that to this day, Stalin is often overlooked. My sense is that after Hitler attacked Russia in 1941, and Stalin then decided to align with the Allies to defeat him, that something happened. It was as if the group mind said: “Well, OK, Stalin is going to help us, so let’s not really look at the reality of what he did; let’s just brush it under the rug for now and move on.” In the meantime, he took over Poland, made it a Communist country, for the most part, and I think that, collectively, the Polish people never really had time to rally together and unite on this subject. They, too, swept it under the rug to some extent. Perhaps. I’m just trying to understand it myself. My sense is that because the country was suddenly Communist… and remained so for many decades, that this sort of thing could not be talked about. It is only now, 75 years later, that many stories from that time period are finally coming to light. And as such, Stalin is being exposed for the man he was.

Agnes A. Rose: While reading I very strongly felt your tremendous emotional bond with your grandmother. In my opinion she was a very brave woman. Could you tell us something more about her?

Greg Archer: She was extremely brave. In some ways, I felt haunted and hunted by her. She had a strong will but, from what I understand and have come to know, a very strong faith. I think that is what pulled her through. That is was what helped her keep her children alive.

Agnes A. Rose: I think that it must have been very difficult to you to write this dramatic history relating to your family. Could you tell us what kind of emotions accompanied you while writing?

Greg Archer: We could be here all day. Emotions? I joke. Well, it really felt as if I were re-living the entire intensity and impact of their original experience – from boxcar ride to Siberia, to the labor camps, to being refugees. I feel strongly that past generational unresolved trauma lives within each of us; and that this was my opportunity to bring it to the surface; to excavate it from within and attempt to shift. It’s been a very befuddling and intense journey… but one filled with many blessings, too.

Agnes A. Rose: And what was then? Did you feel a relief after finishing the book?

Greg Archer: Yes. But more so exhaustion. I felt, and to some extent still do, as if something very intense occurred… that I had gone through something. There’s a state of realignment attempting to take place I think.

Polish families deported during the Soviet occupation of Kresy. 
The number of Poles extracted from their homes and sent into barren land in 
Siberia exceeded 1.6 million. 

Agnes A. Rose: How long were you looking for a publisher? Was it easy or difficult?

Greg Archer: I knew of the publisher I chose and I chose them because I knew they could get the book out before Feb. 10 2015. It was important to me to have the book out this year because it was the 75th anniversary of the mass deportations.

Agnes A. Rose: In your book you also describe your trip to Poland and visiting the church in Łąka near Rzeszów where many years ago your grandparents met for the first time. What did you feel while standing inside the church knowing that one day in the same place your grandparents were praying?

Greg Archer: It was rather ethereal… as if the veils of time and space had been lifted; as if they were all there just seconds ago, and suddenly I arrived. Perhaps one of the most cosmic experiences I have ever had.

Agnes A. Rose: Would you like to visit Poland again? What did you like most during your last stay here?

Greg Archer: YES. I would very much like to speak at different places/universities and such, about the book and other things. I would love to visit Zakopane and be there for a while and venture to many villages and towns throughout .I would love to experience Białystok.

Agnes A. Rose: After I had published my review of your book, some Polish readers expressed their regret that they could not read it in Polish. Are there any plans regarding the book publication in Polish? Do you know anything about this?

Greg Archer: There are plans to have it translated and I will keep readers alerted on Facebook and the website. So, hopefully very very soon.

Agnes A. Rose: Let’s talk for a moment about your work. You are also an entertainer and a journalist. You do interviews with the most famous Hollywood celebrities. Could you tell us a little bit about this part of your job?  

Greg Archer: For many years, I wrote, and still do at times, about people who are in film and TV. It’s been illuminating and I try to connect to the person that they are rather than the “celebrity” everybody sees. I have talked to some very fascinating people whose work beyond their celebrity is very intriguing.

Agnes A. Rose: You have just written the book, so now you are an author, too. Are you planning to work on next books in the future?

Greg Archer: Yes. I have another book outlined and plan to dive more deeply into it in the coming months… the central theme is “home” – the idea/feeling/concept of “home.”

Agnes A. Rose: Finally, I would like to ask you about the role of the “signs” in your life. In your book you frequently mention them. Do you really believe in them? Do they lead your life?

Greg Archer: Yes. I do believe in them. I feel led and guided all the time. I think we all are; we just need to be open to see thing I suppose; view things differently. Something like that. For me, I just need to get out of my own way.

Agnes A. Rose: Thank you very much for this conversation. Is there anything you would like to add?

Greg Archer: Thank you so very much. Good to be here.

If you want to read this interview in Polish, please click here
If you want to read the book review, please click here