Last year, Steinar Bragi’s fifth novel found its way into the English-speaking world under the title ‘The Ice Lands’. It’s an eerie read that plays around with tropes of the horror genre, although the threats that the characters face are more internal than external. For Steinar, the apprehensive ambiguity of the writing is a means of capturing his own current experience of life.
“I always thought life and my being in this world would start to make sense as I got older, but it’s definitely not happening,” he explains. “I’ve never been as surprised or uneasy about life. I have more memories that disorient me and feel unreal. Novelistic characters are—I guess—an attempt to find grounding. In writing, the author blows up his psyche. The glowing splinters then try to rearrange themselves into a narrative to find wholeness again.”
His latest book, which has yet to find its way into English, is a collection of short stories titled ‘Allt fer’ (“Everything Goes”), which was nominated for last year’s Icelandic Literature Prize. The title is a reference to Nietzsche’s ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra’. The task of writing the collection was an indulgent one. “I like the speed of short stories,” says Steinar. “They make sense of complicated things by approaching them indirectly, and it’s fun to write in one voice, one character.”
Steinar is currently travelling, as he tends to do for a large part of the year. He explains that being on the move is almost an obligation for writers: “Especially Icelandic ones. We’re too few on this island. Travelling puts ideas in your head. You won’t have anything exciting to tell your neighbour when you see the same things as him all day long, cursing the same weather, dark winters and family dramas.”
Travelling is also a means of escaping the everyday chores of being a writer and a public figure in Iceland. “I’ve usually lost interest in the book when it comes to the interviews,” he explains. “You’ve been slaving away through your thirtieth edit, and the book has become an abstract thing. You know every word of it already but then you need to re-package it and spin it for the media and the potential readers. You have to redirect all your energy from intense fault-finding into simplifying a book-sized chunk of something that interested you at the outset but you have since passed on from.”
Still, he doesn’t mind talking about his craft, but says that the dialogue depends on the type of writer you are. “I like discussing, not explaining or dictating,” he says. “A work in progress invites creative discussion and I’m all for it, but once the book is out I want to head in the opposite direction. I’m like a baby with shit in its diaper: after publishing I want a new diaper to run around in but then people keep showing me the old diaper and asking me what I had for dinner yesterday. It just becomes awkward for everyone involved.”