The third in a regular series of columns by Chay Lemoine: Chay’s interview with author Christina Sunley, whose debut novel The Tricking of Freya is getting rave reviews in Iceland and North America
The American-Icelandic author Christina’s Sunley’s best-selling novel THE TRICKING OF FREYA was released in trade paperback on April 5th. FREYA has been gathering fantastic reviews in both Canada and the United States. The Icelandic translation was released in November 2009. The novel includes Icelandic language, culture, landscape and history woven into a compelling coming of age narrative that contains elements of mystery, family history and drama. Christina’s intelligent and ambitious novel is a paean to everything Icelandic.
I had the pleasure of talking to Christina several months ago when she was preparing for a short stint on National Public Radio in the United States. She was interested in my Laxness research and we talked about Iceland, Icelandic Literature and of course the master Halldor Laxness. A few days ago I called to congratulate Christina on the release of the paperback edition of FREYA. This time I wanted to talk about her book and some of her views on Iceland and the writing of FREYA.
I started off our conversation with a question that I am often asked: “why Iceland”. What is so appealing about Iceland, its language, customs and people? Christina explained that she found Iceland’s “relative obscurity appealing”.
“Especially in the US, not much is known about Iceland, and the fact that Icelanders immigrated to North America is virtually unknown here. I had a burning desire to tell some of these immigrant stories. One of the main things that has turned me into the nutty Icelandophile that I am today is my fascination with the island’s literary history. As a writer and a person of Icelandic descent, I’ve been incredibly drawn to the country’s storytelling traditions, from the saga times to the present day. And then there’s that bizarre and magical landscape, not for the faint of heart, but truly otherworldly.”
Of course Christina I can understand the world of the nutty Icelandophile. My own relationship with Iceland and its people started with reading Laxness’ Independent People and I literally have not been the same since. But surely writing a book with the depth, intelligence and insight of FREYA is not just an intellectual exercise. Where did the novel come from?
I would have to say that The Tricking of Freya arose out of my heart, mind and spirit. And I think my ancestors had quite a bit to do with it… When I was 25, I had a dream that my Icelandic grandmother, who had died long before I was born, was pushing words out through my fingers in a stream of light. That dream stayed with me for years. In the realm of the mind… I did a tremendous amount of research, though I hesitate to call it that. Let’s just say I read very, very widely for several years: the sagas, eddas, history, poetry, family letters and diaries… all of that swirled around in my conscious and unconscious minds. As for the heart — while The Tricking of Freya isn’t strictly autobiographical (unlike my main character Freya),
I never travelled to Gimli or Iceland as a child, (not until I began researching the book), emotionally the book is very autobiographical because it explores some of the most important psychological, familial and emotional themes of my own life. That’s not a very clear answer to your question — but I don’t think the genesis of a novel is ever crystal clear. Just a coming together of mind, heart and spirit.
I totally understand. What constitutes art and how artists’ arrive at their artistic conclusions is never crystal clear. I am going to ask a trite question: Your book is fantastic and I have several friends that are members of book clubs and I have recommended your book as a selection. I know many of the clubs have rules against using hardbacks because of cost but on April 5th readers will be able to purchase the trade paperback edition of FREYA. Do you think FREYA will have the potential to be a successful book club selection?
Chay, that’s exactly what I’m hoping! And I don’t think it’s a trite question at all. I love the whole book club phenomenon. Since The Tricking of Freya came out in hardcover a year ago, I began meeting with book groups, both in person and long distance by Skype. And I have to say it’s been one of the most rewarding parts of the whole publishing experience, to enter a room of people who have read my book, who feel intimately connected with the characters and the stories… and then we just discuss it together. It’s very, very moving for me, because I spent eight years working on this book in nearly complete isolation. So to be able to share it in a deeper way with readers is just amazing. Now with the paperback version, we’ve added a Reader’s Guide. And there’s one more thing I have to say about book groups, Chay — in some way, it reminds me of the old Icelandic tradition of the kvoldvaka, where the entire household (family and farm workers) would gather together in the badstofa, the living quarters of the turf-roofed farmhouse, and while they sat doing chores like knitting and mending fishing nets, someone would read out loud to the group — from the Bible, or sagas, or poetry, or other books – and this is how they passed those very long dark winter days and nights. I don’t know how much discussion took place during the kvoldvaka — but in some way, this reminds me of people gathering today in their homes to discuss books they are reading.
I am currently reading a novel by Olaf Olafsson and as a writer I feel that Halldor Laxness has been my mentor as I feel his world view has dramatically affected mine. Do you have any Icelandic literary mentors that you feel have affected your work?
Well, I think of a mentor as a living person who guides you along, so in that sense, I probably don’t have any Icelandic ones, though I do have an Icelandic-Canadian mentor, the local historian and genealogist Nelson Gerrard, who has done tremendously fascinating work documenting the lives of the Icelandic immigrants in North America. In fact, I can say that without Nelson’s work, I would never have written my own novel. But there are many Icelandic writers that I hold very close to me, and have been very important to me. And of course Halldor Laxness would be one of these. I just find his work terribly enlightening and clever and sardonic all at once. Of course I’m a big fan of Snorri Sturluson – for the Prose Edda, and Egil’s Saga, which I’m convinced he wrote. Of contemporary writers, I absolutely love Sjon’s The Blue Fox. Brilliant! Einar Mar Gudmondsson’s Angels of the Universe is another favourite of mine.
I loved Angels of the Universe. I especially liked Night Watch by FrIda A. Sigurdottir. I still remember very vividly the ending. When was the last time you visited Iceland?
I haven’t been to Iceland since I was a writer in residence at Skriduklaustur in 2001. And I’ve just been longing and longing to return, but honestly, I haven’t been able to afford it. I went into a lot of debt travelling to Iceland to research my novel. But now I am finally returning again, for a book tour, the first two weeks of June. Freyjuginning, the Icelandic translation, came out this winter, and the tour will be a chance for me to engage with Icelandic readers. So I’m just incredibly excited about that and will be posting information about the events and dates on my website, www.christinasunley.com. One other note: this tour is really part of a cultural exchange program between Iceland and North America. It’s being sponsored by the Icelandic National League, and Icelandair has donated my round trip plane ticket. So I feel very lucky.
Damn it Christina I’m jealous. I think I have a bottle of Brennivin somewhere and I will toast your success and my temporary exile. Bless bless Christina!!
Chay Lemoine is an American scholar who, among other things, is a renowned Halldor Laxness expert. Chay writes a regular column called ‘The View from Here’ on IceNews where he talks about Laxness, life, Iceland, and whatever else is on his mind.