I am Helgason. Bukowski was first and foremost a poet. I am more of a novelist. Besides I don’t drink as much as he did. But I like him. His book, Pulp, was an inspiration for Toxic.
You are also a poet, a painter and a radio T.V. producer. What does being an artist mean today in Iceland?
It’s the only “public figure” people can count on these days. The bankers, lawyers, businessmen and politicians are all damaged goods. People don’t trust them anymore. They ruined the reputation of Iceland. Poets, musicians and artists are the only ones who can restore it.
I wrote a small piece at the end of high school, 19 years old. But I wasn’t ready then. I wrote a small book in 1984 that has never been published. I forced myself to write a novel at the age of 29. It was not that good but it made me start writing. I found my narrative voice with the second novel, in 1994.
What did you write at the beginning?
Descriptions of life as I saw it.
What kind of student were you?
I was always the best, until high school, when I lost interest. And then I never went to university.
What kind of relationship did you have with your parents? Were there art and culture inside your family?
In a small way. My grandmother’s sister was a respected artist in her day, a bit Cézannesque painter of landscapes and still lives. Then the brother of my grandmother on my father’s side was is well known composer. I come from a middle class family in the suburbs. My parents studied in Copenhagen and Danish culture was predominant in the household. I have always had a very good relationship with them. They never complained about my choices and always supported me. My father was an engineer and my mother was a kindergarten teacher. I did art classes from the age of 7, but still I always thought I would become an engineer like my father. Until I had to admit that I was an artist. I think, in my art, I have tried to combine the hard eye of the engineer with the tender heart of the kindergarten teacher.
What do you think about your child-hood and adolescence?
It was very normal and without any disasters. I did art-classes, watched football games and practiced alpine-skiing 4 times a week. I was quite happy, until I got bored with school and the suburbs, and wanted to live downtown and become an artist. Physically, I was a late bloomer, and shy towards girls and stuff like that. I also did 6 summers out in the countryside, “working” on farms, from the age of 9-15. And this experience had a profound effect on me.
You have been in Paris for five years. What do you remember about it?
The beautiful architecture, the endless bullshitting of the French intellectuals, and the food that was as difficult for my stomach as the language was for my ears.
Are there cities you particularly love?
I was in Seoul last spring. I loved it. Very energetic and efficient. A true adventure. The city of the future. I love Rome, where I stayed one summer to write a strange book about God. I quite liked the relaxing post-colonial decay of Maputo, Mozambique. I also love New York where I lived for three years. Moscow is charming in a rather brutal way. Oslo is the hottest city of the North. Venice, Prague and Krakow I will always remember. But the city of all cities has to be Istanbul.
I think New York was crucial. Manhattan was my university. There I learned a lot about expressing myself. I developed my humor by watching Letterman and stand up comedy, and I was also very much fascinated with African American culture, rap, hip-hop and Michael Jackson. And spending an hour every day for three years reading The New York Times was a great school of writing.
What did you feel and where were you when your first book was published?
I sort of missed out on the publication for I was living in Paris at the time the book came out in Iceland. But it was an important step for me.
Did you always know you would be a writer?
From the age of 19, yes. But I was an artist from the age of 7, so I knew this could be problematic. I was a painter between the age of 20-30. I was a painter and a writer from 30-40. Now I’m 51 and I hardly do any art anymore. I miss it.
What are the writers you like most?
Nabokov, Shakespeare, Wilde, Singer and Philip Roth.
What are your favorite Icelandic young writers? What time of lifetime do they narrate?
I’m still waiting for my favorite ones.
What are the Italian writers that you read in Iceland?
Umberto Eco, Niccoló Ammaniti and some others. I read Roberto Saviano’s book about the Mafia. It was really good.
When you start writing a novel, do you firstly write a detailed plot or start with the characters?
I have to have the characters. I have to know them, what they are about, what their names are etc. Then I also have to have some idea about what the book is about. I often think about novels for years. I was pregnant with 101 Reykjavik for 5 years before I started writing it. I carried Toxic in my stomach for two years.
Do you have notebooks to take notes during the day?
When I am in the middle of writing I use notebooks. I might hear some phrase in a conversation or get an idea while sleeping. I better write them down. But in between books I let the mind sort things out. If I don’t remember an idea, it only means it’s not that good.
Do you listen to music while writing?
Do you read other novels while you are writing?
Mostly I read historical books or other sources of information that can help me with the novel I’m working on. It’s not that good to read novels by other people while you’re working on your own. Still, I often look at Shakespeare or Wilde, just to get the juices flowing.
Did you ever feel afraid of a blank page?
No. The blank page is my most favorite thing in the world.
What time is the best to write? Do you write every day?
In the morning and in the late afternoon. The hours right after lunch can be a bit difficult sometimes. I write every day, like an office clerk. From 9-16.30 when I have the kids. And from 9-19 when I don’t.
How many pages can you write in one day?
From 1.5 and up to 4. When I was young and crazy I could write 14 pages a day. And if I forgot to save them and the computer shut down I just wrote them again the day after.
Do you have charms that bring you good luck?
I have a blog from a young Korean girl, a review of 101 Reykjavik, that says I’m not just the best, but “the sexiest writer in the world”. This I have on my wall and I look at it whenever I feel down and depressed. I also rely on a letter that my 7 year old son recently wrote me: “Dear Dad. Hope your writing goes well!”
What do you think about writing school? Is it possible to teach how to write?
No, but you can easily nurture talent and bring out the best in people.
Are there tricks to improve writing techniques?
Tell your friends about the book you’re writing. It will help you to focus and really know what it is about? If you can’t tell them, then it means you don’t know yourself. Another tip: Take a warm bath for an hour. Water is very good for getting ideas.
In your opinion, what is style in writing?
“The feel” of the book.
Do you prefer telling stories in the third person or in the first person?
I aim for the third person but I often end up using the first person. My main character is often so strong that he takes over. And I like my books to be different from each other. Each book should be a world on its own, with its own language and own voice.
Is it important writing opening words to capture readers’ minds?
The first two sentences are crucial, yes.
Before the release, who is the first reader of your works?
I have old friends who read my books in manuscript and then I usually have a new editor each time, preferably a woman.
Do great T.V. series, i.e. “The Sopranos” and “Mad Men”, replace the traditional idea of novel?
No. There is too little space for writing in TV and film. No space for great thoughts, deep insights, poetic lines …
What do you think about I-book? Is it the future?
I think it is here to stay. I’m not worried about this thing. It doesn’t really matter if people read from a page or a screen, just as long as they read.
Your eighth novel has been recently released in Italy in the new series “Special books” by Isbn. How much did it take writing it?
About a year. It’s a short and comic novel, but I wrote it in English, which is not my native language, so it was a bit tough for me. Then it had to go through “the eye of a needle” that British style editing is.
The style of the novel is dry and essential. Did you write many versions?
No, not really. But I had to rewrite some chapters and sharpen others.
It’s almost impossible not to show affection to Toxic. How was born the character?
I was in Berlin, and came into a hotel room. Ten minutes later I had this idea about a hitman for the Croatian mafia. I can’t really explain it. It was sort of a miracle. Maybe the person that slept in the room before me was a Mafia guy from Zagreb.
The novel leaves your Country in a bad shape. It seems static and narrow-minded Country.
Yes, writing this book was a great outlet for my frustrations towards my home country. But I guess I criticize Iceland in all my books. It’s the writer’s job, to point at the flaws of society. But we’re not so good in coming up with solutions and we should never enter politics and become people of power. Writers are all ego maniacs and should not become prime ministers.
Do you know something about Italian events? What is your opinion about our Country?
I have visited Italy many times, and must say that it’s one of my favorite countries in the world. I love the landscape, the food, the people and the joyful and relaxed attitude towards life. There is something about the Italians that remind me of Icelanders: When push comes to shove they can always see things in a humorous light. On the other hand I don’t think I could live in Italy, and raise kids there. To me Italian society seems a bit stagnated and old fashioned. And very masculine. You have a long way to go in women’s rights. You have the feeling that things have been like this for 2000 years and it would take 2000 more to change them. There is this lack of spontanaiety and dynamism. I hear that when young people get a job in the federal sector they hold on to it like their lifesaver until they retire. For me this is an example of a society that is more dead than alive.
“Toxic” seems perfect for a movie, although it’s a novel. Who would the director be? And who would the main characters be?
Well, many critics say that it feels like a Tarantino movie. But I guess he only does his own scripts. The main character should be an European. Christoph Waltz or Mads Mikkelsen or even some totally unknown Croatian guy.
What do think about the cinema version of “101 Reykjavík”? You also contribute to the screenplay.
I liked the film, even though it was a bit soft version of a very hardcore book. And it was crucial in gettingmy books into translation and foreign markets. I only wrote the Voice Over bits. The director did the script himself.
Hilnur had both a good and bad relation with Reykjavík. And you?
And with women?
I was just like him. I always fell for the wrong types. It took my 50 years to see the light and find real love.
Did you ever think to write the sequel of “101 Reykjavík”? What ever happened to Hilnur?
Normaly I don’t like sequels. I prefer to do new things and not rework old ones. But you never know… I guess Hlynur runs an obscure DVD rental in a small garage downtown.
What books of yours do you like most?
My favorite one is Mr. Universe – a sci-fi comedy about God. It’s just crazy. I had such fun writing it. It was a trip down Dante’s lane. I wrote it in Isola d’Elba and Rome in the summer of 2002. It has never been published abroad. They did an Italian translation but they never dared to publish it.
Are you working on another novel?
Yes. It’s a big one, about an old lady who lives alone in a garage in Reykjavik with one laptop and an old German hand grenade from WW2. The title is “The Woman at 1000°C”.
Would you suggest a movie, T.V. series and a book that you have seen and read recently, please?
I quite liked Polanski’s film, Ghost Writer. I recently read Doris Lessing’s The Grass Can Sing – very strong. And last week I saw a great play, Enron, by a young English woman, Lucy Prebble. It was really good.
Special thanks: Beatrice Spera