Here is the sad tale of a quite discombobulated radio interview. In the post before this one I discussed the problems of virtual events for artists, particularly writers, such as poet Brian Bilston, who recently introduced his new work, Alexa, what is there to know about love?, in an awkward online session. To continue with this subject, here is my take on an interview with author Sjón on the BBC World Service – World Book Club channel, about his novel Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was. I had been asked to contribute a question to this event, but eventually it ended up lost and mangled amongst all the queries. The interview was long, rambling and quite repetitive. It was only Sjón’s star power and the fact that I am an ardent admirer that kept me listening to it.
A professional author in action
During the interview (where Sjón was somewhere else, perhaps Reykjavik, and the interviewer was in London, UK) Sjón showed admirable patience and goodwill towards his fans. They called in or emailed in either simple, superficial questions related to their own personal experiences, or calculated questions from specific angles thought up by critics and teachers, intended, I suspect, to show how clever they are. He behaved as any professional author would, and has he has always done, for years, in that he seemed friendly and appreciative of his fans and readers, and fully involved in the world of international literature and publishing. Sjón has a highly visible online presence – from prolific tweets to all manner of creative collaborations. As any published writer will tell you, you cannot afford to miss any opportunity to engage with your reader base and talk about your work – and Sjón does not miss an opportunity.
If you want to know the facts about Sjón’s method and approach to writing, and the literature, art, films, politics, and philosophy which influence him, rather than going by this interview, you should read the in-depth interview with him in The White Review, one of many articles about him which has not been oversimplified. In this interview he talks about David Bowie, Surrealist poetry, Paracelsus, André Breton, Heinrich Heine, the “Dogme 95” movement, psychology, literary theories, etc. And these are just a few of the aspects worth considering in his work. There are many more. After all, he is an internationally acclaimed author who has won a long, long list of awards.
The interview did not give me any new insights into Moonstone, since most of the questions had been asked and answered in the past. As to the real conundrums in the novel, such as whether or not the main character, “Máni Steinn” really exists and what the title means, and why and how “Máni” turns back into a boy from being a grownup called “M. Peter Carlson” – they were not addressed. Nor was this pivotal moment in the book:
Some problems with the interview
- The interview is very long at 49 minutes and 10 seconds, and rambling. People normally speak in a vague, repetitious manner, using many modifiers and hesitations. This interview was no different. The duration was extended by Sjón having to address what amounted to the same question repeatedly asked about the current-day themes that readers ascribe to this historical novel: homosexuality, female liberation, identity politics, gender fluidity, etc. The interviewer could have lumped them together and dealt with those aspects as one query. That being said, Sjón was very patient and tried to answer each question from a new angle.
- Many readers who sent in or called in questions, related the novel to their view of the current state of the world, in other words, the COVID-19 pandemic. Of course Sjón had not written the novel with that in mind – he cannot foretell the future – and he eventually had to compare this situation to that of a writer of Science Fiction whose predictions for the future come true to their great surprise.
- There were only one or two questions that dealt with critique of the actual text rather than the context within which the book was written. Most questions were about how readers relate the characters and setting of the novel to their own personal circumstances. One person actually asked Sjón whether he saw his younger self through the eyes of the character “Máni Steinn”. At which Sjón pointed out the obvious, which is that “Máni Steinn” is homosexual (Sjón used the word “queer”), while he, Sjón, is not.
- I would say all of the questions had been asked of Sjón many times before, because the book was first published in 2013. Occasionally, where Sjón made references in Icelandic, or used Icelandic or French names, I could simply check online to find the original spelling and his complete comment. He says: “Now I let you in on a secret that can only be solved by an Icelandic reader but very few people have done so.” However, this too was no secret, having been explained by him years ago.
To make a long story short…
I suppose it is too much to expect such an interview to meet everyone’s requirements and understanding, considering that calls came in from around the world. It would require too much advance research and would end up segmenting the audience too narrowly. A few tidbits worth knowing did come out:
- His books are short because he reads and writes very slowly. He thinks writing 500 to 600 pages is the maximum length that he can tolerate. He says that three pages “really exhausts him”. Moonstone is only 160 pages long. His latest book, CoDex 1962, is as long as it is because he wrote it in three parts over a period of 25 years.
- He wrote a lot of poetry in his youth but now thinks it’s good if he can produce one poem per year.
- He leaves his translators to their own devices and says “the translation is always the creation of the translator.” Nice kudos for the translators.
- He touched on the difficulty of translating Icelandic into English, mentioning the fact that English has Germanic, French and Latin roots – as explained to him by his translator, Victoria Cribb – whereas Icelandic is North Germanic and most closely related to Faroese and Western Norwegian.
- He says all the translations into the 35 different language go directly from Icelandic to the target language – in other words, not second-hand via another language. Imagine, all those translators who have as one of their first languages Icelandic, of all things.
- Moonstone was initially supposed to be just about the Spanish Flu epidemic of 1918, but it turned into something else as he uncovered interesting facts about that period in Iceland’s history.
Be warned – here comes the long part
Because I am a fact-obsessed, persnickety sort of person who hates to waste nice, fresh data, I took it upon myself to transcribe the interview, using the free online demo of IBM’s Watson Speech to Text service, which uses untrained speech recognition capabilities to convert speech (audio) into text. Much of the result was gibberish, made worse by the accents of various speakers. But at least the output of the English (not the Icelandic or French) parts of the audio was in Latin alphabet form that I could edit, saving me some typing.
Audio file – Interview with Sjón
Transcript: Interview with Sjón about Moonstone, BBC World Service – World Book Club, Jan. 3, 2021
Notes about transcript:
*Transcription by SevenCircumstances – retrieved Jan. 16, 2021 from BBC World Service.
*Individual callers’ names have been redacted.
*Transcriber edits/inserts between square brackets [—].
*Deleted or left out text indicated with […].
*Inaudible or garbled audio has been redacted.
*Spoken English has been edited for readability.
*Excerpt from the novel has been transcribed as it was read, not as it is in the book.
*HG: Harriet Gilbert (interviewer).
*S: Sjón (guest author)
HG: Welcome to the World Book Club podcast. I’m Harriet Gilbert and this month we will be reading a novel published seven years ago but uncannily prophetic. A story of love in cinema in the time of a deadly pandemic the books called Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was, and here to answer questions about it from readers around the world is its Icelandic author Sjón [real name Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson]. Sjón, hello and happy new year. Sjón, do people have wonderful celebrations for new year’s day in Iceland?
S: The main tradition is amazing fireworks display that the whole population takes part in. Reykjavik and all the villages and towns around the country become centres of amazing fireworks and celebrations. We usually have bonfires and people gather together around the bonfires and fire up the fireworks there as well. But this year unfortunately the bonfires were cancelled and the fireworks were much less than usual, so we go more quietly into this year than we usually do.
HG: Quietly, but with hope. Anyway, let’s turn to your writing though. Sjón is a marvellously varied writer. He is a poet, a lyricist. His lyrics for the film Dancer In The Dark won an Oscar nomination and he has collaborated with Iceland’s best known musical export, Björk. [Correction: Sjón co-wrote with Lars von Trier the lyrics for “I’ve Seen It All”, a song recorded by Björk for the Dancer in the Dark film soundtrack, Selmasongs (2000). It was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song.] He has also written plays and libretti and he’s the author of 13 novels including the one we’re talking about today Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was [“Moonstone”].
Translated into more than 35 languages, Moonstone tells the story of sixteen year old “Máni Steinn” seen often wandering the streets of Iceland’s capital Reykjavik in the autumn of 1918, a significant moment in his country’s history as well one that draws to a close, because Denmark is about to recognize Iceland as a fully sovereign state, cause for widespread celebration. But meanwhile the volcano erupts filling the sky with ominous fires and then quietly, lethally the Spanish flu virus arrives in town. “Máni Steinn” takes a new direction; instead of spending his days either in the cinema or earning money as a male prostitute, he finds himself self helping a local doctor ferry the sick to hospital and to the morgue. But “Máni’s” story unfolds against great historical events. Moonstone is in fact a strangely beautiful novel.
I think it’s time for our first question about it which comes from Jaipur in India.
Jaipur caller: What was it that drew you to write this novel – would it be desire to show the state of affairs at the time of the flu in your country Iceland, or was it the desire to show the treatment of homosexuals at that time in Iceland?
S: Well, what originally attracted me to the story of Reykjavik in the autumn of 1918 was that it was one of those rare moments in history where everything seems to happen at the same time. You mentioned the sovereignty, the volcano eruption, the arrival of the new flu, the armistice in Europe. And I just wanted to explore what it was like to be alive in those days. And I was looking for a protagonist who could take us through the Spanish influenza pandemic. I was actively looking for someone who would be completely on the outskirts of the community, someone who had been pushed away from their community. And in the end the perfect candidate for that was “Máni Steinn” [Sjón pronounces the name “MAU-ni STA-tnn”] a young queer kid who is trying to survive in a small town that has no place for him.
So it came together; the historical background and the life of this individual who, because of his situation, was not, let’s say, at the mercy of the pandemic because he was not losing loved ones or family since he’s already detached from the life of the of the people there. And of course through this character we understand how people like “Máni Steinn” were treated by society and how his sexuality has been banished and criminalized. And that’s of course what makes him what he is. He lives in the shadows, not only the shadows of the houses in Reykjavik but in the shadows, in the dark, of the cinemas well.
HG: Sjón thank you very much indeed for that, and so now I think it would be a good time to hear a reading from the book. This one introduces us to young “Máni” – at this point he is loafing outside a hotel in Reykjavik.
Voiceover: You say it would be incorrect to say that the boy is wholly idle as he loiters there on the hotel pavement. He is in fact amusing himself by analyzing the life around him, with an acuity honed by watching some 500 films in which every glance, every movement, every expression and every pose is charged with meaning and clues as to the subject’s inner feelings and intentions, whether for good or for evil. Indeed, all of mankind’s behaviour is an open book to him; how people conduct themselves in groups, large or small, their relationships to every conceivable thing, their movements in all kinds of interiors – in the streets, in the town and country. Since the simplified and exaggerated miming of the actors has made it easier for the boy to fix it all in his mind.
[Transcriber’s note: transcribed as read, not as quoted from the book.]
Well, there we have “Máni Steinn”, the young hero or anti-hero, I’m not quite sure which. We’ve got a question about him from a caller on the phone from Taunton in Somerset in the UK.
Taunton caller: When I read your novel and the story of the lead character of “Máni” I thought it was a powerful and vibrant story. I asked myself after reading the story if you were seeing your younger self through his eyes.
HG: [audible intake of breath]
S: Yes, you know he’s a sixteen-year-old kid who loves cinema who is occupied with the things that sixteen-year-olds occupy themselves with, and probably always have. So one of the things that I do when I’m a writing and creating a character, like most, is that I look for is what we have in common. And “Máni” is a bit of a loner, but still, you know he’s got good social skills that he’s picked up on the way and he’s a good reader of society around him. So yes I really see myself as “Máni”, as someone who could be “Máni’s shadow”. The difference between us is that he’s queer, I’m not, but that is a small thing really in in the big picture. I have no problem with that and being inside his mind throughout the story.
HG: We have another caller on the phone from Oxford in the UK.
Oxford caller: My question is about “Máni”, the lead figure in the novel, because I think the way you tell this story through the eyes of the young man is really powerful and I wondered why it was important that “Mani” as gay man who is not only a young voice but also the voice of an outsider.
S: Well, I think the fact that “Mani” is queer makes him an outsider and marginalizes him. The thing is that in those days people didn’t even have words for what they were. He just knows that his sexuality is different; he uses it as a way to make money. And I think at that time it just it just came together – the queerness and the rebellious part of the personality.
HG: Our next question about Moonstone was rung into BBC World Book Club earlier from Chicago in the USA.
Chicago caller: I loved Moonstone and I was wondering if you could talk about the deep yet quiet connection between the protagonist “Máni Steinn” and the woman with the red scarf.
HG: Well yes, this is very interesting because although “Máni’s” sexual relationships are with men he does have perhaps the most intense relationship in the book with this young woman, “ Sóla G.”, the woman with the red scarf. Could you talk a bit about that relationship.
S: “Sóla G.” is a young woman, probably one or two years older than “Máni Steinn” is, probably like, eighteen. And “Máni Steinn” idolizes her. She somehow embodies everything that he wants to be. She is free in her body, she is free in her expression of her growing feminist approach to the world, and maybe her own sexuality, by driving a motorcycle, dressing as a man, dressing as a woman – you know she has this fluid character. And on top of that she is the Doppelgänger of “Máni Steinn’s” favourite film actress, Musidora [real name: Irma Vep], the actress from the vampire films and amazing French films called Les Vampires. So I think you know by giving “Máni Steinn” a woman to adore and not maybe the town’s wrestler [*Sjón gives a dry laugh], helped me complicate the character and make him less obvious.
HG: Well, I think “Máni Steinn” is quite right to idolize “Sóla”. I think she’s a terrific character, she’s very sexy. Let’s have another reading from Moonstone. This is where “Sóla” first captures “Máni’s” imagination. It’s during the screening of a film featuring Musidora and here they are.
Voiceover: He had already known her name, where she lived, who her parents were and the company she kept, but how world was quite out of reach, far above his rung of society so he had paid no more attention to her than others of her kind. He had made his discovery at a Saturday matinee screening of The Vampires at the old cinema. He was sitting in his usual spot feeling irked by the whispers and giggles emanating from a group of kids his own age in the better seats in front. But just as he was about to yell at them to pipe down, people were here to enjoy the film not the noisy petting of bourgeois brats, he heard one of the girls say she was fed up with them ruining the show for the others. It was when the girl stood up to leave that it happened. The instant her shadow fell on the screen they merged, she and the character in the film. She looked around and the beam of light projected Musidora’s features onto her own. The boy froze in his seat. They were identical.
HG: We’ve got another question which comes from America, San Antonio in Texas.
Texas caller: This past fall semester I taught a course on afterlives and underworld and the students read Moonstone. They loved Moonstone. The students and I have put together two questions for you, and we’re so excited to hear your thoughts about them. First, “Máni Steinn” is one might say in love with “Sóla G.”, and it is a particular kind of love. Although he seems to desire her their interaction is never sexual, and although he knows her personally, he seems to perceive her as he first saw her in the cinema. She is real, but in his view, a living, moving image. Is “Sóla” a symbol of “Máni Steinn’s” love of cinema, as a space for safe – or safer – desire?
HG: Well, there’s a question.
S: “Sóla” is so many things in this novel. She is definitely, on one level, the cinema made flesh in this small town of Reykjavik. The promise of the movies that that “Máni Steinn” loves, that the fact that he can go to the cinema and travel to other places, that he can experience inner freedom there, that he is free to project whatever he needs to onto the images that appear on the screen – she becomes that promise somehow fulfilled on the streets of Reykjavik. But then on the on the other hand she is also a symbol for the possibilities of someone from this small town to behave differently and to make herself into what she desires.
HG: Including being a feminist icon.
S: Of course.
HG: Yes, absolutely. We have got a question now that came in from the UK.
UK caller: You said that underneath Moonstone is a mythical pattern where “Máni Steinn” is the moon and “Sóla G.” the sun. Could you elaborate on that is there a specific myth you had in mind, or is it a mythic pattern of your own devising.
HG: So, the caller says that you’ve said – I don’t know where you said this – but that there is a mythical pattern where “Máni Steinn” represents the moon and “Sóla” the sun. Which….actually when you come to think of it – “Máni Steinn” meaning moonstone and “Sóla” the sun – I’ve only just seen this, rather stupidly. He says could you elaborate on that is there a specific myth about the sun and the moon that you have in mind, or is it a mythic pattern of your own devising?
S: I think the story of the sun and the moon and their relationship is one of the oldest stories known to man and possibly one of the first stories man came up with to explain what was going on in the sky. So I just enjoyed putting that old myth as a foundation for the story. The behaviour of “Máni Steinn” is like the behaviour of why the moon follows “Sóla”, the sun, at a distance. He receives her light and feels that he glows a little bit more when he is close to her. And it was exciting to be able to put such a grand story, the story about the two biggest celestial bodies in the sky as a foundation for this very simple story of two teenagers in Reykjavik in 1918. [Refer to the article: A Novel Without Myth Is Impossible: An Interview With Icelandic Writer Sjón, by Michael Barron, Books And Digest Editor, on theculturetrip.com, December 16, 2016, rtrvd. 25-02-2021]
HG: Am I right then in thinking that “Sóla” was initially called something else but when you had the idea of the sun and the moon you changed her name to something sunny or sun-evoking?
S: Now I’ll let you in on a secret that can only be solved by an Icelandic reader but very few people have done so. And that is that “Sóla’s” name in Icelandic is “Sólu Guðb” [Sólborg Guðbjörnsdóttir]. And [the Icelandic name] is an anagram for “vampire”. So it is the same name that is in the film, “The Vampires” [Les Vampires, 1915-1916], with Musidora. So when I was looking for “Sóla’s” name I tried to find a name that would serve the same purpose, and that’s when she became the sun. Because S-O-L are letters in the word “vampire” in Icelandic. [Unable to verify that.] When I saw that I thought, okay, I already have the moon and the sun was just waiting there to be discovered.
[Transcriber’s additional image, below:]
HG: Sjón, thank you for that, and we’ve got a caller now waiting to speak with you in Delft in the Netherlands.
Delft caller: You use a lot of cinematic references in the novel and it adds glamour compared to the mundane lives of the characters. Are you inspired by silent movies, in particular the ones that feature in this novel?
S: When I grew up in Reykjavik in the sixties and seventies, when I was a kid and teenager, one of the few things that we could actually do was to go to the cinema and we went to the cinema all the time. I think at the time there were seven or eight cinemas in Reykjavik. I went to the cinema all the time […] we just saw whatever was on, so sometimes it was American culture films or Hong Kong culture but if something was on screen, we might end up watching a rubbish film, or a Bergman film – and I just fell in love with cinema. As I got older (now we’re talking about sixteen, seventeen years old) I joined the film club and that’s where I started seeing that the great works of cinema history, and among them, of course, the great silent films and the classic films, like Buster Keaton films.
HG: And now Sjón we’ve got a question for you now from Adelaide in Australia. She rang BBC World Book Club earlier to ask you this.
Adelaide caller: Hello, I loved this book and I’d like to ask, Moonstone is set in 1918 but it feels timeless, reading it today. There are uncanny similarities with the same as we have witnessed in 2020 with the COVID 19 pandemic, for example governments not accepting the gradual emptying of city streets, and the toll it has taken on musicians and the arts, how do you feel about your book being suddenly and sadly so topical?
S: It has been a very strange experience. I must say in March  when the pandemic really got going and I started reading and watching the news from all over the world, I was astonished to see that we were going through all the same steps as the world went through in 1918 with the Spanish influenza. And also in all the pandemics that preceded that Spanish influenza. I just sat front of the television and ticked the boxes, so it seems that we, as a species, are very good at forgetting what to do and what not to do, and of course it’s very strange to have written a book that takes place in the past, that depicts a world in a situation that is unknown. To most of the readers for who all of a sudden, this book mirrors the direct experience of people today, and it’s very strange. I would not have expected it to happen. Maybe this is something that science fiction authors experience when they come up with some strange scenarios and then they live to see the changes in society that they predicted in the books.
“Catastrophe begets catastrophe. Take WWI, which resulted in the deaths of approximately 20 million young men. As the war waned down, a new scourge rose in its place. The 1918 Spanish flu pandemic spread across the globe via the expanded shipping networks established during the War and infected regions across all six continents, especially the inhabitants of port towns and islands states. In some places, such as the Icelandic capital Reykjavik, more than 50% of its population was wiped out. The rampage would last only a few weeks, petering out days before the Treaty of Versailles. This gruesome slice of time (October – November 1918) is where the Icelandic writer Sjón chooses to set his new novel, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was.“
(From: A Novel Without Myth Is Impossible: An Interview With Icelandic Writer Sjón, by Michael Barron, Books And Digest Editor, on theculturetrip.com, December 16, 2016, rtrvd. 25-02-2021)]
HG: You say how very closely that all mirrors what’s happening now, mirrors what happened in 1918. Let’s have another reading from Moonstone – this is a description of regulation after the Spanish flu started to do its work.
Voiceover: An ominous hush lies over the busiest most bustling part of town. No feet no rattling of cart wheels or rumble of automobiles no roar of motorcycles or ringing of bicycle bells. No rustle of sawing from the carpenters workshops or clanging from the forges or slamming of warehouse doors, no gossiping voices of washer women on their way to the hot springs, no shouts of dock workers on loading the ships or crimes of newspaper holders on the main street. No smell of fresh bread from the bakeries or waft of roasting meat from the restaurants. The doors of the shops neither open nor closed, no one goes in no one comes out. No one hurries home from work or goes to work at all. Cathedral bell doesn’t told the quarter hour or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy poll of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it was the darkest hour before dawn. Or not quite. From the long low shed by the harbour the sounds of banging and plane-ing can be heard. Though each hammer blow and sawing are so muffled and muted to the area that it seems to almost apologize for disturbing the silence. It is here that the coffins are being made.
HG: I have to say that that passage from Moonstone is horribly familiar even though London isn’t quite as deserted as that, but certainly over the last few months is a very different, quiet city. […]
S: Walking around the old part of town where most of the novel takes place was really being in the novel for the first time. Having heard the http://book reading, I must thank my amazing translator into English, Victoria Cribb, who made it sound even more beautiful than the original.
HG: You’re quite right and I should have mentioned her as well, yes, Victoria creates the translation into English and it certainly reads beautifully in English.
HG: We’ve got an email now that came into from Calgary, Alberta, in Canada: When writing Historical Fiction like Moonstone, what is the significance of you employing a light magical tone rather than harsh realism. There is sort of the quality of a fable or fairy tale about Moonstone, I mean particularly at the very end, but the whole way through, the way the real life horrors around “Máni Steinn” are transformed by his cinema-led imagination. Why did you want to employ this light magical tone?
S: What can I say – this is as realistic as I can get. Using “magical tone” is something that is just a natural part of the way I write. One of the things that I’ve always tried to do in my writing is to acknowledge that reality exists on different levels for all of us. We are in a realistic situation, but it does not cancel out our inner life, it does not cancel out the dreams that we had the night before, or the old fears that start somewhere in our soul or in our imagination, that are at work to bring us out of that situation, or make it bearable. [Transcriber’s note: Sjón is known for his use of Surrealism as a literary device, rather than Magic or Magic Realism. Refer to this interview in The White Review.]
So, for me, the only realism possible is a realism that I can acknowledge – we travel through life with all those elements at play at all times. I’d also like to bring into that all the stories, that we have learned one way or another, but whether it is in cinema or through books, or by watching and dancing or listening to a piece of music, that is also something that we carry within us and are a part of our experience. So this is as realist as I can get.
HG: We’ve got somebody waiting on the phone in Connecticut in the USA.
Connecticut caller: Can you talk to us for a bit about how you prepared to write this book with [your personal] old photos or other maybe family documents or diaries that you provided [in the book]?
S: Usually when I start writing a book it is after years of researching the material that I’m transforming into another [book] and in this case, for some reason, I had been collecting information about the Spanish influenza for a long while. I have been collecting material about the early days of cinema in Iceland and I had for a long while been interested in the history of the country. So I had folders both on my laptop and in my office containing research material. But it wasn’t until I sat down to actually write about the Spanish influenza that I realized that all of these things would come together in the same book. I use the National Library. Luckily here in Iceland people write and write and write and write so we have an astonishing amount of documents and books and memoirs from people who normally in in other countries would not put their experience down on paper or record it in one way or another. So I had access to almost everything that was available about the Spanish influenza both official documents and then the personal documents.
We talked quite a lot about “Sóla” – she was triggered by a photograph I found of a woman who was sitting at the wheel of an Overland convertible at one end of the lake in Reykjavik. She was shown dressed up in a big leather overcoat like drivers had, looking like million dollars. Under the picture it said that this was the second woman in Iceland who got a provisional driver’s licence, that she had also been the second woman in Iceland to work as a professional house painter, and that she had actually been a driver for doctors in the Spanish influenza.
“Sóla G is based on a real life person who was named Katrín Fjeldsted. She was the first woman in Iceland to acquire a professional driver’s license and the second one to become a professional house painter. According to her obituary she drove a taxi for years and painted houses until she died at 85. So, she had a full life and was her own woman to the end.”
(From A Novel Without Myth Is Impossible: An Interview With Icelandic Writer Sjón, by Michael Barron, Books And Digest Editor, on theculturetrip.com, December 16, 2016, rtrvd. 25-02-2021)]
There’s a lot of research and I’m very proud to say, for example, that all the movies mentioned in the book were shown in the cinemas at the dates as they appear in the book. I like to keep the story world as accurate as possible and then move freely within it with the characters.
HG: And what about old family photographs or documents or diaries? Did you use any of those?
S: In my case none of my family members were in Reykjavik when the Spanish influenza hit. The only direct personal element in the book of element from my family is that parents of my great-grandfather at the end of the book, because he was a patient at the lepers’ hospital in Reykjavik, and my uncle [Bósi] died from it. That ties up with the with the AIDS pandemic as well.
HG: It’s very moving, that moment in the book when it when it returns to the present, or to the near present, and to your uncle. We have a question from San Antonio in Texas. He asked about the striking aspect of Moonstone [namely] its emphasis on sense perception. A special role is played by colour, for example the hues of the volcanic eruption, “Sóla’s” red lipstick, and the hallucinatory spectra of the fever dream. Could you share with us your own sense of this “visuality”, especially given the novel’s emphasis on so-called black and white, monochromatic film?
S: The emphasis on sense perception and colour in particular [is because] the narrative takes place mostly in November and into December, so it is set in the darkening hours of our year. Up in the north, the world is going dark because of the season, and the world is darkening because of the shadow of the Spanish influenza. [But] the films that “Máni Steinn” is watching are black and white, even though they are tinted at some time. We tend to forget that so much of the [films of the] silent cinema was tinted and colour-coded. So I think the bringing in of sharp colours with simple strokes here and there imitates the things that we experience here in the darkest winter when everything goes black, but there might be a sliver of the sun out there by the horizon that promises that colour still exists in this world. And that we will return to it.
HG: Thank you very much indeed, Sjón. We got another question now from Chicago. How do the processes of writing lyrics, poetry, and novels differ and how they connect [when you write]?
S: I enjoy working in different literary forms because, for me, each form brings a different challenge, different opportunities. So when I’m writing a novel I try to be true to the novel as an art form and I try to explore the possibilities that are unique to the novel. And the same with the lyrics and poetry. [But] the different methods of writing influences one another, so when I need to bring in a poetical element into the prose I do so. When I need a more narrative element in the poetry I do so, but to me it is quite important to keep it separate while maintaining the flow. I’ve also always said that for me poetry is the highest art form. I started as a poet when I was a teenager. [He published his first collection of poetry the summer that he turned 16.] Poetry came so easily to me. But as I’ve gotten older and it’s become more and more difficult, so today if I write a one poem per year I consider myself lucky and I’m really envious of poets today. And I have it as a rule of thumb that if a line works within prose, then it is not good enough for poetry. The poetry has to be unique and controlled.
HG: We’ve got a question for you now from Israel, about the many languages into which your books have been translated and how you use the relationship with the translators. […] We’ve had really a lot of questions about the process of translation, and I’ll just read you a couple of them. One comes from […]. She says Sjón is one of my favourite authors and I keep reading and re reading his books finding new beauty and ideas every time I do. Would you please give some insights into the particular challenges faced by the translators who recreate works in English. And another question: How involved were you in the process of translating Moonstone from Icelandic to English and what role do you play as the author?
S: I will just start by saying that I owe everything to my translators. The books have been translated into 35 languages and it is really amazing how all these talented individuals managed to do it. You know, I don’t know how they do it. Strangely enough most of the translations are done directly from Icelandic. We are really privileged when it comes to comes to that. I always make sure that my publishers tell the translators that I am there for them, so if they want to get in touch about the translation I’m there for them. So I correspond by email with quite a number of the translators. Many of them come to Iceland and then we have sessions where we sit together and go through the books but in the end the translation is always the creation of the translator. The only time I get a little bit worried is if I don’t get even one question from the translator. But it has always turned out beautifully, so I shouldn’t be worried about that. And the only thing I can do as the author of the of the novels is to respect them so much that I never, even for a second, try to make things easier for them.
HG: What the particular difficulties of translating into English from Icelandic?
S: I don’t know. But I’m on the other end of it, you know, but for example Victoria Cribb has told me that the first draft of the translations she does is always too Germanic and then for the second draft she brings in the Latin and the French influences on the English language.
HG: A question from Australia: this is referring to the fact that your works, or anyway the ones that are translated into English, tend to be on the short side. She asks do you prefer the economy of the novella form for particular authorial reasons, or are there cultural or other factors which make it especially suitable for your fiction?
S: I think it is because I find it so hard to write, that I read very slowly. Three pages really exhaust me. So I just can’t imagine writing let’s say 300 pages in a year or let alone 500 pages in a year. So this format just grew out of my relationship with the language and how I like to tell stories or how my mind produces stories. It is in a very compact form. I enjoy short, sharp novels. I like to be taken into a world and to be immersed in it, but in a compact text. My big work of literature is CoDex 1962 which is in three books. I think it is 500 or 600 pages, but it was written over [a period of] 25 years. You know I was going to say “trilogy”. I have an excuse there for having produced a big book that sits on the shelf with my other slim ones. I just really enjoy working in such a compact way and in most cases I don’t see the need for more words.
HG: And there we have to leave it. Sjón, thank you so much. It has been wonderful and do you know the questions have been challenging for the author. You rose to the challenge brilliantly. [Thanks, announcements of future programmes, concluding remarks.]