Mara Rutherford attended the 2015 Iceland Writers Retreat. Since then, she’s published three books and has two more under contract. This month, we spoke with Mara about IWR, her writing career, and tips she learned in Reykjavik that uses in her work today.
Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR): When and why did you choose to attend IWR?
Mara Rutherford (MA): I didn’t exactly choose to attend IWR 2015, though once I saw that Barbara Kingsolver was the on faculty, I absolutely wanted to! My husband surprised me with the trip thanks to a major hint from my twin sister. Our youngest son was just old enough for me to travel, we were between posts in the Foreign Service, and I really wanted some time to focus on writing. This was the perfect opportunity and the best surprise gift ever.
IWR: What were the highlights of IWR?
MR: The workshops were all amazing, particularly the ones led by Barbara Kingsolver, as she’s one of my very favorite authors. But the highlight was probably getting to spend so much quality time with writers – whether guest speakers or fellow attendees – and talking about this thing we’re all so passionate about. That, and taking a picture with Barbara at the top of a frozen waterfall. It’s one of my favorite memories ever!
IWR: What was the most unexpected thing about it?
MR: I didn’t expect to have so much access to the authors outside of workshops. That was such a wonderful benefit that I haven’t seen at any other conference or retreat.
IWR: Did you have any good take-aways or tips from IWR?
MR: Barbara did a workshop about theme that remains with me six years later. I’m not sure I ever really thought about theme prior to that – I was so focused on plot and character. She also said, “Revision is where art happens,” and I try to remember that when I revise (something I still don’t enjoy, even as poetic as Barbara made it out to be!).
IWR: Had you published a book when you attended?
MR: No – I had just signed with my first literary agent about six months prior.
IWR: What have you published since?
MR: My first Young Adult novel, Crown of Coral and Pearl, was published in 2019, with the sequel, Kingdom of Sea and Stone, publishing in 2020. My next book, Luminous, releases on October 5, 2021. I have two additional fantasy novels coming out in 2022 and ’23. And hopefully many more to come!
IWR: Who do you think would benefit most from the IWR?
MR: I think any writer at any level could benefit from the IWR. For new writers, you’re giving yourself permission to say, “I’m a writer,” and acknowledging that this is something you take seriously, which is so important. I often say that if you want writing to be your career, you have to treat it as such, even if you’re not getting paid (yet!). And for more experienced writers, this is a great opportunity to learn craft, network, and spend time on your own writing.
IWR: What do you think is most unique or special about this event?
MR: First off, it’s in Iceland! That in and of itself is amazing because Iceland is unlike anywhere else on earth. It’s such an inspiring place to write, with a rich literary history and so much fascinating folklore (something I personally love). Combine that with the workshops, delicious meals with authors, literary tours, and meeting great people who I’m still friends with to this day, and it makes for a truly special experience.
Thank you to Mara for sharing your time and wisdom with IWR. We’ve loved watching your career soar. Learn more about Mara at mararutherford.com or on IG: @mararutherfordwrites
Reason 3: The Iceland Saga (This is mine. What’s yours?)
By Jo McClelland Phillips, Alumni Award Recipient; Photo by Roman Gerasymenko
“Why do you want to attend The Iceland Writers Retreat? We all love Iceland. And we all love writing. Tell us why this particular event has captured your interest.”
Before winning the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award at the end of 2019, I applied and answered this question four times.
I wonder if my goal of visiting Iceland got in my way the first three times, I answered this question. Because – of course, I wanted (and still want) to go to Iceland!
My love affair with the Sagas and Iceland writers really began with the Iceland Writers Retreat – as I investigated the Icelandic authors and tour locations mentioned on their website. I realised how closely this tradition reflects my own views and passion for storytelling.
That tracks because we can trace back almost all our modern-day storytelling to the Icelandic tradition.
Sometimes called the “family sagas”, they spoke of the struggles and conflicts in the early generations of Icelandic settlers. Characters like Egil were complex and full of contradictions. Later, sagas like Njáls saga focused more on storytelling than on chronicling history.
It was also through this website that I was first introduced to modern Icelandic writer Kristín Helga Gunnarsdóttir. Her focus is “telling stories that unite and create bridges between generations.” This idea really spoke to me and related to my goals when I tell a story.
My journey to Iceland parallels my journey as a parent, having applied for the first time when my daughter was 6 months old. As a writer, I predominantly teach her what she needs to know by telling her stories. These last two years, I’ve been teaching my daughter about storytelling and creating her own stories. I see how we can deeply relate to the core elements of storytelling and that even today, in our home, we aren’t that different from the ancient Icelandic saga authors.
What’s your Icelandic Saga?
Tag @IcelandWriters @JoMcClellandPhillips (IG and FB) or @JoMcClelland on Twitter and tell us your Iceland stories! And don’t forget to sign up for the 2022 Iceland Writers Retreat next April. I hope to see you there!