Iceland is a reality check.
Standing on the edge of the Burfell volcano, you realize what a fragile construct modern civilization is. We live on a thin layer of habitable land on a lump of rock spinning through space. Underneath our feet tectonic plates shift, magma bubbles, water boils, and both regularly erupt.
The landscape here, like all of Iceland, has a primeval majesty. A narrow path snakes through a long, deep canyon. Jagged walls of rock, a palette of blacks and greys, loom over us. The ground is splashed with faded green moss, split by deep crevices. A freezing wind howls through the lava fields. The gale pauses for a moment as if to take a breath, then gusts with even greater force, slashing at us while shrapnel bursts of rain explode overhead. Then the air suddenly turns still, the downpour stops, and the sky transforms from grey to turquoise. As they say in Iceland, “If you don’t like the weather, then wait five minutes.”
It is exhilarating. We are just twenty minutes from downtown Reykjavik, the capital, but out here the day-to-day concerns of modern life seem utterly irrelevant. It would be no surprise to see a legion of trolls marching through the canyon, a line of elves along the ridge, or even a dragon snorting fire. When Eyjafjallajökull, another Icelandic volcano, erupted in 2010, it spewed out a plume of ash five miles high, grounding airplanes across Europe.
Iceland’s bleak landscape has long proved a catalyst for extraordinary creativity. Literature is the very heart of Icelandic culture, rooted in the Sagas, the epic tales of life in Iceland in the 10th and 11th centuries, soon after the arrival of the first settlers. For coinosseuers of literature, the sagas stories of family struggles, rivalry, and conflict rank with Homer and Shakespeare.
It may be the country’s remoteness, its long nights, and inclement weather that have fostered a love of story-telling. Icelanders certainly love books. Literature is embedded in the country’s DNA. Iceland has more writers and publishes more books per capita than any other country in the world. About one in ten Icelanders will write and publish a book, from a slim volume of poetry for friends and relatives to a best-selling crime novel. It was Independent People, by Nobel laureate Haldor Laxness, that put modern Icelandic literature on the global map. Eighty years after its publication, the eipc saga of croft farmers and their struggles is still selling steadily. Kiljan, a prime-time television show, is devoted to books. The government-supported Icelandic Literary Fund supports publishers, translators, and writers.
Iceland’s landscape and its people’s love of literature made it a natural choice for a writers’ retreat, says Erica Green, co-founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat, which launched this year and invited me to attend as their guest. “Iceland is located between North America and Europe, so it’s easy to reach. But once here, you feel you are somewhere very far away, out in the middle of the Atlantic. It’s a place full of contrasts: the population is so small and isolated but also so well educated. You can eat world class cuisine in Reykjavik and then drive for an hour and climb a glacier.”
Green is now based in Washington, D.C., but she lived outside Reykjavik for two years. She worked with Eliza Reid, a Canadian based in the Icelandic capital, to set up the gathering. The first retreat took place from April 9 -13 and the next is planned for April 2015. The aim, says Green is not to learn how to pitch a book or to speed-date agents. Rather, the focus is on honing your craft. “This is an event created by writers for writers. There are small group workshops, author readings, panel discussions, and cultural tours. We also want participants to learn about Iceland’s rich literary history, and enjoy the country’s food, music and unforgettable landscape.”
The featured authors this year were Susan Orlean, a staff writer with The New Yorker; travel writers Sara Wheeler and Andrew Evans; Pulitzer prize winning novelist Geraldine Brooks; award-winning Canadian author Joseph Boyden and fellow Canadians Randy Boyogada and Ian Reid, and British novelist James Scudamore. All the authors held workshops. Orlean taught us to look and listen, while Wheeler explored how to use dialogue in non-fiction. Brooks focused on how to make the much-coveted journey from journalist to novelist, while Boyden examined “The Writers’ Life.” Nights were spent exploring the city’s often riotous nightlife.
Nowadays Iceland and its Nordic neighbours are more trendy than ever. Television series such as The Killing, The Bridge, and Borgen have placed the northern countries firmly on the cultural map. Arnaldur Indridason, an Icelandic crime writer, has been translated into twenty languages. Scandimania is booming.
Icelanders may be secretly pleased about the attention they are getting, but these hardy, self-sufficient people won’t always admit it. “For us in Iceland this is not a very interesting question,” President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson says. “Nations that are small on the global scale can become extraordinary reservoirs of culture and creativity. There has been a sudden discovery that these harmonious, peaceful societies had enormous human creativity, emotions, and drama. Maybe because we are an island nation in the north Atlantic, the ultimate test is not what other people think, but what we tell ourselves.”