As the third writer recruited to contribute a work to the Future Library in Oslo, the Icelandic novelist simply known as Sjón spoke about his forward-thinking assignment Thursday.
Having had his books translated into 35 languages, he is also a poet, librettist and lyricist and was nominated for an Oscar for his lyrics for “Dancer in the Dark” starring his longtime friend Bjork. Knowing his Future Library contribution work will not be read for 100 years, Sjón said, “We need projects where generations come together to work on a good thing. It’s been called Cathedral Thinking in culture, because the great cathedrals of Europe really took 200 to 300 years to make. They were generational projects. Maybe with all the challenges we are facing today like climate change, we need more projects that help us to think in generations.”
Also at work on the conclusion of a trilogy “that deals with the big questions in life, narrated by a man who was born in 1962 and is trying to find a place for himself in the world.” Sjón said, “The novel actually stretches quite far into the future where the genius of the Icelandic people actually brings on the end of mankind.”
WWD: Had you known you were in the running?
Sjón: No, [TFL’s founder] Katie Paterson introduced the project to a handful of writers at a very fine international literary festival in Denmark at the Louisiana Museum, I sent her an e-mail when I got back to Iceland, saying, “It’s a wonderful project. I hope that you keep me in mind.” Then I didn’t hear anything. I followed the launch of the library with Margaret Atwood and then David Mitchell. I just sat quietly at home secretly envying them. Then just over a month ago she asked me if I would like to be the third author to join the library.
WWD: Have you decided what you will write about?
Sjón: All authors secretly hope that their works will be read in 100 years’ time and 200 years, and that they will somehow survive into the future. I have to face questions like, “Do I simply write the best text I possibly can? Do I specifically engage with contemporary issues? ’Do I consciously try to write something that is timeless?” One thing for sure is it will be written in the Icelandic language. All of my literary work is. I will just take the chance that the language will still be relevant in 100 years, which is something we cannot take for granted with a language that is spoken by 330,000 people.
WWD: Do you have a writing routine?
Sjón: I’m not one of those writers who writes everyday. I do quite extensive research for most of my novels. Much of my time is taken up by reading, researching and trying out ideas. Then I usually leave Reykavik for two to three weeks to go to the South Coast of Iceland where I have a small fisherman’s hut from the beginning of the last century. That’s where I sit down and do the actual writing. I might write for 16 hours a day or something. That’s how it happens.
WWD: What did you think of Bob Dylan winning the Nobel Prize?
Sjón: He’s a worthy laureate for the Nobel Prize. He builds his lyrics, of course, from personal experience, but it’s also a literary work. He draws heavily on his knowledge of American lyric tradition as well as European modernism. But he should let the Nobel Prize Committee know if he is accepting it or not. He will not be the first one who declines the prize for political or personal reasons. He should just tell them.
WWD: What about this year’s Man Booker Prize winner being the first American — Paul Beatty for “The Sellout?”
Sjón: It sounds like a relevant story for our times. It’s playful, uses deep thought and seems to be taking advantage of everything literature can do when tackling difficult issues.
WWD: Will you collaborate with Bjork again?
Sjón: The option is always on the table. When we were starting as creative kids in the Eighties, we found each other. I was 19, she was 16 and a friendship was made. She is one of my oldest friends so we share the friendship and common roots. That is what we build on when we work together.
WWD: How is Iceland changing?
Sjón: Now 10 percent of this population of 330,000 people were born elsewhere — Polish, North Africans, Europeans, Americans — people are coming from all over. It is still changing society in a good way. A great number of tourists have been flocking here and those numbers are growing every year. That also raises questions like “How do we receive people?” and “How do we present our country?”
WWD: Do you think art, literature and fashion have a role in helping people to understand or deal with all these issues?
Sjón: What literature brings to our times is always the fact that literature refuses to bring any simple or easy answers. Literature acknowledges that life is complicated. Politics enter dangerous ground, when people proclaim there are simple answers for our complex world.