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Sjón Johnny Bliss hanging out Iceland Writers Retreat 2015

Johnny Bliss

johnny bliss

The literary philosophies of Icelandic author Sjón

Sjón, from Reykjavik, Iceland, is the award-winning writer of several surrealist novels, the lyricist who co-wrote Oscar-nominated songs for „Dancer in the Dark“ with Björk, the sometime punk rocker with the Sugarcubes known as „Johnny Triumph“, and the third contributor to the Future Library, which will publish an anthology in 2114.

Von Johnny Bliss

This is not the first time I will write about Sjón. I first met him in 2015 at the Iceland Writers Retreat, an incredible writing festival that I’d had the great fortune to attend as a journalist. Sjón particularly caught my attention with a literary workshop where he challenged us to look at all of our influences and sources of inspiration; not just the “high culture” ones we’re usually happy to cite, but also the “low culture” ones, like video games and children’s cartoons and even pop music. I thought that this was a very human, humble, and unpretentious approach, and in retrospect, it was a highlight of the whole retreat for me. (On top of that, he came to his own seminar wearing a button-up shirt that was still covered in cat fur... apparently his cat had been sleeping on his lap earlier that day, and he’d forgotten to brush the fur off. ♥)

Interview with Sjón at IWR 2015
Sjón, at an IWR reading 2015

Roman Gerasymenko, Iceland Writers Retreat 2015

Reality Check, 22nd-25th May

From May 22nd to 25th, our roaming reporter Johnny Bliss is in Reykjavik with the acclaimed surrealist, poet, and novelist Sjón, talking about songwriting (he’s co-written lyrics with Björk), the future of literature (his latest story will be published only in the year 2114), and some of the award-winning surrealist novels he’s written like „Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was“. From 1 p.m., and afterwards seven days on demand.

Check this spot at the end of the week for the Reality Check podcast!

I don’t know if this initial first impression is why I chose to contact him three years later for a follow-up interview. There is certainly no dearth of other reasons I should do so. From his appearance on one of my favourite Sugarcubes songs, Luftgitar (see below), to his participation as an author for the amazing Future Library project (see below), to even just his books themselves, which are full of dreamlike imagery and surrealism, there were plenty of reasons to make a second approach.

Whatever the cause, I was pleasantly surprised by a quick response! He was more than happy to meet to discuss All The Topics, in Reykjavik’s elegant basement cafe Stófan.

This time he didn’t have cat fur on his sweater, none that I could see, at least. No, it was my turn to throw any pretense of „professional distance“ out the window, by unceremoniously spilling a bunch of soup all over myself as he was approaching my table.

Having robbed myself of any veneer of respectability, I was ready to sit down with Sjón and spend an engaging hour and a half discussing philosophy, futurism, dreams, and the nature of reality.

Below is a small selection of quotations from that conversation, which you can additionally hear every day this week on FM4’s Reality Check, from 12-2!

Sjón at Café Stófan, Reykavik

Johnny Bliss

Sjón, doing his best to ignore all the soup I spilled everywhere

Sjón and the Future Library

Firstly, I’ve mentioned several times already that Sjón has written a story that will be published in the year 2114. So what is that all about?

The Future Library is a project in Norway, dreamed up by Katie Paterson, a Scottish artist. They have planted, I think, one thousand trees, which will grow for one hundred years. In 2114, this wood will be harvested, and used to make paper, and they will print an anthology. The first author was Margaret Atwood, the second author was David Mitchell, I was the third, and the Turkish author Elif Shafak, she will be the fourth one. [As a contributor,] they are basically asking you to write a text that will be only available to you and readers in the far future. Those of us who are contributing in the first two decades cannot hope to live the moment when they publish the books.

norwegian forest

Ida Myrvold @ Flickr

Ida Myrvold @ Flickr

“In my case, one of the things that I had to deal with was the language issue. I write in a language that is spoken by 360,000 people (if we are optimistic), and we don’t know where this language will be in one hundred years. We don’t even know if it will still be used as a written language! So it’s possible that my contribution, which I wrote in Icelandic, will only be readable to a few specialists who are knowledgeable about this language, which has died out.

“In 2114, the last author will deliver a contribution to the library, and that person might be an eighteen-year-old Balinese poet, or an artificial intelligence being, we don’t know! [But] it will be a dialogue between 2114 and all time that has gone on.”

Find out more about the Future Library here.

The intersection between punk rock and poetry

If you read Sjón’s novels and poetry today, you would have little idea that his first platform for reading poetry was at punk rock concerts. Indeed, back in the ‚80s, he appeared with Björk’s first band the Sugarcubes under the name Johnny Triumph. But how do these two worlds converge?

“In the early ’80s, poetry and music came together. I was never a proper musician and I still am not one. But in those days, the only platform available for young poets was the rock concerts. So we used to read our poetry between bands, and sometimes the drummer or the guitarist would come on-stage with you and make noises while you were reading. So that was how I started as a surrealist poet, reading at punk concerts!

“It was only when I started working with Björk on some of her songs that I became a proper lyricist, and learned how to break a story up into verses, bridges, choruses and all that. But from the beginning, I always wrote with reading in mind.”

Hear Sjón recite some of his poems (with English translations) here.

Sjón

CC by 2.5 dk / Magnus Fröderberg / norden.org

Why Sjón incorporates dreams into his stories

“Recently, I’ve been wondering if man’s ability to remember his dreams is the source of all storytelling, creativity and even religion and all that. Because, in the dream, you are there. There’s no question about it. You’re in the situation, while you’re dreaming. When people started trying to deal with this, that they woke up and they had actually been somewhere, in a very strange situation, that could be the moment where we became the creative creatures we are.

“[Looking at this from a literary perspective,] this is all a part of the world that the characters live in. All the characters in the most realistic, dull novels, of course they’re also dreaming! But the author never allows you to enter that world. The narrative plot and the apparent reality of the characters, it’s just like half of the story! All the strange things that happen in my books are grounded in a person’s perception of reality. So, for me, to work with dreams, hallucinations, and visions, is something that makes the work more realistic!”

Sjón puts the 'Realism' in 'Surrealism'

Sjón on the role Reykjavik plays in his stories

“I like to write about the places that are gone, revisit the places that have disappeared. My Reykjavik is a Reykjavik that is always infused with me, and the things that I’ve connected with, throughout the years. Many local authors have created a literary Reykjavik, in a parallel universe to the real one.

Sjón talks about Reykjavik & his book 'Moonstone'
Sjón

Bjartur

“[My novel, Moonstone] is about a sixteen-year-old kid living in Reykjavik in 1918, just under one hundred years [ago]. He’s queer, he’s an orphan, he’s dyslexic, he’s unemployed, living on the outskirts of society in so many ways, but he’s also a cinephile, a lover of cinema. We come into his life in the autumn of 1918, around the same time the Spanish Influenza hits Reykjavik.

“The book is called Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was. The reason why the title says that he never existed is mainly because he’s queer. There was no space for queer people in Iceland until twenty, thirty years ago. So his story is one of the hidden, untold stories of this town.

“The best stories take place on the margins, and that’s why I enjoy working with characters who, in one way or another, are in opposition to the norms of society, or what is thought of as proper.

“In a small society like Iceland, that’s definitely where you find an opportunity to expose society. And society exposes itself in its reaction.”

Sjón's Tips for Austrian Authors (IWR, 2015)

The 22nd-25th of May: In a series running on FM4’s Reality Check, join our roaming reporter Johnny Bliss and the acclaimed surrealist, poet, and novelist, Sjón, talking about lyricism (he’s co-written song lyrics with Björk), the future of literature (his latest story will be published only in the year 2114), or the prize-winning surrealist novels he’s written like „The Blue Fox“ and „Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was“. From 1 p.m.

Check this spot at the end of the week for the Reality Check podcast!

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