Chris Cleave, award-winning British novelist, was a faculty member at the fourth Iceland Writers Retreat. In his typical self-deprecating yet good-natured humour, he led a workshop on criticism: how to get it, how to seek it out, and what to do with it once you have it.
The fourth Iceland Writers Retreat has just come to an end. While we sift through the photos and memories (a detailed post will be coming soon!), check out this column by our faculty member David Lebovitz, who led small-group workshops on putting personality into food writing and on how to write a cookbook.
Last year, British novelist, broadcaster, and historian Kate Williams gave readings and hosted two workshops at the Iceland Writers Retreat. As the 2017 retreat rapidly approaches, she recalls the highlights of her stay in Iceland and gives future attendees a glimpse of what to expect from the Land of Fire and Ice.
Interview by Elliott Brandsma.
Kate, describe some of your favorite parts about the Iceland Writers Retreat. What did you enjoy most about the event last year?
I loved meeting the wonderful participants and hearing their brilliant ideas for books – and our reading evenings – the British Ambassador came to one!
What were your impressions of Iceland? What struck you most about the country and its people?
I chose to come to the Writers’ Retreat as I was already a huge fan of Iceland – the scenery, the country, the people and your entire political outlook. And of course the great literature you have produced. I was struck by the incredibly beautiful scenery and how you could imagine yourself back in the Age of Vikings simply by just being there. I felt as if I could hear the old Icelandic gods talking to me……
Iceland is a place that leaves a lasting impression on people for many reasons. How, if at all, has your writing changed since visiting the country?
Iceland makes you more aware of the myths in the landscape. There were definitely secrets in the stones….
What do you like most about working as a broadcast journalist, television personality, professor, historian, and novelist? How do you juggle such distinctly different roles and still find time to write?
Hmm! I am very lucky to have so many demands on my time and am so fortunate to be able to do what I love every day. But I do admit that things fall down by the wayside. I dread being asked by TV companies to film me at home as there are piles of books everywhere….
You’re an avid author of historical fiction and have appeared in several television documentaries about historic events and time periods. If you could travel back in time, which time period would you choose to visit, and why?
I’d have to come to Iceland in the true times of the Vikings! And I have a lot of questions to ask of the subjects of my books, Emma Hamilton, Queen Victoria, Empress Josephine.
As a regular television commentator on the royal family, can you share with us some little-known facts about the Queen of England and her kin?
If you are talking to the Queen and she moves her handbag to the other arm – that’s your signal to make a graceful exit. By doing so, she is usually signaling to a lady in waiting or similar person to come and whisk her away so your conversation is about to come to an end!
What projects are you currently working on? What can we expect to hear/see from Kate Williams in the next year or two?
My final book in my trilogy about an Anglo- German family – I am currently correcting it and it is due out at the end of the year. Life in the 30s in the run-up to war…..
Say something about yourself that people might be surprised to know.
I am afraid of sponge. I have got better on it and I don’t mind bath sponges these days but I hate mattress kind of sponge!
Who are some of the authors on your reading list right now? Now that you’ve experienced Iceland firsthand, what book would you recommend future IWR attendees read before coming to Iceland to write and gather inspiration?
Independent People [a novel by Icelandic Nobel laureate Halldór Laxness] is a wonderful book. I love more recent engagements with Iceland, Hannah Kent …and Sarah Moss’s memoir of a year living in Iceland post the economic crash fills me with envy – the thought of living for a year in your beautiful country! The Iceland Writers’ Retreat is the most inspiring experience – don’t miss it!
Bestselling author Paula McLain will lead workshops at the 2017 Iceland Writers Retreat in April. Continue reading
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.
Award-winning author Alison Pick was on the faculty of the Iceland Writers Retreat in April 2015. In this interview with IWR intern Audrey Wright she shares her experiences teaching and visiting Iceland.