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Wednesday 2 March 2016

Quentin Bates


Lynne Patrick talks to Quentin Bates

A useful piece of advice often given to aspiring writers is, do some living
before you start writing, then you’ll have a pool of knowledge and experience to draw on.
Quentin Bates picked up that advice and ran with it. A decade living in Iceland saw him working as a netmaker, a factory hand and a trawlerman, and he also acquired a wife and family before returning to England, at least part-time; he still sees Iceland as his other home.
Back in the UK, fishing and later teaching, and now journalism and translation work eventually made room for fiction, and his series set in Iceland and featuring police sergeant Gunnhildur Gísladóttir, now runs to seven titles.

Lynne:  I’m sure a lot of people will be as intrigued as I am – why Iceland? It’s not the first country that comes to mind for a gap year, much less a whole decade. How did it come about?
Quentin:  It was a series of coincidences that took me up there to start with. Then I found I hadn’t done all that well in my A levels, so there was no university place to go to. Well, I suppose I could have tried to swing it, but it was probably as well that I didn’t. Anyway, I thought I’d stay a few more months, then until the spring, and so on.

Lynne:  I gather you have an Icelandic nickname, and that there’s a story behind it?
Quentin:  Graskeggur: that’s the name I use for my website, etc. It means Greybeard. My wife’s grandmother always struggled with my odd name, and so one day she came to the door and said, ‘It’s you, Greybeard.’ I liked it and decided to keep it for the website, Twitter handle, etc.

Lynne:  I get the impression that you thrive on challenge. Working on a trawler wouldn’t be many people’s choice of career, especially when it’s not in your blood; and it’s extraordinarily difficult for a would-be writer to catch the eye of a publisher. Is the easy nine-till-five simply not your bag?
Quentin:  Even when I did have a nine-to-five job, it was never nine to five. Fishing was great, especially on the bigger boats, as there were so many days or weeks at sea and then a decent slab of time in between trips. So, yes… I suppose I do like a challenge. I always saw writing fiction as a complete mug’s game, mainly because it’s so difficult to get published, and then difficult to stay published. So I had to give it a try.

Lynne:  Authors have to work hard to market their books these days, and you’ve chosen to become involved in a couple of conventions: Shetland Noir last year, and Deal Noir next month. How did that come about?
Quentin:  I’m actually part of Iceland Noir. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Ragnar Jónasson and I were talking over a curry one night and it was mentioned that Iceland didn’t have its own crime festival, which we thought was lacking, but that’s as far as it went. A few weeks later we met again at another event, and it seemed we had all been thinking along the same lines – that if we wanted this to happen, we’d have to do it ourselves. So we did.
We weren’t not exactly involved in Shetland Noir, other than taking part in it, except that we lent them the November date for Shetland Noir last year and it seems likely that we’ll run Iceland Noir every second year from now on and lend the date to someone else in the off year. It looks like we might be doing Hull in 2017, which should be good as Hull is the European City of Culture for that year. Then we’ll be back in Reykjavík in 2018.
I’m not involved in running Deal Noir beyond taking part in it as a guest this year. That’s Susan Moody’s and Mike Linane’s baby, and it should be great.

Lynne:  How large a part does writing fiction play in your life? Take us through a typical day – or week, if you prefer – in your life. 
Quentin:  Ouch. Where do I start? I have a day job as well that is also writing – I’m a nautical journalist; it’s becoming increasingly frantic, not least now that I’ve recently jacked in a day job as a magazine editor to go back to freelancing, so I’m actually busier than ever with that side of things. That’s a seven-to-three-ish job, as I try to tailor my working day to the times the people I need to deal with are working – so European business hours. That has become a seven-day operation now as I have to supply material to one of my customers almost every day. The word count for that isn’t huge, but it does mean keeping ahead of events and staying on top of fish industry politics. The upside is there’s some interesting travel that goes with it, and I’m typing this on a ferry home after a trip to Brittany. It’s a tough life...
I’m also translating books from Icelandic to English, and have to complete three more of Ragnar Jónasson’s books for Orenda Books within the next ten months, so that means producing between 5000 and 10,000 words of translation a week. Unfortunately, my own fiction has been knocked into third place behind all the other commitments for the moment. There’s more to come, but it’s a slow burn at the moment.

Lynne:  Something to look forward to, at least.
How did your first novel, Frozen Out, start in your mind?
Quentin:  I’m not really sure… It went through so many drafts and so many changes before it even got as far as a publisher. The main character, Gunnhildur, was the original protagonist’s sidekick until I realised she was a much more interesting character and he was promptly fired and she was promoted to the lead role. Then the book had to be re-written around the 2008 financial crash, as that took place just as I was working on it and all that turmoil was too interesting not to use as a backdrop.

Lynne:  Who do you write for? Who was the reader in your mind when you first embarked on a novel?
Quentin:  I write for me! If I didn’t find it interesting or entertaining, then I’d never be able to get through it. I write dull stuff all day long, so couldn’t write fiction that doesn’t grab me in some way.
My first attempt at a novel is still tucked away in a drawer, and will stay there. That was written entirely for myself with no expectation that it might be published. It was done to see if I could cope with something of that length and it was a few years before I tried again. On second thoughts, maybe I’ll take a look at it one day and see if there’s anything in there that could be salvaged, although I reckon it would cause a scandal if it were ever published.

Lynne:  Now I’m intrigued! But I won’t ask any more. Instead, I’ll ask this: how do you go about it? Detailed synopsis, character sketches, storyboard ? Or just jump in and let the characters go where they will?
Quentin:  I tend to start with a couple of incidents that might not even make it to the final draft, but which act as a springboard for the rest of it. There’s no detailed synopsis. I did try the planning route, but kept finding myself deviating from the plan every time a new idea came along. So now I just have a handful of waypoints that I know I want to touch on, and find my way from one to the next without knowing exactly what’s coming next.

Lynne:  Do you know how each novel is going to end before you begin?
Quentin:  I knew exactly how Thin Ice was going to end all the way through writing it, right up until I wrote the last few chapters – when it went it went in a completely new direction!

Lynne:  Scandi-noir’ is very much a 21st century phenomenon. Do you see it as different from British and American crime fiction? If so, in what way?
Quentin:  That’s such a difficult question because Nordic/Scandi Noir is such a broad term that encompasses everything from the cosiest of cosy crime right through to luridly brutal. I think what sets Nordic crime apart is the setting, as the Nordic nations are generally very safe, ordered societies in which a murder is such a destabilising event that it shakes everything to its core. That said, there are still dark undercurrents and tensions that aren’t always visible to outsiders, and which also provide fertile ground for a crime story.

Lynne:  Apart from the novelist’s desire to tell a good story, what are you aiming for in a novel? Do you set out to open eyes and minds? Or just to entertain?
Quentin:  I set out to entertain myself. Of course I’d like to open eyes and minds, and there are few issues that I would dearly love to get to grips with in fiction, but haven’t yet figured out how to go about it.

Lynne:  Is there anything you wouldn’t write, any line you wouldn’t cross?
Quentin:  Anything that involves violence against children is a line I’d find it very difficult to cross. I don’t think I could write about that and sleep at night. I’m not keen on blood and guts, especially if they’re there for their own sake, so all the violence in my books tends to be short and sharp. I don’t see a need to describe it in detail and often what the author doesn’t say is as effective as what actually goes on the page.
There are a few bugbears I have. I wouldn’t have a lawyer or an author as a protagonist. There’s something about lawyers as investigators that doesn’t do it for me, and I’m not entirely sure why; and books featuring authors just seems wrong, somehow.

Lynne:  If your series were taken up for TV, who would you see playing  Gunnhildur?
Quentin:  I’d really like to see her played by an Icelandic actress, Guðlaug Ólafsdóttir, for example.

Lynne:  Tell is about your most recent novel, Thin Ice?
Quentin:  It’s a little different, partly because it’s as much about the bad guys as about Gunnhildur. Two fairly inept criminals take their lives in their hands when they rob another criminal, but things immediately go wrong for them when their escape to the sun goes haywire.  They panic and carjack two women, forcing them to drive out of the city, and wind up in a mothballed hotel.  Gunnhildur is tasked with a missing persons enquiry, and her

colleagues look into the death of a petty criminal in a house fire, while the four fugitives unwillingly get to know each other in the hotel. The two criminals want to get out of the country as fast as they can, preferably taking with them the bag of money, and the tensions escalate as the snow falls. So while they plot to get out of the country, Gunna is searching for the two carjacked women and the underworld is looking for the two men.

Lynne:  What’s next? Are you working on a new novel at the moment, or is something else taking up your attention?
Quentin:  At the moment I’m deep in translation. I have three of Ragnar Jónasson’s books to work on this year. Blackout is published this summer and that translation has been handed over to the publisher, so I’m waiting for edits to come back. I’m into Broken right now, but will have to put that aside for the Blackout edits. After Broken there’s another book, and the English title hasn’t been finalised yet. The three of them add up to around 200,000 words, so that’ll keep me busy for a while. There is another Gunnhildur story on the go as well, and I’m working on that when I can. There are a couple of other things I’m itching to get to grips with, one of which calls for deeper research than I usually do, so that’ll have to wait until I have time to do some in-depth digging.

Lynne:  Quentin, thank you for taking time out of your hectic schedule to answer my questions.

Quentin Bates’s Gunnhildur Gísladóttir series is published by Constable:
Frozen Out
Cold Comfort
Chilled to the Bone
Cold Steal
Thin Ice
Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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