Writing Reykjavík: Literature and the Iceland Writers Retreat

Iceland Geological plate site of Thingvellir and Althing historic parliament area beside lakes

Langt síðan við höfum sést means ‘long time no see’ in Icelandic; in 2016 it’ll be three years since I visited Iceland, so that phrase feels quite fitting. I don’t know where the three intervening years have gone, but I do know I spent a good portion of that time waxing lyrical about the other-worldly landscapes and the witty Reykjavík street art. The people were genuinely the friendliest I’ve ever met – for example, cashiers were rarely bothered about me paying the correct amount, a tour bus driver gave me an impromptu crash course in bird spotting, and fellow pub-goers sat down for a chat with genuine curiosity and warmth.

However, anyone with an interest in writing and literature won’t need much convincing to visit Iceland between 13th-17th April 2016, when the third annual Iceland Writers Retreat will take place. Authors, poets and non-fiction writers will touch down at Keflavik Airport for five days of workshops, networking and excursions, held just 20 minutes’ walk from central Reykjavík.

The speakers aren’t exclusively Icelandic, and everything is conducted in English, so there’s no language barrier; this year’s event drew guests from 12 different countries. With 10 featured writers for 2016, including poet and novelist Gerður Kristný, and Cheryl Strayed (famous for the memoir Wild), it’s set to be an engrossing programme.

Writing retreat in Northern Europe including poets and authors gathering for urban literary event
A collage of images from the 2015 IWR, including authors Barbara Kingsolver and John Vaillant. Original photo credits: Roman Gerasymenko via https://www.facebook.com/IcelandWritersRetreat.

Books on the Brain                   

Reykjavík is a UNESCO City of Literature with good reason. Its residents (roughly 2/3 of the entire country’s population) have plenty of reading material on their doorstep, from the Árni Magnússon Institute for Icelandic Studies to the range of literary festivals held in the city every year, including the upcoming Book Fair. Many of the paving stones are littered with literary quotes sprayed legally by 9th and 10th grade students, and some of the public benches have QR codes you can scan for free bookish content, making you pause for thought. Not bad for a place that, in 1786, only had 337 residents, making it more of a village than a city. How things have changed in nearly 230 years…

Right now, Reykjavík citizens are enjoying jólabokaflód, or The Book Flood Before Christmas, when writers and publishers go all-out to impress their audience. Think of it like a civilised Black Friday, where the goal is to buy an incredible book from its author (who is conveniently moonlighting behind the till), rather than striving to elbow a small child out of the way so you can bag a cut-price flat screen TV.

Icelandic poem spray painted onto pavement sidewalk as form of street art in Reykjavik
How to walk on words in the capital: it’s a simple but effective idea, which began in 2012.

Literary Roots

Icelandic sagas, handed down by word of mouth, then written on parchment in the 13th and 14th century, are an unmistakeable part of the country’s culture. They describe legends, but also cover real life events, such as family feuds and royal scandals; during a recent visit to Dublin, I learned that Brian Boru (Irish king and hero) and the historic 1014 Battle of Clontarf featured in Brjans Saga (Brian’s saga), part of the larger Njáls Saga, written at the end of the 13th century. Brian’s death, at the hands of Danish fighter Bróðir, is recorded in bloody detail. The Edda, a range of poems based on myths, is another piece of literary heritage.

As for more recent scribblings, Halldór Laxness – Nobel Prize for Literature winner 1955 – is perhaps the best known 20th century writer, but many of Iceland’s contemporary poets and authors have a global audience. International authors have also been inspired by Iceland, including Hannah Kent, whose debut novel was based on real events: the country’s last public execution, held in 1830 at Vatnsdalshólar in Húnavatnssýsla (interestingly, the death penalty was abolished in 1928). Read more about the country’s literary legacy here.

Reykjavik camera and photo store selling prints with flexible opening hours
This shop owner is available at your beck and call. Not something you’d find very often in the UK…

Grappling with Language

Linguistically, Iceland has a lot to offer too. This is the place where the phone book is arranged in order of first names (due to the patronymic, and sometimes newly matronymic, structure of surnames, you’re known as your dad’s son or daughter, not given family surnames like ‘Smith’ or ‘Rodriguez’). What’s more, your first name must be taken from a list of approved monikers, fitting the national tongue, and you can’t call your child something embarrassing.

However, some things are more flexible: a street can be named after a Star Wars character, there are a ridiculous amount of ways to describe snow, and there’s a word for the kind of weather you want to look at but not feel on your skin: gluggaveður, or ‘window weather’. For every strict boundary in the language, there’s another weird and wonderful quirk to balance it out.

Icelandic capital with sea view and mountains in background
Inspector Erlendur’s probably down there somewhere…

Making a Killer Impact

I’ve been badgering everyone to read the addictive crime novels by Arnaldur Indriðason, which show a darker side to the country. Indriðason’s Detective Erlendur is one of the most complex and intriguing characters in modern literature, constantly plagued by memories of the brother he lost in a blizzard decades earlier. In fact, every Indriðason character has their own flaws, and there are always enough loose ends at the novels’ conclusions to leave you haunted by the story and desperate for the next instalment. His constant focus on human nature and long-buried secrets make these novels stand out – not just for me, but for readers worldwide, particularly across Europe.

You might assume an atmosphere rife with guilt, murder and torment, including recurring themes of abuse, cover-ups, drug addiction and unhappy relationships, wouldn’t be Tourist Board-friendly. In fact, I picked up my first Erlendur novel at the Tourist Information Centre in Reykjavík, and now I can’t put the series down.

There’s no end to the inspiration you can take from Iceland, especially in Reykjavík, and the annual Writers Retreat is just one part of the appeal.

2 thoughts on “Writing Reykjavík: Literature and the Iceland Writers Retreat”

  1. I’ve been dying to go to Iceland, and ever since I heard of IWR, I’ve been dying to attend it. I applied for the Alumni Award and I really hope to attain it: it all sounds so absolutely amazing, the country, the city, the retreat… I feel like it’d be the best experience I could have. And you’ve confirmed my suspicions!

    1. Carol, it really does sound like a great retreat! I applied for the Alumni Award and entered the competition last week as well. I’d read so much about it and I was so impressed by the line-up of speakers from last year’s IWR (would have loved to attend!), and this year’s list of speakers looks strong too. There are so many writing retreats on the market, but this seems really worthwhile. Good luck with your Alumni Award application!

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