Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson?
I am an Icelandic fantasy author, who currently lives in Reykjavík. I write in both Icelandic and English and translate my own work (by necessity).
Your next novel, Shadows of the Short Days, is due to be published by Gollancz in July. It looks really interesting: How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
Shadows of the Short Days is set in a fantastical, alternate version of Iceland called Hrímland. The story follows two outcasts, Sæmundur and Garún. Garún is a revolutionary activist slash visual artist, who uses psychoactive, sorcerous graffiti to alter the world. She is fighting for a better society for herself and others who are oppressed by the colonial rules of Hrímland, the Kalmar Commonwealth. Sæmundur is a drug-addicted, outcast galdramaður, a magician who will do anything to reach full mastery and understanding of the extremely dangerous type of magic he practices. Both of them will sacrifice anything to reach their goals, pay any price.
The world is made up of bits of Icelandic history, folklore and modern times, fused with fantastical elements that hopefully makes for a world that feels fresh and oddly familiar at the same time. You don’t have to know anything about Iceland to enjoy the story, but those who do will find references and parallels that will hopefully make them look at Iceland and Reykjavík in a new light. The book is part of a series, but time will tell just how many books there will be in it.
What inspired you to write the novel and series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
The Icelandic fantastical novel is relatively uncharted territory. When I started writing Shadows of the Short Days, I wanted to explore that space, to discover the Icelandic fantasy novel. That’s not a task for a single person by any means, but I find this nearly uncharted land in literature to be fascinating.
I started writing the novel in 2010, eventually finishing the manuscript in 2014. At the time I tried to find an Icelandic publisher, but no-one was keen on publishing a fantasy novel intended for adults – which was not a typical fantasy narrative on top of that. So I hired an editor and self-published it in the winter of 2014 under the title Hrímland. Since Gollancz picked it up, it’s undergone significant changes in the editing process.
Inspiration is a tricky thing to explain. It is a constant force, it ebbs and flows and is often not comprehended in a really conscious manner. It’s also often not really that interesting. Like with so many other things, then the final result is more desirable than the messy process of making it.
A part of the thought process for me has some roots in a feeling I’ve had since I was a child, one of being profoundly disappointed that magic wasn’t real in the world. Writing is a way to make it real. That feeling is always in the background, motivating the desire to come up with ideas for stories that usually fit into the genre of fantastical fiction.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
This is a bit hard for me to pinpoint, because it feels like it’s always been there in pop culture, which then led me to seek out those kinds of books when I started reading myself. Like many others, I started with a very familiar paths of genre classics and branched out from there.
That’s when I found China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, which really changed things for me. It was the first time I had encountered genre fiction that was so weird, so modern, that made you work hard to piece the world together. I love that initial feeling of being ‘out of the loop’ when reading genre fiction, to have to figure out and understand a completely new world. It’s amazing when done right. Previously I had been reading various fantasy works, but this one really changed my reading tastes and my perception of what was possible in genre fiction.
Zoo City by Lauren Beukes is another I just have to mention. Although it’s much more recent, and not really how I was introduced to genre, it showed me a book that was uncompromising in how it used non-English languages in the narrative. It introduced a new perspective on what was possible in fantastical literature in English. It had a huge effect on me as a writer, especially in how I approached translating Shadows of the Short Days.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
In 2014 I had to self-publish Hrímland in Icelandic due to not being able to find an Icelandic publisher that was willing to give fantastical fiction intended for adults a chance. I always knew that the book wasn’t as good as it could be, that I had not been able to bring it to its full potential by myself. So when the book eventually found its place with Gollancz in an English translation under the title Shadows of the Short Days, I was ecstatic. I finally got a chance to improve the work with the help of professional editors, and it’s been an absolute delight working with them. I could not have done this by myself, I would never have written the sequel I was planning without them picking it up as well. I owe so much to Gollancz giving this weird Icelandic book a chance. Breaking through into traditional publishing has meant a lot to me.
Being a full-time writer is weird in that you spend all of your time by yourself, working, mostly communicating with your editor and agent via email. Especially when you’re behind on deadlines, or have a ton of work, I just want to cut everyone and everything off. Too much of that is definitely not very healthy, but isolation can help get things done.
Then the book comes out and suddenly you have to attend events, speak confidently about your work in public. That whiplash from going from full introvert mode to full extrovert is something that’s a bit hard to get used to. Those two jobs you have to do as a writer don’t go hand in hand very well. I find it’s something I like to do, talking about fiction and genre is fun and meeting like-minded people at events can be fantastic, but I definitely have to prepare myself for that shift.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
The world of Hrímland is heavily inspired by Icelandic culture, drawing inspiration from its history, folklore, literature and modern culture. My research process for this is not very structured, mostly due to me being quite familiar with these aspects due to being native. I don’t research academically and structurally, but kind of feel like a grave robber taking whatever catches my eye. Hrímland is a mixture of references that can feel irreverent to its source material as a result, which I hope would make an Icelandic reader familiar with the references feel like they never quite know what turn or twist some aspect of the story will have.
That’s something I think is easier to do when you’re working with your own culture, innate familiarity gives you the liberty and permission to do that. If I were drawing on different sources of inspiration, especially if it was a culture to which I am an outsider, then I’d have to approach how I do research very differently. I wouldn’t feel comfortable with changing fundamental aspects of it like I do with Icelandic culture.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I’ve always loved making up stories. When I was maybe seven years old, we made these little books in school. We could write anything we wanted in those books. I decided to write a sequel to Jurassic Park. Some people say their first foray into writing was through fan fiction, and as this is the earliest memory I have of writing something of my own, I think it applies here as well.
Writing that story was the most fun I’ve ever had writing. It was so effortless and so exciting. Every day I looked forward to working on it some more, every spare moment I spent thinking about how to progress the story.
I find myself chasing that feeling when writing. It is challenging, exciting and liberating to work on something that means so much to me. It’s the best thing ever. Then and now.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
To me, genre is in an amazing place today. It’s innovative, fresh and accepted widely as real literature, and it has a greater variety of stories compared to a few decades ago. For example, high fantasy still has its place within fantasy fiction, but readers now have such a diverse selection of narratives available within that genre. What I’ve noticed especially is a shift in the English-speaking market towards translated genre fiction, or at least genre fiction that draws on non-English cultures. I think that’s definitely been a benefit to me, seeing as my work has a lot of Icelandic words in it and is by nature unabashedly Icelandic. I feel like a floodgate of new stories has been opened and we’re only seeing the beginning of some sort of new wave of genre fiction. But that’s just a feeling, I’ll leave real, detailed analysis of all that to the literary academics.
Do you have any other projects in the pipeline, and what are you working on at the moment?
I always have a few projects lined up. Right now I’m working on the sequel to Shadows of the Short Days. It has new main characters, but is not exactly an independent sequel – but not exactly a direct one in the way it’s usually meant. It’s set several years after the first book, and will explore new locations and aspects of Hrímland.
Last year I published an Icelandic novel called Vættir. Set in modern Reykjavík, it plays with a well-known trope in Icelandic fiction: the young adult trying to find their place in life and the world in the city. Except that, here, it’s been several years since the vættir appeared in Iceland – uncanny, bizarre beings who are unknowable to us and are slowly taking over our surroundings.
In folklore a vættur is a kind of nature spirit or being, but these creatures are far stranger and alien. We don’t know what they want. We don’t know why they’re here. All we know is that the world is changing. A new kind of nature is taking over our habitat, and just like a fox who one day finds that a valley in the highlands has been turned into a lagoon for a hydroelectric power plant, we don’t understand how or why this is happening. I’m currently working on translating it to English, but writing the second novel has slowed down that process.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I just started Ancestral Night by Elizabeth Bear, but I’m also occasionally re-reading some Discworld novels, after getting them on digital sale recently. Alongside it I’m reading Murakami’s Norwegian Wood and Sjón’s Mánasteinn: Drengurinn sem var aldrei til (Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was).
If you could recommend only one novel or book to someone, what would it be?
Manazuru by Hiromi Kawakami. It’s kind of incredible how quick that answer comes to me, after so many years of not having a feeling of that single book I’d recommend above all others. I read a lot of Japanese novels when I was writing and editing Vættir. I was looking for inspiration for low-key prose with a heavy undercurrent of meaning, and I was just awestruck by this novel. It might not necessarily be genre fiction (except in a very liminal sense, which I loved), but it is absolutely fantastic.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I am the vocalist and lyricist for an Icelandic black metal band, called Carpe Noctem. You can find our latest album, Vitrun, on Spotify. Sound and music played a huge part in Shadows of the Short Days, you’ll definitely be able to see some kind of connection there, although not exactly a direct one.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
In the next twelve months I’m looking very much forward to finishing the sequel to Shadows of the Short Days. It’s fun writing it, don’t get me wrong – but it’s very intense work, which always seems to take more time than I assume (or naively hope) it will. It will be fantastic to look back and wonder why I was so stressed about writing it in the first place (and then have to start the whole process over again with a new book).
Alexander Dan Vilhjálmsson’s Shadows of the Short Days is due to be published in the UK by Gollancz, on July 25th, 2019.