Author Interview: Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir

Today I am delighted to welcome Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir to my blog. Auður is the author of five novels, a collection of poetry and four plays that have been performed at the National Theatre in Iceland and at the Reykjavik City Theatre. She also writes the lyrics for the Icelandic performance pop band Milkywhale.

Auður’s latest novel, Hotel Silence, won the Icelandic Literary Prize 2016 and was chosen Best Icelandic Novel in 2016 by booksellers in Iceland. It is published in English by Pushkin Press – you may read my review here.

 

1. Can you tell my readers a little about yourself and your background?

I was born and grew up in Reykjavik in a large family, the fourth of five sisters and brothers. The fourth child is sometimes considered the “invisible” one, which suited my strong need for freedom. When I was born there were 170,000 Icelanders (today there are 337,000) and they were fighting their first Cod war – over fishing rights – against the British Navy. When I was five I discovered I spoke a language that only a few people understood and decided to learn my first foreign language, chosen at random – German !

2. Can you tell us about Hotel Silence and what inspired you to write it?

Hotel Silence is a rather physical novel about man’s ability to regenerate. I’m exploring ideas of masculinity by looking into human suffering and pain. Silence is part of the healing process. My hero is a man that would rather be killed than to kill someone. I’m asking questions around the importance of doing some good in life, the fragility of the human body, how we use words and how we justify ourselves by our actions. And also whether we can do something to mend or ‘fix’ the world.

The inspiration comes from the world around us and the rest is imagination.

3. The story is set partly in a war ravaged country. What research did you do to ensure this was authentic?

War is unfortunately all around us in the world. You just have to watch the countless news reports. There are also references to world literature in the novel itself. There’s usually a certain absence of time and place in my books; nowhere means everywhere. The country is never specified but has a familiarity to it.  Even though people in the western world prefer watching their wars on TV rather than outside their windows, I tend to think: this might just as well be us.

4. Can you share with us any significant changes between first draft and last?

Yes I cut a lot between the first draft and last! Which was new for me.

I discovered that the more you have to say, the more you have to cut. The more space you have between words and between lines the more there is for the reader to put his or her meaning into. My measure of when a book is finished is whether it has become a stranger to me, as if written by someone else.

5. As well as novels you write poetry, plays and song lyrics. What is your favourite part of being a creative writer?

The feeling of absolute freedom. No one tells you what to write! Which means that I am the only one responsible – at least for my novels and poetry – and therefore the only one to blame! Regarding plays and song lyrics it’s a bit different since the outcome depends on a team effort of actors, singers and performers.

6. Do you enjoy social media?

I regularly take a break from social media in order to ease my mind and have more time to read. For instance last summer I took a three months break from all social media to be able to spend more time out in nature. The good thing was that when I returned I hadn’t missed anything!

7. What do you do when you wish to treat yourself?

I recently stopped working as an art historian and a teacher at the University of Iceland to become a full time writer. I sometimes celebrate my new life by going to cafés in Reykjavik when everyone else is working, like at ten in the morning or two in the afternoon!

8. What books have you read and enjoyed recently?

Last night I read Carson’s McCullers novella The Ballade of the Sad Café, first published in 1943 when she was only 26 years old. It’s such a wonderfully weird love story about a triangular relationship, challenging any given ideas of masculinity and femininity. One of the characters is a hunchbacked dwarf.

9. Who would you like to sit down to dinner with, real or from fiction?

Since I spend so much time with fictional people I would chose real ones. Can I have two dinners? One with Elizabeth Bishop, Carson McCullers, Iris Murdoch and Anne Sexton and another one with Margaret Atwood and Toni Morrison. I would cook for them all.

10. And finally, what question has no interviewer asked that you wish they would?

What is the meaning of your first name Audur?

It means emptiness, the state of containing nothing. Which is the origin of all creation!

 

Thank you so much Auður for providing such interesting answers to my questions.

 

Hotel Silence is published by Pushkin Press. Click on the cover above to find out more.

 

Book Review: Hotel Silence

Hotel Silence, by Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir (translated by Brian FitzGibbon), tells the story of a man who feels that he no longer exists. Once upon a time he was a husband, a father, a son. Now these roles have been eroded, taken from him by forces he struggles to understand. He is unable to find any reason to go on.

Jónas Ebeneser has always tried to do as he is told by the women in his life. His names mean ‘dove’ and ‘the helpful one’ – they suit him well. His mother, a former maths teacher, lives in a home for the elderly where she is gradually losing her mind. His wife has divorced him, his daughter grown and leading her own life. Over the years Jónas taught himself how to fit appliances, mend that which was broken, become a handyman. When his father died he dropped out of university that he may keep the family business going. He considers himself ordinary, lately become unnecessary and thereby unhappy. He has decided to commit suicide.

Jónas plans to borrow his neighbour’s gun although he has never handled a firearm and is concerned that he may inadvertently hurt someone else. He considers hanging himself from a light fitting but worries that his daughter may be the one to discover his body and have to cut him down. He does not wish to be an inconvenience when he has always tried to be helpful.

Eventually Jónas concludes that the easiest place to die would be abroad, his body tidily returned to his family in a box. He clears out his belongings and puts his affairs in order. He buys a one way ticket to a former war zone where the supposed dangers may solve the problem of how to meet his end.

Wars and their aftermath are opportunities for the unscrupulous to make money. The local population has been decimated, traumatised, the survivors forever scarred physically and mentally. As they try to salvage a life for themselves, outsiders arrive eager to hoover up anything of value, to gain lucrative contracts amidst the rebuilding. When Jónas arrives all are suspicious of his motives.

He has booked himself into Hotel Silence, a venue with few guests and suffering neglect in a place now avoided by tourists. Wanting to take a shower, Jónas fixes the plumbing in his room. When a door falls off in his hands he reattaches it. Soon he is being called on to use his skills elsewhere. He has tools and knowledge that are in demand.

Surrounded by the aftermath of allied bombing raids and local infighting, Jónas helps out with practical matters as he has always done when asked. His efforts do not please everyone. There is jealousy from those who are not benefiting, warnings from those who seek to profit from the misery inflicted. They are incredulous that he should work simply to be helpful.

The story is told in two halves. The first is set in Iceland and tells of how Jónas reached a point in his life where he wished to end it. The second is set in the unnamed former war zone and offers a different perspective on survival. Whereas Jónas can no longer find a reason to live, the people he meets abroad have suffered unimaginably but remain determined to continue with their lives.

The writing is spare and humane offering an understanding of individual unhappiness. No trite answers are offered but there is empathy in the cost of loneliness and the damage caused by personal and wider wars. An unusual tale that offers much to consider. Despite the often grim subject matter, a captivating read.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Pushkin Press.