Structo talks to Sjón

“I believe in literature of places. It’s always places having a dialogue.”

This interview first appeared in issue 13, published February 2015.

Photo credits: Reykjavík (CC BY) Richard PJ Lambert; Sjón (CC BY) Magnus Fröderberg.

This interview was not planned. On a visit to Iceland last autumn I took advantage of a day in Reykjavík to visit Nordic House, an institute set up to foster and develop cultural connections between Iceland and the other Nordic countries. Gravitating towards their well-stocked library, I asked the librarian to recommend a local author. She suggested Sjón, specifically his novel The Blue Fox. The suggestion was a good one; I was utterly spellbound. Three novels and a couple of days later, I got in touch with the author to request an interview. We met the next afternoon in a café near the harbour. — Euan
You write both poetry and prose. I’m always interested to know in these cases: does the poetry come from the same source as the prose?

No. I started as a poet. My first books were books of poetry, so you can say that I trained first as a poet. I’m quite used to working with few words and writing bursts of images in poetry and shorter prose, but for me they have always been two very different fields. I’ve used as a rule of thumb that if a line finds its place within prose, I will not use it for poetry. For me lines of poetry are quite unique events when they appear in my brain, when they pop up. In this case [for The Blue Fox] I’m obviously somewhere between, and the reason is that I wanted to give the feeling of a place where you are in a very real situation, a hunter going after a fox, but because we have gone over the border of the human habitat we come to a place where reality is in question, and maybe poetry is the tool to describe what happens when we step out of the human habitat.

That’s a lovely phrase, ‘reality in question’. I was trying to think about the non-realistic in your writing. Words that immediately come to mind are ‘the fantastic’ or ‘myth’ or ‘folklore’, but thinking it through, because it’s tied to the reality so much, there is no break between what is real and what is questionable. Is that something that comes through from the folk tales?

Folk tales are always presented as true anecdotes, at least in the way that they are written down in Icelandic folk tale collections or the folkloric tradition here. You simply say, there was a man, and he lived at a farm near Hafnarfjörður, and one day he went out looking for a lost sheep. He did this and that, and then he meets someone who takes off her head and the head says something significant to him, and he runs home. This is always presented very matter-of-factly; this is what happens to this guy. I read these as a child, and I think I really absorbed this realistic or could you say laconic presentation of strange happenings.

You said ‘as a child’. Were you introduced to these stories very early? Were you read them, or did you read them yourself?

I read them myself, very early, because I discovered a collection of folk stories in the library of my grandmother. She had the scholarly edition of Icelandic folk stories, collected by Jón Árnason in the 19th century. I think it is five volumes, five heavy leather-bound volumes, that she had there, and I started reading this and became absolutely fascinated by this world. I think what fascinated me most was that, okay, this is presented as real happenings, and it took place in Iceland. At the same time I was reading Belgian detective novels. These were quite exciting stories about this guy, Bob Morane, a Royal Air Force pilot from the Second World War, who was going around the world fighting evil. I loved these books, but they always took place abroad: in the Himalayas, or in London or Paris, or god-knows-where in Africa. But these strange [folk] tales of walking corpses and children being snatched by the hidden people, these took place here, in my country. I think this was my first lesson in how to present strange happenings: you do it as matter-of-factly as possible.

Of the three novels that have so far been translated into English, they are either set in Iceland or are about Icelandic people. Is that true of your books which have not been translated, as well?

There is one which is set in a small town in northern Germany in the Second World War, but the narrator is placed in contemporary Icelandic reality. He’s narrating the story from there. It’s actually part of a trilogy; I’m working on the third volume now, 20 years after I published the first one, and that takes place in northern Germany, in a tiny town called Kükenstadt. That was, in a way, my first successful novel. I’d written one before that, which takes place in an undefined Mediterranean town, but, again, it has Icelandic characters. Well of course I could try to write a story about a war orphan in Senegal, and from that character’s point of view, but I have problems with those kind of books. I really see that as a privilege, to be an author writing in a small faraway place. I have access to all sorts of things which are great enough to use as the basis for novels.

I read a BBC piece that gave a statistic which stated—and you may be the best person to ask about the truth of this since you’re head of PEN here—that one in ten Icelanders will pen a novel. Or was it publish a novel?

I am very happy to say that this is completely wrong. There are enough writers here as it is. [Laughs] I think it might refer to the fact that one in ten persons have thought of writing a novel, or feels that he or she can write a novel. But that in itself is quite remarkable, because it means that such a big percentage of the population feels that it is entitled to step forward on the literary stage. And for me it points to an explanation of why Icelandic culture is successful. I really think it is because we all feel welcome to try our hands at writing, playing music, choreography, painting…. Somehow we all feel that the field is open to us, that we are welcome to the table.

Is that because of the size of the population? You feel like you’re sharing something?

I think there are historical reasons for it. All of our great authors and writers and poets and visual artists come from very humble backgrounds. Kjarval—our greatest painter of the 20th century—he grew up on a tiny farm in the east. Þórbergur Þórðarson—a giant of Icelandic literature, very close [in terms of literary stature] to Halldór Laxness—he grew up on a very tiny farm in Suðursveit by Vatnajökull. And Halldór Laxness is of common people. It’s our history, our literary history; it’s a history of people becoming inspired by stories and poetry to start doing it themselves. And we know this. There is no story of people going to Oxford University or whatever. We really believe that poetry belongs to all, and just go for it.

There was a line in The Mouth of the Whale: ‘It was the longest day of the year, my last night with Láfi, and the prospects were good for poetry.’ [Laughter] I had to laugh when I read that because you’re clearly mining your experience for poetry, as if, this may be a horrible situation, but it makes for good poetry. A bit of a side note here: are there any literary magazines for Icelandic poetry or fiction?

Yes, there is one called Tímarit Máls og menningar, or TMM, which is published by Forlagið, the publishing house, but was founded by a publishing house called Mál og menning, which is still existing as an imprint, and the oldest surviving publishing house in the country. It was founded by, I think you would have to say, communist or socialist writers in the late 30s. ’37 I think. That’s a magazine which has been published for a long time. And then we have one more recent one, which is ten or 12 years old. So we have a few.

What is the main way of poets and writers getting their work out? Pamphlets? Or I suppose online now, or readings?

Readings, yes, and self-publishing. Self-publishing is in Iceland the best way to start as a writer. I know that in other countries it is seen as the last resort, but here it is in many cases the first choice, and it is through these self-published chapbooks that poets are discovered here. We have a long history of self-publishing. Halldór Laxness, the Nobel Prize-winning author, started by selling on the street.

So that’s quite a good pedigree.

Yes! And I started as a self-published poet—

You were very young.

I was 15, turning 16 that summer. In a way I’m not so surprised that I started writing poetry at that age; many people do, but today I’m a little but surprised that I had the organisational skills to get it printed and take it to the shops and the newspapers, and I did all that. How sure of myself I must have been. Obviously I sold the book myself in the street, and on the bus and in the cafes, and everywhere I went. An older poet came to me, not so many years ago, and said, I remember the first time I met you. And I said, Really? I don’t! He said, You stopped me in Vesturgata and you said, ‘Would you like to buy a book of poetry?’, and I said, ‘My dear boy, I’ve got kilos, kilos, tens of, hundreds of kilos of books at home’. And I’m supposed to have answered, Well then, a few grams won’t hurt! [Laughter] And so obviously I was quite the salesman. And in the end he bought the book, so— [Laughter] he added those few grams to his collection.

Had you taken your pen name then?

Yes.

There is a history of—

Again, Kjarval is an Irish name that the painter Kjarval took, Halldór Laxness is Halldór Guðjónsson.

And musicians as well.

Musicians as well. There is a long history of people here using artist names or pen names. And for me, a 15-year-old—I had started drawing as well, I wasn’t sure if I would be going into visual arts or into writing—but I discovered that this word, Sjón, was there in plain sight in my name, and I thought, Oh what a nice name for a poet and an artist. It means vision.

Perfect.

It was perfect. I was already occupied with Surrealism and I remember I thought it’s a good name for both the visual arts and the poetry, because the poet is the ‘eyes of the world’. [Laughs] So it wasn’t a very humble mission statement. [Laughter] But it was there.

But it is a mission statement.

It is, yes.

At what point did you encounter the Surrealists ?

I think I first encountered Surrealism through articles about Salvador Dalí in a weekly magazine. I was quite young when I saw and read about this weird Spanish guy who was being photographed with flying cats and beautiful women who actually were men and things like that. I thought, This is an exciting world, these are strange things. And there was an Icelandic artist named Alfreð Flóki, a visual artist, who was sort of the Icelandic Dalí. He was a draughtsman: ink drawings and charcoal drawings. He gave amazing interviews; absolutely crazy interviews. I remember reading them as a teenager. He was, in a way, my way in. He was my model. When I was, I think, 17, I met him and he practically took me in. He was so amazing. I went and visited him every week and we discussed things, and I always left with books, both art books and literature—he had an amazing library of the Weird—he was really like a mentor. He died in ’87, but I realise how generous he was. It was amazing that he took me in as a 17-year-old. Because I got to know him I think I sidestepped so many of the traps that the provincial Surrealists can walk into. He was so well-versed in the history of the avant-garde, of the macabre, and of Surrealism. From early on I got the best possible reading material, and he was corresponding with Surrealists in the US, in England, in Denmark, and was in contact with some people in France, and he just handed over those contacts to me.

Very generous.

Yes. I think I was 18 the first time I went abroad to meet some of these people, and in ’83 I went to France and met people who had actually been in the Surrealist groups with André Breton. At the end of that journey I went to Saint-Cirq Lapopie, which is a tiny village by the river Lot, where André Breton had his summer house for the last 15 years of his life. And I stayed there for, I think, five days with Elisa Breton, his widow. It was just the two of us in this house and she gave me a bed to sleep in in a small tower attached to the house, and we just spent the days talking.

Did you dive into Surrealism, or did it just seep into your work?

My great encounter with Surrealist poetry was through the poetry of the Atom Poets, as they were called; the generation that started publishing in ’48–’49 in Iceland. This was a small group of poets who changed Icelandic poetry almost overnight. There was a real culture war here about free verse because Icelandic poetry up until that point had been really traditional and alliterative, with rhyming and all that, and free verse was just an attack on everything Icelandic Literature was supposed to stand for, so they really fought a battle for the poetry, and I discovered when I started reading this, I discovered—and this is what catapulted me into poetry—that even though I had read some Modernist poetry in translation and some Surrealist poetry in translation, I somehow hadn’t realised that this was possible in the Icelandic language; that we, in a way, were allowed to do it. When I started reading those amazing images they created, I thought, I want to be a part of it. I want to do this too.

It gave you permission.

It gave me permission just to start writing. And then I discovered that [the Atom Poets] had actually been influenced by the Surrealists, that the main influence on them was the Surrealists, and that brought me back on track with the Surrealists. I had been introduced to them through the craziness of Salvador Dalí, who had been this media darling in the ’50s and ’60s—these had been magazines from the ’60s I’d been reading—and then through Alfreð Flóki… it just got me on track. Surrealism is of course the perfect cultural movement for teenagers, it’s got everything: it’s challenging, it’s dark, it’s erotic, it’s violent, it’s promoting rebellion and transgression. And then of course at the same time I was being exposed to punk, with its do-it-yourself message. Just go for it. So we were—my generation—we were also influenced by the spirit of punk; the rebellious spirit of punk, but not the nihilism.

This was early ’80s?

This was ’77, ’78. In the summer of ’77 I went abroad for the first time I think. No, for the second time, actually. The first time I went abroad far away. I went to Moscow and the Crimea on a trip with a small group of Icelandic teenagers who were invited to the summer camps in the Crimea. And on the way we flew through Copenhagen and I bought some Sex Pistols records, and Iggy and The Stooges and all that, and brought that back here in the summer of ’77. So the first wave of punk was quite important, but of course we were living under completely different circumstances, and I was just 15. What we took from it was the energy and the spirit of just doing it yourself. Independent record labels translated into independent publishing here.

SjonBut you do write lyrics as well? Well, you write a lot of things, but I saw in an interview that you’re primarily a novelist. [Nods] But you’ve written librettos and lyrics. When you’re writing a lyric—or something that has already been written musically, or a rhythm to fit in with—what is the approach to writing that, as opposed to the way you approach writing your own poetry?

The way I approach each poem includes discovering the form of that poem. How that poem wants to be shaped. Is it in three verses of five lines with two words or three words each, or whatever? Writing that poem is the discovery of the form of that poem. I only write lyrics with Björk—it’s as simple as that. I do it very rarely. But we always work in the way that the music comes first, and that means that the song dictates the number of verses and syllables and so on.

[At this point I changed files on my camera—the only recording device I had to hand in Iceland—and so the beginning of the following answer is missing. I had asked about whether myth-telling had diminished in recent years and centuries. Sjón pointed out that some of the highest grossing films from the last few years feature Thor as their protagonist…—Ed.] 
 
… so much grander than man. Cosmic forces or invaders from other dimensions. These are really grand, mythic tales.

So we’re just telling them in a different way?

Yes. And I really think that these stories are ingrained in us. I don’t know where they came from, but it is amazing that every civilisation, from the grand civilisations to the tiniest tribes you find all of a sudden in the middle of the Amazon, they all come up with the same cosmologies, just told in different ways, and based on the natural habitat they reflect themselves in. It seems as if there is a blueprint for the myths that we carry with us; and these blueprints, they make us tell them. I was once asked, Why do you use folk stories and myths? I really believe they are using me to be retold.

But you subvert them as well. You say that they use you, but [the environment of Iceland] seems such a fertile ground for stories, which seem very rooted in this environment. Is that something that you think every culture has, in the same way that every culture has its own myths?

We all have access to these grand formats of human thinking: the great religions and the great pantheons of cultures near and far. I enjoy so much engaging with the different ways man has come up with to deal with big truths and the hard truths of existence, and you find the language for it in religion, in myths, in folk tales, in all the shared cultures. And then of course you’re influenced by what’s close to you, the local manifestations of this phenomenon. I actually had a very interesting conversation earlier on today with an Italian woman who is a linguist; she is studying a particularity in the Icelandic sagas where the narrative constantly goes from the past tense to the present tense. Like every creative writing teacher will teach you: you stick to your tense. But in the sagas you are constantly moving. I said to her, Well I do it as well. I constantly move from the past tense to the present tense; for me it’s the most normal way of directing reader’s attention. Icelandic prose literature isn’t that old—we have the sagas, and then we have centuries of poetry and some annals and this and that, but the novel is quite young here, it’s in the late 19th century that they start trying to write novels. The novel is young. After speaking to [the linguist] today, I think that this great gap between written narratives means that we kept traits of oral storytelling which have influenced the way we write prose narratives today. Moving from the past tense to the present tense is something we do very easily and it can also mean that, because we’re so new at this, it comes relatively easy to us to use folk tales and things that in many more established literary cultures is thought of as a field for children’s books or fantasy or something like that. It’s still close enough for us to be used as a tool in real literature.

There’s this—probably quite boring for you—stereotype of the Icelandic people believing in the hidden folk, but it seems a lot more subtle than that in reality. It’s not a belief, it’s more like your idea of reality in question. An openness perhaps.

It’s the belief that there is more to reality than meets the eye. Even though people will not confess to believing in the hidden people, they may say something like, Well, it’s possible that these are manifestations of nature. That nature is manifesting itself in these ways, and it has a reason to do so, you know? It wants to have an encounter with you in this way.

And is that partially because nature here is quite extreme? The volcanoes of course and the extreme seasons…. You describe [the environment of] Iceland in not the most favourable terms in some of your work: ‘a lump of lava in the middle of the Atlantic’. It’s not an unease with your landscape at all, but perhaps an awareness that it’s changeable.

Yes, of course. And as we speak we have a volcanic eruption out there in Bárðarbunga by Vatnajökull. I have a very strong memory of the Hekla eruption in 1970. People went there—my grandmother came back with pieces of lava—so you are of course aware of this. Earthquakes and these things. That nature is, not unstable, but that it’s on the move. Of course there are people all around the world that live with disasters and the consequences of nature moving, but what I think is maybe more important is the simple fact that we are an island. You become quite self-conscious, being an islander. You realise that there are borders—you’re not just going to walk away and end up in another country, another culture—even though you sense the ocean as a road; things come over the ocean and things can go back over the ocean, and you can go with them. But it is a barrier, and it is a small society, and you are quite aware of this barrier; that you are here with these people and this nature.

I contacted you through PEN. Can you tell me a little about your role there?

I’m the President of Icelandic PEN. We are a part of International PEN, which is this great organisation which fights for freedom of speech in general, but also for specific cases of authors imprisoned and persecuted all over the world. Here in Iceland we are more of a literary group, but we take part in different international campaigns and we hosted the international congress here [in 2013]. We work with different literary institutions here in Iceland. One of the things that we are interested in now is how to open the door for authors living in Iceland but who write in other languages than Icelandic. It’s always been a huge barrier for people who move here who write in other languages to find a place within our literary community. So that is something we are quite interested in, because it is, at its core, a freedom-of-speech issue, because if you come to a place your voice should be heard in that place, and your experience should be something that contributes to that place. I became aware of these freedom-of-speech issues quite early on, through the Surrealists, because they had encounters with censorship because of pornographic material or violent material, or simply going against politicians or the government. So I became aware of that quite early on. I had quite an important encounter at age 17 or 18, when I went to a talk that Nuruddin Farah, the African writer, gave here about living under dictatorship. It was really an eye-opener for me. Obviously during the Cold War we all grew up with stories about persecuted Russian writers like Solzhenitsyn and also with the Czech writers. These stories were all around you in the newspapers, so there was no escaping stories of the persecution of writers, but just being in the same room with this man, and hearing his story, really had a deep impact on me. And so when I had the opportunity of joining PEN and later becoming the President of Icelandic PEN, I did so very gladly, and even though here in Iceland we do not suffer persecution for what we write and say, I really see it as a duty to help out in the international community, because you never know when this will come home. And actually, after the financial crash in 2008, we realised that one of the things that may have contributed to the financial crash and things spinning out of control here, was the self-censorship of the media, the self-censorship of academics. Because all of a sudden the financial sector became so all-powerful. They were contributing to the university—why would the social science department at the university want to disturb that? So all of a sudden we realised that we had slowly silenced ourselves: the academics, the media, and other writers as well.

Censorship can come from within.

Yes. It comes from within because of an unspoken pressure from the outside. You never know when it hits you.

And so it’s worth having people with their eyes open?

Yes.

I mentioned that three of your novels have been translated into English. The only book that I found with your poems translated into English was a beautiful leather-bound collection of modern Icelandic verse. Any plans for an English translation of your poetry?

There was a small chapbook published in probably ’93 or ’94, which was printed in just 100 copies. It’s disappeared. It was part of an Icelandic arts festival in Essex in, I think, ’93 or ’94. There are no plans for a bigger publication, but there is an online literary magazine in the States called Spolia, and they will publish a chapbook of my poems quite soon.

[Work in translation] is something we’re particularly interested in, because you can get so many interesting voices coming in through translation.

Obviously I’m brought up on translations. That’s how you get to know literature here in Iceland, and we have been lucky enough to have great translators and translations as an important part of publishing here. The novel that had the biggest impact on me was The Master and Margarita, which I first read in an English translation and then two years later we got the Icelandic translation. And Bruno Schulz, the Polish writer, who wrote—it’s called in English The Street of Crocodiles—it’s called Cinnamon Shops in the original, I read him also, in translation. So much of literature comes to you in translation, and that’s where you discover new truths to tell the stories from your little world. And of course literature is little worlds having a dialogue. I really don’t believe in National Literature, but I believe in literature of places. It’s always places having a dialogue. It might be a small village on the Faroe Islands having a dialogue with a small village in Poland, you know? Because there is a writer in the Faroe Islands who reads Bruno Schulz, and discovers, yes, this is a way I can write about my family history. So all of a sudden, a small place has contributed to the culture of another small place. Or cities talk. You can have a dialogue between cities, places big and small, but never nations. As soon as you start thinking about National Literature, that literature has been enlisted for the service of a national identity or whatever, then literature takes a second place.

That perfectly leads into my final question! Do you think your writing has changed due to exposure to those different places, or has it reinforced your identity as an Icelandic writer?

As I mentioned before, I see it as a privilege to be working in a small place, and to have at my service Icelandic history and access to old texts and new, and the peculiarities of this place and its people. I really think that travelling so much with my books as I do—especially with The Blue Fox, which has been sold to 30-something countries—it’s made me aware of that. I remember when I sat down to write From the Mouth of the Whale, I was faced with two or three choices, and I told my wife that I was looking at three options for novels, and she said Well, you should write about Jón Lærði, the model for Jónas the Learned, because the other two subjects are okay, but I know that other books have been written in other parts of the world, but no one has ever written a novel about this man and his world view, so this is material that is unique to you. And she was right. And actually, I have only made things harder for my readers and my poor translators, being so tied to a place and a language of a very specific period of time, and things like that. So I think it’s pushed me to mine more local and more specific material, instead of trying to become global and accessible. For example, if I read a story that takes place in a remote village in Kenya, I don’t want it to be watered out and written with me in mind, that I understand it better or to confirm my ideas about what’s exotic about that place. All that stuff comes through; it will be exotic enough, and also if it’s local enough, it will become about a place, and as we all live in places it will be understandable. [Laughs] You know the film Festen? The scriptwriter is a Danish man called Mogens Rukov. He was here some years ago, and I met him. He’s got a theory about why people who like world cinema like world cinema. He says it’s because we enjoy seeing people doing exactly the same things that we do every day, but differently. A film like Volver, by Almodóvar, that begins with the women cleaning the tombstones, we see them cleaning the tombstones, you know they’re in a graveyard, and they’re doing something that is completely alien to us, but emotionally we are there. We know where they are. It’s places. It’s places having a dialogue. Actually, Mogens is an interesting case, because he was brought from the Árni Magnússon Institute in Copenhagen—the institute for studying the sagas and old Icelandic literature—he was brought from there to head scriptwriting in the Danish Film School. He became the teacher of Lars von Trier and all those people, with no experience in writing film scripts, but plenty of experience in studying the sagas, which have, in common with film scripts, that you only experience the characters from their deeds and words.