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A&S alumna hosts world’s top authors at Icelandic retreat

Photo of: Eliza Reid and Erica Jacobs Green

Eliza Reid and Erica Jacobs Green presenting the retreat. Photo courtesy of Eliza Reid.

Eliza Reid studied international relations when she was at the University of Toronto in the ’90s, but she probably didn’t think she’d end up as something of a cultural ambassador for Iceland. Each year, Reid hosts authors from around the world for the Iceland Writers Retreat, giving them both a beautiful backdrop for their writing and a fulsome tour of the country’s literary past and present.

Reid credits her years at U of T as an exceptional jump-start to her entrepreneurial career she is also an editor for Icelandair’s in-flight magazine and a freelance writer from her leadership involvement in Trinity College’s social life events to the education that led her to pursue graduate studies at the University of Oxford.

Reid spoke with Arts & Science writer Jessica Lewis on creating the retreat and her U of T experience.

How did you come up with the Iceland Writers Retreat?

Like many of the best stories, it involves a good friend and a bottle of wine. My writer/editor friend Erica Green had recently returned to Iceland from a writing conference in the States, and she remarked that Iceland would be an ideal place to hold a writers’ retreat: It’s the land of the Sagas, Reykjavík is a UNESCO City of Literature, and the country boasts one of the highest book publishing rates in the world. I agreed with Erica’s comment, and we said “Well, let’s create one then!” This was in the fall of 2012, and the first event was held this past April, about 18 months after we first had the idea.

What brought you to Iceland?

It’s not very original, but I moved for love. My husband is Icelandic; we met at Oxford in the late ’90s, when we were both in graduate school there. We moved to Iceland in 2003, and now have four children together, aged six and under.

How does the Iceland Writers Retreat work?

The Iceland Writers Retreat is a series of small group writing workshops and unique cultural tours in Iceland. It is open to everyone. The writing workshops are led by well-known writers from around the world (in 2014, for example, they included Susan Orlean, Joseph Boyden, and Geraldine Brooks, and for 2015 they include Adam Gopnik, Canada’s Alison Pick, and Taiye Selasi). The cultural component is designed to introduce people to Iceland’s rich literary heritage. It includes a full day tour of some famous natural wonders (led by an a local author), a literary walking tour of Reykjavík, and a pub night with Icelandic music and readings. In 2014 we also had several receptions with local dignitaries, and were welcomed by the President of Iceland at his official residence.

What’s the literary industry like in Iceland?

As a recent feature in the National Post stated, for a nation of only 320,000, Iceland “punches well above its literary weight class.” There is a very strong tradition of writing here, which stems as far back as the famous Icelandic Sagas (tales of bravery and adventure written in the 12-14th centuries). Today, Reykjavík is a UNESCO City of Literature (the first non-native English speaking such city in the world), and Icelanders have one of the highest book publishing rates in the world. In fact, a book is the most popular Christmas present each year.

An increasing number of Icelandic authors are being translated into English, including crime fiction bestsellers Arnaldur Indriðason and Yrsa Sigurðardóttir, as well as novelists Sjón (who is one of our featured authors in 2015) and Auður Ava Ólafsdóttir.

All this, combined with Iceland’s unique and inspiring landscapes, as well as its easy accessibility from Europe and North America (it’s only a five-hour direct flight from Toronto, for example), made it the perfect location for such a writing retreat.

How do you manage your writing work with running the retreat?

One of my other jobs is editing Icelandair’s in-flight magazine, so I do write regular features for that publication. I also write occasional pieces for other newspapers and magazines, but I don’t have time to do much pitching, so that’s really only when I am approached to contribute something specific.

In addition to that, I have my own business in project management and marketing communications, so I have various other clients in those fields.

Add to the mix four young children and my days are quite full, but it’s all great fun and I wouldn’t have it any other way, plus Iceland is a perfect country to support people who undertake several commitments — everything is only a short walk or drive away, and no one minds if I bring a wee one along to a meeting!

What was your experience like at U of T? What were some defining moments?

I had a wonderful experience at U of T. Although I learned a lot, and thought my program was ideal, most of my enduring memories are from outside the classroom. I lived in residence for all four years; my closest friends are still those that I met at university. I was very involved in extracurricular activities at Trinity, and was Head of College in my final year. So I suppose my main memories are of extracurricular activities, the many eccentric traditions for which Trinity is known, an active social life in residence/on campus, and of course the personal contacts that remain today (oh, and our Smashers touch football team winning the intramural championships of 1996; there was a fair bit of champagne consumed before 9 am that day, as I recall…)

How did your U of T experience contribute to where you are now?

I believe that my U of T education — both inside and, crucially, outside the classroom — provided an ideal jumping board to adulthood and my career. Of course the education enabled me continue to my graduate work at Oxford (where I met my husband and life took a new course in a new country), but what stays with me most are the friendships I built (and these contacts have helped me on numerous occasions in several professional capacities), and the leadership skills I honed, which have always been an asset to the success of my projects.

Overall, I look back very fondly on my experience at the university, and would encourage current and prospective students to get involved in something — anything — of the myriad of options available at this great institution. The education outside of the classroom is equally as valuable, if not more so, than that within it.