Faculty update

Faculty update

We regret to announce that Hilton Als is no longer able to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat in April. All participants who were scheduled to attend his workshops will be invited to select a new class. Iceland Writers Retreat apologizes for the inconvenience.

Q&A with Michael Agugom, Alumni Award Recipient

Q&A with Michael Agugom, Alumni Award Recipient

Thanks to a generous donation we were able to offer an additional full Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award to one of our finalists from this year’s application process. Meet Nigeria’s Michael Agugom!

Michael Agugom is a graduate of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University, Awka, where he received a B.A. in English Language and Literature. He served as TV Presenter/Reporter with the largest TV network in Africa. His fiction has been published in Capra Review, Referential Magazine, Courtship of Wind, Hypertext Magazine, Queer Africa 2: New Stories (Ma Thoko’s Books), and forthcoming in the Cantabrigian Magazine. The anthology, Queer Arica 2: New Stories, that features his story Tar has just been shortlisted for the LAMBDA Award. His short story Ibinabo is currently on the longlist of the Short Story Day Africa Prize 2017.

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally? 

I habitually skim through websites and blogs offering news and writing opportunities for writers, especially emerging writers. A few years back while doing that I came across Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award on the website of PEN South Africa. Then I read about the retreat and about Megan Ross, the first African and/or first-ever recipient of the award. I knew that moment that this was what I needed, especially the writing workshops. But the following year, due to some traumatic experience I suffered, I missed out on a chance to apply. So last year I had no reason not to apply. When I received the email informing me I hadn’t won but was among the 21 finalists, I was heartbroken: I really wanted to participate in this year’s retreat because of its theme and the esteemed faculty members that would be handling the sub-themes—sub-themes that are completely relevant to my present writing projects.  I remember my good friend and founding-editor of Capra Review, who has been very supportive of my writing, write me, encouraging me not to give up, that at least I made finalist which should count for something. I got over it and made up my mind to apply again during the next call for application. So it was a delightful surprise to receive another email months later saying the judges were really impressed with my application and that I have been selected to participate in the retreat if I still wanted to. The ecstatic feeling from that news is still fresh on my mind—I’m still relishing it.

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit your writing?

This would be my first. And I’m glad and grateful for the opportunity.

What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?

The opportunity to participate in a writing workshop with an assemblage of renowned writers is one I would give up sleep for, trust me! I’m always open to fresh ideas and creative writing experiences that can improve my writing. This retreat offers those and more.

Experiencing a country and her culture for the first time is, I believe, refreshing, inspiring and enlightening. Iceland is going to be a beautiful adventure for me. I’m looking forward to the cultural tours and learning more about Iceland, especially her literature.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

Human struggles inspire me—all forms of human struggles. The everyday struggles to fix what was broken yesterday and in the process break another today, trigger stories in me. Toni Morrison and Chinua Achebe are the writers in my mind at moments like this. The first time I read Sula it was like listening to my mother tell me a story. Toni Morrison comes across to me as an Igbo mother. This is the same way Achebe makes me feel reading Things Fall Apart. The orality of their storytelling and how they weave the characters in their stories and put them through the everyday struggles of mankind inspire me.

How has writing influenced your life?

Writing for me is freeing. My stories are questions—questions threatening to break my backbone with their weight. My stories are my way of asking the world: why this way, why not this other way? Writing is my way of emptying myself of fears. The things I am too timid to express verbally, I say them through stories.

Writing has taught to listen to the unspoken emotions of those around me: the things they can’t find words to express or too afraid to express. I listen more now to understand, patiently; and not really to counter.

Importantly, writing has helped me to appreciate language. My multilingual ability plays a significant role in how I write. It has helped me to appreciate the beauty and burden of imagining a story in say Igbo, my indigenous language, and writing the same story in English.

Writing has made me very sensitive.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

My biggest challenge right now stems naturally from the kind of project I’m working on. I’m researching the practice of online fraud, especially among teenage boys being dropping out of school and being apprenticed to practitioners of this crime. The fear and threats to life that come from writing against a crime that is justified and encouraged by many impedes my writing. I’m also concerned about how to handle facts while writing a creative non-fiction book (lyrical essays mostly) without the facts making the book into a boring economic textbook. My challenges, however, are what keeps me going on.

Any final comments you would like to share?

One that comes to my mind right now is the advice I was given as an undergrad by one of my professors: if you want to be read seriously, write seriously. And I would also like to add that: and for you to write seriously, you must read seriously.

About the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award: 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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Interview with IWR Alumni Catherine Wayne

An Interview with IWR Alumni Catherine Wayne

We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Catherine Wayne joined us in 2014 and 2016.

Catherine is the author of the Edda Melkorka children’s series:  Too Many Pets and So Many Rainbows as well as a number of specialized College text books. She lives with her husband in Merritt, British Columbia. For more information you can check out her website Global Grammas.

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

My daughter, Robyn Phaedra Mitchell, has lived in Iceland for about fifteen years.  She and I had been talking about writing the Edda series (based on the adventures of my Icelandic granddaughter) and she told me about the IWR.  Going to the Retreat was an excuse to also visit Edda Melkorka.

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat, either as faculty or as a participant? If yes, how did the experience benefit you and/or your writing?

I’ve been retired for a few years now but during my working life I both attended and led seminars on technical writing which is quite different from story writing.

What did you most look forward to about the Retreat?

Meeting with others who are as passionate about writing as I am to exchange ideas and experiences.

Did it match up to your expectations?

I think the Retreat exceeded my expectations.  Talking to people from all over the world who have things to share about how they see life was quite a treat and getting to meet with very successful writers in a number of genres was inspiring for me.

What was the biggest lesson you took from the retreat? Or perhaps a piece of advice, or writing exercise that had an impact on your writing?

Two things:

First, that there is no one “right” way to write.  Everyone I spoke or listened to has a different process.  The process I heard about that I could really relate to was Miriam Toews’ who said she thought about and suffered over her stories for ages and then just sat down and wrote them.  That describes my process perfectly.  I think about the story; do some research; lie awake at night figuring out the details; obsess about characters for a few weeks and then just sit down and slam out the first draft.  It’s nice to know I’m not alone in the process.

Second, was a writing exercise in one of the workshops that had everyone in the room contribute one word and then all the people in the room having to write a quick story using those words.  It was a great demonstration that language, even if it’s not language you choose yourself, can still tell the story you want to tell.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

Catherine's book So Many RainbowsI am consistently amazed at the creativity of children and I guess that’s why I like to write for children.  I love listening to kids expound on their views of the world and how it works.

How has writing influenced your life?

Writing is my way of staying in touch.  I think so much is lost to the ether when your message is limited to 160 characters.  I still write long letters to people and send them by post.  I get letters too from nieces or brothers or cousins which is something I really enjoy.  I think I get this from my Mom who was a great correspondent and taught me early that if you send letters to people, you get to look forward to getting mail.  I think of my stories as a way of corresponding with future generations.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

Discipline.  I could spend forever thinking about my stories and figuring out each and every small detail.  I have to make myself sit down and actually write.  Once I start, I am good for a few hours at least, but it’s getting that first word on the page that I have trouble with.

What are you working on currently and/or is there anything exciting that has happened in your writing life since the retreat?

I currently have a couple of projects on the go:

  • I have been doing genealogical research about my Mom’s side of the family with the idea that I will tell a fictionalized version of that story.
  • The next in the Edda series is in process. This one may end up being a cookbook.  Not sure yet.  We are still in the thinking, researching, and suffering stage.

Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

I will be forever grateful to the “Viking” who took my daughter to Iceland.  If not for him, I would never have discovered this astounding little part of the world.  If I was able, I would attend IWR every year because there is so much to learn and so many people to learn it from.  IWR is a fabulous opportunity to meet and talk with storytellers from all over the world.

An Interview with IWR Alumni Megan Herbert

An Interview with IWR Alumni Megan Herbert

We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Megan Herbert joined us in 2014 and 2017 as a participant, and in 2017 as a participant and off-venue faculty member.

Megan worked for almost two decades as a storyliner, script writer, script editor, story producer, and development writer for television shows including long-running Australian drama Neighbours, and BBC dramas EastEnders and Holby City. While living in Iceland, she was Head of Development for Pegasus Pictures. Also a visual artist, she writes and illustrates children’s picture books (and many other things). She now lives in Amsterdam with her husband and son. Her new children’s book, The Tantrum That Saved The World, is available at https://www.worldsavingbooks.com/ .

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

I was living in Iceland the first year the event took place. I think I saw a Facebook post about it. I signed up almost immediately.

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat, either as faculty or as a participant? If yes, how did the experience benefit you and/or your writing? 

I’m an illustrator as well and I’d attended several art retreats before. They were always hugely beneficial, giving me time to think and plan and gain new insight into my work. The IWR was my first writer’s retreat though. Perhaps because I’d worked as a writer since graduating university, I hadn’t found the need to attend something like that until when, in 2014, living in Iceland, I found myself suddenly writing a lot more for myself than for TV shows. And needing inspiration and guidance and community. The timing was perfect. I skipped 2015’s event when I was back in Australia, but returned in 2016, hungry for more. In 2017 I returned again, this time as both student and an off-venue faculty member, which had a nice full-circle feeling to it. 

What did you most look forward to about the Retreat?

The first year I attended, I was balancing writing with new motherhood and freelance work, and the chance to put all that aside for a few days and to really immerse myself in what I was writing, as well as others’ ideas on the craft of writing, was a real luxury. It was fantastic discovering ‘new’ authors too, many of whom are now my among my favourites; Eliza and Erica are excellent curators of literary talent.

I’ve also made it my habit, every time I’ve attended, to live draw the event and share the results with the other attendees (you can see some of my previous efforts at http://megan-herbert.tumblr.com/ and https://www.instagram.com/meganjherbert/ ). Trying to capture both the likeness of a faculty member while also distilling what they’re teaching into a pithy caption is perhaps the best mental exercise I know. It’s a challenge I relish.

 What was the biggest lesson you took from the retreat? Or perhaps a piece of advice, or writing exercise that had an impact on your writing?

 Having attended three IWRs, I am lucky to have been able to glean all sorts of invaluable information from faculty members. Some of the rarest gems snuck up on me when I least expected it, like tips on writing engaging creative non-fiction from Andrew Westoll (when I was convinced I was writing a memoir). I have in my arsenal writing exercises from Iain Reid, Vincent Lam and Elina Hirvonen that I still use to this day. And tucked away in my notebooks are nuggets of pure gold on the topic of effective research (and turning that into sparkling prose) from Geraldine Brooks and Susan Orlean. I won’t describe them here because what worked for me won’t necessarily work for anyone else. That’s what’s great about the IWR; everyone walks away with their own treasures.

  What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

 The biggest challenge for me is finding enough time to see through to completion all the ideas that come to me. Being a cross-disciplinary writer and illustrator (my work ranges from TV and film scripts, to kids’ books, to product design, to journalism, graphic novels, and everything in between), it’s difficult to stay focused in one area long enough to see through things through. I’m getting better at it though, one idea at a time!

 What are you working on currently and/or is there anything exciting that has happened in your writing life since the retreat?

 I’ve just published my latest kids’ book called The Tantrum That Save The World – a picture book explaining climate change to kids in language they can understand and empowering them to do something about it. It’s part story book, part science book, and part call to action, and was a collaboration with climate scientist Michael E. Mann. I first started work on this book around the time of the first IWR, so that gives you some idea how long these projects can take to get over the finish line. I’ve been thrilled by the response to it so far; hearing from complete strangers how much their children are captivated by your story is perhaps one of the most gratifying experiences a writer can have. (It’s available for purchase now at worldsavingbooks.com J )

How was the process of crowd funding for the book? Is it something you would consider doing again in the future?

 The best thing about crowdfunding a book (or any creative project) is that it provides you with deadlines. Deadlines that, in my case, almost killed me… but they also resulted in a finished book, printed and distributed ahead of schedule. For anyone considering crowdfunding, I advise to do your research (there’s a ton of great information out there from crowdfunding veterans), and to start planning and building your campaign early (i.e. a minimum of 6 months before you launch). And have a finished product before you launch because the running of the campaign itself is equivalent to about 3 full time jobs. I’m still at the tail end of this campaign, having just delivered to my backers), so it’s too soon to say if I’d consider doing it again. It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, but it does get results!

 Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

the view from megan's summer home

The view from Megan’s summer house in Hvalfjörður, where she disappears to for several months each year.

 I was lucky enough to have lived in Iceland for 8 years, during which time I was able to experience the miraculous, confounding, terrifyingly beautiful Icelandic nature daily. I also learned the Icelandic art of staring out a window at a mountain for long stretches, and just thinking, and sometimes not thinking, percolating, meditating on nothing, without feeling guilt or that I was wasting time. Staring at mountains is NEVER a waste of time. But living in urban settings for too long makes us feel like it is. As a local participant, I had already experienced this aspect of the IWR and was able to apply it to my work. If you don’t live in Iceland, you really do owe it to yourself to come not just for the writing and the faculty, but to stare long and hard at a mountain. You won’t regret it.

An Interview with IWR Alumni Ian Gunn

An Interview with IWR Alumni Ian Gunn

We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Ian Gunn has been joining us in Reykjavik since 2015!

Ian holds Masters degrees in both Education and Australian Literature, and a PhD in Contemporary Literature from the University of Queensland. In a flagrant bid to feed a growing travel habit and indulge his passion for all things Icelandic, Ian horrified his professors and disappointed his parents by deserting the halls of academia to become an international air steward for a major Australian airline. The plan worked; in the last two decades, he has travelled to over 100 countries, and visited Iceland on at least twenty occasions. Ian is also a qualified sommelier and wine educator. When he’s not travelling the world, trying to find time to write and searching for the perfect Chardonnay, Ian also works as a sessional lecturer in Gifted Education at the University of New England. He lives, infrequently, in Coolum Beach, Australia. 

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

In the English language newspaper Reykjavik Grapevine. I live quite literally on the other side of the world, in Australia, but I’m lucky enough to be able to visit Iceland a couple of times a year. On one of these visits I was casually leafing through the pages of RG at the Kaffifélagi∂ coffee shop while waiting for my latte, and happened across an article about the inaugural IWR, which had not long finished. I was immediately captivated by the idea. Two of my passions – Iceland and writing – together at last! But I was also a little irked that I’d allowed the inaugural event to sail completely under my radar. I would’ve been a definite starter. Still, I made sure I booked onto a later Retreat, and I’ve been coming every year since. 

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat, either as faculty or as a participant? If yes, how did the experience benefit you and/or your writing? 

No. I’ve been to heaps of writers’ festivals around the world and attended a lot of workshops, but the IWR is really quite unique. It’s a credit to the Founding Directors that they’ve been able to retain the special quality and intimacy of the event, despite its growing profile and popularity.

What did you most look forward to about the Retreat?

Just about everything – the amazing faculty, the social occasions, meeting writers from around the world, and touring the Icelandic landscape.

Did it match up to your expectations?

Yes, completely. Utterly. Absolutely.

What was the biggest lesson you took from the retreat? Or perhaps a piece of advice, or writing exercise that had an impact on your writing?

I think the best lesson I’ve taken from the Retreat is that writers need to find their own ‘system’ for writing, and then try to make it habitual. No two writers approach the task of writing the same way. Some are very methodical, producing daily quotas of words, while others are more sporadic. It’s always interesting, and quite reassuring, to learn of the vastly different methods writers employ and realize that all are valid. Writing is often viewed as something of a solitary enterprise, but I think this connection with other writers is very important. You can trade ideas and insights, and hopefully see that the same frustrations you experience are experienced by everyone.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

Living in Australia, I find that I’m constantly inspired by the beauty and terror of nature. I’m sure that’s also part of what attracts me to Iceland as well.

In terms of writers who inspire me, there’s Margaret Atwood of course, whose work I first encountered in the 1980s as an undergraduate in a Commonwealth Literature course. I also admire Tim Winton, Peter Carey and Richard Flanagan, a holy trinity of contemporary Australian literature. Another favorite is the British author Chris Cleave, whose novels pulsate with a wonderful humanity. I was fortunate enough to meet Chris at last years’ IWR and take his workshop, and he is, indeed, a wonderful human!

How has writing influenced your life? 

Wow, where to start with that question! I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, starting with poems at age 4 that my father transcribed and made into a little book. I’ve diarized most of my life. And I was always drawn towards school and University subjects with a heavy writing component. So, I’ve basically written throughout all of my conscious life, in one way or another, though much of it hasn’t been for public consumption, let alone publication.

But therein lies an important point, I think. A few years ago I came across a workshop for aspiring writers titled ‘So you want to write?’ The more I thought about the workshop’s title, the more mystifying it became to me. Surely being a writer is not about wanting to write, but needing to write, regardless of where the words might take you, or you might take the words. Writing, often for its own sake, is a compulsion that I’ve definitely always felt, and most established writers I’ve encountered tend to affirm this.

Also, writing can’t happen without reading. I’m an insatiable reader, and couldn’t imagine my life without books.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

Time, of course, and distraction. I travel constantly, so my life is full of chaos and stimuli. Not the most conducive milieu for tasks that usually require a degree of focus and order, such as writing. On the other hand, the incessant flux of my life gives me plenty of creative fodder for stories and articles.

 What are you working on currently and/or is there anything exciting that has happened in your writing life since the retreat?

I’m about halfway through an essay on the surprising and ironic similarities between Iceland and Australia – the island mentality and hostile landscapes that breed a laconic and off-kilter sense of humor; the deep cultural history of storytelling through the Sagas and the Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories, and so on. In many ways, this essay is as much about exploring my own lifelong obsession with Iceland, and I hope to finish it by April, in time for the IWR.

Apart from that, I’m working on a number of short stories, each at different stages of development. I’m also mining my old travel journals for possible material. I was a big fan of the travel narrative during its publishing ‘heyday’ in the 1990s. I’m eagerly awaiting its renaissance, but I fear the genre has now taken up permanent residence in the blogosphere. 

Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

Yes. If you’re thinking about attending the IWR, then just do it! I promise you won’t regret it. It’s a total mind blast in the most stunning of settings. And don’t use distance as an excuse for not coming to Iceland; if a regular trickle of Aussies can make it this far each year, then anyone can!

Getting to Know IWR Faculty Member Adania Shibli

Getting to Know IWR Faculty Member Adania Shibli

We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Adania Shibli will be a faculty member at our 2018 Retreat in April. She will be teaching two workshops, Writing with Paintings and Secondary Elements, which you can learn more about the workshops she will be teaching here.

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat, either as faculty or as a participant? If yes, how did the experience benefit you and/or your writing?

In fact my work in academia, rather than the field of writing, has allowed the occurrence of such retreats. Participants in my courses and I would meet over the period of a few days. We would start by expressing urgent questions related to the process of writing, and which are of concern for each one of them. Then we try read texts that could further reflect on such questions. Alongside, we would go for walks to places of the participants’ or my choice. In that sense, these were retreats from the daily life of each of them, yet not from life itself. We try, as a matter of fact, to see the extension of their thoughts and questions in lived experiences that out of the way of their daily lives.

This results with creating shared fields of intimacy that in my view are an essential part of writing. Eventually it feels as if writing becomes alive; making such retreats a rare occasion to experience that by the participants and for me alike. This is as well what I most look forward to sharing with others in any such retreats.

Is there a particular piece of writing advice (or a writing exercise) you would like to share with our followers?

Never let a day pass without writing; to maintain writing as a daily practice; writing throughout the day, even if only a sentence every few hours. It is an advice that I try to give myself as well.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

I find speaking less is very inspiring.

How has writing influenced your life?

Writing in my case had taught me how to live, and probably how to love.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

The relation to language and words are most challenging and intriguing. One relation which is often encouraged is instrumental use: we use words to tell something. We get used to treat language in this way through speaking, where we are rarely allowed to babble, stammer or stutter. When we do so, we are ridiculed, mainly because we take language away from the single role forced on it to express things efficiently. Personally I find such instrumental use is reducing the potential of language, as instrumentalism reduces the potential of anything else. This said, I try in the process of writing to explore dimensions of language beyond that, something that is very difficult, after such dimensions have been repeatedly suppressed.

What are you working on currently?

I’m in anticipation of starting a new novel that might be written against the background of what I shared here.

Adania Shibli (Palestine, 1974) currently lives in Jerusalem and in Berlin. She has written novels, plays, short stories and narrative essays. She has twice been awarded with the Qattan Young Writer’s Award-Palestine in 2001 on her novel Masaas(translated into English as Touch. Northampton: Clockroot, 2009), and in 2003 on her novel Kulluna Ba’id bethat al Miqdar aan el-Hub (translated into English as We Are All Equally Far from Love. Northampton: Clockroot, 2012). She has also edited a Dispositions (Ramallah: Qattan, 2012), an art book about contemporary Palestinian artists. Her latest is the novel Tafsil Thanawi (Minor Detail, Beirut: Al-Adab, 2017). Shibli is also engaged in academic research and teaching. Since 2012 she has been a visiting professor at Birzeit University, Palestine.

An Interview with IWR Alumni Iain Reid

An Interview with IWR Alumni Iain Reid

We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Iain Reid was a faculty member at our first Retreat in 2014.

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

I found out about it because my sister, Eliza, is a co-founder, and I remember her telling me about their idea to start the retreat. I thought it was very exciting, and I’m pleased to see how it’s developed and grown over the last few years.

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat, either as faculty or as a participant? 

No, this was the first event like this that I attended.

What did you most look forward to about the Retreat?

I looked forward to spending some time in Iceland and also meeting the other authors and participants from various countries.

Did it match up to your expectations?

It exceeded my expectations!

How has writing influenced your life?

It’s influenced my life in many ways. Professionally, but also personally, as I’ve met many good friends through reading and writing. I imagine writing will (likely) always be a part of my life.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

I find writing very hard. So, all of it is a challenge.

What are you working on currently?

My first novel is being adapted for film by Charlie Kaufman for Netflix. My new novel, Foe, will be released later this year in August.

Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

The Iceland Writer’s Retreat is an amazing event and I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is considering attending. I’m very appreciative of my time there in 2014.

Iain Reid is the author of two critically acclaimed, award-winning books of non-fiction. His debut novel, I’m Thinking of Ending Things, was an international bestseller and named by NPR, and the Globe and Mail, among others, as a book of the year in 2016. It was short-listed for the Shirley Jackson Award and has to date been translated in over twenty languages. It is being adapted for Netflix by Oscar-winning screenwriter Charlie Kaufman. Reid’s new novel, Foe, will be published in August, 2018.

An Interview with IWR Alumni Maria Mutch

An Interview with IWR Alumni Maria Mutch

We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Maria Mutch joined us in 2015.

She is the author of the memoir, Know the Night, which was a finalist for the Governor General Literary Awards in 2014, and the upcoming story collection, When We Were Birds (Simon & Schuster Canada). She lives with her husband and two sons in Rhode Island.

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

I don’t remember the initial sighting but I stumbled on it somewhere on the internet; it was a friend, another writer, bringing it up later on, though, and asking if I wanted to meet her there that was the catalyst for going (so happy she did).

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat, either as faculty or as a participant? If yes, how did the experience benefit you and/or your writing? 

I’ve been both a participant and faculty at various writers conferences. It’s energizing to be with other people who value writing and make it their priority. The most transformative sessions tend to be given by workshop leaders who emphasize the idea that, even while they’re giving their opinion on a method or a structure, really anything goes, and it’s all about finding what works for the individual writer. In a large group like a conference, you get to see all the different pathways.

What did you most look forward to about the Retreat?

I knew the setting was going to be pretty spectacular, and the workshop leaders were a huge draw, too. At the time, it was Adam Gopnik, Linn Ullman, Sjón, Taiye Salesi, Ruth Reichl, Barbara Kingsolver, Alison Pick, John Vaillant…

Did it match up to your expectations? 

Heck yes. And went well beyond. It was a great mix of workshop time, getting to know other writers, and going out to explore. I should mention, too, that the coffee, pastries and bowls (yes, bowls) of whipped cream that fortified us between class sessions were a ridiculous surprise (I was tempted to replicate this at home, but then thought better of it).

What was the biggest lesson you took from the retreat? Or perhaps a piece of advice, or writing exercise that had an impact on your writing?

My favourite workshops are always the ones where the leader speaks freely and at length about their process, and participants can ask questions. In Adam Gopnik’s session, he was candid, revealing what his writing day looks like and just how much reading it contains (2-3 hours worth). He also had interesting things to say about researching essays; he mentioned the importance of the peripheral figure, that often the best sources, and the most intriguing viewpoints, come from people on the fringes of an event and not necessarily from the central figures, who often have too much at stake to speak truthfully. This really struck me, and I think it works, funnily enough, for fiction also—that fringe elements and characters can sometimes end up being the real engines of a story, and represent a greater truth. I also loved Linn Ullman’s class, as she laid out her daily process and how to be attentive (and she told a great, funny story about her father, the famous filmmaker Ingmar Bergman—the gist of which was that if you want to appear to have thoughtfully read and enjoyed the bad poetry of a lover, you take off your glasses slowly, then put them back on, before speaking—and it still makes me laugh). John Vaillant’s workshop was a masterclass on persistence and how an essay for a magazine can turn into a full-length book. All of these authors underscored for the participants the need to fully show up for the process.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

Just being in Iceland was inspiring and the effects continued on after I got back home. It was revitalizing to be in a place where literature (and coffee) has such a central place in the general culture. As part of IWR’s program, we visited the house of Halldór Laxness, the Nobel Laureate, and between this and taking in the architecture and interior spaces in Reykjavik, I came away feeling a strong connection between writing and physical space. It affected my approach to my own workspace at a time when I really needed it. I ended up creating a new office when I got back, one that is bright and somewhat spare and deeply influenced by my time at the retreat. I had started writing my story collection by that point, and the space enabled me to work with the “dark matter” of a couple of the stories, ones that had been especially challenging. The new space supported me, gave me light, in a sense, so that I could fully show up. It’s my favourite place to work. (Additionally, I learned while at IWR that those Icelandic sheep really do seem warm, and, since I’m always cold, I brought back one of the famous sweaters; a girlfriend also knitted a wrap for me from Icelandic wool, which I keep in my office for my writing sessions. The stuff works incredibly well for New England, which is sometimes colder, I’ve noticed, than Reykjavik.)

How has writing influenced your life?

Writing shapes virtually every day, including my sleep (I wake up fairly often in the night with an idea or a line that I then have to write down), and it greatly affects what I read. My book stack is generally skewed to research or books that I’ve picked because I love how someone thinks, especially if they’re innovative. I don’t usually have the anxiety of influence that writers sometimes talk about; I like to be inspired. I also look at art shows and films, and listen to certain types of music, for a kind of atmosphere or something sort of intangible for my own work.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

I have the same issues with time that everyone has. My oldest son has significant disabilities and this sometimes means that what I had planned for my own workday has to be adjusted or let go. I did make the discovery, however, that I often get great ideas or breakthroughs in my writing when my kids are around, largely because my expectations are lowered and I’m more open. I keep notebooks and pens everywhere, so that I’m always ready to get things down when I’m otherwise occupied. I’ve learned to write on the weekends, also, so that I stay in touch with what I’m doing. If there’s a gap of even a couple of days, I notice that it takes more time to settle in again (it’s like a relative that you haven’t called for a long time—it gets harder and harder to pick up the phone).

What are you working on currently and/or is there anything exciting that has happened in your writing life since the retreat?

My story collection, When We Were Birds, is being released by Simon & Schuster Canada on April 24th, and I’m working on a novel which is set to come out in 2019.

You mentioned to Eliza that Iceland makes a brief appearance in one of your short stories, can you elaborate on that without giving away too many spoilers? 

There is a brief appearance of an Icelandic woman. When We Were Birds contains a contemporary version of the Bluebeard tale—the one about the man who kills his wives and keeps the corpses in a locked room—and in my version, the wives come from all over the world, including one from Iceland. I wish I could say that she gets revenge, but Blue does get his in the end. (Some fermented shark also appears…)

Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

Not long ago I was reading the Buddhist author, Dawa Tarchin Phillips; he was talking about the importance of travel (big and small) to get a new perspective and break out of limiting beliefs. I think this applies to writing, also, and it can mean simply hanging out with people who have a different viewpoint than you, or taking part in a retreat far from home to see how other people approach their writing. And then just being open to what transpires.

Iceland

An Interview with IWR Alumni Katharine Kroeber

An Interview with IWR Alumni Katharine Kroeber

We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Katharine Kroeber joined us for our very first Retreat, and has continued to join us every year since!

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

Therein lies a tale… Background info: I do not tolerate heat well – and heat, for me, is anything above 65F.  I had been to Iceland for a couple brief visits, and really wanted an excuse to return. One summer, I had a week from Hell; I was in a place where it was 110-115F every single day, hardly cooling off at night, and no a/c or pool.  I was with my kids, one of whom was also miserable because of the heat, and two people who were having severe executive function issues, so could never decide on anything.  It was horrible.  One morning I got on Facebook and my friend Alda (Sigmundsdóttir) had *just* that moment posted how two friends of hers were going to try to run a writers’ conference in Iceland, and did what did people think of that idea?  I sat there, with my unhappy children and indecisive relatives and the sweat POURING off of me and thought, “ICELAND!  In APRIL!  Cold, still kind of dark, rain and possibly snow…  YESSS!!!!!”  I instantly contacted Eliza and Erica and said, “Sign me up, please!” and they had to gently explain that registration wasn’t actually up and running yet… They told me when it would be and I set an alarm on my computer for the day and time.

Thus did I become the first person to sign up for the first ever Iceland Writers Retreat. And I’ve been to every IWR since!

Have you ever participated in a similar kind of retreat? If yes, how did the experience benefit you and/or your writing?

I had attended a few conferences and retreats many years earlier (all in the US), with mixed experiences.  Generally the presenters/faculty were informative and helpful, but sometimes not, and a lot of the attendees were, frankly, snobbish without good reason to be so (not that there is really a good reason to be snobbish!), and insular – both culturally and about genres of writing.  So I was a bit nervous about what the IWR would be like, but since the worst-case scenario was that I would be in Iceland for a week… oh, eek. help.  help…. there seemed to be no real down-side.

What did you most look forward to about the Retreat?

The small size of the workshops.  I liked that they didn’t really have a *theme* – it was loosely oriented towards travel and food writing, but, because it was the first one, it was sort of, “well, let’s see who we can get!”  I also liked that they were going to have readings by Icelandic authors, and some cultural experiences.  Quite apart from my love of Iceland, a writer’s retreat showing its attendees stuff about the unique place they were at seemed a really good idea.

 Did it match up to your expectations?

No, it far exceeded them.  To me, an important point is that, year after year, the faculty are not just Great Authors, they are good teachers (two potentially quite different skill-sets!). Most of them also like to mingle with the attendees [this has varied from year to year].

Another important point, which I’ve heard others bring up, is the internationality, both of the faculty and the attendees.  Most writing retreats don’t get people from 25 different countries.  That alone makes it a good experience for writers, not just the workshops, tours, etc.

What was the biggest lesson you took from the retreat? Or perhaps a piece of advice, or writing exercise that had an impact on your writing?

Having been to every IWR, it’s hard for me to pick out just one lesson or advice or exercise, and I do think that will vary from person to person.  Something *I* would advise anyone attending IWR – too late for the people this year, everyone pass this along to 2019’s crowd! – is to take a variety of workshops, or at least one out of your comfort zone, not just what you think will be Useful to you, or of Particular Interest.  Even if you’re intent on writing a memoir, take, say, a food-writing workshop.  You just never know where something that turns out to be helpful or inspirational, or a person who is that, will suddenly appear.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

Pertinent to the IWR, I got a fun short story, “The Biggest Man in Iceland” out of an off-hand comment by Andri Snær Magnusson when he was doing a reading for the IWR at the house of Halldor Laxness. More generally… I know it sounds hokey, but truly, every person I meet, things I see, books I read, conversations I overhear, food I taste, places I wander, you name it.  I don’t understand people who get bored.  Being alive is kind of a privilege, and there’s just SO MUCH all around! That said, for me Iceland really is especially inspiring.  Among other things, there is a cultural almost *expectation* that people will be creative, or have some creative aspect to their lives, even if it doesn’t make heaps of money, rather than creativity being looked at with suspicion as it is in the States.

How has writing influenced your life?

For me, that’s a bit like asking, “So… how has breathing influenced your life?”  I simply wouldn’t exist without it.  I was inventing stories before I could write, and I’ve never been able to stop.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

Three challenges:
1, Procrastination (which I’ll write more about later, har har har) on specific works (I should be working on X… I’ll work on Q and L instead!) especially on finishing things.
2, Perfectionism.  Just put the damn words down on paper, Katharine!!  Fix them later if you must.
3, I used to get helpful rejection letters.  For the last 2 decades what I’ve gotten over and over is, “Wow!  This is really well written!  Can’t use it!  Good luck sending it somewhere else.”
Maybe I should have trained myself to write trash??  Anyhow, #3, not getting discouraged, no matter what.

What are you working on currently and/or is there anything exciting that has happened in your writing life since the retreat?

The IWR is exhausting but also exhilarating; I come away inspired to put my nose to the grindstone.  Right now… as always, I have at least dozen of ideas in various stages of completion, poetry, fantasy, essays, illustrations.  I have several friends I’ve made through the IWR or just in Iceland who’ve talked with me about collaborative efforts; my main hope right now is that  some of these actually come to fruition.  Stay tuned for the next exciting episode!

Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

I wasted *far* too much of my life being afraid of far too many things.  I can’t exactly say, “don’t be afraid!”, but I can urge people to try to push through fears.  Some can’t be changed (nothing has altered my acrophobia, for instance, and it’s just common sense to fear the dentist!), but some can – “oh, wow, that wasn’t so scary, after all!” – and it is so very worthwhile to try.  On one trip in Iceland the small group I was with went to the lighthouse at Akranes, and of course the thing was to go to the top balcony outside and look around.  I was quite terrified of the last ladder, but one fellow traveller  kindly and gently and beautifully worked me through getting up.  I remained frightened, but I also was, and remain, so grateful to that woman for ensuring that I did actually get to the top and look around, and have an experience I would never have otherwise had.  Try for that.  But also, don’t beat yourself up if you can’t manage something.  Whoever you are, however you are, you have something of unique and therefore of infinite value to offer the world: yourself.

Meowmjá, aka Katharine Kroeber, was born in the 20th century, raised in the 19th century, and is still trying to adjust to the 21st.  The daughter of a professor and a sculptor, she grew up surrounded with story-telling and art from around the world, and with a certain amount of travelling.  She has lived in large cities with inordinate numbers of people, and small towns with inordinate numbers of cows or grapes.  Having an ADHD child and an autistic child has led her on some interesting metaphoric journeys.  At age 9, thanks to her eldest brother reading her bits of sagas, she decided Iceland would be the perfect place for her to live.  This dream has not yet come to fruition, but she’s working on it.  In the meanwhile, she persistently writes, draws, crafts, and makes cakes… and now has added massage to her list of skills.

Dust jacket front cover

An Interview with IWR Alumni Corrie Tan and Yan Naung Oak

An Interview with IWR Alumni Corrie Tan and Yan Naung Oak

We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Corrie Tan and Yan Naung Oak joined us in 2015, and were also interviewed as part of a video we produced afterwards.

CORRIE TAN is a writer, editor and researcher from Singapore. She is currently the guest editor of the arts media platform Arts Equator, and was previously the arts correspondent and theatre critic at The Straits Times, Singapore’s largest English-language broadsheet. During her time with the newspaper, she co-organised and adjudicated the annual M1-The Straits Times Life Theatre Awards, which honours excellence in Singapore theatre. Corrie has also written about theatre and performance for The Guardian, The Stage, Exeunt Magazine and BiblioAsia.

YAN NAUNG OAK works at the intersection of civic tech and data journalism. He was one of the founding team members of Phandeeyar, an innovation hub based in Yangon, which is spearheading the use of technology to accelerate change and development in Myanmar. A 2017 School of Data fellow, Yan is passionate about open data and the power of new technologies to empower communities and civil society. He currently works as a data visualisation designer and data literacy trainer.

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

We found out about the Iceland Writers Retreat through a former colleague of Corrie’s at the Singaporean newspaper The Straits Times, who had attended the inaugural Retreat. She painted a picture of Iceland as a writer’s paradise: a fiercely literary population whose love of books saw them through harsh, beautiful winters. 

What did you most look forward to about the Retreat?

Corrie and Yan

We both write in very different ways: Corrie has a background in cultural journalism, so she writes reviews, essays and discursive pieces on a regular basis; as an open data and tech consultant Yan’s professional writing consists mostly of report writing and grant applications. But we’re both drawn to a variety of different forms of writing: Corrie has dabbled in short fiction and poetry, while Yan often crafts thoughtful pieces of creative non-fiction. We chose our small-group workshops at the Retreat quite differently. Yan selected his workshops by form: travel writing, for instance, or crafting the “immersion paragraph”. Corrie immediately signed up for workshops conducted by her favourite writers, including Adam Gopnik, Barbara Kingsolver, and Sjon. But more than the opportunity to devote some time to writing, we were also there for our honeymoon! So the Retreat we were looking forward to was one both literary and romantic…

Did it match up to your expectations?

We found a wonderful community of fellow writers at the retreat from a wide range of demographics, and we loved the focus and intimacy of the small-group workshops. But more than that, the care taken to make every single participant feel involved and connected was what made the Retreat so memorable. We arrived at our hotel room to find a welcome bottle of bubbly from Eliza and Erica as a gift for our honeymoon: it can’t get more personal than that. We still have the note it came with, three years later.

One of our favourite experiences was the literary walking tour of Reykjavik, where two very charming Icelandic men introduced us to the ghosts and goblins and little folk who roam both country and city. We also absolutely loved our Golden Circle tour – led by President Gudni himself (before he was president, of course). We found ourselves discussing everything from Iceland’s first parliament at Pingvellir to the country’s recent economic crisis and resurgence. And what a treat it was to visit the home of Halldor Laxness, Iceland’s Nobel laureate for literature, and listen to Andri Snær Magnason regale us with his witty, darkly humorous poetry as we took shelter from a passing blizzard.

But I think one of the terms we’ve held on to all these years later is “multi-local”, introduced during a talk by the inimitable Taiye Selasi. As a “third culture kid”, Yan has often sought ways to define his sense of belonging to several countries, including Singapore, Myanmar, and the United States. We have both spent extended periods living abroad, away from our home countries, and as a transnational couple we’ve had to spend a lot of time negotiating border-crossings – be they physical, cultural or emotional. “Multi-local” resonated with us, to know that we’ve been able to adapt our lives – and our writing – to various geographical and cultural contexts.

What are you working on currently and/or is there anything exciting that has happened in your writing life since the retreat?

Corrie and Yan in Iceland

Corrie and Yan in Iceland

Last year, Corrie made her debut as a contributing theatre critic for The Guardian and Exeunt Magazine while we were based in London. After we came back to Singapore in late 2017, she was appointed editor of Arts Equator, an online platform dedicated to the arts and creative practices in Southeast Asia. She also writes reviews and does long-form interviews for the site.

Yan was a 2017 School of Data fellow, and he also writes for Open and Shut, a blog exploring the potential of open data to transform closed societies. He also conducts data journalism training for independent media in Myanmar, his home country, and has also analysed the country’s socio-political developments.