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Behind Sjón’s multifaceted work – novels, poems, screenplays and some of Björk’s greatest hits – is a profound belief in the power of poetic imagination. By Romy Ash.

Novelist and Björk collaborator Sjón

Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, or Sjón.
Credit: Johann Pall Valdimarsson

Sjón knows cats. He lives in a cat neighbourhood in Reykjavík, Iceland. Every house has a garden, a tree. Each day he must say hello to all the cats. Each day he goes to his favourite cafe to read. On the way to the cafe, if they ask it of him, he will pat the cats. He has his own cat. A cat who thinks himself a big number, in that society of cats. Sjón’s cat is constantly fighting to keep Sjón’s garden free of the other cats. Sjón likes the other cats. He wouldn’t mind if those other cats came to his garden. He says, in his neighbourhood, you have to respect and make peace with the cats.

Sjón has a serious face, framed by serious black frames, but I spend our interview laughing. I laugh about the cats. The way he speaks about things, about his work, it’s this delightful mix of profundity and absurdity. As a teen, self-publishing his first book of poetry – 100 copies, sold on the bus ride home to the suburbs of Reykjavík – he identified with the energy of the punk movement – do-it-yourself. He liked punk’s social attack but not its nihilism. He also embraced the energy of the Surrealists – that’s his word for it – their energy and their playful world view. It’s still with him today.

It is the world view of the rebel, the eternal rebel; it’s the belief in the absolute power of the poetic imagination and that the cruelty of politics should be countered with poetry. Every politician should publish a book of poetry before they’re allowed in office, he says, with both absolute seriousness and a smile at the corner of his mouth. He speaks slowly, finding the exact words; I can almost hear the translation. What emerges from those lips, eventually, is a perfect eloquence. It’s very charming.

In the cafe, he likes to read, to research. He reads for an hour each day. He does not write in Reykjavík, he just likes to read, with the noise of the cafe in the background; he says it’s relaxing. When he writes, he goes to an old fisherman’s house on the south coast of Iceland. In the winter this house smells of snow. In the summer it smells of green. It is very small. It has a radio, no television. He does not have a smartphone. There is no internet there. This is where he does his writing, novel writing, for 16 hours a day. Whitewood panelling, minimalistic, very tiny, he says. It gets visited by the occasional field mouse. That is the company he keeps there. And ravens, flocks of ravens in the winter. They come in from the mountains and scavenge in the town. The beach is a good place for at least getting some seaweed into your stomach. When things are hard for the ravens he feeds them, to keep himself in their favour. That’s important, he says, to feed the ravens. When he goes home to Reykjavík again, he does not write for long stretches of time, just reads in the cafe, and pats the cats.

Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson, known as Sjón, is many things: poet, novelist, screenwriter, lyricist. He co-wrote your favourite Björk songs, certainly mine: “Isobel”, from Post (1995), “Bachelorette” and “Jóga” from Homogenic (1997). He was nominated for a “Best music, original song” Oscar for his collaborative work on Lars von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000).

The teen in me is very happy to speak with Sjón. I can hear Björk’s big voice in my head: My name Issoooobbbeeellll. Björk asked for his help writing this epic song. He tells the story of how they wrote “Isobel” together, the first song he wrote. In Björk’s kitchen: the moth. There was a moth on Björk’s lapel and it was there all day. This moth travelled with her while she did her errands, to the record store and back home again. The moth on the lapel, it was fantastic, of course it had to go into the song. It was there for a reason. It had imbued the kitchen with its silent presence. Björk played him the song, and it was this amazing song, the demo of “Isobel” – it already was very special, the rhythm and structure and everything, and the sound world was taking shape. Moth delivers her message, unexplained on your collar, crawling in silence, a simple excuse. And that is a story about “Isobel”, says Sjón. Sjón and Björk, he tells me, they came into being as creative people together in the ’80s.

Something about the pandemic has meant he has decided that he will write only screenplays and work with filmmakers for the next couple of years. That is a change. Writing screenplays is not like writing novels. Something about the scattered nature of writing them felt more possible during the pandemic, he says. It’s a collective experience. During the pandemic, writing novels and poetry was very hard. With screenplays there is the collaboration. It is not him alone in his fisherman’s house, with only the ravens.

Today, he’s in Zürich. It’s autumn, and the light behind him has that golden note. It’s right at the change of the seasons. Here in Melbourne the nectarine trees are bare of leaves but bright with pink blossom. He’s writing a screenplay. An adaptation of Hamlet, a Danish production. He’s got rid of Shakespeare, there’s no trace of him. Or maybe just only a trace. The director, Ali Abbasi, had a brief to treat this famous play as liberally as Shakespeare treated the original Nordic Amleth story from Denmark. Sjón says, in a way, we are taking it back.

In 2020 he finished co-writing The Northman with director Robert Eggers. A Viking revenge saga, star-studded: Willem Dafoe, Nicole Kidman, Ethan Hawke and Björk. Production was halted in early 2020, but it’s due to be released next year. In Eggers he says he’s found what he describes as a creative soul brother. Creatively he can work with Eggers, just like he can work with Björk. In fact, she introduced them at a dinner at her house.

I ask Sjón about Lamb, the quiet, affecting film he co-wrote with director Valdimar Jóhannsson. The story occurs within a rural Icelandic landscape. Lamb is not quite a horror film, though it is at times horrific. It’s no Reykjavik Whale Watching Massacre (2009) – Sjón’s first film and a film he calls crude but exactly the film he wanted to make, a film in the tradition of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974). Lamb is no splatter gore horror film, he says.

I won’t tell you too much about it, I won’t spoil it. Even telling you the premise might spoil some of it. So, I’ll just say there’s a childless farming couple and on Christmas Eve there is a visitation and, after, a strange birth.

Sjón tells me that Christmas Eve is a time to watch out. In Iceland, things happen on Christmas Eve, or Midsummer’s Eve or Midwinter’s Eve, while the humans are turned away, celebrating. After watching the film I have a bloodcurdling nightmare about lambs, but it is a very beautiful film. It’s heavily influenced by Armenian director Harutyun Khachatryan, whose films border on documentaries. Long stretches of Khachatryan’s films are just people working. Sjón says that they decided to believe in the audience being interested in being with the characters in their lives. He says, if you are interested in the lives of the people, you just watch the people, because you are people too.

These people are deep in a gorgeous landscape, it’s very moving. Sjón says there is so much poetry in the landscape, in the silences, in the pacing of it. With the setting, this amazing landscape that became the valley where their farm is, we realised that there is nothing you can do to strip it of its lyrical power. It’s there. This is the landscape.

He says, for Icelanders there is always the danger that for artists, writers, musicians from our country – and many countries that are outside the cultural centre – there’s always the temptation, or danger, of giving in to the exotic ideas about your country. People have exotic ideas about your country. People have had exotic ideas about Iceland since the 18th century, you know, and it never goes away. It doesn’t matter how modern we think we have become, there are always people looking from the outside seeing the exotic nature of it, or projecting their ideas about this far away country onto us. There’s always the temptation of giving into it and playing along with it. There are also always moments when you realise there is nothing that you can do about it. If you place a story in the countryside, this will be the countryside. Let’s just embrace that it is lyrical and magnificent and work with it.

Lamb has a folk story sensibility in it. It is in the seriousness, says Sjón, in accepting that this thing is happening on the farm and not questioning it. He says, you have so many European folk stories that begin with an ordinary couple, living somewhere in absolutely everyday experience, you never question that. These are salt-of-the-earth normal people just going about their business, and then a creature comes walking out of the wall or a guest comes and asks to stay for the night and things happen – this is the reality of the folk story.

This is territory Sjón is familiar with. In his novel The Blue Fox (2003) he writes from inside the society, where the folk story is real. From the Mouth of the Whale (2008) is similar, he says, set in the 17th century where you have a natural scientist full of ideas, which, to the contemporary mind, to our mind, are just fantasy. Sjón says that for this character, unicorns, monsters in lakes and in the field are absolutely real and he’s just dealing with it as a scientist.

Sjón has always loved folk stories. As a kid he was obsessed. His favourites, he tells me, were the gruesome ones. He says, we don’t have proper ghosts in Iceland. We have the undead, the dead that return to haunt the living; they do so in their rotten bodies, they are more like zombies, you know. One story I have always liked is about a farmer who is going between farms, in the absolute dark, obviously, in the middle of the night, in the middle of winter and someone has died out in the wilderness earlier that winter and has returned to harass travellers. He’s going between the farms, and this undead comes walking up to him out of the night and he just of course freezes with fear and then the undead takes off his hat and puts it under his arm, and the hat speaks and says, “The darkness is always fun, isn’t it?” The guy just runs away. We have good stories like that.

For Sjón as a kid, these stories were real. He was convinced they were true.

I ask Sjón about the film rights to his novels, as I thought it natural that if he is writing films, he might write the film of his own books. But no, he has never sold the rights to a book. The books are his things, he says. He is in no hurry to see them on the screen. In fact, he has only one rule for novel writing: write it in a way that makes it unfilmable. He says, if a filmmaker shows interest in my book, then I think, Hmmm maybe I didn’t manage to make it completely unfilmable. I should try harder next time.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 23, 2021 as "Eternal rebel".

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Romy Ash is a novelist. Her first book, Floundering, was shortlisted for the Miles Franklin award.