Category Archives: English

DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE!

A shortened version of this article originally appeared in The Nordic Riveter; the October 2017 issue of the European Literature Networks’s magazine The Riveter. (Rosie Goldsmith & West Camel ed.)

DON’T BELIEVE THE HYPE!

The Importance of Icelandic Literature in Translation

Twenty or thirty years ago, most people in the English-speaking world knew little to nothing about Iceland, save for our odd appearance in a 1990 episode of Twin Peaks (Google it!). A lot of people simply assumed that we lived in igloos – a baseless cultural stereotype that I’m sure Greenlanders were happy to lend to us for a change. Then came The Sugarcubes, Björk, Sigur Rós, Múm and Of Monsters and Men, and finally the gut-wrenching embarrassment of the “Inspired by Iceland” ad campaign. With it, the nation began its ongoing and somewhat traumatic first encounter with mass tourism. As the króna fell, Iceland was added to bucket-list holidays the world over. The country even took a cultural centre stage in some circles, with people hunting down Icelandic musicians, artists and writers and presenting them to friends with the swagger of indy-music snobs.

In the same time span we also had the Eyjafjallajökull volcano disrupting air travel across the globe, the Icelandic financial crash causing pensions to vanish around Europe, and the Panama Papers; with our Prime Minister storming out of an interview and then out of office – to the nation’s glee. This month, a mere year later, our current coalition government crumbled when it turned out that our new Prime Minister (who was also in the Panama Papers) kept under wraps his father’s part in writing a letter of recommendations for a convicted paedophile seeking to restore his “honour”. This despite months of public outcry for the release of the same letters on the grounds of freedom of information laws.

Yet despite all this, when people abroad ask me about Iceland, they are most keen to hear about elves and “the hidden people”, the Icelandic “way of life”, the Northern Lights and how we jailed the bankers. It tends to be a bit of a social faux pas to tell them that the Icelandic way of life largely revolves around nepotism and suggest that most of our hidden people are refugees and asylum seekers. Same with pointing out that last year one of these jailed bankers managed to crash his helicopter while giving a sight-seeing tour to his business partners, despite supposedly being imprisoned at the time.

It is against this background that Icelandic fiction has entered the tumultuous realm of “world literature”; that infinitely flexible publishing term-slash-marketing ploy. Over the past few decades, we have seen a wealth of Icelandic authors step onto the international stage. Authors such as Sjón, Hallgrímur Helgason, Andri Snær, Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir, Guðrún Eva Mínervudóttir, Oddný Eir, Arnaldur Indriðason, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Jón Kalman Stefánsson – great writers who have honed their craft by writing for the extremely particular and demanding Icelandic reader, who relies on our ambitious yet small publishing industry to cater to his reading wishes. (Publishing writing that only three to four hundred thousand people can read will inevitably be a bit “niche”.)

While historically it has taken a backseat to Icelandic music as a cultural export, I have high hopes for our literature’s international future. I believe that Icelandic literature represents us to the rest of the world as no other medium can. Icelandic writers show us at our best, describing the steadfastness and integrity of our island mentality, our ambitions as a small nation on the world stage, our love for our nature and our language, and how fiercely we protect both. The best of our writers, however, also show us the worst of ourselves: our callus close-mindedness, our pettiness and greed, our xenophobia and our selfish, stubborn hubris.

Writers compromise their art if they speak anything less than the truth. Our writers make us aware of the clashes in our national psyche; those faults and frailties that we need to attend to if we are to survive as a culture and a nation. They show us the things we might not want to admit are there; the cracks in the perfect, cutesy and liberal lopapeysa-clad image that we like to hold up for the world to see. If we are to survive culturally, we must grow to accept these imperfections, rather than hide them. Our writers can help us to do this by forcing us to stand naked before the outside world.

My personal hope is that this happens as Icelanders and Icelandic fiction step into a new era of multiculturalism, as new writing by immigrants and other minorities arrives on our shores, capable of portraying us in uncomfortable and unfamiliar ways. If we mean to stay relevant and venture beyond merely honouring our rich literary history, we must also break the mould of Icelandic fiction and nurture fringe elements that push against the norm. This is doubly important for a nation as small as ours, where economic support for the arts is limited. Hopefully, an increase in the export of Icelandic fiction will provide new resources for these writers. If this is to happen, however, we must stop ourselves from buying into our own hype before the world becomes weary of us.

Story Island – Photo Essay

I was honoured to be asked to take part in Sophie Butcher and Martin Diegelman’s collaborative photo essay Story Island about the Icelandic literary scene, and it didn’t hurt to get such a snazzy and thoughtful photo portrait of yours truly. Do have a look at the link as Sophie and Martin interviewed a lot of current and emerging authors for the piece and it gives an interesting perspective on some of the changes imminent in Icelandic literature while also containing lots of nice portrait and landscape photography. Further works by Martin and Sophie can be found on their websites, sophiebutcher.com and martindiegelman.com.

Photo by Martin Diegelman

Photo by Martin Diegelman

Why ‘You Should Be Working’?

“This morning you rang, but then you had to wait for the elevator, and several seconds elapsed before you showed up at the door. During those seconds, waiting for you, I was thinking of this new piece I’m writing. I can work in the water closet, in the train. While swimming I produce a lot of things, especially in the sea. Less so in the bathtub, but there too.”

-Umberto Eco

 

A few years ago, during one of those frequent periods where I was suppose to be working on a piece of writing but was in fact doing anything in order to escape said work (including Googling various apps and resources intended to “increase productivity”), I stumbled upon an app called LeechBlock, which I thought was guaranteed to help me get some work done.

This was only the latest in a long line of applications and self-inflicted programs designed to help me reach some of my word-goals, but nonetheless I spent a happy afternoon carefully setting up LeechBlock’s filter system and time schedule so that whenever I tried to get on facebook or any of the dozen or so news media or web comic or funny-image sites that I always find myself browsing through if I let myself drift off in front of the screen, I would instead be directed to a large desktop image where softly fading white letters on a black background reminded me: ‘YOU SHOULD BE WORKING’. No exclamation mark. No angry eyebrows or frumpy fonts. Just a gentle reminder. You should be working. You should always be working.

This phrase has become a self-chastising mantra of mine. One that is often found in the speech bubbles above the cartoonish figures that I doodle in my workbook or on various post-it notes scattered around my desk like the remains of a sticky-confetti explosion. Always one prone to travelling the long way around to a simple solution, I sometimes leave myself these sorts of notes in various crooks and crannies of the house. On the TV screen, in the fridge, inside the cupboards where I keep my caffeine supplies, the wall in the bathroom where my eyes rest when I sit down for a contemplative minute. It originally comes from something my friend and fellow struggling writer Bram Gieben said once. We were sitting in his living room sipping mugs of tea and moaning about how lazy we both were when he said, with a self-mocking chuckle: “I think being a writer probably means that you constantly feel guilty because you are not writing.”

Now, Bram has less justification for feeling like a lazy writer than anyone I know. He cranks out music and gig reviews and other articles at a rate which is astonishing considering how conscientious he is in giving the material at hand his full attentions. He pays his rent with writing and still somehow finds the ability to work on his novel when he’s finally gotten everything else out of the way, not hesitating to pull an allnighter and redrafting and retyping entire chapters in order to find that one little thing that just isn’t working right. When he’s at work on a piece of text it’s like watching a mechanic making an engine roar so he can listen for the faintest tinkle of a busted part, a sound so delicate that no one else can hear it even though we all know the car doesn’t work. Out of the three of us in Bram’s living room, there was only one who was allowed to call himself a lazy writer, and it wasn’t Bram and it certainly wasn’t Mr. Kitty, his highly suspicious black and white cat. And yet he, with a novel under his belt and countless stories and volumes of journalism, felt just as guilty as me about not writing enough. Not working enough.

You should always be working.

You won’t be, but you should be.

Umberto Eco says that he does most of his writing while swimming. Robert Louis Stevenson claimed to work even in his sleep. I, myself, can’t sit still for a few moments on the bus without flicking on the screen of my phone and finding something to distract myself with. I once lived for a year without internet because I didn’t trust myself to get anything done if I had it in my house. If I go swimming I usually get a song stuck in my head instead of trying to figure out how I can make something happen to character A that will make character B see them in a new light. In short, I have almost no self-restraint and am quick to run off and reward myself with a cup of coffee and a biscuit if I manage to scrabble together even one measly sentence.

That’s why I need reminders.

That’s why I need to constantly remind myself:

You should be working.

Chase the Moon Magazine

chsmoonMy short story Two Days from the Diary of an Office Worker Struggling to Lead a Moral Life in the Twenty-First Century is featured in the first volume of Chase the Moon Magazine this month. Hard copies can be purchased through Amazon UK or Amazon US, depending on your preference, or you can receive a free random sample story from the magazine by emailing freestoryctm@gmail.com with the subject ‘free story’…

…or if you want a peak, you can just let me know.

AyeWrite! Festival: ‘The Familiar Detective’

familiar detectiveThe Familiar Detective was a one-off course that I composed and taught at the 2013 AyeWrite! Festival in Glasgow. It was based around the idea that each and every detective story relies more heavily on the accumulative knowledge learned from all detective stories up to that point in history than is common in most other genre fiction’s relations to the rest of its genre.

Readers of detective fiction are usually always “avid” readers of detective fiction, and each time they grasp a new mystery they are bringing to the task their vast knowledge of the genre. The author’s job, then, is to know his genre just a little bit better than the reader’s do, and to be able to thwart and reward their expectations in equal terms, so that the question becomes who knows the story better: The reader or the author?

Using MindNode on an overhead projector, the class and I constructed a fairly intricate flowchart of various detective figures from literature, pulps, cinema and television and then did our best to find the connecting threads between all of them; the “clichés” (for lack of a better word) that joined all of them.

We then had a discussion about what is the purpose or the sense of enjoyment in our reading of detective fiction and played around with ideas of subverting the stereotypical detective figure in order to come up with our own individual characters and settings.

At the podium

Using examples from modern detective fiction we took accepted tropes, such as alcoholism, rocky love life, physical dominance, and replaced them with some other less common tropes, such as schizophrenia (Romulus Ledbetter), a happy marriage (Guido Brunetti), a deformed physique (Matthew Shardlake), gender (V.I. Warshawski) or, my favourite thwart against the strong silent type, Tourettes (Lionel Essrog).

Looking back at the course now my main concern is that I had made simply way to much assisting material for a one-off, two hour class, and had hoped to attack a subject which scope far surmounted that of our timeframe. It was an extremely enjoyable and rewarding experience, though, particularly as it included tutoring people who were extremely well versed in the subject matter but had not spent much or any time in academic institutions, and so brought me right up against some of my unrealised attempts at being ‘academic’ simply to seem clever, at the cost of a good reading experience.

I hope to teach the class again at some point in the future with a tighter scope as this subject has always fascinated me immensely. Probably because I am not a writer of detective fiction but simply a fan of detective fiction.

Valve Journal: ‘A Swimmer’s Guide to the Front Crawl’

With it’s strange layout spanning over three pages (in less than 400 words) I am hugely appreciative and impressed that the good people at Valve Journal deemed to publish my prose-poem / lyrical-essay / whatever-I-don’t-know piece, A Swimmer’s Guide to the Front Crawl, in their third issue. The piece sprang from an exercise that gradually spiralled out of control and from there into it’s own thing entirely, and though I’ve always felt that it would work better performed than on paper I have yet to gather enough courage to perform it anywhere.

The publication of Valve 03 was doubly exciting for me as it was the first time that I was published on paper rather than online or in a web magazine, and so technically it was the first time my name had been in print, so to speak. Even though it should be obvious that web distributed magazine have the capability of reaching a far larger audience, there is something rewarding and intimate about holding a physical object that contains your work, deemed acceptable enough to be committed to paper by The Ones Doing The Selecting, and I fear I bathed perhaps a little too much in its glory as I told everyone down at the pub:

“They’re actually PRINTING this one!!!”

To which they asked, “Are they paying you?”

To which I said:

“No.”

And walked off to get another drink.

From Glasgow to Saturn: ‘Hammond’ & ‘The Drunk’

During my time at Glasgow University I was lucky enough that From Glasgow to Saturn, the Glasgow University creative writing magazine, was willing to publish two of my stories, The Drunk in issue 28 and Hammond in issue 30. Both are extremely dear to me (as is the magazine) as this was the first time I ever got anything published anywhere. Both are probably an example of me trying to find my own voice by borrowing from the voices of a multitude of authors that I admire. Both include a murder, as many first stories do. Killing someone is just such a brilliant way of fooling the reader into thinking that what happens in the story actually matters. Without a murder these stories would just be a series of events dictated in the first person. It took me a while to build up the courage to see if I could make readers care about the characters without killing (or at least threatening to kill) at least one of them. Some days I still have my doubts.

Tentacles and Ventricles, a Maritime Anthology: ‘Mr. Testo Punishes the Ocean’

tentacles and ventriclesDuring my MA at Glasgow University I submitted a story to my friend A.R. Kahler’s anthology Tentacles and Ventricles, along with a few of the other writer’s in our group. The collection sprung from a pub conversation where Alex came up with the title, and decided it was too good not to be used for something. My own story, Mr. Testo Punishes the Ocean, was an interesting experience for me, though I feel looking back at it that I was perhaps trying too hard borrow a style that wasn’t necessarily mine, and some of the depictions of the village and the children I might change now, while almost all of the names of the characters make me cringe when I read them now. It feels good to know that I can’t do so, because the story is already out there somewhere. That’s the beauty of getting stuff published.