In The Grandmothers’ Archipelago: An Interview with Sjón

By Lucy Popescu

Image of In The Grandmothers’ Archipelago: An Interview with Sjón

Sjón was born in Reykjavik in 1962. Poet, novelist and playwright, he has received numerous literary awards, including the Nordic Council’s Literature Prize for The Blue Fox. He was also nominated for an Academy Award, a Golden Globe and a Brit Award for the music, which he collaborated on with Björk, for Dancer In The Dark. Telegram Books published The Blue Fox, translated by Victoria Cribb in 2008 and will be publishing The Twilight of Marvels in May 2011.

LP: Your first collection of poetry was published when you were only sixteen. Why did you decide to become a writer and who have been your biggest literary influences?

S: As a child I was very sensitive to poetry. When at school we were given the hefty volume of Icelandic poetry from the 18th century to the 1940s I instantly took it to heart and did not only see it just as the extra pound to carry in the school bag like most of my fellow 8-year-olds. I remember thinking they were quite clever those “poets” who had such an easy way with words and not only managed to use them to draw images but also expressed such wit in the way they always seemed to come up with a clever, unexpected conclusion or punch line.

But it wasn’t until I discovered the Icelandic modernists, the so-called Atom Poets, from the ‘50s that I realized how diverse poetry could be in its form. And the “surrealist metaphor” just blew my mind. I had seen something similar in the handful of foreign poetry that I had come across, and in the cut-up lyrics of my idol David Bowie, but to see it done in my own language instantly made me want to do it as well. Before I knew it I had a collection of poems on my hands. Through my work on the student magazine I knew that to publish a book all you had to do was to take your manuscript to the printer and that a few weeks later you would walk out of his door with your very own poetry collection. In Iceland we have a long tradition of self-publishing as a respected way for young writers to make their mark, even our Nobel Prize winner, Halldór Laxness, started that way. Like most Icelandic kids I had a summer job and a month’s salary for being on the gardening crew in the fields of the national hospital paid for the printing. So, the summer I turned 16 years old I also became a published poet.

My biggest influences at that time were David Bowie, the dadaists and the surrealists, the Atom Poets, Icelandic folk stories, the Belgian pulp detective stories about Bob Morane, horror cinema and whatever pornographic literature I could lay my hands on. But then at nineteen I read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and it had it all. I have never recovered since . . .

LP: How autobiographical are the stories you tell?

When it comes to the narratives, they are not autobiographical at all. The only thing I put into them from myself is the character’s emotions, observations and maybe the occasional smaller events. And then, of course, the overall view point of the story is mine. In my poems it is different, they are more often based on actual experiences even though it can be difficult to see it in the finished poem. The reason I started writing novels in 1987 was actually to get away from “the poet’s I” and I have very much stayed on course. Not hesitating to generalize, I think you have two types of narrative writers; on one hand there are those who are interested in telling their own stories and on the other there are those who are interested in telling other people’s stories. As I am a male born in the comfortable (and dull) ‘60s in Iceland I shouldn’t be anyone’s first choice for a character in a novel. I wouldn’t read that novel, anyway . . .

LP: What inspired The Blue Fox?

Icelandic folk stories, my fellow Icelanders’ unshakeable and misguided admiration of brutes, the plight of children with Down’s syndrome in modern-day Iceland, the Romantic poets of the mid-nineteenthcentury, my belief that our society being humane isn’t something we should take for granted . . .  

LP: You use different voices to tell the story of The Blue Fox. How hard is it to write from the female perspective in your fiction?

It is no more difficult than describing the weather or other natural phenomena that one has to “enter” (or fuse with) to be able to deliver in text. But one must be aware of one’s limitations and not step into the more obvious traps. In The Blue Fox, for example I never write from the perspective of Abba, the girl with Down’s syndrome. I felt it was morally wrong to pretend to know how she thinks and feels. Instead I describe her through her actions and how others respond to them . . .  

LP: Antonia Byatt called The Blue Fox “lyrical”. How does your experience as a song writer (for Björk amongst others) influence you as a novelist?

S: When it comes to writing song lyrics I tend to be very old fashioned and they always turn into some kind of rhymed “ballad” or mini-epic. Something I would never do in my poems, that tend to be very free in form and fragmented. So, telling stories through lyrics was definitely a good exercise before sitting down to write The Blue Fox. Another thing that informed the writing was my collaboration with the Brodsky Quartet as I discovered the novel’s form in the romantic string quartet, the four movements, the recurring themes, etc.

My willingness to work in different fields of writing (opera, film, theatre) and to collaborate with people between books is something that has constantly provided me with new tools for my novels . . .

LP: You like to weave folk tales into your fiction? Why?

S: Folk tales and folk beliefs are told and kept alive by those who have no power in society and therefore provide you with the “unofficial” version of how it is to exist in a certain place and time in history. They are still with us today and as usual are hidden in plain view. This is the prima materia for any writer who wants to write universal stories and be part of what I have called the Grandmothers’ Archipelago.

It is based on the last lines of Halldór Laxness’ novel Brekkukotsannáll (The Fish can Sing). There the story’s protagonist is leaving Iceland to become a famous singer in the big world and the old pair who have brought him up are seeing him off at the harbor. Then the grandmother, who has barely spoken throughout the novel, says:

"And if you should meet a wretched old woman like me anywhere in the world, then give her my greetings."

It seems to me that that is what authors of books we consider “world literature” are doing all the time, they are simply bringing their grandmother’s greetings around the world to whichever grandmother might be within earshot. And as those old women are the keepers of everything that really matters to their folk, it is the folk stories that they want to share . . .

LP: Does the fact that you are bi-lingual affect your writing?

S: I do not consider myself a bilingual writer and am very much aware of my limits when it comes to the English language. But when I write in Icelandic I take every possible advantage of the fact that our language and literature has been the only constant in our poor country’s history. My latest novel takes place in the seventeenth century and I allowed the old texts to influence and infuse my language at a very deep level. This is something I could never do in English.

So, yes, working in English has made me aware of how much more I can do with my mother tongue . . .

LP: Do you participate in the process of translating your work into English

S: Yes, during the translation in any language I am at the service of the translator. They pound me with questions about everything from the structure of the work to the punctuation. It can be a but scary at times how thoroughly they pick the text apart before transforming into their own language. (After those sessions I sometimes wish my editors were as precise.) But even though I have some knowledge of the language in question the translator always has the final say.

I have been very lucky with my English translator, Victoria Cribb, who over and over again has bravely entered the tangled shrubbery of my “translator-unfriendly” texts and, unscathed, found her way out again . . .

LP: How do you turn your research into a novel? Do you use record cards? Diagrams? Character dossiers?

S: Oh, please don’t ask. I am still cleaning up my study after I finished the latest novel two years ago!

LP: What do you have planned next?

S: I am finishing a libretto and after that a film script. In the new year I will start writing a novel I have been preparing for a long time. It is about an Icelandic man my age who yearns for a place within the grand narrative of the twentieth century and thinks/writes himself into the history of the European Jews, coming to the conclusion that he is an artificial man made of a lump of clay taken from Rabbi Loew’s Golem in Prague . . .

LP: Iceland will be Guest of Honor at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 2011. Which authors do you hope will be featured at this time?

S: I just hope that there will be more living writers around than dead ones . . .


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