As the Beast from the East continues to keep the UK cold and damp, I talk to someone who knows the true meaning of tough weather; Denmark based Arctic explorer Christoffer Petersen, whose novels are set against a backdrop of the harsh Greenlandic landscape. He talks to me about his books and how they are enhanced by their unique setting.
Tell me about how you came to define your writing style. What drew you towards crime fiction?
I think the setting for my books helps to define their style, especially the crime books. Before I lived in the Arctic, I read a lot of Jack London stories and became fascinated with how the environment was just as much a character as the characters themselves. It’s like the ring in The Lord of the Rings; it has a voice, and I’d like to think I capture that in my style of writing. Of course, I have to show it through my characters, something I did a lot with Fenna Brongaard in my Arctic thrillers, but less so with David Maratse in the crime books, as he is more in tune with the environment. He is Greenlandic, after all. I let Jack London influence my style of writing when I write short stories featuring Maratse.
I think I was forced into crime fiction when Maratse, a Greenlandic policeman, demanded his own series. That might sound silly, but when you spend enough time with your characters, it is easy to imagine them wanting something. Crime is the best genre for Maratse, and, during my time in Greenland, I had a lot to do with the police in the local communities where I lived, and I even worked at the Police Academy in Nuuk during my last year in Greenland. However, Gorky Park by Martin Cruz Smith is perhaps where my interest in crime books started. I read about Arkady Renko when I was in my teens, and the character and the writing, not least the setting, continues to be a big influence on me.
What is your career background and how did you get into writing full time?
I started out as an outdoor instructor and canoe guide, working in England, Scotland, Canada and the USA. I spent a few months each year for a few years as a sledge dog handler in Norway, England, and the USA, while working odd jobs, before I trained to be a teacher in Denmark and moved to Greenland in 2006. I had always tried to write, including terribly depressing poems in my early twenties, but it was in Greenland, particularly during the winter months of complete darkness, that I really started. I decided to learn how to write for a career by enrolling on the Master of Arts in Professional Writing at Falmouth University. I started studying by distance learning while in Greenland and graduated in 2015. The Ice Star was my final project together with an accompanying contextual essay where I studied environmental determinism in literature, looking specifically at how Mary Shelley used the Arctic to define her characters in Frankenstein. The MA gave me the academic foundation and tools to begin to write well, and that was when I knew I had to be a full-time writer. I have been working towards that ever since and decided to go for it in January this year.
Please tell me about your books. Why do you believe they have become so popular?
First, I love that the question suggests that my books have become popular. They are certainly selling, and there are lots of people leaving reviews on Goodreads. As to why they have become popular, I think that has a lot to do with the return of Nordic Noir, helped massively by the British interest in Danish crime fiction and series on television. Forbrydelsen (The Killing) has certainly boosted interest in the genre, along with more recent crime series set in Iceland. My books are on Amazon, and I am consistently listed alongside Icelandic writers such as Ragnar Jónasson and YrsaSigurðardóttir. The series Trapped is set in Iceland, and I think it always helps crime books when crime series on television capture the interest of viewers.
Greenland is, of course, the setting for my books, and it is geographically close to Iceland. Both countries are stark, raw, beautiful, and fascinating. The challenging environment provides plenty of scope for isolation, survival, and murder. Crime books set in the Arctic are not new, but they are gaining in popularity.
However, I hope that Fenna’s story in particular is popular in part because of who she is. I wanted to create a strong independent woman that gets the job done, no matter how uneasy it makes her feel. She operates within a world of men, but it is her actions, not her sex, that defines her.
What defines your writing style? Are there any particular mediums or narrative troupes you like to use in your writing and why?
I tend to experiment with my writing in the short stories, imagining how Jack London might approach writing crime novels. I have used the idea of the unnamed narrator in my short stories, but tend to stick to a close-third POV in my thrillers, and a more omniscient third person style in the Maratse crime novels. I remember being very impressed by John le Carré’s Tailor of Panama when the main character’s lie is revealed by another character, and the reader is left with the feeling of being left out for a page or two. I would be very happy if I could emulate that particular writing foil.
What do you enjoy reading and how does this influence your writing?
I mentioned Gorky Park, but I would be remiss if I didn’t name Peter Høeg’s Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow. These are two books that have seriously influenced me. Both authors set the bar very high. I’m not even close, even standing on tiptoes and reaching. I love John le Carré’s trilogy featuring George Smiley, I can easily get lost in Peter F. Hamilton’s Night’s Dawn trilogy, and I absolutely loved Dan Simmons’ The Terror. I save Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe series for those guilty pleasures, and when I really want to explore a strange new world, no-one does it better than China Miéville.
Now, you might ask, where are all the female writers? And more crime writers for that matter. Well, I don’t want to read too much crime for fear of being “inspired”. As for female writers, Ursula le Guinn’s Wizard of Earthsea was a game-changer of a book, and E. Annie Proulx’ The Shipping News changed my life and sent me on a quest to kayak alongside icebergs and whales in the Arctic. Proulx’ Brokeback Mountain is also a beautiful and universal love story – far better than the film. Sadly, I read less than I used to, now that I write as much as I do. When I need a break from words I see a lot of films.
If you could collaborate with anyone, living or dead, on a writing project, who would it be and why?
I think this is the most difficult of your questions, Hannah. If the purpose was to learn through collaboration, then I think Wilbur Smith could teach me everything I need to know about writing long and exciting chase scenes through open terrain. Martin Cruz Smith could teach me about character, and Peter Høeg could inspire me lyrically. I’d like to sit by the wood burning stove in the cabin listening to Jack London mutter as he wrote, and I’d be pleased to add an idea here or there. I could learn so much from screenwriter Taylor Sheridan. Specifically, I would want to pick his brains about dialogue. Cormac McCarthy, because I read The Road, and then I read Blood Meridian and found a sentence at least one page long. I need to know how to do that. As for actual collaboration, Michael Ridpath, if you’re reading this, let’s collaborate.
Have you got any exciting new plans or projects coming up that you’d like to share with me?
Actually, yes. I am in the process of writing a series featuring a Scottish-born Danish detective called Freja Hansen. It is set partly in the Scottish Highlands, and partly in the area of Denmark where I live called Sønderborg, in southern Denmark. The introductory short story is called Fell Runner and comes out in June.
I lived in Scotland for seven years, got my BA in Outdoor Education from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, and met my Danish wife when working in Aviemore. My real surname is Scottish, so, it’s a bit like coming home to write about Freja solving crimes in the Scottish Highlands.
I do have more crime books in the Greenland crime series coming out later this year, and I am not quite done with Fenna’s story. So, more Arctic thrillers on the way, too.
Are there any new books or writers that you are looking forward to in the future?
Philip Pullman. I didn’t mention him earlier, but Northern Lights was yet another book that encouraged me to keep moving north to the Arctic. I bought La Belle Sauvage on pre-order – both digital and hardback – and I can’t wait for the next in the Book of Dust trilogy. Neal Asher has a new science fiction book coming out called The Soldier which I am excited about, and I have to keep an eye on the Icelanders. I am currently reading Ragnar Jónasson’s Dark Iceland series.
Anything you’d like to add?
I really appreciate you taking the time and interest to ask me about my books and my writing. Thanks.
Thank you for speaking with me Christoffer, it has been a pleasure. You can find out more about Christoffer and his Arctic adventures HERE.