Notes from Iceland: Part 2

April 14, 2015

First, a confession. I agreed to teach at The Iceland Writer's Retreat for only one reason: Susan Orlean told me she had so much fun last year that I'd be a fool to turn it down.

Thank you Susan.  It was a memorable week; I'm sorry to say I probably learned more from the students I worked with – they were all so emotionally brave –  than they did from me. I also had the joy of meeting some really wonderful writers.  A few you will know, and those you don't, you'll want to. 

Barbara Kingsolver, who must be a hero to everyone who cares deeply about great writing, climate change, and the ethics of eating. I've loved every one of her books, and was delighted to discover that she turns out to be exactly the person you hope she'll be: warm, smart and delightfully no-nonsense. She's down to earth with a very particular view of the world.  This is what you think when you first meet her: "This woman knows exactly who she is."

Adam Gopnik, who is much funnier in person than his rigorous writing leads you to believe. He is effortlessly – and constantly – humorous. Also, I think, the most innately polite person I've ever met. I suspect he is incapable of walking into an elevator in front of a woman or cutting into a line. It makes me wonder how he survives in New York. 

Taiye Selasi, who is so extremely beautiful you can't believe she's also a writer. If I looked like that I think I'd just stare at myself in the mirror all day.  But her books are deep and rich – and she is a rare, warm and extremely generous teacher.  Her students emerged from each workshop buzzing with energy.

John Valliant. I didn't know his work before I got to Reykjavik.  I'm reading his The Jaguar's Children now. Slowly.  It's a novel you want to savor, a book that gives voice to the voiceless- and he's a man you want to know better.  Also, I might add, a great dining companion.  

Alison Pick.  How did I not know this woman before?  When she gave me her novel, Far To Go I made the mistake of reading the first page.  The next thing I knew it was morning, and I'd been reading all night. It's gorgeous. Poetic. Compelling.  Truly one of the finest books I've read in ages. She is a deep soul, and her students emerged from her classes slightly dazed – and then went off to their rooms to write.

Linn Ullman.  Again, a writer whose work I should have known and to my shame did not.  Linn was the voice of reason on the panels; when everyone else was mystifying the act of writing, she was saying, "You know, it's a job. All great writing does not come from inspiration. Sometimes it just comes from work."  Later, thinking about it, I realized that of course the daughter of Ingmar Bergman would take a slightly jaundiced view of "genius."  But to read her books is to understand the importance of trusting yourself. 

Marcello di Cintio.  With a name like that he has to be a dark, handsome Italian with a romantic bent. In reality he's an approachable (handsome) Canadian who seems too sweet to have undertaken the dark subjects he tends to tackle: war, poverty, people who live behind walls.  He taught travel writing, and his students said his workshops were wonderful.  He too is a great dinner companion.

Sjon – one of Reykjavik's most famous writers (among other things he writes lyrics for Bjork), whose latest book has won dozens of awards. The Blue Fox is about to come out in an English translation. Can't wait.

If you've read this far, you're probably considering signing on for next year.  Don't know who'll be teaching, but I'm sure it will another memorable occasion.  If you're eager to spend time among writers, this is a fantastic opportunity.  The participants are talented, the workshops never larger than 15, and all the writers are pretty much around, and available, for the entire time.  Last year Geraldine Brooks, one of my favorite authors, was teaching a workshop and all I can say is I wish I'd been there.

And, of course, you also get access to the strange, stark, beauty of Iceland. And it's fascinating food. My first lunch was at Iceland Fish and Chips.  The fish was great – but what I remember best were those onion rings at the top of this post. Breaded in spelt, splashed with spice, they were memorable.

Tomorrow I'll tell you about the most impressive – and longest – meal I had in Reykjavik.  Among other things, it included bread and butter so good I literally could not stop eating it. 







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