Tag Archives: Iceland Writers Retreat

Why Reykjavik Rocked: A City for Writers

Is it strange to visit a place where you’ve never been to before and where you don’t know the language and to feel totally at home? I’ve been living in the New York City burbs now for over a decade and still don’t feel at home, but I travel to Reykjavik for the Iceland Writers Retreat and get a knot in my throat when it’s time to go. Maybe it’s as President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson says, that the city is adorned not by statues of politicians but by statues of writers. Maybe it’s because in Reykjavik, where one in ten residents publish a book, writing is a respected profession and residents adore writers and equally adore writers’ books. Maybe it’s because books are a popular Christmas gift or maybe it’s because when you tell someone in Reykjavik that you put pen to paper every day, you don’t get a blank look followed by the proverbial question “So you teach English?”

Last year, I met a guy in Taos, New Mexico, who was from New York City, but left the Big Apple nearly twenty years ago to go live a more artisanal life, for lack of a better word, and to run his business in a town where many artists live on less than $20,000 a year. “All New York cares about is money,” he said to me last Christmas, and the words stung because it’s true. Tell anyone in my leafy, affluent suburb of lawyers, doctors and managers that you’re a writer and the conversation goes like this:

“So you teach English?”

“No, I don’t teach English.”

“Oh, so then you do what, PR?”


Awkward pause, at which point I feel the need to throw this person some kind of social buoy. “I do communications for nonprofit and corporate clients.” (Because the word ‘communications’ sounds more important and lucrative than ‘writing.’ Anyone can write but apparently not everyone communicates.)

“Like brochures and stuff?”

Ah, there we go! That’s the lingua franca my snobby suburb with all its nail salons and leaf blowers and hyper-helicopter parenting understands. Until I get that first novel published, no one here can picture what being a writer means, so sure, why not: let’s say brochures and stuff, at which point the lawyer, doctor or manager nods in confused approval. Because the people who sit in their jammies all day writing are the weirdos living in rundown apartments in Brooklyn…right?



So let’s get back to Reykjavik, which means “smoky bay” in Icelandic. This city of 200,000-plus people living between sea and mountains, and dealing with constant wind and cold, have a wicked sense of humor and worship color. First of all, the city buses have mustaches. You read that right. We saw buses painted with everything from classic bushy handlebar mustaches to twirly villain mustaches. Secondly, the city pops with color. The houses are painted every shade from lime green to saffron yellow to carnation pink, and the wool yarn spun year-round and sold at stores throughout the city match the houses. When we visited the week before Easter, shop windows were bursting with sunny fashion.







Gray skies may loom above Iceland most days, but down on the ground Reykjavik is a painter’s palette. Color was everywhere, inside and outside. Murals weren’t hard to find, and even the artists behind these murals revealed a sense of humor.




Elsewhere, you can read about what to see in Reykjavik or where to eat or the ten best places to do this or that or all the other “hidden gem” travelogue out there that will show you a great time in this great city. For me, Reykjavik wasn’t about scoring some off-trek adventure or tasting some exclusive dish or checking off another destination from a bucket list (I don’t believe in bucket lists). Reykjavik was a mirror; a place that loves words, loves color, loves a good joke and loves a good story. It’s where what your bank account holds or what kind of car sits in your driveway or how often your yard is manicured by immigrants or where your kid goes to summer camp doesn’t matter. In Reykjavik, to be a writer didn’t mean scraping by and living some off-the-grid lifestyle, but that you were contributing to the world’s bookshelves, that you were adding your story which hadn’t been told by anyone else before you and couldn’t be told by anyone but you. To be a writer was an admired calling in Iceland, something I will remember the next time I get those blank looks at suburban backyard cookouts.


The Problem With Travel

Two weeks after Iceland, I’m still thinking about Iceland. The land is a mood that follows you. It lingers, like the scent of a campfire coming from your clothes days after the fire has died out. Describing its craggy lava fields, its velvety swaths of green moss, the silence of the mountains that watch over those who live there and visit wouldn’t capture things properly. During meetings and get-togethers this week I tried describing what I saw to others, how snow, rain, sun and a rainbow were all right there within my view, not competing for space, just hovering above, each heavy, gray cloud and patch of blue sky simply expressing its individuality. They shook their heads in wonder, trying to picture such a sky.


From the conversations I’ve had so far, my impression is that very few Americans know much about Iceland other than it’s cold and far (though not as far as they would think if you’re coming from the American Northeast), and what they do know is thanks to the HBO series Game of Thrones where scenes are shot. The Iceland Writers Retreat did a fabulous job educating me. This retreat was the organizers’ love letter to Iceland. They bridged the island’s addiction to sagas and literature with opportunities to learn from an international team of established authors as well as opportunities to sample the landscape. I would strongly recommend this retreat, especially for beginner writers. My week there was an inspiring mix of craft and sightseeing. Talk about writing with writers, go out and look at Iceland’s beautiful countryside, repeat. Our Golden Circle bus tour was a brief buffet to Iceland, and the organizers of the Iceland Writers Retreat were brilliant in setting up this tease; you’ve tasted the wine, now buy the bottle. Consider me sold. Normally I don’t go for packaged bus tours, but this full-day bus tour was excellent, and was narrated by the organizer’s husband, Gudni Thorlacius Johannesson, who has a new book out about his homeland’s history. Thanks to Gudni, we now know where the hidden people hide, where ‘the women were drowned’ and that there’s hope for the Icelandic language to survive even as the digital age moves computer commands toward English.


A writer I met at the workshop, Kat Bernhardt from King Salmon, Alaska, put it best, “One of the things I’ve learned to like about travel: you can’t see everything, a place is not a check box, it is never “seen,” a reason to come back just makes the place that much richer.” We didn’t see everything. In fact, because of what we did see in Iceland, I’m now thinking of all that we didn’t see. It’s like that adage, “the more I learn, the less I know.” Well, the more I travel, the more I realize how much more there is to see, especially in Iceland where we only briefly ventured out beyond Reykjavik.



And there lies the fundamental problem with travel. Like any addiction, when or where will it stop? I didn’t get to see the glaciers or all the charming fishing villages along Iceland’s Ring Road. I hiked to Glymurfoss, one of Iceland’s tallest waterfalls, and explored a cave my husband and daughter discovered, but I didn’t get to soak in any lagoons or hike elsewhere. Every trip ends this way: I tried this, but not that. I saw this, but wow, wouldn’t it have been cool to have also seen this, this, and this, too. Even while cocooned in hotel ballrooms attending writing workshops, vacation ideas bounced. A poet next to me described her visit to the Tiger’s Nest in Bhutan so now I’ve got Bhutan on the brain. Thanks to meeting Kat and her partner Dan, a photographer (who took some excellent photos of the retreat), I know I will make my way up to Alaska someday. I met so many Canadians, that I want to get to Nova Scotia and Alberta sooner rather than later. And, of course, I want to go back to Iceland, but the country deserves more than a week. I need a few weeks to drive around Ring Road, try all the different ways the locals prepare fiskisupa, hike somewhere where the horses roam, soak up some midnight sun.





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.”

Skyr Hunting in Lopapeysa Country

I hate flying and I’ve been feeling sun-deprived after a harsh winter in the Northeastern United States, so why am I spending spring break in Reykjavik, Iceland? There are two groups to thank: the Iceland Writers Retreat led by the indefatigable Eliza Reid, and HBO’s Game of Thrones (that’s right, I’m a big fan of Jaime Lannister, Brienne of Tarth, and Daenerys Targaryen). Both groups put me in that warm writerly mood, the one that feels like expensive wine slipping down the back of your throat softening your organs and bones. Yeah, that’s the one. Or some might call it inspiration. Either way, here I am eager to hear wisdom from writers Andrew Evans, Susan Orlean, Joseph Boyden and Randy Boyagoda. Along the way, I’ll be eating puffin, watching puffin, perhaps buying my daughter a stuffed puffin, and breathing in Iceland’s lava fields and waterfalls, its flirtatious coast and salty winds.


So far, during my first 18 hours here, all I’ve seen, from the windows of our plane, our bus and our taxi, is that Reykjavik is a city of contrasts. It feels like a sleepy New England fishing village crawling with urban hipsters. There’s compelling, bright-colored graffiti next to stores selling gray wool clothing and sweaters knitted by someone’s industrious grandmother (the traditional Icelandic lopapeysa seems to be worn by everyone, young and old, local and tourist). Reykjavik feels like North America and Europe. Rain and sun cover the city at the same time. We’ve already seen two rainbows; not subtle suggestions of color in the clouds, but bright, Biblical, Noah’s-ark-happy-ending kind of rainbows. Reykjavik is surrounded by exquisite landscape yet the houses are colored corrugated iron plates that look like old shipping cargo containers. We’re enveloped by snowy mountains and geothermal pools warmed by hot volcanic rock. It *is* the land of fire and ice. And since fusion is in the air, our first meal during our first night here was a cultural, culinary mix of traditional Icelandic cuisine prepared with Spanish flair at a funky, cozy place unimaginatively called Tapas Barrin. I ate roasted puffin served on blueberry sauce, cod croquettes, Serrano ham with figs and skyr mousse that was so delicious I don’t care who in that restaurant saw me licking my spoon far too slowly. I’m doing the skyr trail while here, so there will be a lot of spoon-licking all over Reykjavik this week. Mike enjoyed minke whale and all kinds of other succulent fruits des mer. Our daughter did what she does wherever we go—she ate grilled chicken. The food was fantastic. I might eat there again before my week here is up.

Flying here from New York took less than five hours and didn’t cost very much as far as trans-Atlantic flights go, but hanging out in Iceland isn’t cheap. Quite a bit is imported, and even for what’s home-grown, there’s some sticker shock at restaurants, souvenir shops and gas stations. Lopapeysas run about $300 USD. If you want to imbibe as Iceland’s founding fathers once did by sipping booze from a viking horn, that will run you about $80 USD. Our Icelandic tapas dinner cost about $180 USD and I sipped water through the whole meal.

Hopefully this writers’ retreat will be awesome (I know it will be otherwise I wouldn’t have boarded a midnight flight in the rain to get here), inspiration will flow like lava, and by the end of this year, perhaps the first draft of my own novel manuscript will be finished or close to finished (I write VERY slowly compared to the tireless, prolific Michael J. Martinez, author of The Daedalus Incident series). Back home, when thirsty again for this kind of artistic motivation, I’ll rely on Game of Thrones reruns to remind me of this trip, of the cool moodiness circling above this hot rock 300,000 people call home.