I met Kristín Ómarsdóttir last summer at the Banff Center, where she was in residence. She is a critically acclaimed writer of poetry, fiction, and theatre, but little-known in the English world until now: her 2004 novel, Hér, was published this year by Open Letter, under the title Children in Reindeer Woods.
Many of us at the Banff Center were enthralled with Kristín, almost as if she were a guru or rock star. Though she probably wasn’t aware of it, a mist or mood seemed to follow her. She is simultaneously warm and withdrawn, responsive and encoded. “I think,” Greg Hollingshead, novelist and director of the Writing Studio, was heard to whisper, “she’s the real thing.” Greg held a public discussion with Kristín, and some of my questions below came out of that conversation.
Children in Reindeer Woods is the first of Kristín’s works to appear in our language, despite her many accolades and translations into other languages. Her books of poetry include Í húsinu okkar er þoka (There is Fog in Our House) and Sjáðu fegurð þína (See Your Beauty); her other novels are Svartir brúðarkjólar (Black Wedding Dresses), Hjá brúnni (By The Bridge), and Elskan mín ég dey (I’ll Die, My Love); and she has written numerous plays, including Segðu mér allt (Tell Me Everything), which earned her the Icelandic drama award, Gríman, in 2005. She has also collaborated with various visual artists, most recently on a series of international installations called “Audition,” “My gift, your Excellency,” and “Stars.”
I sent Kristín my questions by e-mail to permit her to answer at leisure. English is, perhaps, her third language. She writes in her first, Icelandic, a language she described at Banff as “…my bridal gown, my jaguar, my love.” I was nervous Kristín’s answers seemed to get shorter when my questions got longer, so I asked if she prefers to let her work speak for itself and keep her process private. But she reassured me, saying, “I like conversations, and I think it can be nice to read the interviewer’s passages towards his or her questions. It’s part of the conversations, part of the deal. And we are doing this in a celestial space, so that is perhaps obviously necessary—if we were in the same room we would almost not need words to understand each other…”
The Rumpus: The excuse for this conversation is the publication of your novel, Children in Reindeer Woods, in English. North American reviews make it seem that the book succeeds in seducing the reader while remaining mysterious, opaque. Both the formal logic of the storytelling and the internal logic of the story itself felt palpably foreign to me, but I suspected that might be equally true for Icelandic readers. You said, in Banff, that you reacted, in youth, against a previous generation of Icelandic writers, because they were constructing and writing a reality you felt you didn’t want to be part of, and that your non-realist style emerged from that reaction. Can you talk in more detail about the evolution of your storytelling style, what we might call “voice” or “technique”?
Kristín Ómarsdóttir: I am not sure if I said this, but what I think at least I wanted to say is what I think so many children experience when they start school. I remember so well how I felt at seven-years-old, how the schoolbooks—which taught us to read—described a well-designed and perfectly constructed world—and very conservative as well—where people behaved. I was so surprised, even shocked. I experienced my first and only cultural shock. These were textbooks, perhaps literature flavored with propaganda. I enjoy all literature, from every time, style, and age. What I think I meant: I’m against the reality, the designed reality. I am against the structure of our world, which seems to be raised by violence.
Rumpus: You also mentioned, in Banff, that you inherited your love of poetry from your mother, who is a “lover of poetry”—a single word in Icelandic. What is that word? I am infatuated with the idea of it! Could you talk more about your early influences and development as an artist?
Ómarsdóttir: The adjective: ljóðelskur, ljóðelsk. Ljóð is “a poem” in Icelandic. Að elska is “to love” in Icelandic. Perhaps I chose this path, to become a writer, because it had no instructions. When I was [a] teenager, they didn’t teach creative writing in Iceland. If you choose a profession such as teacher, you go to a teachers’ school. When I was a kid, I often wondered: is there not writers’ school? I never heard about creative writing until much later, when I had worked for a while as a writer, and finally heard about the Forfatterskolen, in Copenhagen, run by poets and writers. I chose to become my own coach, but most of all I have met very good coaches, in writers, poets, friends, readers, and publishers. I regret not having worked even more different kinds of jobs in my youth, though I did many, but I should have wandered more. Perhaps I should have spent time as a vagabond, or as a well-behaved and naughty socialite, going from one party to another. Then I would have more numerous spaces in my head to fill up with fiction. I think to enter a lot of different spaces—[a] lot of rooms and buildings, etc.—is a very good subject for the Forfatterskolen, the authors’ school.
Rumpus: Can you talk a little about your specific inspirations and writing process for Children in Reindeer Woods?
Ómarsdóttir: I had worked for a long while on a manuscript about an old lady who lived alone at a farm raising chickens. I had written [a] couple of drafts, followed her to a nearby city where she had a relative. She became younger with every draft. This person, the old lady, had lived in my imagination for more than a decade, and had her roots in an incident I experienced [at] nineteen-years-old in Barcelona. One day, I discovered the old lady was an eleven-year-old girl.
I lived in Spain when I wrote the book, and had better newspapers to read than in my country. In Iceland, we tend to ignore the rest of the world. The Iraq War had recently begun; every Saturday night, my neighbors knocked on pans and pots from their balconies, to demand the government to withdraw the Spanish troops. So there I wrote this book. Although the story does not happen in a particular place, definite time, its spiritual soil is a mixture of something here and there.
Rumpus: Can you tell me any more, say, specifically about the incident you mention?
Ómarsdóttir: Incidents like that are often secrets—perhaps I should not have mentioned this—and the incident, in addition, is not possible to describe, and a very trivial one. I mentioned it briefly just to show you some of the roots of this novel: a very tiny small thread, which heads far away into the past. I am sorry for not being able to inform you about it in more details. But if I remember correctly, and I am quite sure that I do, I was watching the leaves of a tree move when I found or discovered the sound for the novel. A very simple moment on a Tuesday morning almost ten years ago—the same day I followed my friend to her school, the day before she had had an accident with her finger—I sat down at a café nearby her school and began writing the book. I love when things happen like that.
First I was weaving two stories together: the story in the valley and a story which happens in a city, then I separated these threads. A part of the latter story was published in another novel in 2009.
Rumpus: Do you work on more than one creative project at once—setting one aside for another, and then returning to it? If so, do you see your works as interacting with or affecting each other?
Ómarsdóttir: Yes, I do, and yes, they interact and affect each other constantly, because I am a human being. I have a human memory—imperfect memory which is changing events and narrating all the time. Yes, and probably I am always writing the same book. But I hope not. Perhaps I am repeating two or three stories. I don’t know, but sometimes you get that feeling, for a short moment.
Rumpus: The reader of Children in Reindeer Woods can’t help but notice the precarious balance Billie, the eleven-year-old protagonist, strikes between childhood and adulthood. Rafael, the soldier who spares her life, looks after her much in the way of a parent, then ends up marrying her. But then he also states, in the marriage contract, that the relationship will not be consummated because of the bride’s age. The effect is to preserve Billie, for the entire length of the novel, in that in-between state, where I think most books would feel compelled to box her into one category or another. You have mentioned that she evolved, in your thinking, out of old age toward childhood. Can you talk more about her?
Ómarsdóttir: The old woman of former manuscripts and this girl of the novel are very different characters, although they could be the same person—the daughter of the same mother and father, but of different ages and time. And that so happens in life. I am not the same person I was yesterday. Perhaps this person, the old woman, will again enter my imagination some day later—I will welcome her. Billie is a kid who has been around adult people; the adults’ wisdom confuses her mind, she needs more puzzles to see the whole picture. But then again, I don’t believe anybody—neither grown-ups nor children—can have or see a whole picture, the perspective, the context. Novels and poems do act as these puzzles.
Rumpus: In the opening scene of the book, several soldiers arrive at an isolated farmhouse, kill all its residents, and dump them in a mass grave. Then one of the soldiers kills his comrades, as well. It is violent and absurd—in the sense that we are not given any direct logical antecedent—and yet (if this isn’t a cliché) it is recognizable from too many eras, countries, and cultures even to enumerate. Rafael seems to have been made by war, but, with this act, he removes himself from the war that made him, and as the book progresses, expresses revulsion at his destructive impulses, combating them, even using violence against himself to suppress them. Could you tell me how Rafael’s character came into being and particularly about the interaction between him, Billie, and some of the other characters who drift into their story? Does this in any way relate to the “violence” and “designed reality” that you refer to above?
Ómarsdóttir: The stories Billie tells also change Rafael, or get him determined to follow this new path of his life, the farmer’s one. Thus you can understand how much I do believe in the power of storytelling. And there I am influenced by 1,001 Nights—an all-time favorite. Soldiers have always interested me, and they still do—I am almost obsessed with soldiers, from an early age. The first soldier I tried to write about was a young guy who would end up as a soldier at the American base in Keflavik—the U.S. army left Iceland ten years ago after some fifty years. Some fragments of that character…you’ll find in the parachute guy in this book. I identify with soldiers…I see myself as one who has no weapons, has never raised a finger, never kicked anybody, a lousy one, a paralyzed soldier, perhaps a soldier at an asylum who could never carry a gun—yes, perhaps a lunatic soldier. Unfortunately, I dare not look into the mirror and see the reflection of violence, at least not publicly.
Rumpus: Billie tells, in the course of the novel, two stories of ill-fated love, including that of her parents: Soffia, a doctor, and Abraham, whose writings include My Love Life and The Book of Laws. Both books are filled with personal observations and abstractions on human longing. These are his legacy to his daughter, who we only see in the orphanage where she now lives. I was bewildered and fascinated by Billie’s relationship to these stories, people, and ideas. They hovered beyond the all-too-immediate story of bereavement and survival that forms the present of the novel. Would you mind talking a little about the relationship between past and present, and absence and presence, in Children in Reindeer Woods?
Ómarsdóttir: This is perhaps a technical question and perhaps not. The story’s title in Icelandic is Hér—“Here.” And that is the story’s main subject: here, this, h-e-r-e—the situation here and now. And when I wrote the book I felt that each and every eleven-year-old girl—and boys, as well—in this world, is a hostage.
I love the movie title, From Here to Eternity. And perhaps I did lend its adverb “here,” I suspect that. I would love to answer this question more specifically, but I have to admit my restriction. It [is] so beautiful to talk about the relationship between past and present, absent and present—a favorite subject I think. Let’s talk about that next time, when I know more and have read more books, and especially your book, which I recently started to read.
Rumpus: When you and I met, we quickly discovered a shared taste for Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, which you said you were ingesting a lot just then, along with a lot of 19th Century literature and music. Do your reading lists change depending on what you are writing? Do you remember what were you reading (or, perhaps listening to, or, perhaps, watching) while you wrote Children in Reindeer Woods, allowing for the lengthy gestation of the project, and can you say how that reading might have influenced the book?
Ómarsdóttir: Yes, sometimes I talk too much and yes, my writing lists change constantly, but I also have some books I always have by my side, like a teddy bear collection in a child’s bedroom. I like Elizabeth Bishop’s poetry, and I am very fond of American poetry. I do remember reading a lot about war when I wrote the book, some magazines about guns and weapons; Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and Mrs. Dalloway; I read some of [The New York Times] bestsellers: Middlesex, Da Vinci Code; Tintin; some biographies about Arthur Rimbaud and Marilyn Monroe; and I saw a lot of movies. I didn’t listen to music for the sake of the writing. I should have. I am trying to do that now. But I think perhaps old books I had read many, many years before influenced this one the most. I think that what you read as a kid, and as a teenager, and in your early twenties, echo in your writings throughout your life. But I must keep on reading constantly, everything, all kind of literature, always.
Rumpus: Can you tell me about any reader reactions to this novel that have struck you as particularly insightful or true?
Ómarsdóttir: My mother and her friend have discussed literature for more than forty years. I often listened to their discussion, from the corner of another room, or from under a table. Many times they disagreed and many times not. They do disagree on the end of this book, and I like that. Some readers want to know more—what happened? They want to have a conclusion, I think. My mother’s friend could be that kind of reader; I don’t know for sure, of course. My mother likes the end. She is perhaps more cynical, I think, or I hope—she is my mother, and I am very proud of her.
Rumpus: Have you read Children in Reindeer Woods in English, and if so, can you talk about the contrasts between the Icelandic and the English versions?
Ómarsdóttir: Yes, I have. In the Icelandic version, I see all the details. I think writers read their own work like a scientist who explores a growth under his or her microscope. I don’t own an English microscope; I am almost able to read it as if it was not my own book, and it isn’t anymore. And thanks to the translator, Lytton Smith, I enjoy the reading. Also, to read your book in a different language teaches you or tells you a lot also about your own language and your writing techniques. That is truly invaluable.
Read the Rumpus review of Children in Reindeer Woods here.