February 09, 2012
Olaf Olafsson, an Icelandic author living in New York, is the author of three previous novels: The Journey Home, Absolution, and Walking Into the Night, as well as a story collection, Valentines. He is also the Executive Vice President of Time Warner, and he lives in New York City with his wife and three children.
Olaf’s newest and fourth novel is called Restoration. Set in war-torn Tuscany, the book is written from the perspectives of Alice, an English aristocrat, who, much to the dismay of her parents, marries a local and ends up buying a 3,500-acre farm, and Kristin, an Icelandic artist who travels to Italy to study the great masters. The two lives interweave just as the Germans are making their retreat from Rome. Alice is now running her farm as a hospital for allied soldiers and partisans. Kristin ends up at the farm seemingly by chance, wounded in an explosion. As the story unfolds, we discover how both women are trying to redeem their lives and how their lives are inextricably entwined in a work of art that everyone is trying to get their hands on.
There was no electric spark, not really; it was more of a gently growing, ever-present flame. I grew up in the heart of downtown Reykjavik. My father, Ólafur Jóhann Sigurðsson, was a well-known author, a contemporary of Iceland’s Nobel Prize winner, Halldor Laxness, and the first Icelandic author to be awarded The Nordic Council’s Literature Prize . As a teenager I devoured all the classics: Homer, Goethe, Shakespeare, the Sagas, and eventually migrated into modern literature. Some of my favorites were Thomas Mann, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov—there’s a reference to him in my new novel, Restoration, by the way.
Yes, “The Lady with the Dog”—another woman with a secret affair, like your protagonist in Restoration, Alice. A little foreshadowing going on there, perhaps?
Yes, hopefully not too much on the nose!
And how about Icelandic authors?
Of course I read the classics of Icelandic literature. As a teenager though, I was mostly interested in Icelandic poetry. Lyrical poets such as Snorri Hjartarson, Hannes Pétursson and Jón Helgason; you know in Iceland, after the war, there was a great surge in lyric poetry. Iceland’s independence from Denmark triggered a wave of national pride that brought about this upwelling in her arts.
Restoration takes place in war-torn Tuscany, in the foothills of Florence. I understand that Iris Origo, a real Second World War heroine, inspired Alice’s character. Tell me a little about her, and which of her deeds and or character traits you incorporated into Alice.
I came across her diaries while doing research on war-torn Tuscany. Long before I discovered Iris, I knew the backdrop to my story was Tuscany. Iris Origo (née Cutting) too, like Alice, was groomed by the English aristocracy, but decided to marry an Italian nobleman, Antonio Origo. This did not fare too well with her family, and like Alice, she became the local Marchesa.
During the war, she converted her farm, La Foce, into a shelter for allied soldiers and partisans and an orphanage for refugee children. Iris was an inspiration for Alice, a kind of incidental sketch for the character that Alice becomes in Restoration; but Alice is quite completely a work of my own fiction, drawn from my own subconscious. She is quite a different person that the Iris Origo we know through her writings.
How much of the work draws on your own life, family or friends?
Hard to say. For sure, some of my characters have their alter egos in real life, whether I personally know them or not. I suppose I’m always hunting within faces and expressions, looking for this or that character trait that might represent this or that part of one my own, fictional characters—a leg from one person, a hand from another; but inevitably, each character has his our her own unique identity, fictional or otherwise.
Restoration is your first major work in five years. How long did you mull during the creation process?
From the moment I began Restoration, the two main voices, Alice and Kristin, resonated in my head. Over time, drawing on many inspirations, I found them, or rather, they found me, and the story began to come to life. Most of the time, when I’m working on a new novel, there’s a period of germination and research, a period of fermentation, and then—finally, I sit down to write. I take notes, I research, I consider all the angles of the story and its characters.
And, I hold back. I’ll often have the impulse to sit down and write something early on; but I’ve found—at least in my case, that it’s good to hold on as long as possible, build up my store; and then, one day I know I’m ready, and the story starts to flow. In this particular case, Restoration was two and a couple of years germinating and three years writing, editing and refining.
Restoration switches back and forth from Alice’s perspective in the first person to Kristin’s in the third. What was the reason you chose to employ such a technique?
I guess I didn’t want to bring the two ladies alive in same manner. The first person device allowed me to have Alice do much of the shaping herself; we get to know her through what she has to say and what she leaves out, through her own self-examination. Kristín, on the other hand, is a bit more remote, at first in particular. That’s how I wanted her, hence the third person for her.
I’m sure you’ve heard this question before—but it’s always interesting to find out how people juggle multiple lives. Dividing time between your workload as Executive VP at Time Warner and your career as a writer can’t be easy. And despite the fact that you keep a day job, you’re an extremely productive writer. You’ve managed to bring out four works in the last 12 years; one every three years, in actual fact.
I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’ve actually been a little reproachful to myself for taking five years to complete Restoration.
Some authors who write full time don’t manage to release a novel every five years, let alone three.
I organize my time well. Being in business has taught me that. Also, to tell you the truth, I’m not a social animal—I try to stay away from late nights and demanding social engagements, and it really isn’t a sacrifice. I’d rather spend my own time writing or reading or playing soccer for that matter. I write early in the morning before I go to work, and on the weekends.
So what time do you get up, four?
No nothing as strenuous as that. Normally around six, gently easing into the day, with a freshly brewed cup of coffee. I hole myself up in my study at home and work for say two to three hours—I’m quite religious about it. I have to be very conscious of my time and allocate it and use it as efficiently as I can. Before nine, when I’m already in my suit and thinking of the day ahead at the office, I leave my novel at home. And, yes—my daily work and my literary work are two entirely different things, but I enjoy both of them.
So you’d never consider packing in the day job?
Not really. At least not now. I really do enjoy both facets of my life.
Your descriptions in Restoration are so vivid, so undeniably ephemeral Tuscany, I am guessing you must have spent time there while writing your novel.
Yes, quite true; although I’ve been going to Tuscany for many years. My first trip abroad from Iceland was to Tuscany on a kind of a pan-European cultural exchange program as a teenager. I fell in love with the place immediately: the landscapes, the art, the food and wine. It was beyond anything I could have dreamt up. Afterwards, I started going there regularly on holidays by myself, later with the family.
On one of my visits there during the time I was researching the novel, after I had discovered Iris Origo’s diaries, I actually spent time on the Marchesa’s farm, which is just outside the fabulous town of Sienna. Who knows? Maybe I’ll spend more time there in the future.
Did you ever consider writing more of a straight biography of Iris Origo’s life?
No. I already had my storyline. The discovery of Iris’s diary came later, and although it helped me to refine some of the colors in Restoration, it was not the story I wanted to tell. I’m always looking at the history with a novelist or fiction writer’s eye. I have no interest in becoming a complete realist.
And yet, much of your work is grounded in history, in the hard or gentle truths of the progression of world events.
Yes, true. In context though. I am a historically grounded author with a deep interest in history, but I’d never want to become a biographer or a historian. I guess I’m too interested in ‘what might happen if’ for that, I want to create my own, new version of things. History provides a backdrop, a foundation, but generally for me, the characters are the most important. I like to mix things up, take new angles, re-shuffle the cards, so to speak.
Did you have any previous experience with fine Italian art or art restoration before writing Restoration?
I have been visiting the Uffizi and the other great Italian museums since I was a teenager and even took courses on renaissance art when I was in university. I’m interested in art in general so this probably wasn’t that much of a stretch. But the restoration piece required a lot of research and learning which I found very interesting and enjoyable.
When writing from the perspective of a female as opposed to a male protagonist, is there anything different in your approach? Do you for example consider how other women in your life would react under certain circumstances?
I really don’t think I approach writing women differently. I’ve done this before. In The Journey Home the protagonist is a woman. I think as a novelist you don’t have much of a choice. If you can’t write a believable character of the opposite sex you’re repertoire has been severely limited.
What’s your technical approach – direct to the computer or by hand first?
That’s an interesting one. Actually, I used to be a longhand-first man—for many years, but as computers got better, I guess they also got the better of me. It was actually when I was writing my novel The Journey Home that I switched from longhand to writing directly into the computer. I only caught myself later, but I’ve never really gone back to longhand when writing prose. In the long run, I guess it really has to do with efficiency.
Of course, there’s something to be said for having that process in-between, a kind-of second stage of reflection, before words become etched on white in typographic fonts rather than your own doodles. But honestly, I’ve gotten used to working this way now. I don’t think I’d go back to the old-fashioned method.
I read your novel Absolution many years ago, when I first came to Iceland. It rather affected the way I first perceived the country, and it brought home to me the isolation that Iceland must have felt until after the Second World War. So, thank you for that. I’d often wondered whether you had written that first novel in Icelandic and then it had been translated—I guessed it was.
Yes, you’re quite right. Absolution was first written in Icelandic. Since then the process has evolved and become more schizophrenic. I’ve worked with Victoria Cribb—one of Icelandic’s preeminent literary translators into the English language– for years and we go back and forth as I make my way through the novel. Lately, I’ve been writing parts of my books first in English. That applies to Restoration, which I completed in English before Icelandic.
Did you feel a big change? Was it difficult making the transition?
Not really. I guess it was like my switching from writing in longhand to direct-to-computer, the timing was right. It felt right. After all, I have been living in the States for thirty years and a good part of my audience is the English-speaking world. It makes sense.
Aside from Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir [both crime novelists], you’re probably the most internationally recognized Icelandic author alive today; and certainly the only one with such a large audience in the English language writing literary fiction. How did you manage to make it in the States?
Well, I’m not sure I’ve ‘made it’—does one ever? Of course, I had a few lucky breaks. As I mentioned, I’ve been living in the States for thirty years now, and although I still keep my Icelandic passport, in some ways I’ve become a New Yorker; of course, I love Iceland, it’s my first home, and will always continue to go back, but a my daily life is here.
Earlier on, when I first lived here, I had the amazing fortune to meet Jason Epstein, Managing Editor of Random House. I told him about my book. I sent him the manuscript, he read it, and shortly thereafter he decided to publish it. It wasn’t until later that I got an agent. I didn’t have one for my first book.
And with Restoration you moved from Random House to Harper Collins, was there a reason?
Once again, as in all things, it was time for a change, time to move on. Jason was no longer with Random House. My new publishers have been extremely supportive; I’m very happy I made this transition.
I’m pretty sure you’re already working on something new.
Laughs. You’re absolutely right—just about finished my research stage, moving into my writing phase.
Can you give us a hint as to the direction of the new work?
All I can say is that it’s a novel. I’m kind of superstitious about my writing, you see. I’ve learned to never let the cat out of the bag too early.
For fear that he’s not hungry enough to catch mice…
You got it.