9. May 2023

Valur Gunnarsson: Catching the moment and meeting deadlines in non-fiction writing

Interview with writer Valur Gunnarsson, resident of the Epic Residencies project in Košice

On the final day of his residency, we sat down with the Icelandic non-fiction writer Valur Gunnarsson in Kávy sveta, an old-world kind of café on the main street in Košice’s old town. We asked him a few questions about routines, deadlines, things to do in Slovakia, and the ever-changing present. 

What is on your mind at the moment?

Well, the whole Ukraine situation. I was there this summer, writing about what’s happening in the country for Icelandic National Broadcasting. And the other thing on my mind is going back to Iceland – which will be the first time in four months. And finally, I will have a new book out, so there will be plenty to do. But between now and then, I am going to Czechia for a poetry reading tomorrow. 

What is it like to have all these different ongoing projects at the time of the residency? Does all this work haunt you even here in Košice?

Even though I am working on several projects, I do one at a time. I am actually very focused on what I’m doing at any given moment. I was in Kyiv before this, and I wasn’t living a very structured life there, just putting the finishing touches on the book that is coming out. And when I came here, I got very quickly into a strict routine. I go swimming or hit the gym in the morning, and then I try to write in the afternoon. My writing time is always the same, during the afternoon hours. And in the evening, I go to Kino Úsmev, to do something, you know, fun, but also inspiring, especially if you meet interesting people.

Another aspect of the routine is that I try to do research in the evening or in the morning, so when I get to writing, I am prepared and can just sit down and write. So I am trying to adopt this structured lifestyle wherever I go. But then, of course, life is less structured if you are in a place like Donbas. But I’ve been very productive here in Kosice, finishing the book which is coming out later this month. So that had to take priority. I was ending one project and starting another, which concerns the origin of Ukraine compared to Slovakia. Both have been part of larger empires for centuries so national identity in some ways has to reach back to independent states in the middle ages. The same is true of Iceland, which had its own Viking republic before becoming part of the Danish Empire and then finally independence. But things are much simpler on an island.  

Photo: Tatiana Takáčová

Is it essential for you as a writer to have a routine? 

It’s the most important thing because writing is always a lot of work, even though it’s not very romantic to say that. Maybe when I was younger, I imagined that you just go into this burst of inspiration, stay up all night, and just write and do your thing. But in the long run, you cannot write like that. And you cannot live like that either. 

I want to ask about the project with which you applied to Epic Residencies. It will be a book focusing on the present war in Ukraine, under the framework of the origin of the Slavic peoples and their connection to the Vikings in the east. Is it meaningful to be here in this region when writing? 

I find it very inspiring and important to be in the area you are writing about. Halldór Laxness, a great 20th-century writer, was always writing about Icelandic farmers but in the end signed the book as written in Italy or somewhere. But it is different for me because when I write historical texts I want to immerse myself entirely in them. And I find being in the location to be very useful. 

You exist across many professions, for instance, in Ukraine, you worked as a war correspondent. Do they translate into your creative work in any way?

I don’t know if I am a war correspondent, although I’ve sort of been that this summer. But I’ve been a journalist on and off for two years. It is good training, because you learn a lot, you are examining society, and because Iceland is so small, it’s like a microcosm society, you can almost look at it as an ant farm and closely observe how each part works. So first of all, journalism teaches you about society. And secondly, it teaches you about deadlines which is something writers often have a problem with. But when you get used to journalism, you just always finish at the appointed time, even if you would have liked to have more. So I learned to think not about what can be the best possible version but what is the best I can do in the time given. Journalism is always about the present, and that is something that is constantly changing. You can’t catch the present, because there is always a new one. That is why I always wanted to write books to tackle the bigger themes. And books seem to be more permanent than articles. But, of course, on the internet, everything and at the same time nothing is permanent. 

Did you come here with a bucket list? Places to visit, things to do outside of writing?

No, I did have a very clear idea of the work I wanted to do here. I was in Poland for two weeks and then in Ukraine for ten weeks before the residency, so I didn’t have time to prepare to go here as I would have had I come directly from home. So Slovakia was one of a few destinations. I didn’t know what to expect but I find it fascinating now – the multiple identities, Czech, Slovak, East Slovak, Košician – it seems like you have a strong city identity here. So I didn’t come with the exact picture in my mind, but when I came here I wanted to visit the East Slovak Gallery and all these museums. And I really wanted to take the one-hour train to Hungary, which I managed to do last weekend. That is something I cannot do in Iceland. Living on an island has its disadvantages too. 

Interview conducted by Dominika Moravčíková

Editor: Juliana Sokolová

The Epic Residencies project received a grant from Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway through the EEA Grants in the amount of 150 000 € and was co-financed in the amount of 22 000 € from the state budget of the Slovak Republic. The project aims at capacity building of partner organisations, inclusive education, intercultural exchange and audience building. To find out more about EEA Grants funded programmes and projects in Slovakia, please visit www.eeagrants.sk. All projects are 15% co-financed by the state budget of the Slovak Republic. Read more information about the project in the published project agreement: 1522/2021 | Register of projects (gov.sk)

More links