Today I am welcoming Viking Voyager memoirist Sverrir Sigurdsson into the Indie Spotlight!
Sverrir Sigurdsson grew up in Iceland and graduated as an architect from Finland in 1966. He pursued an international career that took him to the Middle East, Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and the U.S. His assignments focused on school construction and improving education in developing countries. He has worked for private companies as well as UNESCO and the World Bank. He is now retired and lives in Northern Virginia with his wife and coauthor, Veronica.
Veronica Li emigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong as a teenager. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and her master’s degree in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins University. She has worked as a journalist and for the World Bank, and is currently a writer. Her website is www.veronicali.com.
Welcome to my blog today, Sverrir.
What made you decide to publish your books independently? What was your path to publication?
Several literary agents were interested in my story when I approached them. There was one hitch—they wanted my memoir to be all about Iceland, considering that it had become a tourist hot spot. The problem was, only the first 19 years of my life were spent in Iceland. I left home after finishing high school to study architecture in Finland. From there on, I launched an international career, exploring the world like my Viking forefathers. Modern-day Vikings travel, not to loot and plunder as in the old days, but to learn and study in order to contribute on the world stage. As an architect, I’ve built a career helping poor countries construct schools and develop their education systems.
That is my life, and it’s impossible to change it just to please the agents. So, I stuck to my guns, or sword, and published my book independently. A writer friend recommended a hybrid press in my area in Northern Virginia. A visit to Mascot Books resulted in a contract, and thus Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir was born.
When indie publishing first started some years ago, it was regarded as a second-class citizen. But as it picked up momentum, it has become an industry of its own, with established channels for production, marketing, and distribution. Social media is one way for Indie authors to promote their books. Competitions are another means to gain recognition. I’m happy to say that Viking Voyager won a prize from the Wishing Shelf Book Awards run by a group of UK authors. This acknowledgement is certainly a shot in the arm for my book in these pandemic times.
What made you decide to write in your specific genre rather than other genres? Have you ever written in other genres?
Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir is my first book. Over the years, I’ve been jotting down reminiscences of my travels and saving them under the file “Episodes” on my computer. This was sort of a pastime in my retirement. Then I showed some pages to my wife, Veronica Li, a former journalist and published author. I thought she was humoring me when she reacted with, “Wow, Sverrir, you’ve really had an interesting life.” But when she offered to help me put the episodes together into a coherent story, I realized she meant it.
My quirks had puzzled her for many years. Reading my ramblings, she could see how my country’s history and Viking heritage had shaped me. Thus, we embarked on a more holistic effort to capture my journey: from growing up in Iceland, which cultivated an outward-looking Viking mindset, to my subsequent worldwide travels. My memoir became a story about the making of a modern-day Viking and his adventures.
Do you only read the genre that you write?
I’m quite eclectic in my reading. For entertainment, I like to read thrillers by authors such as John le Carré, Dan Brown, and Frederick Forsythe. My favorite nonfiction is about current affairs or history, particularly about the Second World War, which shaped my childhood in Iceland.
Other fiction categories I like are the classics, such as War and Peace (all 1400 pages, which I read as a teenager and many years later as a retiree) as well as books by the Icelandic Nobel laureate in literature, Halldór Laxness. His writing is concise, sharp witted, sometimes outright funny, and his characters are so vivid they remind me of people I know. Much of it is a searing social critique of current or historical norms in Iceland. His books have been translated into many languages, but nothing beats reading it in Icelandic. If a book can sing, his does. In fact, one of his novels is called The Fish Can Sing.
What are you currently reading? Watching on TV? Is there a type of music you listen to for inspiration?
I just finished David Baldacci’s Long Road to Mercy. This is the first in a crime series featuring a female FBI agent. This is his first woman lead character, and I find her intriguing. She’s a lone wolf with a tragic past, which comes back to haunt her while she was investigating a case in the Grand Canyon.
The TV show that currently has me hooked is Borgen, a Danish series about the first female Danish Prime Minister. The protagonist and the crises she has to deal with are most convincing. Through her we see the workings of a Parliamentary system of government and the obstacles a female head of state faces both in public and at home. I also have a special affinity with Denmark, which was Iceland’s colonial master for several hundred years.
I grew up in Iceland listening to classical music on the radio. But it wasn’t much more than elevator music to me, until my dad took me to an organ concert at a church when I was twelve. That took my breath away and from then on, I paid attention to what I was listening to. As a young man, I became enchanted with the compositions of the Finnish composer, Sibelius. His music transported me to the wilderness, a place of solitude and beauty. Little did I know that one day I would study architecture in Finland and launch my career there.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
If you’re interested in writing your memoir, I’d say, start writing. Even if you don’t know what you want to say, you can always begin by putting down your most salient memories. After a while, you may be able to connect the dots and see the big picture. This was what I did—the “pantser” style of writing.
Fortunately, my wife and coauthor is a “plotter.” She taught me the importance of the theme. Once the theme is established, the episodes fall into place and become the building blocks of a plot. In the absence of a theme, a memoir can end up a mishmash of anecdotes, with no meaningful message for readers to take away.
During the writing process, I learned a lot about creative writing from Veronica, who insisted on painting vivid pictures of places and people in order to transport readers to a different world. When I said I couldn’t remember the specifics, she threatened to exercise a coauthor’s right to creative license. Of course, I couldn’t let her turn my life into fiction. So, I dug into my memory, did some research, and found the details to flesh out the scenes. From its birth as a factual and dry account, the story evolved into a visual canvas for the reader.
My advice to aspiring memoirists is, do not bore your readers. Your writing has to be as exciting as a thriller, and you can accomplish this with pacing, details, and a captivating storyline. You have to realize your life is unique and extraordinary even if you’re not famous or don’t have a sob story to tell.
What are you working on right now and what can we look forward to seeing from you next?
I’m working on publishing the Icelandic edition of Viking Voyager. I’ve translated the book myself, and an Icelandic publisher is aiming to release the book before the end of the year, in time for the “Christmas book flood.” The Icelandic tradition is to give each other books as Christmas presents. Iceland is known to be one of the most literate nations in the world. Given our long, dark winters, there’s nothing better than curling up with a good book.
That’s exciting that your book will be published in Iceland – hopefully you will have plenty of Christmas sales! Thank you for joining me today on my blog, Sverrir!
This vivacious personal story captures the heart and soul of modern Iceland. Born in Reykjavik on the eve of the Second World War, Sverrir Sigurdsson watched Allied troops invade his country and turn it into a bulwark against Hitler’s advance toward North America. The country’s post-war transformation from an obscure, dirt-poor nation to a prosperous one became every Icelander’s success. Spurred by this favorable wind, Sverrir answered the call of his Viking forefathers, setting off on a voyage that took him around the world. After obtaining an architecture degree in Finland, he pursued an international development career that took him to thirty-some developing countries on five continents. He now lives in the US.
Who is next on Indie Spotlight?
Remco van Straten and Angeline B. Adams have written about the arts, culture and folklore for a variety of publications, and their short stories have appeared in several anthologies, most recently Air and Nothingness Press’s The Wild Hunt. Their work is steeped in a shared love for folklore and history, and draws on elements of Angeline’s Northern Irish childhood and the northern Dutch coast where Remco grew up. Their first collection, The Red Man and Others, has now appeared in print.