Picking up threads
Auður’s novel centres on a woman waking up from a grand mal seizure, having lost her memory. As a single parent, she feels unable to let on how much she has forgotten because she fears losing custody of her child. As she starts digging into her past, she finds more than she bargained for. For Auður, the story begins with past violence and how we rewrite our lives to make them fit to what we believe is right. “I’d read an article in a German science journal by a neurologist that stated that we were characters of our own creation. We adapt our memories to the capabilities of our personality.” Now that she’s seen Tinna’s take on the story, she can muse on their different approaches. “You have to strip the story down a lot for a film. A film’s narrative has to be a lot simpler than in a book. That’s why the novel is such a great format. It’s the only art form where you can let yourself take any stories you want and mix them all up. When a story gets to the theatre or a film, it has to have a really definitive voice; which thread of the narrative are you taking on?” Even though they share a storyline, her novel and Tinna’s film are entirely different. Auður tells me that she had no influence on the filmmaking process. “I told Tinna she should do it completely in her own way. When you’re creating a piece of art, you have to have your own unique take on it.”
For Tinna, finding a clear throughline in the intricate plot of the novel wasn’t an issue. “There were so many things that I wanted to keep, but then again, there were a lot of things I had to cut out in order to strengthen the story that I wanted to highlight in the film. The book has more threads to the storyline than the film does. I had to choose which one of them I wanted to highlight. I had to find the core of the story that I wanted to tell.” Again, she went with her gut, the part of the story that spoke the loudest to her. “In this case, it was her love for her son. That she wants to become a whole person in order to be there for her son was what spoke the loudest to me. It’s what we all want.” There’s more to it than simply taking care of the child. It’s a matter of saving the child from generational trauma.
In some ways, working through your own trauma is the most selfless thing you can do, as you’re taking on the challenging work of self-discovery in order to provide better conditions for your children. Tinna went on: “I wanted to touch on the chain reaction that many of our generation are combatting these days. Trying to be open and honest about events and experiences we’ve had. About the things that shaped us in our childhood and our lives. How we can face these things and work on them in order to stop our own trauma from affecting how we raise our children. So, they don’t have to deal with what happened to you as well.” In Quake, the older generation is silent on some family secrets, while the main character is trying to get things out in the open. This ties back to a mindset shift that’s currently taking place. “I think we’re stepping away from the closed-off, silencing mindset that many of us grew up with. Not just in our families but in society as a whole. People are much more open about things these days. It’s difficult, and it comes with growing pains, hurt feelings and sensitive topics. But sometimes, you just have to dive deep into your core and acknowledge that things aren’t great all the time.” Tinna states.
Auður’s books have long dealt with family secrets and generational trauma. It’s raised plenty of interest but a considerable number of eyebrows as well, especially early on in her career. To her, denial equals isolation. “It’s not a question of is there a family secret, but which one is it and where is it buried. When you write about these things, so many people tell you that it’s their story, we’re so similar in so many ways.” As the years have gone by, Auður finds less and less resistance to her writing. “The book came out in 2015, and it was harder to tell the story back then. We’ve gone through such an awakening as a society. With each year that passes, it takes less effort to open up about these things. More people are listening without diminishing your experience.”
As Tinna was writing the script for the film, Icelandic society and the world as a whole was in upheaval over the first wave of #metoo. Much like Quake’s main character was forced to go through the painful process of rewriting her own narrative, writing the story of such a personal journey tugged at Tinna’s soul. “It was hard. I went through some lows when writing the script. Some deep lows. It’s a touching story, and just as I was writing it, the #metoo campaign was at its peak. Everyone was opening up and sharing their stories. People were taking sides, and stories were coming out in Facebook groups. There was a lot going on in society, and I was dealing with some events that have to do with silencing.” While Quake doesn’t deal with sexual abuse, it addresses the necessary pain involved in opening up about past trauma. “It was a purge and an awakening. It hit people hard at the time. But it was necessary and important. In every moment of reckoning, there is a struggle involved. It’s painful. And if it isn’t, it isn’t real, and you won’t get what you need.”
Healing from within
For Auður, the role of narrative in the healing process is fascinating. “In therapy, they ask you to tell your story, and there’s a good reason. It gives you the power to see things out for yourself and to acknowledge your role in what happened as well as other people’s role. It validates your experience and gives it space. The story itself is a healing process.” The talk turns to #metoo again, which in Iceland prompted a nationwide study on the traumatic history of women and its effect on their physical and mental wellbeing. “It’s not just that people are waking up to these things. We’re also learning so much more about them than we used to. We have better tools to understand our traumatic experiences and how trauma is passed down in some families. If you experienced trauma as a child and never had the chance to deal with it, there’s more risk of trauma as you grow older.”
As stories of trauma get shared more widely and openly, people also realise that there’s often logic behind irrational behaviour. “Because it’s so hard to understand. People need to know more about trauma and how it affects people so they can understand how to get the help they need. I’ve also heard experts say that it’s important to go through working through trauma in order to be able to let go. It’s so interesting when we embody our trauma, and they start to control our reflexes. We can be another character than we could be if we hadn’t dealt with our trauma and learned to understand our own reactions. People can run into trauma in love, in life, in decision making, if it is always there, strumming in your subconscious.” For instance, there’s the urge to keep a secret hidden when opening up about it might start a healing process. “People do the strangest things without understanding it themselves. Speaking of reflexes, they’re often very counterintuitive. A woman of this generation, like so many others with buried trauma, has her way of making sure it stays that way. It’s her only way to keep her reality going. And that’s what family secrets were all about. No one could say anything because then it would all blow up. Keep a straight face and keep the family together. And it passed from generation to generation. I think there’s something to the idea that if you want to change the fate of your whole family, you should start with yourself. So you don’t pass it on. Secrets come with certain actions. Repression, shame, insecurity.”
Finding your strength
For Tinna, it’s crucial to find a personal connection to what she’s writing about, no matter how hard it is to dive back into these feelings. “Even if the film is based on Auður’s book and I stay true to that core, there’s plenty of me in the script as well. How can there not be? My voice gets added to the work.” For Auður, authoring the book was deeply personal, requiring her to open up. Tinna says: “I am infinitely grateful to Auður for giving me this opportunity. I respect her deeply as an artist for doing it.” Such an act of letting go requires humility.
Tinna recognises that she has that ability now and that it is a product of her going through a traumatic experience herself and overcoming it. “In my case, I couldn’t always be this brave. I wasn’t always able to. I was shy and scared of other people’s opinions. But then I had to go through a massive personal challenge myself, I couldn’t get pregnant. For five years, I had infertility treatments, which is a really long time when you can practically hear your biological clock ticking.” Motherhood had always been her goal. In fact, she remembers a conversation on infertility with a friend years before she experienced it herself. “I distinctly remember telling her I could manage just about anything life would throw at me, except that. Not being able to become a mom, I couldn’t bear the thought.” After five years of infertility treatments, Tinna’s own personal miracle happened, and she had two healthy twin boys. “Sometimes, I think life put me in this situation. I needed this. I was so insecure before it happened. All the feelings I experienced during that period, all the fear and doubt that came along with it, proved to myself who I was and what I could do. I won’t give up no matter what. And to me, this was the greatest victory I could ever achieve. I don’t care if I could direct a Hollywood film starring Meryl Streep; this would still be my greatest feat. And when you get to that point of your greatest victory, all the losses you face become so much easier to deal with. I was filled with serenity. As for what I do, I can stand by my work if I do my best and put my heart into it. But if people don’t like it or if it isn’t going according to plan or doesn’t reach the peak I want it to, that’s OK too. Because I’ve already proven to myself what I’m capable of.”
The process of adapting the book to film took years, a lot of personal growth, and the process was slightly marred by the global pandemic. A twist of fate meant that the release of the film coincided with the American release date of Quake, translated by Meg Matich. The book she wrote several years ago is all of a sudden a massive part of her life again, and that has had some unexpected results. “I got back in emotional contact with it through the film. It really hit me when I wasn’t expecting it. Tinna and I went to New York to promote the film and the book, and so I started talking about the book like it came out yesterday. The book started taking more space in my life again, and it reignited feelings that I’d forgotten. A book is such a part of the era you write it in. I got a little sensitive, which surprised me.” Memories resurfaced, and issues she believed she had resolved years ago reared their head again. “You think you’re done working through it. But it can get you when you least expect it. It’s fiction, but the feelings are real, and there’s a creature in this book that can be raised from the dead even if you don’t expect it.”
Even for a novelist who writes autobiographical fiction set on airing out old secrets and facing them head-on, when Auður was working on the novel, she found another side of trauma she didn’t expect. She had taken control of her own narrative, but she still wasn’t ready to let go. “Vigdís Grímsdóttir was writing my mother’s biography and mentioned an incident from my childhood in an unfamiliar context. It struck me down. I realised that while I had written autobiographical fiction until then, I had always had control over my own narrative. I was protected by the fiction.” Quake centres on a woman who’s forced to rethink the narrative of her own life. For Auður, it’s a process she’s familiar with. “I’ve had to rework my narrative often. That’s where I got the idea. I wanted to write about a person that wakes up with a clean slate as if she were a newborn.”
In the end, Auður was able to let her story go. “Tinna does it so beautifully, so strongly. It’s healthy for an artist to see another artist’s take on their work. It’s fun to work with others in this way.” Auður adds that this isn’t even the first new work of art that’s sparked by her novel. “There’s also a musical composition by Páll Ragnar Pálsson based on a text from the book. When the book was published, he asked if he could make a composition based on a clause from the book about nature within us and geological activity within us. He composed this work, Quake for cello and orchestra, that’s been performed all over the world and was selected as the most outstanding work at the International Rostrum of Composers in Budapest in 2018. The text always accompanies it whenever it is performed. And then he made the score for the film with Eðvarð Egilsson. So, there are at least three works of art derived from this one story.” Tinna took Auður’s words and transformed them into her own images. “I think it’s so important to use every frame and use all the imagery you can.” Tinna states. “Sounds and colours are so important as well. No less important than the words. The soundscape is so strong in this film, which is why I tell people to see the film in the cinema. I use colours very strategically as well. I use grey, white, and red, these are the colours I use most in the film, and all this is a part of how I tell the story. She’s wearing a red coat, and there’s a reason for that. There’s snow everywhere, everything is white, and there’s a reason for that.” She tells me that getting such copious amounts of snow during the shooting was a lucky coincidence. “You can never rely on Iceland’s weather like that. And we for sure didn’t have the funds for fake snow!”