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
IWR Co-Founder Eliza Reid is publishing her first book in February, 2022. Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland’s Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World explores why Iceland is leading the charge for gender equality.
Secrets of the Sprakkar is a fascinating window into what a more gender-equal world could look like, and why it’s worth striving for. Iceland is doing a lot to level the playing field: paid parental leave, affordable childcare, and broad support for gender equality as a core value. Reid takes us on an exploration not only around this fascinating island, but also through the triumphs and stumbles of a country as it journeys towards gender equality.Hillary Rodham Clinton
Iceland is often cited as the best place on earth to be a woman—but why? For the past twelve years, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report has ranked Iceland number one on its list of countries closing the gap in equality between men and women. What is it about Iceland that enables its society to make such meaningful progress in this ongoing battle, from electing the world’s first female president to passing legislation specifically designed to help even the playing field at work and at home?
The answer is found in the country’s sprakkar, an ancient Icelandic word meaning extraordinary or outstanding women. Eliza Reid interviews dozens of sprakkar to tell their inspirational stories, and expertly weaves in her own experiences as an immigrant from small-town Canada. Throughout, she examines her adopted homeland’s attitude toward women: the deep-seated cultural sense of fairness, the influence of current and historical role models, and, crucially, the areas where Iceland still has room for improvement. The result is an illuminating discussion of what it means to move through the world as a woman and how the rules of society play more of a role in who we view as equal than we may realize.
Secrets of the Sprakkar is now available for pre-order wherever you like to buy your books. It has already been published in Icelandic and is forthcoming in other languages in 2022.
Everyone who visits Iceland quickly learns that the little country contains some of the world’s most extraordinary women, their lives rooted in a social and political culture that nurtures equality between men and women without ignoring the pleasures and complexities of family life. It’s a pleasure to see that culture marked out for us through the sometimes wry but always beautifully personal and perceptive lens of the remarkable Eliza Reid.Adam Gopnik, author and staff writer for the New Yorker
With warmth, wit, and insight, First Lady Eliza Reid explores the reasons why Iceland is one of the best places on earth for women, as well as the challenges still ahead in achieving full gender equity. Secrets of the Sprakkar is an illuminating, inspiring, and absorbing book about how a more equitable society could elevate us all.Cheryl Strayed, author of the #1 New York Times bestselling memoir Wild
A warm and intimate exploration of what one small country can teach the world about gender equality. Eliza Reid charts her personal journey from a Canadian farm to Iceland’s Presidential Residence and along the way proves to be the best possible guide to the historical, geographical, and cultural factors that helped women thrive and built a vibrant modern society.Geraldine Brooks, Pulitzer Prize winning author
Charting her own love of the nation and her journey to becoming its First Lady, alongside histories of other formidable women, Eliza Reid’s Secrets of the Sprakkar sheds light on Iceland’s unique approach to gender equity—an emblematic look at what’s possible in the fight for women’s rights worldwide. A fascinating, hopeful, and inspiring read.Esi Edugyan, two-time Giller Prize Winning author
What a world of possibilities Eliza Reid unveils in this warm and wonderful book! It made me want to pack my bags and move to Iceland.Ruth Reichl, author of Save Me the Plums
The fact that the Icelandic language includes the word ‘sprakkar’—an ancient term that translates to mean ‘extraordinary women’––in its lexicon tells you a great deal about the country of Iceland. And in her marvelous memoir, Eliza Reid tells us a great deal more: not only about her life in Iceland, but also about gender equality in action, and the sense of purpose that all of us seek. This is a charming and necessary book.Meg Wolitzer, New York Times bestselling author of The Female Persuasion
Reason 2: Literary vs Commercial Fiction (It’s not a competition.)
By: Jo McClelland Phillips, Alumni Award Recipient
A literary novelist might write genre fiction, and that might even turn some readers off. But not I.
What excited me most about the Iceland Writers Retreat is that it is a place where literary and commercial writers meet in a warm and collaborative setting. Pretense isn’t an issue.
In some circles, literary fiction is held in higher esteem than what is referred to as “popular” or “commercial fiction.”
A common explanation of the two, beyond sales, would be that literary fiction comments on the human condition while popular fiction merely entertains. What about books that do both?
A writing teacher distilled the difference down to how complicated the sentences are written. She pointed out that while Stephen King is very commercial, he writes very sophisticated prose. Yet, no one considers Stephen King literature.
The Iceland Writers Retreat is where we can meet award-winning authors, such as Kamila Shamsie, and popular writers like Maria Semple, both of whom were scheduled to appear in 2020, before the global pandemic. I would say that their novels are both entertaining and comment on the human condition. For me, they are equally valuable. As a writer who wishes to elevate her stories while also keeping in mind the current book market, this is ideal.
At the 2021 Virtual Retreat, I studied with several authors and looked at character, setting, and humour.
Bret Anthony Johnston had us look at character through structure, giving weight to the story with a strong point-of-view. Andrew Evans gave us literary-leaning principles of description without using sight or cliché. I don’t know how to answer Terry Fallis’ question “what’s funny?’ but he defined it as “defying normal conventions with juxtaposition, shock, or surprise.”
A good story is grounded in a sense of place with strong characters. It has a clear point of view. And even a drama or horror is best when the strong feelings are offset by humour.
When I apply these tools and tactics that I learned in these workshops, my work improved. I hope the result will be both artistically appealing and commercially relevant. It doesn’t matter if you’re a genre writer, a satirist, or a poet. It doesn’t matter if you write memoirs or essays or short fiction. We all have something to learn from the writers at the Iceland Writer’s Retreat.
Registration is open for the 2022 retreat. Read about all the fantastic writers who will be in attendance next April.
The Iceland Writers Retreat will broadcast two free, virtual events in October and you’re invited! We will post a link here to watch the live streams as they appear on Wednesday and Thursday.
Watch our panel an Introduction to Icelandic Authors below:
Watch our workshop with Neel Mukherjee and Ruth Reichl below:
Wednesday, October 14, 2020: 12 noon ET / 9 a.m. PT / 5 p.m. BST / 4 p.m. Iceland: An Introduction to Icelandic Writers. Pre-recorded in Reykjavík, this panel will feature writer, poet and former IWR faculty Gerður Kristný, crime writer Lilja Sigurðardóttir, poet and former IWR volunteer Fríða Ísberg, and writer and poet Mazen Maarouf. (Ævar Þór Benediktsson is unfortunately no longer able to attend.) It will be moderated by IWR Co-Founder Eliza Reid. Duration: One hour. Co-presented with Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature.
Registration for the event is free and here. Registration is not obligatory. The panel will be streamed on Iceland Writers Retreat’s Facebook page.
Thursday, October 15, 2020: 12 noon ET / 9 a.m. PT / 5 p.m. BST / 4 p.m. Iceland: Iceland Writers Retreat Mini Workshop and author Q&A. Memoirist, editor, and bestselling food writer Ruth Reichl (IWR faculty 2015) will discuss memoir writing and Man Booker Prize nominee Neel Mukherjee (IWR faculty 2016) will talk about point of view in fiction writing via “mini workshops”. They will also speak about their time teaching at the Iceland Writers Retreat. Viewers will have an opportunity to pose questions to the authors. Moderated by IWR Co-Founder Erica Jacobs Green. Duration: One hour.
Registration for the event is free and here. Registration is not obligatory. The workshop will be streamed via Facebook Live on the Iceland Writers Retreat Facebook page.
There is no need to register in advance for the events. We’ll update this page when we have links for how to view them.
The Iceland Writers Retreat and inaugural Iceland Readers Retreat are scheduled to take place in Reykjavík from April 28 – May 2, 2021. Click here for details.
Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney will be leading workshops at this year’s Iceland Writers Retreat. She replaces Maria Semple, who is unfortunately no longer able to attend. Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney’s debut novel The Nest spent more than six months on the New York Times Bestseller list. The book was a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writer’s pick, a best fiction finalist for the Goodreads Choice Award and was named one of the best books of 2016 by People, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR, Amazon, Refinery 29 and others. The Nest has been translated into more than 27 languages and optioned for film by Amazon Studios. Her novel Good Company will be published in May of 2021. Sweeney holds an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons. Cynthia will be teaching the same workshops that Maria was schedule for, i.e. “Making a Scene” (workshops are full; waitlisting is available) and “Your First Five Pages” (Thurs workshop almost full).
Each year we offer a different collection of small-group writing workshops at the Iceland Writers Retreat. Whether seasoned authors or just beginning to test the waters, our participants return home inspired and with concrete tips to help improve their writing.
In July, a group of 2019 participants shared the key takeaways they got from some workshops. Here are a few of them:
- Ivan Coyote reminded me that I could be faster and write more if I didn’t overthink it. – G.G., US
- Louis de Bernière said to enjoy what you’re writing, even if it’s unconventional. So I’ve spent these past few months reaching inside of me and asking myself what things really interest me, and how I can tell stories from a place of acquaintance and understanding. – Lola, Nigeria, Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipient
- Lina Meruane reminded me to return to the visceral, which is hard to do when you get bogged down with the profession/business side of being an author. – VS Holmes, US
- Priya Basil had us embrace the semi-random jump cut, not worrying about transitions but allowing the subconscious to draw connections between seemingly disparate things. We did an exercise where she read one random word each five minutes and we’d write a paragraph incorporating it into a story in some way. Can be very surprising what shakes out and quite freeing during drafting. – Daniel, US, Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipient
- Ann Hood – When writing about something hot, write about it cold. – Antoinette – Malta
- Tessa Hadley reminded me the best way to learn writing is through reading great stories. Also, revision is the time for real creation. – Vivian – China
- The biggest relief for me was during the closing panel when one of the questions asked to the instructors was if they wrote daily – and they were all like “Nope.” – It was assuring to me that it’s okay if I didn’t write every single day. – Phoebe, US
- Louis de Bernière said “Writing without the flowers makes it more powerful” – Stephanie, USA
- Paul Yoon indicated that perfectionism can get in the way of ideas and creativity – Lisa, Canada
- I found Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson’s class so freeing! I loved the fact that approaching things experimentally can be a true asset. It’s okay to do things differently. Maybe it will work; maybe it won’t. — Lisa, Canada
In November, we will be announcing the specific workshops on offer during the 2020 Iceland Writers Retreat. Remember that workshop spaces are limited and fill on a first come, first served basis. Click here to register for the Iceland Writers Retreat April 29 – May 3, 2020.
Alexander Maksik is unfortunately no longer able to appear at the Iceland Writers Retreat in April 2019. Harvard University lecturer Paul Yoon will instead lead the same workshops that Alexander was scheduled to teach. We apologize to our participants for any inconvenience and look forward to meeting Paul.
We are so pleased to have three great additions to our faculty for the 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat:
Ann Hood is the author of the bestselling novels The Knitting Circle, The Obituary Writer, and The Book That Matters Most as well as two memoirs, Morningstar: Growing Up with Books and Comfort: A Journey Through Grief, which was a NYT Editors’ Choice and named one of the top ten non-fiction books of 2008 by Entertainment Weekly. She is also the author of the YA novel She Loves You, Yeah Yeah Yeah and a ten book series for middle readers, The Treasure Chest, which has recently been optioned for television. Hood’s short stories and essays have appeared in many publications, including The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, National Geographic Traveler, Food and Wine, Tin House, and The Washington Post. Her most recent book is Kitchen Yarns: Notes in Life, Love and Food.
Alexander Maksik is the author of the novels You Deserve Nothing, A Marker to Measure Drift and Shelter in Place. The recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize and The Andrew Lytle Prize, he’s co-director of the Can Cab Literary Residence in Catalonia, Spain.
Please note that Emma Straub and Jón Gnarr are unfortunately no longer able to appear at the event in April; we apologize for the inconvenience.
We regret to announce that Hilton Als is no longer able to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat in April. All participants who were scheduled to attend his workshops will be invited to select a new class. Iceland Writers Retreat apologizes for the inconvenience.
We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Adania Shibli will be a faculty member at our 2018 Retreat in April. She will be teaching two workshops, Writing with Paintings and Secondary Elements, which you can learn more about the workshops she will be teaching here.
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?
In fact my work in academia, rather than the field of writing, has allowed the occurrence of such retreats. Participants in my courses and I would meet over the period of a few days. We would start by expressing urgent questions related to the process of writing, and which are of concern for each one of them. Then we try read texts that could further reflect on such questions. Alongside, we would go for walks to places of the participants’ or my choice. In that sense, these were retreats from the daily life of each of them, yet not from life itself. We try, as a matter of fact, to see the extension of their thoughts and questions in lived experiences that out of the way of their daily lives.
This results with creating shared fields of intimacy that in my view are an essential part of writing. Eventually it feels as if writing becomes alive; making such retreats a rare occasion to experience that by the participants and for me alike. This is as well what I most look forward to sharing with others in any such retreats.
Is there a particular piece of writing advice (or a writing exercise) you would like to share with our followers?
Never let a day pass without writing; to maintain writing as a daily practice; writing throughout the day, even if only a sentence every few hours. It is an advice that I try to give myself as well.
What and/or who do you find inspiring?
I find speaking less is very inspiring.
How has writing influenced your life?
Writing in my case had taught me how to live, and probably how to love.
What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?
The relation to language and words are most challenging and intriguing. One relation which is often encouraged is instrumental use: we use words to tell something. We get used to treat language in this way through speaking, where we are rarely allowed to babble, stammer or stutter. When we do so, we are ridiculed, mainly because we take language away from the single role forced on it to express things efficiently. Personally I find such instrumental use is reducing the potential of language, as instrumentalism reduces the potential of anything else. This said, I try in the process of writing to explore dimensions of language beyond that, something that is very difficult, after such dimensions have been repeatedly suppressed.
What are you working on currently?
I’m in anticipation of starting a new novel that might be written against the background of what I shared here.
Adania Shibli (Palestine, 1974) currently lives in Jerusalem and in Berlin. She has written novels, plays, short stories and narrative essays. She has twice been awarded with the Qattan Young Writer’s Award-Palestine in 2001 on her novel Masaas(translated into English as Touch. Northampton: Clockroot, 2009), and in 2003 on her novel Kulluna Ba’id bethat al Miqdar aan el-Hub (translated into English as We Are All Equally Far from Love. Northampton: Clockroot, 2012). She has also edited a Dispositions (Ramallah: Qattan, 2012), an art book about contemporary Palestinian artists. Her latest is the novel Tafsil Thanawi (Minor Detail, Beirut: Al-Adab, 2017). Shibli is also engaged in academic research and teaching. Since 2012 she has been a visiting professor at Birzeit University, Palestine.