Kári Gíslason on retelling stories from the past

Kári Gíslason is a writer who crosses forms. His memoir, The Promise of Iceland, told the story of his return to his birthplace, Iceland. He co-wrote Saga Land: The island of stories at the edge of the world, which won the Indie Book Award for Non-Fiction, with Richard Fidler. He also writes fiction, including The Ash Burner and The Sorrow Stone. Kári lectures in Creative Writing at QUT.

In this interview, Kári talks about writing with his friend Richard Fidler. Richard has previously appeared on The Garret, and you can listen to Richard reflect on writing with Kári in this interview (recorded live at the Ubud Readers and Writers Festival in 2019).

Kári Gíslason on retelling stories from the past


ASTRID: Kari, welcome to The Garret.

KARI: Thank you very much, Astrid.

ASTRID: Now you have just published The Sorrow Stone, which is a retelling of an Iceland saga, and we will get there. But firstly, Kari, you cross modes and mediums of writing. You published your memoir, The Promise of Iceland, in 2011, you published a novel, your debut novel, The Ash Burner, in 2015. Both of them were listed for the Queensland Literary Awards. And then in 2017, you co-wrote Saga Land with your friend, Richard Fidler. And now not only have you turned your hand to fiction again, but it's a retelling of a saga. Tell me why you chose this story, the story of Disa.

KARI: I met Disa when I was a teenager. If I go back as far as you'll let me, Astrid, it was when I was maybe 17 or 18 and I enrolled in a course in old Icelandic literature, believe it or not. So, there was a time when you could study Old Norse, Old English and all of those things at university. And I enrolled in the course as soon as I saw it because I was curious about my own heritage, and I couldn't believe that you could study old Icelandic at university. And I started reading the sagas properly. I had encountered Disa and the sagas before on visits home to Iceland where I was born, but this was the first time I really engaged seriously with the nature of these works and the complicated way that they draw our people.

One of the things that fascinated me was how they allow the characters to stand for themselves. A lot of literature over the centuries has been concerned with judging characters and telling us who's good and who's bad, and making an allegorical point is quite common in mediaeval literature where we see the characters striving towards goodness, and either succeeding or failing in the eyes of God. But here was a literature where people had to make their own choices. And the authors, if we can call them that because these are oral works, the authors let the characters make their own choices and seem to allow the reader to decide on the moral quality of their choices. I found that really fascinating.

There was this one saga called the saga of Gisli, where the complicated choices the characters made have led to one of the characters being seen as quite bad. There's a woman in this story called Thordis – who is my Disa, if you like – and she seems to be judged quite harshly for what she does because she breaks one of the golden rules of this literature and of the society that produced it, which is that if you have to choose between blood and the people you happen to love, romantic attachments, you always choose blood first. And so that's how I came to meet her and came to be interested in these sagas.

ASTRID: There is a lot to unpack in there. At the beginning, Kari, you made reference to the fact that there was once a time that we could choose to enroll in ancient Icelandic at university. I know you still teach at QUT. Listeners of The Garret will know I spent many, many years at Sydney University studying Classical Latin. Uncommon – although much more common than Icelandic – but nevertheless there was four people in my class. And I would like to come back to the study of what are often dismissed as dead languages. But before we come back to that, let's stay with The Sorrow Stone and your retelling.

You were just talking about morals and the way that these stories and sagas often give the agency to the protagonist and they are left to make choices. You are retelling this for a modern. contemporary Australian audience, you're writing in English. The impetus, the emotions that we're talking about here, the drivers are vengeance and honour – we have them in our current society, but not in the way, shape or form of other cultures, and specifically Icelandic culture in the time that you are writing. How do you take those imperatives that Disa is living in and feeling and reacting within and bring them to a modern audience in a way that is empathetic and not alienating?

KARI: Yeah. And this is the big challenge I think for a lot of historical fiction is, I don't want my novel to seem like a modern novel. And I don't want these people to seem like modern characters.What is the point of historical fiction? Well, one reason for it surely is that we encounter the deep strangeness of the past, the other worldly quality of the past. If we are striving for relatability and a certain type of empathy that is about identification rather than striving to see things from the point of view of someone very different from us, then I think historical fiction can fail, because what it's really doing is dressing the past up in the present. I have no wish to do that. I'm much more interested in the radical difference of the past and this place, Medieval Iceland, is completely different. If you were dropped into this world, you would probably struggle to survive a week because there are so many things that can go wrong in the Viking world, and the stakes are really high.

If you get it wrong, people don't mention it in passing, but the next time they see you, it gets recorded and it becomes like a tally against your name. And once that tally reaches a certain point, then it is solved with violence. This is a society that doesn't have a problem with violence. It doesn't see violence as being a negative feature of the way it resolves disputes. And what a terrifying reality that is. So, I suppose to answer your question, I wanted the full terror of that to be present in the story. Because even though socially violence was accepted as a means of resolving arguments, underneath that you can't help but feel that people were desperate for some other option. There must have been a hope that it wasn't always about the sword.

ASTRID: As a reader, I found your characters so often in this exact moral bind. They knew the course of action they might take, and it might be bloody and disastrous and involve the death of somebody that they are related to or somebody that they love or both. And they don't want to do it, but they are compelled to follow that course because of certain structures in society and how the society did hang together.

One thing I'd like to talk about is Disa herself. Obviously, she's a female character. She is at once utterly free in a way that we don't see females in English Mediaeval literature, or really much of English literature for most of history. But she is also incredibly stuck in terms of how she is supposed to relate to her brothers for example, and how she might actually get married off, even though she is weirdly free. Can you talk me through that, because it is very different than a lot of traditionally Western assumptions.

KARI: Icelandic society at this time is contradictory in terms of gender roles and expectations, just as we see contradictory forces in our own times. We see forces for freedom and agency at the same time as we see restrictions and bindings on women. And that's the case in Iceland at this time. It's just that the contradictions are different. For example, you can divorce. So, a woman has the right to divorce her husband through a unilateral declaration. So, that's freer than our current divorce laws, she can just declare herself to be divorced, and as long as there are witnesses there to see that, she is now divorced. And the other thing that is radical in a historical perspective is that she retains her property rights. And that doesn't happen in England or the UK for example until the 19th century. So, women leaving their marriages left without their property.

Now, if you can leave a man and have some money at the end of it, your life is very different and very much there's still hope for you after the marriage. Being able to get out of a marriage, as we know, is one of the most dangerous moments in a woman's life. And then having somewhere to go is really important. So, if you still have your belongings, you can start to build another life. And that is open to Disa, she does have that power.

The catch is, however easy it is to escape your chosen husband or the husband who was chosen for you, it's not as easy to escape your own family. So, that's the contradiction here. That while there is this freedom and agency for women in the society, and it's a bearing on the world, a female bearing on the world that we see in Iceland all the way through to now actually, a really strong position in some respects for women in that country. But even though that exists, it doesn't dilute the obligations that you have to your brothers. And that's the catch.

And so, one of the most powerful myths if you like of Viking society is the story of Gudran and her husband Atilla, Atilla the Hun. Gudran does this most unspeakable thing. She marries Atilla, and then Atilla hears that her brothers have some gold that they haven't told him about. He becomes obsessed with it. He sets a trap and he kills her brothers. When Gudran hears about this, as revenge, she murders her children by Atilla and serves them to him as food – and that is considered good behaviour. When we talk about the radical difference of the past, we have children being killed in our society today, but I don't think that would ever be held up as something that guides behaviour for parents. That's quite weird if you like.

ASTRID: It is very different, but it's also, the story of Gudran and Atilla that echoes many of the Greek and Roman myths and women serving up their children to get revenge on their husbands or the king. The sagas of Iceland are very different. They are so often, if not always, not based on myth, but actually based on the genealogies and family histories and the stories that have been passed down. And that is very different. But can you talk to me about the enduring power of these sagas?

KARI: It's strange that the Vikings in particular seem to have captured the popular imagination.

ASTRID: That BBC Viking series.

KARI: Yes. And we have our own Australian Thor of course. And what is it about these people? Because underneath the cartoonish humour that we apply to these Viking raiders, I mean, the reality is that they were just behaving awfully. They sailed to other people's countries, and they murdered and assaulted innocent people for land and wealth. And then they went back to their homes and lived in inverted commas an honourable life. Where is the honour in that? Can you imagine being a monk on the east coast of England in the 800s and seeing these ships appear, it would've just been awful.

So why are we so interested in a culture that was very destructive? If we applied that behaviour to anything happening today, we would not valorize it in the way that the Vikings are valorized.

I think one of the reasons that they are interesting as a culture is because of the cultural pairings that we witness inside that culture. It's very strange how cultures combine traits. Some cultures see modesty and bravery as being necessarily combined. Other cultures see bravery and bravado and boasting as being more a natural combination.

The way we pair things is often quite interesting from a storytelling perspective. In the Viking culture, the warrior mentality is paired with deep, deep sense of family, and also a love of poetry. That combination is quite a rich one to explore because it creates all these conflicts, literature is often about conflict, isn't it? It's about a problem that needs to be solved through the slow thinking of narrative. I think the Viking world is a problem world. It has a deep, deep problem, which is that at the same time as you have these extraordinarily brave people who travel across the sea, settle new lands, like Iceland, doing unimaginably courageous things in pursuit of life and of land. At the same time, they seem broken by the system of revenge and honour, and a torturous process of balancing everything out where it's not until everyone's just about dead that you can say, ‘Oh, okay, it's fixed now, we got there in the end’. It's just that no one's left.

The enduring nature of these stories I think is partly to do with the complex set of problems they have in them. And then of course, I guess, I don't know if we want to go there, but for people like me and for many people who have European ancestry, the stories of the north are tales that have come down to us. They are our heritage as well. And I think that's important here.

ASTRID: You're writing in English, but you are drawing on a different literary tradition and heritage. When you were sitting there putting the sentences together, knowing that you're not only retelling a story and a saga, but this is a mini epic, how did you look at your English writing and weave in the literary elements, the epic elements? I mean, the most obvious one is on the first page, you start in media res, you start right in the middle of the heightened emotional scene.

KARI: You know what, all I can say is that it took a few goes to get the tone right, because what I wanted was a touch of the saga prose to come through in the language. If you go to the sagas, they're written in quite an austere and concise manner. The characters do not have an inner life that we get to see very clearly, we only really know what's going on inside people by what they do and by what they say. The point of view or the focalization is external. That creates problems for a modern writer because the expectation of most readers today is that the author will search out the inner life of their characters in one way or another, either through how the characters think and what we have access to, or through their relationships. That concentration on emotion that we take for granted today is pretty much left out of the sagas, and it's one of the reasons I love them. It's not that I'm not an emotional person, I just love that quality of austerity and glimpses, the glimpse of this deep, deep emotion that's only just touched on. I think that's quite a brave thing for an author to do.

But how do you translate that into an historical novel? And historical novels, as you know, they do have quite a lot of generic conventions attached to them. So, that was one of the biggest challenges of this work was the process of translating the language of the sagas gradually into the language of an historical novel. And it took a few goes. It took me a while to let myself be closer to Disa as a person and her emotions. And it was something that happened in stages and drafts rather than anything I ever really achieved from the beginning.

ASTRID: That was my next question. How did you find or uncover the voice of Disa? Because this is Disa's internal point of view, this is her emotional interior world with all of the action that is laid out in the saga on top of it.

KARI: Yeah. Well, I had a few goes. I mean, I tried to write it in the third person and it felt too distant. Then I switched to the first person. And you worry, of course, I'm a middle-aged man, I don't claim to have any special access to Disa as a young woman. And so, instead of thinking that I would get to that, to some magical insight, I didn't try for that. What I tried for instead was to see things that she sees and just to lay that down on the page. That's why I spent quite a lot of time in this novel on objects in particular. I thought objects might be a way around that problem of subjectivity because the distances are great. Of course, there's the distance, my personal distance, from her as a male, but then there's also the other distances, a thousand years is quite a long time. And the society's so different. So how to bridge those distances? I thought perhaps the best way was not to make that an overt attempt in the novel, rather just to try and adopt her gaze. That is a somewhat objective approach because rather than thinking that I understand how everything affects her, what I'm trying to do is to represent what she's seeing and let that carry the effect.

So, for example, she's given a chest as a girl, and that's such a big moment in her life. And if you think about this period, people probably only owned 30 or 40 things. That would be their entire possessions, less than what we have on our desk would be everything they own. And so, to be given a chest, a beautifully carved wooden chest that her father has decided to give her so that she has somewhere to keep her things... I thought in the context of that world, how important would that be? Because most people lived in long houses where there weren't necessarily clear divisions between rooms. Your things would just be stacked up in the middle of a room that everyone else can see. And suddenly you have privacy and you have ownership and possession of your goods. I thought that relationship with objects might be a way of bringing her point of view to life. Even if we can't fully inhabit someone else from another time, we can point to those relationships with the external world.

ASTRID: That's a lovely way to look at it and to position yourself as the writer able to bring her to life and the world that she inhabits and moves through and makes choices in.

I'd like to now briefly move to Saga Land, which was your previous book that you co-wrote with Richard Fidler. I have interviewed Richard Fidler on The Garret before, and he was very complimentary of you. I'm going to go so far as to say ‘bromance’, terrible word that that is. But also to say that he was very vocal about how much he learnt about writing and about storytelling from you. In Saga Land you both write different pieces, and the reader very much knows what's written by Richard and what's written by you. You write about each other and your friendship. I've had the opportunity to ask Richard how he felt reading your words and your experience of your time in Iceland. But I'd like to ask you the same thing. Being in Iceland with Richard Fidler, the land of your ancestry and heritage, but also co-writing a book with him and getting to read what he wrote about you. What was that like?

KARI: Well, like all literature, it was very odd and artificial in a way, because you are experiencing something at the same time as you are commenting on it. That's the creative act, I guess. It's a combination of experience and reflection. And here you are with a third person's perspective on that. And that does influence how you behave because it brings in a performative aspect to what's happening.

Richard says he learned from me as a writer, but it was very much a two way relationship between us. And when we were working on that book, we read each other's chapters as we wrote them in draft and next draft and next draft. And we edited each other's chapter as we went. And whatever Richard may have learned from me, anyone who's heard him interview will know that he is a very hospitable curator of stories. Those interviews don't happen by accident, as I'm sure you know. There's a saying that a good interviewer does all the work but none of the talking. I think what you're seeing with someone like Richard is a person who asks questions that build stories. It's never ‘this, and then this, and then this’. He brings that quality of construction and curation to his storytelling writing as well. You feel as though you can trust him as he gives you this story, lets you into a house of treasures. And each of those treasures is a tale.

That's what Saga Land was trying to do. It was trying to be this house. And I have to say it was a rather crowded house, there were stories flying in every direction. Part of the challenge was to reign it in because we had so many elements. We had my story about going home and looking up this thing that my father had said about my ancestry, and we had a tale about Iceland and Icelandic culture, and then we had all these individual stories. So what we did instead of trying to iron that out was just to accept that's how journeys are. Journeys are often muddled and digressive and complex, and if you start thinking that way about a book, that a book can be almost journal like in its assembly, then you can have fun with that structure. It relies on a reader who doesn't mind jumping around a bit.

But I have to say working with someone on a book like this is a fabulous thing. I think sometimes, in my own teaching, I often talk to my students about the potential for collaboration, that hasn't been emphasised in the history of literary studies and creative writing studies. That there tends to be more emphasis on individual expression and internal searches, whereas there are other options as well that are more collaborative and that are also often multi-modal. We did a radio series as well, and we also did a stage show. It doesn't have to just be about you on your own in your room.

ASTRID: That is one of the great problems of academia, the idea of a person in a room not actually necessarily experiencing everything. And I greatly adore academia, and it is the path not taken for me personally in my life.

But I want to come back to what you said right at the beginning of this interview about you had the opportunity, a rare opportunity, of studying ancient Icelandic. Queensland is not the most obvious place to learn about Iceland in any way, shape or form. But I want to interrogate the idea of anybody, regardless of heritage, regardless of geography, studying an ancient language. Why? I am clearly a convert, I studied Latin, but for those who haven't removed themselves from the contemporary world and deliberately chosen to exist elsewhere for a while, tell me why?

KARI: There are a few answers to that question that I can think of, as I'm sure you can. But I'll have a go at a couple.

One is the nature of unexpected meetings. Now, do you want all of your encounters in life to be what you thought they would be? Are you happy with that as a process of learning? If so, then do just read books you already know you love, and just have conversations with people you like, and you will hear what you want to hear. And that's fine. But I don't know if that's enough for an education system. I think an education system can host unexpected encounters with cultures that are very different from our own. I mean, one of the challenges we're having at the moment is a really productive one around making sure that that is broadly defined.

So in the past, why was Old Norse taught in universities? The answer's not that great. It was because we inherited a 19th century curriculum from Britain, which placed the origins of literature, modern literature, in Anglo-Saxon England. Anglo-Saxon was heavily influenced by Norse literature, and so we read Beowulf, Battle of Maldon, The Seafarer, we read those works and therefore we also read the sagas. And that's where Tolkien and co come from. They come out of that tradition. Now there's nothing wrong in itself with that tradition. It's just that it was the only one. It was the one that was the line that was drawn. And from there, we moved through to Middle English, to Chaucer, and then early Modern English and then to 17th and 18th century writing and the novel. Then plonk! You've arrived at you. You are now ready to write.

I suppose that line is a very rich one, but it's not the only one. Just as now we are looking to include maybe what we refer to as diverse voices, a range of voices, in our curriculum. I think that impulse can also lead us to parts of our earlier heritage that we've come to drop.

So you talk about Latin, the Classics. We're seeing the Classics being dropped in universities, and yet isn't that a rather hasty decision to abandon traditions that have helped to form us. So yeah, I think that would be my main reason for wanting us to keep hold of these texts, because they do create rich and unexpected meetings.

ASTRID: That is so well said. Is there any chance of you bringing this back to the Queensland curriculum, secondary or tertiary?

KARI: Well, I do sneak it in now and again.

ASTRID: Good, good.

KARI: Even though I teach creative writing and some literary studies, what the creative writing phenomenon if you like, the incredible popularity of creative writing courses at universities has done is if you like traditional literary studies, which tended to be either genre or historical period based, so subject on 18th century writing. Creative writing, it's about, it has its focus on technique. And so, if there's a technique in ancient classical writing that helps illustrate something that we're working on now, if you're reading Madeline Miller and you want to go back to Greek texts, it makes perfect sense. It's just under a different guise. It's no longer a literary studies, it's focused as well on the practical outcomes for the student. I don't think that's a terrible thing, it's just that it's a bit less structured and so a bit more random and you end up with big holes in the learning.

ASTRID: Kari, thank you so much for joining me on The Garret today.

KARI: It's been my pleasure, Astrid.