The Icelandic author Sjón was in New York City last week to promote the release of his three books being translated into English: The Whispering Muse, The Blue Fox, and From the Mouth of the Whale. Tweed’s caught up with him in the lobby of the Roger Hotel and asked him a few questions about mythology, the writing of literature, and the anarcho-surrealist political party that currently is in charge of governing Reykjavik, known as the Best Party. The full interview will be available in the first issue of Tweed’s.
Tweed’s: From the Mouth of the Whale, I think, is the most complex and dense of your three books being published in English, especially with its incredibly powerful scene where Icelandic peasants massacre Basque whalers. Did this actually happen or did you create this?
Sjón: In all of my books I work with historical material. I’m always true to the main facts of that material, and the massacre of the Basque whalers is based on a true account of a massacre that took place in 1615 in the western fields of Iceland. And this true account was written by the main character—this original historical character that I based my fictional character on—so it’s true. And the only thing I had to do was to simplify it. It’s longer and usually what I have to do when I’m working with historical material is to simplify. There are too many characters. Sometimes you narrow the time span, which means that you speed up the event, but in general this is what happened. And I even think I left out some of the gruesome stuff.
Tweed’s: Has anything surprised you in your interviews while you’ve been in New York?
Sjón: I’m a little bit surprised at how exotic people think the books are. It tells me that maybe my way of thinking is a little bit stranger than I had realized. People are surprised. On the other hand, it’s not like all Icelandics write like me. I’m actually, of my generation, quite unique in how much I have written about things from the past.
Tweed’s: It didn’t seem exotic to me. If someone knows myth, and folktales and fables, your writing should be familiar. This is the core of literature. But not many contemporary authors are infused in myth and epic. Why do you think we have lost touch with mythology and the connection to sagas and folktales?
Sjón: A part of it might be that grand themes are not popular. They’re thought of as awkward or even embarrassing. But they are there, part of the mix, and maybe at a certain point these themes are just handed over to religion. When we decided to become a secular society and divide the world into the secular and the religious, the church took this away with it. It was a compensation. Okay, so you stick to the grand themes and we talk about the little world of man. I’ve never been afraid of these grand themes, and obviously the language to deal with these grand themes—the language and concepts—come from religion, come from myth, come from the old great narratives.