I had the amazing pleasure of interviewing Quentin Bates, author of Chilled to the Bone. He is an amazing crime fiction writer and an a great human being. He agreed to be interviewed right away and since then we have exchanged many emails. You can go and say hi to him over Twitter as well and see how nice he is. Meanwhile, here’s the interview. Enjoy!
1. You say in your biography that your first novel in the Gunnhildur series grew out of a writing course. Why did you chose to write crime fiction?
I’m not entirely sure. I’ve always been a big reader, but didn’t become a big crime fiction reader until I started writing it. Crime fiction was always there in the background and I’d dip into it, especially European crime such as Simenon and Sjöwall & Wahlöö who I’m still convinced haven’t been bettered.
Anyway, a few years ago I did a writing course, primarily as a way of getting an afternoon off work every week, but that’s another story… The largest chunk of it was to produce a significant body of work and I had expected to do some kind of non-fiction reportage for that. The decision to head for crime was almost a snap decision. The lecturer leading the course, a lady who writes experimental books that I just couldn’t get on with, asked what I was going to do and I replied ‘crime’ without even thinking about it. It was worth it for the look on her face.
2. You are a man writing a terrific, complex and realistic female main character. Why did you choose to create a female detective instead of a male one?
In the initial drafts of the story that eventually became Frozen Out, Gunna was there from the start, but she wasn’t the main character. That role was taken by a male lead who I soon enough realised just wasn’t up to the job. He was all the crime fiction clichés rolled into one grumpy alcoholic lump. He just wasn’t performing and Gunna was a far more interesting character, he was retired and she was promoted.
People have asked me why and how I went for a female lead, almost as if it’s an odd choice. But if a woman writer writes from a male perspective, nobody seems to turn a hair. Getting inside a female head wasn’t as much of a challenge as say, writing from the perspective of a teenager which I think I’d find a lot less easy. I’ve been married for a very long time now and also have two daughters, so I’ve spent the last thirty years in a fairly female-heavy environment and maybe that rubs off.
I’m not completely sure where Gunna came from, as she hit the page pretty much fully-formed. There are certainly bits and pieces of various people in her, plus a dollop of imagination. I’ve also consciously not made her a heavy drinker or a junk food junkie and wanted her to be a relatively normal character facing all the crap that ordinary people face, although I admit I’ve given her a fair bit of extra baggage and probably a few extra grey hairs in the last two books.
But if you think she’s had a hard time of it so far, wait until her mother turns up.
3. In Chilled to the Bone (Gunnhildur #3) characters are not 100% good or bad. They have shades. Is this important to you as a crime fiction writer?
Absolutely, crucial. Black-and-white bad and good characters are the stuff of children’s fiction. Characters are the most important part of any story. That’s what you remember after reading a piece of fiction and the plot can only work if the characters are credible. I can’t connect with evil geniuses who want to rule the world – that’s James Bond territory. Even the nastiest characters need to have some depth, and it’s the conflict or the contrast between good and bad in them that is one aspect of what makes them interesting. I’m sure there are people who are wholly bad on every level, just as there are people who are absolute saints, but both are extremely rare. I can only ever recall meeting one or two people who I felt had no redeeming features whatever, but maybe I’ve just been fortunate in that respect.
4. You are English, have an Icelandic wife, write novels set in Iceland and return there as much as you can. What influence did Scandinavian crime fiction / Icelandic literature have in your works?
Plenty, I’d say. I read a lot of the ancient Icelandic sagas when I was young ( I won’t say how young…) and found them fascinating, so that may be part of the backdrop. As a teenager I plucked a couple of books with odd names of my mum’s bookshelves and was hooked within a few pages. Those were Sjöwall & Wahlöö’s Martin Beck novels, back when they were about the only Nordic crime fiction available in English and extremely niche back then. That was painful, because once I had read all ten of them, we had to wait until the 90s before Miss Smilla and then Wallander showed up in English.
In the years I lived in Iceland I read a lot of Icelandic books, including Iceland’s Nobel prize winner Halldór Laxness, a lot of sea stories, and some I tried and failed to get to grips with. One day I will make another effort to read Thorbergur Thórðarson. I’m sure it’ll be worth it, but maybe I’m still too young to appreciate him…
I also read a good few crime stories translated from Danish and German, so I had read some of this stuff long before it appeared in English, although at the time the top-selling crime stories in Icelandic were mostly translated from English, Hammond Innes and Desmond Bagley, and virtually no Icelandic writers at that time wrote crime.
A few years after I came back to live in England and was scratching a living trying to get established as a freelance journalist, an editor at a London publishing house approached me and asked if I’d read a book by an unknown Icelandic author. He had clearly gone to some lengths to find people who could read Icelandic, and offered me an impressive £50 to read the book and give him a synopsis and an opinion. It was Arnaldur Indriðason’s debut novel, Synir Duftsins (Sons of the Dust). I was honest and said it was OK, but while the characters were interesting, the plot was too far-fetched for my liking.
I’d like to think he took some notice of what I said, as while Synir Duftsins and the next Arnaldur novel, Dauðarósir (Silent Kill), were never translated, that publisher still publishes Arnaldur’s books in English today.
It’s hard to say which, or any, of these are exactly influences; maybe not direct influences, as although my stuff falls (I hope) squarely in the Nordic crime bracket, I certainly didn’t set out to imitate any other writer. But a country’s literature, especially its popular literature such as crime fiction, is as important as its landscape or its cuisine in absorbing the feeling for a place, in understanding the thought processes, the prejudices, the politics and working out why people do the things they do.
5. Will Gunna ever get a promotion? Meanwhile, some suggested reading?
Gunna is certainly overdue a promotion as she’s dealing with cases that are way above her pay scale, and considering her track record, she deserves a step up and maybe a quieter life. I’m still mulling it over. Maybe she’ll get bumped up to inspector soon, unless there’s a repeat of the incident in her past (I think it’s mentioned in Cold Comfort) that blighted her prospects of being promoted above sergeant. The people she upset so badly back then should be retired by now, but they could still be influential…
Suggested reading, where to start? Sjöwall & Wahlöö and Simenon go without saying. Current favourites of mine are French writer Dominique Manotti, who I admire tremendously, and Edward Wilson, who crafts outstanding spy stories that beg the question of just how much of what he is relating is actually true.
You can’t go far wrong with Donald Westlake’s books, either those he wrote under his own name or the harder edged stuff he wrote as Richard Stark. I find John le Carré’s books hard to put down. Belinda Bauer writes some magnificent stuff and I’ve also been reading Jean-Claude Izzo’s books, set in Marseilles, that are very engaging but I suspect they are Marmite – you love them or loathe them.
Icelandic stuff, Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir are deservedly at the top of the tree there, but there are also crime writers Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson and Árni Thórarinsson available in English. They are different, evoking their own flavour of Iceland, and then there’s Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites which is a beautifully written fictional account of a real 19th century murder that took place close to where I used to live in the north of Iceland. So there’s plenty to choose from…