Andri Snær Magnason
Andri Snær Magnason on How Time and Water Explain the Climate Crisis
For the past two decades, Andri Snær Magnason has been on a quest for language that truly gets at the heart of the climate crisis—the images, mythology, and syntax to crystallize the often-abstracted but very real environmental disasters increasingly taking place around us. The 45-year-old Icelandic writer’s latest book, The Casket of Time, offers an allegorical tale of global calamity and apathy, captured through specific, deeply considered language he has been pursuing—and using—over the past 20-plus years.
Magnason’s diverse body of work includes Dreamland, a nonfiction account of Iceland’s climate policies; a corresponding documentary co-directed by Magnason of the same name; and The Story of the Blue Planet, a whimsical tale of gluttony and sacrifice that won the Icelandic Literary Prize (a first for a children’s book) and was adapted into a play. A rigorous thinker and empathizer in all aspects of his work, Magnason examines beauty and ugliness as symbiotic instead of antagonistic. His poetry book Bónus is characteristic of this dynamic. Stemming from a critique of the Icelandic supermarket Bónus, the book envisions the world, not so unrealistically, as commercialized bulk. Ironically, or maybe not, the Bónus supermarket itself published Bónus, closing off the writer’s satire full circle.
On this episode of Time Sensitive, Magnason discusses with Andrew Zuckerman the mutual dependency of spiritual and rational thinking, details two otherworldly, life-altering meetings with the Dalai Lama, and more.
Magnason shares his thoughts, worries, and wonderment about the current state of our planet, from pH ocean acidification to “this tornado of technology and progress and apps and communication and noise and stuff.”
The two discuss how Magnason and others in Iceland have helped fight big industry, including the aluminum maker Alcoa, from encroaching on the Highlands.
Magnason talks about his “Lights Off/Stars On” project, which required the city of Reykjavík to have a 30-minute blackout in 2006, giving residents the opportunity to enjoy the stars.
In the mid-’90s, Magnason, then in his early 20s, convinced the Icelandic supermarket chain Bónus to publish his first book of poetry. It went on to become a bestseller. He tells the humorous story of how it happened.
Magnason gets deeply philosophical about the value of glaciers and reveals what he talked to the Dalai Lama about over two unforgettable meetings.
Zuckerman finishes the conversation by asking Magnason about his latest book, The Casket of Time, and his impetus for writing it.
Follow us on Instagram (@slowdown.tv) and Twitter (@time__sensitive), and subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
ANDREW ZUCKERMAN: Welcome, Andri.
You’ve done so many things in a relatively short period of time. But the short list is, you’ve written novels, poetry, plays, short stories. You finished third in Iceland’s last presidential election.
ANDRI SNÆR MAGNASON: Yep.
AZ: What I was wondering is, what’s the common thread? Can you connect the dots between all of these endeavors?
ASM: I think they are becoming connected. My literary career has been a career of betraying your audience. That is, I started with poetry, and actually, my first book became a bestseller when I was quite young. I was twenty-two or twenty-three, and people wanted more poetry, but then I did a children’s book. So that’s kind of another thing. And that actually did well, as well. So people wanted another children’s book, especially my publisher. And then I did sci-fi that’s not for children. [Laughs] And when people wanted more sci-fi, I did Dreamland, which is non-fiction. But the common thread is more that my output is shaped by the society I’m in, the times that are surrounding me, and that presses out the need for some kind of output.
Every project is done by some kind of an urge. The poetry—I felt like there was a lack of mythology, art. It was actually published by Iceland’s biggest supermarket chain, and it was kind of a literary prank. The children’s book was a cause, as well. I thought children’s literature needed a really important book. And the things that were not haunting me, but kind of … the things that I was thinking, they did not find a path in grown-up literature or poetry. And the beauty of the children’s book or the clarity of that genre was the path that I found. The common thread is, I think, everything that I do has to be really important.
AZ: The issues of our time are consumerism, the world energy crisis, the environmental collapse …
ASM: And also, maybe, an urge to take on really big issues. Almost, like, the mega-issues. It’s almost like a hubris, in terms of the issues. So Bónus poetry, that was just basically consumerism in general—the world as a supermarket. The Story of The Blue Planet, I was trying to create mythology for a world that only found out a few hundred years ago that we’re actually living on a planet. All mythology—all religion—was created before that. I felt that we need an updated version of what it means to live on a planet.
AZ: Yeah, and to nail the sun to the sky.
ASM: [Laughs] Yeah, and what happens if somebody nails the sun to the sky.
AZ: You’ve said you’re looking for language.
AZ: For a language—myths, metaphors—to understand climate change. Which is where your head’s been at for the last few years.
ASM: Yeah, and actually, I’m kind of language-sensitive. Like, “climate change.” I’ve often had lectures about climate change without using the word. Because I feel like, sometimes the word has been used so much it’s beginning to wear and tear. People have become immune to the word. So when I have lectures about climate change, I don’t say I’m talking about climate change. I say I’m talking about time and water. And then people say, “Wow, that’s interesting.” [Laughs] But if I say, “I’m going to lecture you about climate change,” then everybody’s like, “Oh no!” [Laughs] “Just another lecture about climate change.”
I think we need—so as to understand an issue, it has to come through many paths in our brain. And we’re not only rational beings. It’s not like we read the latest IPCC report and say, “Oh my god, I’m going to change everything.” Things have to saturate through different parts of our brains.
We are rational and scientific beings, but we are also spiritual and mystical. We have a future, and we have a past, a society, a family. We are also individuals. The idea is to understand the word [climate change], to make it start actually having us react to it; it has to fill all of these spheres. But until now, I think “global warming” has very much just been in the scientific part. Then they are trying to raise our sensitive emotions with polar bears. [Laughs] But it hasn’t really filled up yet.
AZ: No, but you seem to have found a commonality of love to talk about.
ASM: Yeah, I think one of our fundamental problems in terms of these big issues is scale, language, and time. What we are faced with is that, in the next one hundred years, all of the elements of water on the planet are going through a fundamental shift. That is, all of the glaciers that are not basically Antarctica or Greenland are vanishing. The sea levels are rising at a quicker rate than what we’ve seen before—tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of years. We have the pH ocean acidification thing going on, which is the biggest change in the oceans for fifty million years.
Just that turn—only that turn—should be enough to turn the hand brake and be like, “Okay, where are we going, guys?” But strangely, we don’t react to it. Because, one of the reasons is, I think we don’t understand what it means. We don’t understand pH because it’s a logarithmic scale. We don’t understand time. When a scientist says [the year] 2100—that’s eighty years after Blade Runner. We’re used to that culturally. That’s just some kind of dystopia. It’s not connected to us. It’s a cold, distant place.
I’ve actually been experimenting with what you could call “pancake sci-fi.” [Laughs] Which is taking away the technology, taking away the dystopia, and just imagining, Okay, in 2100 we’re still going to be humans, aren’t we? Yes. And what does our continuity look like as humans?
I ask a very simple question when I have lectures for twenty-year-olds: “Let’s look at the future. Let’s not think of 3-D goggles or this gimmick stuff. Not even A.I. Just look at the future, and just imagine, when is somebody still alive that you will love?” They’re like, “What do you mean?” I’m like, “Okay, you’re twenty, and you expect that you will become a cool ninety-year-old.” Just like my grandmother—she’s the coolest person that I know. She’s ninety-four and in good shape, and we can just talk like real human beings. We have a good relationship. So I ask them, “When is somebody still alive that you will love? You will become ninety. Your favorite twenty-year-old in your life will be born in 2070. It will be a person you have held as an infant. You have raised or have participated in creating this person, this character. And so the person that will be closest to you in 2090 is born in 2070. And when is that person still talking about you as their main person in life?” Then they do the calculation. Okay, 2070—that person is ninety in the year 2160. So then I say, “Okay, this is your intimate time. This is the time that belongs to you. You could actually just plan an event now, in the year 2019, that will be played out in the year 2160: the music to be listened to, the food to be eaten. And you can plan this event with this person for twenty years, to make sure it will be executed in the year 2160.”
And when we have ranted about this a bit, and have imagined “pancake sci-fi,” I just strip out the tech, because tech is secondary. Humans are …
ASM: Primary. Then I ask them, “Okay, now, how about 2070? What do you think about this [IPCC] report on 2100? Do you feel it’s beyond your imagination? Or is it only halfway? Halfway in your continuity.” The time that belongs to you is the time that someone you know and love creates you. Versus the time of somebody that you will know and love and you will create. In my case, it would be my grandmother’s grandfather, in 1920, to about 2130, when some of my favorite, closest people are still out there.
I think that we’ve been in this whirlwind tornado of technology and progress and apps and communication and noise and stuff—and we’ve seen all of these inventions during the twentieth century—that we have become kind of reckless against the future. That is, we just think that things will fix themselves. Which is kind of the theme of The Casket of Time. That is the world where everybody is waiting for somebody else to fix things, instead of taking responsibility.
AZ: But you also have a lot of optimism that we can reverse the trend towards this environmental collapse. Based on the fact that we’re so good at progress.
ASM: Actually, I’ve also been experimenting with just looking at the twentieth century, because what we’re faced with in the next thirty years is a crazy task. Scientists have laid out a possible apocalypse, which is, of course, terrible. And also interesting.
AZ: Describe that apocalypse and what touched you about that [IPCC] report.
ASM: Well, basically, the trend of business as usual, reaching three degrees, four degrees of earth temperatures, of storms and droughts, and mass migration, and the wars, and all of this. This will happen, they say, as a consequence of all of this water. All of the droughts, all of the tornadoes, all of the floods. It’s very biblical, actually. It’s a very grave situation we’ve been faced with. And, according to science, we have to reduce emissions to zero by 2050. From there, we have to start sucking out CO2 from the atmosphere.
When I talk to students—because I write children’s books, but I also talk to others like universities and things—it’s really difficult to find a narrative that is not just shaming them, or shaming my generation or the older for ruining everything, and saying, “I’m sorry, guys, it’s a mess, and you have to stop doing everything.” It’s not very motivating to be told when you’re nineteen or twenty that you have to stop doing everything, while, actually, if we look at the task, from 2020 to 2050, the task of changing everything, the whole source of energy that humans have built everything from, is just unheard of. It’s almost greater than sci-fi to grasp it. So when I talk to these kids, I tell them, “When I finished high school, I didn’t really have a purpose. You know, we could see the mega-trends of that time—it could be like Fight Club or something …”
AZ: Yeah, we’re talking, like, Nirvana, Pearl Jam …
ASM: Yeah, we’re talking about nineties. Like, “Okay, get an office job somewhere.”
AZ: Yeah, exactly.
ASM: The melancholy of that pre—
ASM: But actually, if you look and ask, “Why should I become an engineer?” They would say, “Just make something, and sell something and become rich.” Which is fine, in a way, but there’s no fundamental cause in that.
AZ: In fact, in that time, we were lamenting how our parents’ generation had a cause. They had Vietnam. We were almost jealous at the time.
ASM: Exactly. We were kind of jealous that our grandparents built this city. They had to invent almost everything.
AZ: But the nineties were a huge malaise in a lot of ways.
ASM: [Laughs] Yeah. The thing that we are faced with now is a purpose. And, of course, we’ve heard the “Save the World” mantras so many times. But it has been more in a vague way. Now it is the scientific proof that lies in front of us.
I’ve been going through what has been done in thirty years. Like, if you look at the history of flight, from flying thirty meters—not sure what it is in feet, but thirty meters—in 1903, to when they went thirty-two kilometers in 1905, to how they scaled it up until they had the Red Baron fifteen years after that, air raids flying circles over Germany, until [Charles] Lindbergh, in 1927, crossed the Atlantic. And their time of grandeur, not barley crossing the Atlantic. That was ’27 until ’32, when I think there was the first complaint [about] service on an airplane crossing the Atlantic. That was done in those times of scarce resources, no computing power, nothing.
ASM: Then, if you look at the history of nuclear energy, from the theory of the neutron in 1934 until when they actually split an atom with neutrons, until they have the Manhattan Project in ’42, until three years after that they have a full-scale bomb. Which is, of course, maybe a negative story to tell, but it’s a story of what humans can do in urgency. And now, we have an urgency that has not been seen on a scale ever before, and it’s a really interesting race, actually. Because the race for progress has been in a competition mode of maybe competing against another country, or winning the race of lifestyle, or prosperity.
AZ: As a species, we haven’t had a common goal yet.
ASM: No, but this time we have a race where either everyone wins or everyone loses. The faster the U.S. scales up solar technology, to having Nevada, Arizona, all of these places fully solar in twenty years, the sooner we will see the progress of people who are now in the billion that still are cooking with wood fire in poor conditions. We will see how they will take the same step as we’ve seen on the cell phone, where they skipped the landline and went directly to the mobile phone. They just skipped, because now we’re envisioning, Oh no, now we have a billion people, and we’ll have to rise from poverty with coal and oil and gas and all of that. But if we imagine a future where we actually go so aggressively into the clean energy, in ten years it will be so scaled up that we will see the poorest parts of the world having access to cooking and light on a fragment of a cost of what it costs to create a new coal fire, as it did for so long.
We can actually see a big utopia versus dystopia. I think the United States would need about ten thousand square kilometers of solar panels in current technology. But, of course, you don’t need solar for all of the U.S. You also have wind, you also have waves, and you also have thermal energy other solutions that we have to find.
We also have to go through this really interesting path of being scared to death. Being so afraid that we know we have to release something. We know we have to let go of something because otherwise we won’t let go of it. We both have to believe that this is happening and understand what’s happening—understand the consequences to let go of these things. And actually, I think it’s in the framing of the metaphor, because when you look at the graph from the IPCC, and they show us how we have to go down to zero, you look at the graph and you feel like we have to stop existing.
AZ: It feels like failure, yeah.
ASM: [Laughs] No, it feels like we have to just minimize ourselves into nothing in the year 2050. Meanwhile, there actually is another graph that’s running against that one, which is just the growth, the escalation, and the scaling up of other technology. And in that is so much innovation that I think there is so much activity, and there is so much energy in having a cause, that you can almost feel this enthusiasm of when we finally let go. When we start to scale this up, we will live in really interesting times.
ASM: Incredibly positive, interesting times, where you can also visualize places that are also becoming too hot—that is where we would see the disadvantages being turned into advantages. If you look at Iceland, where I’m from, we were exporting people in the late 1980s. We lost about twenty percent of the population. People moved to Canada and the U.S. That was because Iceland was hardly able to bare seventy thousand people, so we just had to export the rest. We would starve, we would freeze, we would—the volcanic eruptions, everything just would work against us. But in the twentieth century, we turned all of our disadvantages into advantages. Now, Iceland actually produces clean energy—we only use about ten percent of it, and it has actually become a problem. [Laughs] We’re in the problem the world will see in 2060, when the clean energy lobby has not found it’s—which is another discussion, of course, how we never find an infinite solution; we just create another problem. But before we create that problem, we will find a solution.
AZ: You’ve been very active in the fight against the destruction of the Icelandic Highlands.
ASM: Yeah. And actually, that’s a fight against clean energy, ironically. [Laughs]
AZ: Well, and aluminum and all of these things that—I want to hear about the genesis of that. How did a children’s book author at the time become interested in government and policy?
ASM: Basically, what happened is that I’m all in for clean energy, and Iceland’s energy infrastructure is amazing. We live in a cold, crummy place, with awful weather, and we can …
AZ: Nineteen hours of darkness, three months a year. [Laughs]
ASM: Well, that’s just peak darkness, in December and January, but that actually is the most beautiful light of the year. Those four hours we have are actually worth ten hours.
AZ: Four hours of magic. Four magic hours.
ASM: It’s like the magic hour—the dream hour—of a photograph is just going on for four hours. I used to travel the Highlands when I was a child. My parents are pioneers of Highlands travel in Iceland. They went on a honeymoon in 1956—Europe’s biggest glacier—for four weeks. And they got stuck in a blizzard in a tent for four days in Iceland, were too cold, and they were like, “Cold! We’re just married …” [Laughs] And when I was eleven, I asked them, “What do you mean?”
ASM: They took us into the Highlands and these crazy, rugged, wild, volcanic, steamy dangerous places. Raging rivers that we would cross in our Jeep. Actually, just encountering this vast, infinite, black, bleak … as a child, you had kind of twisted feelings, because it was more fun to be with your friends playing soccer, but this was—there was something higher there.
When I was twentysomething, there was nothing happening in terms of energy in Iceland. But then, in the nineties and early two thousands, suddenly the energy markets of the world, with the rise of China, there was a demand for power. Suddenly, the most beautiful places in Iceland, places that should be on the Unesco World Heritage list … the greatest nesting place of pink-footed geese in the world, just under a beautiful glacier in the central Highlands, the sacred centerpiece of Icleandic nature, was going to be flooded to make aluminium. It wasn’t like we were needing to fulfill our primal needs; this was a secondary thing. After we had harnessed three times more electricity than the nation needed, we were still going into the sacred heart.
I felt that there was something deeply wrong. But, of course, I didn’t understand megawatts, terra-watts, I didn’t have a degree in those fields, really. I wasn’t an economist, I studied Icelandic literature, poetry, and I was going to become a children’s book writer. But this—I felt that there was something terribly wrong. And I just got this attention towards the cause, and I wanted to understand the language that was being spoken to me. What does it mean when someone says “thirty tera-watt hours of energy,” “creating economic growth,” all of these words? Because if I had been on a TV interview and somebody had said, “Thirty terra-watt hours’ growth,” I would say, “Oh, geese are so beautiful”—everybody would see I was the “cute” guy. But I’m not the guy who should be running the economy. I just went through the reports. Dove in, and just tried to understand it all. And what does it mean when they said the government could harness thirty terra-watts of energy in Iceland and sell that to Alcoa and Rio Tinto and all of these huge companies? When I calculated all of that and applied it to all of the rivers in Iceland, they were promising they could not only harness every river in Iceland, but also every waterfall and flood almost every valley where there is a river or waterfall. They were promising we could harness a little bit more than all of that.
I’d worked for the electrical company as a teenager, doing a summer job, so I kind of respected the technology, the craft of it. But I was like, “How can you be born in such a beautiful island, go through an education, and then come out with the idea that you wanted to apply your knowledge to every single river on the island and create something from it?” It didn’t matter what it was. It just had to be any intensive energy industry, because aluminum uses energy like one million people. And Icelanders—the three hundred thousand of us—would never need to harness all of Iceland.
AZ: Had they been thrown out of other countries before they got to Iceland?
ASM: Well, they were being squeezed out because, of course, an aluminum factory is a huge pressure on a grid anywhere.
ASM: We found out, in the last years—we’re still debating areas that the energy authorities want to harness—that about one hundred and fifty megawatts, which is enough for the city of Reykjavík, is going into Bitcoin. And Bitcoin, okay, I respect somebody’s search for alternative currency—you know, trying out blockchains, all of this stuff—but how can you be creating a new currency in the twenty-first century that is going to be energy intensive? Did you not read anything about what is happening to the planet? How could you come up with a currency that now uses what I told you would trash Iceland completely, the thirty terra-watt hours? Only Bitcoin in the world could trash Iceland three times over. And we just saw the black hole recently—that was calculated with immense computing power. Bitcoin is using a thousand times more than the scientific achievement of photographing a black hole. It’s a speculation, and it’s not sustainable.
I had an idea for a children’s book, but I thought, If I could save this area of pink-footed geese for future generations, then I would have created something. Or I would have asked myself, “Why am I creating something in a nation that is ready to sacrifice things that are a million times more important than anything that I could create?” I thought that anything that I could create is useless if this was being destroyed. You could call it a writer’s block in a way. I just felt that I had to dive into that game. So that became a ten-year project of going deep and hard against the energy industry in Iceland.
It was astonishing how a layman—a children’s book author—could actually find faults in energy policy. Obvious faults. And actually ask serious questions to people with Ph.Ds and decades of experience in the field, and actually be right. That was making me both believe in democracy, that even the experts—as a citizen, you can actually dive into any field, and you can have something to say, because sometimes the fields actually become … they’re actually all just locked in a … what do you call it? The room theory. Everyone has the same idea in the room theory. [Laughs]
AZ: Yeah. Then what did you experience when the [2008 to 2011 Icelandic financial] crisis happened? Something shifted in your favor.
ASM: When the crisis happened, of course, all financing dried up, so huge plans of building, like, two smelters would have drained and destroyed really beautiful areas in Iceland. Those plans went on hold. We got some time to make a counter narrative, which is a dream of creating a national park. Because now we can create a forty thousand square kilometer park, which is forty percent of Iceland, the undisturbed area of Iceland in the central Highlands. And we could make one of the greatest national parks in the world while still being, per capita, one of the far-biggest energy producers in the world. And we could prove that you can create an industry, or an expertise, but you don’t have to apply it to everything. That you can let something stay. Because that is what we have to do. And basically, what we’re faced with is that I think it’s a—one of my favorite quotes from Tao [Te Ching] is about the emptiness, the worthless, the useless, the void that is. The wheel works because of the empty space that enables the wheel to spin. Emptiness is actually practical and has use.
AZ: Beauty is one of the biggest commodities of Iceland, in a lot of ways.
ASM: Yes, of course, the tourist industry is creating lots of value and, of course, as a source of identity, as a source of health, as a source of just humanity. Because I want to move beyond using a label for nature in terms of some kind of marketing value. We have to just look at something and respect “Okay, that is there, that is nature, that is beauty, and it’s not my role to define it or go into it.” To kind of live side by side with it.
AZ: Somehow we don’t question nature. We don’t wonder, “Why is a leaf designed that way?” There’s something bigger.
ASM: I’m also writing a book now on time and water. We had this huge dam in eastern Iceland, and that dam was built in 2002. They drowned a place the size of Manhattan, which was so beautiful, under two hundred meters of muddy water. I was reading a travel log of a person that was there in 1939, and their view—he was just exploding against the beauty of the area. The text he writes is in Icelandic, and it is almost untranslatable. It’s like his soul resonates with the space dimension of God or something. While my generation is all raised with looking practically at the creation and never going into the divine or something, always looking at it as market value, as something—and never really questioning or wondering—well, we try to understand it scientifically, but we’re also just looking at the leaf and aren’t learning anything. Just looking at it and respecting the beauty of it. Which is, I think, something that might lack in our education, our upbringing, our general experience.
AZ: For sure. Somehow our generation came through this period where beauty was kind of a bad word.
ASM: Yeah, and it was not—you couldn’t measure it. You couldn’t—teachers couldn’t …
AZ: Couldn’t control it.
ASM: You couldn’t get grades. [Laughs]
AZ: Yeah. You can’t quantify it. It was also about the rise of technology, in many ways, and the fall of religion.
ASM: Yes, yes. In a way, yes. And the economization of the language. In the nature realm, we’ve tried to say “the service of nature.” So nature is providing us with ten billion dollars in the wetlands or something. We’re trying to put that in some kind of Wall Street language. And that was what happened in Iceland as well. We were told we have to calculate the worth, and some people said we can make a query. How much would you want to pay to keep the Highlands? And then they would call one thousand people, and the people would say, “Well, two dollars.” Or twelve dollars or something. And then they would have something they called “the price of the area.” We were desperate, and we wanted to find something, but we were like, “Is this appropriate?” To take something so infinite, huge, mystical, mythologic, older than us, beyond us, and make a phone survey and find out a price for it—a price tag. And if Alcoa wanted to bid a higher price, then we’ll just raise it to the ground.
AZ: Tell me about the “Lights Off/Stars On” project.
ASM: Yeah, so the “Lights Off/Stars On” project came from a very old dream. Because, as a child, I was skiing a lot, and once we had a blackout in the skiing area. And, of course, it’s dark in the winter. I was laying on my back under an immense sky. The city also went off, so we were sitting there, a few friends, in the snow, and we had never seen a sky like this. It was crazy. And then came these Northern Lights like [makes explosion noise]. It was as if we went out of our bodies. It was one of the deepest moments of my childhood, just lying there with my skiing friends and looking into the stars. And we had never done that. I started thinking, Okay, humans have been on this planet since who knows when. Hundreds of thousands of years?
AZ: Between ten [thousand] and one hundred [thousand]. We don’t really know. [Laughs]
ASM: Six thousand years? [Laughs]
ASM: We’re raising the first generation of humans that doesn’t have access to this. I was just thinking, All the poetry, all the music, all the science, navigation, all the fundamentals of what we are comes from this. As a child, looking into this, and asking, “What is this?” This is so beyond us. And everything that has come out of that, all of the gods, all of the science, all of the art. It’s almost like a fundamental source of our—
ASM: Imagination. And, basically, our system. I was thinking, Isn’t this an experiment? Raising a whole generation of children with illuminated cities, without any access to a deep black sky, without any connection to it in terms of navigation, traveling by night? Just lying with your father, and he tells you the story of his grandfather connected to some polar star or something. [Laughs] Then I was trying to take my kids out to experience this, but it was always—taking your kids in a car in January into the snow, it’s just dangerous. And then I thought, Why don’t we just turn off the city? Isn’t this the fundamental right of a child to have access to a dark sky? So I convinced the mayor of Reykjavík [Vilhjálmur Þórmundur Vilhjálmsson] to turn out all the city lights. And astronomers, astrologists—which one is the scientist?
ASM: Astronomers spoke about the stars.
AZ: Astrologers tell you what’s going to happen in your life tomorrow.
ASM: [Laughs] Yes, astronomers.
AZ: I mix them up all the time.
ASM: [Laughs] I don’t know if they know themselves which one is which.
AZ: Are you into astrology?
ASM: Not so much. I like it as a curiosity. So, the astronomer was talking about the stars on [RÚV] national public radio, and the idea was that we should have an alert system. That when we are expecting a meteorite thing, or an eclipse of the moon, or a—which is something really special in the sky, and it’s a fundamental right to have access to it. Just like we have a Super Bowl or something, where everybody is expected to watch, this would be on the calendar as something that belongs to us as humanity.
So they turned off the city lights for half an hour. And, of course, for me, it was a bit stressful, because I knew that everything that would happen in a city for half an hour was my fault. [Laughs] So whoever falls, whoever breaks in somewhere, whatever happens, it will be my fault. I didn’t really experience this in the serenity of what I had done as a child in the mountains. But it was really interesting, because when the lights went off, the sound of the city went down. It was almost like you could hear the lights go off, because people started whispering. There was some kind of sacredness about not disturbing the sky. So the lights went off, and the sound went down. And people were suddenly, at ten o’clock at night, walking around their neighborhood in complete darkness, meeting neighbors, and feeling really safe. Because, of course, you’re safe when everybody is out.
It was an experiment. It started out as a small poem—it was just called “Stars On.” It’s almost like these Yoko Ono descriptions. You could call it visual art. So it was just basically description, ingredients. Lights are turned off for a half hour between 10 and 10:30.
AZ: Will you be doing it annually?
ASM: Well, it has been done partially, but as a big event, it has not been done annually. It actually should be done annually, but it has to depend on weather. But one of my arguments was also because they said, “Oh, that’s dangerous.” And I said, “But one day we could have a volcanic eruption, we could have an earthquake, we live in a very active country, people have to know what it is to go out of their house at ten at night.”
AZ: Fifteen or twenty years ago there was a blackout in New York. A kind of famous blackout, which we later learned was a corporate trick.
ASM: Oh really?
AZ: Yeah, I mean this was the energy wars. Someone shut it off. But when New York had it’s blackout, everyone freaked out that there were going to be raids and crime. It was a party. Everyone had a great time. Times Square was filled with people, everyone taking care of each other. Bars opened up for free alcohol. It was a great night. I think New Yorkers felt like it was their gift after 9/11. They had this tragedy-free excuse. But human beings have a potential to galvanize and join together more than hurt each other at times, and we see it in moments like that.
ASM: I think, if you read Rebecca Solnit, what was it, Hope in the Dark, that actually—difficult things are much more likely to bring out the best in people. And surprisingly beautiful things actually tend to happen in those situations. I’m not sure where this zombie apocalypse fear comes from, of every body just losing sense of humanity and starting to kill each other. Of course, those things have happened in history, and it’s a bit disappointing when you start looking at the history of ships, for example, that sink. That survivors are normally thirty-year-old guys, those are the people who survive. It’s not like most survivors are women and children and then some altruism let’s them—
AZ: Human survival is something different, though. [Laughs]
I wanted to get the full story of Bónus, because I just love that project. You mentioned it earlier. You’re twenty-two, twenty-three—you don’t know what you’re doing, you hadn’t published yet. How did you see poetry as relevant? How did you know you wanted to become a poet?
ASM: I was kind of a jock, you could say. I was a young, beautiful. [Laughs] No, I’m just kidding.
AZ: You’re a good-looking guy!
ASM: No, I was a sporty kid, and I was good at math and all that stuff, but maybe my mind was sometimes elsewhere. And none of my friends had any artistic ambitions or anything. It was a lot of listening to Duran Duran and playing soccer and watching football. But a friend of my father’s started to give me lots of poetry books, and I actually didn’t know where they came from, but for some strange reason, when I was fifteen, I was reading the cutting edge of what was happening in poetry in Iceland without knowing that I was doing that. And I was also deep into folklore—but I didn’t believe that. I thought I might go into some “idea” thing. Could be architecture, maybe, but I was good at math, so of course you have to use your talent. It would be normal to go to engineering or become a doctor, like my whole family. My father is a doctor, my sister, my mother is a nurse, my wife’s a nurse …
AZ: Your grandfather.
ASM: My grandfather was a doctor.
Yeah, so I was finishing my—what do you call it, high school? I was twenty-two. I had published one small book of poetry myself, self-published. I wanted to be a writer, but I was wondering, What do you write about? Why do you write? What subject do you choose? And I was roaming around my local strip mall. I was not surrounded by golden plovers and waves and puffins and jumping wales …
AZ: This was sprawl.
ASM: I was in suburbia. I had this, the ugliest place in Iceland, close to me. And I was thinking about beauty. That is, who defines beauty? And how we can actually sometimes turn something really ugly into beauty by just changing our perspective?
Lava in Iceland—every foreigner who comes to Iceland is like, “Wow, look at this lava!” To Icelanders, lava is a nuisance. Lava was infertile land. It did not provide anything. It broke the bones of your animals, it was from an eruption that killed maybe your ancestors. Lava was not something we loved, and we did not see lava as nature. In the 1900s, in the beginning of the twentieth century, they wanted to plant forests in the lava fields and make nature out of it. Then we had a painter, the national painter of Iceland—his name was [Jóhannes Sveinsson] Kjarval. Instead of looking above the lava at the sky behind, he looked directly at the lava and took it into the canvas. Six by six feet maybe, huge canvases of lava, and nobody had done that before. Suddenly, our perspective started to change, and lava came into our identity. We came to peace with lava, and we started to even protect lava fields from destruction.
I was thinking, What if I took those eyes, and go into the ugliest place in Iceland—the strip mall, the parking lots—and just try to see something? I found that it actually had a deeper meaning. I went to the ugliest place in the ugliest place. Or the tackiest place in the ugliest place, which was the Bónus supermarket. And everything in Bónus has a Bónus logo on it. So it’s Bónus bread—there’s this pink bread—Bónus juice, Bónus cola. And I was wondering, what would the ugliest book of poetry look like? And, in that line, it would be Bónus poetry, sold in Bónus. There was something too tempting about this cover. As people know, normally poets, they come up with the cover first, and then start making poems that look like the cover. So I saw that Bónus was actually divided exactly like The Divine Comedy by Dante. We start in “Paradiso,” the fruit division. Then you go to “Inferno,” the meat products. And then you end in “Purgatory,” the cleaning products. I saw that, of course, it had a deeper meaning. We don’t have a town square, or like a square in Italy, where everybody meets and says “Ciao, bella!” and all of that. We just go to Bónus. That’s our own common experience.
AZ: The piazza called Bónus.
ASM: [Laughs] The piazza is Bónus. So, of course, if this is where we are, then that this is what we are. And what we are is a place that needs poetry and art. But this place was completely devoid of art and poetry.
Suddenly, I just had a full volume of Bónus poems, of roaming the aisles and looking for mythology and interactions. I thought, Okay, I have to have it published in the same way as the juice producer. I have to be subcontractor to Bónus, as all these providers of goods are. So I took the book to [Jón Ásgeir Jóhannesson, the CEO of Baugur Group, which owns Bónus]. He really liked the cover, and he had never made poetry before, so he printed out an agreement. I signed a contract where I said if the consumer is harmed by the product, then the producer—me—is liable to this and that law according to this clause. It was a very responsible book deal that I made, and it actually became a bestseller.
AZ: So Bónus published the book of poetry that was, essentially, not making fun of them but being critical of them.
ASM: Yes, it was …
AZ: A subversive consumer book of poetry.
ASM: I was kind of making fun of them. But, of course, we’re so—you can’t take away consumerism from yourself. You can’t pretend to be a poet and be “clean,” because as soon as you make a book, you have a product, and a product is always a product. I was thinking of this higher moral stance that I was supposed to have as a poet. Always talking about sellouts. But I’m like, David Beckham was a sellout—sold himself to Pepsi. Britney Spears is a sellout. Everybody is a sellout for selling themselves to something. I thought, Why can’t I be a sellout as a poet? It would be an interesting experience. But then, I also thought, on a deeper level, Is a bread producer a sellout? Is the guy that makes the toilet paper a sellout? Am I on a higher level than they are? Is the supermarket too low for me? Am I above them? Or am I just the same as them? It had multiple dimensions, actually.
AZ: One of the most interesting questions you raise is: Is art as important as food?
ASM: That was actually the cause of it. That cause was, if we live in a world devoid of art, then we are devoid of something fundamental in our lives. Actually, the reason why people felt miserable in Bónus was because it was devoid of all other dimensions. It was dominated by this one perspective: the marketing forces, the logos, the everything. There was no human thread through this.
AZ: But [the book] started doing really well.
ASM: Yeah, it sold thousands of pounds of poetry—two thousand pounds of poems, I think.
AZ: You measured it in the weight of the book? [Laughs]
ASM: [Laughs] Yeah, that’s how you measure success in supermarket poetry. It became a bestseller, and it was an interesting experience, because it became viral. My short story collection came out the same day, and nobody noticed my short story collection because everybody went to Bónus, and, in a strange way, I was giving Bónus a lot of good P.R., but that was not my intention at first.
I was called for a TV interview, and, as everyone knows, a poet wants to be on TV. But then the producer came in really hyped. He had made this premade slot. He was like, “This is great, we were in Bónus all day. We’ve never talked about poetry before, but now we’re going to make fifteen minutes about your book. So we were in Bónus for fourteen minutes, and then you’re on air for one minute. You only have time for one snappy joke, and you don’t have time to talk about your short story collection.” He told the woman next to me, “Sorry, we don’t have time to talk to you, so you can go home. But we’ll mention your cause at the end of the program.” She was from the Red Cross, raising awareness of the refugee crisis in Rwanda. I felt this really strange moment of making fun of something, or criticizing by participating, while giving it lots of P.R., not talking about what I had been working on the most, which was my short stories. But, of course, throwing a shadow on something far greater than all of this stuff, which was the refugee crisis. It was a good symbol of what [Neil] Postman was talking about in Amusing Ourselves to Death. That is, where important things just don’t get attention, where they are not framed into understanding.
I was wondering then what my second book would be, and I was thinking, Why do I write? Why do I do anything? Do I have a purpose? Is there anything that I have to say? I had lots of ideas, but none of them were really worth it.
Out of that came The Story of the Blue Planet, after I had been lost in the archives of the Manuscript Institute for one year, where I listened to an old woman reciting rhymes, and I was working on also putting on display the old Edda, which is the original manuscript of Nordic mythology. There I had this encounter with “deep time.” Which was: I could read from a page of skin on a book something that somebody was thinking of eight hundred years ago. Remembering something even older than that. And then I was listening to women that were reciting rhymes that they had learned from their grandmothers, that they learned from their grandmothers, that they learned from their grandmothers. They could trace a poem in their family memory back to 1700-something. I was like, “This is almost like putting a time machine on my years.” And this woman had maybe never performed for anybody but her own children. In mythology, in the old book, there you could have the sun, the moon, and the stars, and all of these things having a role in the story. All of these things—Rwanda, Bónus, mythology—came together into The Story of the Blue Planet.
AZ: Exactly, where you look forward and you look back. It’s like when Notre Dame tragically burned.
AZ: The thing everyone talked about first was “This was built eight hundred years ago, and it took two hundred years to build.” We don’t think in terms of that span of time at all in our society, because we’re living in a Bónus society.
ASM: And that is exactly why we have to stop thinking, is that—I was amazed at the cathedral. They had plans of the next wing they would start one hundred and fifty years from 1400. “So, in 1550 we’re going to start the west wing.” Which is amazing generational thinking.
AZ: It’ll be interesting to see how quickly they renovate it.
ASM: Yeah, I think what you can actually look at positively is that you feel like it is a tragedy, but it can be fixed. You have this confidence that we will be able to rebuild it. Or they, or we, or whomever.
AZ: I want to finish on The Casket of Time, your newest book. But, before that, I want to speak about what you’re working on right now, with time and water. You’ve had a couple of interesting meetings—I don’t know if you could talk about it—with the Dalai Lama.
ASM: Yeah, I met the Dalai Lama, twice. First in Iceland, and then, after our meeting, he asked me if I’d been to India and I said no. And he said, if you come to India, let me know, we could maybe talk some more. This was very chummy of him, but he’s apparently …
AZ: I’ll text you “I’m in the ’hood.”
ASM: [Laughs] Apparently, he doesn’t say things like that [very often]. And if he says that, he actually means it. He normally says what he means. His assistants told me that this meant that I could apply for another interview if I was in India.
So applied for another interview, and went to Dharamshala, and then we spoke again for an hour—it was filmed. But just before the last question, the camera broke. So he said, “I have to go to another meeting, but if you have time to wait for three hours, then I can come back.” So then we took another one-hour interview. We spoke for, like, three hours.
That was also an encounter with time, because he’s been reincarnated fourteen times, and his lineage goes down to the fifteenth century. I was wondering, what you can ask a person who’s been reincarnated fourteen times? What questions can you ask a person like that? It has to be a wise question, you know, not just “how’s your fifth life compared to your tenth life?” I was looking for a wise question.
My mind went back to the archives in the Manuscript Institute in Iceland, and there they have the origin story of the world according to Nordic mythology. It’s the most bizarre myth that has been preserved: the belief that the world started with a frozen cow. It sounds like a misunderstanding, like a whispering game that went wrong. Nordic mythology is what Marvel Comics is using for Thor: Ragnarok and all these beings that are now expanded into mega Hollywood blockbusters. But all of this is coming from one manuscript that I was holding in Iceland.
I was thinking about this frozen cow, and the name of the cow is the Auðumbla of Prosperity. It doesn’t make any sense. From the Auðumbla of Prosperity come the four rivers that nourish the world. But then, of course, India has this sacred cow. And they have, also, the world cow, which is a symbol of earth. The foundation of that cow, the feet of that cow, are symbolized as the Himalayas. Which is interesting. So the earth is standing on the Himalayas or the source of prosperity.
Then I went looking around the Himalayas, and, of course, they have a district in Nepal called Humla, and there you’ll have the great Himalayan trail leading you to Kailash, which is the most sacred mountain in the world—the throne of Shiva and the center of the universe, according to Hindus. From that mountain come the four sacred rivers of Asia—the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Sutlej. Basically, providing life with all of these glacial—and, of course, the source of these rivers are glaciers. The source of the Ganges, which is the most sacred place in India, is called Gomukh—“go” is cow and “mukh” is mouth. It’s Indo-European language. And “gomukh” means the mouth of the cow. A glacier, of course, is a source of life. It makes perfect sense as a metaphor, and it was beautiful. It was something that we have taken for granted. These white mountains—they are a perfect system. They accumulate water when you don’t need it, when there’s too much, the monsoons. And then, when it’s dry, they release this water when you need it the most. This system is also even better than water, because they are scraping the mountains. The water is white like milk because it’s full of silt, for your crop; it’s like a fertilizer.
The Himalayas, they’re the holy cow, and when one billion people are living on these milky white rivers coming from the Himalayas, suddenly, a bizarre myth of Nordic mythology is like a metaphor for a real place on our planet. In the interview, he was worried about the future of these glaciers, because just like how the glaciers in Iceland are receding, these are also receding. But it’s kind of an evil way of receding. They release more water while they are receding. They create false prosperity before they lash back. People are not adapting to less water, slowly. They’re adapting to abundance while—just like taking from a bank account—you’re taking water that should be twenty years worth of reserves and spending that. Then it will recede, and you will hit the wall.This is what people are worried about in the worst scenarios of climate change: What happens if and when or how these rivers dry up?
ASM: In Hinduism, there’s a story that the earth would be in trouble and it would emerge—it would take on the form of a cow and ask for mercy. I was being more rational in my thinking. I was like, “Okay, now the cow came to me. The cow spoke to me. What do I do?” Because I had an idea for a story when I was younger. I was imagining the world religions, and what would happen if the wrong god spoke to you? How do the gods divide the world, you know? Who knows who was born in the right country, and if some elephant god suddenly came to you and asked you to do something, and you had no idea what he stands for? Some kind of a Life of Brian story. But now that Life of Brian story happened to me. The cow spoke to me, and I have to write a book. [Laughs] And tell the world the big cow is in danger, and we have to take action.
AZ: So before we go, I want to speak about The Casket of Time, which I’m currently reading. The origins of this book started when? What inspired this story?
ASM: What inspired this story is actually almost everything during the last twenty years. I take books very seriously. I think it’s really difficult to write. I don’t think it’s easy to write. I always envy these authors that blurp out a book every year. It takes three months or something, and then they’re ready for the next book. They have to settle really hard, because I feel that it’s so difficult to write. I have to feel like it’s the most important thing in the world to do. And it could take me months and years to find the tone and get it all together. I tend to put so many concepts into the story, and they have to work smoothly and make the story look like it was easy to write.
AZ: Our friend Bjarke [Ingels] said that he’s felt like he’s read the book, because of the number of times he’s walked on hikes with you, listening to ideas of the book for some weeks.
ASM: Yeah, I also tend to also tell the stories before I have written them.
ASM: The Casket of Time is about a mad king who has conquered the world. And he feels like it’s really a shame that he has accomplished all this, but it doesn’t get more time in other people. He just thinks it deeply unfair. And his beautiful princess, she’ll just get old and die because she isn’t more valuable or sacred than all these normal peasants all around. So he demands a solution, but of course nobody can help him. Until some dwarves come, and they have something that looks like a glass casket. But it’s not made of glass; it’s woven with spider silk, and it’s so densely woven that time cannot penetrate the walls. When he closes the casket and opens it a week later the princess feels like only one second has passed. So he can remove all the unimportant days from her life. All the Mondays. Like, we spend one-seventh of our life on Monday, which is tragic, actually. You know, when you’re ninety-seven and you think, what happened to my life? Oh yeah, one-seventh was Mondays. [Laughs] Like fifteen years of Mondays gone down the drain. And then the Februarys, all the Novembers, maybe you don’t like the president for four years, all of these wasted moments. And so he can give the princess the only time that really matters—only the Instagram moments of life. This works well to begin with, but slowly she becomes so precious that it takes two years to prepare the perfect day of her life that runs seamlessly from morning to evening, like a dance. With butterflies and running giraffes and banquets and dances and …
AZ: Miniature rhinos.
ASM: Miniature rhinos, yeah. Everything that you could dream of. And then one day a boy breaks into the castle and is going to steal her necklace. She finds out that she’s been twenty years in the casket. The king has gone mad, the kingdom is crumbling, and it’s not going to open until everything is perfect again. So the second half of the book takes place in our time, when something like Ikea has made things that you can put together with a hex key and avoid the Mondays, and the rainy days, and the boring seasons. In the end, people can actually avoid the problems by just closing themselves up and just hoping that things will fix themselves.
Of course, the inspiration is earth leaving geological speed and entering human speed, which is happening now, in our time. The fact that everything is changing in one hundred years is similar to what happens in the kingdom of Pangea. Which is the origin story of how Africa and South America originally split up. Which sounds unrealistic. If you’ve studied too much geology, and if you look at what’s happening, then it’s the origin story of that. We went through this crisis where went through this—where our heroes became scoundrels.
Then I was looking at the boring times. We were going through incredibly boring times during the crisis. Everything was falling apart. Everyone thought that the future was over, everything was kind of for nothing. And people were angry for months and years, blaming bankers and all of that stuff. And I was thinking, What if you could just lock yourself away from all this, not spend your prime years on a period like this, but you could just lock yourself up, and come out fresh and new when everything is over? So I was drawing in lots of—being a parent also …
AZ: Four children?
ASM: Four children, yeah.
AZ: Yeah, that’s not a joke, that’s professional parenting.
ASM: [Laughs] It’s lack of education, it’s—I didn’t know. Suddenly, we just had four children. But [my wife and I] spoke for five years if we were ready to have a dog. [Laughs] But the children just popped up. So, being a parent, and also this idea of modern parenting—I was very free as a child, my parents didn’t know where I was for half the day. I just came home for dinner. I left in the morning, and then I came home for dinner. There were no worries. We would just be playing in some empty building or something. Then this idea of making the perfect life for your children and this idea that we also see today of taking care that your children are not shocked, or they do not see something that is terrible, or anything serious. They don’t hear of anything serious …
AZ: There was a period when our children were young where there was a trend of not saying no, and we see how that worked out.
ASM: Yes, exactly. And then, of course, the grave situation that we have regarding the planet. Without pretending that I’m writing cli-fi or something. But also, what I am often obsessed with is how difficult it is for us, when we come up with something new, to find a balance of something very useful, like a car or an airplane…
AZ: Social media.
ASM: Social media. But we are always going off the rails with everything.
Now humanity is faced with all going off the rails, and how do you grasp something like that? I took many of the things that are in the time and water project—they’re also in this story as the Dalai Lama. Because he was a child, and suddenly, raised to be a holy person, could not have a normal childhood playing around. I was kind of feeling sorry for that lonely child that could not just play around. The princess is not based on him, but all of these things—I actually encountered a real timeless prince, or princess, or human. [Laughs] I’m not using him one-to-one, but it’s like …
AZ: The essence is there.
ASM: The essence is there.
AZ: It’s a beautiful book. I so appreciate you coming in. Thank you so much.
ASM: Thank you.
This interview was recorded in The Slowdown’s New York City studio on April 16, 2019. The transcript has been slightly condensed and edited for clarity. This episode was produced by our director of strategy and operations, Emily Queen, and sound engineer Pat McCusker.