My special guests today are memoirists Sverrir Sigurdsson with Veronica Li to chat about their autobiography Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir.
During their virtual book tour, Sverrir and Veronica will be awarding a $50 Amazon or Barnes and Noble (winner’s choice) gift card to a lucky randomly drawn winner. To be entered for a chance to win, use the form below. To increase your chances of winning, feel free to visit their other tour stops and enter there, too.
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.
Veronica Li emigrated to the U.S. from Hong Kong as a teenager. She received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California, Berkeley, and her master’s degree in International Affairs from Johns Hopkins University. She has worked as a journalist and for the World Bank, and is currently a writer. Her three previously published titles are: Nightfall in Mogadishu, Journey across the Four Seas: A Chinese Woman’s Search for Home, and Confucius Says: A Novel. Her website is www.veronicali.com.
Excerpt from Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir:
One memorable incident took place [in 1968] during our drive through Anbar province in Iraq. The place was unheard of when I motored through, but after the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, this Sunni stronghold of Saddam Hussein’s became world renowned for insurgency and suicide bombings. Even during my days, traveling in this neighborhood was dicey. While guessing my way through the desert of Al Anbar, we passed a ghastly sight. It was the charred remains of what looked like a small industrial complex. The scene evoked news articles about an Israeli air raid on an Iraqi nuclear research facility. I knew we shouldn’t be there, but there was no other way out than to keep driving. Soon after, a military patrol pulled up alongside. I stopped the car, and we all got out to show them exactly who we were, a family of dumb, lost foreigners.
A soldier peered into my car. He started shouting angrily in Arabic, his finger jabbing at the camera on the back seat. They hustled us all back into the Peugeot, I in the driver’s seat, Monika next to me, while Steinn shared the back seat with the soldier. I felt something hard poke at my spine. I glanced at the rearview mirror and realized the object was the muzzle of the soldier’s machine pistol. The drive lasted an hour at most, but it seemed like eternity. To prevent an accidental burst from the gun, I took it slow and easy on the desert tracks.
What group did you hang out with in high school?
I hadn’t planned on going to senior high. Having grown up in my father’s basement workshop, my ambition was to be a carpenter, or better yet, a wood-carving artist. I’d wanted to go to vocational school and enroll in a course for carpentry before joining the workforce. My parents were both schoolteachers, but they didn’t object because, like most Icelanders, they respected manual labor. The person who changed my mind was my sister, who was five years older. She said as a carpenter I would build what others designed. But if I became an architect, I would be doing the design myself. I’m glad I listened to her.
I got into the only senior high school at the time in Reykjavik, capital of Iceland. I enrolled in the Science stream and hung out with a studious crowd of aspiring doctors, engineers, and architects. Also in our group were several girls from the Arts stream (that was the gender divide back then). Several in the group had known each other since grade school. We often got together in a downtown café, shooting the breeze while nursing a cup of coffee all night.
What are you passionate about these days?
Planting and nurturing trees. During the past few years, I’ve taken much pleasure in finding self-seeded oak saplings in my garden, re-planting them in appropriate places, and nurturing them into well established trees. The first of these trees is now 14 feet tall. I’m now 81. If I live another ten years, these trees will be quite respectable. I became a tree hugger after watching developers come into my neighborhood and raze every tree to make way for Mcmansions. Trees are vital to the environment and I will spend the rest of my years on earth propagating them.
If you had to do your journey to getting published all over again, what would you do differently?
I wouldn’t have submitted my English language manuscript to the largest Icelandic publisher. The editor expressed interest, but the financial guys killed the idea because of the additional cost of translating the manuscript into Icelandic. I’m now translating it myself. My native language ability is a bit rusty, since I left home sixty years ago, but it’s quickly coming back. With the help of an editor, I’m confident I can find a publisher in Iceland. I believe there’s an audience for my story. Icelanders are one of the most literate nations in the world, with readers and authors everywhere. Just pay a visit to any of the ubiquitous bookstores in Reykjavik and you will be convinced. We like to read about our own history and culture and also the overseas exploits of fellow Icelanders. Our nation of 350,000 is so small that if we don’t actively record our experiences, we can easily be forgotten.
Ebook or print? And why?
I’ve published my book in both paper and ebook format, because each has its own pros and cons. A paper book feels more tangible and permanent. While an ebook may one day disappear into cyberspace, a physical book has a long shelf life. My descendants many generations down the line will have access to their heritage. Also, readers of my age group may feel more at home with a paper book in their hands.
Ebook has its own advantages. Readers can download it with one click from anywhere in the world, a great convenience for all my friends and relatives overseas. Many older folks, such as myself, like it too for practical reasons—they can enlarge the font and manipulate the lighting.
What is your favorite scene in this book?
When I went to Finland to study architecture, I didn’t speak a word of Finnish, a language as alien as Japanese to me. After three years of struggling and almost giving up, I finally got it. This is my Eureka moment:
In 1960, I labored three days a week at a drafting table at KK, the company I was working for. Sharing the room with me were three other draftsmen. As the four of us worked at our respective tables, conversations ping-ponged back and forth. Unless spoken to, I just listened. I didn’t want to torture my coworkers with my stuttering Finnish. Some months later, a colleague looked up from his work and said, “Have you seen the design of this stupid urinal? It looks as if you’re peeing into a rubber boot.”
Everyone laughed. So did I. I understood what he said, in fact, everything that my colleagues batted at each other, the jokes, the serious discussions about load-bearing walls and window details, and the gossips about bosses, fellow workers, and girlfriends. I understood everything! Months into the total immersion at KK, I could truly say, “Puhun Suomea (I speak Finnish)!”
The Book will be $1.99 during the tour.