We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Maria Mutch joined us in 2015.
She is the author of the memoir, Know the Night, which was a finalist for the Governor General Literary Awards in 2014, and the upcoming story collection, When We Were Birds (Simon & Schuster Canada). She lives with her husband and two sons in Rhode Island.
How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?
I don’t remember the initial sighting but I stumbled on it somewhere on the internet; it was a friend, another writer, bringing it up later on, though, and asking if I wanted to meet her there that was the catalyst for going (so happy she did).
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 both a participant and faculty at various writers conferences. It’s energizing to be with other people who value writing and make it their priority. The most transformative sessions tend to be given by workshop leaders who emphasize the idea that, even while they’re giving their opinion on a method or a structure, really anything goes, and it’s all about finding what works for the individual writer. In a large group like a conference, you get to see all the different pathways.
What did you most look forward to about the Retreat?
I knew the setting was going to be pretty spectacular, and the workshop leaders were a huge draw, too. At the time, it was Adam Gopnik, Linn Ullman, Sjón, Taiye Salesi, Ruth Reichl, Barbara Kingsolver, Alison Pick, John Vaillant…
Did it match up to your expectations?
Heck yes. And went well beyond. It was a great mix of workshop time, getting to know other writers, and going out to explore. I should mention, too, that the coffee, pastries and bowls (yes, bowls) of whipped cream that fortified us between class sessions were a ridiculous surprise (I was tempted to replicate this at home, but then thought better of it).
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?
My favourite workshops are always the ones where the leader speaks freely and at length about their process, and participants can ask questions. In Adam Gopnik’s session, he was candid, revealing what his writing day looks like and just how much reading it contains (2-3 hours worth). He also had interesting things to say about researching essays; he mentioned the importance of the peripheral figure, that often the best sources, and the most intriguing viewpoints, come from people on the fringes of an event and not necessarily from the central figures, who often have too much at stake to speak truthfully. This really struck me, and I think it works, funnily enough, for fiction also—that fringe elements and characters can sometimes end up being the real engines of a story, and represent a greater truth. I also loved Linn Ullman’s class, as she laid out her daily process and how to be attentive (and she told a great, funny story about her father, the famous filmmaker Ingmar Bergman—the gist of which was that if you want to appear to have thoughtfully read and enjoyed the bad poetry of a lover, you take off your glasses slowly, then put them back on, before speaking—and it still makes me laugh). John Vaillant’s workshop was a masterclass on persistence and how an essay for a magazine can turn into a full-length book. All of these authors underscored for the participants the need to fully show up for the process.
What and/or who do you find inspiring?
Just being in Iceland was inspiring and the effects continued on after I got back home. It was revitalizing to be in a place where literature (and coffee) has such a central place in the general culture. As part of IWR’s program, we visited the house of Halldór Laxness, the Nobel Laureate, and between this and taking in the architecture and interior spaces in Reykjavik, I came away feeling a strong connection between writing and physical space. It affected my approach to my own workspace at a time when I really needed it. I ended up creating a new office when I got back, one that is bright and somewhat spare and deeply influenced by my time at the retreat. I had started writing my story collection by that point, and the space enabled me to work with the “dark matter” of a couple of the stories, ones that had been especially challenging. The new space supported me, gave me light, in a sense, so that I could fully show up. It’s my favourite place to work. (Additionally, I learned while at IWR that those Icelandic sheep really do seem warm, and, since I’m always cold, I brought back one of the famous sweaters; a girlfriend also knitted a wrap for me from Icelandic wool, which I keep in my office for my writing sessions. The stuff works incredibly well for New England, which is sometimes colder, I’ve noticed, than Reykjavik.)
How has writing influenced your life?
Writing shapes virtually every day, including my sleep (I wake up fairly often in the night with an idea or a line that I then have to write down), and it greatly affects what I read. My book stack is generally skewed to research or books that I’ve picked because I love how someone thinks, especially if they’re innovative. I don’t usually have the anxiety of influence that writers sometimes talk about; I like to be inspired. I also look at art shows and films, and listen to certain types of music, for a kind of atmosphere or something sort of intangible for my own work.
What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?
I have the same issues with time that everyone has. My oldest son has significant disabilities and this sometimes means that what I had planned for my own workday has to be adjusted or let go. I did make the discovery, however, that I often get great ideas or breakthroughs in my writing when my kids are around, largely because my expectations are lowered and I’m more open. I keep notebooks and pens everywhere, so that I’m always ready to get things down when I’m otherwise occupied. I’ve learned to write on the weekends, also, so that I stay in touch with what I’m doing. If there’s a gap of even a couple of days, I notice that it takes more time to settle in again (it’s like a relative that you haven’t called for a long time—it gets harder and harder to pick up the phone).
What are you working on currently and/or is there anything exciting that has happened in your writing life since the retreat?
My story collection, When We Were Birds, is being released by Simon & Schuster Canada on April 24th, and I’m working on a novel which is set to come out in 2019.
You mentioned to Eliza that Iceland makes a brief appearance in one of your short stories, can you elaborate on that without giving away too many spoilers?
There is a brief appearance of an Icelandic woman. When We Were Birds contains a contemporary version of the Bluebeard tale—the one about the man who kills his wives and keeps the corpses in a locked room—and in my version, the wives come from all over the world, including one from Iceland. I wish I could say that she gets revenge, but Blue does get his in the end. (Some fermented shark also appears…)
Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?
Not long ago I was reading the Buddhist author, Dawa Tarchin Phillips; he was talking about the importance of travel (big and small) to get a new perspective and break out of limiting beliefs. I think this applies to writing, also, and it can mean simply hanging out with people who have a different viewpoint than you, or taking part in a retreat far from home to see how other people approach their writing. And then just being open to what transpires.