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

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