OK, it’s been a while since we had one of those, but here’s Colin Harvey on his novel Winter Song and his use of Icelandic culture.
(I’m still MIA and will remain so for another week or so. Very very busy)
I have two novels which came out nearly simultaneously –at least by geological time scales—in the US last year. Because Winter Song was actually published in the UK in 2009, I’ve tended to focus guest blogs on Damage Time, which was published worldwide for the first time in 2010.
But knowing Aliette’s fascination for cultures, particularly of the non-traditional/Western European variety, I thought it might prove interesting if I stepped back a year and talked about Winter Song instead.
Winter Song actually grew out of a visit to Borganes in western Iceland in late 2007. It’s a fairly small, everyday-looking town through which one can imagine the tumbleweed blowing on a Saturday night – or afternoon, for that matter.
But as we learned on a visit to the municipal museum, the first settlement in Iceland took place only a few kilometres away. The museum exhibits included films and still photographs of vast numbers of birds and animals, all shown in a dark, enclosed room simulatinga bird-watcher’s hide.
Outside were racks of books about Egil’s Saga, and other medieval stories; these are the literature of the Norsemen whose longships struck terror into Irish monks, and Saxon men and women from Scotland to Normandy. Illustrations and models in another display showed Egil’s Saga in model form, and brought it vividly to life. Here was a man who as a child had smashed the skull of a competitor during a race because he couldn’t bear to lose, who regularly murdered his enemies under truce, who was ugly, yet fascinated women with both his poetry and his vitality, who lived into his eighties, and even when he was a frail old man, still delighted in making mischief.
The actual settlement of Iceland didn’t take place until the mid 9th century, when the the countryside was covered with dense woodland inhabited by what seemed to be almost unlimited numbers of birds and animals, particularly game and wild fowl. It’s hard to envision today, when there is barely a hundred square miles of forest across a land four-fifths the size of England, and nine-tenths of that is replanted (most Iceland trees are still so young that there’s an Icelandic joke that says if you’re ever lost in an Icelandic forest…just stand up) — forest nowadays accounts for just one third of one per cent of Iceland’s total landmass.
But the climate cooled, deforestation stripped the landscape of cover, and life grew increasingly difficult. Growing cereal crops became all but impossible — Instead settlers baked bread from moss, seeds or whatever constituents they could obtain. For the next three centuries life became ever more difficult, but even though deprivation and isolation made life ever harder, Icelandic chieftains founded the first parliament; disputes could be settled peaceably (although many chieftains succumbed to the urge to settle arguments by force) and laws were passed establishing when men and women could travel without becoming outlaws. In the end Iceland passed into Norway’s sphere of influence and the world’s first parliamentary democracy ended for seven centuries.
Many or the reviews focused on how bleak and harsh the novel was, whereas i actually softened the reality; I thought it best to omit the incest that too often happened on isolated farmsteads deprived of outside visitors, and I felt that dwelling too long on having to eat moss, bark or even mud would be too much for modern sensibilities – we aren’t as tough as our forebears. Indeed, the harsh but beautiful Icelandic landscape kills one or two visitors every year, often the more experienced tourists lulled into complacency. Even now it is a harsh landscape, and before GPS, cellphones and aircraft, it must have been almost unbearable. Almost…. but humans are tougher than one might think. They would need to be to survive Isheimur.
Colin Harvey was born in Cornwall in 1960, and now lives between Bristol and Bath. He worked on a kibbutz and in a night shelter in the Midlands before joining Unilever. Colin worked for Unilever for over 20 years, including launching Ben & Jerry’s Ice Cream in Iceland, and as part of the project teams rolling out Sunsilk Colour Active Shampoo in Australia, and Vaseline Body Butter in North America.
Colin has been a freelance writer since 2007. He reviewed for Strange Horizons for six years, and served on the Management Committe of the Speculative Literature Foundation for five, during which time he co-judged the Travel Research Grant and the Older Writers Grant.
His short stories have appeared in Albedo One, Gothic.net, Song of the Siren and Speculations, as well as several original anthologies. His novels are all available on Amazon.
Colin’s anthology Killers was nominated for the Black Quill Award and the British Fantasy Award.