Michael Ridpath is the author of eleven books. Born in Devon, he grew up in Yorkshire and
was educated in Somerset
and Merton College Oxford. His early career was as a credit analysist and later
a bond trader , subsequently he joined a venture capital firm. During this latter period he wrote his first
novel Free to Trade. After publication of this first book he went on
to write seven further thrillers set in the world of business and
finance, but his last three books have been set in Iceland, and I wanted to ask
Michael what prompted this change in direction.
Q Michael, you have just
published Meltwater, the third book
in your Icelandic series featuring Magnus Jonson. What prompted you to set your
books in Iceland?
I decided to write a crime series, I realised that my detective would have to
be distinctive. I could have given him a
peg leg, an eye patch and a parrot, but I decided rather than that I would have
him live in a foreign country. A strange
country. A distinctive country.
had visited Iceland
in 1995 on a book tour and found it an extraordinary and exhilarating
place. I decided then that one day I
would like to set a book there. So Iceland was the
first country that popped into my head, unanalysed. I tend to overanalyse things, so I spent the
next month trying to think of somewhere else, but Iceland was always my favourite,
even though I knew very little about the country. So I spent another month researching the
country, its society, its history, its people and its literature, and I was
fascinated. Four years on, I still am,
Q I have read references to
Magnus Jonson being ‘an honest cop in a corrupt society.’ Where did Magnus
Jonson come from? Is he purely from your
did come from my imagination, but he didn’t spring from there whole. Having decided I wanted to write about a cop
I then had a problem. I am not
Icelandic, and I don’t speak the language.
Also I wanted to write about what I as an outsider find extraordinary
much of which would seem unremarkable to a native. Yet my cop had to speak the local language or
he wouldn’t have much of a clue about what is going on.
I came up with Magnus. He was born in Iceland, and hence speaks Icelandic, but
followed his father to America
when he was twelve. After his father was
murdered, Magnus decided to become a policeman.
Twelve years later, he is a homicide detective in Boston when he is asked to transfer to Reykjavík
on secondment. This all sounds a bit
complicated, but it made Magnus real, at least to me. And that’s a good place to start.
The sagas play quite a part in the
stories. Have you read many of the sagas? And as I realise many of them are
1000 years old have you seen any of them in their original form?
love the sagas. I have read eight of them so far.
They have a very modern feel: the characters are deftly developed and the
plots are great. I would say that they are as good as modern thrillers,
except that you get the odd baggy bits of repetition, and it's a bit
difficult to keep track of exactly who is who. I usually enjoy them more
on the second reading. Njals Saga
is my favourite, followed by the Saga of
the People of Eyri. The Greenland
Saga and the Saga of Erik the Red
are fascinating since they describe the discovery of America 1,000 years ago.
Definitely a book in that.
I have seen the sagas in their original
form. They are on display in the Cutural Institute on Hverfisgata in Central Reykjavik. I would highly recommend a
visit: the exhibition doesn't take long to see, but is very memorable.
Q. Did Meltwater change during the writing process, or did it pan out
exactly as originally planned?
A. Meltwater panned out more or less as I
had planned it. I spend 3-4 months
planning and researching before I start writing, so I had a pretty good idea of
how things were going. I often pause
about a quarter of the way through to see how the characters and the plot are
developing, and I made some changes then.
But those changes, if anything, brought the book closer to how I
originally envisioned it.
Q This new series is a far
cry from your books with a money trading background. It is frequently said:
‘write what you know’. What prompted you
to make this move from a money trader hero to a policeman?
think ‘write what you know’ is excellent advice for your first novel, and of
course many authors continue to write what they know throughout their
career. But as I changed and the financial
world changed, I found I knew less about it.
More importantly, I liked the idea of writing about what I didn’t know about. And indeed it has been enormously stimulating
to try to find out as much as I can about a brand new country, brand new at least
Q Although your early books
were standalone thrillers set in the world of business, the last two before the
Icelandic series featured Alex Calder, a money trader who just wants to fly
planes. Alex is a marvellous, well-fleshed
out character. Was it difficult to drop him
and try something completely new? And are we likely to see Alex again? Personally, I hope so!
A. I liked Alex Calder too. The problem is, I really don’t like his
world, the world of banking, any more. I
might get over that and write about him again one day. If I do it will because I suddenly see a way
of doing it that interests me.
Q From what I understand
money trading is a very lucrative business – though maybe not as much as it
used to beJ. What prompted this
move from money trading to writing? Have
you always just wanted to write?
A. I always admired writers, but assumed I
wasn’t good enough to be one. I was
surprised and gratified to discover that I could write thrillers. I actually enjoyed working in the City in my
twenties. Trading bonds, trying to
outwit the market, was fun. But managing
departments of prima donnas didn’t look fun.
I suppose I am saying I’m glad I did it, but I’m also glad I’m not doing
you have a regular working day?
do. Discipline is obviously important
for anyone who is planning to type a hundred thousand words twice. I always keep the morning free and write a
minimum of 1,000 words and a maximum of 2,500.
That way a book will eventually get written. A routine is good; otherwise you constantly
have to decide, ‘shall I write today?’, and give other people a vote.
Q What's your favourite part of the writing
A I like every part. Indeed the cycle of research, planning,
writing, rewriting, copyediting and publicising, means that just as I am
getting fed up of one aspect of the process, there is something else to move on
to. It is wonderful after correcting
hyphenation in one book, to move on to a blank sheet of paper for the next.
embarking on a new book, what area of the book
challenges you the most?
A Pace. I need to try to feel myself in the skin of
the reader, and make her want to turn the page.
Q Are you in anyway
influenced by other writers? Who are
your favourite authors?
used to be heavily influenced by Dick Francis, but that’s less true now. When I read thrillers or crime novels, I try
to work out what the writer is doing really well. For example, I have just read a book by Aline
Templeton where she developed half a dozen fascinating and complex characters,
and deftly revealed them bit by bit as the book progressed. That has influenced the way I am writing the
book I am working on now.
Q As you know I am keen to
promote new writers, so have you any golden tips for them?
A Rewrite. It is by rewriting that you learn. And in order to be published, a first time
novel must not just have promise, it must fulfil that promise, so it needs to
be polished. Also make the first
scene the best scene.
long did it take you to get published?
was very lucky. I sent the manuscript of
my first novel, Free To Trade, to
pairs of agents. The second name on my
list, Carole Blake, invited me round for a cup of tea, and asked me if she
could represent me. I thought it over
for two or three seconds and said ‘yes’.
She was brilliant.
Q I have to admit that reading
the book I struggle to get my tongue around some of the names and places. Do you speak Icelandic?
keep trying. In the research phase of
every book I write, I do half an hour’s Icelandic every day. It’s a really hard language: the grammar is
similar to Latin, but more difficult.
But there are some lovely phrases.
For example “Hvalreki” means “Beached Whale!” which is what you cry if
you have just had a stroke of luck. What
could be luckier than to wake up and find a whale beached on the shore outside
Thanks, Michael, for taking the time to share with us the background to your