Novelist and collaborator of Björk Sjón


Sjón knows cats. He lives in a cat neighborhood in Reykjavík, Iceland. Each house has a garden, a tree. Every day he has to say hello to all the cats. Every day he goes to his favorite cafe to read. On the way to the cafe, if they ask him, he will pat the cats. He has his own cat. A cat who thinks there are many in this society of cats. Sjón’s cat is constantly fighting to keep Sjón’s garden free from other cats. Sjón loves other cats. He wouldn’t mind if those other cats came to his yard. He says that in his neighborhood, you have to respect and make peace with cats.

Sjón has a serious face framed by serious black frames, but I spend our interview laughing. I laugh at cats. The way he talks about things, about his work, it’s this delicious mixture of depth and absurdity. As a teenager, publishing his first collection of poems himself – 100 copies, sold on the bus ride to the suburbs of Reykjavík – he identified with the energy of the punk movement – DIY. He liked the social attack of punk but not its nihilism. He also embraced the energy of the surrealists – that’s his word for it – their energy and playful vision of the world. It is still with him today.

It is the worldview of the rebel, the eternal rebel; it is the belief in the absolute power of the poetic imagination and that the cruelty of politics must be countered by poetry. Every politician should publish a book of poetry before they are allowed to take office, he says, with both absolute seriousness and a smirk in the corner of his mouth. He speaks slowly, finding the exact words; I can almost hear the translation. What emerges from those lips, ultimately, is perfect eloquence. It is very charming.

At the café, he likes to read and do research. He reads for an hour a day. He doesn’t write in Reykjavík, he just likes to read, with the noise of the cafe in the background; he says it’s relaxing. When writing, he goes to a former fisherman’s house on the south coast of Iceland. In winter, this house smells of snow. In summer, it smells of green. It is very small. He has a radio, no television. He doesn’t have a smartphone. There is no internet there. This is where he writes, novels, 16 hours a day. White wood paneling, minimalist, very small, he says. It is visited by the occasional field mouse. This is the company he keeps there. And crows, flocks of crows in winter. They come from the mountains and search the city. The beach is a good place to at least get algae in your stomach. When things are hard on the crows, he feeds them, to keep himself in their favor. It is important, he said, to feed the crows. When he returns home to Reykjavík, he doesn’t write for long periods of time, just reading in the cafe and petting the cats.

Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, known as Sjón, is a lot of things: poet, novelist, screenwriter, lyricist. He co-wrote your favorite Björk songs, certainly mine: “Isobel”, from To post (1995), “Bachelorette” and “Jóga” by Homogeneous (1997). He was nominated for an Oscar for “Best Music, Original Song” for his collaborative work on Lars von Trier A dancer in the night (2000).

The teenager in me is very happy to speak with Sjón. I hear Björk’s big voice in my head: My name is Issoooobbbeeellll. Björk asked for his help writing this epic song. He tells how they wrote “Isobel” together, the first song he wrote. In Björk’s kitchen: the moth. There was a butterfly on Björk’s lapel and he was there all day. This moth traveled with her while she was shopping, at the record store and back home. The moth on the reverse, it was fantastic, of course it had to fit into the song. He was there for a reason. He had imbued the kitchen with his silent presence. Björk played him the song, and it was this amazing song, the demo of “Isobel” – it was already very special, the beat and the structure and everything, and the world of sound was taking shape. Butterfly delivers its message, unexplained on your collar, crawling in silence, a simple excuse. And this is the story of “Isobel,” says Sjón. Sjón and Björk, he tells me, were born together as creative people in the 1980s.

Something about the pandemic meant he decided he would only write screenplays and work with filmmakers for the next two years. It is a change. Writing screenplays is not like writing novels. Something about the scattered nature of their writing seemed more possible during the pandemic, he says. It is a collective experience. During the pandemic, writing novels and poetry was very difficult. With the scenarios, there is collaboration. He is not alone in his fishing house, with only the crows.

Today he is in Zurich. It’s fall, and the light behind it has that golden note. It’s just at the change of seasons. Here in Melbourne, the nectarine trees are leafless but glistening with pink blossoms. He’s writing a screenplay. An adaptation of Hamlet, a Danish production. He got rid of Shakespeare, there is no sign of him. Or maybe just a trace. The director, Ali Abbasi, was on a mission to treat this famous play as generously as Shakespeare treated the original story of Amleth from Nordic Denmark. Sjón says, in a way, we take it back.

In 2020 he finished co-writing The man of the North with director Robert Eggers. A viking revenge saga, strewn with stars: Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke and Björk. Production was halted in early 2020, but is slated for release next year. In Eggers, he says he found what he describes as a creative soul mate. Creatively, he can work with Eggers, just as he can work with Björk. In fact, she introduced them at a dinner at her house.

I ask Sjón about Lamb, the calm and touching film he co-wrote with director Valdimar Jóhannsson. The story takes place in a rural Icelandic landscape. Lamb isn’t quite a horror movie, even if it is horrific at times. It’s no Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre (2009) – Sjón’s first film and a film he calls raw but exactly the film he wanted to make, a film in the tradition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Lamb isn’t a splashy gore horror movie, he says.

I won’t tell you too much, I won’t spoil you. Even telling you the premise could spoil some of it. So I will just say that there is a farming couple without children and on Christmas Eve there is a visit and afterwards a strange birth.

Sjón tells me that Christmas Eve is a time to be careful. In Iceland, things happen on Christmas Eve, or New Year’s Eve or New Year’s Eve, while humans are turned down for partying. After watching the movie, I have a blood-curdling nightmare on the lambs, but it’s a really nice movie. He is heavily influenced by Armenian director Harutyun Khachatryan, whose films border on documentary. Long stretches of Khachatryan movies are just working people. Sjón says they have decided to believe that the audience is interested in being with the characters in their lives. He says, if you are interested in people’s lives, you just observe people, because you are people too.

These people are at the bottom of a magnificent landscape, it is very moving. Sjón says there is so much poetry in the landscape, in the silences, in its rhythm. With the setting, this astonishing landscape that has become the valley where their farm is located, we realized that there was nothing that could be done to strip it of its lyrical power. It’s here. It is the landscape.

He says, for Icelanders, there is always the danger that for artists, writers, musicians in our country – and many countries that are outside the cultural center – there is always the temptation, or danger, to give in. to exotic ideas about your country. People have exotic ideas about your country. People have had exotic ideas about Iceland since the 18th century, you know, and it never goes away. No matter how modern we think we have gotten, there are always people looking out to see the exotic nature of it, or projecting their ideas of this faraway land onto us. There is always the temptation to give in and play with it. There are also always times when you realize that there is nothing you can do about that. If you put a story in the campaign, it will be the campaign. Let’s just accept that it’s lyrical and beautiful and work with it.

Lamb has a folk history sensibility in it. It’s in earnest, Sjón says, to accept that this thing is happening on the farm and not question it. He says, you have so many European folk stories that start with an ordinary couple, living somewhere in an absolutely everyday experience, you never question it. It’s normal people like the salt of the earth just going about their business and then some creature comes out of the wall or a guest comes and asks to stay for the night and things happen – that’s the reality of there. popular story.

It is a territory that Sjón knows well. In his novel The Blue fox (2003) he writes from within society, where popular history is real. From the mouth of the whale (2008) is similar, he says, taking place in the 17th century where you have a naturalist full of ideas, which to the contemporary mind, to our mind, are just fantasy. Sjón says that for this character the unicorns, the monsters in the lakes and on the field are absolutely real and that he is just dealing with them as a scientist.

Sjón has always loved folk stories. As a child he was obsessed. His favorites, he told me, were the horrible ones. He says, we don’t have real ghosts in Iceland. We have the living dead, the dead who come back to haunt the living; they do it in their rotten bodies, they look more like zombies, you know. One story that I have always loved is that of a farmer going from farm to farm, in pitch blackness, obviously, in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter and someone’s went off in the wild earlier this winter and has returned to harass travelers. He goes between the farms, and this undead comes towards him out of the night and he of course freezes in fear, then the undead takes off his hat and puts it under his arm, and the hat speaks and says, ” The dark is always fun, isn’t it? The guy runs away. We have good stories like that.

For Sjón as a child, these stories were real. He was convinced they were true.

I ask Sjón about the film rights to his novels, because I thought it was natural that if he wrote films, he wrote the film from his own books. But no, he never sold the rights to a book. Books are his business, he says. He is in no rush to see them on the screen. In fact, he has only one rule for writing a novel: to write it in a way that makes it unfilmable. He says, if a filmmaker shows interest in my book, then I think, Hmmm maybe I failed to make it completely unfilmable. I should try harder next time.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 23, 2021 under the title “Eternal rebel”.

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