AWM recently spoke to Kari Gislason, writer and academic, about writing habits, travel writing, and his two books. Kari’s memoir, The Promise of Iceland, is a powerful tale of family origins and place, which highlights Kari’s ability to capture the stark beauty of Icelandic landscapes on the page. His second book, The Ash Burner, is Kari’s first foray into fiction and also looks at family themes and friendship.
In this interview, Kari talks about capturing a sense of place in travel writing and listening for the click — the idea central to a travel piece — when you’re travelling. Kari also writes for Escape, the News Ltd travel supplement, and blogs regularly at are my feet in the way. He will be presenting a live version of his ABC radio series on Icelandic sagas with Richard Fidler at the Brisbane Powerhouse in July.
You developed an interest in writing about the Icelandic sagas at university, and wrote your PhD on authorship in medieval Iceland. What fundamental writing habits did you develop at university that helped when you started writing memoir and fiction?
This might sound like I’m avoiding your question, but most fundamentally university taught me how to read in a new way — a way that I think helped me to develop as a writer. Not necessarily more critically, although that is often part of university study. But much more carefully and openly: to read works in light of their historical contexts, influences, and geographies. And to read difficult literature that would have taken me much longer to understand on my own. An aspect of writing is joining a reading community, and for me university has been a very enriching community.
You have since written two books — a memoir and a work of fiction. How did you find the transition from an academic style of writing to a more literary one?
I’m not sure I would describe it as a transition. Since I was a teenager, I wrote essays for school or university and at the same time wrote poetry and lyrics, first of all for myself but always with the hope of sharing them. So in that sense the two have always co-existed. But at the same time my creative writing has come to influence my academic writing. Writing for a wider audience has helped me to better appreciate the importance of clarity, both structural and linguistic.
You have a collection of evocative travel writing on your blog are my feet in the way. How do you know when you’ve found the right theme, significant moment, or person to serve as the subject of a travel piece?
I once heard Clive James say (of comedic phrasing) that “it goes click”. When you travel as a writer, you’re also listening for a click — an idea that will run through your piece. It can come from just about anywhere: a phrase or a line, a story that seems to stand for an overall impression that has emerged. Travel is often characterised by diversity, a lack of unity, and of course you don’t want to falsely iron out what happened. But to have a subject means finding something around which to gather that diversity of experience. In one of the first travel stories I wrote it was this Icelandic proverb: “Pissing in your boots warms your feet, but not for long.” After that I could write a story about travelling on a very cold day, with ever-colder feet. But also about the rural landscape from which that saying had come.
You also write travel pieces for Australian publications including the Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun and the Sunday Mail (Brisbane and Adelaide). What advice can you give writers looking to get freelance travel writing work?
My advice would be to develop strong professional relationships with editors. My work for Escape, the News Ltd travel supplement, first came about because of my memoir The Promise of Iceland. The national travel editor at the time, Brian Crisp, commissioned me to do a story on Iceland that would run around the time the book was launched. Brian liked my style of travel writing, and gave me more work. I imagine quite a lot of editor-writer relationships develop in this way: some luck, meeting an editor at the right time, and then meeting the needs of the publication.
Your memoir, The Promise of Iceland, documents your relationship with Iceland as much as it does your relationship with family members. In that book you write, ‘It was so obvious: the missing piece in me was simply the feeling of being in Iceland.’ What advice would you offer to writers about capturing a sense of place?
That book is part love letter to Iceland, and probably evokes Iceland in the way it does because it was written in Australia. It’s the Iceland that exists here: I’m holding the country in one hand while I write about it with the other — trying to bring Iceland into my life. I’m not sure that’s the only way to create a sense of place, but the desire to be in Iceland through writing drives much in that story. Maybe that’s an unreliable method. But it’s been very pleasing to hear Icelanders who’ve read the book say they recognise the representation, especially of the rather different Iceland that existed in the 1970s and 80s.
Memoir and travel writing seem closely aligned, with their roots in personal experience, but in 2015 you made your first foray into novel-length fiction with The Ash Burner. What should readers expect from you with your next writing project?
I seem always to have a few projects underway, scholarly and creative, and I’m never very certain about which will make it to publication or in which order. One is a fiction for children inspired by an idea for a book that my two boys came up with, the other a family memoir, and the third a collaboration with my friend Richard Fidler. Richard and I made an ABC radio series about Iceland and the Icelandic sagas (broadcast in March 2016), and in July 2016 we’re going to do a live version of the show at Brisbane Powerhouse. The partnership has been wonderful. It’s taught me how to write more collaboratively and in new forms, and I hope we can keep developing it.
Zoe Biddlestone is currently studying a Master of Arts in Writing, Editing and Publishing at The University of Queensland. She also has Bachelor degrees in Arts and Law. Zoe works full-time and enjoys freelance editing and proofreading after hours. She loves reading travel writing, the classics and translated fiction.