[AD – Proof Copy] Thank you Pushkin Press for having me on this blog tour. Animal Life by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir (translated by Brian FitzGibbon) is out now!
“In the days leading up to Christmas, Dómhildur delivers her 1,922nd baby. Beginnings and endings are her family trade; she comes from a long line of midwives on her mother’s side and a long line of undertakers on her father’s. She even lives in the apartment that she inherited from her grandaunt, a midwife with a unique reputation for her unconventional methods.
As a terrible storm races towards Reykjavik, Dómhildur discovers decades worth of letters and manuscripts hidden amongst her grandaunt’s clutter. Fielding calls from her anxious meteorologist sister and visits from her curious new neighbour, Dómhildur escapes into her grandaunt’s archive and discovers strange and beautiful reflections on birth, death and human nature.”
I’m currently midway through reading Animal Life (perfect timing, given the book is set in the run-up to Christmas Eve), and had the pleasure of asking Icelanding author Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir some of my questions. Here’s what she had to say…
Would you like to introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your writing background?
I’m an Icelandic novelist, playwright and poet. My novels have been translated into 34 languages and Animal Life is the latest novel to be translated into English.
I studied Art History in Paris and before becoming a fulltime writer I used to teach Art History at the University of Iceland. I write in a minority and marginal language called Icelandic and is spoken only by 350.000 people which is I think is similar to the number of people living in the city of Nottingham.
Can you tell us about Animal Life and how the concept came about?
The idea came about a few years ago when the Icelandic people voted for their favorite word in Icelandic, and the word most people thought was the most beautiful word was ljósmódir which literally means mother of light and is the Icelandic word for midwife. I then decided that I would one day write a novel about the meaning of light in a dark world and that the main character would be a midwife-a mother of light. Eventually it also became a book about the human animal and about both the light and darkness in ourselves. I think living so far up in the north, with dark winters and light summers increases the sensibility for light.
Was it difficult to write about the complexities of birth and death in such an interwoven way? How did you find the right balance?
Novels need oppositions: if you want to write an ode to life you have to speak about death. If you want to write about light you have to write about darkness. I let the book unfold in the darkest days, three days before Christmas, because the best time to understand the light is when there is less of it.
My novel is made of dualisms: between life and death, between light and shadows, and between humans and animals.
I’m midway through the book and already feel like I have insight into the Grandaunt’s character, just from the way her quotes have lived on through the midwives she used to work with. Was it a deliberate choice to begin to build up this character just through the way she is perceived by others?
I often seem to do that in my books. Show my characters through the eyes of others. The grandaunt- the older midwife- is a kind of an eccentric philosophe who reduces a human being to a mammal that she thinks is the most fragile and the most vulnerable of all animals on Earth. It suits this character well to show her through the eyes of others and let them quote her. The book begins with a birth scene that shows the man being born naked and helpless. The grandaunt actually thinks this vulnerable animal is born to love.
If you had to describe the writing style of Animal Life in three words, what would they be?
I don’t know. (Isn’t that three words?)
[PS – This may be my favourite bookish Q&A answer ever!]
Where can readers find more from you?
Hopefully in bookshops and libraries. They should be able to find my previous novels that have been translated into English like The Greenhouse, Butterflies in November, Hotel Silence and Miss Iceland.