From Iceland — The Writer, The Prophet: Sigríður Hagalín Has Gone From News To Nightmarish Dystopias

The Writer, The Prophet: Sigríður Hagalín Has Gone From News To Nightmarish Dystopias

The Writer, The Prophet: Sigríður Hagalín Has Gone From News To Nightmarish Dystopias

Published November 9, 2022

Valur Grettisson
Photo by
Art Bicnick

If you live in Iceland, the odds are that you know exactly who Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir is. As a well-known news reporter at RÚV, our national broadcaster, she often sits down with politicians or prominent figures in society as part of the show Silfrið and drills them for answers with her soft voice and calm personality.

But Sigríður has surprised most with her impressive writing career. She has written four books in eight years, all of which have been received well by critics and readers. Her voice in storytelling is, in some ways, starkly different from the person that we see in the news. Her first book was a horrific dystopia that asked a poignant question about Icelanders, and the result was darker than we cared for.

Non-fiction and journalism

But before we meet the writer, we have to talk to the journalist. I met Sigríður at her home, close to the Reykjavíkurtjörn pond. There she has two cats, one border collie called Tíra, and a best-selling writer for a partner, Jón Kalman Stefánsson, who goes out for groceries while we talk about literature.

“I was always writing fiction as a kid,” Sigríður says. “I wrote for the school newspaper but I didn’t feel ready for it. It felt too big. Besides, it was such bad writing, or at least that’s how I felt about it at the time.”

Non-fiction and journalism always fascinated Sigríður. This is not particularly surprising, given that her father, Björn Vignir Sigurpálsson, was a well-known journalist at the conservative newspaper, Morgunblaðið.

A good lesson

“My dad gave me my first typewriter when I was 3 years old. When I got older, I wanted to work at Morgunblaðið, writing big features, so I headed to University to study history, as well as taking practical media classes,” she explains. Sigríður did well in school and the moment came to gain some real-world experience.

“My dad was actually overseeing hiring at Morgunblaðið, so it felt obvious to apply there. But my father refused to accept my application,” Sigríður says: “It was a bit rough between us for a while after that,” she adds with a chuckle. But she says that she understands the decision because her father provided her with a good lesson. “He said that if I was any good at this, I could work wherever I wanted, so I got a job at RÚV.”

Give or take a few short breaks, Sigríður has remained at RÚV ever since, for around 20 years. However, these days, writing is taking up more and more of her time.

Photo by Art Bicnick

The thought exercise

Sigríður’s first book, ‘Eyland,’ was published in 2016. The direct translation would be ‘Island,’ but the word in Icelandic has deeper connotations of isolation and loneliness. The book is a merciless dystopia that Sigríður wrote in one intense three-month burst. The story imagines what would happen if the wider world were to disappear, and Icelanders would have to stand alone without any importation. How much food would we have? How would politics evolve? How compassionate would we be? Sigríður’s answer is realistic—and grim.

She explains that the idea for the novel had been with her since university. “The book was almost like a thought exercise, or a literature test tube,” she says. “I wanted to see what would happen to Icelandic society if it would have to stand alone, especially politically.

“I explained the book as an agricultural thriller, but my publisher asked me not to say that out loud ever again,” Sigríður adds, laughing. ‘’Eyland’ was written before the recent wave of populism got its grip on global politics, but with eerie accuracy, it captures the sly fascism that can creep up on a nation and change everything for the worse in extreme situations. The book has been described as visionary and it’s even more relevant now than ever, with the alarming growth of food shortages and famine across the world, and the success of far-right political parties.

“I don’t feel like I have a lot to lose here.”

As everyone knows…

But we are ostensibly here to talk about Sigríður’s third book, and her first to be published in English, ‘The Fires,’ translated by Larissa Kyzer. Sigríður explains that the inspiration for the whole novel came from a simple quote.

“I saw this quote from a geologist, where she said, ‘As everyone knows, the magnetic north pole is a very sensitive place.’ She somehow assumed that everyone knew as much as she did, and she viewed the earth like an emotional being. That’s how the main protagonist, Anna, was formed.”

The book can easily be categorised as a disaster book where volcanoes in the Reykjanes peninsula destroy whole neighbourhoods—a real-life danger that Icelanders have to live with. But the book also draws a comparison between the volatility of the earth and the behaviour and emotions of humans, a metaphor that Sigríður says was no easy task to deliver.

“The hardest thing was to balance it right so it wouldn’t be a cliché,” she admits. “But there are interesting lines between the fires and the emotional life of people, of women, the power of the female body, of birth. It’s just so big.”

Not only that, only four months after the publication of the book, the eruption in Fagradalsfjall started, a volcanic station that hadn’t erupted for thousands of years. This obviously became quite the scene on social media as well as in traditional media. Did we have a prophet on our hands? Sigríður belittles such ideas. “Everyone saw what was coming,” she explains, but she had interviewed and conferred with the best geologist in Iceland before writing the book.

Photo by Art Bicnick

A feminist disaster book

There is no shortage of male writers who have written about volcanoes in Iceland, and even more corner the market when it comes to disaster fiction. Sigríður’s voice, and that of her female main character, provide a strength that partially explains why the narrative is so successful. On top of that, Anna, the main protagonist, is more of an anti-hero. In some ways, her super focus on geology is reminiscent of another interesting female character, that of Saga Norén from the Danish TV show, ‘The Bridge.’ But there’s another side to Anna, which is her love life—she’s embroiled in an affair

“I had been reading a lot of books about seduced upper-class women, like Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary and I liked this theme about the destructiveness of love,” Sigríður says. “It can be a disaster of its own.”

Courage or nonsensical?

It’s safe to say that Sigríður is a courageous author. Rather than follow the well-trodden path of realism in Icelandic literature, she is striking new ground with her unique take on dystopian and borderline sci-fi genres. Her newest book, which will be published in November, goes in a very different direction though. The story is about a middle-aged history professor whose reputation is destroyed in connection with a #Metoo scandal. Sigríður also uses the opportunity to tell a story about Ólöf ‘The Rich’ Loftsdóttir, one of the most powerful women in Icelandic mediaeval history, making this a historical fiction book.

When asked about this, if she feels brave in her writing, Sigríður simply answers: “Well, I don’t feel like I have a lot to lose here.”

She explains herself by adding that she doesn’t feel like she has any control over what she chooses to write about; her subjects choose her and take over her interest and imagination. “Perhaps this is not courage, but rather irrational behaviour,” she laughs, adding: “My novels come from ideas that grip me, but I feel that reality, or journalism, can only take them so far. Sometimes the only way to understand the world is the route of fiction.”

Sigríður Hagalín’s book ‘The Fires’ can be purchased in our online store.

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