Andri Snær Magnason in Athens 2018 World Book Capital!

Andri Snær Magnason is an awarded writer, activist, artist from Iceland. One could say he’s also a politician, since he was a candidate for the presidential elections in 2016 in Iceland! His work has been translated in more than 35 countries. He has written books such as Timakistan, LoveStar, The Story of the Blue Planet, performed in theatres, among other countries in Greece. He has been active in the fight against destruction of the Icelandic highlands. His book Dreamland – a self help Manual for a Frightened Nation has become a documentary film. Magnason is holding a lecture in Megaron, Athens, on Friday, the 30th of November 2018, invited by Athens 2018 World Book Capital/City of Athens in cooperation with Patakis Publications and the Embassy of Iceland in Oslo. Before arriving in Athens, he answered to -a lot of- questions, made to him by Anna Routsi!

You are, and have always been, much more than an author or an artist. Yet – or therefore! – I would like to have your opinion on what could be the role and the tools of an artist in today’s politics, society and environment.

Every artist has to find their path but in many cases the experience of an artist can contribute to larger issues. I was just reading the new IPCC report, trying to understand the big issues of global warming and I thought, was no poet or storyteller in the team? In Reykjavík we had an actor as mayor, Jón Gnarr. People thought we were crazy but people in the creative field are used to doing amazing things with a tight budget. A theater director works with actors, musicians, carpenters, light designers, marketing people and promises to deliver a script with a vision on stage at a precise time months in the future. How could that be seen as a less useful experience to run a city than being a lawyer working with one client at a time?  

Why do you write (also) for young people? What is the best way, in your opinion, to approach and motivate them?

I write for young people because for the first the best books I have read are by authors that really respected young audiences. Authors like Astrid Lindgren and Michael Ende. I remembered the books that inspired me the most and I wanted to try to write something like that. I take lots of time doing it. Sometimes I keep a book for a year because I think it can become a bit better. I approach children and young adults basically as humans. I don’t try to imagine they are much different now than I was myself, I don’t try to simplify the language but I don’t try to make it complex either. I like putting things in that rattle the brain, and also impossible dilemmas, that need to be solved. And of course hope. And maybe one farting joke.

What topics you’d like to emphasize in in your lecture in Athens?

I will talk about how society and language can shape your work. How something happening in the outer world can manifest itself in a story or fantasy. I will talk about my influences and how the times we are living are mythological in a way, because many forces on earth are changing in human speed, instead of geological speed. That was actually one of the influences for Tímakistan.

Iceland has become wider well known through the crisis and Greece too, in many ways. Do you find any common ground? How did the crisis affect your lives? How did it affect the environment? Did it also affect literature? To us, the Icelandic model of overcoming the crisis seems a success story. Is it really?

It is hard to say. But it was a very interesting time in many ways. Lots of talent was suddenly available for people with new ideas, in startup business or in social pioneering work like on the new constitution. We had a national gathering where 1000 people, randomly chosen from the national registry were called to talk about values and the future. The traditional culture of Iceland is a culture of scarcity and poverty that was our grandmothers’ culture and many went back to those traditions, of knitting and fixing and making your own food. For the environment it was good because there was construction in the highlands for some years. But business started growing and in too many fields, not enough has changed, in how banks are run and the general equality. For writing it was interesting. A crash like this affects the language, how we talk about things, and suddenly we had to question the fundaments of our society, the systems, the ideologies, so out of this came lots of political parties, wanting to find new politics. Some did, some failed.

Environment and constitution were in your agenda during the presidential elections 2016. Has there been any progress there? How was your experience from this high-level political involvement and would you try it again?

There is actually some progress. During the election I put the highland national park on the agenda. That means that about 40.000km2 of untouched wilderness in Iceland would be protected as it is now, in a national park. Everyone running in the election had to answer if they agreed to that idea, and everyone said yes, so the idea became more relevant. Now it is actually in a formal process in the current government. Globally Iceland can be a good example in taking global warming seriously, we are not quite there yet. The constitution has a great core group keeping the flames burning while more conservative groups are trying to put the issue to sleep. Would I try again? Maybe in 20 years. It was painful to think of not writing for 4 or 8 years. I have too many projects in my head.

You have a lot of influences in your work from the Icelandic mythology. Could there be any influences from Greek Mythology too?

Well actually there is quite a lot of influence from Greek Mythology in my work. In my sci-fi novel LoveStar, a story about a mad entrepreneur, some kind of a Steve Jobs, Elon Musk character I have my own take on the story of King Medas. Everything he touches turns to gold and every personal relationship is shattered. In the same story I use Plato’s idea from Aristophanes, of humans having been round and cut in half by Zeus and after that, always seeking the other half. In the story they find out a way to scientifically find the other half and make a corporation around it, called InLove.

What projects are you working on currently?

I am writing a book about Time and Water. In the next 100 years the fundaments of water on our planet will change more than has been seen before in such a short time. Most mountain glaciers will melt, the sea levels will rise and the pH of oceans will drop to a level not seen for 30 million years. All this happens in a single lifetime. It’s nature leaving geological speed entering human speed. Times like this are mythological in a way, the issue is larger than our imagination and the language that we can use. I use many references to mythology, I interview my grandfather – he was a doctor in New York and operated on Oppenheimer the father of the Atom Bomb, the modern Prometheus. I write about my grandparents’ glacial research expeditions, interview many scientists and I talked two times with the Dalai Lama.

You are visiting Athens in the year of the city being Unesco’s World Book Capital. How do you feel about it? Have you visited Athens – and Greece – before?

I have never been to Greece before. I have only been close to the border when I was sailing on a sailboat north of Greece in the Croatian islands. I have always dreamed of coming to Greece, the cradle of the western culture, thought and literature.

The dark side of green energy” and “a frightened nation”: I isolate two phrases at the occasion of Dreamland that I would like to have some words of explanation from you.

That is from my book and film Dreamland. In Iceland we have a beautiful landscape, rivers and waterfalls but after the year 2000 almost all the rivers were in danger, because the government said we had to dam the rivers and sell the energy to aluminum producers. This was a crazy time and the problem was, that many people thought we had no chance, this would be the only way for Iceland to get money and create jobs. That is where the fear factor came in. I wrote about how it is possible, in a world of infinite opportunities, you could sell a whole nation the idea that one aluminum factory would save our life. So that was the dark side of green energy and the construction of the dam and the smelter actually overheated our economy. So we sacrificed nature, and our economy.