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.
“Icelanders have a saying that everyone ‘has a book in their belly.’ ” explains Iceland Writers Retreat co-found Eliza Reid, who is described, rather adorably, as a “literary midwife” in this wonderful article featured in the University of Toronto Magazine. Read more about it here.
If sheep gnash their teeth during round-up in the autumn, the winter will be hard.
If sheep gnash their teeth somewhere else, it presages very bad weather.
If the first calf born during the winter is white, the winter will be a bad one.
The first snows of winter are called winter-calves. If these happen early in the season that means the winter will be good.
If somebody throws away a dead mouse, the wind will soon start to blow from that direction.
Seldom the rains of Saturday last till Sunday Mass.
If cows lick trees you can expect rain.
The usage of firewood depends on the weather on Maundy Thursday.
Good hay drying weather can be expected if a falcon or a merlin sit on a haystack in the field.
If your head itches, you can expect wet weather.
In late winter it is forbidden to knit on the doorstep, as that is known to lengthen the winter.
If someone drops a knife while cleaning fish, and the knife points to the sea, that presages good fishing when next you go to sea.
If someone drops a knife, while cleaning fish, and the knife points to the land, that presages bad fishing when next you go to sea.
If something is spilt, a drunken man will soon visit.
If you itch in the mouth, you will receive a mouthful of knuckles.
If a sick person sneezes three times on a Sunday, that is considered a sign of better health.
If you sneeze three times before breaking fast on a Sunday, you will gain something in that week.
If it rains when someone moves house, it bodes the wealth of those moving.
If you see nine cows in a shed with a grey bull next to the door, and all of them lie on the same side, you are in luck, because you will be granted one wish.
Image by Roman Gerasymenko
Text and photos by Elliott Brandsma. Featured image by Roman Gerasymenko
The secret is out: Iceland is now a popular travel destination for professional and aspiring writers. Whether it’s the nation’s centuries-old stories about Vikings and their rapacious exploits or the compassionate, satirical novels of Halldór Laxness—Iceland’s Nobel laureate in literature—this small Nordic country is a treasure trove for book buffs and word nerds around the world.
Why exactly is Iceland becoming such a haven for the book-obsessed and the poetically-inclined? The Iceland Writers Retreat has compiled a list of the top 10 reasons why every budding author should come to Iceland and experience its extraordinary literary culture firsthand.
1) The Sagas. Acclaimed as masterpieces of medieval European prose and revered by many Icelanders, the Sagas are a group of histories detailing the founding and settlement of Iceland. Some experts have called these tales, which are hundreds of years old, the first great European novels, while some Icelanders believe that these texts are completely factual, describing true events that happened to real people. Regardless of their historical accuracy or inaccuracy, these ancient texts have captivated the imaginations of numerous authors throughout the ages and continue to do so to this day.
2) Almost everyone is a writer. Appreciation for poetry and literature is embedded within Icelandic culture, and many Icelanders will publish a book at some point in their lifetime. The Icelandic government also awards competitive grants and stipends to writers annually, making the dream of working a full-time professional writer a reality for some.
3) The Otherworldly Landscapes. Icelandic nature is breathtaking, beautiful, and inspiring. The island nation has earned the moniker of “The Land of Fire and Ice” for the stark contrast between its volcanic landscapes and its sparkling glacial formations. With a small population of only 320,000, Iceland is also one of the few places left on earth where one can drive out into the wilderness and be truly alone. The countryside is a wonderful place to clear one’s head and brainstorm ideas for a new novel.
4) Icelanders. Though some might seem shy and stoic at first, Icelanders are generally friendly and approachable people with interesting stories to tell. When visiting Iceland, sit in a coffee shop or grab a drink at a local bar, and if you strike up a conversation with one of the locals—you’ll find that they are some of nicest people you’ll ever meet. Who knows? Maybe one of their personal stories or their vast knowledge of Icelandic folklore will inspire your next masterpiece.
5) Coffee Shop Culture. Reykjavík—Iceland’s capital city—is a coffee lover’s dream. The bustling mini-metropolis is full of unique coffee shops, each with their own personalities and patrons. Starbucks has been knocking on the nation’s door for a while now, but Icelanders adamantly refuse to let the giant coffee chain in—and writers who love frequenting coffee shops with character, charm, and a good cup of joe certainly benefit from it.
6) The Annual Book Flood! Every year around Christmastime, Icelanders celebrate the annual jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood. During this exciting time of year, publishers release hundreds of new titles on the market, and Icelandic authors give readings at bookstores and literary museums across the city to advertise their latest masterpiece. This tradition celebrates literacy and puts a much-deserved spotlight on literature for several months of the year.
7) A Network of Libraries. Libraries are not in short supply around Iceland. In fact, Iceland’s capital city Reykjavík is full of libraries, big and small, so residents have cheap and ready access to the printed word, no matter where they live. Well-maintained and stocked with interesting titles from around the world, Icelandic libraries are also used as community centers that regularly host exciting educational events for all ages.
8) Love for Language. Icelanders love their language. Icelandic, a Northern Germanic language spoken by 330,000+, is the closest equivalent to Old Norse—the language of the Vikings—still in use to this day. Icelanders are so protective of their mother tongue that they established a “naming committee” that forbids citizens from giving their children names that don’t adhere to the language’s strict grammatical rules. For foreigners, learning Icelandic presents a formidable challenge, with words like Eyjafjallajökull and þjóðminjasafnið baffling many.
9) Professional Networking is a Cinch. The advantage of being a writer in a small country like Iceland is that professional networking is incredibly simple. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who can help bring your writing project to fruition. If you move to Iceland, chances are you’ll regularly run into a famous author in the grocery store or walking on the street—you might be smitten and starstruck but, to the locals, it’s no big deal!
10) Halldór Laxness. Awarded literature’s top honor in 1955, Halldór Laxness is the first and only Icelander (to date) to win a Nobel Prize. His novels have been translated into numerous languages, including English, and they remain poignant and relevant years after they were first published. Perhaps his most beloved book, Independent People, a novel about a stubborn farmer who clings to his independence even as his life and family crumble around him, has been lauded by critics across the world and is a must-read for every book lover who visits Iceland.
The 4th annual Iceland Writers Retreat will be held in Reykjavik from April 5-9, 2017.
Words by Elliott Brandsma. Photo by Roman Gerasymenko
Christmastime is just around the corner, which means that, soon, Icelandic publishing houses will be releasing hundreds of new titles onto the Icelandic book market, commencing a unique tradition known as the jólabókaflóð, or the Christmas Book Flood. Throughout this bustling and much-anticipated yearly event, bookstores across Iceland resemble miniature concert venues, where Icelandic authors of all genres read from and promote their latest work, transforming the holiday season into an extended city-wide literary festival.
This charming tradition has recently started capturing international attention, especially through facebook; a series of widely-shared memes on the social networking site advertises and explains how Icelanders traditionally exchange books on Christmas Eve and then spend the remainder of the evening reading at home. A cherished staple of Icelandic holiday festivities, the Christmas Book Flood truly is a distinctive celebration of literacy that has a fascinating, yet little-known history.
Born Out of Scarcity
During World War II, restrictions on imports to Iceland were harsh. Moreover, Icelanders did not have the proper currency to purchase foreign products, which severely limited their gift-giving options around Christmastime.
However, these limitations did not apply to the local book market, so the tradition of exchanging books during the holidays naturally arose as a result. With a tiny population of just over 330,000, Iceland’s publishing industry has, until very recently, lacked the resources to publish and distribute new books all year round, making the Book Flood a practical marketing strategy as well as a treasured tradition.
Now Iceland represents one of the most prolific book-publishing countries in the world, as hundreds of bookstores and literary circles have been established all over the country. Many Icelanders will publish a piece of writing in one form or another during their lifetime (a book, a newspaper article, a poetry collection, etc.), and the island inhabitants also read more books per capita than any other people in the world. Not surprisingly, the book-loving island nation enjoys a sky-high literacy rate, demonstrating the value of integrating literature and reading into a nation’s cultural identity.
(One of the popular jólabókaflóð memes on facebook)
An Excessive Tradition?
Releasing hundreds of titles annually in a microcosmic country like Iceland inevitably leads to a backlog of books and occasionally Iceland’s largest publishing houses have had to flush out or destroy their excess inventory, leading some to question whether Iceland’s Book Flood tradition is more wasteful than wise. To eliminate this surplus, Icelandic publishers are starting to develop a more prominent and efficient year-round paperback book market in hopes that it will equalize supply and demand.
However, Iceland’s Christmas Book Flood will likely persist for decades to come as its popularity grows and it becomes more inextricably linked to the nation’s international identity. And both Icelanders and book lovers from all across the globe are probably content with that.