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:
Facebook: Margaret Nowaczyk
This year is the fifth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Michelle Walshe.
Michelle Walshe was born in England but raised in Ireland where she resides after living abroad for many years. She worked as a teacher at third level before she began writing in 2017. Her work has been published in print in the national media in Ireland and the UK and in Teachers Who Write: An Anthology, online on Writing.ie, Skelligmichael.com and Silverbirchpress.wordpress.com. She has been shortlisted in short story competitions and won a prize for flash fiction. She has won residencies, a scholarship, and bursaries to the John Hewitt Summer School, The Stinging Fly and The Bronte Parsonage. She volunteers at Roddy Doyle’s Fighting Words, an organisation promoting creative writing for children, and at literary festivals. She is working on a memoir and a children’s book. All her published work can be found on her website www.thesparklyshell.com.
This year is the fifth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Jo McClelland Phillips.
Jo McClelland Phillips was born on the shores of Lake Ontario, then migrated to the mountains of New South Wales. Her work has been published in TIME Magazine, USA Today, Fairfax Media, and Mashable along with several national and independent newspapers and magazines. She is the winner of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award and she has been shortlisted for the Publisher Introduction Program Fellowship with Varuna, the National Writers House in NSW. Her short story, The Glass Slipper, won the Fringe Festival Award at The Eden Mills Writers’ Festival, and received honourable mention in The Glass Woman Prize.
This year is the fifth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Chelsie Bryant.
Chelsie Bryant is an Ohio native currently living in Portland, Maine. In her spare time, she enjoys photographing her cat, har, who spells his name in lowercase because he makes the rules; he doesn’t follow them. Her work has been featured in Willow Springs, Michigan Quarterly Review, Yemassee, Passages North, Word Riot, and other places. She won the Willow Spring Fiction Prize in 2016 and holds a Master of Fine Arts from the Ohio State University.
This year is the fifth year the Iceland Writers Retreat has offered the Alumni Award. Over the coming weeks, we will be posting Q&A’s with this year’s recipients of the Alumni Award, today’s with Abak Hussain.
Abak Hussain was born in Dhaka, Bangladesh, where he still lives. A journalist by trade, he is currently the Editor of Editorial and Op-Ed at Dhaka Tribune, a leading English language daily, where he worked since the newspaper’s inception back in 2012. He writes a weekly column — “Hard Target” — mostly on political issues. His other interest is creative writing — he has published short stories from time to time, and hopes to one day finish his novel.
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.
Once upon a time the Hallgrímskirkja clock struck 03:00 and, on her way to the bus that would take her to the airport, a South African girl lost her hiking boot in the streets of Reykjavik. She did not mean to, and it happened swiftly, the shoe slipping off much easier than it had been to put on. As if it had a will of its own, forcing her to leave a piece of her behind so that she might have to return one day.
In the airplane, on the final stretch of the trip towards Iceland from Munich to Keflavik, I watch an Icelandic crime series and listen to the language. The words I hear and see at once seem so familiar to the tongue, yet so foreign:
“neyðarútgangur” (Icelandic), “nooduitgang” (Afrikaans) – emergency exit
“kirkja” (Icelandic), “kerk” (Afrikaans) – church
“Mánudagur” (Icelandic), “Maandag” (Afrikaans) – Monday
Upon arrival at Keflavik International Airport I meet with one of the other retreat attendees and we are met by a glacial wind unlike any I had ever experienced before. We stare through the window of the bus at a foreign landscape.
I had never seen snow before.
Iceland is unyielding, stark, cold, sublime.
The sublime: an aesthetic value judgment – that which is linked with both pleasure and pain. With danger, extremity. The experience gives a type of pleasure that is riddled with anxiety, with an awareness of something that transcends the ordinary sense of beauty. The sublime is the experience of the limits of understanding and reason.
The sublime threatens one’s existence and is a delightful horror.
Iceland is a mythical mistress, forcing one to face beauty, tragedy, and catharsis.
Oddities reveal the truth. Staircases and landings. The senses are the strings of an instrument. Rubbish. Dogs and cats and old people and children.
Just past midnight I stand on the bow of a boat and I try to focus my camera in the dark, the North Atlantic wind blowing against my jacket. The cold had taken hold of my hands. It is nearly impossible.
I await her. The Aurora Borealis.
She is mischievous and I sometimes wonder if I ever truly saw her shimmering green satin dress for a brief few minutes that final night in Reykjavik.
Carien Smith will be a JIAS Writing Fellow in 2020 after which she will pursue her PhD studies in Climate Change Ethics and Epistemology (Philosophy). For more information, visit her website: https://www.cariensmith.com and https://www.facebook.com/Carien-Smith-166234987540871/ .
Jonaki Ray is a 2019 Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award winner, receiving a partial scholarship to attend the Retreat. Her work has been published, both online and in print, in India, the US, the UK, Ireland, Italy, and Singapore. She was nominated by Zoetic Press for the 2018 Pushcart Prize for short fiction; and by Oxford Brookes Poetry Center for the 2018 Forward Prize for the Best Single Poem and was the winner of their 2017 International Poetry Contest, ESL. She has been shortlisted for multiple other awards including the 2018 Gregory O’Donoghue International Poetry Prize and the 2016 Writers’ HQ International Fiction Contest.
Jonaki wrote a guest blog about her experience at IWR for Authors Electric. Read more about what she learned at IWR 2019, and what she took from the experience, here.
To help writers like Jonaki attend the Retreat in 2020, you can donate to the Alumni Award fund here. Registration for IWR 2020 opens on July 9th. To learn more about the Retreat, and our brand new Iceland Readers Retreat, check out our website.
If I’m being totally honest, I certainly didn’t expect the most memorable experiences of my Iceland Writers Retreat to occur indoors. In my defense, the reasoning seemed obvious at the time — it’s the “I” of IWR — but I still hesitate to admit it now. I was so impressed with the sharp minds and incredible writers at IWR that I don’t want to embody the quip, so often misattributed to Twain, about what happens when fools open their mouths. And yet, here we are.
The promise of the Icelandic landscape initially drew me in. In part, this can be attributed to the total dearth of photographs of hotel conference rooms in Iceland’s tourism adverts. Though, probably more of it has to do with the fact that I am only semi-domesticated. That I feel so much more myself with grass underfoot and foliage overhead in place of carpet and fluorescents. I’m happy to say that this part of me was not left wanting as we traveled the Golden Circle on my first day of the retreat. From Geysir to Gullfoss and Thingvellir, my eyes (and camera) feasted. And then, each clear night thereafter, I got to watch the northern lights dance until my toes threatened to secede from my feet.
How funny it was, then, for me, this semi-feral part-ape man, to arrive for my first workshop the next day and discover just how tame my writing practice had become while I wasn’t paying attention. That first session, Priya Basil led us through an exercise where we welcomed abrupt and unplanned transitions. We jumped from one topic to another, which allowed the subconscious to weave connections from seemingly disparate prompts. This twenty minutes was so productive that afterwards I declared I would pay good money for an app that replicated the exercise where she read a random word every four minutes. She was not swayed then, but the offer still stands.
Though it sounds borderline obsequious, IWR knows how to do programming. Every workshop I attended was just as good and productive as the first. Elizabeth Renzetti got us into the point of view of other characters from our own memories; Chigozie Obioma steered us through character-generated plots and the difference between tales and stories; Tessa Hadley’s love of craft was twice as infectious in person as it is on the New Yorker Fiction Podcast as we dissected a short story word for word, finding new and deeper meanings in every line; and Lina Meruane guided us through an exercise to generate a story from two random photographs put into relation. In this last session, because of the unique interaction of my two images, I may have unwittingly taken my first steps into writing… well, let’s call it Romance and hope for the best. I walked away from each workshop invigorated and with an idea of something new and unexpected to write once I returned. Each session pushed us to expand our practice and suggested new ways to unbridle our writing.
But perhaps the most meaningful moment I had (indoors of all places) was also the most personal. On that Golden Circle tour our first day, the last stop was at Gljufrasteinn, the former home of Nobel prize winning author Halldor Laxness. We were in a rush to return in time for a visit to the President’s residence (#humblebrag) and we’d just seen, in order, a geyser, the largest waterfall by volume in Iceland, and the place where the European and North American tectonic plates drift apart 1cm at a time. The house seemed like an afterthought sandwiched between the geological and political events of the day. Until, that is, I stepped inside.
Audur Jónsdóttir’s memories of her grandfather lulled me somewhat out of the present. It seemed like with each word about this great author who was, to her, just a grand-dad, she sparked a memory of my own. The eclectic decor, like the zebra print couch that ran beneath an expansive window, the smell of old books, the paintings on the wall, and the tasteful midcentury modern furniture all (perhaps counterintuitively) fit together. It matched the charming stories of this man’s daily walks up the nearest mountain.
The house and her memories reminded me of my own departed Uncle and his home. A landscape painter of some small local renown, my Uncle Tom had been one of my first intellectual idols. When he passed away, rather than flowers, paint brushes were dropped on his casket. I frequently think of his studio, with the pile of canvases and prints against one wall. And the corner next to the sliding glass door where he set up his still-life compositions. The small mounds of dried oil paints and the piney smell of the cleaner that got them off his brushes. The only furniture in the studio was a humble chair in front of the easel.
My uncle was technically color-blind. It’s part of what made his paintings unique. He would paint a landscape and throughout there would be scattered, impressionistic pops of unexpected colors. Purples amidst greens. Blues with yellows. To him, these were not flourishes. The shade fit, even if the hue— that he could not discern— did not. His paintings all contained these small surprises and were elevated by them.
In Halldor Laxness’s den, I sat listening to Audur speak with warmth and love about this famous man who was never too busy to be a good grandfather, and I felt so close to being back at my Uncle’s. It is only in hindsight that I recognize how this all too brief visit foreshadowed my week at the Iceland Writers Retreat. How it would be about the joy and power of discovering the unexpected and integrating it into our own work.
Dan is currently a member of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. You can find him online at danmusgrave.com
What were you most looking forward to about the Retreat?
I wanted to meet new people and gain new insights from the sessions.
Are there any exercises or bits of wisdom you heard at the Retreat that you look forward to using in your writing going forward?
The most important thing I learnt from Louis de Bernières is to enjoy the writing process, even if that means going against the norm. I needed to hear that, because I had been having a hard time with a project, trying to follow a “due process” that was clearly ineffective and frustrating. Now I’m particular about enjoying the process, I realize that if I’m not enjoying it, my readers probably wouldn’t too.
I learnt about paying more attention to the other senses. Prior to this, I’d really only concentrated on sight, touch, and a few times, smell. Now, it’s amazing to see how much more affective my stories are, because I’m adopting a wholistic, deliberate approach to conveying the senses. Paul Yoon taught this.
Another important thing I gathered from the retreat, is really fundamental. Chigozie Obioma expounded on characterization and how it’s important to check that that foundation has been well laid. It was really the answer to a question I went to the retreat with. As a result of this, I’m rewriting a significant portion of my novel.
Were there any other highlights of your time in Iceland?
I can’t talk about Iceland Writers Retreat without talking about the food! Gosh! I loved it all. It was delicious and healthy, and we were well-fed during and in-between meals.
I also enjoyed walking around Reykjavik and observing the lifestyle of the people. I was quite impressed with the warmth of the Icelandic people.
It was also such an honour to meet Audur Jónsdóttir, granddaughter of Halldór Laxness.
And yes, I made new friends that I’m happy to keep in touch with!
Is there anything else you think would be relevant to share with our followers?
If you can make it to Reykjavik for this retreat, please do. And go on the Literary Borgarfjörđur tour! You would be incredibly inspired by the rich, intriguing history of the Icelandic people. If you do, look out for the snowy mountains, they’re majestic.
Lola blogs creative writing news and tips at lolaopatayo.com. Her work has appeared in Obsidian and Hot Metal Bridge. She is a recipient of the Iceland Writers Alumni Award. She lives in Lagos, Nigeria where she is at work on a collection of short stories and a novel.