Though few foreigners know about her, Vigdís Grímsdóttir is one of the most prominent and prolific contemporary writers of Iceland. For the last two decades, she has captivated readers with her mystical subjects, lyrical style and fearless attitude towards cultural taboos. In addition to winning the Icelandic Literature Prize in 1992 and nominations for the Nordic Prize, among other awards, her books have remained in circulation—putting her among a handful of writers whose books make up the contemporary Icelandic canon.
For the most part, this celebrated author has avoided the Icelandic spotlight, living throughout Europe and the US. With the success of a recent film adaptation of her book Kaldaljós (Cold Light), she is again returning to prominence.
No discussion of Icelandic culture is complete without mentioning Grímsdóttir. Þórdís Elva Þorvaldsdóttir Bachmann paid a visit toVigdís Grímsdóttir, one of Iceland’s most influential living writers.
/// What is the purpose of contemporary literature in modern day society, in your opinion?
– To preserve our nation, we have to preserve our language, and that’s what literature does. It shows us the proximity of God, or the distance of God, the beautiful and the ugly. People are often afraid that other media will somehow destroy the purpose of literature, but it will always serve as our cultural root. It may perhaps have played a bigger role earlier in history, but its purpose hasn’t changed. Literature is essential. I suspect that the constant bickering about people not reading enough may actually lead to people reading less. People still read a lot; I can sense it in my work. I get calls, visits and emails from readers who tell me what they like and dislike in my writing. Literature is our cultural cellar. We can build on top of it with floors of computer games, movies and entertainment, but literature is the foundation for it all. There’s no roof on this building. We don’t need one.
/// Is there a book that changed your outlook on writing?
– I’ve always been a sucker for books. I was a reclusive child and I was often lonely, which is weird considering I have seven siblings. Books were my companions. Ever since I was a child, my favourite type of literature has been fairy tales. To me, a good book, no matter how realistic it is and no matter if it’s completely unadventurous, is still a fairy tale. The book that had the biggest effect on me was The Little Match Girl (by H. C. Andersen.) It made my world grow tremendously. I was ten years old and it was the year 1963. Everyone I knew could afford a decent meal on Christmas Eve and nobody froze to death. This book made me realise that the world was so much bigger than I thought, and that there might be something on the other side of the mountain, something that needed to be fixed. It made me want to become a nurse. I was angry at the world for allowing such injustice as described in the book. No work of literature has had such a deep-seated effect on me, before nor since.
/// Writers are often put in two different categories, those who write for social change and those who claim that their works aren’t meant to be critical of modern day society in any way.
– That, in itself, is critical.
– A few years ago, a certain group of authors was attacked for writing books for their own entertainment, books that didn’t contain any specific message or storyline but were merely written to cleanse and shape the language. But if you live in a society where you can write a whole book about absolutely nothing, it says a whole lot about your society. Even when authors say that they don’t mean to be influential, they still mean to. Regardless of whether they mean to influence the whole of society or just one individual, it doesn’t change the fact that as soon as you have a reader, you’re influencing someone. Writing a book is a political act.
My car was wrecked and I received murder threats after the release of Ísbjörg (My Name is Ísbjörg, I am a Leo) back in 1989. Nobody really talked about it back then, about sexual abuse. I had a Fiat that I was very fond of, and it was destroyed. But I also received flowers. I was afraid for a while. Then I realised, okay, you can be afraid that some big bad man might kick your ass on your way to the store, but you’ve obviously created something that matters. If people go to the trouble of pissing in your gas tank, beating on your car and sending you threats, it makes you realise that you’ll probably never again be able to write a book that moves people as much as that. So in the end, I was happy about it. The way you react to criticism depends entirely on your mindset. Let’s say you get five reviews, four of them are positive and one is negative. Which one do you remember? If you only remember the negative one, you need to change your mindset. I know a lot of writers who have crawled under a blanket and stayed there after getting a bad review. But that’s just life, and that’s okay. You can’t be a people pleaser. I think I’m somewhere in between the two categories you mentioned. I hope people can find a little of both in my writing.
/// You’ve written about themes that are commonly classified as feminist, shedding light on domestic violence, prostitution and sexual abuse. Would you call yourself a feminist writer?
– (hesitates) I just write about things that come to me. I don’t think prostitution is a particularly feminist topic. I can’t categorise myself like that. That doesn’t mean I don’t respect feminists, I do. But I can’t put myself in that category rather than anywhere else. I just don’t want to. You might as well call me a sticker. I don’t like stickers. I don’t like it when people talk about realism, modernism, romance – life is all of those things. Of course I’m a feminist in some things I do. In some things I’m a man, in some things I’m a woman. For example, what is The Little Match Girl? Is that a piece of feminist writing? People can view me however they want to. I just write about things that fascinate me. Back in ’89 when I wrote Ísbjörg, I did field research on the world of prostitution and drugs, something that didn’t exist back then. The underworld was just as shocking back then as it is now. People are always writing about the same things, but nobody can do it the way you do.
/// Lesbianism has been the topic of two of your books, Lover’s Loins and Z: A Love Story. Are you trying to shed more light on the issue of homosexuality?
– It just fascinated me. It was about time too, that someone wrote about love this way. Z is a comparison between two sisters. One of them is non-homosexual, and the other is homosexual, but it’s all the same in the end. Love is always the same.
/// So it wasn’t an issue you were fighting for at the time?
– I can’t fight for things that don’t fascinate me. I know this book had a positive effect, judging from the reactions I got, from priests amongst other people.
– Yes. It made me very happy. Lover’s Loins on the other hand, that’s a very special book. I dreamt it. It was a journey I went on in a dream. I never understood why I wrote that book. In some ways, it was like dying. Going into another world and looking back on your life. I wrote it as a description of this journey I went on before I got back home, into my body.
/// Was it only one dream, or many dreams?
– No, just one magnificent dream. Peculiar, huh? It’s supposed to be a poem. I’m a terrible poet. I’d love to be a good poet, but I’m not. Lover’s Loins is more of a narration. I went on that journey, I know it sounds like a lie. Maybe it happened because I’d been reading so-called trance literature, in folklore. It describes women going on dream journeys, one of them even becoming pregnant along the way. Of course the whole thing was a lie this woman made up for her husband who was away when it took place, catching fish. He believed her. You don’t question dreams.
/// Is there a particular place or time in which you write?
– I have up to three statues (points to a computer) around me at any time. I write all over the place. I travel a lot, and I often go away to write, to get complete peace. I’m… what do you call it… manic? It’s just how I am. I’ve tried so hard being the person I’m supposed to be.
/// Are you supposed to be a specific person?
– Yes. It’s healthy. It’ll make me live longer. Many people have tried to make me change my habits. I’m supposed to wake up at seven, eat breakfast, write for three hours, then go on a walk, but I can’t. I write for three weeks straight without sleep, and then I don’t write a thing for the next two weeks. I write in turns. No matter how many shrinks, psychologists and friends have told me that I’m shortening my life, I’ve managed to become 52 years old, and I’m still going strong. I respect those who take walks with their dog, if they have a dog, and then write for two hours, and then read the papers. I respect that, but it’s not the way I am. I can’t stop until the groundwork for my book is done.
/// Are there particular places in the world you go to to write?
– I’ve been around. France, Denmark, Finland, New York… It’s selfish, of course, to leave like that. You have to be selfish in this work. It’s not a problem now, but it was more difficult when my kids were young, they found it hard. I’m fond of the fact now, that they found it hard back in the day. I was something to them.
/// Do you get writer’s blocks?
– No, I haven’t. I’ve only read about it, and heard people talk about it. I write because I have to. It comes to me, and I can’t ignore it. Back in the day, my grandmother asked me: Have you had sex? I said no. Don’t do it, she said, because you will not be able to stop. It’s the same with writing. I have to do it because I want it so bad. If I’ll ever have a writer’s block, I’ll quit. It’ll mean that I have nothing left to give. It’ll be definitive too, because things like that happen to me definitively. But that’s okay, I never meant to be a writer.
/// Paul McCartney once said in an interview that he wishes he’d written the song “Fields of Gold” by Sting himself. Is there any book that you wish you’d written?
– I wish I’d written Of Mice and Men (by John Steinbeck). It’s one of those big books. It has a tremendous weight.
/// Is there a particular part of your career, starting in 1983, that you’re the most proud of? Any work, award or recognition that comes to mind?
– I’m very sensitive, sometimes even sentimental. My dad died in 1989. Without my knowledge, he’d collected everything that had been written about my books from 1983 until he died. It was his secret. When I’d finished the second last draft of Ísbjörg, my parents went on a trip to my mother’s hometown. On the way there, they stopped and read my draft. My dad kept a diary, and the last thing he wrote in it before he died was: Dísa has written something important. It was the greatest reward I’ve ever gotten. He was a very critical man. Being recognised as a writer is nice, of course, but that is the biggest reward I’ve received.
/// What part of being a writer have you found the most difficult?
– When the book comes out. It’s a schizophrenic situation. You’ve been by yourself for a long time, writing, and all of a sudden there are countless interviews and recitals and what not. I think it might come in handy to be an actor in this situation. You have to be able to switch gears, preferably switch cars. Sometimes the transition from solitude into being constantly social happens in a really short amount of time. I find it very difficult. I’m not an actress. But I’m a little schizophrenic. I’ve pulled it off sometimes. I find the whole process of writing a book wonderful, even if the subject isn’t. Doing research is so exciting. Handing a finished book over brings great happiness, even if the book isn’t perfect. No book will ever be perfect. Promoting a book is something you have to do, because you love the book. To hell with your shyness, your fear and all those little emotions you have inside. They’ll just have to wait, because you love your book. I don’t bother complaining about it anymore. It’s a part of the process.
/// What are you currently working on?
– I’m working on two novels. I want to write memoirs for people who have a lot to give in the next few years. I’ve had a guest over from Finland for a month, whose biography I’m writing. But before that, I want to write the biography of an Icelandic woman whom I’ve yet to meet. I don’t know if she exists.
/// What direction are you going in as a writer?
– I want to work with real people, instead of building characters on real people. I’ve never created a character that doesn’t have a role model in reality. For now, I want to be in the presence of the role model itself, and register the story the way he or she tells it. When I turn 100 years old, I’m going to write a children’s book. I’ll be mature enough then. Writing for children is very hard. Changing their world. I’ve written one children’s book, Gauti vinur minn (My Friend Gauti) and the reaction was immense. I received pictures from several classes of elementary school children.
/// Weren’t you mature enough to write a children’s book back then, even if you weren’t 100 years old?
– No, I’m constantly maturing. I love that book. I wrote it for my son, so he’d move back home from New York. He said, okay, I’ll move if you write a book for me. So I did, but he didn’t move back home. He likes his wife too much.
/// Would you describe your style of writing as ever-changing?
– In my writing, there are always one or two main characters. The style in which the story is told belongs to them. I write the way they are. That’s why my style is never the same, because it serves whomever I’m writing about. I write in first person a lot. If the characters are similar to me, their style is similar to my style. The truth is, you only have about ten people here (points at her chest) who step forward and want to speak.
/// A fan of yours described you as a writer who is constantly searching for beauty in everything, even ugly situations. How would you respond to that?
– I’m very grateful if someone views me like that. That’s what I’ve always tried to do. I took the Finnish man who visited me on a little trip. We went to the harbour, where there are a lot of containers. He thought they were filthy and disgusting. I told him: We’re an island. Containers are wonderful things, because that’s where everything comes from. What does it matter if they’re grey? Beauty can be found in anything if God is close by.
/// You are known amongst other things for a great grasp of the language. Where does your vocabulary come from? Is it something that comes naturally for you, or is it something you’ve worked at expanding?
– If what you’re saying is right, then I suppose it stems from my upbringing. That, and reading a lot. My mother’s friends often say that she could’ve written my books, like the words could’ve come out of her mouth. That’s where my vocabulary comes from.
/// Is there a desired effect that you want your writing to have on your readers?
– I suppose I want to have an effect on people’s thought process, evoke something new in them. That’s all. There’s nothing else I want.
/// Why did you wait until you were 30 to publish your work?
– (whispers) I was so shy. Also, it was made very clear at school that female writers were weird. When you’re a kid, the last thing you want is to be weird. I wrote an essay when I was fourteen, and I had to read it out loud. It was about a plane crash and it was highly dramatic. When I was done reading, the teacher said this horrible sentence: “Vigdís dear, you’re not thinking about becoming a writer, are you?” I didn’t even answer, because I thought it was such a rotten thing to say. He was asking me if I was thinking about becoming weird, basically. On my way home from school, I asked my friend: “What on earth did he mean?” She said: “I don’t know, but I wouldn’t worry about it.” It was such a taboo. Not many women wrote books at the time, and there was an utterly strange way of describing them in the educational system. But I was also shy. I was in Denmark, writing, when I sent my brother a draft. He said: “I’m taking this somewhere.” He did. After that, I couldn’t stop.
/// Why are children often protagonists in your works?
– That’s where everything starts. That’s where everything is. That’s where you get your input for life. It’s how you process your provisions from childhood that make you who you are. I think about children a lot, about their soul. I love people who don’t lose their inner child, who preserve it and don’t throw it to waste. It gives you a sincere outlook on life, and a lack of fear. Children have to go through incredible things, good and bad. They have a heavy load. All children do. Just having to grow up is extremely hard.
/// Dreaming is also a recurring subject in your work, hence Nætursöngvar, Lendar elskhugans and Gauti vinur minn. Is there a particular reason behind this?
– You can always see a part of yourself in everything you do. The characters always inherit something that belongs to you. Dreams are such a big part of my life, I couldn’t live without them. I think the theme of dreaming is more characteristic for me as an author than a certain style of writing. My characters dream a lot, foresee things and events. That’s me. That’s me in these people, and these people in me. Guðrún Helgadóttir had a better way of putting it. She said in some interview: “You’re always writing about yourself, anyhow.” I like that. You can’t fake it in fiction.
/// Last but not least, supernatural things often take place in your books.
– That’s what people say. People call this and that supernatural. I don’t know anything about that. I don’t know what people mean when they say that. What do you suppose they mean? That someone is psychic? There’s nothing supernatural about that, some people are psychic and it’s a fact. People who foresee events have always existed. We have a strong tendency to reject everything that’s supposedly supernatural, but it’s real.
/// So being psychic is just as natural as being blonde or brunette?
– To those who are psychic, yes.
/// Are you?
– Some people would probably say so, yes. I don’t feel very psychic. I’ve seen things that other people haven’t seen. But that may have happened when I’d been awake for a long time. (She laughs.) I don’t like it when people talk about clairvoyance as some part of epilepsy or insanity or something supernatural. It’s just a part of a person’s receptivity. There are so many dimensions that we’re unaware of. I would never dispute a person who claims she’s psychic. Why does mankind always have to be able to prove everything to believe it? Once upon a time, there was a man who wanted to invent light. He was laughed at.
/// Anything to close on?
– Yes. Whenever a journalist interviews a writer, he has to bring him kleinur. It’s a must. They’re so tasty, and they’re nowhere in the world as good as here in Iceland. If there’s anything I recommend for the foreign readers of the Grapevine, it’s to try kleinur.