It is Day One of the Iceland Writers Retreat and Andrew Evans, a seasoned travel writer, is speaking about ways that writers can create a strong sense of place in their work. His session is called “The Smell of Elephant Poo” but he has decided to test our writing skills by having us eat and then write a description of something more local – hákarl. Hákarl is locally-caught shark that has been fermented in a cold damp place, and then hung to dry for several months.
The result of this process is passed around on a plate. It has been cut into cubes a bit larger than dice and the colours of sashimi, cream to pink to red to purple. Only six of us take up the challenge. Several plead their existing or new-found commitment to vegetarianism. Others just say no. Hákarl is, after all, a substance that chef Anthony Bourdain describes as “the single worst, most disgusting and terrible tasting” thing he has ever eaten.
My travel companion, the much-decorated Anne Giardini (and I don’t just mean her necklace and earrings, she has a QC, Jubilee Medal, is president of Weyerhaeuser, a writer, and new Chancellor of Simon Fraser University) and I arrive in Iceland for the inaugural Iceland Writers Retreat. We spend the first night in Reykjavik learning that: Iceland boasts the smallest gender gap in the world; subsists almost completely on renewable energy (geothermal, wind); continues to hunt whales which are then mostly consumed by tourists on a dare or luxury dogs in Japan; and has a pervasive sense of humour that has the quick wit of Westjet attendants but with something mordantly ironic added.
The next morning we pick up our sad car rental on the outskirts of Reykjavik – Sad Car is the name of the rental agency. The car, a red Subaru, has a couple of warning lights on permanent yellow, and a few rattles and dings, but its 240,000 km on the odometer proves it’s too tough to break down, right? Anne and I are taking two days on a tour to kickstart our muses before the retreat, where we will attend workshops lead by authors including Joseph Boyden, Geraldine Brooks, Susan Orlean, James Scudmore, Iain Reid, Randy Boyagoda and Sara Wheeler.
In 2013 Christine Hayvice volunteered for the first time for the Vancouver Writers Fest. We caught up with her as she was preparing to leave for New Zealand, where she will be working on a book about her family at the Michael King Writers’ Centre in Auckland.
Why did you decide to volunteer for the VWF this year? I am retired and for the past few years have enjoyed volunteering at cultural events including the film festival and at the Cultch. I've always attended some events at VWF but either lacked time and/or money to see very many. Volunteering gave me the opportunity to see so much more.
Was the experience what you had expected? It was more than I expected. I didn't know about the walk-a-writer gig and loved it. A chance to meet and chat with some of the authors.
Highlights? Seeing and listening to Eleanor Catton, especially the one hour event with her and Hal. And, as I'm a Kiwi, I'm always keen to catch New Zealand writers.
How long have you been coming to the Festival? Many years.
Convergences. The final day of this year’s Writers Festival, a gorgeous Sunday afternoon in late October, Granville Island humming with people who seemed happy to be there, and two participants in an event who brought with them overlapping worlds of writers, those writers’ spirits crowding in to the low-lit intimacy of The Improv Centre. “I’m glad we made the effort to come,” my wife said to me at the end of the event. I often feel like that when I leave Festival events. Schedules, busy lives, time pressures, myriad reasons for not doing things, can keep many of us from the things that matter most. After engaging with the minds of writers at the Festival, people who think long and hard about our world and share their painstakingly constructed and personal responses to it, I frequently walk away with a sense of spiritual and intellectual intensification, as if everything has simultaneously been brought into sharper focus and given greater depth.