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More Literary Escapades in Reykjavik

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Friday night, after spending the day showing us around Reykjavik, our tour guide took us out for dinner at Vid Tjörnina with Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. I’m flanked by Romantic Times managing editor Liz French and Yrsa on one side and Publishers Weekly deputy editor Karen Holt and Shelf Awareness editor-in-chief John Mutter on the other. Yrsa was a great sport throughout the weekend, joining us at various points along the tour and cheerfully letting us pose her for pictures with all three of her thrillers at the BMM (Bókabúð Máls og menningar) bookstore. (So far, only the first, Last Rituals, has been translated into English; the second, tentatively titled My Soul To Take—although we all assured the Morrow publicist that the original Icelandic title, Dig Your Own Grave, was much better—is scheduled to be published in late 2008, although a new translator needs to be found after the sudden death of Bernard Scudder, who also did a marvelous job of translating Arnaldur Indriðason for English and American publishers.)

On the way to the airport Sunday, we met with Yrsa one last time at Bessastaðir for an audience with President Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, who talked about how odd it was to him that a society as peaceful as Iceland’s had begun producing an internationally popular strain of crime literature. In his view, though, the plots of these thrillers and police procedurals were largely secondary to the portrait of Icelandic society. “Most murders in Iceland couldn’t fill a short story,” Yrsa agreed, and they both stressed the importance of writing books that first and foremost struck Icelandic readers as authentic, observing that Icelanders had a vigorous literary culture in which people talked avidly about books and authors without the prodding of a professional critical elite. (Yrsa admitted to a certain temptation, after Last Rituals began racking up international sales based on the opening chapters of the incomplete manuscript, to include lots of visits to exotic Icelandic locations to excite foreign readers, but ultimately decided it was worth more to keep the respect of her readers at home.) I asked Ólafur if he had much time to read Icelandic fiction; he tries to make time around his duties, but added that he also enjoys reading American non-fiction for work, admiring the ability of our culture to support in-depth, non-partisan reporting on current affairs and policy issues.

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