I arrived in Iceland a few days before the conference began, rented a car and explored such delights as Bláfjöll, a ski resort in the Blue Mountains a half-hour’s drive southwest of Reykjavik. The winds at the top were pretty strong, and the area was small compared to similar resorts in Washington state, but it was my first time ever skiing outside of North America. Writers are such a cloistered, indoor lot, so it was delightful to cloak myself in my new green ski jacket and experience the rush of spring snow.
Closer into town, the weather was similar (in the 40s and rainy) to where I’d come from (Seattle) and the conference venue was next to an airport. Generally, people were from English-speaking countries and there were a lot of women over 40 there; obviously people who’d had a career and now wanted to do some serious investing in their craft.
What was it like being at the conference and hearing such an array of speakers? My first class was on book reviews, taught by the Pamela Paul, who heads a staff of 24 for the New York Times Book Review. She was dressed in maroon and black; kind of like the weather, which we could see was pretty drippy through a large window looking out on the rainy airport tarmac. Seven Americans and one Icelander clustered about a table with our coffees and heard how writing should be vivid and specific. Avoid jargon and clichés like “lyrical,” “compelling,” “spoiler alert” or “deftly,” she told us. Also avoid stock phrases “at his best;” “to pen,” “to author,” and don’t use “read” as a noun. People don’t necessarily read book reviews so they can go buy another book, she said. They just like to enjoy good writing.
I’d done my share of book reviews for news and academic publications, but writing for her, I realized, was no small amount of work. It’s the writer’s job to be interesting and entertaining and provide a much better summary than what one can get on Amazon. What Ms. Paul was seeking reviews that were works of art. I asked her what she paid for these essays between 600-2,500 words, but my notes don’t show that she responded.
So – how to land a review in the Times? Well, compose lead sentences that grab peoples’ attention, maybe with a provocative statement that leads to the larger question. And who is the author? Many people don’t know, nor do they know much about the topic unless we tell them. Is there any new material in terms of research? Did this author have unusual access to his/her sources, such as Michael Wolf in his new book “Fire and Fury?” How was the research conducted? Who paid for it? Were there conflicts of interest?
If the review was negative, what did this person do well? We were encouraged to be bold and not afraid of expressing judgment. After all, without criticism, all that remains is an essay. We could show our biases as a reviewer for after all, isn’t the review about our relationship with the book?
A workshop with Icelandic writer Andri Snaer Magnason followed. He assigned us to write something, anything, for 90 seconds. All I could think about was jetlag and how I’d only gotten five hours of sleep the night before. His best advice: Write what you want to write about, not what you think you should write about, he told us, and the audience will be there.
Swedish novelist Lina Wolff was next with a class on how to create captivating anti-heroes. We discussed Tolkien’s Gollum and Judas in “Jesus Christ Superstar” and why they were both distressing, but fascinating and sometimes sympathetic people. She asked us to imagine Cinderella from her stepsisters’ points of view. Anti-heroes aren’t entirely villains (with whom we don’t connect at all); they’re ambivalent, conflicted personalities. When you build complex characters, she told us, you don’t have to explain them. Coming as I did from a life as a newspaper reporter, I loved the thought of being able to make people up out of whole cloth and of leaving some things unexplained.
On my second day there, I went on “Literary Borgarfjörður,” a bus trip to literary sites in an area northeast of the city. Our coach took us by Hvalfjörður, which is where the convoys gathered before sailing to Murmansk in WWII. (What many people don’t know is that Americans were involved in the Second World War before Pearl Harbor). We dropped by a War and Peace Museum there, which was also the site of a base during the war. Across the street was Saurbær, the site of one of the churches pastored by Hallgrímur Pétursson, Iceland’s most famous poet. He lived a very tough existence during the 17th century while coming up with some marvelous poems known as the Passion Hymns. I’d written a piece about him years ago for the Iceland Review, so was happy to at least drive by where he’d lived.
Just before lunch, we dropped by Reykholt, a place that every writer should visit. Snorri Sturluson, who was born in the 12th century in the days when they were writing the Sagas, was a literary giant. He had a hot spring-fed pool dating back to the 10th century. Alas, we were there far too briefly, but our host, Geir Waage, told us some amazing stories while we seated ourselves among the book stacks. We were surrounded by literary riches with so little time to sample them!
Generally, the entire conference was a series of curated experiences, such as our stop at Gljúfrasteinn, the home of Halldór Laxness, Iceland’s Nobel literary laureate. I’d never heard of “Nordic noir” until novelist Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, a crime novelist, read us the creepy first chapter from her newest book. I decided on the spot I don’t have the stomach for horror. There was a pleasant late afternoon visit to Bessastaðir, the official residence of the Icelandic president, where we sampled Icelandic snacks, enjoyed the view from the peninsula on which it stood and learned a bit about conference organizer Eliza Reid’s other life as Iceland’s First Lady. Our next-to-last event was a pub night at the Kex youth hostel downtown where I downed a huge Icelandic beer and listened to music and literary readings.
And there was also my private find: Reykjavik’s first cat café; Kattakaffihúsið, on a side street downtown. Two kitties lolled about, waiting for someone to adopt them while also dashing through swinging cat doors set in pink walls with impish designs. A designer had moved there from overseas to be part of it, and the place seemed just right for writing. Who wouldn’t like a kitty on their lap?
I adopted a child from overseas quite late in life, so this trip to Iceland had been my first break from mom duties – and first international trip – in nine years. It was lovely to just have myself to worry about and to see how Iceland had changed since I last visited in 2001. I’ve written and reported all my adult life but that week in April was the first time I’d gifted myself with the time to relax and think about why I have always written since I was young.
Someone at the retreat reminded me of this quote from Henry Miller, which is so true and something I wish to pass on to all of you:
“Every day we slaughter our finest impulses. That is why we get a heartache when we read those lines written by the hand of a master and recognize them as our own, as the tender shoots which we stifled because we lacked the faith to believe in our own powers, our own criterion of truth and beauty. Every man, when he gets quiet, when he becomes desperately honest with himself, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. there is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.”
Julia Duin was a recipient of the Iceland Writers Retreat Alumni Award in 2018.