Kristín Eiríksdóttir published her first book when she was 22, a collection of short prose poetry and drawings, and has been publishing every other year for the past 12 years now, churning out everything from short stories to novels to plays. She just handed in a manuscript for a novel coming out this fall, and has a radio play coming out in August. As Iceland’s art scene continues to flourish, the seasoned writer has a lot to say about the scene, and how living on a remote island is both challenging and advantageous.
How has Icelandic literature changed or evolved since you first started out? Was it the start of something, or was it some kind of fluke?
I think every generation has a movement. This generation’s movement was sort of loud and demanding, but I mean that in a good way. A lot of the authors emerging were very provocative. But now we have another movement, and I think it’s very fascinating what’s happening in literature now with Meðgönguljóð, for example, who publish a lot of young authors, some of them younger than 20 years old. There’s also a lot of young people writing for theatre and other stage arts.
When most visitors to Iceland walk into a bookstore looking for Icelandic literature translated into English, they are most likely to find either the Sagas, crime literature, or Laxness. Why is there a dearth of translated Icelandic literary fiction?
I’ve thought about this. I think the culture of agents is very young. There are agents, but they work for the publishers. Whereas in the other Nordic countries, I would have a publisher, and then I would have an agent that speaks for me and makes contracts with the publisher for me. We have wonderful agents in this country, and they sell many books, but it’s not a tradition here. Just as there aren’t a lot of professional gallerists here promoting visual artists. Additionally, I don’t think being good at networking is very common among writers. But while we don’t have this tradition, there’s also more freedom in this country.
In what way is there more creative freedom in Iceland?
I imagine that belonging to a culture that has a long history of great artists can be troublesome. Being in a country that’s more proletarian and sort of in the middle of nowhere takes a certain pressure off. So maybe it’s good that I write in Icelandic, for just a few people in the middle of nowhere, I don’t have to worry about bestselling genres and also, I get paid to write precisely because of how few there are. Because the state sees an interest in keeping the language alive through publishing a lot of fiction that not so many people can read.
Do you think it’s gotten easier or harder for young writers in Iceland?
I honestly don’t know. But I think it’s never easy to make this decision to become a writer or making whatever kind of art, because by making that decision, you have to believe that you have something of interest to others. In a way, it’s an extremely narcissistic and strange thing to believe. There’s something a little bit off about you if you come to the conclusion that you should fill hundreds of pages and that everyone else should fill their heads with these words. It’s a crazy assumption. But it should be a hard conclusion to come to. I don’t think that the world is filled with great artists. I think there’s actually a lack of them. I think the idea that there’s so much wonderful art going on is just an illusion.
To elaborate on that: When I was studying visual arts in Montréal I had a professor that I really adored. Once she asked all of us to give a speech about contemporary artists that we felt had influenced our work. Each one of us went up and talked a bit, but then, at the end of the class, she told us that she was a bit disappointed in us. The reason was that so many of us, when speaking of these artists, had emphasised their achievements in a very worldly way, counting their awards and grants and successes. The professor reminded us that awards don’t say so much, and not success either. She felt that artistic quality was so rare that no matter how well you tried to hide it, it would be found in the end. She wasn’t saying that artists should starve or have a day job, but she was just reminding us that the work itself is of most importance, and that is where the ambition belongs. I relate to the lesson she was trying to give, because I find the work rewarding in itself. I am so grateful to get to work as a writer. If I met myself as a kid and shared this info, that I now work as a writer, the kid would be so relieved and the world would seem less terrifying. To me it really is the ultimate achievement and from there on, it all just has to do with very nerdy details, satisfying especially for the very asocial. Striving for quality, trying to stay in a flow, sinking into one’s self, getting a break from it all and still somehow belong to it. Of course it is possible to have a more testosterone-driven approach, to use the fear of dying as an urge and go crazy with grandiosity and compete and I can absolutely relate to that as well, and that’s also why I’m talking about this. As a reminder. The idea of knowingly trying to please a broad spectrum of readers is nauseating.
We had this fashion after the crash of artists becoming politicians. I always found that really infuriating because I think artists should just be artists. I mean, if they have some social or political message they want to convey through their art, they should do that. But I feel like I’m good where I’m at. The bureaucracy of politics is so far from what I do. I’m not going to bring any fun creativity into that. It’s important to realise that as an artist, you have a voice, and you are shaping society. Especially on an island of about 300,000 people. You don’t have to run the country. You can just be a part of the society.
Since you’ve been doing work in theatre, do you think that theatre is becoming more accessible to working class people, that it’s become less of a middle-class bourgeois pursuit?
One of the most important things, to me, that has been happening here is that there’s been more pressure on theatre to produce new Icelandic plays. We have some wonderful writers who are just emerging right now. I think we want to look in the mirror when we go to the theatre, and not necessarily see actors playing our favourite novel, even if that’s fine, too. But I think the Reykjavík City Theatre has been stepping up when it comes to new Icelandic playwriting and taking risks. That’s a good thing. I think it’s important, because it’s sort of a form of literature that’s been threatened because of this tendency to just tell the story we know. I think it’s important to have theatre that is written for theatre. It’s such a wealthy form of art. I love working with theatre.