Interview Eliza Reid Iceland

Interview Eliza Reid Iceland by the Spanish writer Jordi Pujolá. With the support of Iceland Writers Retreat, Icelandic Mountain Guides and Avis Iceland.

This interview is part of a project to connect Icelandic and Spanish cultures on the blog: www.escritorislandia.com.

Read about other participants such as: Hólmfrídur Matthiasdóttir, Hrönn Marinósdóttir, Sjón, Andri Snær, Hallgrímur Helgason, Árni Þórarinsson, Mugison, JóiPé og Króli, Benedikt Erlingsson, Mads Mikelsen, Börkur Gunnarsson, Carmen Posadas, Víctor del Árbol and many more.

Read the article in Spanish.

The First Lady of Iceland
Eliza Reid strong and passionate woman

Interview Eliza Reid Iceland

Eliza Reid was born in Ottawa (Canada) and she is the First Lady of Iceland.

After almost one hour of conversation my impression was that she is a strong, passionate and intelligent woman.

Why interviewing Eliza Reid on this blog?

I chose Eliza Reid because I admire her and, let´s say, we have some things in common: She is a writer, immigrant who moved to Iceland with her Icelandic partner and started working for magazines. She stopped the famous musician Páll Óskar in the gym for her first assignment and I stopped her in Bíó Paradís after her speech at the Feminist Cinema Festival of Reykjavik for this interview.

Iceland Eurovision
The famous singer Páll Óskar by RÚV

Reykjavik 10th March 2020

Pictures by Guðný Hilmarsdóttir.

The interview was done on a windy day (pretty normal in Iceland) at the time of the Corona virus, so we greeted each other bowing like Buddhist monks.

I moved to Iceland for love

Why did you move to Iceland (2003)?

I moved here because my boyfriend, now husband, is from Iceland. We met in UK and moved when we finished our studies. So, for love.

Eliza Reid interviewed by Jordi Pujola
Eliza Reid talking about writers to Jordi Pujolá

Talking about love, the Icelanders love the current presidential couple (Eliza Reid and Guðni Th. Jóhannesson) because of their humility, warmth and simplicity. In other words, they are very close to people. One of their sons is the same age as mine and I always see Guðni in his football team tracksuit queuing up at the cafeteria like anyone else.

Kids playing football Akureyri
Popular football tournaments in Iceland

Education

After Eliza graduated from the University of Toronto with an international relations bachelor’s degree, she went to St Antony’s CollegeOxford University to complete an MA degree in Modern History.

I asked her what she considers the most important events in the recent history of Iceland.

She reminded me she is not an expert in Modern Icelandic History, but kindly answered anyway. I mentioned the Marshall Plan and she pointed out the strong social policies of the government and the contribution of women into the labour market.

What explains the high number of successful artists in Iceland despite its small population?

Human beings in general are a creative people and this has been facilitated in Iceland by tradition. Here there is a tremendous respect and encouragement of creative pursuits in general.

Mugison in Isafjordur Iceland
Mugison by Björgvín Hilmarsson

So first, society values the contribution that the artists make.

And second, the government support for festivals, events… and the “listamannalaun”, the salary the artists can apply, which enables people, let´s say poets, who otherwise are not going to be able to earn their living just writing and selling their poetry books.

First Lady Iceland interview 2020
Eliza Reid always tries to read in a diverse way

After her move to Iceland in 2003, Reid became a freelance writer for multiple Icelandic publications. She wrote for Reykjavík Grapevine and Iceland Review from 2005 to 2008 and became the editor of Icelandair Stopover (Icelandair’s in-flight magazine) in 2012.

Can you tell me any funny anecdote when you started writing for Icelandic magazines?

One thing I remember was the first article that I wrote in Iceland, because it was completely different than what I expected. I was looking for work and doing some freelance projects. Then I wrote to the Reykjavik Grapevine (2004, it was a very new magazine in English). I said: «Would you like me to write the story of what is like to be an immigrant here looking for a job?». They wrote back and said: «No, we really don´t need a story like that, but would you like to write a story about the Eurovision Song Contest?».

I was shocked, however I accepted because I needed the work.  At the time I was going to the same gym as Páll Óskar, the singer, who is a huge Eurovision person, so I just stopped him in the gym and asked him for a Q&A interview and he said «of course». I added to it a general story on Eurovision and the editors really liked it and publish it.

First Lady in an interview in Reykjavik
Eliza is very concern of genre equality

When you moved to Iceland, was there something that shocked you a lot?

Yes, definitely to adapt to the darkness in winter. I deal better with it now, but never get used to it (laughs). It´s a big change compared to Ottawa, where I grew up, which has almost the same latitude as Nice in France. And even though it´s cold in Ottawa in winter, it´s also very bright.

Are you still singing in the Hallgrímskirkja Motet Choir?

I sang in choirs when I was at high school and university. Then, when I moved to Iceland and I was new in the country, I thought it would be a good way to keep practising and to meet people and learn the language at the same time. It is a good choir and I had a great time, but I stopped a quite few years ago when I had children.

Church Iceland Reykjavik
The impressive Hallgrímskirkja church

Eliza Reid is a very active person. She is patron of several organizations in Iceland as the United Nations Association Iceland, Red Cross, SOS Children’s Villages Iceland, Alzheimer’s Society…

By the way, I recommend her article in The New York Times called “I’m a First Lady, and It’s an Incredibly Weird Job”. While she appreciates the diversity of her position and the opportunity to spur change that comes with it, she points out that she often encounters situations in which she feels reduced to being her husband’s handbag.

Talking about literature

Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction books?

All kind of books I would say. I kind of go through phases. I have a full bookcase upstairs of books I haven’t read yet, which never empties because I am always filling it with new selections, and I choose according to what I feel like at the moment.

The best place to talk of books in Iceland
Eliza Reid listening patiently to the questions

On one hand I read many biographies, memoirs and treatises on current affairs, politics and history. On the other hand, I also like crime fiction books. I can devour them if I have to stay home because I have a cold or something.

Which authors of crime novels do you read?

Icelandic crime authors I have read include Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Arnaldur Indriðason, Ragnar Jónasson, Lilja Sigurðardóttir… and other novels that had been written by foreigners that take place in Iceland. For instance, Burial Rites by the Australian author Hannah Kent. It´s a kind of historical fiction, not crime novel, but I recommend it.

I try to read in a diverse way because I think it’s a good way of opening our minds to other points of view, so I combine reading books written in different languages (in English translation), genres, ethnicities, ages…

Rainbow floor Reykjavik city
Reykjavik: equality rights and tolerance

You love travelling, and sometimes you do solo trips. Why?

Basically, for two reasons:

First, because you are your own boss. You don´t have to compromise to other people. For example, if there is a country you really want to visit, you just go and do it. You don´t rely on only going if you find someone to go with.

Second, it gives you great access to interact with the locals. People think that solo travellers don’t want to talk to anyone, but it’s a kind of the opposite. I am an extrovert and I love meeting new people, also other people who are travelling by themselves. This type of travel forces you to step out of your comfort zone because you need to ask people for directions, help or recommendations.

I know you went to the Festival Barcelona Negra 2020 (crime novel festival). How was it?

It was very fun, but I was not there very long. So, I didn´t have time to be a tourist.

What was your role over there?

I was in a panel with Yrsa Sigurdardóttir and we were talking about the connection of Iceland, literature and crime fiction. I was interviewed by El Mundo there on the weekend edition.

Barcelona crime novels Iceland
Barcelona Negra Crime novel Festival

Was it your first time in Barcelona?

No, actually it was my second time in Barcelona and my second time in Spain. I went to Barcelona for my first time in 2000 for a long weekend. I hope to have more time to visit other cities in the future.

What did you like there?

Well, the food was wonderful (Eliza is reputed to be a great cook), we had those typical very long meals. And the weather, in the beginning of February, was incredibly warm, I walked around a lot. And I learnt about Sant Jordi, the biggest literature festival in Catalonia hold on every 23th April, when boys and girls exchange books and roses. I find it very interesting.

Iceland Writers Retreat

She co-founded the Iceland Writers Retreat in 2014 with Erica Jacobs Green, a famous literature event placed in Reykjavik.

Iceland Writers Retreat sponsor
Welcome to Iceland Writers Retreat

Who can attend the IWR?

According to the website:

«Everyone is welcome to attend. There is no application process. We think you’ll get the most out of it if you have an interest in developing your skills as a writer, but there is no requirement for you to have been previously published or even to have an intention to publish. Whether you’re aspiring, published, or simply enjoy writing as a hobby, we think you’ll find inspiration and have something to learn from all of our small-group workshops. We are focusing on books — rather than magazines, guidebooks, or online writing — in both fiction and non-fiction. So, for example, there are no poetry or screenwriting workshops but writers who focus on those genres are still welcome. Likewise, if you write in a language other than English that’s fine too, but the language of instruction is English».

Note: The edition of IWR 2020 might be cancel or postponed due to Corona Virus situation.

My question to Eliza was if a Spanish writer who writes in Spanish still can enjoy the workshops in English.

Yes, if his English level is good enough to understand what the instructor is saying.

Jordi Pujolá interviewing Eliza Reid
Can a Spanish writer attend IWR?

What if I write an exercise in Spanish and need the correction from a teacher who don´t speak Spanish?

The workshops are very varied and well detailed. Some require you to do some exercises from a given prompt, but some others are basically lectures and discussions. Each participant chooses five (two-hour small group writing workshops) that match better his expectations and make him feel comfortable. It also depends a bit on the confidence on writing of the person. In addition, we always try to bring a diversity to our faculty. Sometimes we have instructors who write in other languages. For example, last year we had the Chilean writer Lina Meruane who writes in Spanish. And last but not the least, the whole event is not only about the workshops, it´s learning about Iceland literature heritage, tours to cultural places, readings by local authors and the atmosphere that brings having so many people who love literature at the same time.

Event writers in Iceland
The atmosphere of the event. Picture IWR

And this year we have a new event running at the same time called Iceland Readers Retreat. Can you explain it a bit?

It´s for people who are not necessarily writers but they are avid readers and love literature. Rather than going to five workshops, they go to two but they have two literary-themed tours of the countryside and some other activities such as a talk by a visitor author (Adam Gopnik this year), a panel with four Icelander renowned authors in different genres including Lilja Sigurdardóttir, a visit to the National Museum to see the manuscripts of the Sagas, etc. In short, it´s a way of doing tourism while learning about the rich literary heritage of Iceland.

Famous panorama Reykjavik
Reykjavik: cultural and colourful city

What well known authors have been leading workshops during these 6 years of IWR?

Lina Meruane, Barbara Kingsolver, Linn Ullmann, Geraldine Brooks and the Icelanders: Gerður Kristný, Vilborg Davíðsdóttir, Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, Hallgrímur Helgason, Andri Snær Magnason, Sjón… We try to mix all kinds of people from different places.

Class for writers IWR Reykjavik
Workshop in Iceland Writers Retreat bu Icelandnaturally.com

Reid is known as a vocal proponent and advocate for women’s rights, gender parity and sustainable tourism, for that reason I dared to ask her if overtourism is going to damage the unspoiled nature of Iceland.

Waterfall rainbow Iceland
IWR combines literature and tourism in Iceland

The authorities and many organizations, as Promote Iceland and Safe Travel, are aware of the problem and taking measures for a more sustainable and responsible tourism: Getting People to travel the country all year around, not just focusing on the summer months; getting people to travel to different regions of the country, etc.

And warning the tourists to not trekking on the moss, not taking things with them, not travelling when the weather is bad, endangering themselves or others… so educate people on the benefit of all.

Writers after meeting in Reykjavik
The charming of the First Lady of Iceland

Interview Eliza Reid Iceland by Jordi Pujolá.