In an interview with the Icelandic Literature Center, you suggest that the Icelandic population finds short fiction to be an inferior form. Do you feel that short fiction is becoming less stigmatized?
I certainly hope so. We produce a lot of short stories in our writing program, so I hope that the stigma is not as much of a problem as it used to be. Still, publishers complain that short stories are harder to sell, but that’s not just in Iceland—that’s a problem everywhere.
But the short story is a very important form; it can do a lot in a few words and encompass a world in a few pages. I have done my best to promote the form through my own work and through translations, and my most recent project has involved collecting short stories from around the world. The North American volume was published in April this year, and the Latin American one will probably be published next year.
You’ve translated authors from Amy Tan to J.M. Coetzee. What is it like to reimagine such a diverse range of works in a language that has remained largely unchanged?
Translators are very important in maintaining the Icelandic language and trying to keep it up to date. It requires a fair bit of energy to maintain the language, and there are indications that the young generations are not willing to use all this energy on Icelandic. Some feel like we should just adopt English or at least aim at becoming bilingual.
But there is something about the Icelandic environment that does something to all of us. I come from the north, near a small fjord. I sometimes say that the mountains wrote my books. They shaped my frame of mind. There’s some force of nature that determines how we react to influences, how we adjust to and assimilate them.
To what extent does literature influence everyday life in Iceland?
In Iceland, fiction is often read as nonfiction. So my two books about the character Egill were a reaction to that manner of reading. I was trying to bring this character into the contemporary scene, and [because of his name], there is always an intertextual connection between the modern and the ancient. While I was putting Egill through various modern situations, I was also trying to echo the Sagas.
At the same time, I created a character who was very similar to myself in certain ways. Egill was born at the same time as me and also went to America to study. The result was that a few years ago, ‘The History of Icelandic Literature’ confused me with Egill. They assumed that I had graduated from a writers’ workshop in the US—which I never did, though I did take some courses at Iowa. So I was consciously working on this blend between fact and fiction, and in the end, I myself had become fiction.
At the same time, you talk about prose being “the wallpaper of the soul.” How do you stay authentic to yourself while also trying to blur the line between fact and fiction?
I make a point of being true to emotional content because I want to write literature that the reader can relate to. You often see Icelandic authors trying to escape their emotions—maybe because we are so few, and maybe because Icelanders have a tendency to read fiction as nonfiction. The results are often not so pleasant. So as a young man, I decided that I was going to be true to my emotions. In that respect, more or less everything I write is autobiographical because I try to transfer my emotions into the text. I may start out with something based on what happened to me. Then the possibilities take over, and I make the jump into fiction.
This interview was conducted in English at the University of Iceland on June 28, 2016. It has been edited for concision and clarity.
The full interview can be found at voxtur.wordpress.com.
Rúnar Helgi Vignisson is an author, translator, and associate professor of Creative Writing at the University of Iceland.
Ariel Chu is a senior English major and Summer 2016 Wilmers Fellow at Williams College, United States.