Liquid fire

Guess who this is? (Hint: it is I) Floradorp New Year’s celebration, 2013/2014.

As a kid, I was incessantly bullied. I was fat, bad at all sports, extremely introverted, wore thick glasses, I lived inside books and mixtapes I made. I was so smart I excelled at everything (but sports) but not smart enough to understand that always knowing all the answers and bragging about how I never had to study for tests didn’t make me popular. (Emotional intelligence was not strong in this one at the age of 7.) So I avoided the other boys. I was both alone and lonely most of the time, my companions being books and music, but twice a year I would be rewarded with magic.

Back in the 1980s, every worker was sent on subsidised vacations. We’d pick one out of, I don’t know, three near identical locations, and go there for two weeks, paying silly money – think €10 per day for a family of three. Certain traditions were always observed during those outings. The first evening without rain would be the “evening of friendship,” where the kids would be obnoxious together, adults would get drunk, then at some point the kids would get sent to bed.

Except me.

Those evenings always included a bonfire. I would just sit silently and stare at it, the world and people around me – gone. Sometimes I’d bake a sausage over the fire, or drink some juice or coke before going back to quietly staring into the flames. I’d admire the glowing embers, wishing I could pick some up and hold them in my hands, those living jewels. The fire was – is – simultaneously predictable (add fuel, watch it burn, repeat or not) and dangerous. It didn’t ask me questions, tell me what to do, have opinions, try to bully me. And every time it was, strangely, the same and completely different.

Photo: Dorota Kozerska

Thirty years later I found myself working as a blacksmith. In the first year, I made my work more difficult, because I felt guilty for enjoying it so much. I wasn’t just working with fire, I was supposed to keep it going, reshape it, fuel it. Playing with fire was a part of the job. I was not used to enjoying work so much. I was raised in a Catholic country. If something feels good, that means it’s bad. So it took me months to stop being stiff, neglecting the fire, and start using it the way I should.

I loved everything about forging, I still do. The smell of hot iron, the sour coal, the scars on my hands and wrists where hot oxide found my skin. The calluses on my fingers that never entirely disappeared, even though I had to stop forging five years ago. The heat, the hiss, the loudness, the power, the results. There are plants, shelves, ashtrays, lamps I made that will still be around hundreds of years from now. I made those things with my hands, with tools I’ve made. With iron. With fire.

The idea of Iceland being “the land of ice and fire” obviously attracted me before I even imagined going there. I knew about the Eyjafjallajókull eruption, because it ruined a big, international meeting I helped prepare in my previous life as a graphic designer. But when we actually went to Iceland, I discovered that it was actually the land of ice and stinky boiling mud. Which, as marketing slogans go, lacked that je ne sais quoi, you know? It’s not that I disliked it or complained, or left a two-star review on Google. I was just greedy.

Then, two months ago, the Fagradalsfjall volcano show opened for the public.

Photo: Þröstur Már Bjarnason

I was always going to feature a volcano eruption in Land. It is important for the plot – and is a historically accurate event. Land, the second book in The Ten Worlds series, is a re-telling of Hrafna-Flóki’s discovery of Iceland, where some members of the crew are not who they say they are. That happened, roughly, around 869 AD. Approximately two years later, just in time for the Vikings to come over, a large volcanic eruption started in southern Iceland. Judging from the thickness and extent of the ash blanket, it lasted for a long time – possibly months. (Orri Vésteinsson, Early Settlement in Iceland) I used this eruption in the book and thought that would be it.

The eruption in Geldingadalir (“valley of the geldings,” which is no longer a valley, but I suppose it’s smart to wait and see how things go before renaming it) in Reykjanes began on March 19, 2021, and Icelandic national broadcaster put up cameras to livestream it. It was preceded by hundreds of small earthquakes a day. (Residents of Reykjavík complained, wishing the volcano would just erupt already, because it’s difficult to sleep through earthquakes hitting every fifteen minutes, even if they don’t seem especially impressive. A friend suffered from vertigo on some days and couldn’t be happier when the earth finally opened.) As of May 27, it hasn’t stopped. Multiple fissures open, close, reopen. Currently there’s one peak that behaves like a geyser, spitting massive fountains of lava every few minutes. They look impressive on TV already. They’re actually up to 300-400 meters tall.

I spend a lot of time watching those livestreams. Currently I’m not very happy, because my baby volcano (this is not its official name) ate two cameras and now I only get to see it either from the back or from large distance, but how lucky am I to see it at all, even on a screen? I can’t believe how powerful it is to just see Earth deciding – oh well, I feel like reconstructing myself here and there. The envy eats at me when I see photos or footage of people who act like complete idiots and get dangerously close. Oh, how I wish I could prove them to be reasonably smart and get even closer! (I won’t die of old age.) There is no way I will see it with my own eyes this year, but apparently there is a chance that it will go on for many years… yes, please… what was I saying? Ah. Yes. I’m writing a book.

Photo: Þröstur Már Bjarnason

I had to add a second eruption. It’s not my fault. Blame Earth.

Land is apparently less dark than Children (I didn’t know Children was dark), but more heartbreaking. It’s also more…spacious, and not just because it takes place in three different worlds, including the one you’re in right now. (Probably. Is there wifi in Ásgard?) It was going to be about as long as Children, then I realised I need to do a bit more literal worldbuilding, as the world builds itself and terrified onlookers watch. I take screenshots of the volcano evolution, save my favourite clips, take notes. At home I have many pieces of lava in all shapes and colours, and I was always amazed by their sheer existence. Now I see their birth. I read about millions of tonnes that are pumped out of the volcano, fill up one valley, break through the barriers Icelanders tried to build, start filling up another valley. And it’s not fantasy. It’s real.

Something that drives me bjørnkers is that I can’t smell it. When I was writing Storytellers, we were lucky enough to witness Northern lights dance in the sky. The show ended around 1am and I practically ran back, telling Husby he was free to go to sleep, but I just had to rewrite one scene really really fast. Seeing it on YouTube was enjoyable and exciting. When I stood there, open-mouthed, I was experiencing magic. Watching Mother Nature show off (she does that a LOT in Iceland) just because she could. I feel similar about my baby volcano. While I can imagine the heat, if not quite a 300 meter fountain of melted rock, I can listen to the sounds on YouTube and watch movies where little dots turn out to be people, giving me scale… I need to feel that heat on my face. (To, probably, get a heavy metal poisoning. I’m a bit too dedicated to research.) To give myself sore neck from looking so high up.

The smell is especially important for me. I actually asked someone to check for me, once they went, and the answer was “it’s not quite like sulphur, it’s difficult to describe,” which is also what I got out of YouTube. I imagine a part of it might be the smell of heat – I know how much I struggle with describing the smell of hot iron better than “it just smells like hot iron.” But I must know. It’s like with the value of Gunnar’s farm in Iceland in March 1920 (the March part was important, because there was a seemingly overnight economical crisis, which even most Icelanders aren’t aware of) – I ended up corresponding with a university professor to establish the correct number, because I stumped the personel of Árbæjarsafn open air museum. Nobody would know if I got it wrong, but would know.

Photo: Þröstur Már Bjarnason

I’m gathering the remaining beta feedback and expert feedback for Land and in June I’ll start the eighth rewrite. Sometimes I get tired of writing the same book over and over, improving it gradually and slowly – always too slowly. This time I’m excited. I have a baby volcano to immortalise and my task is to give it justice. Aha, and there will be characters, too, because someone has to admire it. And a plot to bring them there. Now I just need to come up with a plot to bring me there, because I need to smell it and probably melt my boots and eyebrows while assuring Husby “no, it’s not that hot at all.”