How the Writer Sjón Turned An Idiot Into a Fan Girl

This is a story about me being an idiot. Truly. It begins on the living room floor in the home of Halldór Kiljan Laxness, a son of Iceland, a Nobel Prize-winning author, and a guy with great taste in art. And the story ends in the candy aisle of a gas station about a half hour outside of Reykjavik.

I came to Europe’s most northern capital to attend the Iceland Writers Retreat. The penultimate day of the retreat was a break from writing workshops with a guided tour of Iceland’s Golden Circle, an opportunity to see geysers and waterfalls, and shop for wool in souvenir gift shops. The tour ended with a visit to the understated house that once belonged to Laxness. Our group filed into the crowded living room of this famous house. My daughter and I found a place to sit on the floor, this cold spot by the fireplace with a number of figurines balancing on a small table. I was worried about one of us knocking something over. We were then introduced to writer Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, known as Sjón. I had never heard of this writer, it was the end of a long day of sightseeing, and my only focus was on making sure my daughter’s iPad games didn’t disrupt the reading.

Sjón read from his book “The Blue Fox.” And I recall my attention gently shifting from making sure my daughter’s iPad games remained discreet to tuning into the story, and I recall thinking “Wow! This guy can write,” still having no clue who was at the podium reading this interesting book. But I began to listen. And I stopped worrying about my daughter playing on the iPad. And I started following the words. “The Blue Fox” takes place during a harsh Icelandic winter in the 19th century. There is a hunter chasing after a rare blue fox, a botanist and a young woman with Down syndrome. The novel is a skinny 115 pages. Sjón read from the middle of the book, and I can tell you the exact sentence that switched me from an idiot to a fan girl: the botanist blurts out to his colleagues “I have seen the universe! It is made of poems!”

It was love.

We left Laxness’s home, filed back on to the tour bus, returned to Reykjavik and while walking to a noodle house for dinner, we passed a book store. I bought “The Blue Fox” and read it later that night, last night, in my hotel room. I was floored. It was spare and beautiful and clever prose. This book won the 2005 Nordic Council Literature Prize, one of the highest literary honors. Turns out, Sjón is an accomplished genius-of-his-time, an award-winning author, a poet, Chairman of the Board of Reykjavik UNESCO City of Literature, and even a lyricist for Björk. Junot Diaz, a writer I enjoy reading, called Sjón “a trickster” and “achingly brilliant.” As I read the blurbs on the book jacket I realized everyone on Earth knew what an awesome talent Sjón was. Except me.

After reading the first few pages of “The Blue Fox” I shouted to my daughter, “ANNA! I can’t believe I let you play Angry Birds during the reading! You were in the presence of greatness!” (Turns out she was doing an iPad puzzle. Still.)

Say the word “celebrity” and who comes to mind? Fat-lipped Kim Kardashian (I still can’t figure out what the Kardashian appeal is…) or maybe Britney Spears or maybe some reality TV show twit. Loud, crass, obnoxious people who haven’t contributed much to this world beyond being photogenic. Everything is so digital now, so immediate, often so loud, and too often confrontational. Everyone wants to be heard and often this information is in our faces. Tune into the CNN punditry circus just to get a glimpse of this noisy neediness.

But to discover a world-renowned writer, someone you’ve never heard of, because you’re sitting on a living room floor just listening to him read to you? To have genuine celebrity be so unassuming, so quiet? Wow.

Which brings me to the candy aisle at a gas station. I’m waiting for my husband, my daughter is begging for gummy worms, and I’m thumbing through my iPhone apps because that’s what we all compulsively do now, twiddle on our smartphones anytime there is a gap in the day. This huge smile crosses my face and my daughter says, “Mom! What is going on? Why are you smiling like that?”

And I said to Anna, “Because a genius is now following me on Twitter.”

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