The Story in the Shadows: An Interview with Sjón


At Work

Sjón. Photo: Gabriel Kuchta.

Photo: Gabriel Kuchta.

Moonstone, Sjón’s latest novel, has been called “the gayest book in Iceland.” It follows the sixteen-year-old Máni Steinn, a queer hustler and cinephile whose life becomes upended by the Spanish flu of 1918 when the pestilence ravages Reykjavik. With the country fearful of any bodily contact, Máni can no longer pick up “gentlemen,” and the cinema houses are shut down. Máni finds solace in a new friendship with Sóla G, a beautiful feminist who rides a motorcycle and dresses all in black. When Máni gets tangled up in a sodomy scandal that threatens to humiliate the homophobic country, Sóla is perhaps the only person who can help him.

As with Sjón’s previous books—The Whispering Muse, The Blue Fox, and From the Mouth of the Whale—the magic of Moonstone lies in language. Máni Steinn doesn’t just love movies but “lives in the movies. When not spooling them into himself through his eyes he is replaying them in his mind.” Máni is illiterate, and as he struggles to read, “the letters of the alphabet disguise themselves before his eyes, glide between lines, switch roles in the middle of a word, and might as well be a red cipher to which he does not have the key.” Sjón’s easy way with words goes back to the Icelandic sagas he devoured as a child. He has internalized the lyrical language of epics, myths, folktales, and religion—“the old great narratives,” as he calls them.

Moonstone has been praised all around, with David Mitchell calling it “Sjón’s simmering masterpiece,” and it has won nearly all of Iceland’s literary prizes, including the country’s most prestigious: the Icelandic Literary Award. Sjón and I met once in New York in 2013, to discuss his earlier works; this month he was kind enough to answer a few questions I had for him about Moonstone over e-mail. 


Your previous work reaches deep into Icelandic mythic history and saga, portraying an untouched, or at least premodern country, so I was surprised to read a book of yours that feels comparatively contemporary. How did you come to be interested in writing about Máni Steinn?


The idea for Moonstone grew out of three separate strands of research I had been doing more than fifteen years before I sat down to write it. Being a cinephile from a young age, I had, over the years, collected material relating to the first days of cinema in Iceland. We have for decades been at the top of the list of cinemagoers in the world, per capita. I had also compiled a dossier of everything that had been written about the Spanish flu, and because it touches so many social front lines, I had also gathered stories from Reykjavik’s hidden LGBTQ history.

I thought each subject would find its way into its own novel, but once I started thinking about writing a novel that took place during the days of the Spanish flu, the other two topics quickly found their way into it—the cinema because of the closing, fumigation, and reopening of the theaters, which were seen as breeding grounds for the epidemic, and the queerness because it gave an opportunity to situate the story in the shadows of our small capital town.

This is quite typical of how my novels come into being—by juggling material that interests me, I start seeing which narrative possibilities they have to offer. Or maybe it is more like a kaleidoscope—I shake it until the perfect pattern appears. Then I start looking for ways of telling the story. In this case it called for a realistic style, which I then broke from at a crucial point at the very end. But underneath it all is a mythical pattern where Máni Steinn has the character of the moon, and Sóla G, the sun.


The opening scene, if I’m not mistaken, is not only the first explicitly homoerotic scene in Icelandic literature but Iceland’s first literary description of a blowjob. Were you deliberately—perhaps mischievously—being provocative opening the novel like this? 


As soon as I knew that my main character was this queer, sixteen-year-old, hustling kid, I also knew that to be true to his character and life I had to start with a scene that would bring the reader into his world right away and without any compromises. By exposing the readers to the kind of sex he is having with his “gentlemen” clients, I hope they simply accept that this is what he does and that it shouldn’t be a bigger deal for them than it is to him. It also serves the purpose of being a starting point for Máni Steinn’s journey. Once the flu starts gaining ground, this kind of a corporeal involvement with his fellow citizens becomes impossible. He is pushed out of his routine and, temporarily, into a more charitable relationship with the people of Reykjavik. But I must confess that it entertained the trickster in me to open the novel with this groundbreaking provocation. 


Another thing I noticed is that the novel seems to be capturing the moment when the modern, outside world—Europe and America—invades the relatively isolated Iceland. There’s the influenza, the movies, the LGBTQ culture—which some might feel is not a “real” or indigenous part of Icelandic culture. All while there’s this possibility of the World War somehow coming up to Iceland. What are your thoughts on this idea of invasion?


Iceland was always as isolated as an island in the North Atlantic could be, which isn’t as bad as it sounds. In the first five centuries of settlement, there was much communication with the outside world. People traveled frequently to the Nordic countries, mainland Europe, and all the way down to Jerusalem, for trade and learning. It was only after Iceland fell under the Norwegian crown that the contact became less frequent, and even more so with the Reformation at the end of the sixteenth century. Still, there remained a great thirst for news and knowledge from abroad.


I think most of my novels deal with this situation in one way or another—the struggle for keeping new ideas coming to our shores, the historical moments when the small world collides with the big one. This is quite visible in The Blue Fox and From the Mouth of the Whale. And I perceive Icelandic literature as a literature that was always open for outside influence. The high points of our literary history are all marked by a strong dialogue with what was happening abroad. The Baroque, the Enlightenment, Romanticism, Naturalism, and Surrealism all helped us renew our heritage.

But you are right, Moonstone takes place at the moment when Iceland was about to get in step with the rest of the world. Until then, it might take things up to a century to make their mark on life in Iceland. In the autumn of 1918, it looked like Iceland would escape becoming a part of the narrative of World War I, but once the Spanish flu arrived, we were hooked into that story at the very last minute, since the flu originated in the battlefields of Europe. So the flu can be seen as a metaphor for the impossibility of isolating oneself and controlling one’s own narrative. The cinema is another metaphor for the same thing but on a social level. And the fact that Máni Steinn is trying to find ways to live with his queerness shows how change happens in the life of individuals, even though it would take sixty years before anyone came out as openly gay in Iceland. The history of an island is always a history of visits, invasions, trappings, and expulsions. What a lucky man I am to be a writer working with such dynamic material!

Randy Rosenthal is the cofounding editor of the literary journals The Coffin Factory and Tweed’s Magazine of Literature and Art. He is currently studying religion and literature at Harvard Divinity School.