Q&A with Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir

Q&A with Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir

You are very involved in the arts in Iceland – what made you want to be  a writer too?

I am never short of ideas but since I work full-time as an art historian and a teacher at the University of Iceland I am often short of time for writing.

Since I started writing fiction 10 years ago, I have written four novels and a book of poetry. Then I recently discovered that it was quicker for me to write a play than to write a novel. My third play, which is kind of dance-theatre, will be staged by the National Theatre of Iceland in February 2014.

As long as I can remember I have always had an active imagination and a view of the world that is slightly skewed. I guess a very strong need for freedom is probably what brought me to create fictitious worlds with their own laws. I also like the idea of writing in a language that no one understands.

Tell us about Butterflies in November. What first inspired you to write it?

It is the story of a woman at a crossroads in her life deciding to go on a road trip around her island – taking her summer holiday in November. She is dumped twice the same day, by both her husband and her lover, and then wins the lottery twice. I would add that Butterflies in November is a love story but not an ordinary one, since there is one woman and three men, plus a deaf-mute child my heroine is temporarily taking care of.

I wanted to write the story of a woman who was different from any female character in literature I knew of! At the end of the book there is a collection of recipes where the reader can find everything the characters eat during the journey.

What did you want to say about the relationships between men and women, and between parents and children, with the novel?

It is complicated being a woman in the world today, it is no less complicated being a man – and the relationship between a woman and a man is an especially complicated business!

In The Greenhouse, my previous novel, I explored fatherhood and male sensitivity by telling the story of a very young gardener who accidentally becomes a father. In Butterflies in November, the women become mothers by accident. I think a good person is more likely to be a good parent but you don´t have to be a good person to be a good cook, as it says somewhere in the book.

Butterflies in November is to be made into a film. How do you feel about your novel being adapted by other people?

I hope the film will be an independent work of art. A novel and a film are two totally different ways of expression. For many years I have been reluctant to sell the rights of my books and honestly, it wasn´t easy to let go.

Iceland has recently been dubbed the country with the greatest equality between men and women. Why do you think that is?

Equality of sexes is not a power game but should be an advantage for both sexes since it means that we share both responsibilities and rights. But as in most western countries, women in Iceland are still working more hours than men, if you consider the work they do at home as well. Historically speaking women are cleaners. They clean up the mess after wars and social collapses like economic crises even if – like in Iceland – it was a small group of men, the great risk-takers, who were responsible for the mess in the first place.

Women in Iceland read more books than men (like elsewhere in the world), they go more often to the theatre, concerts and cinema and they also seem to vote more to the left than the Icelandic male does. According to a recent study, young Icelandic women have better  self-esteem and are much happier than young Icelandic men. It might have something to do with the fact that 65% of the students at the University of Iceland are women and only 35% men.

Apparently one in 10 Icelandic people will publish a book (I love the saying "ganga med bok I maganum", everyone gives birth to a book). Why do you think that is?

I think that is more likely the number of people worldwide who would consider writing a book at one point or another in their lives, given time, space and ideas! The Icelandic expression, "Ganga med bok i maganum" actually means having a hidden desire to write a book, but not having started yet! I would say there are at least ten very good writers in Iceland – of both sexes – and that is fine for its 321,857 people.

What have you been reading and enjoying recently?

I mostly read poetry and plays at the moment. Next week I am taking part in an event in a literary café in Reykjavik where authors are cross-interviewing each other. So for the first time in my life I started reading a crime novel last night and now I will have to think up some questions!

Butterflies in November by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir, translated by Brian FitzGibbon, is published by Pushkin Press on 7 November


Photo credit: Anton Brink