Ólafur Gunnarsson Interview
(conducted by the New American Press staff)
- There’s evidence in recent years of a great deal of literary energy in Iceland. What’s your experience of reading and writing there? What’s it like being part of the Icelandic literary community?
There is a joke that goes “every Icelander is a writer,” but there is some truth to it. When you reach a certain age there is something wrong with you if you don’t write your autobiography. My publisher’s office is clogged with stuff like that. The slush pile is chest high.
Icelanders have through the ages written an awful lot. We began almost a thousand years ago with the Sagas. Some of the original manuscripts have survived through the ages. They were copied and read and they kept the language alive. Icelandic is what is called Old Norse—wiping my glasses, I can still read the 800-year-old manuscripts. The most popular ones were of course copied most often—the Saga of Grettir the Strong exists in something like sixty manuscripts, while the Gauks saga was lost, so we must presume that it was not a piece of brilliant writing. And it’s interesting to note that whoever was copying often took it upon himself to edit, so establishing definitive texts is difficult.
There are one or two Icelandic writers of a very high caliber who most certainly would deserve to be known around the globe but the trouble is that their very greatness lies in the fact that they are so local, so Icelandic. It’s almost like they were destined to write only for their own countrymen. Their greatness is in fact almost untranslatable—but to a certain extent the same can be said for the Sagas.
There has been a great surge of creative writing in Iceland for the last 35 years or so. Government grants have enabled many to devote themselves to writing full-time. But there are many writers and only so many grants. A committee selects. So there is always a lot of dispute and bitterness. The urge for creative writing is almost a national mania. Every other priest or doctor has to add a novel or a short story collection to his or her achievements. I have never understood it. I have never felt the need to go out and operate on someone—remove his appendix, for example, or make an attempt at a bypass surgery. One other thing we have over here is the great stylist. Folks that seem to be able to live on the myth that they excel at a grandiose writing style without ever publishing anything. And then we have what I would call the “cocktail party novel.” It is a piece of safe writing, one that takes no risks.
The writing community in Iceland is like everywhere else. I would not be honest if I said it was a flowery field of harmony. It has envy and bitterness and people scowling at the fringe of parties. But great writing has a tendency to take care of itself. Melville comes to mind. The Icelandic poet Steinn Steinarr said, “Dear friends, let us not worry about literature. It will live on. We will die.” When all is said and done, writing is not a romantic undertaking and the one who sets out with such a notion will soon find out otherwise. Dostoevsky likened the writing of The Idiot to something worse than hard labor. Let’s take his word for it. He should know.
- Were there any particular books or authors that informed your writing of the stories in The Thaw?
I would mention Hemingway, Richard Wright, the Sagas, Joyce Carol Oates, and then of course there is Dostoevsky. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast was a kind of writer’s bible for me when I was young. In the rainy gray world of Reykjavik in the 1960s, its value, comfort and support could not be overestimated. It got me through. Reading Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel was an overwhelming and liberating experience. That is when I, like many other writers before me, found out that my own town and surroundings could be a source for writing material. As for Oates, I have always found her a model writer and a very interesting one. The crazier she gets the better. My favorite of hers is Son of the Morning, a novel about a preacher and his sect and the awesome deceptive forces of evil.
But my master and greatest hero in literature has always been Dostoevsky. I entered his novels as if entering a dark palace the size of the mountain Eiger, and I’ve never left. I love his work, all of it. Even the mention of his name can bring tears to my eyes.
- To what degree are the stories in The Thaw autobiographical? Which experiences from your own life have informed their telling?
There is very little autobiography going on in the stories in The Thaw. When I was a boy, my brother-in-law built a summerhouse and hired two brothers and the older one was always scolding the younger and my brother-in-law said in a half whisper that he had heard rumors that the older one used to beat his brother’s wife. I probably would have been around twelve at the time and found the whole thing horrifying and never forgot it. Half a century before, my father had seen a drunk try to ride a horse across a lake in some stupid dispute or wager, drowning both himself and the horse. Somehow the memory of the brothers and the family story about the lake and the horse merged one day into “The Thaw” and I wrote it in one sitting on my birthday in 2009. I had a good feeling right at the start, so I did not come out of my study, although a few guests had arrived to celebrate. My lady friend peaked in through the doorway now and then, but the story was going too well for me to stop, and when I was through it was late and the guests had left. Even to this day, one or two of my relatives bear grudges towards me for putting on literary airs—but the story was going too well to let go and I was not sure I would be able to pick it up the next day. Writing is paid for with loneliness.
The other stories are written in a similar way—beginning in some part with something that I observed or heard or read. Except for “The Revelation.” That story is very close to being one-hundred percent straight autobiography, but not quite.
- Talk about the process of translation. As someone who writes fluently in English as well as Icelandic, how much do you collaborate with your translators? Which takes precedence–faithfulness to the original Icelandic or a smooth rendering into English?
Despite the funding available for writers in Iceland, the popularity and success of short stories began to diminish in the 1980s with the rise of videos. I had written a few short stories over the years, but the sales of story collections were so poor that they discouraged me and more so my longtime publisher.
But one day I was gripped by a compelling question: Could I write a short story in a language other than Icelandic? The idea seemed so fresh and tempting to me that before I knew it I had writer “War Story.” And then “The Thaw,” “Gimme Shelter,” and “Revelation” quickly followed. It was a liberating experience. So I set about translating some other stories and asked my friend Steven Meyers to check the language and put together a collection and sent it out on the internet, and that’s how I got in touch with New American Press. When my Icelandic publisher learned that I had a US publisher was interested, I set about translating those stories I had written in English into Icelandic. As a result, the Icelandic and English versions differ slightly, but not in any substantial way. It’s perhaps an unusual process, but not unique I think. The last story I wrote in English was “Killer Whale,” about the sick girl and her father. I saw such a girl waiting in her cart all alone in a supermarket and I was moved by the sight of her and her plight and thought how her situation would affect me if I were her father, and so sat down and wrote the story in English. It has not been translated yet into Icelandic.
- Two of the qualities that most characterize your work are violence and surrealism. Where do those impulses come from?
Style and story go hand-in-hand with me. There is no style until I find my subject matter and it has to be something that excites me, something extreme, characters living on the edge. Then the story comes of itself and I am not conscious of writing in any kind of style. So murder and violence move me.
I guess when you talk about surrealism you are referring to the novella “Gaga.” I was an avid reader of science-fiction when I wrote the story a long time ago. Around the same time, I had also been reading Don Quixote, and I thought, “Hey, the book for our times is an S.F. Don Quixote.” I wrote for a year in what seemed to me to be the style of Cervantes with a kind of Sancho Panza protagonist, but the more manuscript I accumulated the more it became clear to me how utterly worthless the material was. And then one morning something happened—the character woke up on Mars and in an instant changed into the demonic Astronaut with his visions and paranoid delusions. I had at long last found my own voice for the story. I had originally planned a very long novel of some 600 pages but this one would not stretch to that length. It’d be fun if another writer would take up the idea and write his or her version of it. I once met Margaret Atwood at a writer’s conference and suggested the stuff as subject matter because she was into science fiction at the time, and maybe still is. Perhaps she is hard at work on it now—who knows? Thomas Pynchon’s wife, the literary agent Melanie Jackson, was kind enough to accept a copy of The Thaw to share with her husband. A sci-fi Don Quixote by Thomas Pynchon would be really something.
- When discussing various literary trends in Iceland, you say that “One other thing we have over here is the great stylist. Folks that seem to be able to live on the myth that they excel at a grandiose writing style without ever publishing anything. And then we have what I would like to call the ‘cocktail party novel.’ It is a piece of safe writing which takes no risks.” Three of the stories in “The Thaw” feature artists in some way. There’s “The Man Who Wanted to be Vincent,” about a painter who can’t get out from under the influence of Vincent Van Gogh. And then there’s “The Beauty Contest,” in which a musician in his twilight years learns he was almost chosen to sing for Led Zeppelin. Finally, there’s “The Revelation,” in which a teenager operates as a roadie for a local band. These first two stories, at least, deal with failed artists. What’s your interest in the failed artist? Does it relate in any way to the literary trends you criticize above?
No, not really. Okay, listen—one of my previous answers makes me sound like I harbor a grudge against someone. I do and I don’t—there are failed playwrights and writers in Iceland spitting venom through the radio, newspapers, and television. But if you happen to be born without talent, that is punishment enough. What did Hemingway say? The shock can kill a man. I have never written my “Movable Feast,” and for a very good reason. I simply could not bear it. I have known so many fine writers and artists who succumbed to defeat and bitterness through drink and their own destructive nature that such a book would be very difficult to write. What’s the point in telling the story of someone for whom you had love and the same person went to his grave penniless with the relatives desperately trying to get the store to take back his recently acquired computer which was to be paid for in installments and some payments already overdue?
But the most unbelievable case of a failed writer must be Melville. Think of Herman Melville, going to work at his dreary job as a customs officer, and not a soul, his mates at the office, nor the merchants he dealt with—nor he himself for that matter—knew that he might be one of the great writers of all time. The creator of Moby-Dick, in a limbo-like void for decades, and hardly anyone knew that he had created a novel the likes of which you would have to go to Russia to find. It is a strange and a disturbing thought.
A writer might look upon himself as a failure, but the reality could be totally the opposite. I was once at a panel meeting where an American author claimed the novel was dead. He said that no longer was anyone interested; everybody wanted to write for the movies; novels did not sell any more. The only light at end of the tunnel was that the leading actor in the movie based on his recently published book had been brilliant.
The real situation, though, was that the novel sold millions of copies. It was Sophie’s Choice. The author: William Styron. So I guess the question of the failed artist has a lot to do with how you look at it.
- For this last question, let’s talk about success. Which novels do you think of as most successful artistically, and how have their achievements shaped the way that you think about the art of fiction?
I am very old fashioned in this respect. Like Keith Richards, I still like bacon and eggs and my HP Sauce. Chuck Berry is my idol. My favorite novels were all written well before 1960. I cut the list down to ten, and it wasn’t easy:
1. The Idiot, Dosteovsky
2. The Possessed, Dostoevsky
3. And Quiet Flows the Don, Sholokhov
4. Look Homeward Angel, Thomas Wolfe
5. Moby-Dick, Melville
6. Crime and Punishment, Dostoevsky
7. From Here To Eternity, James Jones
8. The Old Man and the Sea, Hemingway
9. Don Ouixote, Cervantes
10. Alone in Berlin, Hans Fallada
I naturally had to cut out great books for such a short list, and it felt like I was betraying beloved relatives. All of the above have in various ways influenced me. I think Dostoevsky came closest to the core of existence in The Idiot. The Possessed is a dynamic masterwork I can go to again and again. Sholokhov´s clear writing in The Quiet Don is amazing. I still love Look Homeward just as much as when I read it forty years ago. Although Crime and Punishment is among the most powerful novels of all time, the only time I have been really inside a character and felt like I’d committed murder is when Prewitt cuts up Fatso in From Here to Eternity. Don Quixote was a wonderful book to read when I was young, and Fallada’s Alone in Berlin was a joy that I discovered just over a year ago.
Despite their achievements and successes, not one of these writers lived easy lives. I hardly need to go into details. Hemingway said it all when he remarked that a writer “is forged in injustice like a sword is forged in fire.” And that is the best success a writer can ever expect to have.