Land of fire, ice and literature

Land of fire, ice and literature
Q&A with authors at the Iceland Writers Retreat - from left, Joseph Boyden, James Scudamore, Susan Orlean and Andrew Evans.

When poor writers turn up in Iceland, instead of being detained by the visa office, they are received by the president at his official residence.

I am generalising, of course, but that really happened when I attended the first Iceland Writers Retreat last month.

On a rainy Friday evening, I was bussed along with more than 50 other participants of the retreat to Bessastaoir, the historic farm-turned-school-turned-presidential dwelling.

Set in a windswept knoll, commanding sweeping views of a lake, with a little chapel and cemetery outside, the residence was built between 1761 and 1766, but the site dates back to the 10th century AD.

Except for a few strapping men in suits on security detail, the quaint, white building looked like a modest bungalow.

We queued in a line that snaked through several cosy rooms, chatting among ourselves as we waited to meet President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson.

Before I knew it, I had stumbled into a little solarium. Confused at what little protocol there was, I mistakenly greeted the bodyguard standing to one side, before shaking hands with Olafur himself (yes, one is on first-name basis with the President because of Iceland's patronymic surname system).

"Welcome to Iceland!" he said. "Thank you," I replied. Then, it was on to the next struggling writer in line.

Later, the President made an eloquent, off-the-cuff speech about Iceland's long literary tradition - from its mediaeval sagas or prose histories to capital Reykjavik's current status as a Unesco City of Literature.

He urged us to explore the rooms at Bessastaoir and see the writing desk which once belonged to Sveinbjorn Egilsson, an important Icelandic teacher, translator and poet. More than geographic boundaries, he said, Iceland is defined by its language, writing and culture.

In a nation of just over 320,000 people, in an area of 103,000 sq km (Singapore is 716 sq km), writing - arguably, that most solitary of activities - is a way of life.

When I asked the retreat's co-organiser Eliza Reid why she thinks the Nordic country has managed to produce so many writers, including 1955 Nobel laureate Halldor Laxness, she only half-jokingly replied: "It's cold and it's dark."

If the inaugural Iceland Writers Retreat is anything to go by, however, Iceland's future as a literary magnet and cultural hub is anything but dim; its reception of like-minded wordsmiths is certainly warm.

The retreat was dreamt up more than 18 months ago by Ms Reid, a Canadian mother of four who is married to Icelandic historian Guoni Thorlacius Johannesson, and her friend Erica Green, who was raised in California and has nearly two decades' experience in publishing.

For more than four days, from April 9 to 13, delegates from countries such as the United States, Canada and Chile (and six Singapore-based writers) met award-winning authors in small workshops to discuss the craft of painstakingly putting sentences together to hopefully tell interesting stories - that Sisyphean task of shoving the right words into place, like stone blocks into a never-ending wall.

Each had paid US$2,100 (S$2,630), inclusive of accommodation and some meals at the Icelandair Hotel Natura, to attend.

Featured writers at the retreat included The New Yorker magazine staff writer Susan Orlean, best known for writing non-fiction book The Orchid Thief, which became the basis - and wild jumping board - for Spike Jonze and Charlie Kaufman's 2002 film, Adaptation; Pulitzer Prize-winning Australian journalist Geraldine Brooks; and 2009 Man Booker Prize-longlisted British novelist James Scudamore.

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