We sat with Erica Green, co founder of the Icelandic Writers and Readers Retreat to learn about this amazing event that happens yearly in April.
After landing in Keflavik
IAC: I wanted to ask a couple questions about the Icelandic writers retreat. How I want to do this is imagining a young budding author who just got accepted to this program and they’re on the plane, they’re landing at Keflavik, and they’ve cleared customs and they’re on their bus ride looking over these lava fields and they’re so excited about what’s going to happen. What in your mind passes through theirs? What is that new author going to be excited about this week?
So the Iceland Writers Retreat is a lot of things.
It’s mostly a chance for writers to come together in Iceland to work on the craft of writing, and we run a whole bunch of workshops over a five-day period — plus there’s an extension if you’re interested in that — to work on the craft of writing and each workshop has a maximum of 15 people in it and focuses on a different theme.
In the past we’ve had workshops that talk about things like developing plot or making a complex character or getting a great interview. And the workshops are both fiction and nonfiction.
There’s this real wonderful excitement when you land in Iceland. First of all, most flights if you’re coming from North America land at the crack of dawn. So you’re a little bit in a sleepy haze, but then it’s almost like this magical world because it’s just this beautiful vista on the way into Reykjavik from the airport. You’re right, it is kind of a drive, but it’s a gorgeous drive where you get to see the sea. And I imagine if you’re on your way, and you’re thinking about which workshops you’re going to take.
We have just an incredible lineup of faculty that come every year. You know it may be that you’re just so excited to meet Meg Wolitzer or Adam Gopnik or whoever it is that you’ve admired for years and is going to be there teaching a class.
And then the second thing is as you’re looking at the ocean and the lava fields, you think what else am I going to see in Iceland. We do that so in between workshops we offer literary tours where you get a chance to see the countryside or explore Reykjavik and its environs. Those tours are all literary focused; so, they’re run by tour guides who also happen to be authors. Then along the way you stop. So while you’re looking at the geyser, you go in to have a cup of tea or coffee afterwards. You get a talk by perhaps an Icelandic poet or you go to Skálholt the original center of learning. In the cafe there you have a kleina (an Icelandic donut) and hear talk about the sagas by one of the premier scholars who writes about the sagas today.
So it’s both this wonderful way to become introduced to the rich literary traditions of Iceland, contemporary Icelandic authors, but also to work on your own craft and to form community. So that you might notice that on the bus, you’re sitting next to somebody else who is holding an Iceland writer to treat something or going to the same stop you are. It’s a wonderful way to find community amongst which is often a solitary craft.
IAC: Wow that’s amazing.
The film festival inspired the writers
IAC: So you and Eliza Reed formed this right around 2014.
IAC: That’s got to be an interesting story. Would you mind sharing any of that?
I’m happy to. So it depends on who’s telling the story — either Eliza or I — how you kind of get the beginning of it.
We all agree on what happens sort of at step two, but you have me. So this is my version.I was living in Iceland at the time, which I’m not anymore, but I was living there and I’ve always been in book publishing, a writer, and an editor. Before I even moved to Iceland somebody said, “oh you do publishing and writing and editing. You should meet Eliza Reed. She’s kind of the go-to person for English language writing and editing.”
So I emailed her before we even moved there and she turned out to be a great friend and also someone who offered wonderful advice.
So next thing you know, I’m asking her about what preschool to get my kids into and how that whole system works. And as soon as we arrived, I joined her book club. She started sending me her overflow freelance work. So we were working together on writing and editing projects from the get-go.
I was there for my husband’s job. He was transferred to Reykjavik. So I was trying to figure out how to maintain my own career while we were living overseas. Working with Eliza was a great way to start doing some of that freelance work within the country.
Then I got a grant to go to a writing conference in the States. So I went and I came back from the conference. The way I remember it, it was the Reykjavik International Film Festival (RIFF). It was that week, right when I got back. There was a reception. Because it was a film festival, it was the coolest, most artistic people you’ve ever seen walking around this reception. So I used to think about the purple tights and the red boots and people making incredible things. I was just feeling so inspired by what had just happened to me in this workshop and what was happening all around us.
Eliza said, “oh you just got back from this conference. How did it go?”
I said “it was great. It’s so wonderful to meet other authors and work on the craft of writing.”
I was you know here we are surrounded by these creative people and she said, “yes and why do we not have one of these things here? Why did you have to go overseas? We’re gonna start one here. We should do it.”
Well I’ll never underestimate Eliza again. And if you’ve met her, you know that she is a force of nature. The two of us are editors by — you know really at heart writers — but also mostly editors because we’re super planners. We really like deadlines. So the two of us and actually there was a third woman standing with us at the time who’s a dear friend. We said, “okay we’re gonna do this.”
I was like yeah. But we set up a date within like a week and said let’s go talk about it. So this is where the stories merge. We definitely met at my house. It was a stormy night and there was wine involved. We said, “okay. Blue sky; anything goes. What would it be?”
And we put out all these ideas about the most incredible writers retreat you could ever imagine. Then Eliza being Eliza, and me being me, we sat down and said “okay let’s put together a schedule and a deadline.”
We started assigning things. Eighteen months later we had a business plan in hand. We had a sponsor in Icelandair and Icelandair hotels who was our founding sponsor. We had buy-in from all the literary and publishing organizations in Reykjavik. We met with anyone who did anything around writing and literature to make sure that they understood what our mission was, that it didn’t compete with what was happening, and that we had buy-in from them. You know that meant meeting with Sjón who was the head of the UNESCO city of literature at the time and who is now this renowned author around the world.
We got great support and we had this really put together, well put together business plan, and 18 months later, we had our first event. This year will be our 10th anniversary.
Ten years and growing
IAC: Wow. So well congratulations for one. That’s amazing. So this is going 10 years strong?
Yep! It technically — you know we had a pause during covid — so this would have been our 11th year. It was 18 months of planning before our first one. So this is the 10th “in person” let’s say.
IAC: Sounds amazing. So just kind of for a second returning to our you know our aspiring writers that are coming in April ‘24. What happens in the first few days of their retreat? Do you get together and start working at pairing off in groups? Or do they cherish the solitude that these open vistas provide in Iceland? Do they take advantage of the location in any way?
Sure, no, Iceland is not just a backdrop. It’s sort of integral to the land, that the people, the place is very much integral to what we do at IWR. So we call it Iceland writers retreat because we want people to come and feel as if they’ve taken a step outside of their regular life and retreated to do something different. We do want them to have moments of reflection and solitude. That said, we have this chock-a-block schedule for the first four days or so. And then we add in an extension after a year or two that’s called the relax, read, and write extension where there’s nothing to do during the day except work on what you’ve learned.
So I’ll walk you through it. Basically the first day you arrive and you pick up your welcome kit which is a cute tote bag full of the program of events with bios on the author and all the receptions and events that are going on. And also goodies that we get from people like Omnom Chocolates, coffee cards, and pool passes. It’s a great goodie bag.
Then we have a welcome drink to welcome everybody that evening. Following that, we do a welcome dinner. That’s when sort of everybody is in the room at the same time. All of the faculty, anyone who’s participating, the staff, the volunteers — there’s a partner program, so if you come and your partner isn’t a writer and isn’t a reader and i’ll tell you about the readers later but that’s –they can they can come and just be a part of of some of the events that we do.
At that welcome dinner the faculty all do a reading. Before appetizers we have a couple read and then between the first course and the second course, some more read. It’s this wonderful night where you get to hear the likes of Jeannette Walls or Katie Kitamura or Fríða Ísberg do a reading. It’s just a wonderful way to kick it off and to start the event.
Then the following three days are workshop days and everybody at IWR takes two days of workshops and one day of an excursion out into the countryside. So you take five workshops total. They’re two hours each. You sign up for which ones you want to do. We run a total of 44 different workshops over the course of those three days. So you may have two days in a row of like bang-bang-bang workshops or you could do a workshop day, a tour day, and then a workshop day. It just depends on what you sign up for.
Then in between the workshops we do lots of things. So we’ve had a reception at city hall where the mayor, the cultural commission welcomes us to the city. We get to see city hall which is a gorgeous building. One night we have a walking tour, a literary walking tour of Reykjavik that’s sponsored by Unesco who we work with quite a bit – the Unesco City of Literature. We also have had receptions. We had a reception many years [ago] at the at the president’s house. We have had a pub night every year. The pub night has Icelandic authors do a reading and then an Icelandic musician performs. That’s been a lot of fun so there’s something going on all the time for those few days.
Then on the day that you do the tour, it’s the whole day out of the conference facilities, out of the hotel, and you go all around. About a third of the group is outside of the hotel for a whole day. You can do the golden circle tour. It’s all bespoke.
We create it so that it’s very literary focused. As I mentioned of the authors and with talks along the way. We do literary Borgarfjörður. Then we have a Reykjavik literary tour as well that takes you around the city and then to the environs of Reykjavik. So there’s three unique tours that we’ve developed that are super fun. You get to pick which one you want. It’s just, you know, gorgeous and a great way to see Reykjavik and Iceland.
Then on Sunday morning we have a Q&A panel. So perhaps you didn’t take a class with Nii Ayikwei Parkes, but you wanted to hear what he has to say or ask him a question or Vivek Shraya. These are people coming this following year.
You can ask questions. It’s a sort of a breakfast and Q&A panel — coffee and Q&A really — and that’s wonderful. At that point everybody knows everyone really, well, it’s super comfortable. The faculty are just ready to answer any question. It’s great fun and then if you’re just there for the retreat, you head home.
Some people extend and stay on or the relax, read, and write extension stays on. We meet for dinners, family dinners for the next two nights. One of them is an open mic night where people can come and read. That’s where you just have the quiet and the solitude. Some people choose to sit in a cozy cafe and write whatever they’ve been working on, or based on one of the workshops they took some inspiration. Others go ride an Icelandic horse or buy an Icelandic sweater. it’s kind of up to you.
Once you’re a part of this, you’re in for life
IAC: That sounds amazing. This flat out just sounds amazing. My god! Wow! So after this wraps up, do you find that you stay connected with the alumni of this program? Do they come back to give lectures?
IAC: It sounds like once you’re in here, you’re a lifer and you want to keep contributing back.
Yes. we’ve been lucky enough to have… There’s two people who have come every year which we just love them of course. But it is a community and that’s one of the things that we really do try to promote.
So we have a closed Facebook group for people. Last year, we had two people come who had met like seven or eight years earlier at IWR. They live in different parts of the world. They remained friends. They have a virtual writing group. They hadn’t seen each other in person and they remet again in Iceland. They’re in touch all the time.
One of my favorite things is when somebody is a budding author and comes. And years later, so, Friða Ísberg, actually she was one of our volunteers one year and now she’s going to be a teacher and a faculty this year. So it’s so great to have that full circle. But yes we definitely have people who stay in touch. Not just through the closed Facebook group, but through their own things. It’s a bunch of writers so a lot of people have blogs or have online ways of communicating and staying in touch.
I love seeing people on social media talking to each other sometimes even from different years and that’s so wonderful.
Hearing everyone’s story
IAC: I also noticed on your web page you guys have quite a big and generous scholarship program. I mean this is really impressive — within these 10 years! I mean this is Bangladesh, Nigeria, Philippines, India, Sudan, South Africa, Europe, and the Americas. Do you feel that scholarship helps give a diversity of the voices that are there.
I do. We hope to. Eliza and I are very careful every year when picking the faculty to make sure that we have a diverse faculty — in many ways — so fiction/non-fiction, US/UK/Canada/Iceland and the rest of the world. But we focus on those places primarily for the faculty. And then of course, we want diversity of race, diversity of gender, diversity of everything: sexual orientation, you name it. We want it to be a really rich and diverse faculty to attract all readers and all writers. So that’s one.
We started the scholarship a couple years in and it’s funded by our alumni every year. So it’s a wonderful way to bring people who otherwise could not afford to come, and who have a great talent. So it’s open right now. It closes on Halloween, October 31st this year. We’ve run it every year since. I don’t know the first or second year, maybe the third year we started it.
Basically it’s quite an application. You have to submit two writing samples and get two letters of recommendation and explain why you should be awarded the scholarship and what makes you eligible. We get people applying from all over the world and I think last year we had people from 18 different countries come to the Iceland writers retreat but not just from scholarships. I think last year we had four.. six people total. Some who are on the full scholarship where we pay for your flight, your hotel, and the whole program and the partial scholarship award winners. We pay for the program and then you have to buy your own flight and hotel.
So there’s two different ways to come at the scholarship and get it awarded. But it’s maybe, arguably my favorite part of the business because we get to meet these incredibly talented writers and read their work from all over the world. Then our alumni — we have a panel of alumni who reads through the applications and everybody rates them and then narrows it down.
And when you get to call the winner — I mean it’s one of the best things, like, “you won. You’re coming to Iceland!”
We’ve flown people from South Africa in to do it, then, you name it; so, it’s been really fun and rewarding. And yes some of these winners are now winning awards; so one of our writers just won a big award in Kenya for his writing and another writer in India has just won another award and gotten two books published. I mean, it’s so awesome to see them just flourish. We have another writer who is now at a university in The States. He’s Kenyan and he is teaching there. I mean, it’s just fantastic. It’s a great program.
Readers should have an amazing experience too
IAC: It’s amazing! And what is the sister program? So on the website I’ve noticed the Icelandic Readers Retreat. So someone who might not be inclined to grab the manuscript out of their top drawer yet and submit it, but yet still might want to experience these author walks and these Q&A sessions and just being amongst this great creativity. Can you describe the IRR a little bit?
Happily! So yeah that’s exactly what it is. People kept saying, “oh my god. I love the idea of the Iceland writers retreat. That’s awesome but you know I’m not really a writer” or “I don’t really want to spend five days working on the craft of my writing but I want to come and I love the faculty that you have lined up.”
So for those people, we’re able to offer the Iceland Readers Retreat. It runs simultaneously, so again, if you want to come with a partner and your partner — be it your friend, your husband, your whoever it is. Your partner can share a room with you or not and also participate.
Basically, if you go to the readers retreat, you get the welcome dinner [and] the welcome drink. So that’s all together with the writers retreat. So you get to meet the faculty on the writers retreat Then you have two days of touring out in the countryside or around Reykjavik with the literary tourism. Then one day you’re in the conference area and there’s two panels, two talks led by the lead faculty.
So this year it’s Meg Wolitzer. She’ll give talks and she’ll do a book list, like a book club list, like, “hey let’s try to read these before we come.” You know if you don’t it’s not the end of the world but you get more out of the talk if you do.
Then we have a panel of Icelandic authors who also talk about their work and their work is across genres. So we’ve had poets and kids book writers and people who write in translation and a whole host of different genres: horror, horror writers from Iceland, the whole thing. So you get to have a nice talk by this panel of Icelandic authors as well as talks by the faculty who’s running IRR.
One of the tours, you go and see the sagas, the Illuminate, the manuscripts at the university which are not always open to the public. It’s a great chance to really immerse yourself even more in both Icelandic culture but to meet the faculty that went there for the IWR and the IRR faculty as well. And then you also get to go to the Q&A panel at the end. So it’s just another way to come at it. If you’re not a writer but you love books and you love reading and you love hearing from authors, this is the thing for you.
IAC: Okay well thank you. I just wanted to thank you very much for this time and again this is Erica Green with the Icelandic Writers and Readers Retreat which is happening in April of 2024. Thank you very much.
Thank you so much! This was wonderful it’s nice to talk to you