A conversation with Iceland’s best-selling engineer

There can’t be many, if any, civil engineers who are also best-selling authors. Yrsa Sigurðardóttir from Iceland is both and Andy Walker caught up with her at the Theakston’s Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate this summer.

Yrsa Sigurðardóttir pictured at the Theakston Crime Writing Festival in Harrogate in July.

You’re a civil engineer and a successful novelist; that’s quite unique isn’t it?

It is. I don’t know why because you have all kinds of other professions that do a lot of writing. If you’re a reporter then I can understand that people wouldn’t be surprised to see them as writers because they work with words but you also have doctors who have been successful like Robin Cook and Michael Crichton. So I don’t really understand why more people in the professions aren’t writers, but maybe I’m breaking the ice and we’ll now have a flood.

You still practice as a civil engineer. Who do you work for?

I work for Verkis, one of the biggest consulting engineering firms in Iceland, in the power industry doing project management for geothermal and hydro. I’m currently on the project management team for a geothermal plant being built in the north east of Iceland and we did the design and the tendering and now it’s in construction and we are doing the design reviews, so we are involved from the beginning to the end of the project.

When did you first realise that you had this talent to write?

Rather late. I was over 30 when I started writing. I’d always been a very avid reader since I was a kid and always had a book. I was very happy being a reader and that was fine for me, but then my son wasn’t reading very much, he was eight at the time. I was worried that he would never learn to love reading and I started trying to read to him but the books that were available at the time were kind of depressive, written in the style of the time, where books needed to teach kids a lesson. I thought he needed something more fun so I decided to have a go at writing a book for kids that was more humour based. I wrote five books for kids and then I stopped and thought I wouldn’t write again but two years later I started writing crime fiction and I have been doing that since.

Do you think that there are any synergies or parallels between being an engineer and the whole crime fiction genre?

The synergy is knowing and understanding how a project works. A project has a beginning, it reaches a crescendo, then it has an ending and it is different every time. It is the same with a novel. You need to have a beginning and get to the end in some manner that’s pleasing to the reader. I think there is synergy in understanding what is important and what is fluff. The reason I continue to work is that working on projects with groups of people you get more interaction with people and when you’re writing it’s very lonely. The interaction with people is a stimulant for ideas - not that I am writing about the people I work with! – but you need to have conversations to get inspired.

How do you manage to fit it all in? When do you get time to write?

I write usually after work, in the evenings, at weekends and on my summer vacations. Now I only work half time because I publish in 30-something languages and I have to do a lot of travelling and I find that the travelling has made it impossible for me to work full time. It’s not the writing it is the travelling and I have to be away promoting books and I can’t be working. 

Being an engineer, the skill set comes from one side of the brain whereas being a novelist it tends to be the other side of the brain. Have you ever pondered on that?

I have and I’m not sure that this has really been proven. I think that somehow the brain all works in unison. If that’s the case then we all have these two sides to us at least so it’s just a matter of unleashing your creativity. 

What do your colleagues think about what you do?

In Iceland hard cover novels by local authors only come out in November for the Christmas market so there is this big period where it’s discussed in the papers and you are very prominent as a public figure but outside of that period it is just a non-issue. People are more relaxed about these things in Iceland. People who know me don’t think any differently about me because I write, I’m just me.

Have you ever been tempted to write a novel using infrastructure as subject matter? 

I wrote one book that took place in Greenland on a mining project and the reason I moved it to Greenland was that at the time I was working on a hydro project in the highlands of Iceland that was controversial in some circles and I didn’t want to give any fodder for the opponents of the project. The book, The Day is Dark, was about living in a work camp and the murders that took place in an isolated construction site so I didn’t want people associating it with the project I was working on! I have thought a lot about the geothermal side of things and I probably will write something about infrastructure at some point. 

What is your favourite engineering project?

It would be the district heating system in Reykjavik. It uses geothermal water to heat all homes and it makes heating so cheap and has made a huge difference for Iceland pollution-wise which is a big thing in a country that is as cold as ours. We have many other geothermal projects, such as a heated beach where they heat up the ocean in a small alcove so people can go to a beach. Most of the stuff that I admire would be geothermal projects where we make use of what we have. It’s made our country more habitable and just a great place to live.

What would you like to write about that you haven’t written about so far?

I would love to write an apocalyptic book, in the aftermath of an apocalypse, where you have nothing that you count on. You can’t Google stuff. Either you know it or you have no way of acquiring information and all of the safety things that we take for granted have gone. You’d certainly need engineers in such a time. I would love that. But maybe later, not this year!

The latest book by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, The Undesired, is out now.

If you would like to contact Andy Walker about this, or any other story, please email awalker@infrastructure-intelligence.com.