The team at Promote Iceland spoke to some of Iceland’s most notable authors about the country’s literature and what inspires them. From Hallgrimur Helgason’s assertion that “Iceland keeps us creative” through its volcanic activity and developing landscape to Sjon’s explanation of the creativity required when working with a medieval language, there is much to learn about the Icelandic publishing industry, especially from those working in it.
All the authors featured in the video have appeared at the Iceland Writers Retreat, including Hallgrimur Helgason and Andri Snaer Magnason who will be leading workshops this April. You can learn more about the workshops they will be leading here.
This year is the third year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. This prestigious award is funded in its entirety by generous IWR alumni and friends. It gives its recipients full or partial funding to attend the next Retreat, which will take place April 11 to 15, 2018 in Reykjavik. The winners are chosen based on both merit and financial need, and submissions were reviewed by IWR alumni volunteers. We received over 700 applications from around the world and the quality of submissions was extremely high. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, with today’s interview being with Julia Duin. You can also read the responses from Fatin Abbas, Puja Changoiwala, and Nora Shychuk!
Julia Duin is a Seattle-based journalist who has worked as a reporter or editor for everything from the Houston Chronicle to the Washington Times. She’s also written extensively for the Washington Post Sunday Magazine for which she just came out with a nearly 6,000-word profile on President Trump’s advisor Paula White. She’s published six books, the latest being In the House of the Serpent Handler, a nonfiction work about 20-something Appalachian pentecostal serpent handlers who use Facebook to publicize their exploits. During the 2014-2015 academic year, she occupied the Snedden chair as a journalism professor at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks.
How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?
Sometime last September, I was skimming an alternative journalism site — I think it was IJNet.org — when it caught my eye.
Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit your writing?
The writer’s retreat I attended was in the spring of 1978, literally 40 years ago. But I’ve been on other kinds of retreats and they’re wonderful for clearing your mind. I need at least 24 hours to dismiss exterior thoughts and concentrate on the matter at hand, which is why weekend retreats do me little good. I’ve no sooner quieted down when I have to return to the rat race.
As a journalist, does your writing process differ at all when it comes to your creative writing?
It’s night and day. As a reporter, you’re in react and deadline mode plus there are always space limitations. I’ve done academic writing as well where you have to footnote nearly every sentence. As for creative writing, I’ve not been able to do much of it in the past 30 years. But when I have been writing a story story or novel, I’ve had to withdraw for several days to get the mental space to think things out. For one book, I rented out a yurt for several days in the Nantahala National Forest in western North Carolina just to be alone. However, after I adopted a child 11 years ago, my ability to go somewhere quiet shrank to nil.
What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?
The international character of it intrigues me. I’m looking forward to meeting the many folks attending this retreat and yes, having it be in Iceland definitely adds to the allure.
What and/or who do you find inspiring?
Classical music really helps me think and dream. The Russian romantics are the best but in recent years, Philip Glass has inspired me more. A time of prayer and Bible study early in the day sets my interior clock to what’s most important and it’s during those times that creative thoughts often come. Although British writers like Tolkien and C.S. Lewis have always helped me dream, lately I’ve taken to looking at photo books of landscapes to help me think. I spent 2014-2015 teaching in Alaska and I find that gazing at Arctic scenes gets my thoughts out of the daily news rush into more eternal concerns. And in the past 3 years, my daughter and I have become avid consumers of any movie by Hayao Miyazaki and similar Japanese anime fantasies that have a whole different take on reality. I love their creativity.
How has writing influenced your life?
Since I have been making my living as a journalist for nearly 40 years (currently I blog thrice weekly for the blog getreligion.org and write for various other publications), writing has *been* my life. After taking second place in a writing competition as a sixth grader, I knew I had it within me to excel, so I quit ballet lessons (which I loved) and concentrated on writing during middle and high school years. Like Eric Liddell from “Chariots of Fire” who said that when he runs, he feels God’s pleasure, I feel the same sense of blessing when I write. Journalism is such a great way to bring about social justice and to elevate the deserving and expose the corrupt. I was able to do so while being on the religion beat for various newspapers. It’s one of the few occupations that gives you instant power, which is why it’s hard for many of us to give it up and move on to other kinds of writing. With so much information overload these days, one must invest in many hours of quiet to get the quality of writing and wisdom that the world so badly needs. We are the distillers of wisdom and insight for the world. Good writing is not cheap and it will cost us everything.
What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?
Being a single parent is very tough. Children constantly need you for all sorts of things; they have a way of demanding your attention when you’re thinking through a phrase or on deadline, so your concentration is always fragmented. If I stay up late to get things done, then I miss out on sleep. My best friend in this is my laptop, which I can take wherever I go and on which I can write as fast as I want. Notepads seem intolerably slow.
Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?
I’ve published six books and will be working on my seventh during the retreat. Writing one is like being in touch with another world and sensing what will be important in the coming years. My books have grown from a time when I’ve sensed a shift in society or an undercurrent that no one is writing about but which is very much there. I start by taking notes on what I’m noticing and feeling. I see conversations on Facebook about it; I see people groping for what they cannot explain. A book is conceived when that same idea begins to burn in you and your circumstances work out to where you can learn more of this thing or you encounter just the right people who can guide you. Writing is very mystic in that sense. You have to be attuned to the tremors of a movement long before others have noticed it. My fourth book was about large amounts of committed believers who were leaving church. I knew it was happening but no one was writing about it. I began to research this and the book came out two years later. In that year and for two years afterwards, 20 books were published on the same or a similar theme. Writers had felt the zeitgeist of this trend and were able to catch the wave as it crested. One of the most important parts of being a writer is having your ear to the ground, sensing what is to come and discerning a response that will benefit readers when events take place. A good writer is part prophet.