An Interview with IWR Alumni Ian Gunn

An Interview with IWR Alumni Ian Gunn

We are profiling some faculty and alumni leading up to the 2018 Retreat. Ian Gunn has been joining us in Reykjavik since 2015!

Ian holds Masters degrees in both Education and Australian Literature, and a PhD in Contemporary Literature from the University of Queensland. In a flagrant bid to feed a growing travel habit and indulge his passion for all things Icelandic, Ian horrified his professors and disappointed his parents by deserting the halls of academia to become an international air steward for a major Australian airline. The plan worked; in the last two decades, he has travelled to over 100 countries, and visited Iceland on at least twenty occasions. Ian is also a qualified sommelier and wine educator. When he’s not travelling the world, trying to find time to write and searching for the perfect Chardonnay, Ian also works as a sessional lecturer in Gifted Education at the University of New England. He lives, infrequently, in Coolum Beach, Australia. 

How did you find out about Iceland Writers Retreat originally?

In the English language newspaper Reykjavik Grapevine. I live quite literally on the other side of the world, in Australia, but I’m lucky enough to be able to visit Iceland a couple of times a year. On one of these visits I was casually leafing through the pages of RG at the Kaffifélagi∂ coffee shop while waiting for my latte, and happened across an article about the inaugural IWR, which had not long finished. I was immediately captivated by the idea. Two of my passions – Iceland and writing – together at last! But I was also a little irked that I’d allowed the inaugural event to sail completely under my radar. I would’ve been a definite starter. Still, I made sure I booked onto a later Retreat, and I’ve been coming every year since. 

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? 

No. I’ve been to heaps of writers’ festivals around the world and attended a lot of workshops, but the IWR is really quite unique. It’s a credit to the Founding Directors that they’ve been able to retain the special quality and intimacy of the event, despite its growing profile and popularity.

What did you most look forward to about the Retreat?

Just about everything – the amazing faculty, the social occasions, meeting writers from around the world, and touring the Icelandic landscape.

Did it match up to your expectations?

Yes, completely. Utterly. Absolutely.

What was the biggest lesson you took from the retreat? Or perhaps a piece of advice, or writing exercise that had an impact on your writing?

I think the best lesson I’ve taken from the Retreat is that writers need to find their own ‘system’ for writing, and then try to make it habitual. No two writers approach the task of writing the same way. Some are very methodical, producing daily quotas of words, while others are more sporadic. It’s always interesting, and quite reassuring, to learn of the vastly different methods writers employ and realize that all are valid. Writing is often viewed as something of a solitary enterprise, but I think this connection with other writers is very important. You can trade ideas and insights, and hopefully see that the same frustrations you experience are experienced by everyone.

What and/or who do you find inspiring?

Living in Australia, I find that I’m constantly inspired by the beauty and terror of nature. I’m sure that’s also part of what attracts me to Iceland as well.

In terms of writers who inspire me, there’s Margaret Atwood of course, whose work I first encountered in the 1980s as an undergraduate in a Commonwealth Literature course. I also admire Tim Winton, Peter Carey and Richard Flanagan, a holy trinity of contemporary Australian literature. Another favorite is the British author Chris Cleave, whose novels pulsate with a wonderful humanity. I was fortunate enough to meet Chris at last years’ IWR and take his workshop, and he is, indeed, a wonderful human!

How has writing influenced your life? 

Wow, where to start with that question! I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember, starting with poems at age 4 that my father transcribed and made into a little book. I’ve diarized most of my life. And I was always drawn towards school and University subjects with a heavy writing component. So, I’ve basically written throughout all of my conscious life, in one way or another, though much of it hasn’t been for public consumption, let alone publication.

But therein lies an important point, I think. A few years ago I came across a workshop for aspiring writers titled ‘So you want to write?’ The more I thought about the workshop’s title, the more mystifying it became to me. Surely being a writer is not about wanting to write, but needing to write, regardless of where the words might take you, or you might take the words. Writing, often for its own sake, is a compulsion that I’ve definitely always felt, and most established writers I’ve encountered tend to affirm this.

Also, writing can’t happen without reading. I’m an insatiable reader, and couldn’t imagine my life without books.

What do you find to be your biggest challenge in your writing life?

Time, of course, and distraction. I travel constantly, so my life is full of chaos and stimuli. Not the most conducive milieu for tasks that usually require a degree of focus and order, such as writing. On the other hand, the incessant flux of my life gives me plenty of creative fodder for stories and articles.

 What are you working on currently and/or is there anything exciting that has happened in your writing life since the retreat?

I’m about halfway through an essay on the surprising and ironic similarities between Iceland and Australia – the island mentality and hostile landscapes that breed a laconic and off-kilter sense of humor; the deep cultural history of storytelling through the Sagas and the Aboriginal Dreamtime Stories, and so on. In many ways, this essay is as much about exploring my own lifelong obsession with Iceland, and I hope to finish it by April, in time for the IWR.

Apart from that, I’m working on a number of short stories, each at different stages of development. I’m also mining my old travel journals for possible material. I was a big fan of the travel narrative during its publishing ‘heyday’ in the 1990s. I’m eagerly awaiting its renaissance, but I fear the genre has now taken up permanent residence in the blogosphere. 

Any final comments you’d like to share with our followers?

Yes. If you’re thinking about attending the IWR, then just do it! I promise you won’t regret it. It’s a total mind blast in the most stunning of settings. And don’t use distance as an excuse for not coming to Iceland; if a regular trickle of Aussies can make it this far each year, then anyone can!

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