Today, Behind The Words welcome author Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir! Sigríður is the author of the just released women’s fiction book THE FIRES. First, tell our readers a bit about yourself.
I live in Iceland, where I was born in 1974. After living, studying and working for years in Spain, New York and Copenhagen, I returned home to Reykjavík, where I live with my husband, Jón Kalman Stefánsson, who’s also a writer, and our four half-grown children. I have a daughter studying medicine in Slovakia, a stepdaughter in a film school in Copenhagen, a stepson making rap music in the garage, and my youngest daughter is still in school. We also live with an elderly Border Collie and two spoiled cats.
How long have you been writing and it is your full time job? If not, what is your ‘real world’ job?
I upset my carrier as a television news journalist in 2016 when I began writing my first novel. All my professional life I had been trying to understand the world through hard facts and reporting, but then I realized that you can’t understand the world without fiction, and poetry, and beauty. (In Icelandic we have a word for it: Skáldskapur – the reality created by poets.) I’ve written four novels since then. I’m still balancing fiction with journalism, and I hope to be able to go on working in both fields – but the skáldskapur is pulling me in, the tow is strong.
What does your typical writing day look like?
My typical writing day … doesn’t really exist. I can write anytime, anywhere. But I like to begin work at around 8AM, my husband in one study and me in the other. We take breaks to make tea for one another, walk the dog and the cats (they like to tag along), go for a run, read passages for one another, and then, in the afternoon, we make dinner for ourselves and whomever may be in the house that day. I like to cook. We spend our evenings in our enormous sofa, reading or watching a movie. But then again, the day might be very different, with many errands and visits and phone calls, interviews, broken cars, and the cats may have caught a bird that needs rescuing.
Tell us about your latest release?
The Fires – Love and other Disasters – is a book about a volcanologist, Anna, who has to deal with a series of volcanic eruptions just outside Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland. She’s a top-notch scientist and part of the national security council, but also dedicated to her family. She has to face some difficult choices handling the response to the eruptions, while at the same time she suffers the calamity of falling in love with a stranger and upsetting her comfortable marriage and family life. It’s a story of love as a natural disaster.
What inspired the idea for this book?
Iceland is a very geologically active country, and an important part of my job as a television news reporter is to cover eruptions, which happen about four times in a decade, on average. And I’m fascinated by eruptions, in all their dramatic, creative, destructive glory. Still, it didn’t occur to me to write a novel about them until four years ago. What sparked the idea was a magazine article – I think it was National Geographic – about the magnetic North Pole, which has been on the move for the last few decades. They interviewed a geologist, who said: “As everybody knows, the magnetic North Pole is a very sensitive place.” And then I just knew I had hit something. I had found my main character, this volcanologist who’s so immersed in her work that she thinks about Earth as a living, feeling organism, and cannot understand that other people don’t think the same. Also, it gave me an opportunity to write about something I knew and loved in my other line of work.
Would you and your main character be friends?
No, I don’t think so. Anna doesn’t really have friends, she only has colleagues. However, she has a very vivid, sensitive and creative inner world, which she suppresses vehemently, and doesn’t allow anybody to see. When she finally meets someone who can draw her out, she erupts, like the earth around her, and risks destroying her world.
What part of the book was the hardest to write?
The sex bits are always hardest to write. Nothing is as bad in a book as a bad erotic description, and I think you should never use sex in a novel unless absolutely necessary. Not out of prudishness, but aesthetics – an unnecessary sex description will always feel clumsy, embarrassing, like a bump on the road. If it’s good, and in the right place, it will be transcendental and move the reader – to tears, desire, laughter, a deeper understanding. It works like cayenne pepper in food.
Did you model a character after someone you know?
No, not really. Except that, in some way, they’re all made out of little pieces of me.
Could you share one detail from your current release with readers that they might not find in the book?
When I had been working on The Fires for four months, the earth began shaking on the Reykjanes Peninsula and Reykjavík, and scientists told us to prepare for a volcanic eruption, very close to where the eruptions take place in my novel. There hadn’t been any volcanic activity there for 800 years. I was worried – not only about the imminent danger to the people living in the area – but also that the volcano would steal my thunder and erupt before the book was finished. So I wrote like crazy, while earthquakes were shaking the city. Thankfully the volcano waited for me, and didn’t erupt until four months after the book was published. When it did, it erupted a few kilometers and a few days away from the volcanoes in the novel. Since then, I have a reputation of being a seeress. I’m not, not really, but books sometimes know more than the people who write them.
Are there any particular authors that have influenced how you write.
I don’t think I can name any single author who has influenced my writing. I have this mental picture of a dark, secret lake inside of me, hidden in a thick, primeval forest, and that everything I’ve ever read ends up in this pool, mixed up with every experience I’ve had, and every trait of my personality. I feel that when I write, I dip my hand into the murky water and come up with something that’s not quite mine, and not anybody else’s either.
Any writing rituals?
No rituals, no magic, no waiting for an inspiration, just pure and plain work, every day, for four hours. Some days are productive, sometimes I don’t find anything in my dark lake, but I won’t know unless I try.
Do you have a secret talent readers would be surprised by?
I can be useful as a lambing midwife, and I’m very good at parking cars.
Your favorite go to drink or food when the world goes crazy!
Tea works for me. Earl Grey, preferably Twinings, with a drop of milk, please.
Thank you so much for joining us today, Sigríður. What a fascinating landscape to draw from, thank you for sharing.
Readers, here’s a peek at THE FIRES::::::
After an eight-hundred-year slumber, the volcanoes in Iceland’s most populated region are showing signs of life. Earthquakes dominate the headlines. Echoes of the devastating eruptions in the past stir unease in the people.
Volcanologist Anna Arnardóttir has spent her entire life studying the volcanic powers under the earth’s crust, but even she cannot fathom the catastrophe at hand.
As a series of eruptions threaten most of Iceland’s population, she’s caught off her rational guard by the most terrible natural disaster of all—love. The world as she knows it is about to fall apart, and so is her heart.
Caught between the safety of a nation and her feelings for her children, her lover, and her past, Anna embarks on a dangerous journey to save the lives of the people she loves—and her soul.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Sigríður Hagalín Björnsdóttir studied history in Reykjavík and Salamanca and journalism at Columbia University in New York and previously worked in Copenhagen before moving back to Reykjavík, where she lives with her husband, children, and stepchildren. Her bestselling debut, Island (2016), was nominated for the Icelandic Women’s Literature Prize in 2017. Her second novel, The Holy Word, came out in 2018. The Fires was a bestseller and viral hit in Iceland when it was published in 2020, and is the first of her novels to be published in English (in February 2023 by Amazon Crossing). When she isn’t writing, Sigríður works as a journalist and television news anchor at the Icelandic National Broadcasting Service.
About the Translator
Larissa Kyzer is a writer and translator of Icelandic literature. She holds an MA in literary translation from the University of Iceland as well as an MS in library and information science and a BA in comparative literature. Her published translations include novels, short stories, children’s literature, nonfiction, and poetry. Her translation of Kristín Eiríksdóttir’s A Fist or a Heart (Amazon Crossing) was awarded the American-Scandinavian Foundation’s 2019 translation prize. The same year, she was one of Princeton University’s translators in residence. Larissa served as cochair of PEN America’s Translation Committee from 2019 to 2021 and runs Jill!, a virtual Women+ in Translation reading series. Find her online at www.larissakyzer.com.