Bragi Ólafsson was born in Reykjavik, and may be most well known for playing bass in The Sugarcubes, Björk’s first band. After recording three albums and touring the world, he quit making music and turned to writing. He is the author of several books of poetry and short stories, and four novels, including Time Off, which was nominated for the Icelandic Literature Prize in 1999 (as was The Pets), and Party Games, for which Bragi received the DV Cultural Prize in 2004. His most recent novel—The Ambassador—was a finalist for the 2008 Nordic Literature Prize and received the Icelandic Bookseller’s Award as best novel of the year.
The Pets, which Open Letter will be publishing in October of 2008 in Janice Balfour’s translation (978-1-934824-01-6; $14.95) will be the first book of his to appear in English.
Bragi was kind enough to answer some questions about his work and life over e-mail.
Open Letter: As a writer, you started out writing poetry and have even done some playwriting. How did that transition—from poet to playwright to novelist—take place? Have you continued writing poetry, or have you shifted your focus exclusively to the novel?
Bragi Ólafsson: My first literary idols were poets, so it seemed obvious to write poetry. I wrote my first texts when I was 13 or 14 years old. These poets I read were mostly Icelandic, and through them and their translations of European and American poets I came into contact with "foreign" literature, and started appreciating a lot of modernist prose and playwriting. The writer who has probably influenced me the most, and served as the biggest encouragement, is Harold Pinter. But as I knew that I would never be able to write plays as good as his, I decided to concentrate on poetry, and eventually prose. However I’ve written some radio plays for the State Radio, and one play for the City Theater. And now I’ve been commissioned to write a play for the National Theater. After I published my first novel I’ve gradually stopped writing poetry; somehow I have become intimidated by its form. I think I have realized that the novel is the form that suits me the best.
OL: You translate as well, right? How did that come about?
BO: I have translated some poems and Paul Auster’s City of Glass. The reason why I translated Auster’s book is that my publisher asked me to do it. I don’t consider myself as a translator. But I have great respect for Paul Auster, he has written some excellent books, and edited a very good anthology of Twentieth Century French Poetry. A person who likes Max Jacob doesn’t have to worry about anything.
OL: Turning to The Pets—one of the most striking things about the book is the fact that for most of the novel, the main character, and main narrator, Emil is trapped under his bed. Was this a restriction you set out for yourself at the beginning of the novel, or did it occur naturally during the writing process?
BO: After an English friend of mine told me of a rather unfortunate incident he had with a guinea-pig, cement and a water-hose, I wanted to write a story about a person who is assigned to take care of a few pet animals. I had some difficulty in finding the correct form and tone for the story, but one day when I was sitting in my living room, looking at the open window with a steaming hot coffee in front of me, I started to imagine some unwanted person coming through the window and me hiding under the bed, and all of a sudden that very idea and the story about the pets came together. Thus the method of telling the story existed from the start. But that the main character is trapped under his bed is not really a restriction, on the contrary it’s very helpful for the imagination of the person writing the story. In fact I would like to write more novels from that point of view, I feel comfortable under a bed, it’s probably something from childhood.
OL: A series of "the view from under the bed" books would be fantastic. . . . Personally, as the book went along, I got more and more anxious about how Emil was going to get out and how the situation would be resolved. (Being an ex-smoker, the few references to how long it had been since his last cigarette gave me vicarious nic fits.) I guess that’s what I would see as the main constraint—how is this going to end? And without giving much away, I have to admit that I was pleased and shocked by how the story was resolved. When did you know how the novel would end the way that it does?
BO: I’ve had lots of comments on how the novel ends. While many readers find it very frustrating, even feel betrayed, other readers think it is the proper ending to a story like this. One reader came up to me and told me that the ending of The Pets was the second best ending he had read in a book. I was of course very flattered to hear that, especially because this reader seemed like a "normal" person, not a literature student. And when I asked him what was the best ending he had read, the answer was: For Whom the Bell Tolls! It made my day.
I had not decided how The Pets was going to end when I started the book, and I think that decision came rather late in the writing process. I had tried two or three different endings but always felt I was betraying myself and the story by not letting it end the way it does. I think it’s a good thing when an ending of a book gives the reader the permission to decide for himself what has really been going on in the story and what will happen after he has read the last page.
But talking about strange or disturbing endings; there’s a book called The Golden Egg by a Dutch writer, Tim Krabbé. It was made into a very good film called Spoorloos, by a Dutch film director, and the ending of that film is probably one of the most unpleasant, and at the same time one of the most exhilarating, endings in film history. But then the same director remade the film for Hollywood, and what happened? The new film, which was called The Vanishing, got a happy ending, so that American movie-goers wouldn’t be too troubled by what they had seen.
OL: Returning to your earlier response for a second—I really can’t believe the guinea pig story is true! For me, that scene encapsulates what I really like about your book—it’s very funny, and at the same time slightly disturbing. Are there any authors/books that influenced your style and sense of humor?
BO: Yes, the guinea pig story is true. I didn’t see it happen myself but I’ve been in the backyard where it happened!
I try to avoid naming authors which I think have influenced my way of writing – because I don’t really know who have – but I very much like the humor and precision in Gogol, Chekhov and Pinter, and the novels of Evelyn Waugh, Italo Svevo, Thomas Bernhard and Saul Bellow, just to name a few very different authors. And the brilliant humor of Halldor Laxness, and another Icelandic writer, Thorbergur Thordarson, is very important for Icelandic writers and artists. But I’m no less influenced by films. Films like Playtime by Tati, La grande bouffe my Marco Ferreri and Mulholland Drive by David Lynch have some comic moments that I think about almost every day; scenes that are very shallow and profound at the same time. For example the scene in Lynch’s film about the meeting in the boardroom; it’s worth hundreds of books, it’s total genius (if that word means anything).
OL: On top of everything else, you also run the fantastically named publishing company, Bad Taste, in Iceland. Could you tell me a little bit about how it got started and what you publish?
BO: Before my friends and I formed The Sugarcubes we started the company Bad Taste. The Sugarcubes were actually formed in order to finance the publishing company, which it then did for five or six years. Bad Taste has been the leading independent record company in Iceland for 20 years, although we have never made any money out of it, only lost a lot of it. (Two years ago The Sugarcubes reformed for just one night to save Bad Taste from bankruptcy. And we succeeded.) We not only publish popular music but also modern Icelandic music and jazz, and historical recordings. Then we publish some books as well. My first book of poetry was published by Bad Taste in 1986, and two years ago I started a series of little books, called The Bad Taste Booklets, containing poetry, both translated and original, and prose.
OL: When I visited Icelandic publishers, I was fascinated by the idea that most of the works of fiction published in Iceland all come out during the same month—something that would never happen in America. What kind of challenges/opportunities does this pose for a publisher?
BO: Some traditions are good, but this old tradition of only publishing books in October and November is not one of them. The Icelandic reading public sees literature as Christmas presents, and if your book doesn’t catch any attention as such, it won’t sell any copies. Because of this the publishers behave like total barbarians in the five or six weeks before Christmas, they advertise like madmen on television and in the papers, and the books are mainly sold in the supermarkets. It’s not a very civilized situation. And the obligation on writers, to finish their books in time for the so-called Book Flood, is not good for literature’s sakes, obviously it sometimes results in half-finished books. And a writer that publishes a half-finished book is stuck with it for the rest of his (half-finished) life. And it’s a problem not only facing the writers but also the critics, as they have to read and review dozens of books in the space of some five or six weeks. I may not sound too happy about this – and I am not – but still, this hysterical book-craze in November and December is of course a lot of fun too, especially when you don’t have a book out yourself and can watch the other writers suffering.
OL: Are you working on a new book?
BO: Yes, I’m working on a novel which is related to my last novel, The Ambassador. This one has the working title The Screenplay, and tells the story of two men in their late sixties (a film director, educated in Czechoslovakia, who has never made a film after he finished his studies, and a playwright and a translator who has never actually had a play produced) who suddenly, with the help of an old acquaintance, a rich pharmacist, get the opportunity to write and produce a film of their own. But at the start of the novel one of the two guys, who’s called Örn Featherby, gets the news that his recently dead English father, who lived in Hull and whom he hadn’t had contact with in thirty years, has left him in his will a great collection of shoes, almost two hundred pairs that should fit his son. Örn decides to collect his inheritance, but because he has a bad fear of flying he has to travel by sea, and he and his friend, whose name is Jón Magnússon, go on a trawler to Hull, with the intention of using the time on board to work on their screenplay. The story is told by Jón Magnússon’s ex sister-in-law, who is also indirectly a character in the novel, so we follow the adventures of Jón and Örn Featherby through the eyes of a woman.
(Does this make sense? The novel itself probably doesn’t make any sense at all, but the description of it should . . .)
Selected Works by Bragi Ólafsson
HVÍLDARDAGAR (Days Off, a novel), publ. Bjartur 1999
GÆLUDÝRIN (The Pets, a novel), publ. Bjartur 2001 (in English, Danish, German and Spanish translation)
SAMKVÆMISLEIKIR (Party Games, a novel), publ. Bjartur 2004
SENDIHERRANN (The Ambassador, a novel), publ. Mal og menning 2006
DRAGSÚGUR (Draught), publ. Bad Taste Ltd 1986
FJÓRAR LÍNUR OG TITILL (Four lines and a title), publ. Bad Taste Ltd 2006
GRÓIÐ HVERFI (A Solid Neighbourhood), a radio play broadcasted by the State Radio in May 2003 (in English translation).
BELGÍSKA KONGÓ (Belgian Congo), a stage play which has been performed at The Municipal Theatre in Reykjavík since May 2004.
Interview copyrighted © Open Letter, 2008