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 favourable 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!
Today I am delighted to be hosting a guest post by Sverrir Sigurdsson on the process of co-writing his book, Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir with his wife, Veronica Li. Over to Sverrir to share his piece.
Husband-Wife Collaboration by Sverrir Sigurdsson
When I told stories of my travel adventures to friends, their reaction was often, “Why don’t you write your memoir?” I never thought I was important enough to do that. At the same time, I did have many fond and exciting memories of growing up in Iceland and later traveling the world for both work and pleasure. So, I started jotting down memorable recollections and saving them in a folder called Episodes on my hard drive.
In my retirement, after I’d done everything I ever wanted to do, including designing and building a house with my own hands, I got more serious about writing down my memories. I now live in the U.S. and am watching my all-American grandson grow up with little knowledge of his heritage. The desire to leave him a cultural legacy became more urgent.
I showed a few of my “episodes” to my wife for feedback. Veronica is a former journalist and published author who had taken a “Glad he has something to occupy him in his retirement” attitude toward my project. But one day, she looked up from reading one of my episodes and said, “Sverrir, you’ve really had an interesting life.” From then on, my project became hers too.
The first step was to decide on a focus. This was easy as we both knew what I was about. The theme would be my life as a modern-day Viking, traveling the world like my forefathers. The memoir would hark back to my childhood in Iceland, which shaped my outward-looking worldview.
We hit an impasse in chapter one. Veronica wanted to start with the present and from thereon traverse a flexible timeline between past and present. I wanted chronological order, beginning from my grandparents and working my way linearly to the present. After several rounds of verbal fistfights, I threw in my knockout punch. “This is my life. I’ll write it the way I want.” She lay down and surrendered, or more like played dead.
Thus I started my story with the tragedy that befell my maternal grandfather. I believed this was the root of who I was and felt compelled to get it out on the first page. I dumped it all out, everything I knew about the incident and the life of Icelandic fishermen. Veronica and I worked and reworked the chapter several times, and the final product was, to our surprise, everything we both wanted. In the middle of the distant past, she sneaked in time-traveling to the present and made me introduce myself as an old man writing to leave a legacy to future generations. This became the blueprint for the rest of the book. The chapters are chronological in order, but within the chapter, the story flashes backward and forward to other time zones, offering a rather kaleidoscopic dimension.
No two people can be more different than Veronica and I. She’s a people person and calls me a “thing” person. Being a passionate carpenter and a professional architect, I’m in tune with wood, brick, and mortar but a moron with regard to human emotions and signals. She, on the other hand, can sniff out emotions like a dog but is blind as a bat to the world of machines and hardware. Her nagging question, “So how did you feel?” annoyed me to no end. But as she pushed me to probe into myself, I unearthed emotions I didn’t know I had. Such as the Christmas my father traveled to a London hospital to undergo life-saving treatment for his kidney disease. As a ten-year-old, I said goodbye to Dad one bleak, cold morning. The family doctor had warned my mother to be “prepared.” I don’t remember feeling anything at that moment, but I do remember the sadness that spilled out when Mother brought out the previous year’s Christmas tree from the attic. Because of Dad’s illness, my parents pinched every penny, including money for a tree. The poor tree looked like a mangy animal, with its needles brown and half gone. Writing about it seventy years later made me realize I had feelings after all!
Veronica’s ignorance in mechanical matters also forced me to a new level—hers. I’d assumed everyone knew the mechanics of a car engine, a block and tackle pulley system, or a carbon arc lamp. When I realized she had no clue, I had to draw it out in diagrams for her. Once she understood, she popularized my techno-jargon into a flowing narrative for every audience. She was happy for the new knowledge and I was happy to be saved from my geeky self.
Our disparate talents also came in handy in describing scenery. Veronica drew from her poetic instincts, comparing rock pillars rising from the sea to “spikes on a dragon back,” and well-fed glaciers to “paunches of sleeping giants.” My contribution was my knowledge of geology, something all Icelanders learn as children. In a country where glaciers sit like lids on volcanos, the dramatic reaction of fire meeting ice causes fast-cooling lava to turn into a rock formation called tuff or palagonite. This is the stuff that forms much of the spectacular landscapes Iceland is famous for.
I’d thought the gap between our personalities would cause contention, but it turned out to be our strength. And when friends ask, we answer yes, we’re still happily married.
Thank you for sharing that with us Sverrir, it sounds like each of you brought your strengths to the writing of the book and I’m looking forward to reading it soon.
Viking Voyager: An Icelandic Memoir is out now and you can buy a copy here.
About the Authors
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 masters 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.
Connect with the authors:
Facebook: Sverrir Sigurdsson