About Iceland Writers Retreat

Pulitzer Prize Winner Jane Smiley: “I Thought Icelanders Were Very Straightforward and Smart”

Pulitzer Prize Winner Jane Smiley: “I Thought Icelanders Were Very Straightforward and Smart”

Before she was awarded a 1992 Pulitzer Prize for her iconic novel A Thousand Acres, American author Jane Smiley won a 1976 Fulbright Research Grant to study in Iceland for a year—an adventure that has been a consistent source of inspiration for her throughout her prodigious literary career. Smiley recounts her time as a young student in Reykjavík with the Iceland Writers Retreat in this piece and describes both her upcoming toddlers’ book and her ambitious new trilogy about the past 100 years of American life and human civilization.

Interview by Elliott Brandsma. Photo by Mike McGregor/The Guardian.

Jane, take us back to your time as an exchange student in Iceland. What initially drew you to the country, and what projects did you work on while you were here?

In graduate school, I studied Old Norse, Old English, Gothic, and Old High German. I loved the sagas, and I took Old Norse for four or five semesters. One year we read all of Njál’s Saga, so when I was thinking about studying abroad, Iceland was the only destination I had in mind. I wanted to learn modern Icelandic and improve my reading skills in Old Icelandic. I was not quite prepared for the climate or the landscape, but I enjoyed myself a great deal. The landscape seemed very exotic to me, and I enjoyed taking walks. I also enjoyed the historic sites we students were taken to visit out in the countryside.

Toward the end of my stay, I got to be friends with a man who owned a car and was a hiker. He took me to visit some great scenery, and also on a horse ride. My real difficulty came from the length of darkness as the Winter Solstice approached. I had a very hard time waking up in the dark and my biological clock got out of kilter so that I stayed up writing much later than I would have at home in the states. I loved the swimming pool that was not far from Háskóli Íslands (the University of Iceland), especially the hot pools. I would go there every day, then stop at the consulate (now the U.S. Embassy Reykjavík) and check out books to read. I did a lot of reading.

My friend also told me about Greenland. I had read The Saga of the Greenlanders, but what he told me sparked my imagination, and I started thinking about writing a novel about the end of the Greenland settlement. I did do so, and that was published in 1988, about 10 years after I got back from Iceland. I visited Greenland in the early ‘80s. I saw that it was very different from Iceland, but Medieval Norse literature connected them in my mind, and so I modeled the style and the philosophy of the Greenlanders on that of the sagas. Also, I loved rjómaterta. I went to a certain fancy hotel and ate a slice every Friday.

You have had a successful career in academia and literature, winning the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, teaching once for the prestigious creative writing program at the University of Iowa, and also at Iowa State University, and being elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters. You now teach in the Creative Writing Program at the University of California at Riverside. How did your stay in Iceland shape you into the writer you are today?

The American consulate had a very good library, so I read a lot of books—like War and Peace and The Grapes of Wrath—that I had never read before. Even though I did socialize and go to concerts and have friends, there was plenty of time to read, especially late at night. I caught up on novels I had missed earlier when I was busy translating archaic texts in school. I loved them, and they cemented my interest in the novel as a form. While I was there, I did my assignments for my course in Icelandic, but I also wrote a great deal, though none of that has been published. It was good practice and gave me good habits. Since I did a lot of walking, there was plenty of time to ponder various ideas.

Describe your interactions with Icelanders. What do you miss most about the people and culture of Iceland?

I found Icelanders friendly and easy to get along with, but I was surprised at a few things. At the end of my stay, a man who was planning to go to the states asked me to help him with his English, so we had a few sessions. His English was pretty good, but I had to show him how to lower his voice and not stand too close to the people he was talking to. I also witnessed an amusing exchange at the market, where two Icelandic women were trying to figure out what celery was. In the dormitory at the university, the students could be a little rowdy on party nights but were in general very friendly. I thought Icelanders were very straightforward and smart. I enjoyed talking to them and being around them.

Name some of your favorite books by Icelandic authors. In your view, which book is a must-read for anyone considering a trip to Iceland?

I first read Halldór Laxness in Iceland. Independent People is one of my favorite books of all time and has been very inspiring to me. That would be the book I would tell people to read. But any other Laxness book would be terrific, too. And, of course, the Sagas, especially Laxdæla Saga, which is less focused on a single person than Njál’s Saga. I was quite fond of the main character of Gisli’s Saga, who seemed less rough and more sympathetic than some of the other saga heroes.

Tell us about your latest works, the Last Hundred Years trilogy. In your own words, what is the series about, and why did you decide to write an American family saga that extends an entire century?

The first idea that came to me was the title of the trilogy—the Last Hundred Years. No one can be certain at this point whether the last hundred years of civilization will turn out to be a success or a failure. I think it could go either way. There are good things about the modern era, but also quite frightening and depressing things, like nuclear warfare, climate change, the rise of the power of corporations and banks, and the splintering of the political landscape in America and the Middle East. I was also interested in the formal experiment of having the books progress year by year, and fitting the plots of the characters’ lives into those years rather than doing it the usual way. I enjoyed that part a great deal. I did put in a Norse character, Andy, from a town in Iowa founded by Norwegian settled in the 19th century. That enabled me to put in some bits from the sagas and from other Scandinavian stories. She is one of my favorite characters. Another character, Henry, is my alternative self—the one who became a medievalist rather than a writer.

You are also venturing again into children’s literature with the upcoming book 20 Yawns. How did this project come about, and what were some of the challenges writing for such a young audience?

I have written five YA novels about an 11-13-year-old girl who lives on a horse ranch in California. These are based on a horse training method that was invented near where I now live and has transformed the way horses are trained in the US—much more cooperative and less confrontational. 20 Yawns is a toddler book. I came up with the idea and wrote the text, but the artist came up with the art, which I think is the main pleasure of the book. I hope it sells and that people like it.

Iceland transformed Jane Smiley’s writing. Will it transform yours? Sign up for the 2017 Iceland Writers Retreat and discover the wonders of Iceland’s inspiring literary culture for yourself.

Icelandic Superstitions

Icelandic Superstitions
Despite being a technologically advanced society, superstition is still an important part of Icelandic folk culture. Check out some of Iceland’s oldest superstitions below.


If sheep gnash their teeth during round-up in the autumn, the winter will be hard.

If sheep gnash their teeth somewhere else, it presages very bad weather.

If the first calf born during the winter is white, the winter will be a bad one.

The first snows of winter are called winter-calves. If these happen early in the season that means the winter will be good.

If somebody throws away a dead mouse, the wind will soon start to blow from that direction.

Seldom the rains of Saturday last till Sunday Mass.

If cows lick trees you can expect rain.

The usage of firewood depends on the weather on Maundy Thursday.

Good hay drying weather can be expected if a falcon or a merlin sit on a haystack in the field.

If your head itches, you can expect wet weather.

In late winter it is forbidden to knit on the doorstep, as that is known to lengthen the winter.

If someone drops a knife while cleaning fish, and the knife points to the sea, that presages good fishing when next you go to sea.

If someone drops a knife, while cleaning fish, and the knife points to the land, that presages bad fishing when next you go to sea.

If something is spilt, a drunken man will soon visit.

If you itch in the mouth, you will receive a mouthful of knuckles.

If a sick person sneezes three times on a Sunday, that is considered a sign of better health.

If you sneeze three times before breaking fast on a Sunday, you will gain something in that week.

If it rains when someone moves house, it bodes the wealth of those moving.

If you see nine cows in a shed with a grey bull next to the door, and all of them lie on the same side, you are in luck, because you will be granted one wish.

Image by Roman Gerasymenko

10 reasons why Iceland is the best place to be a writer

10 reasons why Iceland is the best place to be a writer

Text and photos by Elliott Brandsma. Featured image by Roman Gerasymenko

The secret is out: Iceland is now a popular travel destination for professional and aspiring writers. Whether it’s the nation’s centuries-old stories about Vikings and their rapacious exploits or the compassionate, satirical novels of Halldór Laxness—Iceland’s Nobel laureate in literature—this small Nordic country is a treasure trove for book buffs and word nerds around the world.

Why exactly is Iceland becoming such a haven for the book-obsessed and the poetically-inclined? The Iceland Writers Retreat has compiled a list of the top 10 reasons why every budding author should come to Iceland and experience its extraordinary literary culture firsthand.

1) The Sagas. Acclaimed as masterpieces of medieval European prose and revered by many Icelanders, the Sagas are a group of histories detailing the founding and settlement of Iceland. Some experts have called these tales, which are hundreds of years old, the first great European novels, while some Icelanders believe that these texts are completely factual, describing true events that happened to real people. Regardless of their historical accuracy or inaccuracy, these ancient texts have captivated the imaginations of numerous authors throughout the ages and continue to do so to this day.

2) Almost everyone is a writer. Appreciation for poetry and literature is embedded within Icelandic culture, and many Icelanders will publish a book at some point in their lifetime. The Icelandic government also awards competitive grants and stipends to writers annually, making the dream of working a full-time professional writer a reality for some.


3) The Otherworldly Landscapes. Icelandic nature is breathtaking, beautiful, and inspiring. The island nation has earned the moniker of “The Land of Fire and Ice” for the stark contrast between its volcanic landscapes and its sparkling glacial formations. With a small population of only 320,000, Iceland is also one of the few places left on earth where one can drive out into the wilderness and be truly alone. The countryside is a wonderful place to clear one’s head and brainstorm ideas for a new novel.

4) Icelanders. Though some might seem shy and stoic at first, Icelanders are generally friendly and approachable people with interesting stories to tell. When visiting Iceland, sit in a coffee shop or grab a drink at a local bar, and if you strike up a conversation with one of the locals—you’ll find that they are some of nicest people you’ll ever meet. Who knows? Maybe one of their personal stories or their vast knowledge of Icelandic folklore will inspire your next masterpiece.

5) Coffee Shop Culture. Reykjavík—Iceland’s capital city—is a coffee lover’s dream. The bustling mini-metropolis is full of unique coffee shops, each with their own personalities and patrons. Starbucks has been knocking on the nation’s door for a while now, but Icelanders adamantly refuse to let the giant coffee chain in—and writers who love frequenting coffee shops with character, charm, and a good cup of joe certainly benefit from it.


6) The Annual Book Flood! Every year around Christmastime, Icelanders celebrate the annual jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood. During this exciting time of year, publishers release hundreds of new titles on the market, and Icelandic authors give readings at bookstores and literary museums across the city to advertise their latest masterpiece. This tradition celebrates literacy and puts a much-deserved spotlight on literature for several months of the year.

7) A Network of Libraries. Libraries are not in short supply around Iceland. In fact, Iceland’s capital city Reykjavík is full of libraries, big and small, so residents have cheap  and ready access to the printed word, no matter where they live. Well-maintained and stocked with interesting titles from around the world, Icelandic libraries are also used as community centers that regularly host exciting educational events for all ages.


8) Love for Language. Icelanders love their language. Icelandic, a Northern Germanic language spoken by 330,000+, is the closest equivalent to Old Norse—the language of the Vikings—still in use to this day. Icelanders are so protective of their mother tongue that they established a “naming committee” that forbids citizens from giving their children names that don’t adhere to the language’s strict grammatical rules. For foreigners, learning Icelandic presents a formidable challenge, with words like Eyjafjallajökull and þjóðminjasafnið baffling many.

9) Professional Networking is a Cinch. The advantage of being a writer in a small country like Iceland is that professional networking is incredibly simple. Everyone knows someone who knows someone who can help bring your writing project to fruition. If you move to Iceland, chances are you’ll regularly run into a famous author in the grocery store or walking on the street—you might be smitten and starstruck but, to the locals, it’s no big deal!

10) Halldór Laxness. Awarded literature’s top honor in 1955, Halldór Laxness is the first and only Icelander (to date) to win a Nobel Prize. His novels have been translated into numerous languages, including English, and they remain poignant and relevant years after they were first published. Perhaps his most beloved book, Independent People, a novel about a stubborn farmer who clings to his independence even as his life and family crumble around him, has been lauded by critics across the world and is a must-read for every book lover who visits Iceland.

The 4th annual Iceland Writers Retreat will be held in Reykjavik from April 5-9, 2017.  

The Christmas Book Flood: A Beloved Icelandic Tradition

The Christmas Book Flood: A Beloved Icelandic Tradition

Words by Elliott Brandsma. Photo by Roman Gerasymenko

Christmastime is just around the corner, which means that, soon, Icelandic publishing houses will be releasing hundreds of new titles onto the Icelandic book market, commencing a unique tradition known as the jólabókaflóð, or the Christmas Book Flood. Throughout this bustling and much-anticipated yearly event, bookstores across Iceland resemble miniature concert venues, where Icelandic authors of all genres read from and promote their latest work, transforming the holiday season into an extended city-wide literary festival.

This charming tradition has recently started capturing international attention, especially through facebook; a series of widely-shared memes on the social networking site advertises and explains how Icelanders traditionally exchange books on Christmas Eve and then spend the remainder of the evening reading at home. A cherished staple of Icelandic holiday festivities, the Christmas Book Flood truly is a distinctive celebration of literacy that has a fascinating, yet little-known history.

Born Out of Scarcity

During World War II, restrictions on imports to Iceland were harsh. Moreover, Icelanders did not have the proper currency to purchase foreign products, which severely limited their gift-giving options around Christmastime.

However, these limitations did not apply to the local book market, so the tradition of exchanging books during the holidays naturally arose as a result. With a tiny population of just over 330,000, Iceland’s publishing industry has, until very recently, lacked the resources to publish and distribute new books all year round, making the Book Flood a practical marketing strategy as well as a treasured tradition.

Now Iceland represents one of the most prolific book-publishing countries in the world, as hundreds of bookstores and literary circles have been established all over the country. Many Icelanders will publish a piece of writing in one form or another during their lifetime (a book, a newspaper article, a poetry collection, etc.), and the island inhabitants also read more books per capita than any other people in the world. Not surprisingly, the book-loving island nation enjoys a sky-high literacy rate, demonstrating the value of integrating literature and reading into a nation’s cultural identity.

(One of the popular jólabókaflóð memes on facebook)

An Excessive Tradition?

Releasing hundreds of titles annually in a microcosmic country like Iceland inevitably leads to a backlog of books and occasionally Iceland’s largest publishing houses have had to flush out or destroy their excess inventory, leading some to question whether Iceland’s Book Flood tradition is more wasteful than wise. To eliminate this surplus, Icelandic publishers are starting to develop a more prominent and efficient year-round paperback book market in hopes that it will equalize supply and demand.

However, Iceland’s Christmas Book Flood will likely persist for decades to come as its popularity grows and it becomes more inextricably linked to the nation’s international identity. And both Icelanders and book lovers from all across the globe are probably content with that.

Iceland Writers Retreat named one of Iceland’s most interesting start-ups!

Iceland Writers Retreat named one of Iceland’s most interesting start-ups!

It’s an event for everyone who enjoys writing, not just for published authors“, say’s Eliza Reid, co-founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat in her recent interview for Frjáls Verslun, Iceland’s leading business magazine. The two-page story, which lists the Iceland Writers Retreat as one of their top 100 most interesting start-ups, details the event’s story from inception to first reception in 2014, and highlights how the program, with its compelling combination of workshops led by well-known authors and literary-themed adventures into the Icelandic countryside, has been attracting new groups of visitors from all over the world and helping to establish Iceland as a great destination for those who love writing and literature.

Our favourite writer-friendly coffee shops in downtown Reykjavík

Our favourite writer-friendly coffee shops in downtown Reykjavík

Words and Photos by Elliott Brandsma. 

Iceland’s cool, windy climate has made coffee the beverage of choice for most Reykjavík residents. As a result, the island nation’s bustling capital city boasts a flourishing coffee shop culture, with unique cafés lining seemingly every street in the downtown area. As winter fast approaches, the Iceland Writers Retreat has gathered a list of five cozy coffee joints in Reykjavíkʼs city center, where writers of all tastes, styles, and temperaments can grab a cup-of-joe while typing up their literary masterpieces.


Café Babalú, Skólavörðustígur 22A. Located just down the street from Hallgrímskirkja, the towering church in the center of town, Café Babalú is a quirky two-story coffee house adorned with an eclectic array of furniture and visual art. When the sky is sunny and clear, this casual coffee joint’s balcony becomes the perfect place to enjoy a light lunch, followed by a relaxing afternoon of writing or reading. A hot spot for hipsters, tourists, and locals alike, Café Babalú represents the ideal location for authors who write best in and draw inspiration from unconventional environments.


Reykjavík Roasters, Kárastígur 1. Often named one of Reykjavík’s coolest coffee shops, Reykjavík Roasters is a small, unassuming venue near the center of town with a big reputation for making exceptional lattés, espressos, and hot chocolate. The layout of this hidden gem is clunky and congested, making finding a seat during peak hours difficult, but if you’re lucky enough to secure a table, prepare yourself for one of the most authentic and enjoyable coffee shop experiences in Reykjavík. Reykjavík Roasters attracts a diverse crowd of customers, and its compact, snug atmosphere is perfect for writers who welcome occasional distractions.


Stofan Kaffíhús, Vesturgata 3. Spacious, warm, and comfortable, Stofan Kaffihús—which is located inside a renovated antique store—is a staple in the Reykjavík coffee scene, a café known for its rugged charm, cozy atmosphere and scrumptious deserts. Situated just a block away from the capitalʼs largest library, the laid-back and trendy vibe of this coffee shop makes it a great space to work on a novel, type up an essay, or compose a blog entry. At night it turns into an energetic bar, where local artists, writers, and musicians like to hang out and socialize. Try ordering a piece of Stofan’s rich chocolate cake or scrumptious carrot cake to accompany your afternoon cup of coffee. You wonʼt regret it!


Kaffibrennslan, Laugavegur 21. Conveniently located on Reykjavík’s busiest shopping street, Kaffibrennslan is a lively coffee shop with a wide selection of not only coffees and beverages but also breakfast and lunch options, making it a great spot for authors who prefer starting early in the morning and working into the afternoon. If you enjoy typing in a cozy, more intimate setting, then take your laptop upstairs to escape the hustle-and-bustle of the café’s ground floor. If you are partial to more active environments, the ground level is the best place for writers who draw inspiration from observing others and listening to the pleasant sounds of daily conversation.


Kaffitár, Bankastræti 8. Brightly-decorated and always busy, Kaffitár on Bankastræti is one of Reykjavíkʼs hippest cafés. Closely situated near some of Reykjavík’s trendiest shops and restaurants, this dynamic coffee shop is a suitable destination for writers on-the-go who often have to steal time to work on their projects. Customers of all kinds frequent this recently-rearranged café—students and writers, travelers and professionals, natives and expats—ensuring a unique experience and atmosphere every time you visit. Aside from offering a wide selection of coffees and desserts, Kaffitár also serves delicious teas and light lunch dishes to satisfy those afternoon cravings.

Like Iceland, Writing & Sjon?

Like Iceland, Writing & Sjon?


Join us the evening of September 28th to celebrate the acclaimed author Sjon’s visit to Washington, the Iceland Writers Retreat, and the rich literary traditions of Iceland. After Sjon reads at 7pm from his latest work at Politics and Prose, we’ll head next door to Bucks Fishing and Camping to continue the conversation, raise a glass, and talk more about writing and Iceland. We hope to see you then.

Refreshments sponsored by the Embassy of Iceland and the Iceland WritersRetreat.


Please help us spread the word and feel free to invite others with an interest in Iceland and writing!

Poets & Writers editor, Kevin Larimer highly recommends the Iceland Writers Retreat!

Poets & Writers editor, Kevin Larimer highly recommends the Iceland Writers Retreat!

Kevin Larimer reminisces about his visit to Iceland in his editorial for Poets & Writers, with some wonderful words of praise for the Iceland Writers Retreat: “It’s by far the most geographically diverse—so beautiful yet stunningly bizarre—place I’ve had the pleasure of visiting. And Eliza Reid and Erica Green’s program is an ideal occasion to make the trip, as it combines a compelling lineup of lectures, workshops, and readings with opportunities to explore the country’s incredible geothermal pools, geysers, glaciers, and lava fields.” Read more about his trip in Editor’s Note: The Lunatic Dialogues.