Wednesday, April 22, 2015

The Earth Avails: Poems by Mark Wunderlich

"At summer's end, I traveled north, / crossed the sea, to the salted rim of the Arctic." So writes the poet Mark Wunderlich about his pilgrimage to Iceland. He "breakfasted on liver paste." He saw the "spidery manuscripts chilled under glass."

And he rode--as I rode, in imagination, alongside him--the "horses muscled like athletes / on paths cut through knee-high grass, / over lava and hill crest ... Hours went by and no one spoke ..."

In Song of the Vikings, my biography of the 13th-century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson, I list some writers Iceland has inspired:

Thomas Gray, William Blake, Sir Walter Scott, the Brothers Grimm, Thomas Carlyle, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Richard Wagner, Matthew Arnold, Henrik Ibsen, William Morris, Thomas Hardy, Hugh MacDiarmid, J.R.R. Tolkien, Ursula K. LeGuin, Jorge Luis Borges, W.H. Auden, Gunther Grass, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, A.S. Byatt, Seamus Heaney, Jane Smiley, Stephen King, Alice Munro, Ivan Doig, Michael Chabon, George R.R. Martin, J.K. Rowling, and Neil Gaiman.

These writers are just a beginning. There are many, many more--every day, I find more literary Icelandophiles. Some, like Tolkien, never went to Iceland--just learned about it from books.

Others, like the Victorian writer and designer William Morris, share an attitude toward the island that's more like Wunderlich's and mine. Asked once if he was going on a trip to Iceland, Morris replied, "No, I am going on a pilgrimage to Iceland." Quoting Morris, the Argentine poet Jorge Luis Borges said, "This is also my answer. Any specialist in Anglo-Saxon literature is sooner or later drawn to Icelandic literature. It is like admiring a sunset or falling in love."

Shortly after Song of the Vikings came out in 2012, I received a note over Facebook from Wunderlich asking if I'd ever been to Siglufjord in the north of Iceland. "I will be there for about three weeks at an artist's residency," he said, "and I was just curious if anyone had been there, knew anyone there, or could tell me anything about it. It is off the beaten path, but the world is sometimes very small." It would be his seventh trip to Iceland--like Borges and I, Wunderlich had fallen in love--and Siglufjord was "the furthest from Reykjavik" that he had ventured. He described it, lovingly, as "remote" and its weather as "frightful."

Earlier this year, Mark Wunderlich's collection The Earth Avails won the 2015 UNT Rilke Prize for a book of poetry that "demonstrates exceptional artistry and vision." It includes--alas--only one poem directly inspired by that pilgrimage to Iceland, the eloquent "Prayer in a Time of Sickness," in which he admits, "I yearned to be cast up on an arctic island, bare of trees, / ... the air dry and howling, cliffs exposed, the wind / stirring its cauldron of birds ..."

What is it about Iceland that calls to us? What is it about desolation and frightful weather, wind and birds and half-wild horses, that makes us fall in love?

According to a review in The New Yorker, Wunderlich's poetry "reminds us how fully the spirit can illuminate the depths."

"Prayer in a Time of Sickness" reminds me how much the Iceland I love is woven of words. "Here I stand at the estuary / My horse cropping grass" when it happens. When I see, like Wunderlich, what I've been missing.

The Earth Avails was published by Graywolf Press in 2014. See

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Gudrid's Voyage to Sandnes

As I wrote last week, I did much of the research for my new novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler, several years ago when I was writing my nonfiction book about Gudrid, The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman.

One research trip that became a crucial scene in the novel was an actual voyage. I went by boat down the Lysufjord from Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, to Sandnes, the farm Gudrid and her husband Thorstein Eiriksson returned to after their failed voyage to Vinland--and the farm where Thorstein subsequently died, so spookily.

The boat was owned by my friend Kristjana Motzfeldt and piloted by her friend Tobias, since Kristjana was on her way to Denmark.

"You have a map, you know where you want to go, good, good," she said, brushing away my doubts. "Tobias will get you there"--despite the fact that he spoke no English (or Icelandic) and I spoke no Greenlandic (or Danish). His wife Rusina would be going, too, I learned as we reached the boat at 8:00 Saturday morning. "Beautiful!" she said, with an expansive wave of one hand, as we passed the dramatic mountains that marked the harbor mouth. It was her favorite (and almost her only) English word.

The Motzfeldts' boat was a seal-hunting boat, half enclosed. It had two seats, for pilot and copilot, a two-sleeper cabin in the bow, and an open rear deck large enough for landing a seal or two. It had two engines and a large gas tank. Cruising along at about eight knots, drinking coffee and eating Danish pastries, I realized that sailing to Sandnes in a Viking ship would have taken amazing skill.

The narrow Lysufjord (named for a kind of cod) heads due east for most of its length, the ice-gray mountains falling straight into the sea, with no beaches, no harbors, no skerries, no bays, nowhere to find safety if the wind should turn contrary--or the ship should sink. The cliffs' snow-streaks and striations puzzle the mind; the eye wants to find a meaning in the pattern. I began to see huge faces as the hours passed and the view refused to change. The sky was overcast, the silver sea glassy calm. A sense of distance eluded me until I saw a boat the size of ours looking like a speck, a seabird, between us and the gray cliff face. Ahead lay endless iterations of the same humped mountain, hill upon hill: I could see no passage in.

Finally, after almost four hours, the fjord divided in two. A dome-shaped mountain lay straight ahead, a low rocky toe reached in from our left. As we turned the point into shadow, the boat began humping the waves, "swimming like a seal," as Kristjana had warned me it might if the wind turned against us.

But the sides of the fjord soon softened. The snow had disappeared. Red-brown brush clung to gentler slopes, and here and there above a narrow beach were bright yellow-gold patches of grass that looked man-made: they were straight-edged, rectangular. You could spot Norse ruins from far away, I had read, if you looked for the lushest grass.

The water grew greener, more shallow. Birds were feeding along the edge of a sandbar, seemingly in the middle of the fjord. We went slowly onward, rolling sideways and, I soon realized, hugging the wrong shore. Across to the north I could see another great swath of winter-gold grass and the landmark I’d read about: "a small round rocky hillock, … a fine vantage place for looking for scattered sheep in the valley."

Creeping along the edge of the sandbar, we had to retreat back down the fjord quite a ways before we could come close enough to shore to launch our rubber dinghy. Luckily the wind was calmer now, and by the time we scraped the white sand beach, the sun had come out.

Tobias and Rusina, each carrying a bottle of soda and a handful of plastic bags, sauntered down the beach to gather mussels. I hurried off the opposite way, knowing we had very little time before the falling tide would strand our anchored boat.

Of course I lost track of the time, wandering about Gudrid's farm, musing on her life--suddenly I saw Rusina frantically waving. I ran for the beach.

If we had been in a Viking ship, sailing or rowing, we would not have made it back to Nuuk that night--one reason no one lives at Sandnes now. We had hardly shipped our anchor when the wind turned against us again. The boat began to buck and thump; Tobias gritted his teeth and concentrated on steering her straight. Four bone-jarring hours later, we came to the mouth of the fjord, into a suddenly calm and sunny evening, an iceberg floating like a big pale-blue swan in the distance. At the foot of the beautiful! mountain, Rusina finally got a chance to throw out a fishing line.

The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler was published in Spring 2015 by namelos. See or order from your favorite bookseller. You'll find the fictional version of this voyage in Chapter Seven.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Eirik the Red’s Greenland

Last week I celebrated the publication of my first young adult novel, The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler. If you read this blog regularly, you knew Gudrid already. Search on her name  or "Far Traveler" and you'll find a dozen posts.

That's because in 2007 I published a nonfiction book about Gudrid called The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman. ("Far Traveler" or "Far-Traveler"? That pesky hyphen! It's missing from the first book because the designer thought it looked ugly.)

In one way, writing the nonfiction book was a prerequisite to writing the novel. I couldn't have written The Saga of Gudrid without first having written Voyages of a Viking Woman--or at least without having experienced the actual voyaging the earlier book required.

For instance, much of The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler takes place in Greenland. When I traveled to Greenland in 2006, I learned things my exhaustive library research had missed.

Writing in the early 1100s Iceland's first historian, Ari the Learned, described the discovery of Greenland, in about 982, this way:

"The land called Greenland was discovered and settled by Icelanders. Eirik the Red was the name of a man from the Breidafjord. He sailed from there to Greenland and claimed the land around what is now called Eiriksfjord. He gave the land its name and called it 'Greenland' because he said people would be more inclined to go there if it had a nice name."

It was academe's considered opinion, when I first read Ari's Book of the Icelanders 30 years ago, that in naming Greenland Eirik the Red had perpetrated a hoax. Ari practically came out and said it: Eirik's "nice name" was salesmanship, simple bait-and-switch.

Elsewhere, the Icelandic sagas have very little nice to say about Eirik's colony. A verse addressing a traveler headed to Greenland says:

I see death
in a dread place,
yours and mine,
northwest in the waves,
with frost and cold,
and countless wonders …

Trolls and evil spirits descended on Greenland in the winter, the sagas say, breaking men's bones and destroying their ships. One poignant scene describes a girl who came to Greenland accidentally, adrift on an ice floe; she stands on the shore on a summer's day and stares out to sea, dreaming of seeing the beautiful fields of Iceland again.

Greenland is indeed "more gray than green," as a visitor approaching by sea in 1835 described it. Flying over from Denmark I found it, in fact, more white than gray.

Yet Eirik may not have actually lied. Greenland still has little pockets of green that are as lush as Iceland must have been around the year 1000.

In 2006, I spent two weeks in Greenland's capital, Nuuk, on the seaward edge of a handful of long, twisting fjords that probe eastward 60 miles to the inland ice. It was here that the Danish missionary Hans Egede came in the 1700s, 300 years after the Viking settlements had disappeared, looking for lost Christian souls. Finding the culture totally Inuit, he reintroduced Christianity, wool clothing, wood-framed houses, and, so I was told, "good Danish food."

I visited Nuuk in mid-May, a week after "spring arrived," according to my hostess, Kristjana Motzfeldt, an Icelander married to a Greenlandic statesman. Built on a rocky spit three miles from end to end, the city of 15,000—more than one-quarter of the country’s entire population—sported no trees, no flowers. Old snow piles, gray with gravel, hid behind the bright-painted houses bolted to the bare rock. The reservoir was still iced over. The mountains that overlooked the town were sheer and ice gray, streaked with snow.

Yet the sun was hot and the air held a springlike mildness as I climbed the steep wooden staircases that linked the winding streets, most of which dead-ended in water. The children certainly thought it was spring: They waded barefoot in the bay. I took off my boots and dabbled my toes. It was refreshing.

You can read more about my trip to Greenland here:
"A Visit to Greenland" (March 13, 2012)
"Lambing Time" (March 28, 2012)

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler

“Well-written, thoroughly researched and adventure-filled, this story of a determined and very human young woman is timeless.”
Kirkus Reviews (April 1, 2015)

That's the first review of my first novel.

Can you tell I'm thrilled? "Timeless." It tastes on the tongue like chocolate syrup.

Then again, just being able to type "my first novel" is a thrill. Sure, it's my sixth book. Shouldn't be such a big deal, but it is. It's not even really my "first" novel. That one was written 20 years ago and resides in my closet, alongside several manuscript boxes full of more-or-less completed pieces of fiction.

The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler is the only one that's made it out the door and through the writing workshops (two of them) and past the agent and past the desks of the dozen or so editors who turned it down and back to me and out again to Stephen Roxburgh of namelos, who believed in it from the time it appeared in his Whole Novel Workshop (organized by the Highlights Foundation) and helped me turn it into the "timeless" book it became.

The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler did have a substantial advantage over any other piece of fiction I've tried to write. Editors always say, "Write what you know," and I know Gudrid.

The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler is based on 10-plus years of research into Gudrid’s life and times. Gudrid is mentioned in the two medieval Icelandic sagas about the Vikings’ adventures in Vinland, or Wine Land, around the year 1000. The Saga of the Greenlanders may have been written in the late 1100s—over a hundred years after Gudrid died. It was originally part of a longer, now lost, saga about Bishop Bjorn of Holar, who was Gudrid’s great-grandson. Another hundred years later, about 1295, a Saga of Gudrid was written to celebrate the founding of a nunnery by Abbess Hallbera, who was also descended from Gudrid. That saga has been lost too; all we have left is what’s now called The Saga of Eirik the Red.

These two sagas don’t agree on the particulars of Gudrid’s life, and they don’t tell us very much about her. She was born in Iceland, married in Greenland, and explored Wine Land; later (outside the scope of my novel, which focuses on her growing up), she visited Norway, returned to Iceland and raised two sons, and took a pilgrimage to Rome. She was beautiful, we are told, which means she was probably fair and blonde (dark hair being unattractive and red hair uncanny). She was intelligent, wise, and had a lovely singing voice.

Over the last fifty years, archaeologists have proved more and more of Gudrid’s story true. They have found the settlements where Gudrid lived in Greenland and Newfoundland; I visited both. In 2001 a team of archaeologists began working in northern Iceland. I volunteered on the project one summer as we uncovered a Viking house on the farm where the sagas say Gudrid finally made her home. The floorplan of the house looked like no other found in Iceland; it most closely resembled a house in Newfoundland.

I told the story of my summer working on the archaeological team in The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman, a nonfiction book published by Harcourt in 2007. I thought then that I had written all I could about Gudrid the Far-Traveler. Her spirit disagreed. As soon as that book came out, I began writing this one.

In spite of all my research--or maybe because of it--the story in The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler doesn't follow either of the two medieval sagas that mention her. Rather, it weaves a new story using them as warp and weft. Some of the details surprised me--that's one of the most fun parts of writing fiction, when the story takes control and writes itself through you.

For example, I didn't realize until I was well into writing The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler that Leif Eiriksson was the villain of Gudrid's story. Elsewhere on this blog I've argued that Leif shouldn't get all the credit for discovering America. (See "Who Discovered America?") Leif stopped here once--possibly by mistake--and never came back. Gudrid set sail for Wine Land twice, with two different husbands, intending to settle. She was the real explorer. I'm supposing that's where I got the idea that Gudrid and Leif were enemies.

With that in mind, other parts of Gudrid's story--parts the sagas left vague--fell into place for me. In my story, Gudrid was betrothed to Leif Eiriksson at her birth. All her life she has hated Leif, even though she’s never met this handsome son of the famous Viking Eirik the Red. She has hated the idea of Leif: the idea that she has to be a good wife to this stranger because of a vow her father swore long ago.

So when a handsome merchant comes to Iceland and asks for her hand, she prays her father will say yes. He doesn’t. As the story opens, Gudrid decides to defy him, running away to Greenland with her suitor. Her impulsive act ends in shipwreck and, within three years, to the tragic deaths of everyone she loves, including her suitor, her second husband, and even her father, leaving her at the mercy of a vengeful and violent Leif.

But Gudrid never gives up. Plucky, resourceful, and always willing to learn something new, she outwits Leif and at 19 marries the man she loves. Together they set out on the greatest of all Viking adventures: sailing into the west to the fabulous new land called Wine Land. Gudrid explores Wine Land for two years, until she meets the Native American girl who will become her friend and save her life—by sending her home.

The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler is written for young adults, ages 12 and up. I hope, indeed, it proves to be "timeless."

You can order The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler as a hardcover, paperback, or ebook directly from the publisher at or order it from your favorite bookstore.

If you would like me to come speak to your school, book club, library, bookstore, or other group about Gudrid the Far-Traveler, let me know and we'll see what we can work out.