Iceland Writers Retreat Redux - The Reykjavik Grapevine

Iceland Writers Retreat Redux

Iceland Writers Retreat Redux

Published April 10, 2015

Larissa Kyzer

Going into its second year, the Iceland Writers Retreat—which, armchair copyeditors take note, is purposely “apostrophe free”—is riding high on the success of its inaugural event. Having already hosted such literary luminaries as Geraldine Brooks and Susan Orlean, organizers Eliza Reid and Erica Jacobs Green are bringing in an equally impressive array of international authors to teach workshops this year: Barbara Kingsolver, Linn Ullmann, Adam Gopnik, Taiye Selasi, and Sjón, just to name a few. Positive word of mouth has earned the IWR a spot on “World’s Best Writers’ Retreats” lists, and encouraged attendees from all over the globe to attend. “We even got an email from the National Book Council of Malta,” says Eliza. “They held a contest and the prize was two tickets to our retreat.”

Although a lot goes into executing a successful writers’ retreat, Eliza credits the event’s success to a spirit of community and mutual support. “We were so fortunate that everyone was so friendly and got along so well,” she says, noting that that the “congenial atmosphere” was sustained beyond the duration of the event itself. Participants have kept in touch via social media and she herself stayed with former attendees when promoting this year’s event around Canada. Building that feeling of community from the get-go was then something that she and Erica wanted to prioritize this year. “It should be a really good shared experience,” she says. “It should feel like going to camp.” To that end, they have now created a private Facebook page for attendees to connect on even prior to the retreat. “People are already exchanging ideas and making plans to travel together [around Iceland] after the retreat ends.”

“It should be a really good shared experience. It should feel like going to camp.”

Indeed, where many retreats emphasize a sort of exclusivity, requiring participants to be accepted on the basis of a writing submission beforehand, or focus on providing opportunities for attendees to be ”discovered” by literary agents, the approach to IWR has been far more about bringing people together. “There are a lot of good retreats where those things are the foundation,” says Eliza, but she thinks that one of the strengths of IWR is really in the range of backgrounds of the participants—both in terms of where they come from (such as Australia, Bangladesh, Canada, Lithuania, The Netherlands, Singapore, and the US this year) and in their writing experience. “Some of our attendees have published a lot, and some just like to tinker.”

With literary-themed tours in the Icelandic countryside, readings by both attending and local authors, and a new ”Relax and Write Extension” which gives participants extra time following the retreat proper to practice their craft and, if they want, read new works-in-progress at an open mic night, there promises to be plenty of opportunity this year to cultivate the “group atmosphere” that IWR hopes to foster. And looking forward, Eliza says that they are still looking for ways to expand IWR and make it more accessible while still maintaining its intimate atmosphere. For instance, this year they were able to hold a sponsored writing contest and award the winner free accommodation, meals, tours, and workshop registration. If it became possible, she says, “we’d love to do more—maybe a scholarship based on need.”

For now, it’s just a matter of seeing where this year’s retreat takes them. “There are a lot of possibilities—a lot more we can do,” says Eliza. “Stay tuned.”

IWR AUTHOR TALK

“We love the fact that we can introduce people to authors from different countries,” says Eliza, explaining that oftentimes, big-name authors in one part of the world are relatively unknown to readers in another. We caught up with two of this year’s ten prestigious attendees to find out a little more about their writing process, authorial inspirations, and what they’re looking forward to about the retreat.

MARCELLO DI CINTO (CANADA) 

MarcelloDiCintio2A travel writer with a background in English literature, microbiology, and wrestling, Marcello Di Cintio wrote his first book, ‘Harmattan: Wind Across West Africa’ with inspiration from a year spent volunteering and travelling in western and northern Africa. It earned him the 2003 Henry Kriesel Award for Best First Book. Since then, he’s published ‘Poets and Pahelvans: A Journey Into the Heart of Iran’, which won the Wilfred Eggleston Award for Non-fiction in 2007, and most recently, the multi-awarded ‘Walls: Travels Along the Barricades’.

Have you been to Iceland before?
Yes. Last year I spent a couple of weeks in Iceland with my wife and four year-old son. We had a blast. 

What do you think will make the Iceland Writers Retreat a particularly unique or interesting event? Is there anything that you think will make Iceland a particularly good (or bad) place to discuss writing and work on craft?
The Retreat provides a fantastic opportunity for ‘budding’ writers to meet and work with some international stars – Adam Gopnik, Barbara Kingsolver, for example – as well as some lightweights such as myself. Iceland, as I understand it, is a nation of readers and writers, a place rooted in ancient texts that people actually read. And I remember reading that one in ten Icelanders will publish a book in their lifetime. That is an incredible number. Workshop participants cannot help but be inspired by this.

Also, there is something about being in an isolated place that feels right for creativity. Iceland is one of those places.

Who is an author whose work has been in some instructive for your own?
I admire the work of Joan Didion more than anyone. She writes with a sort of alchemy that I’ve spent years trying to figure out and emulate.

Who is an author whose work you love to read, but would never want to emulate?
Norman Mailer. I think his style of writing is enjoyable but perhaps a little old-fashioned. 

What is one aspect of writing that you find particularly difficult? Do you have any tricks for approaching that challenge?
As a nonfiction writer, I often have trouble identifying the overriding narrative to the experiences I have. I have no tricks other than working hard until something reveals itself. It almost always does.

Where do you do most of your writing? When you are sitting in your workspace, what are three things that you see?
I work in an office at home most of the time. From my desk I can see framed photos from my travels, my hookah pipe, and the mailman’s legs when he delivers the mail.

People often talk about having ‘authentic’ travel experiences, or of getting to know the ‘real’ side of a place. As a travel writer, what do you make of this idea of authenticity? How do you get to know the places that you visit and the people who live there?
I think that really getting to know a place or having an absolutely authentic experience of another culture is almost impossible – especially during a short trip. Writers that claim to do this are kidding themselves. We can never understand what a local understands. We are always an interloper. Travel writers need to remember that the stories we write are ‘our’ stories. We can only reveal a place through our personal lens. Didion wrote that a place belongs to the author who writes about it best. This is a rare case in which I disagree with her. The places we visit never belong to us.

The best we can do is take our time in a place. Meet people and listen to their stories. And write about them with empathy and compassion.

RUTH REICHL (USA)

RuthReichl.PHOTOCREDITFiona AbboudFormer restaurant owner, editor-in-chief of Gourmet magazine, and restaurant critic for both The New York Times and The Los Angeles Times, Ruth Reichl has been immersed in food and restaurant culture and writing since 1972. She is the author of several critically acclaimed food memoirs, including ‘Tender at the Bone’ and ‘Comfort Me with Apples’. Her most recent work is the novel ‘Delicious!’

Have you been to Iceland before?
Sadly, no. I’m really looking forward to it.

What do you think will make the Iceland Writers Retreat a particularly unique or interesting event? Is there anything that you think will make Iceland a particularly good (or bad) place to discuss writing and work on craft?
Some of my favourite writers are coming to the Workshop, and that alone will make this an inspiring time. (I’m especially excited about meeting Barbara Kingsolver, who I admire enormously.) But you must know that Nordic food is suddenly very high on every food person’s radar, and I expect to be thrilled, excited and energized by new flavours and fascinating dishes.

Who is an author whose work has been in some instructive for your own?
MFK Fisher. When I first started writing about food it was pretty much relegated to “cookery writers,” and the fact that this intelligent woman who wrote such elegant prose had chosen food as her subject sustained me. Then I met her, and she became an even more inspiring mentor. She told me to go work at a newspaper; that I needed that discipline. And she was right.

Who is an author whose work you love to read, but would never want to emulate?
Michael Chabon. I love his work, and I’m enthralled with his use of language. He loves words. I, on the other hand, try very hard to write simple. When people tell me that my work seems “effortless” I’m extremely pleased.

What is one aspect of writing that you find particularly difficult? Do you have any tricks for approaching that challenge?
I find writing itself incredibly difficult. I’d rather do almost anything – sweep the hall, clean the oven, chop wood. But I love having written, and the only way to get there is to go out, sit in my studio for as long as it takes, and hope that something good happens.

Where do you do most of your writing? When you are sitting in your workspace, what are three things that you see?
I have a little cabin in the woods, heated only by wood. I can look out the window and see down the hill to a distant pond. Often I see deer leaping past my window. Inside I see photographs of my husband and my son. The wood burning stove. And a postcard of Peace from the Lorenzetti mural on Good Government in the Palazzo Pubblico in Sienna.

You’ve recently published a novel, where previously, your publications have been memoirs and non-fiction. How did you find the transition from non-fiction to fiction? What were some non-fiction writing or storytelling techniques that you found particularly applicable when approaching this new work?
Everybody told me that my memoirs read so much like novels that fiction would be easy for me. They were wrong; fiction is another country, and it requires different muscles. I found that I had to approach the characters as if I was interviewing them, get to know them all as well as I know the real characters I write about in non-fiction. Having done that, having gotten to know them all, I could then sit down and imagine them into stories.

This year’s Iceland Writers Retreat will take place from April 8–12, 2015. Workshops are restricted to registered participants and registration for the event is now closed. But keep an eye on http://icelandwritersretreat.com to find out more about IWR 2016, which is scheduled for April 13–17, 2016.

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