Retreat lures writers to lovely Iceland
Silver Spring, Md.
“Escape … Learn … Explore … Create.” This was my invitation to the first annual Iceland Writers Retreat in April 2014. Making my way through a translation of my grandmother’s 100-year-old diaries from Norwegian to English, I welcomed the option for taking a break, getting a new perspective, meeting other writers—both known and still to be known—and visiting the history, mystery, and magic that is Iceland.
This island nation had invited me before, but I always saw it as a stopover on the way to Oslo or Copenhagen, Frankfurt or Amsterdam. Ever anxious to get to my final destination, I had never taken the invitation seriously. Then, in the fall of 2013, I met Erica Green at a Monday night meeting of the American Scandinavian Association. She was there to announce the launch of a program for writers she developed with Eliza Reid in Reykjavík. Both Green and Reid are fanatical about Iceland: they love the country, its history, its culture, and its love of literature. Green, who is a writer, lived there while her husband was on assignment with the U.S. Department of State. There she met Reid, who was originally from Canada but settled in Iceland after meeting and marrying Icelandic historian Guðni Jóhannesson. Together they developed an opportunity for writers, both experienced and new, to meet and work with known authors in the literary and geological setting of Iceland.
To prepare for the trip I read up on Icelandic literature, namely Iceland’s Bell by Halldór Laxness, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1955. The text is historical fiction that provided the context for my stay in Iceland. Studying the busy IWR agenda, I quickly decided that I needed to frontload my trip with a few days’ touring on my own. I got the best advice from my daughter’s close friends, Dan and Laura, who had recently returned from a honeymoon in Iceland. They had, in fact, placed tour items on their wedding registry, and I had given them tickets to the Blue Lagoon as a gift. They had some excellent ideas in addition to the Blue Lagoon, and I followed up on many of them.
My first afternoon of walking around Reykjavík on my own brought me to Hallgrímskirkja, with 360-degree views of the city from the church steeple, followed by a tour of Harpa, Iceland’s award-winning concert hall that features a colored glass façade inspired by Iceland’s landscape. Walking down the hill from the church to Harpa, I encountered what was to be one of many incongruities in Reykjavík: the Babalu” Café, an American diner filled with I Love Lucy memorabilia. Continuing on to the older section of the city, I made my way to an exhibition called 871 +/- 2. Several stories below street level, I visited an excavation of an early settlement believed to be from A.D. 871, give or take a year or two. The next two days brought me to glaciers, islands, and frequent spouts of steam along the southern coast.
Once the retreat began, I was joined by close to 80 registrants and 13 featured authors at the Icelandair Hotel Reykjavík Natura on the outskirts of Reykjavík, where the carved figures in the lobby and extensive Nordic breakfasts made me feel right at home. Presentations, workshops, receptions, and group tours filled the next five days. I was thrilled to be able to work with Geraldine Brooks and to meet Icelandic author Sjón while I was there. A group tour led by Guðni Jóhannesson brought us to Skálholt, one of two episcopal sees from 1056 to 1785; the Geysir geothermal area; the Guillfoss waterfall; Laxness’s home; and the Þingvellir national park. Each evening marked another reception, including one with Iceland’s president at the time, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, at his residence.
Iceland’s great beauty and fascinating history are easily accessible and rewarding for any visitor. Only a five-hour flight from Washington Dulles International Airport, an eager traveler is quickly immersed in the landscape, culture, and history of Iceland.
For the writers among us, I’m glad to announce that registration for the fifth annual Iceland Writers Retreat, April 11-15, 2018, is now open. The faculty to date includes Alice Hoffman, author of The Marriage of Opposites; Hallgrímur Helgason, winner of the Icelandic Literary Prize; and Hilton Als, writer for The New Yorker magazine and Pulitzer Prize winner. Green and Reid continue to add authors and event to the program. A further update is that, since her husband has now become the president of Iceland, Reid is the First Lady! To learn more about IWR visit www.icelandwritersretreat.com.
This article originally appeared in the Dec. 15, 2017, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784.4617.