An interview with Claudia Casper, IWR 2017 faculty
Claudia Casper is a Canadian author and IWR alumna, and her book The Mercy Journals has recently been shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award. She spent some time with me to talk about her experience with Iceland and the Iceland Writers Retreat as a participant, as well as what she is looking forward to about being a faculty member for IWR 2017.
Claudia attended the first Retreat, which was held in April 2014. She and Anne Giardini, fellow Canadian writer and friend, attended the Retreat together as a fun adventure for literary friends. They did some exploring of Iceland before the Retreat began, including a guided snowmobile tour of some glaciers. Claudia described the experience as “beautiful and exhilarating,” yet also terrifying because she and Anne had to keep up with the guide so as to not fall into a crevice. Despite the element of danger, being immersed in the landscape made the beauty of it even more exceptional.
During her experience as a participant at the Retreat, she appreciated the intimacy of the workshops and social gatherings. She recalled spending time with the Canadian Ambassador, and that she was “shoulder to shoulder with writers at the top of their field, local politicians, historians, and artists.” She also noted the incredible history tour given by Eliza’s husband, who is now President of Iceland. Throughout her time in Iceland, she was amazed how the description of Iceland as an “island of storytellers” is completely true.
Claudia will be leading two workshops at the Retreat in April. They are entitled “Research—The most fun part of writing” and “Process—Keeping the engine stoked in the day to day of writing.” When I asked how she decided what topics she wanted to cover for her workshops, she explained that it was important for her to focus on her personal interests while complementing the other workshops and thinking about what the participants would be interested in. Although she is giving workshops on different aspects of the writing process, she is particularly interested in how each person can go through similar writing stages but somehow create a unique piece of writing in the end.
In a final comment, Claudia said that she is looking forward to both “refilling the reservoir of inspiration, talking about building story, and expanding one’s sense of possibilities,” as well as “raising a glass with everyone in April.”
Geraldine Brooks—winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction—led a workshop at the inaugural Iceland Writers Retreat in 2014 entitled “The Distance Travelled: From Journalist to Novelist.” Her newest book, The Secret Chord, a fascinating historical novel that transports readers back to the days of the Old Testament, hits stores in early October. A friend of the Iceland Writers Retreat, Geraldine took time out of her hectic book tour schedule to tell us about her latest creation and to reminisce about her transformative experiences in Iceland.
Interview by Elliott Brandsma
Geraldine, give us a brief synopsis of your new novel The Secret Chord. In your own words, what is the book about, and what themes/ideas does it explore?
The novel is a reexamination of the life of King David, told by Natan, his counselor and critic. The biblical account of David provides us with the first full biography in history—the first life story told in full from early childhood to extreme old age—and predating Herodotus by half a millennium. Everything happens to David: every human joy, every sorrow, the greatest successes and the most abysmal and traumatic failures. My novel is an exercise in imaginative empathy: can you think your way into a past so distant, a society so different, and yet find emotional resonances that tell us something about what it means to be human?
The Secret Chord is set during biblical times, describing and adding dimension to the life of King David. What inspired you to tackle this subject matter, and what were some of the challenges you faced while writing about such a monumental religious figure?
When he was nine, my elder son decided to learn to play the harp. It was while watching him at his lessons, dwarfed by his teacher’s magnificent concert instrument, that I began to wonder about that other long-ago boy harpist, a figure who has inspired so much remarkable art (and some truly dreadful movies). It’s strange perhaps, but I don’t view David as a religious figure, or at least that’s not primarily how I think of him. It’s true that he had a strong relationship with the divine, but what interests me most about him is his use and abuse of power—very secular themes, and very enduring ones. Power and its hot temptations is a theme that doesn’t get old: what was true in the Second Iron Age is still true today. And I love that the biblical accounts don’t shrink from examining his human weaknesses. He’s a very complex man.
You gave a “sneak-peek” reading from The Secret Chord at the 2014 Iceland Writers Retreat. How did the project evolve after your stay in Iceland, and did your trip to Reykjavík in any way influence how you finished the book?
I was about at the half-way point if I remember correctly. I think reading the sagas, and reading commentary on the sagas was quite influential in shaping my thinking. The sagas have the same blend of strangeness and magic coupled with recognizable human emotions and reactions as the David story does.
Before you started writing fiction full-time, you worked as a journalist for many years. Drawing from your own experience, what advice would you give to someone who is considering transitioning into a career in literature?
It wasn’t really a considered thing for me. It just happened. I had a child, and suddenly the kind of journalism I’d been doing for more than a decade—as a correspondent in hot zones in the Mideast, Africa, the Balkans—wasn’t compatible with raising an infant. I had been mulling on a story I’d stumbled on 10 years earlier, about the plague village of Eyam, in the English Peak District, and it had taken root in my imagination. I just sat down one day and started writing it. It became my first novel, Year of Wonders. Lucky for me, someone wanted to read it. But I’m not a good source of career advice as my situation was so idiosyncratic. I would say it helped that I’d written two books of non-fiction since the biggest transition for me was learning to sustain a narrative longer than the typical newspaper feature.
Describe some of the highlights of your time in Iceland. What would you say to someone who is on-the-fence about signing up for the Iceland Writers Retreat? What did you gain from the experience?
Iceland is the most creatively stimulating place I have ever set foot. The landscape is so other-worldly that it forces you to see with fresh eyes. And being in a culture that’s so rich in literature is remarkable: the depth and breadth of the writing tradition and the modern commitment to literature is breathtaking. Riding amazing Icelandic horses over the lava fields, listening to extraordinary live music in some of the friendliest bars I’ve had the pleasure to visit, seeing Gullfoss and Geysir, feeling the tingling shock of the hot springs. I can’t mention a highlight because the entire time was a high. As for the retreat itself, the participants were accomplished, enthusiastic, engaged and engaging. Some have become good friends.
Say something about yourself that people would be surprised to know.
I have three alpacas in my front yard named Monty, Heathcliff and Alec Guinness. Animals of all kinds are a sustaining joy to me.
Words and Photo by Elliott Brandsma.
Starkly beautiful and geographically unique, Iceland is a small yet striking country that captures the imaginations of all who visit. From the island’s quirky, creative inhabitants to its charmingly casual atmosphere, here are eight things that long – and short-term visitors report missing most about Iceland after they’re gone.
- Icelanders. The people of Iceland are resilient, resourceful, laid-back, and full of wonderful stories and interesting perspectives. Some tourists might be put off by the Icelandic stoicism or dark sense of humor at first, but once visitors get to know them (or give them an alcoholic beverage), Icelanders swiftly become some of the most jovial, straightforward, and open people they’ve ever met.
- The Music Scene. Iceland is home to one of the most prolific alternative music scenes in the world. The country plays host to a variety of cutting-edge music festivals all year round, and some notable Icelandic band or singer is likely performing at a bar, restaurant, or coffee shop in the capital Reykjavík on any given evening.
- The Proximity to Nature. A road trip outside of Iceland’s capital city is a fantastic way for travelers to commune with nature and spend time alone in solemn reflection. Iceland’s fresh air, towering mountains, glaciers, aurora borealis, geothermal hot springs, and absorbing scenery provide visitors with a rare chance to reconnect with the natural world, alleviate stress, and clear their minds of mental clutter.
- The Close-knit Environment. Iceland is a small, sparsely-populated island, which means everyone knows everyone, and family ties between Icelanders are quite strong. Most native Icelanders are related to each other by at least the seventh generation, lending to the nation’s distinct “small-town” feel. The informal nature of the Icelandic populace also makes it easy to establish personal and professional connections, so for visitors who stay long enough, Iceland quickly feels like a second home.
- The Bars, Restaurants and Coffee Shops. The country’s budding culinary scene and iconic coffee shop culture are favorites among tourists to Iceland, mostly because Reykjavík boasts a venue or café for every palette and preference. Fish and lamb dishes remain a huge hit among Icelanders and visitors alike, while a variety of vegan dining options are slowly but steadily catching on in the Nordic country. The capital city is home to an abundance of cozy coffee shops and bustling bars, too, where visitors can upload vacation photos, Skype with family, or chat with new friends over a brew.
- The Literary Culture. Iceland has been a book-loving nation for centuries. Whether it’s the Icelandic sagas or the Nobel Prize-winning novels of Halldór Laxness, Icelanders have long venerated the written word and made literacy a cultural value. Reykjavík boasts a well-run network of libraries and bookstores and every year around Christmastime, Icelanders celebrate the jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood, when Icelandic publishers collectively release hundreds of new book titles on the market.
- Þetta reddast. In Icelandic, the saying “Þetta reddast” means “everything will work out.” This phrase has come to exemplify an endearing quality about Icelanders: their steadfast belief that no matter how bleak or dire a situation appears, everything will come together in the end. Many long-term visitors in Iceland have come to appreciate this optimistic outlook, because it helps them keep stressful situations in perspective and not take life too seriously.
- The “Everything is Possible” Attitude. Iceland’s intimate size and inventive people make every dream and creative endeavor seem possible. For example, Iceland boasts the most published authors per capita in the world; many Icelanders have formed bands or play an instrument; visual artists abound in the country; and Iceland is rapidly becoming a home for innovative green businesses and technologies. An artistic and entrepreneurial paradise, the country celebrates creativity and thrives on turning lofty ideas into reality.
Elliott Brandsma lived and went to school in Iceland for three years before relocating to Miami, Florida, in 2016. He misses these and many other things about Iceland. What will you miss most about your time in Iceland? Sign up for the Iceland Writers Retreat and discover the wonders of Iceland for yourself.
The Iceland Writers Retreat asked several Icelandic authors to describe what an average day of writing looks like for them. In this piece, Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir gives us an account of her fascinating creative process.
ODDNÝ EIR ÆVARSDÓTTIR
This day is the day. I make abstract structures with elements that I smell in the morning: symbols, colors, sounds. Inside this structureless structure I dwell and write: There I’m covered by pure passion and joy, and I write like an animal until exhaustion. I leave and come back, leave again and come back. During the day. And the night. Sometimes I don’t even dress. For the reasons of health some days I slip into this dangerous zone only once. I jump in, write fast and pray to the unconscious that the phrases will be finished. The intervals are not to be judged as idle. During walks and talks and readings of poetry, listening to music, checking out the history of symbols and words, I make a negative space for my writing. But if there is anxiety, I invent a ritual of exorcism, and I’ll have to contemplate on the golden ratio in some classics, my chore. Nurtured by tradition, I allow my writing days to be rhythmically different one from the other. But in this endless construction and deconstruction of time and space there should not be threat of authority or power. Just an out-of-the-blue in a play.
Activist and author Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir is a powerful, poetic voice on the Icelandic literary scene. She has written lyrics for Icelandic popstar Björk, and her novel Jarðnæði(Plan of Ruins) was nominated for the 2011 Icelandic Literature Prize and the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize. Her recently-published short story “The Blue Blood” was translated into English by Philip Roughton and is available for download on amazon.com.