The Ice Palace: Storming the Iceland Writers Retreat
I arrived in Keflavik at four in the morning on April 8th, midnight in Boston, and tottered through immigration. The officers on duty beckoned me through with a wave.
“How was your flight? Good? Good! Welcome to Iceland. We hope you enjoy yourself here.”
They were a chipper pair, sunny golden-haired young men in beige shirts that tightened around the biceps. They stamped my passport in front of a window brown with the whale-back of mountains just before dawn.
If asked any questions, I had been ready with my explanation, “I am here for the Iceland Writers Retreat in Reykjavik, an academic conference, only five days in the city, no further travel,” but looking back, I don’t think there wasn’t any doubt that I belonged. The fact that I was flying across the Atlantic with a novel, a notebook, and a glossary of Icelandic catch-phrases in my hands, a rain jacket around my waist, and hiking boots on my feet was reason enough to let me in. Tourism is big business in Iceland, next to fishing, and geothermal energy, while the literary tradition of more than one thousand years a glowing point of pride. There was no need to explain that I was a writer, when in all likelihood the airport workers were writers, too. Over the week to follow I discovered that there were writers everywhere, in every walk of life, doubling as bus drivers, baristas, geophysicists, engineers, hoteliers, musicians and mayors.
After a fitful hour of dreaming on the bus, I woke in front of the Hotel Natura, on the outskirts of the city, in view of a small airport and the local landmark, Perlan, or “The Pearl” a revolving glass dome on a wooded hill with a look out on the thorny steeples, gingerbread homes and twinkling harbor of Reykjavik. The fire crackled and illuminated wooden sculptures of sheep which flocked the entrance to the “Satt” restaurant gave the hotel a ski-lodge feel despite the industrial 1970’s architecture, which recalled multipurpose office buildings that flank railway stations in the outer zones of London. In the couple hours before my room was available for check-in, I dozed off several times in front of my hot cocoa, only to come back to consciousness with a blast of cold air and sleet from the sliding doors, the shuffle of new arrivals exchanging handshakes, speaking in low whispers as the authors began to appear. The glamorous London novelist Taiye Selasi and her rock musician beau were also waiting for a room, while the graceful Alison Pick, likewise recognizable from the brochure, took in the bustle of the concierge and Icelandair staff silently; which of us, slumped on the short sofas and chairs, would they teach tomorrow?
That evening, participants, organizers and authors mingled in a function room with an open bar. In total, we were around ninety people, diverse in age and background. I did not feel that I was among students or teachers, my usual crowd, though there were some of both, as well as lawyers, journalists, psychologists, neuroscientists, political analysts, yogis, equestrians, and embassy attachés. Writers hailed from Singapore, Australia, Bangladesh, Myanmar, Switzerland, Moscow, Romania, Lithuania, Malta, Holland, Puerto Rico, Calgary, Vancouver, Toronto, Puerto Rico, San Francisco, Arizona, Rhode Island, and Washington D.C. Icelandic novelists and poets were also part of the mix, supported by local embassies after winning public speaking, recitation and essay contests. My head swirled with the accounts delegates gave of themselves at round tables over lentil loaf and baked cod; in the days to follow, we sat down at these same tables in different permutations for a hot lunch which invariably included salmon, root vegetables, hothouse salad, skyr, and fresh bread, as well as at least one of the featured authors, who became outside of the workshop setting, one of us, exploring Iceland from the angle of curiosity and wonder.
On our first night, the authors assembled on stage in a small auditorium at the hotel to introduce themselves and their work. Canadian nature writer John Valliant read from his novel in the voice of a Mexican migrant worker; Adam Gopnik impersonated Arturo, the driving instructor and night d.j. from the South Bronx featured in his New Yorker article, “Learning to Drive,” shouting “Become the Noodle!” as he made the injunction of his driving teacher a metaphor for relaxing into the routines of the writing life. Taiye Selasi talked about love and marriage, and read from Ghana Must Go; Linn Ullmann touched upon the extraordinary case of Writer’s Block, of a magnitude, which only the daughter of Ingmar Bergman (who she is), could suffer from. Ruth Reichl described her phobias, and her early years as a San Francisco food critic quaking in the shadow of a James Beard doyenne whom she chauffeured across the Golden Gate Bridge on one of her first assignments for a local newspaper. Alison Pick opened with a visit to the psychotherapist while she was a college student struggling with depression and a sense of mismatched identity. She channeled the religion of her Jewish ancestors, despite being brought up in a Christian household in Ontario. With a passage from the award-winning travelogue Walls, Marcello de Cintio transported us to the singing barbed wire of Palestine, while the Icelandic legend Sjón, author of the acclaimed Blue Fox, read from his novel, The Whispering Muse. With his feather plume of a voice, he was the epitome of the complete literary gentleman, circa 1905, tweed suit, trim moustache, and moon-shaped horn-rimmed glasses notwithstanding.
Barbara Kingsolver read an excerpt from Flight Behavior and revealed her alternate identity as an Icelandic sheep farmer. She delighted to find herself in “a nation of poets who knit,” a heaven of inhabitants who practice a perfect grammar in their everyday speech. At the end of the evening, we all sang “Happy Birthday, Dear Barbara,” with the thrill of being VIPs at a global literary party.
Workshops with these luminaries ran for two days, and proved a feast of insights and exercises. John Valliant taught participants how to write “the immersion paragraph” a technique he used to funnel intensity through syntax in his nonfiction book Tiger; in her seminar, “Small and Complicated Things,” Linn Ullmann plied us with the question, “What’s in a Name?” beseeching us to look at the origins of ourselves and our characters, the predeterminations of parents and lineage, which in the case of Iceland and the Scandinavian countries means almost every child is identified as “son of” or “daughter of” (e.g. “Jóhannesson,” “Leósdottir”).
Adam Gopnik presented the personal essay as “a left turn into traffic,” urging to us to avoid the obvious, to pick up on the neglected thread, the hidden point, and see “our job as writers is to make private life public.” New York Times food critic Ruth Reichl handed out sprigs of parsley, and asked us to describe the herb to someone who had never seen or tasted it before. In Taiye Selasi’s workshop “Hearing Voices,” we wrote fiction passages in first person plural, and second person singular, addressing the younger self of a character—these were revelations in perspective, generating openings to stories I previously tap-danced around without a way in.
On coffee breaks, after our filling the little black journals that along with glossy travel magazines, jars of lava salt, Icelandic chocolate bars, and a bottle of beer, weighed down our welcome bags, writers stumbled giddily into the hallways for coffee and kleinur, or doughnut twists, with fresh whipped cream (Adam Gopnik later wrote about coffee as Iceland’s elixir of life in the piece: http://www.newyorker.com/news/daily-comment/the-coffee-of-civilization-in-iceland). We compared notes, chattered excitedly, and asked of the day ahead, “What adventure do the organizers have in store for us next?” At the end of workshops, a bus was waiting to take us to receptions in the city hall with the mayor and the public library with the Canadian, British and American ambassadors to Iceland. For many this was a first view of Reykjavik proper, and the stately downtown of early nineteenth century government buildings, the spires, and red and green roofs of an elfin city encircling Lake Tjörnin. The snow fell in tufts of gray lace, frilling the silver platter of water, veiling the swans and ducks which greeted us with downy fluff, bills-down, bottoms-up.
Instead of the pomp of officialdom, we were regaled with beer, wine, cheese, and stand-up comedy; in the higher ranks of city and national government, a sense of humor is pre-requisite. The claps, knee-slaps and clowning around were a feature of local politics; we swiftly came to understand, in a city where the actor Jón Gnarr had been elected mayor after the crash of 2008, on a satirical platform to free polar bears from the zoo, and mount a Disneyland in the capital. He famously led the gay parade in drag during his term, gaining fans for the serious desire for change lurking behind his mask of flamboyance.
The laughter was infectious, and didn’t abandon us even during the weekend’s saga on the Golden Circle tour, when at the blustery pits of Geysir, our scarves and gloves flew away from us, into the winds of an ancient inferno and we needed to grab neighbors by the waist just to stay standing. When our bus got stuck between snow drifts and three out of four roads back to Reykjavik closed as night began to fall, our guide the volcanologist and astronomer Ari Guðmundsson told us stories of Bokudler, the magic cow, the boy who took her to graze too far out to pasture, and the troll which chased them into the mountainside we could see outside the window between squalls, only to get wedged himself and transformed into a boulder. We were also told to show respect for the “hidden people” or fairy Huldufolk who live in the lava rocks which stretch out from the roads to the green glacial sea, an army of spindly black creatures frozen with pointed fingers and crooked noses.
As intimate as the Reykjavik workshops were, where we were coddled with generous advice and warm coffee, in the landscape of Southern Iceland, we felt the raw power of waterfall and eruption which underlies the literature. I could not deny the clashes of the gods and Valkyries at Gullfoss, one of Iceland’s ten thousand waterfalls, a cascade of unbending time, a dramatic performance of gaping sky, swallowing canyon, and rushing ice. Or that we had journeyed to the center of the earth at Ϸingvellir National Park, the site of the first democratic parliament in 930 AD, a plain of vast cathedral-like quiet, and the spot where the tectonic plates which once joined North America and Europe as one continent are dismembering at the rate of one centimeter per year.
Two days later, after many more cups of coffee, doughnuts, drinks of cod liver oil, reluctant bites of puffin and whale, a long outdoor swim in a thermal pool, attendance at a Russian Orthodox Easter service at the city’s old Cathedral, conversations with the writers, the authors, the poets, the booksellers, filmmakers, ambassadors, priests and collective concierge of Reykjavik, I headed home on the wing of Frejya, mercurial goddess of love, Wow’s newly christened airplane. As we lifted off from the land of ice, myth, and Northern Lights, Linn Ullmann’s question seemed to echo through the mist and spray, “What’s in a name?” Is it an ancestral map of where we’ve been or the book we haven’t written yet?
The Iceland Writers Retreat
REYKJAVIK, 13 — 17 APRIL, 2016
After completing an M.Phil in English Literature at Oxford, Nicole Miller worked at The New Yorker and The Oxford English Dictionary, where she is a longstanding scholarly reader in etymology. Her short stories have appeared twice in The May Anthology of Short Stories, edited by Jill Paton Walsh and Sebastian Faulks, and her nonfiction won the Dorothy Cappon prize for the essay in New Letters magazine in 2014. She held the Graduate Fellowship in Creative Writing at Emerson College, Boston, gaining her MFA in 2012. In 2012, she was also awarded a Ph.D in Victorian Literature from University College, London. She currently edits faculty manuscripts for Harvard’s English Department and teaches creative writing at the Writer’s Center in Bethesda and the British novel at Politics and Prose bookstore in Washington, D.C. Her interests span the novel, short story, ghost story, essay, memoir and the translation of Modern Greek poetry.See other articles by Nicole Miller