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 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 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

Q&A with Pulitzer Prize Winner Geraldine Brooks

Q&A with Pulitzer Prize Winner Geraldine Brooks

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.

 

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