All About Alumni / Summer 2016
Literary Midwife

Eliza Reid helps writers deliver prose at her Iceland retreat


Eliza Reid. Photo by Dagur Gunnarsson.

Eliza Reid. Photo by Dagur Gunnarsson.

Icelanders have a saying that everyone “has a book in their belly.” As co-founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat, Eliza Reid (BA 1998 Trinity) is a literary midwife, helping writers birth new manuscripts in a fertile country for the written word.

“The retreat is my professional baby,” says Reid, “and Iceland is a great place to see it grow. It’s the land of the sagas, a major contributor to world literature and it boasts some of the highest literacy rates. And books are the most popular Christmas presents!”

Reid moved to Reykjavik in 2003. She is married to Guðni Th. Jóhannesson, who is currently running for president of the country. Along with editing Icelandair Stopover in-flight magazine, Reid produces travel content for the Globe and Mail and other outlets. After her friend Erica Green returned from a writers’ retreat in San Francisco and raved about the experience, the two decided to start their own. They launched the Iceland Writers Retreat in 2014 to share the country’s literary heritage with wordsmiths from around the world.

This year’s retreat, which ran in April, welcomed more than 100 participants from 15 countries for workshops by writers such as Miriam Toews and U of T alum Vincent Lam. Icelandic authors led cultural tours: poet and writer Ari Trausti Guðmundsson guided participants around the Borgarfjörður region – the backdrop of many Icelandic sagas. “Iceland as a destination is a huge attraction for both participants and instructors,” says Reid. “It’s known for its natural phenomena, but we’re highlighting a cultural dimension that people might not otherwise be aware of. Authors whom I respect and admire are now pitching themselves to me to teach – it’s surreal.”


Strangers in a Strange Land

Photo: iStock

Photo: iStock

What do writers get up to at Eliza Reid’s retreat?

  • When Joseph Boyden saw Björk at a restaurant, he gushed to her about her music – but, alas, she brushed him off. He also bought a huge stuffed raven, an important symbol in both traditional Icelandic and First Nations storytelling. It later appeared in a photo of his collection of “beautiful things” in the Globe and Mail.
  • Barbara Kingsolver told her husband that for her 60th birthday in 2015, she wanted to see the northern lights. Coincidentally, the next day she received an invitation to the retreat – and a few nights after her April 8th birthday, she watched the aurora borealis flicker over Reykjavik.
  • Adam Gopnik referenced “a fine writer’s retreat” in his New Yorker article “The Coffee of Civilization in Iceland.” He was also ahead of foodie trends and dined at Dill Restaurant, now considered one of Reykjavik’s best eateries, according to Reid.

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