The Library will be closed on Wednesday, June 19, 2024, in observance of Juneteenth.

Interview With an Author: Eliza Reid

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
Journalist and editor, Eliza Reid and her first book, Secrets of the Sprakkar
Journalist and editor, Eliza Reid and her first book, Secrets of the Sprakkar

Eliza Reid is a journalist, editor, and co-founder of the annual Iceland Writers Retreat. Eliza grew up on a hobby farm near Ottawa, Canada, and moved to Iceland in 2003, five years after winning a student raffle for a date with the man who later became her husband. That husband, Fudni Th. Johannesson, took office as president of Iceland on August 1, 2016, and Eliza became the country’s First Lady. In that capacity, she has been active in promoting gender equality, entrepreneurship and innovation, tourism and sustainability, and the country’s writers and rich literary heritage. The Secrets of the Sprakkar is her first book and she recently talked about it with Daryl Maxwell for the LAPL Blog.

What was your inspiration for Secrets of the Sprakkar?

During the beginning of the pandemic, former Icelandic President Vigdís Finnbogadóttir turned 90. She was the world’s first democratically elected female head of state and remains a role model to many. But it occurred to me that many people outside of Iceland don’t know about her and about Iceland’s many other achievements in the field of gender equality. So I decided I wanted to paint a portrait of a country where gender equality was within reach, using interviews with a variety of women to talk about what we do well and what we need to improve on.

How long did it take you to do the necessary research, interviews, and then write Secrets of the Sprakkar?

The process was relatively quick, partly because I knew that as pandemic restrictions were lifted I would have more commitments as First Lady. I first had the idea for the book in late April 2020 and I submitted the first complete draft at the beginning of February the next year. The interviews were conducted between late May and early December 2020, but of course, the book wasn’t completed for several months after that.

What was the most interesting or surprising thing that you discovered during your research and interviews?

I learned so much and was inspired by all the women I spoke to. It was really interesting just learning about specifics in people’s lives and work, for example, how you let lava flow into a showroom or how much training you need to work as a search and rescue volunteer.

You have been Iceland’s First Lady for almost 6 years now. Do you have a favorite event/occurrence so far from your time as First Lady?

It is such an honor and privilege to serve as First Lady, and I have so many stories (maybe I will save the best ones for a memoir when I am no longer First Lady). It sounds like a cliché, but really the most memorable thing is the opportunity to meet people from all backgrounds and walks of life, in Iceland and abroad, who are doing so much to make the world a better place for all of us.

Reading your book made me want to visit Iceland! And I’m certain others will have the same reaction. Do you have any “must-see/experience” recommendations for first-time visitors to your adopted home?

I try not to play favorites because there is so, so much to see and do. I definitely recommend going to a local outdoor geothermal pool because it’s such an authentically Icelandic experience. I also recommend traveling outside of the capital, but not being overly ambitious; it might be better to cover one region in more detail than trying to dash around the entire country. Finally—always drink the tap water. It’s the best water in the world!

In Secrets of the Sprakkar you admit that while Iceland definitely has the lead in gender equality, it still has a way to go before achieving it fully. Do you believe that gender equality is truly achievable for Iceland? For the world?

I certainly believe that this is an important target and ambition. But it will take tireless work to achieve it because the minute we become complacent, we will take some steps in the wrong direction.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

A rather teetering stack of books! Right now I am listening to one of Louise Penny’s Three Pines mysteries and reading Canadian journalist Omar Mouallem’s excellent book Praying to the West: How Muslims Shaped the Americas. On my nightstand, you’ll also find Alexander Chee’s essay collection How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, a mostly translated collection called The Book of Reykjavík: A City in Short Fiction, and a biography of a 17th-century Queen of Sweden. I told you it was a teetering pile of books!

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

I think my answer to this would change all the time as I enjoy a diversity of authors, but people who I have read a lot of included Pat Barker, Roxane Gay, Rohinton Mistry, and Meg Wolitzer. I also try to read a lot of books by Icelandic authors. And my youngest brother, Iain Reid is an author, so I always recommend him! So I don’t have a top five but I will say you won’t be disappointed if you read something by these writers.

As a debut author, what have you learned during the process of getting your novel published that you would like to share with other writers about this experience?

It has been an emotional roller coaster and a fascinating and fun adventure. I suppose one thing that stuck out to me is the idea that the words on the page are just one piece of the larger puzzle of bringing a book into the world. Another point is that sometimes those words on the page look fantastic to me, other times cringeworthy. I try not to be too hard on myself if I’m having one of those days where I see mostly the latter; we all have those moments and they pass.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie, and the Anne of Green Gables series by L.M. Montgomery.

Was there a book you felt you needed to hide from your parents?

Not that I can recall. They encouraged all kinds of reading.

Is there a book you've faked reading?

I think I fell asleep once reading Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness in a high school English class.

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Not off the top of my head, I’m afraid!

Is there a book that changed your life?

Lots of books have had an impact. I can’t name one over all the others, I’m afraid.

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

I love recommending books to people—especially memoirs, crime fiction, and newer nonfiction. But what I recommend really depends on the person who I’m speaking to.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Probably Murder on the Orient Express, even though I have read it many, many times!

What is the last piece of art (music, movies, tv, more traditional art forms) that you've experienced or that has impacted you?

I’m watching a terrific Icelandic television series right now called Blackport. I never cease to be impressed by the amazing cultural output of this country, which is only home to 350,000 people.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

THE perfect day would probably involve visiting a new place, eating a variety of delicious foods from around the world, meeting some interesting people, and ending with a good book!

What is the question that you’re always hoping you’ll be asked, but never have been? What is your answer?

I really can’t think of anything! I’m just so thrilled that people are interested in the book, I’m happy to answer all sorts!

What are you working on now?

Now I am pivoting a bit to my other projects: running the Iceland Writers Retreat, and a new event, the Iceland Readers Retreat, and my various commitments as First Lady. But I have loved the process of writing a book, so I hope I get another idea soon!

Book cover for Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland's Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World
Secrets of the Sprakkar: Iceland's Extraordinary Women and How They Are Changing the World
Reid, Eliza