In Conversation with Sverrir Sigurdsson

I have the pleasure of talking to author Sverrir Sigurdsson on the blog.

His book, Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir is a prize winner of The Wishing Shelf Book Awards organized by a group of UK authors.

“Not only a well written memoir, but an interesting take on Icelandic history from post-World War Two until present day. A RED RIBBON WINNER and highly recommended.” – The Wishing Shelf Book Awards

Get the book on Amazon.

Read on to know more about Sverrir Sigurdsson, his book and advice for all his readers!

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Tell us a little about yourself.

I’m originally from Iceland, born and raised there.  At the age of 19, I left my country to explore the world.  My first stop was Finland.  After getting an architecture degree there, I took on an international career so I could see the world and have somebody pay for my travels.  I’ve visited 60 countries on 5 continents, and done work from building a harem for the ruler of Abu Dhabi to building schools in poor countries in Africa and elsewhere.

What prompted you to start writing your memoir?

I love telling stories of my international adventures.  My friends encouraged me to write them down.  So I did and saved them as “episodes” on my computer, kind of like dumping photos in a shoebox.  Then I showed some pages to my wife, Veronica Li, who’s a published author.  She read them and was surprised to discover what an interesting guy I was.  She helped me put my episodes into a memoir called Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir.

We wanted to make it a human interest story that appeals to a wide audience.  At the time of our writing, Iceland was a tourist hot spot.  (In a country of 360,000, we had 2 million tourists in 2019!)  The literature on Iceland, however, was mostly travel guides.  We decided I could tell tourists about my country by introducing them to my family, our way of life, and the road we’ve traveled to be where we are today.

How easy/difficult was it to write your memoir?

Writing is never easy, but fortunately we were two heads working together.  We make a good team because we’re so different.  I’m a hardware person good at brick and mortar stuff, while Veronica is a software person, in tune with feelings and human relationships.  Our strengths and weaknesses complemented each other.

During the pandemic lockdown, we were most happy to have our writing to obsess about.  We would have gone crazy otherwise!

Sverrir and his wife, Veronica

How much time did you spend on writing on average per day?

Veronica and I both like to write in the morning.  From around 9am to noon, we would be at our respective desks.  When something needs to be discussed, we know exactly where to find each other.

What is one thing you discovered on this journey that you did not know beforehand?

I’ve always known Icelandic fishermen have a tough life, especially before the advent of modern technology.  But I didn’t know how tough it was until I listened to a recording of my uncle Óli, which was part of the National Library’s cultural heritage project.  My uncle, a fisherman since the age of 10, talked about the blustery, icy weather, the cramped conditions on the boat, the monotony of the food (fish and potatoes), the nonstop work once the boat reached a fishing ground, and the danger of storms.  Many have perished, including my own grandfather and his first-born.

Reliving the hardships of previous generations makes me appreciate all the more the progress Iceland has made in a short time.  From a dirt poor nation, it has become one of the most prosperous in the world.

The fishing boat skippered by Sverrir Sigurdsson’s grandfather

How do you feel about your Viking ancestry?

First of all, are Vikings good guys or bad guys?  To Icelanders, they’re heroes, adventurers who brought home wealth and glory.  To people of the British Isles, they’re definitely villains who pillaged and plundered.  This type of Viking, however, lasted only 200 years.  After that period, Icelanders left home to serve a foreign leader and prove themselves in battle before returning home.

Modern-day Vikings are yet another breed.  Being a small nation Icelanders have to go overseas to study and learn from more advanced nations.  I think of myself as an example.  I left Iceland to study architecture in Finland, and afterwards I traveled the world to acquire experience.  Except that I didn’t return home as planned.  I’m now settled in the US.  My heart, however, will always be Icelandic.  Be they heroes or villains, I admire my Viking forefathers for their self-sufficiency, resilience, and endurance.

What kind of impact did this journey of discovery have on you?

My friends often call me a Viking for running around in short sleeves when they’re shivering in jackets.  I never took their joking to heart.  But writing my memoir made me discover how truly Viking I am.  My childhood in Iceland taught me all the skills I needed to survive in the world.  The moment I finished high school, I left my homeland to make my fortune.  Retracing my journey makes me realize that I’ve indeed found my fortune, not in riches but in the wealth of experiences gathered from the places I’ve visited and people met.

What kind of books do you like to read? Give us some examples or recommendations.

I like to read thrillers, especially those that involve international politics and intrigue.  Some of my favorite authors are Frederik Forsyth, John le Carré, and Richard North Patterson.

Which is your favourite place to visit or talk about?

Despite my worldwide travels, my favorite place is still Iceland.  I guess you’ve heard about the volcano eruption going on there.  Icelanders call it a “tourist eruption,” spectacular fireworks that attract tourists but does no harm.  This area is part of the volcano belt that gave Iceland its name, “land of ice and fire.”  In south Iceland, where I spent summers working on a farm, glaciers lie atop volcanoes gurgling and biding their time to erupt.  My book cover shows the scenery of this area: in the foreground stands a cliff with a doorway carved by the sea, in the middle a mountain that was once an island, and in the background the snow-capped volcano that shut down Trans-Atlantic air travel in 2010.  The landscape is the wild and wonderful creations of violent volcanic activity.  Each of these features was formed when fire met ice or seawater, causing the rapidly cooling lava to turn into a rock formation called “tuff” or palagonite.  Iceland is full of such fantastic landscape.

Sverrir Sigurdsson’s book cover

What do you do when you aren’t writing?

My true love is carpentry.  In my youth I’d aspired to become a carpenter when I grew up.  My older sister nudged me to take it one step further and become an architect.  I’m most grateful to her for helping me choose my career.  In my heart, though, I remain a carpenter.  One woodwork project or another is always on my plate.  I just finished building a fence around my backyard to keep out the deer.  Hope it works!

Finally, what message do you want to share with us readers?

I encourage everyone to travel, not just as a tourist, but to live and work for a spell in a foreign country.  You’ll be surprised what kind of opportunities you’ll find.  Most of all, you’ll be surprised to find out who you are and what you’re capable of.

Guest Post: Digging into My Roots by author Sverrir Sigurdsson

It has been a long time since I had the pleasure of hosting an author on my blog. I am pleased to restart the same by hosting author Sverrir Sigurdsson as he talks about the events leading up to his memoir, Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir.

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About the Book:

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. Join him on his roaring adventures!

Link to the book: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08MDMRM66

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Guest Post by Sverrir Sigurdsson

A memoirist is supposed to depend mostly on his memory.  But when I started writing my memoirs, I felt what was stored in my brain wasn’t enough.  To get to the bottom of who I was, I needed to burrow into the consciousness of the people I came from. 

My dad had researched the family tree of my maternal grandmother and traced it all the way to our ancestors who lived in Sognefjord, Norway in the late seventh century.  In other words, I’m a descendant of the original Vikings who left Norway for Iceland in protest over King Harald the Beautiful Hair’s efforts to unify the country.  My ancestral pantheon includes Erik the Red and his son, Leif Eriksson the explorer.  But names alone weren’t enough; I wanted to know these people, how they lived, what they did in life, and what they were made of. 

I started by digging into my grandparents’ stories.  My maternal grandmother was no stranger to me as she lived with the family until she died.  She was as gentle as a lamb with me, but she had to have the heart of a lioness to face down the tragedy of losing her husband and son in one fell swoop and continue to raise her four other children.  The other three grandparents, however, had passed away before I was born. 

Since I was located in the US, I was worried that accessing material for my memoirs might pose a challenge.  To my delight, the internet brought the world to my fingertips.  My first seminal find happened while browsing the online catalogue of the Icelandic National Library.  My Uncle Óli’s name appeared in a cultural heritage project conducted by the library some years ago.  I emailed the librarian, who promptly sent me the digitized cassette tapes of his interview.   I clicked on one of the files, and there was my long-dead uncle speaking to me in his gravelly voice.  In the interviews, he describes life as a seaman fishing the rough seas around Iceland.  Having started his maritime career at the age of ten, the working age of Icelandic children in those days, he had plenty to tell.  His words fill five hours of recording.

His accounts also shed light on his father, my grandfather.  He was a self-made man who started as an orphaned farmhand and ended as skipper of a lucrative fishing vessel called Gyða.  One day in 1910, his ship disappeared during a storm.  Forty some years later, the ship’s mast was recovered from the bottom of the fjord, but none of the remains of the skipper, his first-born son and the other six crew members have been found.  Uncle Óli would have gone down with them if he hadn’t stayed behind to take a school leaving exam that day.

On another internet search, I stumbled on the digitized logbook of Gyða’s first captain, the one before my grandfather.  The log is typically terse and dry, recording the weather, the catch, and the ship’s location, which could reach as far north as the Polar Circle.  Some entries are more interesting than others, and here is one: 

“A flu epidemic ravaged the town that winter.  By the time Gyða set sail, three men had come down with the flu, and a fourth would join them by the time they reached the fishing grounds.  Despite good weather and an abundance of fish, the lines were idle because all but the skipper and one crew member were in bed, delirious with fever.  When the skipper finally succumbed to the flu, some of the other patients had recovered sufficiently to execute the sailing chores.  A few days later, the crew was still weak but well enough to resume fishing.  However, the bait, herring, had gone bad because the ice had melted while they were ill.”

I struck a goldmine on the website www.timarit.is . Until recently, accessing newspaper articles in Icelandic papers would have been a formidable task.  But a few years ago, the University of Iceland and the National Libraries of Iceland, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland joined hands to digitize every newspaper article and periodical printed from the beginning of news publishing in the 1800s until today.  To date, almost six million pages of searchable text are available to anyone for free at the site.

A story about my father’s side of the family came from an unexpected source—a Canadian newspaper that serves the Icelandic diaspora in North America.  This heroic tale of devastation and salvation took place during the exceptionally long and cold winter of 1880-1881.  Runólfur, a farmer in northeast Iceland, was then old and infirm.  He foresaw a shortage of hay in spring and asked for help from farmers in a nearby valley where the weather was milder.  They came to his rescue, sheltering and feeding his sheep until early May.  Assuming the winter was over, they sent the sheep back.  But shortly after, snowstorms hit Runólfur’s farm again, dumping four feet of snow, which quickly turned into a solid sheet of ice.  The neighboring farmers rallied once again.  They crossed the snow- and ice-covered mountain pass on foot and skis and herded the sheep back across the pass.  To keep the starving sheep moving, the rescuers carried on their backs sacks of hay, which they emptied now and then to entice the sheep to go on.  They did the trek not once but twice in order to get all the sheep, horses, and cows, as well as people to safety.  My grandfather, Runólfur Hannesson, born in 1867, was the nephew of his namesake in the above story.

These people and their stories were never far from my mind when I wrote Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir.  Their endurance kept the nation going until conditions were ripe for Iceland to prosper.  To them I owe my golden childhood and the superb education that equipped me to compete in the world.  The spirit of these same people egged me to pursue an architecture degree in Finland and from thereon to adventures around the world.  To them I owe my fortune, not in monetary terms but in the wealth of experiences gathered from the places I visited and people met.  Vikings traveled the world to seek their fortune; I’ve indeed found mine.

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