“Congratulations on receiving the Icelandic Literary Award! That must have been fun?”
“Is this question a part of the interview?”
“Would you answer it differently if this were off the record?”
“Well, yes. I’m still learning how to navigate all of this. You know, getting used to the fact that what you say in interviews then gets published somewhere.”
Despite author Pedro Gunnlaugur Garcia’s initial hesitation, we soldier on.
“I had been preparing for polite letters saying ‘not for us, try again later’.”
He ended up releasing the book under a new title, Málleysingjarnir (The Mutes). “My editor told me that the word ‘conference’ wasn’t sexy and that talking animals were too childish,” Pedro says.
In 2013, Pedro was working at IKEA, stocking shelves. He was turning 30 and he hadn’t really figured out what he was doing with his life. “I was trying to be a normal guy until I found out that it didn’t suit me,” Pedro says. “I had written when I was younger, poems and short stories and such but then I stopped. I wasn’t doing anything creative until I turned 30, and I felt that I’d been wasting my time on things that didn’t bring me any real pleasure and that I wasn’t using my talents.” I’m sure there are 29-year-olds out there who know the feeling. Unlike many others of that age, however, when the thought struck Pedro that he should write a book, he did.
It took him four years, but in 2017, Pedro was awarded the Icelandic Literature Centre’s Grassroot grant for emerging writers for a manuscript he was going to call Ráðstefna talandi dýra (A Conference of Talking Animals). “And then publishers approached me, which was very unexpected,” Pedro continued in his distinctive self-deprecating, yet genuine tone. “But now I could choose between three publishers.” For an author wanting to get his first book out, it’s an enviable position, but it put Pedro in a weird spot. For the four years he was writing his novel, it had been his and his alone. “It got to grow in peace and become the weird thing that it was. I decided that since I was letting myself do this, why not take it all the way and don’t think at all about who was going to read this. I just wrote to amuse myself. And as a result, it’s a little self-indulgent at times, but it was liberating for me.” Now, it was time to let someone else read it, and even offer suggestions on how to edit it. “I was very shy about it. But it was a relief to get the grant because it made me think that it couldn’t be that bad.”
“I think I was a little too hesitant to kill my darlings, but my editor at Bjartur, Páll Valsson, also realised that the book was weird and strange and that the author was unusual and he very generously gave me plenty of space. He never tried to clip my wings or cut parts of the book like so many people have suggested after it was published. They say it’s uneven, but no one seems to agree on which parts should go.”
Once the book was released from the safe space of his publishing house, he had to let even more people into what he originally conceived of as his private thoughts. “I was a little rattled when perfect strangers started reading it. Getting reviews in the papers, even seeing it in bookstores, that gave me nerves, which surprised me. I was writing for myself only, doing what I’d always wanted to do, and it had a private meaning for me.”
“The book is pretty disgusting and weird, and it’s not for everyone.”
No fresh breeze
When the book was published in 2019, this unknown author with the decidedly foreign-sounding name was the dark horse of the season. Pedro went back to his writing desk and three years later, he presented readers with his book Lungu (Lungs). It was another hit, nominated for the Icelandic Literary Prize. “I wasn’t expecting it, frankly. I’d considered it a victory to be nominated, I felt like that meant that I’d made an impact.” This January, it was announced that he’d won. “This might be me sharing too much again, but I had sort of an anxiety attack. I had to lie down on the floor. I was going through some stuff in my life, personally as well as professionally, and it felt like too much.” The contrast between the solitary and personal act of writing and the public event of receiving an award, with all the attention that comes with it, came as a shock. “You spend three years sitting in a corner somewhere, and then you reap what you´ve sown. And don’t get me wrong, I love the reaping, it’s such a privilege to receive this much attention and be this successful. But it has some unforeseen consequences.When I received an award, people who had unfriended me on social media now all of a sudden are my best friends again. So being recognised for your work is one thing, but it’s a whole different experience to receive that sort of stamp, and a statue given to you by the president on TV.” The transition into a public person is a strange and unusual experience for Pedro. “Not that people are crowding me in Bónus, asking for an autograph. I have a tendency to trauma-dump and overshare but I’m still a private person and I’m still learning how this works. ”
His second book took three years to complete. “I’ve never struggled with titles, and Lungs came to me long before the book did. Before I knew what it would be. Then I just had to shape the book around it, figure out why it was called that.”
“It’s my fifteen minutes of fame, and I suppose I have about fourteen more to go.”
"While I was researching for my first book, getting to know life and conditions in Romania, I met a woman who had the surname Lungu, written just like that. And I thought to myself what a great word that was, and how it would be a great book title."
Roots and fruits
While Málleysingjarnir was a story about a family, Lungu revolves around multiple generations. “From the beginning, I had a real strong certainty that I wanted to try my hand at this format. Both because many of my favourite novels are family stories, but this is a generational story. There was something that appealed to me, the chance to write so many different characters and so many different settings.” Pedro also had more private reasons for wanting to write about generational links. “During the writing process, I had a son, and I lost three grandparents around the same time.” For months, Pedro had been stuck in the preparatory stage of writing, creating schemes, mapping the themes he wanted to touch on, outlining characters, without ever getting the story off the ground. All of a sudden, he had a visceral understanding of these large concepts of life, death, and generations. Stories his grandparents had told him became the spark that ignited his story. “I remembered a story that my grandfather told me of his father, my great-grandfather. He was Portuguese and was in the Portuguese army at the start of the First World War. He was supposed to be shipped off to Flanders, in Belgium, but he wasn’t up for that. So, my grandfather told me, he swallowed a bunch of raw olives and went to the army doctor complaining of an upset stomach. He had an x-ray, and the doctor saw black shadows in the images and told him he has terminal cancer. So he got out of being sent away. Almost all the Portuguese sent to Flanders were killed in German gas attacks.” If not for the olives, there wouldn’t be a Pedro.
And that’s how his book begins. “Then I wrote at a maniacal pace, writing tens of thousands of words in a matter of months. ” He wrote the second half on a computer. Momentum took over and characters and story lines came rushing to him. “But the olive story, it was the lightning, the big bang out of which the story leapt.”
”I’ve rewritten parts to be more gentle on my characters.”
Magic realism and sci-fi
Pedro’s books have been popular with readers and critics alike, praised for their colourful characters, fantastical elements, and vivid storytelling. For many, it’s the maximalism of the story that feels fresh. “I don’t know if it’s in opposition to trends that have been going on, very polished texts with no redundancies. This book just keeps on layering on more stuff. I’ve wondered about it afterwards, if it may be insecurity, not ambition that drives that. I feel like I have to provide so much in order for it to be presentable.”
While he’s grateful for the praise, he’s hesitant to accept some parts of it. “Sometimes I think, if I had a completely Icelandic-sounding name, would people be talking about ‘freshness?’ I think it colours people’s perception that I don’t have a Nordic name and they automatically make connections to South American writers, magic realism. While I admit it’s certainly an influence, I was also influenced by so many other things that people never pick up on. Magic realism is mostly used when referring to Isabel Allende and my namesake Gabriel García Márquez. But fantasy can be found all over the world. I’m not sure how new and fresh my stuff would be considered if I was called something like Jón Emil.” It may be simplistic to throw around the term magic realism for any generational story with fantastical elements but that doesn’t mean there isn’t any connection. “Both [García Márquez’] One Hundred Years of Solitude and [Allende’s] The House of Spirits are generational stories, I won’t deny that influence. But there are other generational stories such as The Sound and the Fury [by William Faulkner], another favourite book of mine. There’s something about a generational story that captures the root of complexes and neuroses.”
Parts of Lungu are set in the future, and I mention that elements of sci-fi have been creeping into more and more Icelandic novels recently, particularly with the younger generation of authors. “I think it’s not a premeditated decision to tackle futuristic stories, just like I didn’t really decide to write a family story. But there’s something in the air, a feeling that we’re about to step into a world that’s radically different. That elements of this new world have been introduced already without us noticing them and that they will expand and change our worldview. Fríða Ísberg tackles the social aspects of it [in The Mark] while I’m exploring biotechnology. There’s a call to face the future and think about what it could look like.”
For the first few years of his life, Pedro grew up in Portugal but moved to Iceland when his parents divorced, before he started school. He’s currently taken on a new challenge. “Translating from Portuguese is a personal challenge since I was so little when I left Portugal, when my parents divorced, so my grasp of the language has never been perfect. I’ve always thought that was a shame, especially since so many people consider that nationality so essential to my character.”
“Also, it’s a book that will go to bookstores and people will read it, hopefully, so that’s something to think about.”
A lonely lighthouse guard
Both of Pedro’s books centre on family in different ways, but at the heart of them is communication, or perhaps the lack thereof. Pedro admits that that stems from his own life. “That’s 100% me working on my neuroses,” he admits. “The book was written during an incredibly bad period of my life. I went through a breakup with the mother of my child and even though we’ve eventually settled into a good coparenting team, there was so much pain that surrounded it. There are chapters in the book that hurt so much I have trouble reading them to this day. Then the pandemic began, sort of at the same time. So I went through that at a time when we’re cutting back on social communication, almost like going into isolation at the worst possible time.”
Pouring details from himself and his life into his characters may have been painful, but in a way, the editing process was a healing experience. “I’ve kept manuscripts and returned to them later and found that I’m being too harsh on some people and that the story is too one-sided. Then I’ve had to go back, even add some chapters to find balance.” While he incorporates his own struggles into the text, his books are far from being a transcript of a therapy session. “There’s a primal power in pain, but when it solidifies, it benefits the text to come back to it with more balance and reshape it,” Pedro muses.
When praised for his storytelling abilities, Pedro again finds that his own character is dissonant with his public persona. “Now that my books have been published, people tell me I’m a storyteller. That’s news to me, I’m not known to entertain a crowd with my stories.” I’ve sometimes needed to ask myself afterwards if that is the way I feel about the world.”
His first book was a little more grotesque and had a healthy dose of Weltschmerz, something his readers noticed. For his second book, Pedro was more aware of the fact that he would eventually present his writing to an audience. “I think in some way, my second book was born out of a wish to reach more people. And I was often close to flattening the whole story out. I was so nervous that it wasn’t good enough that I had someone read it and edit it over and over again.” After multiple revisions, the story was filled with general appeal. It was also becoming bland. “I’d streamlined it so much that it was starting to lose its character. I put the manuscript aside, and when I returned to it, I flipped through the pages and thought that it could have been written by anyone. It was so universal that it had no personality.” He went back a few drafts and revived some of the weird chapters, the ones that weren’t essential to forwarding the plot, but gave it some colour. “There needs to be some unevenness, some perversion, so that the character shines through.”
I ask him if he’s being defined against his will, but he won’t go that far. “I don’t hate it when Auður Jónsdóttir writes that I remind her of storytellers such as Günter Grass and Gabriel García Márquez,” he laughs. “I mean, sure, I’d like to be considered that kind of storyteller.“
“So, you’re going to keep on writing, right, what’s next?”
“No, I might go out on a high note, now I can try doing something else. Or just straight back to stocking shelves at IKEA, what a way that would be to end this interview.”
“My first two novels focused on families so maybe I’m done with that for a while.”
“Will your next one focus on a lonely lighthouse guard, then?”
“Well, you’re not too far off, really. But I don’t know exactly what it will turn out to be. I’m also thinking that I seem to have hit a formula that works. Should I keep doing books like this? A mix of Nordic melancholy and magic realism? Should I hold on to that or just do whatever feels right next time?”