Land of fire, ice and literature

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.

Celebrated Icelandic writer Sjon, Bjork's lyricist, gave a reading in Laxness' lovely home, Gljufrasteinn, built in 1945 and filled with mid-century modern furniture and art.

It may seem strange to travel more than 24 hours - a six-hour transit in Amsterdam turned into nine because of a strike at Iceland's Keflavik International Airport - to spend a couple of days holed up in a hotel meeting room to take writing classes. And at times, when the weather was sunny and lovely (extremely rare for Reykjavik), it seemed almost a crime.

Yet, it was extremely inspiring. From Orlean, I learnt about choreographing different elements in one's material to create different textures - long sentences, short ones; homing in on telling details, then going wide.

"Anybody could look this up, but they're not. I am," said Orlean reassuringly, about being an insecure writer in a world of Wikipedia. "And I'm making it mean something."

In Brooks' class on the road from journalist to novelist, I asked how she picked what she wanted to write an entire book about. She replied by telling a hilarious and illuminating story about a swordfish and a silicone breast (you had to be there).

Later, The Economist's Hungary correspondent, Adam LeBor, who writes spy thrillers in his free time and was there to cover the event, gave me the best advice about unlearning how to be a journalist and writing fiction: "Stop explaining. Obfuscate. Send people on detours."

My fellow workshop participants were a diverse, accomplished bunch, providing enough fodder for many short stories: a retired probation officer from Arizona, who is now writing a historic novel about a Greek murder; a South American literature professor who finds it awkward telling people he studied at Yale; the wife of the European Union ambassador to Iceland who writes in cafes with her friend now that her children are grown up.

A panel with best-selling Canadian author Joseph Boyden on The Writer's Life felt like confession and catharsis, culminating in drinks at the bar, while fellow writer-mums gave me sympathetic advice on finding time to write with young children in the house.

Then, once the workshops were done for the day, there was Iceland itself.

On a tour of the Golden Circle - the loop from the old cultural-political centre of Skalholt, the Geysir geothermal area which gave all geysers their name, the majestic Gullfoss waterfall, to Thingvellir (say "thing-ved-leer") National Park - historian Johannesson kept up a commentary that had us roaring with laughter as much as it informed us about his homeland.

Outlining the dilemma between opening up the country to more tourists and the need to preserve its natural treasures, he quoted an Icelandic author about how it might be hard "to enjoy the wilderness of Iceland, when all you see around you are other people enjoying the wilderness of Iceland".

If New Zealand is now Lord Of The Rings and Hobbit country, thanks to Peter Jackson's blockbuster film adaptations, then Iceland is, in my fan-girl mind, Game Of Thrones country, thanks to the cult HBO TV series partly filmed there.

Travelling by coach through snow-capped volcanoes and moss-covered lava rock, I had the show's rousing dun-dun-dundun theme song constantly sounding in my head, so familiar is the landscape as the fantasy series' backdrop as its lords and outlaws traversed the fictional continent of Westeros.

But the Icelandic landscape is also having a larger moment on the big screen, having appeared last year as a barren earth in Tom Cruise's sci-fi vehicle, Oblivion, and as the land of Ben Stiller's liberation in The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty. This year's biblical blockbuster, Noah, was also filmed around the Reykjanes Peninsula near Reykjavik.

I walked between the craggy cliffs of Thingvellir, the site of Iceland's first parliament, where chieftains camped to debate legal and judicial issues, and the Lawspeaker recited the law of the land from memory.

Days later, back home, while watching the wildlings or free folk gather in a scene in Game Of Thrones' season four, episode one, I would recognise the location as Thingvellir and yell out: "I was there!"

I understood, first hand, why mind-numbing cold - Iceland's temperature never goes above 16 deg C all year round - makes for better writing: When you're freezing, you don't waste energy on fluffy descriptions and lousy plots.

On the last night of the retreat, we headed out for drinks (again). While most of my workshop mates ended up in Dillon, a whisky bar and some sort of institution in Reykjavik, I was drawn to the ear-splitting, growling music coming from the bar's attic.

Mounting a narrow flight of stairs, I found myself in the thick of a small but heartfelt heavy metal concert. About 10 devotees were head-banging and slam-dancing in front of the unknown band, the lead singer beckoning them closer with a loving smile, before knocking them like bowling pins into chairs and hanging upside-down from the rafters.

Iceland has an unemployment rate of 4.2 per cent, as of February, and its citizens seem to be still getting over its major banking collapse of 2008 - not just in economic, but psychological terms, their Viking pride gradually dealing with that very public failure.

It is not unusual to see young men skateboarding or hanging out all night at heavy metal gigs, and one wonders if there is not some bored, latent aggression being worked through creatively.

All too soon, the concert at Dillon is over and the remaining audience lapses into a happy karaoke session, with Highway To Hell on the sound system.

Serious scribes, angry bards, a photogenic landscape, hipsters galore, unpretentious dives and a superbly run writers retreat? It is enough to make any essayist erupt with joy.

The next Iceland Writers Retreat is slated for April 8 to 12 next year. For more information, go to

This article was published on May 4 in The Straits Times.

Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to for more stories.