interviews / Q&A's

Lilja Sigurðardóttir: The Literary Lounge Q&A


Today, we’re delighted to welcome Icelandic writer Lilja Sigurðardóttir to The Literary Lounge. Her novel, Trap, the second instalment in the Reykjavik Noir Trilogy, is published in the UK by Orenda this month.



LS: Lilja, thanks so much for joining us.

You’re a playwright as well as a crime-fiction writer: which came first? Do you find one form easier than the other?

LILJA: I was a crime writer first. I wrote two crime novels before starting to write for theatre and then went back into crime. Even if these are different mediums I find that the strict form really suits me. A stage play is like a crime novel in the sense that certain things have to happen at certain times if the play or novel is to work out for the audience or reader. I find working these things out and managing form really fascinating.


LS: I believe you’ve written five crime novels and this is the second published in English. Does your background in education feed into the themes you explore?

LILJA: No. I don´t use themes from my previous work. I do benefit from that experience, though. I spent years writing reports, web content and manuals for teachers, so when I started writing fiction I found that I was already good at quickly putting my thoughts down on paper.


LS: Trap is the second novel published in English by Orenda. It’s translated by talented Quentin Bates. Orenda’s translations are seamless and yet your English is fluent, isn’t it? Is it hard to have your work translated by someone else?

LILJA: No, I love it! I love reading my stories in another language as the text changes so much but is still the same. It’s hard to describe. My co-operation with Quentin has been superb, as we not only work together but are also dear friends.


LS: Do you ever write in English or languages other than Icelandic? I believe you lived in Mexico, among other countries, is your Spanish fluent?

LILJA: No, I only write in Icelandic. Both my English and Spanish are conversational and for me to write I need to feel I have the same mastery of the language as I have of my mother tongue. This is why translators are so important. Someone with a mastery of their own language will do a much better job than me with my mediocre knowledge of English.


LS: There are many excellent Icelandic authors, living and dead, in this genre and in others. Is there something, you feel, that is particular to Icelandic literature – something that informs it which makes it different to other Scandinavian writing?

LILJA: Icelanders like to be categorized as Nordic Noir or Arctic Noir rather than Scandi Noir as we have lots in common with Finland, Greenland and the Faroes. I think the common thread in Arctic Noir is the proximity of nature, and the sense that humans are small when faced with the overwhelming harshness of our nature … Icelandic crime authors are so few and each and everyone has done a great job of adding to a genre that is just two decades old in our country … the ones that are available in English translations besides me (as far as I know) are Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Arnaldur Indriðason, Ragnar Jónasson, Árni Þórarinsson and Viktor Arnar Ingólfsson.


LS: I believe you started writing noir after entering a competition. Did you have any interest in it before that? Any favourite writers/books?

LILJA: This is true. My first crime novel was an entry into a competition. I have always loved crime fiction. I think that Enid Blyton really influenced me as a child and so did Agatha Christie, Alistair MacLean, Patricia Highsmith and the Icelander Birgitta H. Halldórsdóttir. As an adult, my favorite author is usually the author of the last really good book I read. Currently it is the Finn Antti Tuomainen.

We love him, too.


LS: Sonja’s an interesting character: she’s someone whose life disintegrates and is forced to do things that she probably would never have contemplated otherwise in order to survive. She’s a very likeable but flawed character who breaks the law. Was she difficult to write? Or did she form herself?

LILJA: Sonja kind of formed herself. My stories always start with the characters and Sonja gradually took form in my head and then the writing process was more about trying to contain her! I like flawed characters as they are more interesting and more human than superheroes who always do the right thing. The reader’s sympathy always sides with Sonja as what she does is done for the right reasons. For love.


LS: What’s the timeframe for the books?

LILJA: Snare came out last year, Trap this year and Cage will be out 2019. Then Orenda books have also bought the rights to a stand-alone thriller that is just out in Iceland. So I am really excited for the times ahead.


LS: The financial crisis and Eyjafjallajökull volcanic eruption inform the books. What kind of impact did they have on Iceland? How do they feed into the mood of your books?

LILJA: The Icelandic financial meltdown had dramatic consequences on the lives of so many people in Iceland and as a result many people started doing things they never had expected to do in order to survive. That kind of situation is ideal as a frame for a crime story: the desperation, the broken promises represented by the abandoned half-built buildings everywhere. The volcanic eruptions that came just after the crash just added to the gloomy atmosphere.


LS: Drugs are also a major theme. Is this a particular problem in Iceland?

LILJA: Iceland has a huge drug problem, as Icelanders seem to be a nation that is very prone to addiction. We have a high rate of alcoholism and all the social problems that come with that. Then, after 2000, hard drugs really started hitting the country badly and now there is the epidemic of opioid abuse. One young person dies a week of an overdose in Iceland. That is a huge toll for a nation of only 330,000 people. So, sadly, the material for stories of the drug trade is really all around in Iceland.


LS: There’s a lot of shame associated with Sonja and Agla’s relationship. Iceland seems to be progressive in terms of gender and sexual rights. Why was it important to you to portray their relationship in this way? Does the relationship impact on Sonja’s subsequent decisions?

LILJA: I just wanted to explore the process of coming to terms with one’s own sexuality, and in the two women we can see how they are dealing with it in different ways. Iceland is a very liberal country regarding LGTB+ people but that doesn’t change the fact that coming to terms with your own sexuality is always a personal struggle. Sonja is OK with it, but Agla is full of shame and doesn’t want to admit that she is a lesbian. So this creates constant conflict in their relationship and as the story progresses with Trap and Cage, readers will see the results.


LS: You recently won the Blood Drop for the third instalment in the trilogy. How important has that been? You’ve won awards before for your writing, but is it any different receiving such accolades from your native country/peers?

LILJA: It was of course very nice to win the Icelandic Crime Awards, the Blood Drop for the Reykjavík Noir Trilogy. It looks very nice in my dining room! I have also won the Icelandic theatre award, Gríman, so now I am just thinking what genre I could win an award for next. This is a joke of course! I am hugely grateful for my success as so many people write great books and still struggle to get recognition. Success is not only about talent and hard work, it is just as much about luck. It is important to remember that.


LS: Snare has been optioned for TV by Palomar Pictures in the States. Will you be involved in its production? You’ve written screenplays before I believe?

LILJA: I don’t know if I´ll be involved in the production. It kind of seems wiser to stay away. As an author you are too close to the subject and therefore bound by an image of it that is might not be helpful in a new medium. I do write screenplays and love it, though, so you never know…


LS: So what’s next? What are you working on?

LILJA: My new stand-alone thriller is just out in Iceland and Trap, book two in the trilogy, is out in English, so I have promotions to do, especially in Iceland as the months of November and December mark the Icelandic Christmas book flood. Books are almost only published in Iceland in the lead-up to Christmas, so it is a very important season for Icelandic writers.


LS: We’re fascinated with the idea of jólabókaflóð (the book flood) in Iceland and the lovely tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the evening reading. What a brilliant way to spend time with loved ones. That’s definitely a tradition we’d like to adopt.

Lilja, thank you again for spending time with us in The Literary Lounge. We loved the book and wish you every success.


Trap | Orenda Books | October 2018 | paperback | £8.99 | other editions available

See review: Lilja Sigurðardóttir’s Trap, #ReykjavikNoirTrilogyBook2


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Acknowledgements: This Q&A is published as part of the Trap virtual book tour, along with a review of the book (forthcoming). Many thanks to the author for sparing us the time, lovely Anne Cater for organising the tour and the publisher for supplying a book proof. All thoughts and opinions are our own. Image courtesy of the publisher.


Select The Literary Lounge Q&As/interviews:  ‘Tom Cox’; ‘Vanda Symon; ‘Gunnar Staalesen’; Some like it hot – the joy of Carole Mortimer, award-winning novelist‘; Gina Kirkham;John Fairfax’; ‘Ian Ridley’;  ‘David Stuart Davies’.

Music:  ‘Gwyneth Herbert’s Letters I Haven’t Written‘;Amethysts and flowers on the table, the beauty of Sufjan Stevens’ Carrie and Lowell‘; ‘Dreams of love’, Bert Jansch’

Select reviews: ‘Beautiful words – The Language of Secrets‘;‘Chris Whitaker’s mad, mad world – Tall Oaks’; ‘Beauty in translation – Roxanne Bouchard’s French Canadian noir’; ‘Johana Gustawsson’s Keeper – indie publisher Orenda does it again‘; ‘We should all be feminists’; ‘Jane Harper’s stylish debut – The Dry’; ‘Mallory an old-style hero – It Happens in the Dark by Carol O’Connell’.

Film: The Private Life of Sherlock Holmes (1970) – a Billy Wilder classic?; Night Mail (1936), changing the face of British film; A Colour Box by Len Lye (1935); The Splendour of George Stevens’ Giant (1956).


This review is © 2018 by The Literary Shed. All rights reserved. All opinions are our own. We welcome your feedback and comments. If you wish to reproduce this piece, please do contact us to request permission. Thank you so much.




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