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!

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.

Self-Doubt, Socializing, and Success: Reflecting on What the Iceland Writers Retreat Taught Me about Being a Writer

Self-Doubt, Socializing, and Success: Reflecting on What the Iceland Writers Retreat Taught Me about Being a Writer

Writers are notorious introverts. We’re wonderful in our own heads but sometimes face challenges socializing in groups. So what happens when you put 120 writers together for a four-day writing conference? The answer: the international whirlwind that was the fourth annual Iceland Writers Retreat.

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