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Interview Olaf Olafsson

I had promised Mother I would take the first plane back. She was not taking it well. This was the first time I thought of her as being old.
I feared the journey home.

- Absolution, Olaf Olafsson, 1991

Olaf Olafsson
Stacey Knecht

Walking Into the Night

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SK — Tell me about Iceland.

OO — IcelandÖ Well, over the last few years itís become a bit better known than it used to be. For many centuries it was quite isolated, but during WWII, with the British occupation, it was thrown into the twentieth-century - into modern times - overnight. I grew up there, itís a place thatís very close to me, I lived there for a long time. I have a house there, Iím there about four times a year. Itís always good to go back. Iceland has become somewhat of a Ďhot spotí lately, especially among celebrities, because nobody bothers them up there! Itís a beautiful country.

SK — Itís your home.

OO — Itís home. Where my roots are.

SK — Someone once said to me that everyone always leaves Iceland: that everyone who was born there, leaves.

OO — I donít think thatís true. Iím an exception, somebody who goes to university overseas and doesnít come back. Most people actually do return.

SK — You were very youngÖ

OO — I was nineteen when I left, and I always intended to go back. I never actually intended to go to the U.S. I never planned anything! I was invited on a scholarship, and I said, ĎIíll take it!í And I thought I would return after my studies.

SK — When did you realize you were going to stay?

OO — I donít think Iíve realized it yetÖ After I finished my studies, I was offered a job. And I thought, Iíll try that for a couple of years. One year turned to two years...

SK — Youíve written three novels so far: Absolution, The Journey Home, and Walking Into the Night. Funnily enough, the title of your second novel, The Journey Home, could have applied to all three!

OO — I probably didnít do that consciously, but youíre right. All three books Ė itís been pointed out to me before Ė are similar in that the characters donít necessarily live in the country in which they were born, which is usually Iceland. And thereís definitely a back-and-forth quality to their existence. I myself have lived in the States now for 20 years, in New York for 15 years, before that in Boston and San Francisco, so Iíve been around, too.

SK — The characters not only leave home, and go back and forth, but they all have a past which theyíre trying to leave behind and come to terms with. A secret, something that happened that has scarred them in some way. Christian, the protagonist of your latest novel Walking Into the Night, leaves his wife and children behind in Iceland Ė sneaks out, basically Ė and goes off to start a new life in America, as a butler, at the home of William Randolph Hearst in San Simeon. At one point he says, ĎIíll always be a stranger here, so thereís little to remind me of what I miss, and this makes it easier for me to discipline my thoughts. Though I can still be caught unawaresí.
Why does he leave?

OO — There are external reasons and internal reasons. The external reasons are relatively clear: he falls in love with a woman, and the consequences of that are such that he leaves. In my mind Ė but of course, every reader should determine his or her own reasons Ė in my mind, when he leaves, itís not with the determination never to return.

SK — That sounds familiar...

OO — Yes! (laughs) But once his head clears, itís too late, or at least he feels itís too late for him to go back and face those he left behind. But then you have the internal reasons for leaving, and I guess thatís what prompted me to write this book in the first place, to try and understand what it is in a manís character that would prompt him to make such a drastic move. By the way, this is actually the only novel Iíve written which was inspired by the life of a real person.

SK — Two real people.

OO — Yes, two real people. The story of this gentleman was told to me by his grandson, a doctor friend of mine, over dinner in New York. He said, Oh, one day Iíll tell you my grandfatherís story, and I said, ĎHow about right now? Iíll order another bottle of wine!í When he told me the story, it stuck with me, and I knew within days that I was going to use it. And as you know, writers are exploitive creatures, always wondering what we can use and how we can use it... weíre terrible people! I wanted to explore the inner mechanism: what can make you leave everything thatís familiar to you?

SK — And did you figure it out?

OO — Well, you know, in the end, I created a book, and the character in my book probably has nothing to do with the man whose story inspired it... When I started reading his letters and diaries, which the family gave me access to, there was nothing there that explained any of it. Which I found even more intriguing. So probably one of my most important tasks as a writer was to prepare the way, to make it plausible for him to have done this. But thereís something Ė call it a Ďcrackí Ė something that, if you hit it in the right place, it breaks. Not premeditated. As I said before, I never planned to do what I did, but Christian, being hit in this way Ė he does it. He cracks.

SK — So what hit him?

OO — What hit him... To me, he was always an outsider. He was a man who was always one step removed from close human contact. You see it with his wife: even when he writes to her from San Simeon, he never sends the letters. You see it in his interactions with most people, heís a bit distant. You also see that he battles with inferiority, a feeling of servility. Even when heís running a business, he doesnít like to give orders, or boss people around. He doesnít think he lives up to his wifeís expectations, which, as you can see from the book, she doesnít even have, theyíre all in his mind. So thatís what it is: those are the circumstances that make him crack. It becomes too much for him.
What also intrigued me when I heard my friend's story was this: weíre all creatures of habit. We take great pains to create a world around us that weíre familiar with, a world we can control, even if itís just the place we go every morning to drink a cup of coffee Ė itís this routine in our lives that makes us comfortable. And family is a part of that routine, surrounded by the people and things that make us feel weíre not floating around in an uncontrolled space.

SK — ĎThe things that protect us from ourselvesí, Christian says.

OO — Yes. But at the same time, people have this fundamental urge to be free. And often thereís a conflict between your need for security and routine, and stability, and this urge to be free. And Christian, of course, encounters that in a pretty profound way.

SK — The other real-life figure who found his way into your novel is William Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper magnate. I went to San Simeon many years ago, as a little girl. Fantastic. What I remember most is the swimming pool Ė the tour guide said that all the guests were given free bathing suits and toothbrushes, which, at the age of ten, I found very impressive.
Would you have used the character of Hearst if he hadnít had an Icelandic butler?

OO — Yes, sure. The butler just happened to be from Iceland (laughs). I donít think any of the themes in Walking Into the Night are uniquely Icelandic. I think theyíre universal. So yes, I still wouldíve worked Hearst into the story. Why Hearst? Like many people, I saw the film Citizen Kane, and while that film is probably more about Orson Welles than it is about William Randolph Hearst, it always made me want to know more about Hearst. Then, in the 1980ís, when I was living in San Francisco, I was driving down the coast one day and I came upon the castle in San Simeon, which, as you know, is this unbelievable place, in a magnificent setting. Itís both charming and grotesque Ė thatís the interesting thing about it, the appeal. Itís got tremendous scope, but it borders on being a monstrosity, itís filled with terrific art, but also kitsch. And all this was created by a man with a God-complex. He goes there and builds his own city, his compound, on the hill. Builds himself a monument. He populates it with whatever he feels is necessary for him to be content there. And that might be a zoo, so he can see whatever animals he likes, at whatever moment he likes, or certain people, whoever happens to interest him at the time. He throws huge parties on Saturday night, he makes a grand entrance and then disappears, and the guests can do whatever they like... Itís all staged. I found it fascinating, and I read quite a bit about Hearst, everything I could get my hands on, including the archives at San Simeon. When this doctor friend of mine in New York told me about his grandfather, he mentioned that he had worked as a butler for some wealthy folks on the East Coast, one of them being Hearst.

SK — On the East Coast?

OO — Yes. His grandfather actually worked for Hearstís wife, the one who left him. But I decided to shift the story to the West Coast, to place my character, Christian, in San Simeon Ė the perfect setting for someone in his shoes.

SK — Why is that?

OO — Why? Because if you want to hide, or disappear from the world, itís not a bad place to disappear to. You disappear to another world. San Simeon is both a state of mind and a place so physically different than the world he came from that itís the perfect refuge.

SK — Is it?

OO — Well, for him, for a while, yes. But what happens with Christian, as with most of us, is... weíre all capable of deluding ourselves, at least for a while. But self-delusion seems to have an expiration date. When the time comes, even that fortress, that refuge, canít keep out his memories.
Anyway, that was sort of how the Hearst angle came into play. And of course, everything about San Simeon is historically accurate, but Hearst himself, the persona, is my creation. And I felt that what was going on in his life would be the appropriate backdrop for Christian.

SK — A parallel.

OO — A parallel, exactly. And the interaction, the interplay between the two would help me weave my story.

SK — What is that parallel? What are the similarities?

OO — Both men are very vulnerable. Here you have Hearst, this extremely wealthy man who controls a large portion of the media, across the country, one of the wealthiest and most influential men in America Ė but heís battling his own demons, and certainly doesnít have everything Ďunder controlí. He does everything he can to create his perfect world, to bring the world to the top of that hill, to conquer nature. But obviously thatís not possible, it canít last. Christian is doing the same thing. Not in the same physical sense as Hearst, but in his mind: heís trying to create a place, or an existence, where he can survive, without crumbling under the weight of the past.

SK — Why does Christian draw pictures of birds?

OO — Birds always come in handy! At least in this book. (laughs) They can symbolize so many different things. At the most basic level, they can do something we canít: they can fly away. They defy gravity, which we donít, and they migrate, they go back and forth. And they have different personalities, different characteristics. Christian draws birds because he likes to draw, itís a hobby. But you can also say, as he does, that heís trying to let their characters come through in his drawings, to understand them better by the way they look. And at the same time heís trying to understand himself a little better. As he does in his letters. Itís another way for him to try and make sense of things, as we do every now and then during our lives, to look back and see why this happened and not that.

SK — Your native language is Icelandic. Yet youíve lived in the States for more than twenty years now. You sometimes write in Icelandic, sometimes directly in English, sometimes a bit of both... how does that work?

OO — Itís a schizophrenic thing. My first book, Absolution, I wrote in Icelandic. That was in 1991. Then it was translated into English, and then of course I started scribbling in the margins... It was a good translation, but I discovered when I began digging into it that I knew how I wanted it to sound in English. With The Journey Home, and Walking Into the Night, I took it a step further, I translated them together with Victoria Cribb, who has been a great collaborator on both of these books. So when other people translate my books, whether itís into Dutch or German or Italian or any other language, I give them a choice: they can translate either from the Icelandic or the English, because both versions come from me. I regard them as equals.

SK — Have you ever considered writing directly in English?

OO — There were chapters of Walking Into the Night that were written first in English and then in Icelandic. I canít remember which ones, or what exactly prompted me, but as I said, itís a pretty schizophrenic process. It probably reflects the fact that Iíve spent half my life now in the States. Icelandic is part of my DNA, but English is a language I speak every day.

SK — People are often surprised when I tell them that you can forget your own language when you live in another country. You tend to forget the basics, you lose track of whatís current in the spoken language. Has that been your experience, too?

OO — You certainly can forget your own language! Iíve seen it with people who have been in the States for a long time. My wife comes from Iceland, too, so we speak Icelandic at home, but people who donít speak the language at home, or at work, whose kids donít speak the language Ė you can definitely lose bits and pieces.

SK — Though this jumble of languages is also a rich source of material, for a writer.

OO — Yes, it is. At this point, I work in both languages, and probably will continue to do so. The problem now is: the book Iím just finishing is so damn long! I wrote it differently than The Journey Home and Walking Into the Night, which I wrote very methodically. So when I was done with both books, the editing was minimal. But the new book I wrote without looking back Ė until I got to the end. Itís a different kind of book, I had to keep going, I needed that tone and cadence...

SK — You wrote it in Icelandic?

OO — Mainly, with some bits in English. It was 850 pages! Iíve cut it down to 550-600 (laughs).

SK — (laughs) So now itís a novella! Can you tell us more about it?

OO — Iíve always wanted to see if one could capture something of the atmosphere of the century that has just passed Ė that crazy century! Ė and have it somehow be reflected in one person. Not only in what he does or encounters, but in how heís composed, how he behaves. So itís a big epic story. Itís set in India, England, the US, Europe, and Iceland Ė my protagonist is a man who travels. The story takes place from the 20ís to the early 70ís, when Spassky and Fischer fought the Cold War on a chessboard in Iceland.

SK — Iíve noticed, in reading your books, that youíre particularly interested in the early part of the last century.

OO — I am, yes. As I joked to somebody recently, this time I actually made it all the way to 1972!

SK — Do you ever wonder why your books are so overwhelmingly popular in Iceland? Is it simply because theyíve been written by a fellow Icelander?

OO — Iím probably the last person to be able to judge that. Iíve been fortunate with all my books. My very first book was published when I was twenty-three. It was a collection of short stories, which hasnít been translated into English. Maybe it will be some day. I hope so Ė I have tender feelings for it. When that book was published, the myth was that you could no longer sell short stories, that nobody would buy them. The myth still exists today. But that book did very well, and so have all my others. The Journey Home broke records, and Walking Into the Night did even better. But why that is? (sighs) I donít know. Thereís got to be something in them that people can associate with.

SK — Do you have any contact with your readers there?

OO — I have contact with them in the sense that when Iím there, at Christmas for instance, a lot of people will have read the latest book, so when I go to the swimming pool, Iím likely to run into somebody who says, ĎHey, I just finished your book!í The interesting thing about Iceland is that everybody reads literature. Itís funny: the same year that Walking Into the Night topped the bestseller list, book number two was Harry Potter. There arenít many countries where a literary novel beats Harry Potter! People in Iceland arenít afraid of literature. They like a good story, but that story doesnít have to be your standard bestseller affair. And by the way, I think a lot of this has to do with the definition of a bestseller, particularly in the English-speaking world. Negative connotations. Most people are perfectly capable of reading stuff that has some substance. Itís not just an elite, either Ė in Iceland, the busdriver will tell you heís just finished reading your book, as will a university professor.

SK — Are people surprised, in both your business and your literary world, when they hear what you do Ďon the sideí?

OO — Most people react with some surprise, because these two worlds are seen as so different, and people have a hard time reconciling the two.

SK — Are they that different?

OO — There are differences and similarities. I was interviewed by our company magazine at Time Warner, and they said something about Ďthe executive, the ultimate insider, and the writer, the ultimate outsiderí. And I said, well, you know, that sounds clever, but you can also turn it around: no successful executive will be successful unless he can look at his company from the outside, and see what works and what doesnít. And a writer is always an insider in his books, heís a part of the world he creates. For me, itís just work. Itís what I do. I donít try to analyze it, because that wonít get me anywhere. I got into business purely by accident, but I was always going to write Ė that, I knew. Business was the last thing I ever thought Iíd do. Most businesses I have no interest in. Iíve always been in the media business, which involves books, magazines, making films, writing, communication, entertainment and so on, so at least thereís some kinship. I canít see myself ever working for an automobile company.
Iíve left the business world twice, and come back twice, both times because friends asked me to. But as long as I can write, itís okay. I write in the mornings, I start at 7, 7:30, I write for about four, five hours, and then Iím done. Thereís nothing more I can do, and the best thing is then to stop, because after that it gets counterproductive. If you get a good four hours done in the morning, itís a blessing. Writing is such a solitary experience that to go and do something different after that works for me. You see people, you deal with different things, and at the same time the writing part of your brain keeps working without you necessarily knowing about it, and the other activities donít detract from it, because theyíre different enough not to intrude. I could never teach, for instance, or edit other peopleís work. For me, that would be drawing from the same reservoir. Iíd find it very intrusive, Iíd probably get very frustrated. But for some people, that works. T.S. Eliot was a banker and a publisher, Wallace Stevens was a lawyer, there are several doctor writers. But at the end of the day, itís not what we do, or how we behave when weíre writing, or whether we stand on our heads every fifteen minutes Ė itís what we write that matters, thatís how weíre judged, when everything is said and done.
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editor-in-chief: Stacey Knecht,
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Copyright: Pieter Steinz, Stacey Knecht
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