Fact is stranger than fiction

12 November 2010

Much of the story that became Frozen Assets took shape through 2007 and the early part of 2008, while the Iceland’s financial miracle was still in full swing. The place was booming and the country’s bankers were hailed as financial wonders who appeared to have dug up a whole cache of Philosopher’s Stones.
Grumpy cynics had been wondering for a good few years when the bubble would burst, and they tended to be sneered at for questioning just when would all those private jets, limousines and other status symbols have to be paid for? It wasn’t just Iceland’s nouveau riche who were piling up expensive toys, as ordinary working families amassed cars, houses and luxury goods as the banks frantically pushed bizarre dollar-euro-yen-francs loans at them, practically shovelling money out of their plate-glass doors.
In spite of the wealth that since turned out to be illusory, this wasn’t a happy society in many ways. The construction of the huge Kárahjnúkar dam in the east was well under way and questions were being asked as to why such a vast project was being carried out in previously pristine wilderness, apparently largely for the benefit of a foreign aluminium producer. Demonstrations were taking place and arrests were being made as the Icelandic police and public struggled to come to terms with an undercurrent of anger that had not been seen during decades of prosperity and equality.
I spent a lot of 2008 in Iceland. In January everything was normal, if a super-heated economy and sky-high prices can be said to be normal. But by the spring things were less comfortable. The exchange rate had started to slide for the first time in years and although nothing was said out loud, it was common enough knowledge that the banks’ coffers were bare. Business was starting to slow down, even though the forest of cranes dotting the Reykjavík skyline was still busy enough. But there was a feeling that something wasn’t quite right and maybe the economic miracle wasn’t quite as solid as everyone had been given to believe.
By the time I was back there for another visit in the summer, there was real fear. On the surface, spokespeople for government and business all had unconvincing smiles on their faces and were telling the world ‘business was as usual,’ but underneath all the window-dressing, my friends and relatives were all telling me the same thing; things were looking grim. Every working Joe knew something was brewing, without knowing what was going to happen, or when, or what form it might take.
Iceland hasn’t seen hard times since the end of the sixties. In 1968 the herring that underpinned fisheries right across the North Atlantic disappeared as climatic conditions changed, triggering unemployment and the largest wave of emigration for years – until now. There was an undercurrent of genuine foreboding, as few people seriously believed, any more than usual, that the government was telling the whole truth.
For a few months in the summer, I stayed away from Iceland, working on the draft of Frozen Assets when and where I could alongside the day job. The story was taking shape and although it needed pruning, I was happy to leave that until later. My rotund heroine, Gunna, had already been taking on a life of her own after having just jumped onto the page one day with a frown on her face, ready to get to work.
I was back in Iceland for another extended visit in October, actually a working trip, arriving on the day that the first of Iceland’s  hyper-inflated banks admitted that they’d been doing the equivalent of paying their Visa bills with Mastercard and vice versa, and the government stepped in to help them out.
A couple of days later an old friend greeted me with a handshake and the words; ‘You’d better congratulate me on my bank.’
‘Why’s that?’
‘Haven’t you heard? Glitnir’s been nationalised. It belongs to the taxpayer now – and that’s me.’
People were stunned, not so much that this had been happening, but more at the sheer depth of corruption, greed and incompetence. Somehow Icelanders have always accepted with dogged resignation that those in positions of power are going to be corrupt to some extent, but this was taking things to a new high.
This kind of turmoil is fertile ground to a writer. All of what had been happening was simply too good as material not to use. Frozen Assets had to be re-written and the time line of the story adjusted to take events into account, so that the last chapters coincide with those dramatic few days.
I can’t help but be reminded of a visit to a prison not long ago where I’ve sometimes spoken to the creative writing group that revolves as prisoners come and go.
‘You write crime fiction, do you?’ One of the inmates asked with a twinkle in his eye. ‘Well, whatever you try and make up, you can bet one of us in here has already tried it.’
He was absolutely right. Fact really is so much stranger than fiction. Re-drafting Frozen Assets in the winter of 2008-09, I couldn’t visualize the scale of what had happened, and new revelations are coming to light all the time, even two years after the crash.
Hopefully Frozen Assets captures some of the desperate atmosphere as the Icelandic economy headed for the rocks. The recriminations, the fury and the disbelief at the sheer extent of what had been allowed to happen in Iceland, followed by the devastating fallout, will have to wait for later.

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