Trúnó (Noun, Icelandic): a private confessional conversation–usually accompanied by alcohol.
Sif Sigmarsdóttir is an Icelandic journalist and author. She lives in London and her first book in English, I am Traitor, a young-adult dystopian novel set during an alien invasion in modern-day London, will be published by Hodder on September 7, 2017.
What do you do?
The obvious part of my work is sitting down at a computer and typing away. I don’t believe in inspiration; I believe in perspiration. I believe it’s important to sit and write everyday whether you feel up to it or not.
That’s not the most important part. I think most of my writing–at least where things really happen, the creative part–is in between the typing part. Most of my ideas come to me not when I’m at the computer, but when I’m not technically at work. I get ideas when I’m taking a walk, going to the store, making dinner–even on the loo or in the shower. My books come to life subconsciously when I’m doing other things.
Has your understanding of writing changed as you’ve worked on it?
Talking about writing can sound so serious, almost holy, but I think it’s really important not to take it too seriously. It can stop you in your tracks, you know? If you are looking for perfection?
Of course, perfection or seeking perfection is crucial in everything you do: the perfect sentence, the perfect paragraph. It can also kill your work. If you are seeking perfection all the time you don’t get anything done. You could work on one sentence for a year. You could search for the perfect word for many years.
It’s a balancing act. If you go too much the other way and say, “I’m not going to even try to get it right.” Well, then, you’ll just write crap.
How does writing in your second language change the way you write?
It’s definitely harder to write in your second language. It’s mostly because you are more self-conscious. I’m more aware that I could say something stupid or use the wrong word or spell it wrongly. In that sense, it’s more difficult. However, I love writing in English. It’s such a varied language. There are so many words for everything. I kind of feel more restricted in Icelandic, but it was really hard at first to start writing in English.
The only routine I have is to make sure I’m sitting down at my desk every morning. It’s also the only thing I can control. Maybe I sit for hours and write and write and maybe it’s all bad and I need to throw it all away, but at least I tried. I like what Woody Allen says, “80% of success is showing up.” If you don’t try, you will never get anywhere. You just can’t control the rest of it. You can’t control the ideas you get. I don’t have any routine for getting ideas. They just come to me at different times and usually when I don’t expect them to come to me. When you’re going about your life and doing things. You can’t control that part at all.
“The tagline could be “Princess Diaries meets the Twilight Saga” but you could also be more inappropriate and call it “Anne Frank meets Aliens.””
This is your first novel written and published in English and it’s for young adults, right?
It’s a dystopian young adult novel. The tagline could be “Princess Diaries meets the Twilight Saga” but you could also be more inappropriate and call it “Anne Frank meets Aliens.” It’s for young adults, teens, maybe 12, 13 and up. It takes place in contemporary London. I wanted to write about regular teenagers and what would happen if their life changed overnight. How would they deal with it?
I have written for teenagers for many years, so when I sat down to write this book, I immediately knew it was for teenagers. The idea for the novel came to me when I was talking to a young man in Sarajevo and he had been a teenager during the siege and he was telling me about the siege. I exclaimed to him, “You must have been locked up in your houses and unable to do anything.” But he told me, “We did everything they could to maintain a normal life. We would risk our life to go to a party–even with snipers on the rooftops. We didn’t care. We wanted to go to a party.” I think it’s funny and amazing how the human spirit works. You’re living under siege, but still you hold on to normality.
I know you said that your idea come to you at unexpected times, but do you have any method for getting inspiration or is it all unexpected?
I believe in the cliché that truth is stranger than fiction. I’m a total news junkie and current affairs junkie. That’s an important source of inspiration to me and so is history. A news story or a historical anecdote can act as a seed that grows into a whole novel. One of the seeds was the story of a Chinese emperor and his obsession with eternal life and he died by drinking mercury believing it was the elixir of immortality and calling that an irony is an understatement.
Iceland is known as a very literary country, a country that writes and reads. Do you feel a cultural attachment to writing?
I sometimes wonder whether the need to tell stories is in Icelanders’ genes. It’s been an important part of our culture ever since the country was first settled. For centuries people have been staving off the cold and the dark, their misery, by telling stories. We all grow up very aware of the importance of the Icelandic sagas in the history of literature – as well as the writings of Halldór Laxness, the only Icelander to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. But I think the attachment to writing is internal as well as cultural.
The darkness in Iceland is definitely a force for creativity. I don’t think it’s necessarily the literal darkness that demands a creative outlet but its mental manifestation.
Some people blame the weather in Iceland, saying the darkness gives you time to write. Is it different working and writing abroad?
The darkness in Iceland is definitely a force for creativity. I don’t think it’s necessarily the literal darkness that demands a creative outlet but its mental manifestation. The lack of sunlight in Iceland does shape people living there; it does impact your mood. Melancholia and depression have been linked to creativity so maybe it’s only natural that people try to rid themselves of their internal darkness by writing. I do feel more creative during the winter months. I hardly produce any work during the stifling hot and bright London summers.
What advice would you give your younger self when you were just starting to realize you wanted to be a writer?
I would tell myself, “Don’t do it. Run. Run for your life.” Writing is such a pain. If you want to do it as a job, it’s so hard. It’s not a proper job. You have to do other things. But, if I invented a time machine and told my younger self not to do it, I wouldn’t listen. Writing is such a vocation. You kind of have to do it even if you don’t want to do it. My dad wanted me to become a lawyer, and that would have been the sensible option, but even if I knew then what I know now, I still would have wanted to become a writer.