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Author Einar Kárason.
Author Einar Kárason.

Telling Tales

Words by Gréta Sigríður Einarsdóttir

Photography by Golli

“Actually, that’s a good story, let me tell it to you…” Speaking to author Einar Kárason, that’s a phrase you can expect to hear often – and the stories usually are good. Einar is a natural-born storyteller. If this wasn’t evident from his booming voice, lively sense of humour, and keen sense for narrative, his body of work speaks for itself. An author of poetry, short stories, and memoirs (both his own and others), Einar is nevertheless best known for his novels, many of which are considered modern classics in Iceland. His trilogy Devil’s Island, centred around two brothers living in poverty in army barracks left behind after World War II, was a watershed work in Icelandic literature and later a successful film. His latest book, a historical novel detailing the physical and mental trials of fishermen caught in an icy storm, has been sold for translation and publication in more than ten countries, as distant as Brazil and China.

A founding father

This April, Einar will be a guest at the Reykjavík International Literary Festival. This is his first invitation, though not because of a lack of respect for his work – he is one of the festival’s founders, and sat on its board for 30 years. As you would expect of a storyteller, Einar recounts how the festival came to be. “At the time, a few older poets got the idea to have a Nordic poetry festival in Iceland. I was asked to join the preparations and the first festival took place in 1985. Most of the guests were Nordic poets but we also had some guests from farther abroad. Seamus Heaney, who later got a Nobel Prize and international recognition, was one of them. He wasn’t that famous then.”

Shooting for the stars

Two years later, the festival was to take place again, but this time it was in the hands of a younger crew, including Einar. The 1987 festival set the tone for what the event would become. “This time, it wasn’t just about poetry, but an international literary festival. We had a whole host of authors on the vanguard of international literature. Isabel Allende, who at the time was the biggest name in novels; Kurt Vonnegut; Fay Weldon; and Alain Robbe-Grillet, one of the leaders of the nouveau roman.”

A festival like this was inspirational for young authors working in Iceland’s small literary scene. “The world of Icelandic literature had in some ways been isolated. It boosted our confidence, as well as creating connections all over the world.”

A long time in the making

For his first time as a guest at the festival he helped establish, Einar will be talking about his newest book, Stormbirds. Set in 1959, the book is based on the true story of a group of Icelandic fishing ships caught in a heavy storm while fishing off the coast of Newfoundland. “I’ve always been fascinated with accidents at sea and shipwrecks. I was in a waiting room once, and picked up a copy of a sailors’ magazine detailing the story of the Newfoundland weather and the crew of Þorkell Máni, one of the ships hit hardest by the weather. It was a potent tale, and I started thinking that I had to make a novel out of it,” Einar told me. “I thought I would write a sprawling, epic tale of sailors’ lives, with this storm as the climax, but in my head I never quite got it to work.”

While Einar wrote several other novels, biographies, and stories, the Newfoundland storm kept brewing at the back of his head. “Then, about two years ago, I thought of a different approach. I would write a novella instead, just a short story with no chapters. It would begin with a bang, the weather hitting them, and continue at that force until they were back at the harbour. Without chapters, it would just be one continuous rhapsody.” Once Einar made that decision, he thought long and hard before ever putting pen to paper. “I had it in my head, from the first word to the last period before I started writing. I started writing January 1 of last year and finished it January 31. It was published in the spring.”

The gift of gab

In addition to writing books, Einar often tells stories at gatherings and on stage. Asked if there’s a difference between being a storyteller and a novelist, Einar replies, “It’s a different art but it relies on the same skills.” According to Einar, a good storyteller must first of all know how to put events into words. “And you have to spot the story in everything that happens. You have to know how to begin a story and how to end it. And then you have to have an eye for people, to see characters.”

Telling stories is naturally a part of how he communicates. “I’ve lived in Denmark and Germany and I’ve found that people there have a very different approach to conversation than we do here. They found it pretty strange to listen to me, because no matter what topic was raised, instead of giving my opinion or arguing a case, I’d tell a story.” Apparently, Danes found it a strange way to talk, while Germans tended to be amused by it. “It’s an Icelandic way of talking. When Icelanders get together and talk, through the ages, it’s always been the most fun when we start telling stories. A lot more fun than the sage debates of nations with a longer tradition for academia.”

What makes a good story?

Asked if he thinks violence and unrest produce good novels, Einar tells me it’s not so simple. “I’ve always sought out extreme conditions, whether it’s a storm on the high seas, a life of poverty, or civil war. It fits me better. But some authors, masters of their craft, have written magnificent books where nothing really happens. Perhaps it takes even more talent.”

Einar isn’t putting his pen down any time soon. He’s currently working on several projects and has ideas for a few novels, waiting to be written. Though he’ll be appearing at the Reykjavík International Literary Festival April 24-27, he’s had to postpone a few other projects, as he recently “got roped into taking a seat in Parliament.” But that’s a story for another time.

This article is an excerpt. Read the full article in the latest issue of Iceland Review Magazine. Subscribe here to get the magazine delivered to your door.

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature – since 1963.

This article is an excerpt from Iceland Review Magazine

Iceland Review is the longest-running English-language magazine, presenting Iceland’s community, culture, and nature since 1963.