Last year, British novelist, broadcaster, and historian Kate Williams gave readings and hosted two workshops at the Iceland Writers Retreat. As the 2017 retreat rapidly approaches, she recalls the highlights of her stay in Iceland and gives future attendees a glimpse of what to expect from the Land of Fire and Ice.
Interview by Elliott Brandsma.
Kate, describe some of your favorite parts about the Iceland Writers Retreat. What did you enjoy most about the event last year?
I loved meeting the wonderful participants and hearing their brilliant ideas for books – and our reading evenings – the British Ambassador came to one!
What were your impressions of Iceland? What struck you most about the country and its people?
I chose to come to the Writers’ Retreat as I was already a huge fan of Iceland – the scenery, the country, the people and your entire political outlook. And of course the great literature you have produced. I was struck by the incredibly beautiful scenery and how you could imagine yourself back in the Age of Vikings simply by just being there. I felt as if I could hear the old Icelandic gods talking to me……
Iceland is a place that leaves a lasting impression on people for many reasons. How, if at all, has your writing changed since visiting the country?
Iceland makes you more aware of the myths in the landscape. There were definitely secrets in the stones….
What do you like most about working as a broadcast journalist, television personality, professor, historian, and novelist? How do you juggle such distinctly different roles and still find time to write?
Hmm! I am very lucky to have so many demands on my time and am so fortunate to be able to do what I love every day. But I do admit that things fall down by the wayside. I dread being asked by TV companies to film me at home as there are piles of books everywhere….
You’re an avid author of historical fiction and have appeared in several television documentaries about historic events and time periods. If you could travel back in time, which time period would you choose to visit, and why?
I’d have to come to Iceland in the true times of the Vikings! And I have a lot of questions to ask of the subjects of my books, Emma Hamilton, Queen Victoria, Empress Josephine.
As a regular television commentator on the royal family, can you share with us some little-known facts about the Queen of England and her kin?
If you are talking to the Queen and she moves her handbag to the other arm – that’s your signal to make a graceful exit. By doing so, she is usually signaling to a lady in waiting or similar person to come and whisk her away so your conversation is about to come to an end!
What projects are you currently working on? What can we expect to hear/see from Kate Williams in the next year or two?
My final book in my trilogy about an Anglo- German family – I am currently correcting it and it is due out at the end of the year. Life in the 30s in the run-up to war…..
Say something about yourself that people might be surprised to know.
I am afraid of sponge. I have got better on it and I don’t mind bath sponges these days but I hate mattress kind of sponge!
Who are some of the authors on your reading list right now? Now that you’ve experienced Iceland firsthand, what book would you recommend future IWR attendees read before coming to Iceland to write and gather inspiration?
Independent People [a novel by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness] is a wonderful book. I love more recent engagements with Iceland, Hannah Kent …and Sarah Moss’s memoir of a year living in Iceland post the economic crash fills me with envy – the thought of living for a year in your beautiful country! The Iceland Writers’ Retreat is the most inspiring experience – don’t miss it!
In celebration of the fourth Iceland Writers Retreat, we will are thrilled to announce that we’ll be hosting an evening of author readings in conjunction with Reykjavik UNESCO City of Literature. The event, which is free and open to the public, will be held at the Iðnó building, by the Reykjavik city lake, at 8 pm on Tuesday, April 4th and will feature readings by this year’s fabulous Iceland Writers Retreat faculty. The evening will be moderated once again by the wonderful Egill Helgason.
Our Featured Authors are: Olof Palme Prize winner Carsten Jensen; bestselling author Bret Anthony Johnston; New York Times bestselling author Chris Cleave; author and Iceland Writers Retreat alumna Claudia Casper; chef and author David Lebovitz; Giller Prize winner Esi Edugyan; author, ethnologist and journalist Vilborg Davíðsdóttir; Man Booker Prize shortlist nominee Madeleine Thien; bestselling author Meg Wolitzer; Somerset Maugham Prize winner Nadifa Mohamed; Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse winner Paul Murray; and, author of The Paris Wife Paula McLain.
For more information in both Icelandic and English see our Facebook event.
Iceland Writers Retreat co-founder Eliza Reid will be in Boston soon talking about Iceland’s writing and storytelling traditions and why the country is such a popular destination for those with creative minds. Continue reading
During our recent trip to Washington D.C. to attend the annual AWP (Association of Writers & Writing Programs) we had the pleasure of attending an event at the legendary Politics & Prose bookstore hosted by Iceland Writers Retreat alum Dr Nicole Miller. The wonderful evening of memoir and discussion featured readings from Phillip Lopate, Richard Hoffman, Brandel France de Bravo, Dorian Fox and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich. Although they were all great, we have to say that our favourite was delivered by Nicole herself who entertained us with her colourful and humorous account of her experience at the Iceland Writers Retreat. Thank you, Nicole, for a terrific evening. We had a fabulous time!
Thank you to everyone who stopped by the Iceland Writers Retreat booth at the 2017 AWP Conference & Bookfair in Washington DC this weekend. This was the first time we’ve attended this incredible event and we were thrilled to be able to meet so many interesting people and tell them about the Iceland Writers Retreat and our fabulous 2017 faculty. We had so much fun and even met some of our great IWR alumni! This year’s AWP was a massive success with over 12,000 people in attendance and around 800 exhibitors, with lots of lovely books, of course. Apart from our popular IWR bookmarks and flyers, and the wealth of literature on Iceland provided by Reykjavik UNESCO City of Literature, the Icelandic Literature Center, and Iceland Naturally, all those who stopped by our booth got to sample some delicious OMNOM chocolate from Iceland and could pick up some handy notebooks and pens from Icelandair.
We’d sincerely like to thank everyone who signed up to receive our newsletter – we’ll be sending you all a welcome post very soon.
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.
“I write because I love writing, and I am glad to have made it to the Iceland Writers Retreat…I am looking forward to interacting with writers all over the world,” says Peter Ngila, one of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipients who was recently featured, together with Nadifa Mohamed – one of the Iceland Writers Retreat 2017 faculty members – on the James Murua blog. James, who is one of the Africa’s most prominent literary bloggers, provides news and reviews about African writers and the African literature scene. Read more about their feature here!
Before she was awarded a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for her iconic novel A Thousand Acres, American author Jane Smiley won a 1976 Fulbright Research Grant to study in Iceland for a year—an adventure that has been a consistent source of inspiration for her throughout her prodigious literary career. Smiley recounts her time as a young student in Reykjavík with the Iceland Writers Retreat in this piece and describes both her upcoming toddlers’ book and her ambitious new trilogy about the past 100 years of American life and human civilization.
Interview by Elliott Brandsma. Photo by Mike McGregor/The Guardian.
Jane, take us back to your time as an exchange student in Iceland. What initially drew you to the country, and what projects did you work on while you were here?
In graduate school, I studied Old Norse, Old English, Gothic, and Old High German. I loved the sagas, and I took Old Norse for four or five semesters. One year we read all of Njál’s Saga, so when I was thinking about studying abroad, Iceland was the only destination I had in mind. I wanted to learn modern Icelandic and improve my reading skills in Old Icelandic. I was not quite prepared for the climate or the landscape, but I enjoyed myself a great deal. The landscape seemed very exotic to me, and I enjoyed taking walks. I also enjoyed the historic sites we students were taken to visit out in the countryside.
Toward the end of my stay, I got to be friends with a man who owned a car and was a hiker. He took me to visit some great scenery, and also on a horse ride. My real difficulty came from the length of darkness as the Winter Solstice approached. I had a very hard time waking up in the dark and my biological clock got out of kilter so that I stayed up writing much later than I would have at home in the states. I loved the swimming pool that was not far from Háskóli Íslands (the University of Iceland), especially the hot pools. I would go there every day, then stop at the consulate (now the U.S. Embassy Reykjavík) and check out books to read. I did a lot of reading.
My friend also told me about Greenland. I had read The Saga of the Greenlanders, but what he told me sparked my imagination, and I started thinking about writing a novel about the end of the Greenland settlement. I did do so, and that was published in 1988, about 10 years after I got back from Iceland. I visited Greenland in the early ‘80s. I saw that it was very different from Iceland, but Medieval Norse literature connected them in my mind, and so I modeled the style and the philosophy of the Greenlanders on that of the sagas. Also, I loved rjómaterta. I went to a certain fancy hotel and ate a slice every Friday.
You have had a successful career in academia and literature, winning the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, teaching once for the prestigious creative writing program at the University of Iowa, and also at Iowa State University, and being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. You now teach in the Creative Writing Program at the University of California at Riverside. How did your stay in Iceland shape you into the writer you are today?
The American consulate had a very good library, so I read a lot of books—like War and Peace and The Grapes of Wrath—that I had never read before. Even though I did socialize and go to concerts and have friends, there was plenty of time to read, especially late at night. I caught up on novels I had missed earlier when I was busy translating archaic texts in school. I loved them, and they cemented my interest in the novel as a form. While I was there, I did my assignments for my course in Icelandic, but I also wrote a great deal, though none of that has been published. It was good practice and gave me good habits. Since I did a lot of walking, there was plenty of time to ponder various ideas.
Describe your interactions with Icelanders. What do you miss most about the people and culture of Iceland?
I found Icelanders friendly and easy to get along with, but I was surprised at a few things. At the end of my stay, a man who was planning to go to the states asked me to help him with his English, so we had a few sessions. His English was pretty good, but I had to show him how to lower his voice and not stand too close to the people he was talking to. I also witnessed an amusing exchange at the market, where two Icelandic women were trying to figure out what celery was. In the dormitory at the university, the students could be a little rowdy on party nights but were in general very friendly. I thought Icelanders were very straightforward and smart. I enjoyed talking to them and being around them.
Name some of your favorite books by Icelandic authors. In your view, which book is a must-read for anyone considering a trip to Iceland?
I first read Halldór Laxness in Iceland. Independent People is one of my favorite books of all time and has been very inspiring to me. That would be the book I would tell people to read. But any other Laxness book would be terrific, too. And, of course, the Sagas, especially Laxdæla Saga, which is less focused on a single person than Njál’s Saga. I was quite fond of the main character of Gisli’s Saga, who seemed less rough and more sympathetic than some of the other saga heroes.
Tell us about your latest works, the Last Hundred Years trilogy. In your own words, what is the series about, and why did you decide to write an American family saga that extends an entire century?
The first idea that came to me was the title of the trilogy—the Last Hundred Years. No one can be certain at this point whether the last hundred years of civilization will turn out to be a success or a failure. I think it could go either way. There are good things about the modern era, but also quite frightening and depressing things, like nuclear warfare, climate change, the rise of the power of corporations and banks, and the splintering of the political landscape in America and the Middle East. I was also interested in the formal experiment of having the books progress year by year, and fitting the plots of the characters’ lives into those years rather than doing it the usual way. I enjoyed that part a great deal. I did put in a Norse character, Andy, from a town in Iowa founded by Norwegian settled in the 19th century. That enabled me to put in some bits from the sagas and from other Scandinavian stories. She is one of my favorite characters. Another character, Henry, is my alternative self—the one who became a medievalist rather than a writer.
You are also venturing again into children’s literature with the upcoming book 20 Yawns. How did this project come about, and what were some of the challenges writing for such a young audience?
I have written five YA novels about an 11-13-year-old girl who lives on a horse ranch in California. These are based on a horse training method that was invented near where I now live and has transformed the way horses are trained in the US—much more cooperative and less confrontational. 20 Yawns is a toddler book. I came up with the idea and wrote the text, but the artist came up with the art, which I think is the main pleasure of the book. I hope it sells and that people like it.
Iceland transformed Jane Smiley’s writing. Will it transform yours? Sign up for the 2017 Iceland Writers Retreat and discover the wonders of Iceland’s inspiring literary culture for yourself.