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.
Bestselling author Paula McLain will lead workshops at the 2017 Iceland Writers Retreat in April. Continue reading
An interview with Claudia Casper, IWR 2017 faculty
Claudia Casper is a Canadian author and IWR alumna, and her book The Mercy Journals has recently been shortlisted for the Philip K. Dick Award. She spent some time with me to talk about her experience with Iceland and the Iceland Writers Retreat as a participant, as well as what she is looking forward to about being a faculty member for IWR 2017.
Claudia attended the first Retreat, which was held in April 2014. She and Anne Giardini, fellow Canadian writer and friend, attended the Retreat together as a fun adventure for literary friends. They did some exploring of Iceland before the Retreat began, including a guided snowmobile tour of some glaciers. Claudia described the experience as “beautiful and exhilarating,” yet also terrifying because she and Anne had to keep up with the guide so as to not fall into a crevice. Despite the element of danger, being immersed in the landscape made the beauty of it even more exceptional.
During her experience as a participant at the Retreat, she appreciated the intimacy of the workshops and social gatherings. She recalled spending time with the Canadian Ambassador, and that she was “shoulder to shoulder with writers at the top of their field, local politicians, historians, and artists.” She also noted the incredible history tour given by Eliza’s husband, who is now President of Iceland. Throughout her time in Iceland, she was amazed how the description of Iceland as an “island of storytellers” is completely true.
Claudia will be leading two workshops at the Retreat in April. They are entitled “Research—The most fun part of writing” and “Process—Keeping the engine stoked in the day to day of writing.” When I asked how she decided what topics she wanted to cover for her workshops, she explained that it was important for her to focus on her personal interests while complementing the other workshops and thinking about what the participants would be interested in. Although she is giving workshops on different aspects of the writing process, she is particularly interested in how each person can go through similar writing stages but somehow create a unique piece of writing in the end.
In a final comment, Claudia said that she is looking forward to both “refilling the reservoir of inspiration, talking about building story, and expanding one’s sense of possibilities,” as well as “raising a glass with everyone in April.”
Geraldine Brooks—winner of the 2006 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction—led a workshop at the inaugural Iceland Writers Retreat in 2014 entitled “The Distance Travelled: From Journalist to Novelist.” Her newest book, The Secret Chord, a fascinating historical novel that transports readers back to the days of the Old Testament, hits stores in early October. A friend of the Iceland Writers Retreat, Geraldine took time out of her hectic book tour schedule to tell us about her latest creation and to reminisce about her transformative experiences in Iceland.
Interview by Elliott Brandsma
Geraldine, give us a brief synopsis of your new novel The Secret Chord. In your own words, what is the book about, and what themes/ideas does it explore?
The novel is a reexamination of the life of King David, told by Natan, his counselor and critic. The biblical account of David provides us with the first full biography in history—the first life story told in full from early childhood to extreme old age—and predating Herodotus by half a millennium. Everything happens to David: every human joy, every sorrow, the greatest successes and the most abysmal and traumatic failures. My novel is an exercise in imaginative empathy: can you think your way into a past so distant, a society so different, and yet find emotional resonances that tell us something about what it means to be human?
The Secret Chord is set during biblical times, describing and adding dimension to the life of King David. What inspired you to tackle this subject matter, and what were some of the challenges you faced while writing about such a monumental religious figure?
When he was nine, my elder son decided to learn to play the harp. It was while watching him at his lessons, dwarfed by his teacher’s magnificent concert instrument, that I began to wonder about that other long-ago boy harpist, a figure who has inspired so much remarkable art (and some truly dreadful movies). It’s strange perhaps, but I don’t view David as a religious figure, or at least that’s not primarily how I think of him. It’s true that he had a strong relationship with the divine, but what interests me most about him is his use and abuse of power—very secular themes, and very enduring ones. Power and its hot temptations is a theme that doesn’t get old: what was true in the Second Iron Age is still true today. And I love that the biblical accounts don’t shrink from examining his human weaknesses. He’s a very complex man.
You gave a “sneak-peek” reading from The Secret Chord at the 2014 Iceland Writers Retreat. How did the project evolve after your stay in Iceland, and did your trip to Reykjavík in any way influence how you finished the book?
I was about at the half-way point if I remember correctly. I think reading the sagas, and reading commentary on the sagas was quite influential in shaping my thinking. The sagas have the same blend of strangeness and magic coupled with recognizable human emotions and reactions as the David story does.
Before you started writing fiction full-time, you worked as a journalist for many years. Drawing from your own experience, what advice would you give to someone who is considering transitioning into a career in literature?
It wasn’t really a considered thing for me. It just happened. I had a child, and suddenly the kind of journalism I’d been doing for more than a decade—as a correspondent in hot zones in the Mideast, Africa, the Balkans—wasn’t compatible with raising an infant. I had been mulling on a story I’d stumbled on 10 years earlier, about the plague village of Eyam, in the English Peak District, and it had taken root in my imagination. I just sat down one day and started writing it. It became my first novel, Year of Wonders. Lucky for me, someone wanted to read it. But I’m not a good source of career advice as my situation was so idiosyncratic. I would say it helped that I’d written two books of non-fiction since the biggest transition for me was learning to sustain a narrative longer than the typical newspaper feature.
Describe some of the highlights of your time in Iceland. What would you say to someone who is on-the-fence about signing up for the Iceland Writers Retreat? What did you gain from the experience?
Iceland is the most creatively stimulating place I have ever set foot. The landscape is so other-worldly that it forces you to see with fresh eyes. And being in a culture that’s so rich in literature is remarkable: the depth and breadth of the writing tradition and the modern commitment to literature is breathtaking. Riding amazing Icelandic horses over the lava fields, listening to extraordinary live music in some of the friendliest bars I’ve had the pleasure to visit, seeing Gullfoss and Geysir, feeling the tingling shock of the hot springs. I can’t mention a highlight because the entire time was a high. As for the retreat itself, the participants were accomplished, enthusiastic, engaged and engaging. Some have become good friends.
Say something about yourself that people would be surprised to know.
I have three alpacas in my front yard named Monty, Heathcliff and Alec Guinness. Animals of all kinds are a sustaining joy to me.
Words and Photo by Elliott Brandsma.
Starkly beautiful and geographically unique, Iceland is a small yet striking country that captures the imaginations of all who visit. From the island’s quirky, creative inhabitants to its charmingly casual atmosphere, here are eight things that long – and short-term visitors report missing most about Iceland after they’re gone.
- Icelanders. The people of Iceland are resilient, resourceful, laid-back, and full of wonderful stories and interesting perspectives. Some tourists might be put off by the Icelandic stoicism or dark sense of humor at first, but once visitors get to know them (or give them an alcoholic beverage), Icelanders swiftly become some of the most jovial, straightforward, and open people they’ve ever met.
- The Music Scene. Iceland is home to one of the most prolific alternative music scenes in the world. The country plays host to a variety of cutting-edge music festivals all year round, and some notable Icelandic band or singer is likely performing at a bar, restaurant, or coffee shop in the capital Reykjavík on any given evening.
- The Proximity to Nature. A road trip outside of Iceland’s capital city is a fantastic way for travelers to commune with nature and spend time alone in solemn reflection. Iceland’s fresh air, towering mountains, glaciers, aurora borealis, geothermal hot springs, and absorbing scenery provide visitors with a rare chance to reconnect with the natural world, alleviate stress, and clear their minds of mental clutter.
- The Close-knit Environment. Iceland is a small, sparsely-populated island, which means everyone knows everyone, and family ties between Icelanders are quite strong. Most native Icelanders are related to each other by at least the seventh generation, lending to the nation’s distinct “small-town” feel. The informal nature of the Icelandic populace also makes it easy to establish personal and professional connections, so for visitors who stay long enough, Iceland quickly feels like a second home.
- The Bars, Restaurants and Coffee Shops. The country’s budding culinary scene and iconic coffee shop culture are favorites among tourists to Iceland, mostly because Reykjavík boasts a venue or café for every palette and preference. Fish and lamb dishes remain a huge hit among Icelanders and visitors alike, while a variety of vegan dining options are slowly but steadily catching on in the Nordic country. The capital city is home to an abundance of cozy coffee shops and bustling bars, too, where visitors can upload vacation photos, Skype with family, or chat with new friends over a brew.
- The Literary Culture. Iceland has been a book-loving nation for centuries. Whether it’s the Icelandic sagas or the Nobel Prize-winning novels of Halldór Laxness, Icelanders have long venerated the written word and made literacy a cultural value. Reykjavík boasts a well-run network of libraries and bookstores and every year around Christmastime, Icelanders celebrate the jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood, when Icelandic publishers collectively release hundreds of new book titles on the market.
- Þetta reddast. In Icelandic, the saying “Þetta reddast” means “everything will work out.” This phrase has come to exemplify an endearing quality about Icelanders: their steadfast belief that no matter how bleak or dire a situation appears, everything will come together in the end. Many long-term visitors in Iceland have come to appreciate this optimistic outlook, because it helps them keep stressful situations in perspective and not take life too seriously.
- The “Everything is Possible” Attitude. Iceland’s intimate size and inventive people make every dream and creative endeavor seem possible. For example, Iceland boasts the most published authors per capita in the world; many Icelanders have formed bands or play an instrument; visual artists abound in the country; and Iceland is rapidly becoming a home for innovative green businesses and technologies. An artistic and entrepreneurial paradise, the country celebrates creativity and thrives on turning lofty ideas into reality.
Elliott Brandsma lived and went to school in Iceland for three years before relocating to Miami, Florida, in 2016. He misses these and many other things about Iceland. What will you miss most about your time in Iceland? Sign up for the Iceland Writers Retreat and discover the wonders of Iceland for yourself.
The Iceland Writers Retreat asked several Icelandic authors to describe what an average day of writing looks like for them. In this piece, Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir gives us an account of her fascinating creative process.
ODDNÝ EIR ÆVARSDÓTTIR
This day is the day. I make abstract structures with elements that I smell in the morning: symbols, colors, sounds. Inside this structureless structure I dwell and write: There I’m covered by pure passion and joy, and I write like an animal until exhaustion. I leave and come back, leave again and come back. During the day. And the night. Sometimes I don’t even dress. For the reasons of health some days I slip into this dangerous zone only once. I jump in, write fast and pray to the unconscious that the phrases will be finished. The intervals are not to be judged as idle. During walks and talks and readings of poetry, listening to music, checking out the history of symbols and words, I make a negative space for my writing. But if there is anxiety, I invent a ritual of exorcism, and I’ll have to contemplate on the golden ratio in some classics, my chore. Nurtured by tradition, I allow my writing days to be rhythmically different one from the other. But in this endless construction and deconstruction of time and space there should not be threat of authority or power. Just an out-of-the-blue in a play.
Activist and author Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir is a powerful, poetic voice on the Icelandic literary scene. She has written lyrics for Icelandic popstar Björk, and her novel Jarðnæði(Plan of Ruins) was nominated for the 2011 Icelandic Literature Prize and the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize. Her recently-published short story “The Blue Blood” was translated into English by Philip Roughton and is available for download on amazon.com.
Peter Ngila is one of the four recipients of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. It will provide financial support for him to attend the Retreat in April 2017. The Award recipients are determined by merit and financial need, and the Award is funded by IWR Alumni.
Peter Ngila is a Kenyan writer. He graduated from Mount Kenya University in August, 2015, where he was studying journalism. His short fiction has appeared on magazines and journals in Kenya and beyond including Jalada Africa, Prachya Review, Brittle Paper, Lawino among others, and got anthologised in Ebedi Review. Peter has attended Writivism Creative Writing workshops in Kenya and Tanzania, and has taken part in The Writivism Mentoring Process. He also attended the 2016 Short Story Day Africa Migrations Flow Workshop in Nairobi. Peter has a number of manuscripts, including a short story collection, and a novella. He will go to Ebedi Writers Residency in Nigeria in January 2017 to complete work on a novel.
What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?
PN: I am most looking forward to the writing workshops, because I am always out to improve my writing career, and also share with and learn from fellow attendees. And yes, to visit Iceland, and meet Nadifa Mohammed!
What do you find inspiring?
PN: My writing is usually inspired by what happens every day. I love meeting new people and seeing new places. I am one of those people who are shameless enough to eavesdrop at your phone call, and later turn the conversation around in my mind.
How do you overcome writer’s block?
PN: I don’t believe in writer’s block that much. I think one cannot produce all the time, because you will have to read other writers to improve your writing. And rewriting and editing is also part of writing, and so these to me may not happen the same time with writing, as long as they are integral parts of the writing process. And yes, when you are not in the mood to write, rewrite or edit, you should sit back and enjoy life. But again, that shouldn’t encourage laziness, so most of the time I usually push myself by sitting down all day, and having the previously desired word count by evening no matter what, then take a shower and go out walking; that’s how to keep fit.
How has writing influenced your life?
PN: Well, writing has impacted my writing in many ways. It has enabled me to open up my life (because all those secrets I thought were too dark or even interesting to share with the world are part of research and they tend to come out fictionalized in my writing). Writing has also taken me places, from writing workshops to festivals in and outside my country, Kenya. (And yes, I am going to Iceland, the first time actually to fly out of Africa)! My writing has also enabled me to communicate better because I am not the best verbal communicator.
Peter is very excited and thankful for the opportunity to attend the Retreat. In a final comment, he cites eagerness to learn, persistence, and patience as the tools anybody can use to achieve their dreams.
For the third year in a row, we have partnered with Iceland Travel to run a competition to win a spot at the Iceland Writers Retreat. This year’s theme was “Iceland — Regard The Moon” and we received over 350 submissions from the around the world.
The winner of the competition is Heidi Ball from the UK, with her story “White Light”. Continue reading
Akvile Buitvydaite is one of the four recipients of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. It will provide partial financial support for her to attend the Retreat in April 2017. The Award recipients are determined by merit and financial need, and the Award is funded by IWR Alumni.
After exploring many countries on her solitary travels, she finally settled down in Copenhagen. She grew up in a small town in Lithuania and the variety of places that she has visited have given her an opportunity to treasure the diversity of this world. Akvile has been teaching for several years and at the moment is taking a degree in English and Cultural Studies. Writing has always played a role as a very intimate and personal expression of her solitude; lately she has become more explicit about it and received many encouraging responses. Akvile wants her writing to tackle the questions of social justice and to evoke emotional understanding of a human life. She is really looking forward to meeting all the people at the Iceland Writers Retreat, share and learn together and just let the beauty of Icelandic nature capture our minds.
What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?
AB: Honestly, I am really overwhelmed by the choice of workshops and possibilities to learn from great authors and other participants. I imagine the retreat as an opportunity not only to create a space with like-minded people, but as well to learn more about the ways to create a literary work, establish narrative structures or to depict novel characters. This is all very new to me, therefore I’ve got plenty of questions and considerations and I am looking forward to sharing them with the others.
What do you find inspiring?
AB: I’m mostly interested in the lives of ordinary people. Often when I am sitting on a bus or train, I try to imagine the stories of the fellow passengers. I love being in the city that is crowded and solitary space at the same time and I believe that every human life is really fragile. This thought works as a driving force for me. Still, I have discovered that imagination and inspiration play a small role in the process of writing, because the rest requires discipline, effort and work. There are periods when I am really struggling to produce anything, because my writing expectations and reality do not correspond with each other. Then I feel the need to get out from my routine and spend some time in nature where I can sort of go back to my senses and find that inner flow. Essentially, literature and music are the cornerstones for my own writing—when I am into a novel or listening to an album it triggers a certain emotional response in me and then I embody this into a poem or a fictional work. There have been several novels that left a huge impact on me and I am still touched by the power that words might entail and their ability to awaken one’s senses.
How has writing influenced your life?
AB: Until very recently, I’ve pictured writing as my personal expression only and I have been rather quiet about it, so many people around me didn’t even know that I have this sort of ‘hobby’. One of those days, while sitting on the train and staring at strangers, I got this incredible wish to write a novel and slowly it led into a plot, a main character and the whole story line that is inhabited in my head every day since. It is still very fresh to me so I am finding it difficult to grasp its effects on mine or anyone else’s life. However, I consider language as a way of restricting or emancipating people since many of our experiences are bounded within the linguistic frame. Therefore, I see writing as a way to give a voice to people and I hope that I will succeed in transforming my ideas, values and world views into a fictional narrative.
In a final comment, Akvile expresses her excitement to attend the Retreat and optimism for the changes it might bring.
“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!