With The Whispering Muse being published on the same day in the U.S., there’s no doubt that Icelandic writer Sjón is coming to America.
Has having your work translated into several different languages around the world affected your sense of your own audience?
Well, being a writer working in a language spoken—and in most cases also read—by 330,000 people, it has been a great privilege to get responses from readers all over the world. I believe strongly in using the local as a platform for telling stories with a universal message. Recently a quote from The Blue Fox was used as a starting point for a discussion about religious authority in a Lebanese newspaper. So, the fact that the books are now translated into more than 20 languages has made me even more aware of the importance of looking for inspiration in my immediate surroundings.
Your work pulls together so many different influences—Greek and Norse mythology, the Bible, and 17th-century history, to name a few. Can you describe your process of discovery and reinvention?
I like stories about what our world is made of. All the different attempts at explaining where we come from and what we are here for fascinate me. It’s such a futile and fleeting exercise. Yesterday’s science has become nonsense poetry and ancient religions are the stuff of comic books. Placing my characters and their small lives in the midst of this snowstorm, or breaking waves, of grand ideas is something I like to do. And at the same time I hope I put our current worldview to the test.
You’re prolific across so many genres—poetry, fiction, theatre, opera, and songwriting (with Björk). In what ways does your creative process shift from one thing to the next?
My background is in surrealist poetry, with all its playfulness and cocreation, so I see these collaborations with people in various art forms as taking a holiday from the lonely task of novel writing. What I bring to the table each time is the words and I enjoy the challenge of working within the parameters of all these art forms you mention—of figuring out how to fulfill the requirements of the different commissions. And each time I seem to learn new tricks I can use when I return to novel-writing.
What’s the literary and art scene like in Iceland these days?
It’s doing very well, thank you. Our motto is still “World domination or death!” More and more young female artists and writers are joining the cause, so our prospects are growing fast.