A Conversation with Andri Snaer Magnason

The_Story_Of_The_Blue_Planet

Andri Snær Magnason’s The Story of The Blue Planet is a modern day fairy tale for all ages that left us absolutely awestruck.

In our review of the work we said: The Story of the Blue Planet offers children an important lesson, and serves as a much-needed reminder to adults as well.  Greed and indulgence only harbor more greed and indulgence, and it is a vicious and difficult cycle to escape.  We’ve all heard the phrase “the grass is always greener on the other side,” but the children of the blue planet learn that sometimes, the other side is often an illusion that comes with devastating consequences. (read our full review)

Courtesy of Seven Stories Press, we gave away a copy of this amazing tale to one lucky winner during our pre-launch celebration.  Even more exciting however, was the opportunity granted to us to chat directly with Mr. Magnason.

What follows below is a mostly spoiler-free discussion with Mr. Magnason about his unique background and the inspirations behind his impressive creation The Story of the Blue Planet.


ANDRI SNÆR MAGNASON is one of Iceland’s most celebrated young writers. He has written poetry, plays, fiction, and non-fiction, and in 2009 he co-directed the documentary Dreamland, which was based on his book Dreamland: A Self-Help Manual for a Frightened Nation. In 2002 LoveStar was named “Novel of the Year” by Icelandic booksellers and received the DV Literary Award and a nomination for the Icelandic Literary Prize. His children’s book, The Story of the Blue Planet—now published or performed in twenty-six countries—was the first children’s book to receive the Icelandic Literary Prize, and was also the recipient of the Janusz Korczak Honorary Award and the West Nordic Children’s Book Prize. Andri is the winner of the 2010 Kairos Award. (from the publisher’s website)


TE: Who is Andri Snær Magnason?

Andi_Snaer_Magnason

Andri Snaer Magnason

ASM: I am still figuring that out.  He was born on Bastille Day in 1973 and is a married father of four children whose combined age is 40.  He lives in Reykjavík, Iceland.  He has written children’s books, novels like LoveStar, plays, poetry, essays and he co-directed a film. He has also been involved in some activism and other creative projects.

TE: Was writing something you always wanted to do from an early age? Coming from a family of doctors, was it tough to convince them that you could make a living as a writer?

Grandfather

My grandfather in the fjord where he was born.

ASM: My grandfather was the chief surgeon at New York Hospital and operated on the Iranian Shah in 1979. I could do math, physics and sports well.  Normally it is considered a shame when such talent is lured into the world of arts, but my older sister became a brain surgeon so she kind of took the pressure off me. I did take half a year of medicine but the only result was a story about the anatomy of mermaids and then I switched to Icelandic literature studies.

My first books of poetry came out when I was 22 and 23 and both became bestsellers, so I supported myself through university selling poetry and never took out student loans. My parents stopped being afraid when they saw I could live off poetry.

TE: How did the original idea for The Story of the Blue Planet come about?

Artwork by Alfred Flóki: Childhood memory from my grandparents house.

Artwork by Alfred Flóki: Childhood memory from my grandparents house.

ASM: It did help to live on a blue planet with deep troubles, but I had always wanted to write a children’s book like the ones that stuck in my mind when I was a child. I started gathering pieces of inspiration from all directions. I spent a whole summer in the archives of the University of Iceland, listening to recordings of old women and farmers telling stories and singing lullabies. I loved the darkness in many of them and wondered why it had been erased from so many fairytales in the new editions. I wondered if we were missing a fundamental thing in our human development.  Going on a journey with your grandmother, she scares you but comforts at the same time.

In fairytales, kitchen objects can have magical powers: a wonderspoon, a magic tea pot. I had a magic frying pan, it was Teflon coated and I wondered what power that stuff would have in a modern fairytale.

A man sold my wife’s grandmother a $3000 vacuum cleaner.  He was not a villain, just a very successful salesman.  I wondered: what type of person would he be in a fairytale?

Sun

“Hey . . . is it possible to damage the sun? I mean, we can wreck just about anything we want to here on earth. But can we screw up the sun if we wanted to? I don’t know. Can we?” –Douglas Coupland, Generation X

I have always loved mythology and folklore. In Nordic mythology you can use the rainbow as a bridge, you can wrestle an old lady called Age and a wolf can swallow the sun. These stories tell you some fundamental thing about being human, but mythology was made before we knew we were living on a planet so it has not prepared us with metaphors about living on a planet.

In Generation X by Douglas Coupland, a character is thinking of all the damage humans have done and he wonders: Could we damage the sun? An old idea popped into my mind. We have 24 hour sun during the summer and I often wished it could always be like that.  What would happen if I could actually stop the sun and make it shine only on my side of the planet? That became the fundamental idea of the book and I just had to unwind all the events, explore all the consequences and take my time to make it fun to read.

TE: How did you connect with Áslaug Jonsdottir to create the book’s playful illustrations?

Mellon_Collie

Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness

ASM: Áslaug is one of Iceland’s best illustrators and her style fit my ideas very well. We brainstormed a lot through email. I sent her pictures that had inspired me greatly: the cover of Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness by Smashing Pumpkins, dinosaur books, old natural history books.  In turn, she sent me what had inspired her in children’s books and together we found a style that would fit the story.

TE: The Story of the Blue Planet offers many life lessons for both children and adults. Which of these do you think is most important for children? For adults?

ASM: While I was writing it I liked the way the act of giving was unfolding at the end of the story. How we see the same action on two levels, selfish giving and real giving. What I think is most valuable for both is to stumble upon a metaphor that in some way manages to include most of the issues we have to consider when we live on a planet. This one act, nailing the sun to the sky, starts a thrilling journey but it also brings up questions about equality, the root of wars, environmental destruction, questions of happiness and fulfillment, good and evil. Each age group understands the book in a different way.

TE: The book is filled with wonderful, creative imagery that is reminiscent of Roald Dahl, Shel Silverstein, and William Steig. What were your inspirations for such quirky and poignant themes?

ASM: I wanted to surprise not only the child but also the parent reading for the child. I think I found a way to say important things that would have been hard to put in a proper novel.

I think that every writer thinks about the most important issues of our times and wants to write about them, but it can be very hard to be sincere in a cynical age.  It can be hard to say something important because most people already know what’s wrong, but then it becomes hard not to say these things and you feel as though all of your other ideas become unimportant as a result. But I have always loved writers that can say important things in a playful, even crazy way.  Writers like: Orwell, Kurt Vonnegut, Italo Calvino, Borges and Bulgakov. They manage to address large issues in a very creative, fantastic way, using the absurd, while still taking the world very seriously.

One of the most dramatic scenes in the book is actually based on Comte de Lautréaumont’s definition of surrealism.  It is like the “chance encounter of an umbrella and a sewing machine on an operating table.”

I can also name many Icelandic poets that inspired me: Steinarr, Sjón, Eldjarn, Eliasson, and Isak Hardarson.

TE: Which children’s books/authors most influenced you most as a child?

ASM: I lived in New Hampshire, very close to a Connecticut Dinosaur Park as a child. Growing up, I was very interested in dinosaurs, bugs, whales, space, Lego and old Japanese Godzilla movies. When I came back to Iceland I liked writers like Michael Ende and Astrid Lindgren and I was very inspired by folklore.

Icelandic folklore is extremely rich and interwoven into the whole volcanic landscape. We have trolls, magic, invisible people, sea monsters, ghosts and all sorts of fun things. I think much of the material would not be considered children’s literature today. A troll having the habit of eating every priest that comes to serve at a farm etc…

I think the contrast between the local K-Mart strip mall and the Icelandic highlands was also quite inspiring.

TE: Jolly-Goodday is at times a villain, and at times a sympathetic, childlike character. How do you think children would have perceived the story if he remained a villain and was punished for his actions?

ASM: I had to scratch my head over this for some time. I thought it would be too simplistic to make him a typical villain and get some typical judgment. I wanted to make a new type of villain; he is like a comedian or an overgrown child.  He does nothing directly illegal.  He fulfilled the children’s wishes.  They could even vote for him to do it, so it becomes unclear who is a villain and who is innocent.  Even the two friends have gone on a journey into their own dark side when they become kings of the dying forest.  To punish only Jolly-Goodday would show that no lesson had been learned and no real wisdom gained. I think the solution they find was the only proper one. They use his own dreams to disarm him.

TE: What’s next? Are there any details about your next project that you can share with us?

ASM: I am just finishing a book that is kind of a fairytale closer to my novel LoveStar than the Blue Planet. It is a story on two levels. First, it’s about a king that has conquered the world, but thinks it’s unfair that he can’t conquer time. He doesn’t have time to enjoy all his riches, he will not grow older than others and his princess will age like any common person.

Glacier

Crossing a glacier that will vanish over the next 70 years.

The other level takes place in our world after a magic box is invented that can seal people from time. We can choose what days we spend our lives on, instead of being forced to spend 1/7th of our life on Mondays like we do now. The streets are empty on rainy days, gloomy Februaries and Novembers, but then some economists come and predict a very bad year. People decide to use the boxes and skip the year with some interesting consequences.

I’m also involved in a new documentary film based on old 16 mm films my grandparents took on glacial expeditions. The glaciers are enormous, but will be gone within the lifespan of someone I know.

TE: Who influences you as a writer?

Grandparents

My grandmother Hulda and Árni – my third Grandfather – honeymoon picture, Vatnajökull Glacier exploration trip 1956.

ASM: I have an interesting family that has inspired me a lot. Some uncles were good role models:  John, a crocodile expert, Árni Thór the Olympic skier, and Bosi a surreal storyteller.

My grandparents were like wild children that ate everything and lived every summer under a neverending sun under the Arctic Circle. My other grandparents were glacial explorers and introduced me to the rugged highlands of Iceland. My great aunt was a nanny for Tolkien in 1930 and he used lots of Icelandic material in his work. My grandfather operated on Oppenheimer, a person that probably influenced me more than Tolkien. Growing up expecting a nuclear explosion gives your childhood imagination a bit more drama than some orks.

Then I could name David Attenborugh, music, conceptual art, poetry and books, lots and lots of books but most of all Ideas. I have to have a very strong and clear idea to work on, and some paranoiac feeling that if I do not finish it, someone else will get the idea and get famous for it.

TE: What was the last great book you read?

ASM: The last book that really thrilled me was Mammoth, a book of poetry by a Canadian Poet named Larissa Andrusythin. It’s a very funny, sad, wise, deep book. It’s one of those books that make me want to write more poetry.

I also recently read Man in an Empty Suit by Sean Ferrell. A wildly strange and surreal story.


Andri Snær Magnason’s children’s book The Story of the Blue Planet and his Philip K. Dick nominated novel LoveStar are both published by Seven Stories Press and are available wherever fine books are sold.  You can learn more about Andri Snær Magnason by visiting his official website.

About Aaron Westerman

Aaron Westerman is the Manager of Web Architecture for a national human services organization. When he's not busy tearing sites apart and rebuilding them, he spends his ever shrinking free time trying to keep up with his twins, reading works of translated literature, and watching far too many Oscar nominated movies.