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The Book Burner: Dagur Hjartarson On The Risky Business Of Publishing

The Book Burner: Dagur Hjartarson On The Risky Business Of Publishing

Björn Halldórsson
Photos by
Timothee Lambrecq

Published April 18, 2017

Dagur Hjartarson has just been shortlisted for the European Union Prize for Literature for his novel ‘The Last Confession of Love’. He is also, along with award-winning poet and graphic designer Ragnar Helgi Ólafsson, one of the founders of Tunglið (“The Moon,” in English), a publishing house with the unusual business model of publishing each of its books in runs of only 69 copies, selling them exclusively at publishing events held on the night of a full moon, and burning any unsold copies.

According to Dagur, the books published by Tunglið have a different time span from other books.“Tunglið takes small books and creates small, precious moments in time around them,” he says. “It opposes the eternity that the average publisher promises—all those books whose pages turn yellow on the bookstore shelf—and makes a stand for the beauty of the moment. The role of Tunglið is to be the moment and then disappear.”

More daring

The company’s unconventional publishing strategy was a means of making risk integral to their work. “Our goal has always been to run Tunglið at a moderate loss,” Dagur says. “To do so you naturally have to take chances. Every book that Tunglið publishes is, in a way, an attempt to sink Tunglið, to make it go bankrupt. It’s thrilling. Publishing is at heart a risky business and Icelandic publishers are prone to take chances. We haven’t seen too many new authors in the past few years and I’m not sure that the publishers are entirely to blame for that. Young authors need to be more daring, write more books and take more chances. Hopefully we’ll see more new authors in the coming years.”

Dagur’s own first novel was years in the making, starting in the early days of his MA in creative writing. “I think that ‘The Last Confession of Love’ is closely tied to the poetry that I’ve written,” he explains. “In writing the novel I found it best to let the writing flow freely. I found the novel form to be incredibly liberating and that feeling certainly left its mark on the book. I was never troubled by having to throw things out or worried about ending up with 200 pages of crap. Writing crap is a part of the process.”

In the trash

“Naturally, I ended up throwing a lot of things in the trash,” he continues. “That doesn’t bother me, but I was still often filled with the usual sense of hopelessness, which I always experience at some point when writing, whether it’s a poem, a short story or an email. It was often hard going—but it’s always hard going.”

As is the case with most Icelandic writers, Dagur has to find time for his writing alongside his day job—teaching, in his case. “Not being able to put 100% of my energy into the manuscript made everything harder,” he says. “But mostly, it just confirmed what I already knew: you have to work hard. Even when you’re writing crap, keep writing. Keep writing, keep writing.”

Read more about Icelandic literature here.


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