Working with Words: Kári Gíslason

Kári Gíslason was born in Reykjavík in 1972 and moved to Australia at age 14 after a short stint in England. His first book, The Promise of Iceland, was a memoir that shared his journeys to his birthplace. In 2015 he published his first novel, The Ash Burner

Here, Kári shares with us the influence growing up in Iceland had on his life and writing, and how he almost became a slightly rakish barrister.

What was the first piece of writing you had published? 

A piece about travelling to Iceland in winter on the trail of one of the medieval sagas, published in Australian Book Review.

What’s the best part of your job?

It’s very varied, and I’m given licence to pursue what I’m passionate about. Both my academic career and writing life tend to move between quite different kinds of tasks. This suits someone like me; I like working in a few directions at once.

What’s the worst part of your job?

Given my answer above, I probably shouldn’t say that the worst part is that it’s very varied. But sometimes I wonder if I should be more focussed on one or two aspects of my work life. The answer is probably no, but in fact it’s in the overlap of interests that I learn most.

What’s been the most significant moment in your writing career so far?

It’s going to take a while to top the publication The Promise of Iceland. That story – about my family and my relationship with my birthplace – was probably always going to be my first book, and it matters to me that it was published.

But perhaps the better answer is that, at least for me, the writing life is less about key moments than the habit of writing. I find that it’s in writing regularly that I develop new ideas and approaches. 

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing? 

Maybe because I studied literature (and not creative writing), much of the best advice I’ve received has been about becoming a better reader. But I once read something very useful to me. I’m afraid I don’t remember who said it, but the line went something like, ‘If you write in a voice that’s as plain or as neutral as you can manage, others will still recognise it as you.’

At the time, I was trying too hard to sound literary, to sound like a writer. Here was a different option – not necessarily the only one, but it helped me to change my thinking, from ‘finding a voice’ to letting it be heard. 

I’m afraid I don’t remember who said it, but the line went something like, ‘If you write in a voice that’s as plain or as neutral as you can manage, others will still recognise it as you.’

What’s the most surprising thing you’ve ever heard or read about yourself?

People say some funny things; I suppose that’s inevitable. But my favourite is the person who wrote to me to say that on page 161 of The Promise of Iceland, I’d mistakenly referred to the Norwegian ‘President’ (should be Prime Minister) – and on page 170, described stirring eggs with a ladle. Didn’t I surely mean some other kitchen implement? (I haven't checked either the facts or the page numbers, but I’m sure my correspondent is right about both.)

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

I studied arts/law, and so perhaps if I’d been a better law student I would have become a lawyer. Not the boring type of course – an elegantly spoken and yet slightly rakish barrister.

There’s much debate on whether creative writing can be taught – what’s your view?

My first thought is to say that it is being taught. But maybe this isn’t enough of an answer, not yet, in what are still the early-ish days of creative writing in the university. I’m not sure I’ve ever changed someone from not being a writer into being a writer.

Like other pursuits, there is usually a pre-existing desire. But there are many skills and approaches that gather around this desire and that can be taught, especially through discussion and exchange – such as, style and expression; story conception; reading in new ways; understanding, appreciating and joining a community of writers; reaching readers. I think discussing these aspects in a supportive environment can be of real use to writing students.

What’s your advice for someone wanting to be a writer?

Maybe one is about advice itself – that you don’t have to read those tips for writers too literally or rigidly (except of course that one about voice that I mangled earlier). Writing and language is complex, and in my experience writers combine elements of style and practice in very different ways. That’s surely a major strength of the form. So, perhaps rather than listening for certain lines of advice, it’s about looking for questions and conversations about writing; leaving it a bit open.

Perhaps rather than listening for certain lines of advice, it’s about looking for questions and conversations about writing; leaving it a bit open.

Do you buy your books online, in a physical bookshop, or both?

When books first became available online, I was pretty much an instant convert. But given the effect that online shopping is having on local bookshops, I try to find time to buy in store.

If you could go out to dinner with any fictional character, who would it be and why?

I’m sorry to be greedy, but can I ask for two companions? Emma Bovary and Connie Chatterley. The reason is that I fell in love with them as a young man, and I think it’s about time we met.

That said, there’s a chance I’d revert to my younger and awkward self, in which case it might be better if I meet the old couple who adopt the orphan Álfgrímur in Halldór Laxness’ The Fish Can Sing (the Icelandic title is Brekkukotsannáll). I’d like to ask them about Reykjavík before the wider world properly arrived.  

What’s the book that’s had the most significant impact on your life or work – and why?

It’s the medieval Icelandic work Njáls Saga, and especially the story of Gunnar and Hallgerð.

Towards the end of his life, Gunnar is exiled from Iceland. But as he’s riding down to his ship, his horse trips and he’d forced to dismount. He turns around, sees the farm he’s leaving, and says: ‘Fögur er hlíðin svo að mér hefir hún aldrei jafnfögur sýnst, bleikir akrar en slegin tún, og mun eg ríða heim aftur og fara hvergi’. It means, ‘The slopes are beautiful, golden fields and freshly mown hay. More beautiful than I’ve ever seen them before. I’m going back; I’m not leaving.

Everyone in Iceland knows this scene, but I first read it in Australia. At some level, it told me that I’d go back one day, and that literature, even writing, would form part of my return. 

Portrait of Kári Gíslason

Kári Gíslason was born in Reykjavík in 1972. He moved to England at the age of ten, and then to Australia four years later. His first book, The Promise of Iceland, told the story of the journeys that he has made to his birthplace. In 2015, he published a novel, The Ash Burner. Kári was awarded a doctorate in 2003 for his thesis on medieval Icelandic literature. As well as memoir and fiction, he publishes scholarly articles, travel writing and reviews. He currently lectures in creative writing and literary studies at Queensland University of Technology.

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