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Icelandic Writers Retreat

By Brian Borgford

Brian Borgford

Who’s your daddy? Who’s your grampa? Better still, who’s your great-granddaddy? Icelandic Roots provides an excellent overview of your official lineage, but sometimes you must dig deeper to get the rest of the story.

I attended the Icelandic Writers Retreat (IWR) from April 26 to April 30 at the Fosshotel Reykjavík in pursuit of finishing the novel “Helga’s Saga” I am writing about my Icelandic great-grandmother. I have wanted to attend the IWR for several years and this year I did it. I came with a purpose.

First Lady of Iceland, Eliza Reid, has organized this event for nine years and always has an array of accomplished and award-winning authors. This year was no exception with headliners such as three-time Pulitzer winner, author, and investigative reporter with the Washington Post, Carol Leonnig. The one hundred attendees hailed from eighteen different countries, and many were published writers.

During the five days of the event, I attended several plenary sessions and five workshops, which are intimate settings with a dozen participants actively interacting with the facilitator in discussions and exercises. My sessions included expert facilitation by Carol Leonnig and authors Claire Messud, Danny Ramadan, Runar Helgi Vignisson, and Amanda Smyth. Topics included writing for character, setting, speculative non-fiction, and revisions. All topics added to my toolkit of writing skills.

I stayed for the optional two-day ‘Relax, Read, and Write’ Extension, where I was able to work on my writing, putting to immediate use some of my newly found skills. I was especially able to draw on the topic of “setting.” After all, I was in the midst of the land of Helga’s first forty-five years.

In addition to the workshops, the Retreat offered a series of outings and cultural excursions, including a trip to City Hall, a literary walking tour of Reykjavík, and a visit with Iceland’s President, Gudni Th. Johannesson at his residence, Bessastaðir, a literary tour of the Borgarfjörður district, Halldor Laxness's home, and a trip to the Hraunfossar and Barnafoss waterfalls. We even got to eat eggs boiled in the Deildartunguhver Hot Spring.

Brian with Iceland’s President, Gudni Th. Johannesson and First Lady, Eliza Reed
Brian with Iceland’s President, Gudni Th. Johannesson and First Lady, Eliza Reed

Social events included a pub night at Kex Hostel, where we enjoyed a reading from a local author, a series of humorous poems by a poet, and music from a local singer. During these social times, I had the opportunity to visit with the presenters, who were more than happy to share their thoughts. Best-selling author Nita Prose, who is a senior manager with Simon & Schuster Canada, was particularly insightful on the publishing industry.

On our final night, we ate a gourmet meal at Nautholl restaurant and each of us had the opportunity to read from our work during an open mic session. I read a passage from my young adult novel, “A Viking’s Journey,” based on my grandfather's early life.

During some of our rare free time, I met with my cousin who lives in Reykjavík and took me on a heritage tour to the farms upon which my great-grandmother, Helga, was born and lived. In the draft of my novel, I posed, but left unanswered, the question of why Helga was the only one of her mother’s ten surviving children (she bore seventeen) who never lived with her parents. She was sent off to be raised on other farms, never spending time with her mother and father.

My Reykjavik cousin Olof Thorvaldsdottir and her husband Logi Elfar Kristjánsson
My Reykjavik cousin Olof Thorvaldsdottir and her husband Logi Elfar Kristjánsson

My seventy-eight-year-old cousin was born and raised near Helga’s farm in the district of Borgarfjörður and has heard local stories and rumours. Although my cousin can’t say for certain, she has surmised from local folklore that my great-grandmother, Helga, was really the daughter of the wealthy owner of the neighboring farm who had a fling with Helga’s mother and, as her natural father, arranged to have her raised by friends who were more well-to-do than Helga’s parents. This tidbit may find its way into my novel to answer the question posed.

Who’s your daddy? Do you really know?


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