Bucking the Trend and Q&A – Grant Nicol

Today I’m pleased to welcome Grant Nicol to the blog. Grant is the author of On a Small Island and The Mistake and his latest novel, A Place to Bury Strangers was published by Fahrenheit Press on 8 November 2016.

Here Grant talks about the unusual collaboration between Fahrenheit Press and Number Thirteen Press to re-release all of his titles with new covers and he answers a few of my questions. (Be warned. There is the odd swear word dotted….)

Bucking the trend.

One of the many problems with publishing today is that everyone seems to have forgotten how to play together. Like kids in a sandbox arguing over whose spade is being used to fill whose bucket, everybody seems to have forgotten that it’s not the people who own the bucket and the spade that count but the people getting their hands dirty in the sandbox and those on the outside looking in at the castles we’ve been working our arses off to build. There is no cooperation between the big bucket and spade companies and it’s resulting in not enough fantastic sandcastles getting seen by the paying public and not enough money going to the guys and girls doing all the fucking building. Until now that is. Enter Number Thirteen Press and Fahrenheit Press, two of the hippest and smartest publishers in town have got together to buck the trend and it’s all in the name of that rarest of commodities. Common sense. One of the greatest oxymorons of our time.

My debut novel ‘On A Small Island’ has just been published by Fahrenheit Press. I originally self-published the book a couple of years back but when Fahrenheit Press recently read my submission for my third book, ‘A Place To Bury Strangers’ they suggested we publish both of them under the Fahrenheit banner. Good idea, I thought. That way we can give the first one a new lease of life, and more importantly, get the books looking alike so the readers can easily associate the two of them. That one’s always a good idea from a marketing point of view. So a lovely new and very Icelandic-looking cover was designed for ‘On A Small Island’ at it was launched once again. Same book but with a different look and now, just a couple of weeks later, ‘A Place To Bury Strangers’ has also been set loose upon the world by Fahrenheit Press with a cover that looks like it well and truly belongs alongside my first one. Then came the best idea I’d heard in a very long time. Fahrenheit Press asked me what I thought of us approaching the publisher of my second book ‘The Mistake’ to see if we could tie the look of all three books in together even though they have different publishers.

The idea sounded like a brilliant one from my point of view but I did begin to wonder if anyone had ever tried something like this before. It looked like a bit of a no-brainer on paper but there were some rather important matters to iron out first before this great idea could become an even more awesome reality. Firstly, and most importantly, the rights to ‘The Mistake’ are presently owned by the people who published the book, Number Thirteen Press and not me. Problem #1: not my call. Number Thirteen Press are an indie-publisher from London who launched a project to bring the noir novella back to the crime-reading public and did so in great style. Their plan was to publish 13 novellas every month for 13 months and to do so, of course, on the 13th of each of those months. When I first read about the idea I thought it sounded like a lot of fun and that’s exactly what it proved to be. 13 short novels and novellas came firing out of Number Thirteen Press’s loaded gun and they were all great and they were all a thrill a minute and they all packed the punch of a Kentucky bourbon drunk mule. Those kind of books we used to love back in the day – short, punchy and very well-written, just the way noir is supposed to be and each with their own distinctive cover that gave them a look that was unmistakably Number Thirteen Press. Problem #2: in order to get Number Thirteen Press to go along with this idea we would be screwing up their series of thirteen matching covers. How on earth were we going to talk them around on that one? It still seemed like a good idea from my side of things but it was possible that Number Thirteen Press wouldn’t see it that way. It was after all their prerogative to have their books looking the way they wanted them to and they had gone to a great deal of trouble to get them all looking so very, very much like Number Thirteen Press books. It was part of their brand, it was part of their identity. And now I wanted to screw that all up for them. It was entirely possible they would pull a .38 snub-nose from their shoulder holster and slam the door in my face like they used to do to Marlowe. But this time there would be no classy dame waiting to look after the bullet wound. This wasn’t going to be as straightforward as I’d hoped.

What I had to put my faith in now was that it was a good idea and occasionally good ideas prevail. Imagine if this had been two of the ‘Big 5’ that I had dealing with. Can you imagine me approaching, for example, Guillemot Arbitrary Abode who used to be my publisher and telling them that I’d recently signed a new contract with Hemingway Coffins and that Hemingway Coffins and myself had got together and decided that we’d like all my books to look pretty much the same so would it be okay if Hemingway Coffins changed the covers of some of my earlier works to achieve this glorious end?  You’d be able to hear jaws hitting the ground on the other end of my internet connection or mobile phone line such would be the incredulous response of our friends at Guillemot Arbitrary Abode.

“But those books are ours.”

“What makes you think we’d let them do that?”

“They’re our covers.”

“Why would anyone else want to pay for that to promote our books?”

You get the idea. They’d still be too worried about who paid for the spade and who owns the bucket to think about who might come along and see the sandcastle we’re building and fall in love with it. But luckily I now have two guys both called Chris who have brought their buckets and spades to the party along with a couple of big fistfuls of sand and a little flag to stick on top of it all and we’re all just focusing on building the best goddamn sandcastle we can. Because we like sandcastles and we know there are a lot of good people out there who like sandcastles too.

“I love the attitude Fahrenheit Press are bringing to publishing. More to the point, I love that they are putting the authors first, an idea which almost seems old-fashioned now. But in an industry that has undergone seismic changes since the 1990s, publishers need to find new ways of doing things. The Big 5 haven’t caught on to that yet, or haven’t worked out how they can achieve it, which is why Fahrenheit and the likes of All Due Respect, Near to the Knuckle, et al (just looking at the crime genre) are at the forefront of things, giving readers what they want by publishing books they love instead of simply analysing the numbers. At the end of the day small publishers are working towards one common goal: getting great fiction by great authors into the hands of readers. That makes Fahrenheit a friend and an ally, and someone I’m really happy to work with in putting more of Grant’s fiction out where it belongs.”- Chris Black of Number Thirteen Press

1. Tell us a little about A Place to Bury Strangers

‘A Place To Bury Strangers’ is about a couple of parallel investigations in Reykjavik and features my Icelandic detective Grímur Karlsson. One case involves a girl going missing from an outcall she was on at a house outside of the capital. She comes from a nice family but has been working as a call girl to fund her drug habit. While Grímur is investigating her disappearance there is a murder in the middle of Reykjavík. A small-time drug dealer is lured to a building site and attacked. His body is burned in an oil drum and a message is left next to the remains in Norwegian making the cops think that this is a drug-related gangland killing, a feud being started or a score being settled. At first there appears to be no connection whatsoever between the two cases but when Grímur gets a little too close to the truth of what has happened to the girl he is looking for it becomes apparent that the two cases are indeed very closely linked after all.

2. What inspired the book?

The foundation for the book was inspired by a true crime story from the US that I took and made my own. Once I had that very basic idea in my head I started collecting other ideas and characters and slowly built the plot around those. This is the first of my books which I have written solely in Iceland so it was different from the other ones in that it was easier for me to be able to gather scenarios for the plot from the news here so it is probably more topical than the first two books. I was able to twist and wind the relatively recent problems of drug gangs, people trafficking for prostitution, champagne clubs and very, very dodgy politicians into my story. They might be slightly exaggerated for artistic purposes in the book but they all exist here in peaceful little Iceland.  

3. Are you a plan, plan, plan writer or do you sit down and see where the words take you? How long does the process take you from first line to completed novel?

There is always a serious amount of planning that goes into each novel but I am not the sort of writer who sits down and has every scene in place before I start writing. I always have the beginning tied down in a big way and do plan that out extensively and I always have a good idea of the ending but more in the way that I know where the book is heading as opposed to having a concrete destination point. A controlling idea to aim for. For the rest of the book I have a series of points I need to pass through but I don’t ever say to myself that this has to happen there and that has to happen there otherwise it’s not going to work. I let the text flow a lot more than that and to a degree just let it take me where it wants provided I get where I need to be getting by the end of it all. For me normally the whole process takes between eight and nine months but there are a lot of variables that can shorten or elongate that timeframe.

I think it’s extremely important to learn and understand the principles of structure and storytelling but it doesn’t mean you have to stick to them once you’ve started writing. There is a wonderful scene in the documentary ‘Hearts Of Darkness’ where Francis Ford Coppola is trying to get a drug-fucked Dennis Hooper to learn his lines. Dennis wants to ad-lib his way through the scene and to his credit a lot of his ad-libbed stuff did make it into the final cut but that’s not the point. Francis explains to him that he has to learn his lines first, then he can forget them. His point being that once you have learned the structure of what is going on around you, then, and only then, can you go on to do things your own way. He was of course completely right. 

4. Over recent years there has been a surge of interest in Scandinavian and Icelandic crime fiction. What do you think is the lure of this sub-genre?

The rise of Scandinavian crime fiction has been no surprise to me at all. Especially in the UK now it has become nothing short of a phenomenon. For me the experience began when I was living in Belfast anddiscovered the Swedish ‘Wallander’ TV series on BBC 4 one night. That was it. I saw one episode and was hooked. I watched both of the first two series and then started reading his books. For some reason I can’t quite recall I began with ‘Italian Shoes’ which is not crime fiction at all but is a beautiful, beautiful book that even my mum read. After that it was on to his Kurt Wallander novels which I just devoured. Since then we have seen a cascade of TV shows from Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland most of which have been outstanding and this has of course been closely tied in with the concurrent rise in popularity of Scandinavian crime fiction novels. I think the success of one would not and probably could not have happened without the other. It has become a multi-media experience for people and the secret to its success is the writing. Whether it has been the strength of the powerful teleplays for knockout series such as ‘The Bridge’ or the tense, sad and brilliant novels of the late Henning Mankell we have been treated to some of the finest writing crime fiction has seen for quite some time.

5. Iceland Noir will take place in Reykjavik from 17 to 20 of November and features a host of crime writers including Ragnar Jónasson, Val McDermid, Amanda Jennings, Derrick Farrell and yourself. What do you think literary festivals like this bring to the book world? What does it mean to you to be involved in this year’s festival?

Iceland Noir and literary festivals in general are an opportunity for writers and readers to get together and celebrate what they love most. Books. They bridge the gap between audience and writers in a way that no other medium can especially the more intimate festivals such as Iceland Noir. There would be very few opportunities for members of the public to meet the likes of Ragnar, Val and Yrsa if it wasn’t for festivals such as this.

My involvement with Iceland Noir this year is a bittersweet one. I attended the festival two years ago when I had just got off the plane from Belfast to live here and had never met any Icelandic writers. I had actually never met any writers of any sort before so it was all very eye-opening and exciting. Since then I have become part of Reykjavík’s tight-knit crime writing community and I’m on the organising committee for the festival this time around. It will also be my final fling in Reykjavík because I am moving to Finland straight after the festival so for a lot of these lovely people it will be the last time I see them for quite some time. But I can’t really complain though, I have met the most wonderful Finnish girl and am about to embark on a new and totally amazing part of my life. 

6. What do you do when you aren’t writing? What do you do to relax and get away from it all?

I love music. Having ‘grown up’ on the road touring with bands I still love watching live shows of all sorts and my musical tastes are still as varied as they’ve always been. I am just as happy watching punk bands as I am listening to an orchestra play. Last week I was at a local record shop watching Icelandic post-hardcore outfit Endless Dark play during the Iceland Airwaves festival and tonight I will be visiting Harpa to see the Icelandic Symphony perform Sibelius’s Symphony no. 2. Music is the key.

7. If you could only read one book for the rest of your life which book would it be?

‘And The Ass Saw The Angel’ by Nick Cave. I first read this in my teens and I don’t really reread books as such, maybe a few Iain Banks novels over the years, but I just love rereading Nick Cave’s debut work. It is grimy, sad, beautiful and thoroughly disturbing. It is Cormac McCarthy coming down off some really heavy acid and trying to work out the missing part of the Bible in a southern swamp full of anger, fear and White Jesus moonshine. From its opening chapter you can smell the hurt in the air along with the mud, the blood and the sweet perfume of the local whore. It is an unholy take on the holiest of books and a wonderful, demented tale of despair, hate, crime and old-fashioned retribution.

8. During all the Q&As and interviews you’ve done what question have you not been asked that you wish had been asked – and what’s the answer? 

No one has ever asked me which Smurf I would be if I could be any Smurf I wanted. The answer is Leather. Leather Smurf.

About the book:

book_bury_strangers

“A story as bone-chilling as the air his characters breathe…”

A cryptic message left next to a charred corpse in the middle of Reykjavík leaves police worried they have a gang war on their hands.

Across town Detective Grímur Karlsson investigates a missing girl from a nice suburban family and gets far too close to the truth for his own good.

It becomes clear the two cases are connected and Karlsson doggedly pursues the trail that leads from junkies on the seedy streets of Reykjavík all the way to the very top of Icelandic society.

‘A Place to Bury Strangers’ will keep you up into the wee hours––get ready to shiver the whole night through.” – Matt Phillips (author of ‘Three Kinds of Fool,’ ‘Bad Luck City,’ and ‘Redbone’)

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