It’s been nearly two years since I visited Iceland, and out of all the places I’ve traveled, there’s something about it that stuck with me — so much so that the country itself has now shown up in my writing.
Back in April 2014, my wife Kate participated in the inaugural Iceland Writers Retreat, which is pretty fantastic in terms of writing workshops; folks like Susan Orlean and Andrew Evans were among the writers imparting wisdom. Now, this was Kate’s thing — my daughter and I went along for the ride because, hey, Iceland! Why not, right?
The cool thing was that we all got to participate in the cultural parts of the retreat — pretty much everything except the writing workshops themselves. So yes, we met the president of Iceland at a state reception at Bessastadir. We went on a tour of nearby landmarks and got a pretty great rundown on the nation’s history. We listed to Iceland’s foremost working author, Sjón, give a reading in the house of Haldór Laxness, Iceland’s Nobel laureate in literature.
When Kate was in her workshops, my kid and I explored. There were old Cold War bunkers set into the hillside overlooking the hotel and airstrip that led to hours of exploration. We explored a lot of Reykjavik, which is probably the most picturesque capital I’ve visited. There were world-famous Icelandic hot dogs, many tales of Vikings, architecture old and new, and super-friendly people. You know the snow that sort of floats about on Game of Thrones when they’re doing scenes at or beyond the Wall? I stood in that snow. I put a lot of fun stuff on Twitter.
And everywhere we went, we were reminded of Iceland’s love of the written word. The Icelandic sagas were, in many ways, some of the world’s first novels. There’s a literary history there that’s the pride of the Icelandic people; President Ólafur Ragnar Grimsson went on for 20 minutes at the reception talking about his country’s literature — off the cuff, no notes, I might add.
I also wrote parts of The Venusian Gambit there, and found the environment particularly conducive to getting the work done. Now, two years later, I’m telling stories featuring Iceland.
My Geeky Giving story, “Mind Flight,” is largely set at an air base in Iceland and the protagonist, Rós Ragnarsdóttir, hails from there. Rós is a fighter pilot and one of the last defenders of Earth against the alien invaders called the Housh. In order to be effective against Housh technology, Rós has been given nanotech implants in her brain that allow her to control her fighter jet with her mind — the jet, essentially, becomes her body. But when the Housh come up with a new weapon against these fighters, Rós finds herself turning into a threat against her own people and her homeland.
I felt that the quiet strength and resiliency of Icelanders was a perfect fit for the story, and Rós as a character just kind of came to me, almost fully formed. She’s descended from Vikings, after all, so she’s already a bad-ass. And I thought Iceland itself — not as frigid and unwelcoming a geography as you might think, but pretty remote and not exactly balmy — was a fine place to set one of the last redoubts of humanity.
(I should note here that you can get “Mind Flight,” as well as stories from A.C. Wise, Robert Lowell Russell and Jeff Somers, for just $5, the proceeds of which benefit the Barrow Neurological Foundation. Click here to donate and get reading.)
And then there’s MJ-12: Inception, my paranormal Cold War spy-fi thriller coming out in hardcover this September. From the moment we discovered the decaying bunkers on Öskjuhlíð hill, I just sort of knew that Reykjavik would be in the book somehow. It’s not a huge chapter, but it was pretty fun. In fact, since I’m talking about it, here’s the first few paragraphs of that chapter, just because I can:
Brennivin was a beautiful, horrible thing.
Passed off to tourists as a kind of homemade liqueur with birch and licorice flavors, it was marketed as something that little Viking grandparents would have in little glasses before an early bedtime under the Northern Lights.
But among themselves, local Icelanders called it the “Black Death,” which was very typical of their dark-but-good natured humor. Brennivin went down with all the grace and subtlety as strong vodka.
The fisherman at the bar on Laugavegur Street was already several shots deep by 6 p.m.—although that wasn’t particularly noteworthy given that the sun was already down. In the few short months he’d been working on the Reykjavik waterfront, he’d become a regular, and one that his fellow patrons had grown to tolerate. He wasn’t from around there, and never would be; Iceland was a small country, you were either from Iceland, or you’d always be from somewhere else.
It didn’t hurt, though, that he had a biting wit, and an eagerness to smooth over ruffled feathers with alcohol. After the Black Death, it just didn’t seem all that important, and so the outsider grew to suit many of the locals just fine. They were fishermen and dockworkers, laborers and tradesmen, all hard workers who drank just as hard and smelled vaguely of salt and crud at the end of the day anyways.
The fisherman knew where he stood, and he’d worked hard to earn the locals’ respect, even if it was a rather begrudging one. So he was irritated, this particular evening, when two military men entered the bar. It wasn’t the first time the British and Americans ventured into local establishments like this one, but most saw the woolen-clad fishermen—and the distinct lack of women—and turned right around, or stayed for a single drink if they were feeling particularly polite or brave. It didn’t feel like these two were going to do either.
Yeah, I think it’s fair to say that the place rubbed off on me a bit. So thanks, Iceland. Have a shot of brennivin on me.