Ólafur Gunnarsson

 

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(ICELAND)

 

 

ÓLAFUR GUNNARSSON was a medical emergency driver before publishing his first novel, Milljón-prósent menn (Million-Percent Men), in 1978. He has since published novels, short stories and children‘s books. His novel, Tröllakirkja (Troll‘s Cathedral, 1996) was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Award in 1992 and the English translation was nominated for the IMPAC Dublin Literature Award in 1997. An adaptation for the stage premiered at The National Theatre in 1996. In 2003, he received the Icelandic Literature Prize and the Icelandic Bookseller’s Prize for his novel Öxin og jörðin (The Axe and the Earth). His children‘s book Fallegi flughvalurinn (The Beautiful Flying Whale, 1999) has been published in Britain, Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, and The Faeroe Islands, and was nominated for the Nordic Children‘s Literature Award in 1990. Gunnarsson has also translated various works of fiction into Icelandic, including Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and Dashiel Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon. He lives and works on a small farm a few miles out of Reykjavík, Iceland.

 

 

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RD: – Ólafur, you’re a great writer, one of the most important novelists in Iceland, and an author who is beginning to be translated. As the French poet and biologist Jean Rostand said, « A great writer is a man who knows how to surprise us by telling us what we have always known. » When you write, do you think about filling your readers with wonder or do you write more to please yourself?

 

 

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OG: – My favorite writers are those who both surprise and shock me. To name but two; Where the plays are concerned; Shakespeare and in the novel; Dostoevsky. “The Possessed” is to my mind one of the greatest novels ever written not because it is a realistic novel, but for the reason that it is what I would like to call « hypertension », novel. It shows one a world which could not exist but mirrors reality better than any realistic novel could ever do. Another favorite novel comes to mind now; « Moby Dick ». All the great writers I love are fare to numerous to mention in a short interview. Another delightful discovery is Hans Fallada, the German writer.

 

 

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RD: – For many authors, writing is often an act of love. Is writing for you a liberation or a form of slavery?

 

OG: – It can be all of the above mentioned. The best thing about being a writer is the work itself. The satisfaction of writing well on a good day. But of course it can also be a form of slavery when there are deadlines to meet and one simply has to come up with a story or an article or a whole novel for the very reason that one has to support oneself like any other working person.

 

 

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RD: – When you have studied business, as you have, dear Ólafur, does that give you another point of view, another perspective, more « realistic, » about literature and literary art?

 

OG: – I once heard it said that Rilke, the great poet had said; Lock yourself in a room and ask yourself can I live without writing and if the answer is; yes I can, than follow that advise and take up something else. I did ask myself that question when I was twenty two and the reply was; I can do without it. So I established an export import firm. I ran that for a few years and had some five persons working for me. But then one day I was looking at a tree quite by coincidence and something about the movement of its leaves in the wind told me I was a writer and everything else came second. So I sold the firm and began writing in earnest and everyone thought I had gone insane.

 

 

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RD: – You have run an emergency department in a hospital. Can you suggest to us what would be the state of emergency of a writer who is beginning to write a book and finds himself in a creative trance? What pains would he feel? Which words would hurt him? What does he need to successfully complete his work?

 

 

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OG: – You are a bit misinformed there. I used to drive an ambulance for years to support myself when I was teaching myself to write. A writer who feels he has an urgent story to tell must have the will to get up in the morning and work at it. To get his tale down on paper, that is the only thing that matters, everything else is just wishful thinking and idle talk. Occasionally the writer has a great day at his working table and that is what we call inspiration.

 

RD: – What are your sources of inspiration? What triggers your inspiration: a word, a situation, a memory, a feeling, an item of information, an event?

 

 

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OG: – Works triggers the inspiration most often. A very good writer said: « Writing is an act of discovery ».

 

RD: – What are the necessary elements for constructing an interesting plot? Do you have to have experience previously what you’re writing? Or after? Just to reassure yourself… in terms of credibility…

 

 

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OG: – I find constructing plots very hard. Even Dostoevsky found it hard and that should tell you something. The working notebooks for “The Possessed” are almost as long as the novel itself. As to the latter part of your question, one can invent and then go check the facts. Or do it the other way around; watch people at an art auction for example and then go home and write your « auction » scene.

 

 

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RD: – When does your earliest literary writing date from and what guided your work to its later perfection?

 

OG: – I happen to remember when I wrote my first poem; it was on 23rd april 1967. I dont think I have written anything perfect as of yet but writing is very much a question of willpower. The willingness to work. Twenty years ago I would sometimes work for twenty hours at a stretch, but I haven’t the energy for that anymore.

 

 

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RD: You know, this latest issue of « Levure littéraire » gleams in its words, sounds and images, with the Child. The Child of every country and every era. Please tell us, did the child Ólafur consider the book as a tool of freedom? What was your first enthralling book?

 

 

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OG: – My first enthralling book was called « Blaskjar », in Icelandic. It was a children’s story translated from the German. I cant remember the name of the author but it is a horrifying tale of a young boy, a son of a count kept in a cave and held for ransom by a band of robbers. When I mentioned it to my publisher a few years back we found out that it was also the most memorable tale of his childhood So he put it into print and quickly sold 5000 thousand copies.

 

 

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RD: – Does your childhood reappear in your writings? Does it remain quite real or does it through memories become, a landscape, a land of fantasy?

 

 

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OG: – It reappears in my writing constantly. And I guess it has become by now a land of fantasy. If I have grave trouble with my work my father appears to me in dreams and usually is able to convey what is wrong with what I´m trying to convey. Also my characters tend to come to me in dreams and tell me that I am telling they´r story in the wrong manner and then I go and correct it when I wake up and get to the writing table.

 

 

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RD: – Energized by the success of its crime fiction, Icelandic literature has been able to export itself more and more, revealing with each book a new facet of its amazing world, between dream and reality. Ólafur, who are currently the most important Icelandic authors (poets and novelists)?

 

 

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OG: – My good friend Arnaldur Indridason is most certainly an important artist and well known throughout the world for his excellent novels. There are many more, the list would be to long, it would ruin the interview.

 

 

 

 

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RD: A Icelandic woman author, a novelist, Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir, has won over French readers with “Rosa Candida”, a coming-of-age novel, very refined, a big success with the public and Parisian literary critics. How does Iceland receive its young writers?

 

 

 

 

OG- Young writers in Iceland will always have a hard time of it let me stress that. As for Audur Ava, I would have liked to see the Icelanders better informed of her great success.

 

 

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RD: – What does contemporary poetry act like in your homeland? Is it made of wind, rain, volcanoes, mountains and sea? « In Iceland, philosophy is absent. So to explain things, you have to believe your grandmother! Rather than doing philosophy like you French, we Icelanders tell each other stories, » in the words of Sjón, poet, writer, lyricist for Björk, who I’m a big fan of.

 

OG: – My favorite Icelandic poet is Thorsteinn fra Hamri. He goes backward to the Sagas for his quite unique style. To my mind he should have had the Nobel prize a long time ago.

 

 

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RD: – What is your relationship with poetry, with the melancholy of the human condition and with lyricism in general?

 

OG:- I think poetry is the most difficult thing to do if your are really good at it. But isn´t William Shakespeare the great poet of all time. Just listen to the sound of one of his plays and he is dealing with the melancholy of the human condition all of the time.

 

RD: – They say that to become a good novelist, you have to start with poetry. What do you think?

 

OG: – Well, I dont think one has to. But many do.

 

RD: – In France, two translations of your novels are published by Gaïa, Cathédrale des trolls and “La hache et la terre” (“Trolls’ Cathedral” and “The Axe and the Earth”). The French critics are impressed with your writing. I quote regarding “Cathédrale des trolls”: « The author takes us with brilliance and power on paths of naked souls, with as a backdrop a lavish portrait of the Iceland of the period, a very young republic on the edge of the Arctic Circle that seems so far from the world. In a fledgling post-war world looking into the mists of progress, the characters are all touching and engaging with their laughter and their wounds, and the images and the places stream by, as powerful as bas-reliefs in the shadow of imaginary cathedrals worthy of Gaudí. Rarely has an author written with such a mixture of decency, strength and sensitivity about the ordeal caused to a child by such a crime, and the storm that erupts around him. A moving, remarkable book. »
Are you a visionary novelist, like Sigurbjörn, your character, the architect who wants to build a cathedral higher than the clouds? What does the novelist dream of when he makes his characters dream?

 

OG: – I would most humbly like to say yes to that; Yes, I am a visionary novelist.

 

RD: – In your books, do you rely on style or more on the story? Is style a question of technique? Of vision? Of imagination?

 

 

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OG: – If you have a story to tell the style comes of itself in the process of writing.

 

RD: – What is the Iceland of your novels like? Is it still traditional and faithful to its world of supernatural beliefs?

 

OG: – Not in the way of the Sagas where you see ghost and trolls and wear wolves. As a novelist the great Russian and American writers have greatly influenced me.

 

RD: – Can we talk about a fresh impetus in Icelandic literature? Which literary genre has become predominant in recent times?

 

OG: – Crime fiction is the big thing in Iceland now.

 

 

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RD: – The traditional Icelandic novel was for a long time considered by French criticism to be « introverted. » Since the wave of new Icelandic detective novels has come onto the European book market, a hot hole has melted the narrative surface of the genre … And in this way, a new modernity in the novel has emerged. What do you think?

 

OG: – Oh you know, things tend to change in literature. Thirty years ago it was nothing but the mysticism of south American writers and now its crime fiction. Hans Fallada was more or less forgotten for 66 years but now we are all reading his work. Who knows; maybe the next hot thing in Iceland will be Science Fiction.

 

 

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RD: – What is your most beautiful memory as a writer? And your greatest wish?

 

OG: – My most beautiful memory is when an architect, a lady came to me in tears to thank me for « Trolls Cathedral », and when I asked what had moved her so; was it the story? No ! Was it the father of the family in the story, I asked that because many have said that they had a father just like that, again she said; No! So I asked; What then? And she said: It was the architecture. I´m found of this encounter and her words. My greates wish? Oh that’s simple; to write something Dostoevsky might nod his head towards and say; not bad. Not bad at all.

 

 

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Translator : Howard Scott (MONTREAL, CANADA)
Reporter : Rodica Draghincescu (France)

www.draghincescu.com

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