Sunday, August 26, 2018

Setting, Added

Earlier this year, I was interviewed at the Sydney Writer's Festival alongside my co-author Richard Fidler about our book, Saga Land. Our interviewer was Tony Birch, a leading Indigenous writer based in Melbourne - Tony's works include Ghost River, an evocation of the multiple and layered lives of Melbourne's Yarra River.

And, more recently, I took part in a panel on travel writing at the Byron Writer's Festival, there interviewed by Michael Williams, who is the Director of Melbourne's Wheeler Centre for Books, Writing and Ideas.

Both interviewers were interested in the ways an author becomes a participant in the culture and landscape they write about. Tony asked us about how Saga Land seeks out the settings of the saga stories. This is a central aspect of the book, but also one that I find difficult to explain very precisely. Why it matters to visit the places where stories are set. If and how it changes the telling.

I can say that we use location of saga stories to structure the book, by narrating stories and parts of stories when we arrive at certain settings. For example, when we are at Thingvellir - the site of the first Icelandic parliament - we tell the story of how Hallgerd and Gunnar (from Njál's Saga) met. Gunnar was walking through the grounds of the parliament when he saw Hallgerd, and asked if they could sit down together to talk.

But in fact the saga itself is fairly bare in its description of the setting, or that of other major events in the book. As is common in these works, the focus is on people and action. Farm names are always given, travel routes sometimes, and the origin of names is often included. But the saga authors spend very little time on landscape, atmosphere, or the physical aspects of the scenes that are being described.

A podcast of our session at the Sydney Writer's Festival 2018

In fact, one of the things we do in Saga Land, and that many travel writers to Iceland have done before us, is add setting, or explicitly pair saga narratives and modern forms of setting that owe more to travel writing and the novel than to the sagas themselves.

In the case of the chapter on Gunnar and Hallgerd, we frame the saga story with quite descriptive sections about arriving at Thingvellir and, after the saga story ends at Gunnar's farm of Hlidarendi, about the south of the country nearby. We tend not to add these extra elements of setting to the story parts themselves, but rather as brackets around them.

In this way, I suppose setting becomes as much about something that's shared between the original stories and the modern journey, as it is about the effect of the topography of the sagas. The result acknowledges that your visit to saga settings creates new impressions that are joined to the original impact of the story.


The Byron Writer's Festival session is available on Soundcloud.

With Brigid Delaney and Eddie Ayers at a session on travel writing at the 2018 Byron Writer's Festival
(Photo: Natalie Foord)