1) Tell us a little bit about yourself. How did you get into writing?
I was born in Iceland and lived there until graduating from high school at 19. Since Iceland is a small country, it’s common for Icelanders to go overseas to study. I went to Finland to study architecture. Afterwards, I launched a three-year plan to see the world. Three years turned into 50 some years and travels to 60 some countries. My international career as an architect took me to the Middle East to build a ruler’s palace and harem, and to poor countries in Africa to construct schools. My last job was with the World Bank, a UN affiliate and the world’s largest agency in international development. I now live in the U.S. with my wife and coauthor, Veronica Li.
In my retirement, I became the newsletter editor of the World Bank retiree group. The quarterly featured news about members. I soon got interested in the lives of several founding members of the retiree association. They’d worked at the Bank since its inception, when the organization was established to reconstruct the war-torn countries of the Second World War. One of them was a hundred years old! Realizing this was the last chance to capture their stories, I interviewed them and wrote a short bio about each. These stories were collated and published as a book by the association. Then I decided I had an interesting story to tell too.
2) What inspired you to write your book?
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, who’s a published author. She read them and said, “Wow, Sverrir, you’ve had a fascinating life!” From then on, 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. (The country, which has a population of only 360,000, hosted 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.
3) What theme or message do you hope readers will take away from your book?
There’s a saying: travel broadens the mind. After reminiscing about my own travel adventures, I must add to the adage: travel has also expanded my soul, strengthened my character and enriched my life. My Viking forefathers traveled the world to loot and plunder and bring home riches. Modern-day Vikings don’t do that anymore, thank goodness. We travel to learn, study, and to contribute on the world stage. At the end of my life, I can say I’ve found my fortune in an exciting career that required me to work with people of diverse cultures. Those experiences are worth more than any treasure.
My message to people of any age but especially to the young is: travel, spend some time in a foreign country. You’ll be surprised at what you’ll discover about other people but most importantly, about yourself.
4) What drew you into this particular genre?
I’m drawn to memoirs/biographies because I grew up with the Sagas, which started out as biographies of real people. The first Saga, called The Book of Settlements, tells us about the first settlers in the country more than a thousand years ago—where they put down roots in the uninhabited island, whom they married, and who their descendants were. It’s a dry, and some would say boring, account of who’s who in Iceland in the 9th century. As time went by, various writers embellished the stories and turned them into what’s comparable to today´s historical novels. The stories became increasingly fantastical and the realistic historical novels gave way to tales of superheroes performing magical feats. The writing finally ceased during the Little Ice Age in the 14th century, when the country descended into poverty and misery. But itinerant story tellers told and retold the stories as they traveled from farm to farm to entertain the inhabitants.
I’m an eclectic reader of many genres, including thrillers, mystery, and historical novels. After a lifetime of reading, my conclusion is that every fictional story, no matter how fantastic, has a real-life element to it.
5) What social media site has been the most helpful in developing your readership?
I find Facebook and Twitter most useful. Being an old geezer who had no time for social media, I had to start almost from scratch. On Facebook, finding friends turned out to be very easy. Without much effort, I added to my friends list my connections from all over the world. I posted news of my publication, and soon I was hearing back from relatives, childhood friends, former colleagues, and even friends of friends.
The covid lockdown also forced me to look into virtual book tours. I did so reluctantly and was pleasantly surprised at the result. For two weeks, the tour host tweeted several times a day about my book and interviews at various blog sites. From zero followers on Twitter, I quickly gained a respectable following.
The posts on Facebook and Twitter created a snowball effect. Contact with one book blogger led to another, and their reviews added to my credentials on Amazon and Goodreads. This network of friends in the book world is invaluable to any author. For example, I never knew there was such a thing as contests for indie authors. I entered one, The Wishing Shelf Award run by a group of UK authors, and was most happy to receive a prize.
6) What advice would you give to aspiring or just starting authors out there?
If you’re interested in writing your memoir, I’d say, start writing now. 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.
One suggestion to aspiring memoirists is to put their experiences in the context of their environment. Their stories will resonate with readers who share their culture and history, while those who come from a different place will learn something new. Since my memoir starts in Iceland, a little-known country, readers appreciate the Viking heritage and the country’s development described in my book.
7) What does the future hold in store for you? Any new books/projects on the horizon?
I’m working on publishing the Icelandic edition of Viking Voyager. I’ve translated the book myself, with the help of an editor, 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.
About the Author
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.