Sjón—Iceland’s prolific poet, novelist, and frequent Björk collaborator—met with fellow writer Laura van den Berg in the Harvard Bookstore to discuss his miniature historical epic, Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was. The book follows queer teenager and cinephile Máni Steinn as he travels through the societal fringes of 1918 Reykjavík, while the Spanish Flu threatens to bring his entire city to its knees. Máni must choose between escaping into the dream world of film and engaging with the community that has rejected him at every turn. Van den Berg’s debut novel, Find Me, also centers on pandemic; Joy, a lonely grocery store clerk and cough syrup addict, is immune to the fatal, memory-erasing disease that is sweeping across a near-future America, a stroke of fate that forces her to reevaluate her place in the world. Sjón and Laura’s conversation touches on the intersection between film and plague, the power of death as a social equalizer, and the pitfalls of writing books that could break someone’s bones.
Laura van den Berg: One of the many things that is stunning to me about Moonstone is that there are so many layers, and we have this intense historical moment that’s very multifaceted; we’re also tracking our protagonist through a very intimate personal journey, and so I was curious to know, what were the origins for this book? I know it’s tricky sometimes to find the starting point—but if you can think of the seed, what was it initially?
Sjón: Sometimes books are born from books that never get written. And I was actually preparing for a novel that traced the history of the spiritualist movement in Iceland. The spiritualist movement in Iceland came into being and came into force in the months after the Spanish Flu. Because obviously after the massive deaths of the flu, there was a great demand for discussions and conversations about death. So I was looking at the history of the Spanish Flu and the spiritualist movement, and then I came upon a photograph of a woman sitting in a great big old car—an Overland—a car that was parked by the edge of the lake in the center of Reykjavík; she was dressed in a great black leather overcoat with a driver’s cap, and it said that this woman not only became the first [female] professional taxi driver in Reykjavík, but that she had begun her career as a driver during the Spanish Flu when she was taking doctors around to help the ill.
So this photo is really the beginning. I became very interested in this woman, I forgot all about the spiritualist movement, and I just kept digging into the history of the Spanish Flu. And strangely, even though it was a very dramatic event in our little society, very little had been written about the Spanish Flu. My guess is that it so traumatized the people that it was seen as unjust to speak about it at all. That, and also the fact that it came together with our celebration of independence. So to be able to take the steps toward being a free country, we just had to put that tragedy behind ourselves. That’s how it began. I usually work on different threads of research over years and years and years without having decided to do anything with it. So in this case I was already on the track of the Spanish Flu; at the same time I was investigating the history of cinema in Iceland—simply because I am a great cinephile myself—and I had for a long time been interested in the LGBT history of Iceland as well.
So when I finally sat down to work on a story that took place during the Spanish Flu, I realized that so many key moments and days in the progress of the Flu were marked by events in the cinemas. The cinemas were closed down because they were a breeding ground for the Flu, then they were fumigated, then they were opened up, then there was a special screening for the orphans . . . so all of a sudden, the history of cinema and the history of the Spanish Flu came together, and I realized that I wanted to find a protagonist who was detached from the tragedy. Because if you have a character who is completely at the mercy of the tragedy, of the horrible events, [they] will just sit somewhere crying. No story. So I started looking for a character to bring us through those days, to lead us through those days, and I don’t know where it came from, but I thought that it might be an interesting factoid in that person’s life if he or she—I didn’t know at the time—had a very active sex life, in some way. Because having sex with strangers is something that we should definitely not do in the days of an epidemic. And I realized it couldn’t be a woman, it was too easy and somehow it was a story that had been told. So I came up with this sixteen-year-old kid who, because of his youth and social situation, isn’t absorbed by the tragedy.
And one day, when I was reading a novel by an Indian author who lives and works in England—Neel Mukherjee, author of a novel called A Life Apart—I realized my character was gay like his character in his book. And then all of a sudden everything came together. That was how the book was born. I don’t think this was reverse engineering, as they say; I think this was really how it was born.
LVDB: When you were describing that photo of this sort of dramatic, imposing woman, I immediately thought of Sola. Did she spring from that description? She’s such an integral character in the book because Máni, our protagonist, is engaging in sex work to pay for the cinema . . . but that sort of evaporates when the epidemic is in full swing and the cinema, which has been his great escape and portal to another world, is closed and so he becomes increasingly isolated as the novel progresses. I feel like Sola in some ways is his lifeline to humanity. She struck me as such a central character . . . did she spring from that photo?
S: Yes. Her character is based on the actual person in that photo. Sola is the only character in that book that has a real-life model. So there was a real life woman in Reykjavík called Katrin F who rode a motorcycle and drove cars, and later became the second woman in Reykjavík to get a license as a professional housepainter. There’s a beautiful interview with this woman where she is spotted by a journalist—this is in the late sixties, early seventies—she is spotted high up on a ladder, and he goes and asks this very old lady what on earth she’s doing up on the ladder. And it turns out she is still working as a housepainter. So this woman in the photo, she became Sola, who like you say is Máni’s lifeline. But I pushed him completely to the edge of society. Like I said, he’s queer, he’s an orphan, he’s dyslexic, he’s unemployed, but what I gave him was a love of cinema. He had to have something positive in his life, something that enriched his life. And maybe the reason he connects with Sola is the fact that she is the double of somebody from the screen. So somebody from the screen is almost there in crummy little Reykjavík.
LVDB: The use of cinema in Moonstone reminded me this wonderful novel called The Naked Eye by Yoko Tawada; it concerns a character who undergoes a long journey and some trauma—I’m consolidating wildly here—and ends up in Paris and is floating between an itinerant lifestyle and being quasi-homeless, but this character falls in love with film. And just spends all of her time in the cinema, and the trajectory of that novel is that eventually the world on the screen and the real world begin to collapse into each other. [Your] character, his trajectory isn’t quite that, but you get the sense that the cinema is his lifeline to the world outside of the immediate moment that he’s existing in, and I think it also foretells the way the borders of Moonstone open at the end: there’s already that contact with the world beyond Reykjavík happening. So I was curious to know, was that always a piece of this character, or did it come in later, and how did that take shape as you were working on this book?
S: As soon as I gave him the love of cinema, it tied directly in with the story of the Spanish Flu and the progression of the Spanish Flu. Not only was his possibility of getting pocket money for the cinema through sex work—not only was that taken away from him, but also the cinema. You say he gets more isolated, but it also means he briefly enters society. He becomes a helper of one of the doctors who is taking care of [Flu patients]. Film is such an amazing thing, because it has always been the art form for the underprivileged. Right from the beginning, cinema was an opportunity for the masses to experience great art. And this was also the case in Reykjavík. In 1918 there were two cinemas in Reykjavík. So from the beginning of picture films in 1913, Icelanders started going to the cinema. But it was mostly teenagers and working class, the underprivileged who went to the cinema. The fine society of Reykjavík went to the theatre and watched completely outdated living room dramas while the kids and the workers of Reykjavík were witnessing the birth of a new art form. It’s amazing, really. They were present at the screenings of films that we know became world-class cultural objects, like Metropolis or Birth of a Nation.
This is what I gave him. A connection with something big, something new, and through the screen, of course, he sees there is a reality outside Reykjavík.
LVDB: I even sometimes feel this way about installation art, and it’s so different from literature, which does transport us into a different world, but this is a world that’s externalized and it’s not the invisible world we inhabit when we’re reading a book.
S: Yes, and at the same time you play your own film in your mind while watching the film on the screen. So it’s a very interesting mix of the social and private. You sit in the dark with the rest of the audience, but you are reading the film completely on your own terms. And for somebody like Málin who is . . . he’s not battling with his sexuality but of course it’s part of the questions he has to deal with in his life. And he’s there and he watches film and he has the freedom to read into it whatever he needs to read into it. So I think on many levels [film] is a wonderful tool for him to use in surviving.
LVDB: To go back to that intersection between cinema and the Spanish Flu, I thought that this was so interesting. In an interview you mentioned that you “saw the potential in revealing a culture through its devastation by a plague.” And I thought that was such a compelling notion; it can be a plague but just in general the way disaster is often defining for a society, and even for an individual. I think one of the most stunning moments is when Máni says—I’m going to get the wording slightly wrong—when he sees Reykjavík in deep despair, that this is the first time this place feels conversant with his inner reality. So it’s interesting to think about the way a plague can reveal societal truths and also individual truths, and I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about that idea.
S: Death [brought on by] the plague is of course one of the great equalizers in history, because when it comes to the plague, everybody is vulnerable. And we have so many histories of people trying to hide from the plague only to have the plague catch up with them. The Mask of the Red Death and many other stories. So this tiny society of Reykjavík is put to the test in the book. All its structure becomes visible when it starts crumbling. You hear the creaking of the structure. And all of a sudden this kid, he is an equal. The fact that death has entered town makes him an equal with the rest of society.
And you! You are working with the plague in your novel. So you know what it brings to describing a society that is falling to pieces. And how some people experience it as an opportunity. This happens in your book as well as mine.
LVDB: Yours is in the past, mine is in the near-future, yet this dystopian quality of a plague associated with “speculative” or “dystopian” or “near-future” books can also be so grounded in history. It’s very interesting that the most human contact that this character has in Reykjavík is when this horrifying epidemic is decimating the population. That’s when he’s with Sola, he’s going around with the doctor, he’s helping to care for the sick; it’s the most human engagement that he’s finding. It presents this opportunity for connection or intimacy or self-actualization that for whatever reason wasn’t possible in the pre-plague or pre-disaster world.
S: Absolutely, and in Málin’s case the plague makes him a useful citizen when he starts helping out. But there is a fable quality to this story as well, because at the end of the book, I come out in the open with the fact that one of the main reasons for writing the book is the death of my uncle from AIDS-related illnesses in 1993. And there are strange similarities between what happens in the later stages of AIDS and the Spanish Flu. The Spanish Flu is like AIDS on speed. It happens very fast but it is also a virus that turns the body against itself; it’s an autoimmune virus. So what I wanted to do was show, in a reverse mirror, the stories of recent epidemics: on one hand it is the Spanish Flu in 1918, when this queer kid finds charity and reason to be helpful, and then the AIDS epidemic all those years later where people like him were denied charity by society for a long time. So there is a moral rage, or an emotional rage, that fuels the book as well.
LVDB: You were saying before how the history of the Spanish Flu and its impact on Iceland was sort of buried, perhaps in part because it was on the brink of independence . . . it was like, “let’s look at this and not at this!” And then the book bounds forward, and I don’t think we’re in spoiler territory, because I think it’s indescribable, you have to experience it, but the book bounds forward in such an extraordinary way to come closer to our current moment, and again that’s a different kind of buried history around the treatment of AIDS and the denial of charity as you put it, and so that seems like a through line as well. This story is bringing to the surface what culturally we’ve been very invested in turning away from. Did you know you were writing to that end always? Or did it become apparent only at a certain point in the process?
S: Yes, it slowly became clear to me what the fable was. When you had in front of you this queer kid and this epidemic coming to town, of course the mind started making associations with our recent history. And I think I can say that Máni is a unique character in Icelandic fiction. We haven’t had that much queer fiction in Icelandic literary history. By placing this character, who never was, because Icelanders became gay in 1976—that was when the first person stepped forward in an interview and acknowledged he was gay—that’s when we discovered there was one gay character in town. Two years later the LGBT movement was founded, the 1978 movement. And that’s when we discovered we were more than this one guy. So we have a very short history of actually discussing and trying to understand that this is a part of our history. And placing the character in the moment of the birth of the nation was really a political act on my behalf. Because if he really existed then, then he has always existed. And he will always exist. Of course it is a paradox. The project of the book and the title is a paradox.
LVDB: This book encompasses so much, and look! It’s so slim. But we go through this incredibly, intensely personal journey with a character; we’re encompassing a number of different historical moments where these events are converging simultaneously; we move in closer to the future moment at the end. One of the things that just floored me about this book is how much this world is able to hold and convey, yet it maintains a very compact shape. You can imagine in the hands of a different writer this being one of those seven-hundred-page epics that if you dropped it on someone’s foot the book would break it. But it seems like part of the ambition of Moonstone is to be so dynamic but in a compact space. Was this just the natural length of the book or was part of the governing ambition to write a world that could hold all of these facets but maintain this very compact shape?
S: Yes. That’s what I wanted to do.
LVDB: Was it always this very tight arc or was there ever a moment where it seemed that maybe it would be longer or did it just stay in this sort of shape?
S: The research material I had accumulated at the point I sat down to write the book was enormous. And obviously I could’ve written that big book that breaks people’s bones. But there was something in the material that asked for this compact form. It is similar to The Blue Fox, I think. In both cases it’s a small world, the characters have their small lives, and somehow by keeping the book so compact I felt I could keep the focus on the character. Because obviously there so many moments where I could have expanded on the political history of Iceland in 1918 or I could’ve gone into the history of cinema or I could’ve gone into the history of volcanoes. There are endless opportunities to write essays in novels. But it really felt like the story belonged to him. His world is quite limited; he’s living under great constraints, but with a very free mind. So maybe the book is trying to mirror that.
LVDB: I think that’s absolutely right. There’re some books that are dealing with fascinating elements of history but you do sense that what’s happening in the world dwarfs the characters, or at least there’s that risk of dwarfing the characters. And I think one of the reasons I found Moonstone so terrifically moving is because the intimate is usurped by the historical and the movements in the larger world, yet the relationship between the intimate moment and the larger moment is always dynamic and always in play, but the intimate feels foregrounded.
S: Yes. And that is the benefit of having a teenage character. A teenager is not interested in great geopolitical events. The teenager is just interested in what teenagers are interested in at any given time in history. So that made it so easy to push all those grand events into the background, to mention them once in a while so we know that he is living in a great catastrophe, like we all are, at all times.
Born in Reykjavík in 1962,Sjón is an award-winning Icelandic author whose novels The Blue Fox, The Whispering Muse, From the Mouth of the Whale and Moonstone: The Boy Who Never Was have been translated into thirty-five languages. Also a poet he has published nine poetry collections, written four opera librettos and lyrics for various artists. In 2001 he was nominated for an Oscar for his lyrics in the film Dancer In The Dark. Sjón is the president of the Icelandic PEN Centre. He lives in Reykjavík.
Laura van den Berg’s first collection of stories, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us, was a Barnes & Noble “Discover Great New Writers” selection. Her second collection of stories, The Isle of Youth, won the Rosenthal Family Foundation Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters and The Bard Fiction Prize, and was named a “Best Book of 2013” by over a dozen venues, including NPR, The Boston Globe, and O, The Oprah Magazine. Both collections were shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. The recipient of a 2014 O. Henry Award, Laura currently lives in the Boston area and is a Writer-in-Residence at Bard College. Find Me is her first novel.