A two-time winner of the Stephen Leacock Medal for Humour, Terry Fallis is the award-winning author of six national bestselling novels, including his latest, One Brother Shy, all published by McClelland & Stewart. The Best Laid Plans was the winner of the Leacock Medal for Humour in 2008, and CBC’s Canada Reads in 2011. It was adapted as a six-part television miniseries, as well as a stage musical. The High Road was a Leacock Medal finalist in 2011. Up and Down was the winner of the 2013 Ontario Library Association Evergreen Award, and was a finalist for the 2013 Leacock Medal. His fourth novel, No Relation, was released in May 2014, debuted on the Globe and Mail bestsellers list, and won the 2015 Leacock Medal. His fifth, Poles Apart, hit bookstores in October 2015, was a Globe and Mail bestseller and was a finalist for the 2016 Leacock Medal. One Brother Shy was released in May 2017 and became an instant bestseller. The Canadian Booksellers Association named Terry Fallis the winner of the 2013 Libris Award as Author of the Year.
Workshops: The power of a plan: Outlining your novel and Make them laugh: Writing Humour
How did you originally get involved in the Retreat?
It was a conversation with a friend, the fine Canadian writer, Allison Pick that introduced me to the Iceland Writers Retreat. She was on the faculty in 2015 and raved about the experience. And that was all it took. I researched the retreat and was very impressed with the program, the people, not to mention Iceland. As a closeted chess fan, I’ve read so much about the 1972 World Chess Championships in Reykjavik when Bobby Fischer defeated Boris Spassky. Then I read about Iceland’s strong literary culture and became slightly preoccupied—okay, “obsessed” is likely the better word for it—with somehow getting myself to Iceland for the retreat. So I proceeded to wage a two-year relentless campaign to elevate my profile in the right Icelandic circles trying not to look like I was waging a two-year relentless campaign. I’m sure Eliza wondered about my casual, friendly emails sent at strategic junctures. So you can imagine my excitement when the call came. I’m thrilled to be a part of this celebrated gathering in such a literary city.
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?
Yes, I’ve attended many writers festivals, workshops, and retreats over the years and have almost always enjoyed myself and learned something, too. Anytime I can commune with other writers, be they aspiring or established, I’m inspired. Writing is a rather solitary pursuit, so the chance to hang out with, and learn from, other writers always leaves me energized and motivated to dive back in to whatever novel I’m writing at the time. I think most writers need to recharge their creative batteries periodically. Festivals and retreats help me do that. But seldom is the cultural and geographic backdrop quite so stunning as will be in Iceland.
What are you most looking forward to about the Retreat?
Now that’s a tough question. As noted above, I enjoy spending time with other writers. There’s often an almost instant rapport among a group of writers, even a diverse gathering of scribes. I always look forward to those opportunities. I also really enjoy teaching and talking with writers who are working so hard to to break through. I know what that’s like. Of course, I’m really excited to see and experience a new and very special country for the first time. Finally, I’ve been listening to the New York Times Book Review podcast since it started. So I’m happy for the chance to meet Pamela Paul, the host of the podcast. (As a fellow podcaster, I understand that strange sensation when you feel that you really know someone even though you’ve never met them. That’s the power and intimacy of the human voice in your ear-buds.)
Is there a particular piece of writing advice (or a writing exercise) you would like to share with our followers?
Well, I’m leading two workshops, one on how to outline your novel, and the other on humour writing. I hope to impart some advice in those areas, but more broadly speaking, I’m often asked how I find the time to write when there’s so many other demands on our time including our families, our day-jobs, and the need to eat and sleep periodically. I think if you really want to do something—like write a novel or a short story—you can always, somehow, some way, find the time to make it happen. It requires commitment, belief, and some time management skills. (It occasionally helps if you are also a little deranged.) And when your desire to write overpowers the forces in your way, you may find as I did, that the writing doesn’t actually feel like work. It simply feels like it’s what you’re supposed to be doing.
Don’t get me wrong. Intellectually, I know that writing is in fact work—difficult, taxing and sometimes frustrating work. It just doesn’t feel like work when you’re doing something you love, or have wanted to do for a long time. So take that all-important next step. Make the move from wanting to write, promising to write, planning to write, and actually start to write.
What and/or who do you find inspiring?
I’ve always been inspired by polymaths—those rare people who were born with an extra helping of curiosity and have amassed knowledge, insights, and understanding across a dizzying array of subjects. Leonardo Da Vinci, Alexander Graham Bell, Thomas Edison, Benjamin Franklin, even Stephen Fry might be examples. Curiosity is such an important asset for writers, and it is the gift that keeps on giving.
How has writing influenced your life?
Relatively speaking, I came to writing novels quite late in life. I didn’t write my debut novel until I was 45 years old, and that was 13 years ago. Yes, I know, I don’t look like I’m in my late fifties. It’s a cross I must bear. So I’ve spent the last decade or so trying to make up for lost time. If you had told me back in 2006 that in 2018 I’d be just finishing writing my seventh novel, I’d have suggested you check your medication. Becoming a novelist changed my life in many ways. Most of all, becoming a writer has made me extraordinarily happy.
What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?
I suspect I’m not alone in this, but I think finding the time and energy to sustain a disciplined writing life in the midst of everything else I have on my plate can be a considerable challenge. It is also difficult to strike the perfect balance between promoting your previous novel and writing your next one. Obviously, both are important. Both take time. Both yield rewards. But it divides your time, your mind, and your life. And that can be tiring.
What are you working on currently?
I am currently writing my seventh novel, If at First You Succeed. In fact, if all goes well—oops, I may have just jinxed myself—I should have the manuscript nearly finished by the time we land in Reykjavik.
Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?
Storytelling is an ancient and noble calling. It may be a tough life—okay, it’s definitely a tough life—but the rewards are many. I’ve never worked harder, yet I’ve never been more fulfilled. I’m so thrilled to visit Iceland and I look forward to a wonderful, productive, and enlightening retreat with so many fine writers. I have no doubt that I’ll learn more and take away more from this experience than I can possibly offer in return. But I’m going to try!
The team at Promote Iceland spoke to some of Iceland’s most notable authors about the country’s literature and what inspires them. From Hallgrimur Helgason’s assertion that “Iceland keeps us creative” through its volcanic activity and developing landscape to Sjon’s explanation of the creativity required when working with a medieval language, there is much to learn about the Icelandic publishing industry, especially from those working in it.
All the authors featured in the video have appeared at the Iceland Writers Retreat, including Hallgrimur Helgason and Andri Snaer Magnason who will be leading workshops this April. You can learn more about the workshops they will be leading here.
Iceland Writers Retreat brings together writers from around the world for five days of learning, exploring, writing, and creative inspiration. Along with being from diverse backgrounds, writers are working across multiple styles of writing, and as such, the Retreat aims to offer a mix of workshops that can apply across genres as well as deep delves into specific forms of writing.
Each faculty member will teach two workshops, usually with a mixture of seminar discussion and exercises. For the 2018 Retreat, workshop options include exercises in establishing voice, outlining a novel, and learning to edit your work. Some classes focus on sensory writing, while others teach how to write a book review. From travel writing to dissecting the art of the scene to explorations of wickedness, there are surely workshops for any kind of writer.
The full list of workshops (and their descriptions) are now posted on our About the Retreat page. With such fascinating classes, and high-calibre Featured Authors, the only problem now is narrowing down what to register for!
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.