The sagas are still with us | Gerður Kristný

For Icelandic poet and author of fiction Gerður Kristný, isolation and travel appear to be contradictory forces that fuel her work. Ahead of her trip to Malta to participate in the Campus Book Fest, she speaks to us about her genre-hopping literary experiments, the reverberations of the old Norse sagas, and how living on an island helps you (re)invent yourself

Gerður Kristný • Photo by Þórdís Ágústsdóttir
Gerður Kristný • Photo by Þórdís Ágústsdóttir

From literary and media studies in your academic life, to working as an editor for a magazine before finally switching to writing full-time, how would you describe your journey as a writer? What were some of the key steps for you?

I got interested in literature as a child. I loved reading and soon I started writing my own stories. My first book, a poetry collection called Ísfrétt (e. Ice Warning) was published in 1994 in the same year I started working as a journalist. I had already had some success with my submissions for poetry and short story competitions, which had given me enough confidence to send a manuscript to a publishing house.

After that I published a novel, followed by a short story collection before publishing another poetry collection and finally a children‘s book. I worked as a journalist and an editor for about a decade before taking a three-month leave in 2003. I went to Nice in South France with the aim to finish a novel and it was there that I realized I should quit my job as an editor and become a full time writer. I had so many ideas for poems, short stories, children’s books or novels that I sometimes had hard time falling asleep in the evening with all the ideas swirling in my head. Now having written 25 books I have never regretted that decision. 

Throughout your career you have written poetry, prose and even literature for children. Are there any fundamental differences between any of those ‘formats’, or is “all just writing in the end”? Either way, what kind of mindset do you adopt when attempting any of the three? 

I must admit that my books for adults happen to be more serious than those I write for children. I also have more fun writing for kids. Some of the things that happen there would never fit in my work for adults. One example is the president that is the central character of a trilogy that I wrote about his many adventures. He hands out medals to animals as well as kids.

Later I adapted the first volume in the series to a musical for kids, that was shown at National Theatre in Reykjavík and then I got the chance to write lyrics. The same can be said about the creepy doll that appears in my latest book and brings nothing but misery to its owners. I am glad that I have gotten away with writing both for kids and adults.

Iceland is sometimes portrayed as a literary mecca, where writers are respected and given their full due, perhaps more so than their continental counterparts. How true would you say this is, and what do you think leads to this image of the country being propagated? 

I hope you are right. We see ourselves mainly as a literary nation. It was here in Iceland that the Eddic Poems and the Icelandic Sagas were written on parchment from the 12th to 14th centuries. We can still read those manuscripts, though it helps to read the texts in normal books. Icelanders are only 320,000 and writing books in our language is a vital part in conserving our national identity.

On a similar note, would you say that Iceland being an island has an effect on its literature, even your own? And do you think there are commonalities between the literatures of similar places – such as, perhaps, Malta itself?

The original meaning of the word stupid (‘heimskur’) in Icelandic refers to the one that is always at home (‘heim’). People believed it would bring wisdom to leave your island and travel. We still believe so. The isolation is difficult when a volcano erupts but it has taught us survival skills and in many ways it can be said that because of the isolation we managed to protect our old language.

I am not sure if the fact that I live on an island has influenced my stories more than the language itself or the mythologies I have heard since I was a child. Coming from a country not many people know gives you opportunity to reinvent yourself, make up stories about yourself and your country.

It was not until I started travelling that I heard that I am supposed to believe in elves… not a bad story!

Myth and nature appear to be recurring themes in your poetry, which however seems to be in direct contrast to your style: which is sparse and cutting where those themes traditionally tend to have an epic scope. Was this deliberate on your part: to approach these lofty subjects through an unassuming form? 

The Icelandic nature tends to be very violent. It is beautiful seen from a car window, even better on a photo or a painting but I like it the best in a text. I try to get that through in my poetry. I have found out that it is actually possible to tell a big story in very few words. 

Are you looking forward to coming to Malta? What kind of atmosphere do you hope to find at the Campus Book Fest?

I cannot wait to get to know Malta. I have never been there and never expected being invited there either. All the literature festivals I have been to, whether in Columbia, Nicaragua, Finland, Indonesia or India, have taught me that I am likely to meet open minded people who are just as curious to hear my stories as I am to hear theirs.

Gerður Kristný will be a special guest at this year’s edition of the Campus Book Festival, taking place at the University campus, Tal-Qroqq from April 5 to 7 opening from 09:00 till 14:00 and from 16:00 till late. On April 6 at 16:00, Kristný will be giving a workshop related to the re-writing of Norse Mythology and on April 7 at 19:30, the festival will be closing off with a reading of her work followed by a Q&A session