The team at Promote Iceland spoke to some of Iceland’s most notable authors about the country’s literature and what inspires them. From Hallgrimur Helgason’s assertion that “Iceland keeps us creative” through its volcanic activity and developing landscape to Sjon’s explanation of the creativity required when working with a medieval language, there is much to learn about the Icelandic publishing industry, especially from those working in it.
All the authors featured in the video have appeared at the Iceland Writers Retreat, including Hallgrimur Helgason and Andri Snaer Magnason who will be leading workshops this April. You can learn more about the workshops they will be leading here.
Sara Letourneau is a poet and speculative fiction writer from Massachusetts, USA. This is her story.
Christer Magnusson has lived in Iceland for many years, but attended the Iceland Writers Retreat for the first time this year. This is his story.
DIYMFA published a list of five reasons to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat, by 2017 participant Sara Letourneau. “I came home from this trip inspired, clear-headed, and ready to return to writing after a month where my confidence in my craft had pretty much shattered. And for that, I am profoundly grateful for the IWR experience,” she writes.
Sara’s top five reasons to attend are:
- A Wide Variety of Workshops, Led by Internationally Acclaimed Writers
- It’s Smaller Yet More Global Than Most Writing Conferences
- Excursions in Reykjavik and the Icelandic Countryside
- Immersion in Iceland’s History and Culture
- The Camaraderie and Shared Understanding Between Writers
Read the full article here.
Words and Photo by Elliott Brandsma.
Starkly beautiful and geographically unique, Iceland is a small yet striking country that captures the imaginations of all who visit. From the island’s quirky, creative inhabitants to its charmingly casual atmosphere, here are eight things that long – and short-term visitors report missing most about Iceland after they’re gone.
- Icelanders. The people of Iceland are resilient, resourceful, laid-back, and full of wonderful stories and interesting perspectives. Some tourists might be put off by the Icelandic stoicism or dark sense of humor at first, but once visitors get to know them (or give them an alcoholic beverage), Icelanders swiftly become some of the most jovial, straightforward, and open people they’ve ever met.
- The Music Scene. Iceland is home to one of the most prolific alternative music scenes in the world. The country plays host to a variety of cutting-edge music festivals all year round, and some notable Icelandic band or singer is likely performing at a bar, restaurant, or coffee shop in the capital Reykjavík on any given evening.
- The Proximity to Nature. A road trip outside of Iceland’s capital city is a fantastic way for travelers to commune with nature and spend time alone in solemn reflection. Iceland’s fresh air, towering mountains, glaciers, aurora borealis, geothermal hot springs, and absorbing scenery provide visitors with a rare chance to reconnect with the natural world, alleviate stress, and clear their minds of mental clutter.
- The Close-knit Environment. Iceland is a small, sparsely-populated island, which means everyone knows everyone, and family ties between Icelanders are quite strong. Most native Icelanders are related to each other by at least the seventh generation, lending to the nation’s distinct “small-town” feel. The informal nature of the Icelandic populace also makes it easy to establish personal and professional connections, so for visitors who stay long enough, Iceland quickly feels like a second home.
- The Bars, Restaurants and Coffee Shops. The country’s budding culinary scene and iconic coffee shop culture are favorites among tourists to Iceland, mostly because Reykjavík boasts a venue or café for every palette and preference. Fish and lamb dishes remain a huge hit among Icelanders and visitors alike, while a variety of vegan dining options are slowly but steadily catching on in the Nordic country. The capital city is home to an abundance of cozy coffee shops and bustling bars, too, where visitors can upload vacation photos, Skype with family, or chat with new friends over a brew.
- The Literary Culture. Iceland has been a book-loving nation for centuries. Whether it’s the Icelandic sagas or the Nobel Prize-winning novels of Halldór Laxness, Icelanders have long venerated the written word and made literacy a cultural value. Reykjavík boasts a well-run network of libraries and bookstores and every year around Christmastime, Icelanders celebrate the jólabókaflóð, or Christmas Book Flood, when Icelandic publishers collectively release hundreds of new book titles on the market.
- Þetta reddast. In Icelandic, the saying “Þetta reddast” means “everything will work out.” This phrase has come to exemplify an endearing quality about Icelanders: their steadfast belief that no matter how bleak or dire a situation appears, everything will come together in the end. Many long-term visitors in Iceland have come to appreciate this optimistic outlook, because it helps them keep stressful situations in perspective and not take life too seriously.
- The “Everything is Possible” Attitude. Iceland’s intimate size and inventive people make every dream and creative endeavor seem possible. For example, Iceland boasts the most published authors per capita in the world; many Icelanders have formed bands or play an instrument; visual artists abound in the country; and Iceland is rapidly becoming a home for innovative green businesses and technologies. An artistic and entrepreneurial paradise, the country celebrates creativity and thrives on turning lofty ideas into reality.
Elliott Brandsma lived and went to school in Iceland for three years before relocating to Miami, Florida, in 2016. He misses these and many other things about Iceland. What will you miss most about your time in Iceland? Sign up for the Iceland Writers Retreat and discover the wonders of Iceland for yourself.
The Iceland Writers Retreat asked several Icelandic authors to describe what an average day of writing looks like for them. In this piece, Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir gives us an account of her fascinating creative process.
ODDNÝ EIR ÆVARSDÓTTIR
This day is the day. I make abstract structures with elements that I smell in the morning: symbols, colors, sounds. Inside this structureless structure I dwell and write: There I’m covered by pure passion and joy, and I write like an animal until exhaustion. I leave and come back, leave again and come back. During the day. And the night. Sometimes I don’t even dress. For the reasons of health some days I slip into this dangerous zone only once. I jump in, write fast and pray to the unconscious that the phrases will be finished. The intervals are not to be judged as idle. During walks and talks and readings of poetry, listening to music, checking out the history of symbols and words, I make a negative space for my writing. But if there is anxiety, I invent a ritual of exorcism, and I’ll have to contemplate on the golden ratio in some classics, my chore. Nurtured by tradition, I allow my writing days to be rhythmically different one from the other. But in this endless construction and deconstruction of time and space there should not be threat of authority or power. Just an out-of-the-blue in a play.
Activist and author Oddný Eir Ævarsdóttir is a powerful, poetic voice on the Icelandic literary scene. She has written lyrics for Icelandic popstar Björk, and her novel Jarðnæði(Plan of Ruins) was nominated for the 2011 Icelandic Literature Prize and the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize. Her recently-published short story “The Blue Blood” was translated into English by Philip Roughton and is available for download on amazon.com.
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.
Photo taken by Art Bicnick, rest of the series can be found here.
Iceland is quickly climbing in notoriety as a travelling and cultural hotspot, but how much do you actually know about the small northern island?
- Iceland is the world’s most peaceful country. (source)
- Reykjavik comprises more than half of Iceland’s population. (source)
- One of the world’s first parliaments was in Iceland. (source)
- Per capita, Icelanders drink the most Coca-Cola. (source)
- Its political representation is progressive compared to the rest of the world. The world’s first democratically elected female head of state, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir, was elected in 1980. The world’s first openly gay Prime Minister, Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir, was elected in 2009. (source)
- Iceland sits on two tectonic plates: America and Eurasia. This means that if you are on the western side of Iceland, you are geographically in North America, but politically and culturally in Europe. (source)
- Iceland has a national day to recognize its language. It is on November 16 because this day was the birthday of Jónas Hallgrímsson, an Icelandic poet and national treasure. (source)
- The word English word “geyser” is taken from Iceland’s Great Geysir, which can be seen during the Golden Circle Tour. (source)
- Game of Thrones films in Iceland for its scenes beyond the Wall. (source)
- The Icelandic alphabet has 32 letters! (source)
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
It is well-known that Iceland is the perfect home and travel destination for writers, readers, and all book-lovers alike. Here is a list of places that provide a real backdrop for some of your favourite books and movie/television adaptations.
- Lake Myvatn
Game of Thrones fans might recognize Iceland as “Beyond the Wall” from Game of Thrones, and the land of ice and fire. One specific spot that has appeared in the show is Lake Myvatn. This site (seen above, credit to ESTIVILLML – FOTOLIA) was seen in season 3, episode 5: “Kissed by Fire”. The cave that sits on this lake, which is called Grjotagja, is also known as the as the cave where Jon and Ygritte’s love scene took place.
This volcano is named in Journey to the Centre of the Earth by Jules Verne. In the novel and the adapted motion picture, the volcano is the passageway to the centre of the Earth. Snæfellsjökull is both a volcano and a glacier. According to Visit Iceland, “Snæfellsjökull glacier is said to be one of the seven great energy centres of the earth, and has been attributed various mysterious powers.”
This town in south-eastern Iceland, close to Brunnhorn Mountain, was one site where the film Stardust was filmed. Stardust is based on the book of the same name by Neil Gaiman. The cold air whipping off the water and view of the mountains provided the perfect panoramic background for part of the perilous journey. Neil Gaiman also developed American Gods while he travelled through Iceland.
- Fate of the Gods exhibition at Vikingaheimar
This exhibit centres on Norse mythology, myths, and magic. The exhibition showcases different types of art that are modern and contemporary interpretations of Nordic culture. Many prominent writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien, W.H. Auden, and William Blake were inspired by the Icelandic Eddas. Here is a way to go to the very beginning of the magic of the Icelandic literary tradition.
Visitors can also visit the Islendigur Viking Ship, which is in the same location.