2 August 2009 0 Comments

The Snow Queen of Crime: Monica Kristensen’s Writing Life


On a recent trip to Oslo, I lunched with my publisher there Hakan Haket and an astonishingly fascinating local crime writer named Monica Kristensen. Extraordinarily charismatic, she has a trove of stories unlike anything one tends to come across in typical book chats. A Norwegian with a doctorate in glaciology from Cambridge University, Monica has led polar expeditions to retrace the route of her countryman Roald Amundsen to the South Pole. Out on the ice, she’s eaten dog meat – “chewy” – and polar bear meat – “smelly” – out of necessity. She also forced her way into the extremely macho world of polar exploration and, as a tall, striking blonde, became one of the most well-known and controversial scientists in Scandinavia. Over lunch she entertained me with her latest research on the tragic trip to the South Pole of Capt. Robert Scott, one of the last untarnished heroes of the British Empire. At least, he is now–until Monica writes a book on him, which I’m quite sure would cause enormous controversy in Britain…Though I’m sworn to secrecy about what she’s dug up on him.

Before you Nordic crime fans rush out to find her books, note that her work is yet to be published in English. I’ve decided that I’ll include on this blog writers whose work isn’t available in English. I want readers to be able to compare the way writers live when they work in a “small” language like Norwegian, as opposed to English-language writers who have such a large natural readership. It’s something that I find very interesting as I travel Europe, meeting other writers and talking about their lives. I should add that Hakan rates Monica’s crime novels (which are set on a small island above the Arctic Circle called Svalbard where Monica lives part of the year) as the best of the current crop of Nordic crime writers—and he knows good crime fiction (He publishes me in Norwegian, after all!) Sharp-eyed publishers looking for a wonderful discovery in the burgeoning Nordic crime subgenre ought to contact Monica’s agent Eva Haagerup at Leonhardt & Høier in Copenhagen (eva@leonhardt-hoier.dk).

How long did it take you to get published?

Since I am a well known person in Norway, I have never had any problems getting published. This may not be an advantage. Resistance is necessary to develop writing skills.

Would you recommend any books on writing?

Accomplishment in writing is a craft as well as a talent. You really do benefit from criticism as well as encouragement. However, there is no recipe, so my advice is to look for books that you feel will inspire. If pressed, I would recommend “Creating Unforgettable Characters” by Linda Seger

What’s a typical writing day?

My writing day is quite organized. I get up early (about six thirty) to spend some time with my seven year old daughter before school. We cycle there and I exercise when I get back home. Then I sit down at the desk and work till about three o’clock (including a brief lunch break). I stop around four and spend time with my daughter. If I feel like it, I work for an hour or two after six o’clock. I love writing, so I have to stop myself from working during the weekends. But I allow myself to read relevant material, do research or note down ideas in a little black book that I carry with me everywhere.

Plug your latest book. What’s it about? Why’s it so great?

My latest book is “Operation Fritham”, published in Norway in June this year.
A small group of war veterans is gathering on Svalbard to commemorate a tragic incident during the Second World War – Operation Fritham. Germans, Norwegians and British former soldiers are present. But tensions among the former enemies are nothing compared to the difficulties Knut Fjeld experiences when he discovers that a civilian, a murderer, has taken the identity of one of the old soldiers and hidden among the veterans.

I particularly like this book because I feel that I have been able to describe the claustrophobic atmosphere in northern Norway in 1941, during the first part of the war – when the Third Reich in secrecy prepared an invasion of the northern Soviet Union across the Norwegian and Finnish borders. Nearly two hundred thousand German and Austrian soldiers occupied the county of Sør-Varanger with a pre-war population of about ten thousand. In the middle of a cauldron of soldiers, spies of various nations, traitors and quislings, one decent country police officer is fighting a desperate battle to protect the innocent and reveal the identity of a cold blooded murderer. Fifty years on, Knut Fjeld finds his old files and continues his quest for justice.

How much of what you do is:
a) formula dictated by the genre within which you write?
b) formula you developed yourself and stuck with?
c) as close to complete originality as it’s possible to get each time?

I would say that I float freely when the writing is good. No gravity, just splendid views over a fantasy landscape. I hardly ever think formula. I must therefore choose alternative c).

However, I am aware of the requirements of the crime fiction genre and try to respect the expectations of my readers. Stretching the envelope of genre must not be felt as a disappointment for the reader.

What’s your favorite sentence in all literature, and why?

I do not have a favorite sentence, unless “Let there be light” from the Book of Genesis can count? There are so many brilliant descriptions and sentences, Ernest Hemingway, Ray Bradbury, Somerset Maugham, Anton Chekhov, Graham Greene … perhaps Jorge Luis Borges will do as an example – in the poem “The watcher”; “The door to suicide is open, but theologians assert that, in the subsequent shadows of the other kingdom, there will I be, waiting for myself.”

What’s the best descriptive image in all literature?

Two images spring instantly to mind: The book of Revelation in the New Testament and Dante’s Inferno. But Tolkien has many, as well as Herman Neville (Moby Dick) and Joseph Conrad (Heart of Darkness)

Who’s the greatest stylist currently writing?

I simply can’t choose. And I feel that it would be a bit unfair, since I mainly read thrillers and crime fiction. But I will try anyway: Doris Lessing. She writes with confidence and passion.

Who’s the greatest plotter currently writing?

Again there are so many, but my favorite is John Le Carré. I would love to meet him.
How much research is involved in each of your books?
I do a lot of research for all my books, even if I am now writing crime fiction from Svalbard – and I have lived there for seven years. But I do like to be exact and correct in my writing. This is perhaps due to my background as a scientist.

Where’d you get the idea for your main character?

My main character, Knut Fjeld, is a man that will eventually (in book seven of a series of twelve books) become the head of the police force on Svalbard – the Sysselmann. This position is also the same as Governor of the Norwegian high Arctic, directly placed under the Norwegian King.

I am writing about police work and murders most gruesome committed close to the North Pole, in the world’s northernmost communities, occupied mainly by coal miners, scientists, tourists and adventurers.

Do you have a pain from childhood that compels you to write? If not, what does?

There is pain in everyone’s childhood – as well as in mine. But it is the joy and inspirations of childhood that inspires me to write. I loved reading and was encouraged to write my own stories from a very early age – by my parents, teachers and the librarian in the small town I grew up in.

What’s the best idea for marketing a book you can do yourself?

I am appallingly bad at marketing; don’t know the first thing about it. So it would seem that the best I have done so far is to get to know an author named Matt Rees and get myself interviewed on his web site.

What’s your experience with being translated?

Translations into the Scandinavian languages do not count, since they are very similar to Norwegian (except Icelandic). But I have difficulties with my own texts being translated into English. Since I have lived in UK for a total of seven years, I have developed an English persona, and it is very different from the Norwegian one. I would not tell a story the same way in English. What works best is to shut my eyes and let the translator get on with it.

Do you live entirely off your writing? How many books did you write before could
make a living at it?

I do not live entirely off my writing. I also work as a glaciologist and climate scientist. I find that the two professions go well together. I tend to become restless after a period of writing, and the strict logic of science is refreshing after the exhilaration of creativity.

How many books did you write before you were published?

I was published with my first book, but I had been writing for about thirty years by then (I made my first poem when I was five). However, I must stress that I do not consider resistance from a publisher to be a bad thing. If I had struggled more to get it published, maybe my first book would have been different, perhaps better.
In all, I have written six books, and I am currently working on number seven (a documentary about a mining accident in the Arctic).

What’s the strangest thing that happened to you on a book tour?

I am in two minds about book tours; I love to get in contact with readers, but get very tired of talking about myself. Nothing very strange has happened to me on book tours, but I have been mistaken for an employee in a book store when I was there to sign my books. I actually liked that, being for once so anonymous.

What’s your weirdest idea for a book you’ll never get to publish?

I regard creating new ideas as one of my strong sides. I see stories in my surroundings most days. My type of creativity feels like a well of storytelling inside my head. I love to create riddles, make people wonder: “Now how could that have happened? And what happens next?”

In answer to your question: No idea is too weird for me to write about. After all, when I was young, I read a lot of science fiction short stories – and because of the nature of this literature, these stories had to be instantly good to capture skeptical readers immediately.

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