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2017 Man Booker International Prize Q&A—Jón Kalman Stefánsson

By Eric M. B. Becker

Jón Kalman Stefánsson and his translator Philip Roughton were longlisted for the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for Fish Have No Feet

Words Without Borders (WWB):Tell us about how you became a writer. Was it a vocation, an accident? How has your relationship to writing changed over time? Have your goals and objectives changed throughout the years?

Jón Kalman Stefánsson: I don´t believe that one can become a writer by an accident. Either you are a writer or not; either you are an artist or not. It something you are born with, and simply can´t escape from. But I started rather late, twenty-one or twenty-two I think; or that consider very late here in Iceland . . . Just took my time to figure out who I was; but remember very clearly when I discover it. It was a moment. I felt like I was in a way meeting my true self for the first time. That I was “home”. And it´s still like that. I can´t think of life otherwise than writing, it´s just part of my breath, my heartbeat. And I have always wanted—and always believed—that fiction and poetry should matter. As all arts. It should influence people, their feelings, their views, how they look at the world, and how they look at themselves. Literature should matter. For the individual and the society. It can and should.

WWB: How do you see your writing within the larger context of your country’s/language’s literary tradition? What influences/writers/groups of writers there do you draw on, or what literary currents does your work disavow?

Jón Kalman Stefánssonz: To tell you the truth, I don´t think of my writing in this context. I never wonder where to put it in that sense. I have no interest to define my writing, others are simply better qualified than me to do that. I look at my works from inside; one can say that I therefore have a problem of seeing the woods for the trees . . . just like that, I´m not the best person to describe myself. But I started as a poet, and that shows in my novels. And I have always been drawn to authors who either write with a poetic style—such as Knut Hamsun, Jose Saramago, Herta Müller—and/or authors who try to renew the form, such as Faulkner, Italo Calvino, Javier Marias . . . A novel can be so much. It can be all that at the same time: a story, a poem, an essay, a solar system, a rock song, a requiem, a symphony, a riffle, a dream . . . The opportunities for the novel are almost endless; and one should always try to expand the form in some way.

WWB: What’s your favorite book from a literary tradition other than your own and how has it influenced your writing?

Jón Kalman Stefánsson: I could easily drop a few names that mattered a lot for some twent-five–thirty years ago; I don´t know if they influence my writing as such, but they mattered a lot for me. I was swept me off my feet. Books like Tonio Kröger by Thomas Mann, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, World light by Halldor Laxness, Advent (or Good Shepard) by another Icelander, Gunnar Gunnarsson (who influenced Hemingway writing The Old Man and the Sea), Pan by the great Hamsun . . . and countless poems—for example, The Violence of the Hour by Cesar Vallejo—influenced, helped or inspired me in my writings.

Read an interview with Philip Roughton, translator of Fish Have No Feet

Read more interviews with 2017 Man Booker International Prize-nominated writers and translators

Published Apr 13, 2017   Copyright 2017 Eric M. B. Becker

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