Thursday, February 16, 2017

Shepherding in the Westfjords

(An old poem just found.)

I came to the Westfjords to work harder, get in shape, save money;
just the usual things – except, perhaps, to visit Gísli Súrsson’s murder site –
but I didn’t think I’d be shepherding
with men in ski pants and fishermen’s jumpers.
One of them is five hundred metres up the side of Arnardalur, Eagle Dale,
with three white dots who remember summer’s freedom
but still run themselves into the farmer’s yard,
where we, the chasers, meet later for legs of lamb with rhubarb jam.
“Hold the line,” yells a man, “and keep close to the river,
while I take the small rise on the other side”;
the river is the only clarity in a valley of bog, fog, and blueberries,
the company of sheep still two hundred metres away.
But one old dear, apart from the others on a spit of stones,
looking like a torn pillow on cheap barbecue legs,
stamps me to be gone, to leave the winter to herself alone,
spare her my good will.
I huff, yelp, and whoosh in reply, step closer, jump, walk around,
I look friendly and jolly and hold my ground,
I tell her that the others have gone ahead; she kicks,
no, yes, no, come on!


Monday, December 12, 2016

Saga Land (the book)

I'm delighted to announce that Richard Fidler and I have signed a contract for the publication of Saga Land, a book that has developed out of a four-part radio series about Iceland that he and I made last year. Saga Land (the book) will be published by HarperCollins/ABC Books in late 2017.


I'm writing this post in Reykjavik, where Richard and I are now doing further research for the book. We've spent less time on the road, and more time in town, than on our last visit. Most days, we write until afternoon and then go for a walk to find somewhere to eat, or to buy local lamb or haddock to cook ourselves.

But last week we drove to Snaefellsnes, for a second time in pursuit of Gudrun from Laxdaela Saga, whose story we told in the radio series. That time, we didn't get to see Helgafell, the farm where Gudrun ended her days - quiet days that she spent in prayer and contemplation as Iceland's first nun. Where her son Bolli came to ask her a question, one which I think must have been on his mind for a very long time before he asked it: which of the men in her life did she love the most?

I was worst to the one I loved the most, was all she'd say in reply.

Helgafell today

In the radio show, I talk about how I love Gudrun, and how I want those who hear her story to love her, too. I've felt that way towards Gudrun since I first read the saga twenty-five years ago, and the feeling has only strengthened over time. Gudrun causes the death of the man she loves most. The reader of Laxdaela Saga is not made to love her: the author does not manipulate us in that way. But, for all that, there's a tender recognition of her spirit, and her wound.

And yet, during this trip, I've realised I don't know what she looks like. My image of her must be of my own making, for in the saga she's described in terms of her virtues rather than appearance:

She was the loveliest woman in Iceland at the time, and also the most intelligent. Gudrun was a woman of such courtliness that whatever other women wore, they seemed like mere trinkets beside hers. She was the shrewdest and best-spoken of all women; and she had a generous disposition.

That's all we get, and I would love to have more detail: her hair colour, her height, perhaps a sentence about her eyes.

But then maybe it doesn't hurt not to be told.


It's early evening as I write, and time to cook the lamb I bought earlier today. It's been dark since around 3:30, but I've been in Reykjavik for nearly a month now, and I think I'm getting used to it, or rather getting used to only having a kind of combined sunrise/sunset for what gets called light.

In fact, it never fully becomes day, just as the sagas never fully reveal what's going on inside the minds of their characters. The sun climbs just above the horizon, and stays there, as though that's all the light you need. The right light for a journey to Helgafell, and into Gudrun's last days.

A view from the apartment towards the State theate

At Berserkjahraun (Pic: Richard Fidler)

With Richard Fidler (Pic: Kari Bergsson)

Friday, November 18, 2016

Iceland again

Iceland again,
and the dark, white light of November.
Frost scratches at the path.

On the balcony,
a screen against my neighbour's railing
wakes me
until I wedge it still.

In the dark, the wind is like homesickness,
callow, a first trip away.
But now, in the slim streets of daylight,
something to push against.

Like Iceland again,
pushed into the Atlantic,
and still taking its first steps out of the sea.

Monday, September 5, 2016

In Conversation with Michael Collins

The program of the 2016 Brisbane Writers Festival has been released. This year I will be in conversation with Irish novelist Michael Collins, discussing his new novel The Death of All Things Seen (Head of Zeus/Harper Collins, 2016).

The full program of the festival is available here.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Publication Paths

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing four alumni of Queensland University of Technology, where I teach creative writing and literary studies, on the topic of 'how to get published'.

The panelists were Sarah Ridout (author of The Chateau), Brett Michael Orr (The Bureau of Time), Melina Mallos (Catch That Cat), and Cass Moriarty (The Promise Seed). We talked about their quite varied paths to publication - experiences of writing and publishing that naturally reflect their different lives and career paths.

As I said at the start of the session, asking somehow how they got published can feel a little like asking them their age. It's a bit awkward, for most authors face their share of rejection before getting a break in the publishing industry.

But the panelists spoke openly about the choices they'd made, from self-publishing online, working with community groups, studying creative writing and entering competitions, to what we might think of as more traditional avenues of submitting to publishing houses.

The discussion is available in full on YouTube.  

From left: Sarah Ridout, Brett Michael Orr, Melina Mallos, Cass Moriarty, me

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Writer's Forum Interview

An interview with me by Glynis Scrivens has been published in the August edition of Writer's Forum (UK)

Glynis and I discussed the relationship between memoir and fiction writing, a topic of strong personal interest that I also address in my "Novel and Memoir" course at QUT, where we look at some of the synergies and differences between writing novels and longer forms of life writing.

Interview, page 1 (click to enlarge)

page 2

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Outspoken Maleny

On Sunday 21 August, I'll be in conversation with Richard Fidler and Steven Lang as part of the "Outspoken Maleny" series.

Full details available here.

Monday, August 1, 2016

Cairns Tropical Writer's Festival

The program of the Cairns Tropical Writer's Festival 2016 has been launched.

The festival runs over the weekend of 12-14 August, and I'll be taking part in three sessions:

The full program is available here.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Ghost Empire Launch

On Friday 29 July, I'll be launching Ghost Empire (Harper Collins/ABC Books) by Richard Fidler at Brisbane City Hall's Kedron Room.

The book tells the story of a trip that Richard and his son Joe made to Istanbul in 2014 - a richly evoked journey into the Byzantine past, but as powerfully an exploration of the changing relationship between father and son. 

From Ghost Empire:

'When my son turned fourteen, we set out to explore the ghost empire of Constantinople. It was to be a coming of age adventure, of sorts. My ambition was that Joe and I would walk the entire length of the fabled Land Walls of Constantinople, from the sea of Marmara all the way to the Golden Horn: this was where the Roman Empire died in agony, in the most bizarre and dramatic siege in medieval history. Once you know the story of the Byzantine Empire, you can't help but feel its ghost pressing against you. You feel it in the crumbling walls. You become suffused with it as you stand under the golden dome of the Hagia Sophia. You hear its echoes in the shadows of the cavernous underground cistern of Justinian. The story of how Constantinople flourished into greatness and then expired in terrible violence is one of the strangest and most moving stories I know. I wanted my son to have that story too.'

To attend the launch, register here.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Working with Words Interview

Last week, I was interviewed by Melbourne's Wheeler Centre for their Working with Words series. The centre grew up around Melbourne's successful bid to become a UNESCO city of literature. It aims to "provide a hub for the discussion, debate and practice of writing and ideas."

The interview with me is largely about the various influences behind my writing and practice. It can be found in full here.

Sunday, June 19, 2016

New radio & the sagas

On the back of strong demand, Brisbane Powerhouse has extended the Icelandic Sagas show that I'm doing with Richard Fidler to a second night, on 23 July 2016.

This live show builds on a radio series we made last year (broadcast in March 2016). Richard and I travelled to Iceland to tell stories drawn from the medieval sagas in the places where these stories were set. One of the questions that we took with us was how well these narratives might suit the formal qualities of radio and podcast. Another was how we could attempt to communicate a distinct sense of place, that is, one that contributed meaningfully to the impact and understanding of the stories.

I'm still pondering the answers to these questions, but I do think that saga stories are beautifully suited to the highly textural and often very intimate nature of new radio. This style of radio - exemplified by podcasts like Radiolab - combines elements of traditional storytelling and reportage, and is often able to combine quite different narrative styles and voices. And yet in its multi-modal nature new radio may also be able to echo something much older: the layered and polyphonic nature of the sagas as we've inherited them.

In any case, in July, at the wonderful Powerhouse theatre, Richard and I will get the chance to explore whether that approach can be extended to the stage. More details available here.

Brisbane Powerhouse

Thingvellir, July 2015
The Powerhouse Theatre (pic:

Friday, June 3, 2016

Taking Five Interview

I was recently interviewed for the Australian Writer's Marketplace 'Take Five' series -- a collection of short interviews with authors. The focus was on my writing process, and aspects of the writing life more generally.

The interview is available in full here.

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Sagas at the Powerhouse

On Friday 22 July, Richard Fidler and I will be co-presenting a special night of Icelandic sagas at Brisbane Powerhouse.

Tickets begin at $30 and are now available, along with more information about the event, at the Powerhouse site

Picture by Richard Fidler

Friday, March 11, 2016

Saga Land

A four-part radio series about Iceland and the sagas that I made with Richard Fidler has been released on podcast, and is available for free here.

We travelled to Iceland with a two-part mission: to tell stories from the Viking sagas written early in the country's history in the places where they actually unfolded a thousand years ago, and to settle a longstanding family mystery.

Along the way we delved into stories from four of the Icelandic family sagas: Njál's Saga, Laxdæla Saga, Gísla Saga, and Egil's Saga.

You can find out about the making of the radio series here and here.

The site of Gunnar's farm Hlídarendi (episode 1)
Wild cotton at Laugar, where Gudrún lived (episode 2)
Geirthjófsfjördur, where Gísli was killed (episode 3)
Borg, once farm of Egil the warrior poet (episode 4)