About Iceland Writers Retreat

Discovering Icelandic Literature & Connection: IWR talks with Margaret Nowaczyk about her new book Chasing Zebras

Discovering Icelandic Literature & Connection: IWR talks with Margaret Nowaczyk about her new book Chasing Zebras

Margaret Nowaczyk’s memoir Chasing Zebras was published earlier this year. Iceland Writers Retreat sat down with Margaret to talk about her time at IWR, her life as an author, and her recommendations for others thinking of attending future IWR events.

Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR): When and why did you choose to attend IWR? 

Margaret Nowaczyk (MN): The summer before the April 2019 retreat, I and two other writers had decided that we would love to see each other again. Since one of them loved travelling to Iceland and the other – and I – had never been, we decided to meet up at IWR. I had been eyeing the IWR for several years before – the programs were enticing and I had always wanted to experience the raw beauty of Iceland. For years, however, I couldn’t talk my husband into going there, so, with my friends both willing, I decided to go without him. Decision made, I couldn’t wait to get on that Icelandair plane!

IWR: What was/were the highlights of IWR for you? 

MN: Discovering Icelandic literature. Before IWR, I had never read any Icelandic writers, but in preparation for my visit, I read “Independent People” and Sjon’s “CoDex 1962” and was completely blown away by both. I have since read most of Sjon’s books and can’t wait for his most recent. The pristine and otherworldly natural beauty of Iceland was so much more than I expected and imagined. With all that, the IWR program with writers from all around the world was simply the cherry on top. I mean, where else would one meet Sarah Moss and Louis de Bernières and Chigozie Obioma in the same room? Have Lina Meruane discuss your work and Ivan Coyote teach you how to best present it? The wealth of literary talent and accomplishment was simply astounding. 

IWR: Is there anything you learned at IWR that use now when you write?

MN: I remember an amazing seminar from Paul Yoon, on the use and the structure of metaphor. And Lisa Meruane’s lesson on incorporating life into fiction resonated – I write short stories based on evens from my life and her insights into literary form and structure when translating life into fiction were invaluable.

IWR: Had you published a book when you attended?

MN: I had published two non-fiction books in Polish, in Poland, and I co-edited a collection of short stories from the Polish-Canadian diaspora (in English, in Canada) but I hadn’t published a full-length book in English on my own.

IWR: What have you published since?

MN: My memoir Chasing Zebras was published in 2021 by Wolsak&Wynn, an independent Canadian publisher. It deals with my training as a pediatrician and a clinical geneticist, but it also delves into darker waters of mental health and how writing has helped me with both. It has also received some very nice press. We even managed to have a wonderful in-person launch just before the last COVID lockdown here in Ontario, held at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in November 2021. The book is available directly from the publisher: https://bookstore.wolsakandwynn.ca/products/chasing-zebras , and also from Indigo, and on Amazon.

IWR: Who do you think would benefit most from the IWR? 

MN: Writers who are looking for connection around the world. Readers who want to discover new writers that they may have never heard about.

IWR:  What do you think is most unique or special about this event?

MN: The personal attention of the organizers: Erica and Eliza make everybody feel welcome and at home during the IWR. The location – no explanation needed! The amazing breadth and diversity and stature of the faculty. How smoothly it ran – in spite of the number of participants and faculty, the atmosphere was intimate, like getting together with friends around a fireplace.

To find out more, you can find Margaret Nowaczyk on:

Twitter: @Marg_Nowaczyk

Facebook: Margaret Nowaczyk

Instagram: @margaretnowaczyk

www.margaretnowaczyk.ca

The IWR X-Factor: Inspiration, Tips, & Tricks from Debut Author (oh, and IWR Co-Founder) Eliza Reid

The IWR X-Factor: Inspiration, Tips, & Tricks from Debut Author (oh, and IWR Co-Founder) Eliza Reid

Iceland Writers Retreat Co-Founder Eliza Reid´s book, Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland´s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World is published in February. A mix of memoir and current affairs, the book discusses why Iceland is leading the charge in the fight for gender equality by telling the stories of dozens of “sprakkar” (an Icelandic word for “extraordinary women”) throughout Iceland.

Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR): How did you first get the idea for this book? What is the origin story? Why did you decide to write it?

Eliza Reid (ER):  I had the idea for the book at the beginning of the pandemic. Former president Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, who was the world’s first democratically elected female head of state, turned 90 in April 2020. She is widely admired here in Iceland, but it occurred to me that not many people know about her achievements outside of the country. Iceland has topped the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index for the past dozen years, and not many people know that either. I thought it would be interesting to paint a portrait of what life is like for women in “the world’s best country” for women, and in doing so, hopefully inspire people to work towards further gender equality.

IWR: How did you research this topic?

ER: I chose to interview a number of “sprakkar” (Icelandic for “extraordinary women”) who could use their stories to illustrate various aspects of Icelandic society in the context of gender equality. I tried to be diverse but also tell the stories of everyday – yet outstanding – women, not just the spokesperson for a cause or the very first to achieve something. It’s not a history of the country, but more a modern portrait.

IWR: We know you are busy—running IWR & IRR, being a mom, and also you have another big “job” that you talk about in the book. When and how did you have time to write? Where did you write?

ER: I think a lot of people today know what it’s like to be juggling a lot of balls in the air. I wrote almost all of it during the most “lockdown” part of the pandemic so things were quieter with many of my other commitments. Parenting is just as demanding as ever, but we are two parents raising four children together and can share that load well. Then I had to be very organized; there was no time for procrastination! And I drink a lot of coffee.

IWR: How did IWR/IRR influence your writing or the business of your writing? Did you learn any tips/tricks/lessons that you used in working on this book?

ER: At the end of the book, I thank all the people who have attended the IWR over the years because they have inspired me. I have never written a book before and having met so many over the years who are so devoted to all sorts of writing projects has been very helpful.

As the co-founder of IWR, I have attended far fewer of the actual writing workshops than I would in other circumstances, but there are still tips and tricks that I remember from a few classes with e.g. Ruth Reich (how to write about things that are hard to describe – e.g. parsley!), Pamela Paul (writing book reviews, and therefore how to critically analyze a work of writing), Terry Fallis (organizing and structuring a book), Marcello Di Cintio (interviewing and writing profiles), that I keep in mind when writing. [poss link to those author profiles in the blog, or maybe to a year in review video?]

IWR: Do you think attending IWR/IRR will help others interested in publishing their first novel?

ER: I’m biased, but yes! Of course, we offer all sorts of practical information on writing in the workshops, and I think we all find inspiration from the question and answer panel on the last morning. But for me the most special part of the IWR is a sort of x-factor of all these people – who all love to write, no matter where they are on their writing journeys or what their ultimate goals are – coming together in a country that has a tremendous respect for the written word. It’s the chats on breaks, the shared adventures on the day tours, the moments of listening to great music in the pub night. These lasting memories help to create a community that lives long beyond the event itself and I think that is really special.

IWR: Will there be a next book?

ER: Who knows! I have really enjoyed the entire process of writing a book, so I hope another idea appears at some point!

IWR: Will you be promoting the book online or on tour? And/or if we attend IWR or IRR can we expect to hear from you in addition to having access to the other authors?

ER: Yes, there are several online events in Feb and March in US, Canada and UK and we will promote them on IWR as well or people can follow my personal social channels. As usual, I will be around a lot during the IWR / IRR in April.

Secrets of the Sprakkar is published in Canada on 1 Feb, the U.S. on 8 Feb. and the UK on 8 March.

To find out more about Eliza, see:

FB and IG: @elizajeanreid

Twitter: @elizajreid 

www.elizareid.com

From “No Chance” to Published Author: IWR talks with Acclaimed Writer Megan Ross

From “No Chance” to Published Author: IWR talks with Acclaimed Writer Megan Ross

Megan Ross entered the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award thinking there was no chance on earth she’d get it. But, sure enough, she won, attended, and has gone on to publish her first book as well as a number of other publications. She thinks IWR is ideal for any writer looking to jolt their creative energy. Read on to hear more about author Megan Ross.

Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR): When and why did you choose to attend? 
Megan Ross (MR)
: I entered the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award thinking that there was no chance on earth I’d ever get it. But, I did! This was in 2015 and I went off to Iceland in 2016.

IWR: What was/were the highlights of IWR for you? 
MR:
The people, exploring Iceland, and immersing myself in the literary culture(s) of a country so far removed from my own. 

IWR: What was the most unexpected thing about it?

MR: I was already mesmerized by what I’d seen of Iceland before, but I had not expected to be exposed to such wit and dark, dry humour, or the magic and folklore Icelandic literature is steeped in.  

IWR: Did you have any good take-aways/tips/lessons you remember from IWR?

MR: Every writer taught me so much. I’ll never forget Neel Mukherjee telling our workshop about editing and being edited by hand. Cheryl Strayed’s entire workshop was one brilliant tip after another while Miriam Toews, for me, patterned a means of exploring grief, and writing it, without drowning in sorrow. Elina Hirvonen offered a series of writing activities that were more visual in nature, and more stimulating in a way, for the writing process. Mark Kurlansky pushed us to rethink different genres and forms of writing, and the entire event itself was helpful in learning about the business side of publishing as well as writing. 

IWR: Had you published a book when you attended?

MR: Not yet. 

IWR: What have you published since?

MR: Milk Fever (uHlanga Press, 2018), my first book – a collection of poetry exploring young motherhood, girlhood and sexuality by the seaside. Several essays, poems and short stories that have been critically acclaimed and awarded the Brittle Paper Award for Fiction, included in a Lammy Award-finalist anthology. I am wrapping up my first novel now and am about to start writing my second soon.

IWR: Who do you think would benefit most from the IWR? 

MR: Writers who are looking for a sense of community, an adventure, or those who feel like jolting their creative energies again. 

IWR: What do you think is most unique or special about this event?

MR: Erica and Eliza are two phenomenal women whose energy and verve permeates the entire event. The pace is fast, there’s so much to see and the energy of Iceland – especially at night, walking through the warmly-lit streets of Reykjavik – is so profound that even the memory of it is enough to inspire me. 

Learn more about the incredible Megan Ross:

Website: www.meganross.co.za

Twitter: itsmeganross

Instagram: @megan_ross_

Facebook: www.facebook.com/meganrosswriter

The Start of My Career as an Author: IWR interview with Alexander Weinstein

The Start of My Career as an Author: IWR interview with Alexander Weinstein

Alexander Weinstein made a number of connections at the 2016 Iceland Writers Retreat, which would bring him back to Iceland over the next three years. He returned to teach a course on fairytales, again to teach a graduate fiction course at the University of Iceland, and finally in 2019 with his family. Read on to hear about how he fell in love with Iceland and felt as if he’d found his new literary home.

Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR): When and why did you choose to attend? 

Alexander Weinstein (AW): I attended the Iceland Writers Retreat as the 2016 Writing Competition Winner. 

IWR: What were the highlights of IWR for you? 

AW: Among the many highlights was sitting together with writers from around the world every morning for breakfast (at one of the best buffets I’ve ever had) and talking about literature and fiction & returning after a day of classes and a night of exploring Reykjavik to find the sky transformed by the Northern Lights—all of us writers on the hills below gazing up in complete awe. 

IWR: What was the most unexpected thing about it?

AW: How Iceland opened its arms to me after my visit. During my time at the retreat, I ended up making a number of connections which would bring me back to Iceland over the next 3 years.  I returned in 2017 to teach a 3-week course on fairytales, in 2018 to teach a graduate fiction course at the University of Iceland, and again in 2019 with my family.  I fell completely in love with the country and it was amazing to see how the country kept calling me back—it felt like I’d found a new literary home. 

IWR: Did you have any good take-aways/tips/lessons you remember from IWR? Anything you use now when you write?

AW: Elina Hirvonen’s  class had us walk out into nature and listen to Iceland in order to capture the most minute sounds we could find.  This quality of listening—to the world, to people, to nature—has played a central role in the novel I’m presently finishing. 

IWR: Had you published a book when you attended?

AW: Winning the competition and attending the conference came at a crucial moment in my life. I’d just finished my first collection Children of the New World and was editing it in preparation for publication. Though I’d been writing at that point for nearly 20 years, this was really the start of my career as an author.

IWR: What have you published since?

AW: Children of the New World was published in 2016, and went on to great success, being chosen as a Notable Book of the Year by The New York Times. My second collection, Universal Love, was published in 2020.  My short story, Saying Goodbye to Yang, is forthcoming as the film After Yang, which just premiered at Cannes. The adaptation is written and directed by Kogonada, and stars Colin Farrell and Jodie Turner-Smith, and will be released worldwide by A24 Studios in June 2022. 

IWR: Who do you think would benefit most from the IWR? 

AW: Writers seeking connections with poets and authors from around the globe & writers who would like to explore their work in one of the world’s most beautiful places (in other words, all of us!)  

IWR: What do you think is most unique or special about this event?

There is an incredible openness to the conference which allows writers to take classes in whichever genres they’re most interested in—and this cross-genre approach was deeply inspiring to my own writing.  When you add the setting of Iceland, which provides a magical atmosphere that surrounds every aspect of the event, it makes IWR a truly enchanting program.  ***

Bio: Alexander Weinstein is the author of the short story collections, Universal Love (2020) and Children of the New World. Alexander Weinstein’s fiction and interviews have appeared in Rolling StoneWorld Literature TodayBest American Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Best American Experimental Writing. He is the Director of The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing and a Professor of Creative Writing at Siena Heights University.

A Broad Talent Pool, Refreshing Ideas, and an Excuse to Visit Iceland: IWR Talks with Author Jeanne Blasberg

A Broad Talent Pool, Refreshing Ideas, and an Excuse to Visit Iceland: IWR Talks with Author Jeanne Blasberg

IWR spoke with author Jeanne Blasberg about the highlights of the 2017 retreat, the workshops she took with Meg Wolitzer and Paula McLain, and how it’s important to write about what frightens us the most.

Iceland Writers Retreat (IWR): When and why did you choose to attend? 

Jeanne Blasberg (JB): I chose to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat after reading a newsletter from an online literary organization. Two things struck a chord: 1) that I had always wanted to visit Iceland, and 2) The faculty was incredible. I really enjoy combining leisure travel with some greater personal endeavor, as well as getting out of my regular routine, in order to write.

IWR: What were the highlights of IWR for you? 

JB: Highlights included:

* A reception with the President and First Lady of Iceland

* Exploring Reykjavik and learning more about the culture

*Writing sessions with Meg Wolitzer, Bret Anthony Johnston, and Paula McLain.

IWR: What was the most unexpected thing about IWR?

JB: Before the IWR began, my husband and I traveled about the country hiking, and taking in the inspiring geological wonders. When I arrived at the IWR, I was prepared for it to be all about the writing. However, combined with the wonderful sessions and panels there was a deep immersion into the literary history of the city and the culture as well as a lot of interaction with the local writing community. The hiking I did beforehand was really fun, but a trip to Iceland would have been pretty perfect if all you did was attend IWR and all the outings they organize as part of the retreat.

IWR: Are there any lessons you remember from IWR that you use now?

JB: Bret Anthony Johnston said he could teach us the technicalities of writing a novel in six hours, but what can’t be taught is the ability to surrender to the work and sit with it. To let the work determine the direction it needs to go in. I think of this when the competing urge to work quickly and produce a lot comes up. He also encouraged us to write about the thing that frightens us the most. I think about that challenge often.

IWR: Had you published a book when you attended?

JB: My first novel was published in May 2017 (a month after the retreat ended) and I used the free time during the IWR to work hard on some other projects I really wanted to finish before going on book tour.

IWR: What books have you published?

JB: EDEN: A Novel was published in May 2017 by She Writes Press and THE NINE was also published by She Writes Press in August 2019.

IWR: Who do you think would benefit most from IWR?

JB: IWR was an amazing experience that I have recommended to lots of people since returning. I think it is perfect for writers who appreciate rigorous instruction and want to immerse themselves in writing exercises and challenges. It is a good place to meet fellow authors, if you are working on building your writing community, and it is a great excuse to visit Iceland!!

IWR: What do you think is special about this event?

JB: IWR was unique for me in that it was a writing retreat that drew authors from English speaking countries around the world. I really did feel like I broke out of my New England bubble and was exposed to a broad talent pool as well as a refreshing range of ideas.

To find out more about author Jeanne Blasberg visit her website: https://jeanneblasberg.com/ or follow her on social.

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/jeanneblasbergauthor/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jeanneblasbergauthor

Twitter:  https://twitter.com/JeanneBlasberg

From a Surprise Gift to a Book Contract: A Profile of IWR Alum and Accomplished Author Mara Rutherford

From a Surprise Gift to a Book Contract: A Profile of IWR Alum and Accomplished Author Mara Rutherford

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