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 or on IG: @mararutherfordwrites

Virtual IWR events in October – Watch Here

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.

Gerður Kristný, Lilja Sigurðardóttir, Fríða Ísberg, and Mazen Maarouf.

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.

Ruth Reichl leads a class on memoir writing at the 2015 Iceland Writers Retreat.
Neel Mukherjee reads at the author night of the 2016 Iceland Writers Retreat.

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.

Spotlight September

Spotlight September

One of my favourite days at IWR is always the last one. In many ways, it’s a sad day, since I’m about to leave an experience that was full of learning, new friends, adventures, and more. But, it’s also an important day, because the participants get to attend a Q&A with all of the authors, and the conversations had up on that stage have never failed to transform the ways I view my own writing and reading habits. 

In 2019, author Priya Basil said of her own reading habits: “I made a decision last year to read only women and in-translation. I think reading in translation opens up literature in a wonderful way.” 

That quote really resonated with me, and made me ponder my own reading habits. I work as the Manager Editor of a literary magazine and a Publishing Assistant at a local press, so I am lucky enough to spend hours reading submitted manuscripts, pieces I’m editing, and books for review throughout each month. However, sometimes that leaves me drained when it comes to my own reading, outside of work. I went into 2020 wanting to be more intentional about my reading, including carving time into my evening before going to bed to dedicate to reading a physical book, rather than news stories on my phone or laptop. I also remembered back to Priya’s quote, and decided that for 2020 I would only read books from diverse and/or under-represented voices. This includes BIPOC authors, women, LGBTQIA2S+ folks, and work in-translation. 

When Covid-19 hit, a friend reached out to me to help re-start a book club she had been part of, and I agreed, as long as the other members were open to making our reading choices in-line with my 2020 reading goals. And, happily, they were. Thus far we’ve read Seven Fallen Feathers by Tanya Talaga, Pizza Girl by Jean Kyoung Frazier, and On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Reading diversely has helped me become a better editor, in thinking about the ways that my work can help platform interesting, new voices. 

Reading diversely has also helped me become a better ally in my work to become anti-racist. We’re witnessing a historic moment in North America amidst the Black Lives Matter protests, and we are so blessed to have access to many wonderful books that can help us look at our own place amidst systemic structures. Some of the works I’ve turned to in doing this learning (and unlearning) are: How to Be Anti-Racist by Ibram X. Kendi, White Fragility by Robin Diangelo, So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo, Me and White Supremacy by Layla F. Saad, and The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander.

In thinking about the importance of celebrating diverse voices, we at IWR want to introduce a new social initiative this month: Spotlight September. We’ll be drawing attention to the books we’re reading and excited about right now, including those by past faculty members. Follow along on our blog and social media pages as we call out the work we think you should be adding to your reading lists, and feel free to suggest even more to us in the comment section! 

Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award testimonials

We are accepting applications for the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award until the end of October. (Click here to apply; link is at the bottom of the page.) Anyone can apply for this award, which is granted primarily on the basis of merit and financial need.

Here’s what some previous winners had to say about their experience: 

“I nostalgically remember the Iceland Writers Retreat as the distant heaven away from home where my writing grew (and still does grow) in ways I could never have imagined, thanks to the inspiring workshops led by globally-acclaimed writers and beautiful and inspiring Iceland and the world citizenry attending the retreat.” Peter Ngila, Kenya, Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipient 2017 

“I don’t know if I’ll ever get over the deeply inspiring culture of this retreat.” Lola Opatayo, Nigeria, Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipient 2019

Four of IWRs Alumni Award Winners
Lola Opatayo (Nigeria), Daniel Musgrave (USA), Carien Smith (South Africa), Jonaki Ray (India), Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipients 2019 (Missing: Lucy Grace, UK)

“The IWR experience was electric. It rekindled my mind, helping me to strengthen my writing as a whole. The friendly community of artists created a warm and inspiring environment, as did the stunning Icelandic landscape.” Nora Shychuk, USA, Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipient 2018

“The Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award introduced me to the international literary scene, exposed me to renown authors and connected me to a global network of publishers and writers. The award came at a crucial time in my writing career and were it not for this opportunity, I would not have had the confidence to sign with an agent or publish my first book.” Megan Ross, South Africa, Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipient 2016

“The Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award came at just the time I thought my creative writing life was a wash. But then I was transplanted into this thriving community of writers in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and it felt like, hey, if Eliza and Erica think I have what it takes, maybe I do.” April Wolfe, USA, Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipient 2016

Fatin Abbas with the other Alumni Award winners
Fatin Abbas (Sudan), Nora Shychuk (USA), Michael Agugom (Nigeria), Julia Duin (USA), Puja Changoiwala (India), Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipients 2018

“‘Make catchy beginnings! Round characters! Interesting research!’- I often heard as a piece of advice for writers. But the how wasn’t explained. The workshops at IWR were not only about what to do but how to do that! The concrete methods that were suggested by the faculty at IWR are useful tools which I grab when I need to fuel my writing process.” Akvile Buitvydaite, Lithuania, Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipient 2017

“Writing is not black magic, even though it often seems as such. IWR was one of the first places where I learned tools and gained faith in this practice.” Victor Yang, USA, Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award recipient 2017

Akvile Buitvydaite (Lithuania), Victor Yang (USA), Peter Ngila (Kenya), Nathan Ramsden (UK), Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award winners 2017

“This opportunity has given me the confidence to write with more clarity and precision in that I have gained more trust in my voice as a writer.” Carien Smith, South Africa, Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award 2019

Megan Ross (South Africa) and April Wolfe (USA), Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award winners 2016

Click on each recipient’s name for more information on their experience. Apply for an Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award here until October 31. Or simply sign up now to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat! 

2018 Highlights

IWR 2018 has come and gone, but as we look towards 2019 let’s revisit some highlights from this April. 

Iceland Writers Retreat 2018 Highlights from Iceland Writers Retreat on Vimeo.

Music by KK (Kristján Kristjánsson)
Images by Roman Gerasymenko

Founding Sponsor: Icelandair

Sponsored by: Reykjavík UNESCO City of Literature, Grayline, City of Reykjavik, Iceland Naturally, Embassy of the United States of America in Iceland, Icelandic Literature Centre and the Writers’ Union of Iceland.

Thanks to: Action Day, Air Iceland, AmazonCrossing, Blue Lagoon, Borgarmynd, HandPicked Iceland, Kex Hostel, í boði nátúrunnar, Icelandic Glacial, Kaffitár, Kex Hostel, Iceland Travel, Nordic House, Omnom Chocolate, Ölgerðin, Penninn, Promote Iceland, Saltverk, Sóley Organics and Visit Reykjavík.

Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award: Applications now accepted!

Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award: Applications now accepted!

The Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award offers talented writers in need of financial support an opportunity to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat in Reykjavík, Iceland in April, 2018.

Who can apply

Anyone who is aged 18 or over on April 11, 2018 is eligible to apply. The winning candidate(s) must demonstrate that s/he does not have the financial means to attend the conference without this award.* Candidates do not need to be professional writers, but should be serious about the craft and interested in developing their skills and contacts. Their writing interests should fit well with the faculty for the 2018 retreat (i.e. literary fiction, non-fiction, memoir). For example, if you are primarily a poet, you should be clear in your application about why attending workshops that focus on literary fiction and non-fiction will be beneficial to you.

Family members of the judges and those who have already attended the IWR are not eligible to apply.*

What does it cover?

Entrants can apply for either full or partial funding. Full funding covers all participation in the Iceland Writers Retreat, as detailed on our website (including accommodation). The scholarship also includes round-trip flights to Iceland.

Partial funding covers the participant fee only, and neither accommodation nor round trip flights.

Please ensure that you apply for the most suitable category for you, as if you apply for full funding you are very unlikely to be considered for a partial award. (Note that last year we had many more applications for full funding than partial funding.)

The award does not include airport transfers, travel insurance, travel visas (if applicable)**, other incidentals or meals not listed in the itinerary, or the Relax & Write extension.

How will the recipients be chosen?

The recipients will be chosen based primarily on two factors: a) The potential s/he demonstrates (or has demonstrated) as a writer and b) his/her need for financial support to be able to attend. We will also evaluate based on the other questions in the application, though, so make sure to tell us about yourself and why you think you’d be the perfect match for the Iceland Writers Retreat.

The applicant should also be available for media interviews before and during the Retreat, and be able to explain how s/he would help to share their experience with others after the fact. This may include being asked to prepare a short report on their experience to be published on the IWR website.

Applications will be reviewed by a group of IWR alumni. The final decision on the award recipient will be made by the IWR Founding Directors.

Deadline for applications: Tuesday, 31 October, 2017. Midnight, PST. We will announce the recipients on 4 December, 2017. 

*If this financial stipulation does not apply to you, or if you have already attended the IWR, please consider entering our writing competition, which is open to all. We will provide details of this event on our website soon. It will open in early October.

**Please note that we are not responsible for issuing travel visas and cannot guarantee that one will be issued for you. However, we would provide all the required supporting letters and our past recipients who have required visas have had no problem being issued with one. 

Reykjavik pond ©RomanGerasymenko

General Tips for applying:

We receive a very large number of applications for the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award. To increase your chances of being selected, please follow the application instructions very carefully.

  • Incomplete applications will not be considered.
  • It is not possible to make changes to your application once it has been submitted; you will receive email confirmation that your application has been received.
  • Level of funding: We receive far more applications for full funding than partial funding, but you need to show that you are unable to afford even the cost of flights to Iceland and accommodation while in the country. Note that you are very unlikely to be considered for partial funding if you have applied for full funding.
  • Your background: We welcome applications from people of all backgrounds and with all levels of writing experience. However, we are more likely to rank applications highly from people who have not had the opportunity to attend many other writing retreats. The quality of your writing is what is most important, whether you are just starting out, have been working for a while, or are at a mid- or post-career break.
  • Why do you want to attend? We all love Iceland. And we all love writing. If you are applying simply to get an opportunity to visit Iceland you are unlikely to be granted an award. Tell us why this particular event and this particular faculty have captured your interest. Show us that you have done some research about the Iceland Writers Retreat. Note especially that our workshops in 2018 focus primarily on literary fiction, non-fiction, and memoir. While we have all kinds of writers attend our event, and all of them get something out of it, if you are e.g. primarily a poet or a playwright, please be sure to explain exactly what you will get from workshops that focus on a different genre.
  • Writing samples: Note that the maximum length for each writing sample is 1000 words. We will not consider applications that have longer writing samples.
  • Why you need financial assistance: This is one of the most difficult yet important factors to consider for this award. Please be as honest as you can with us in explaining why this event is beyond your means without support. Your answer to the question about applying for additional funding is also important. We know that some countries offer support to writers who attend conferences, and we’d like to see if you have taken any initiative in terms of thinking broadly for ways in which you can attend.
  • How will you share your experience with others? We want many people to know about the Iceland Writers Retreat. How will you help us get the word out if you are awarded a scholarship? We know that social media is very popular. Do you have other, more original ideas too?
  • References: References should be by people who are familiar with your writing and are not family members. Applications without appropriate references will not be considered.

About the Iceland Writers Retreat

Held for the first time in April 2014, the Iceland Writers Retreat is an event comprised of a series of small-group writing workshops and cultural tours designed to introduce participants to Iceland’s rich literary heritage. Faculty in 2018 include Hilton Als, Hallgrímur Helgason, Priya Basil, Susan Shreve, Terry Fallis, and Gwendoline Riley. The Iceland Writers Retreat was named one of the world’s best writers’ retreats by the Sydney Morning Herald, and one of the top 10 “Events to travel for in 2014” by Four Seasons Magazine.

About the IWR Alumni Award

This is the third time the IWR Alumni Award has been granted. It is so named because it has been funded by former IWR participants. We are extremely grateful for their generosity.

Iceland Writers Retreat 074 © Roman Gerasymenko

The 2017 recipients of the Award were (from left) Akvile Buitvydaite, Victor Yang, Peter Ngila, and Nathan Ramsden.

Kimmery Martin’s Guide to Iceland

Kimmery Martin’s Guide to Iceland

Kimmery Martin has shared her experiences about the Iceland Writers Retreat on her blog. She writes that the event had “an invigorating cosmopolitan feel,” thanks to participants who attended from 20 countries. The story has many interesting photographs and practical information on travelling in Iceland, whether for the IWR or not.

 You can read the full story on Kimmery’s website.



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