A personal essay – and travelogue – by the Auckland poet and rapper about the strange making of his debut novel, Iceland.
“But why did you come here?” he asked. I could tell he was a fisherman by his worn rain jacket and scarred hands.
We were standing at the edge of the ocean in Skagaströnd, a tiny village on the north coast of Iceland. The sun rolled across the horizon. I sipped from my can of two percent beer (the only alcohol you could buy wholesale) and thought about his question.
Officially I was there to write the first draft of a novel about Grey Lynn. But I was also running from a series of fires back in Auckland. I’d just spent three years and 10 grand making an album no one wanted to listen to, the only job I could find was flipping burgers for minimum wage and then one day I came home to find a letter from my soon to be ex-girlfriend, saying that our dead-end relationship was finally deceased.
So I decided to take my leave, and as one of the characters in my novel says, “Iceland is far as you can get from here.”
But I spared the man in the wet weather gear this convoluted story and simply said, “Writing a book.”
“You came all the way here to write a book about your home?”
When he put it like that it did make the whole thing sound far-fetched. I’d arrived in Reykjavik from London, severely hung-over, clutching a suitcase filled with books I was too stupid to understand and pages of notes and observations. The first night I stayed in a hostel in an old biscuit factory, drank beer and sent messages to people back home. Next morning I caught the bus to Skagaströnd, or “the Country music town” as it’s known, with the other artists on the NES artist residency I was joining – a motley crew of painters, writers, dancers, musicians and whatever those people call themselves, who put piles of rubbish in the middle of art galleries.
We arrived in Skagaströnd and were spread out in groups around the village. I was staying with two dancers from America and a painter called Pat from somewhere in Ireland that he referred to as “Stab City”.
The first few days I wandered the cliffs behind the village and drank in the Country & Western themed pub. But soon it was time to write. I took out my notes and opened the books and realised I was trying to write a novel I wouldn’t read.
So I threw the notes in the rubbish, gave the books to Pat and started from scratch.
I stopped trying to write like someone who’d finished school, and instead adopted the voices of all the amazing people I knew who never got heard. The solo mums and petty criminals, the drug addicts and graffiti writers, the sex workers and unsigned bands.
I set the book inside a dream, inspired by the fact that the night here in northern Iceland never turned up to work. Me and Pat from Stab City would stumble out of the pub at 2am to find the sun staring down at us.
Inbetween writing stints I tried to find ways to entertain myself in a village of fewer than 500 people.
I drank cans of Coke at the gas station and watched the wild-haired children running and screaming up and down the one street.
I climbed the mountain that over looked the village, dressed in sneakers and a Dead Moon T-shirt.
I tried and failed to make something appetising from the rotten vegetables they sold at the supermarket.
I drank seven coffees a day, and attempted to make being a graffiti artist on the dole in Grey Lynn sound exciting.
One morning I awoke to a text: “Polar bear in the village.”
On the way to the shops I noticed some people had rifles over their shoulders.
“Be careful,” someone called out.
“What do I do if I see the polar bear?” I asked.
“Oh, it will kill you.”
So we stayed inside for a couple of days, staring into hills, trying to spot the bear.
There was a pool behind the house with a spa the locals called a hotpot. On one occasion I was joined by the mayor and his friends. We drank black coffee and they told me how much they wanted to go to Christchurch.
“I hear it’s the most beautiful city.”
In the distance the clouds danced around the mountain; behind us cliffs fell away into the Arctic Ocean. I nodded my head not wanting to burst their idyllic vision of the garden city.
Many an hour was spent explaining to bemused Icelandic people why I wouldn’t eat whale.
“But they consume all the other fish in the ocean,” someone would exclaim with genuine concern. “We must kill them.”
“I don’t think that’s true.”
“Well anyway I’m vegan.”
This was met with the kind of look normally reserved for people that kick babies.
The village was filled with short stocky horses, their long manes blowing in the Arctic winds.
One night there was a potluck. I brought some kind of vegan slop that I ate in the corner while everyone else feasted on a meaty casserole.
“This is great,” said a conceptual artist from New York. “What kind of meat is this?”
“Horse,” said the woman.
“Not the horses!” he cried, dropping his fork.
“Yeah, we used to ride it, now we’re eating it.”
After two months I had the first draft and it was time to return to London. Waiting at the airport, I read over what I’d written. It was a story of trying to turn your passion into an escape plan, a story about drugs and sex and the drudgery of unemployment, a story about what happens when one day you wake up and you find yourself living in a memory, a story about the past and an empty future, a love story about the place I grew up in.
Iceland by Dominic Hoey (Steele Roberts, $34.99) is available at Unity Books.
Dominic Hoey, as his stage act Tourettes, is performing his one-man show Your Heart Looks Like A Vagina at The Basement in Auckland from July 18. The show combines poetry, comedy and theatre to tell Dominic’s real life journey from developing Ankylosing Spondylitis (a rare form of arthritis), being bedridden, to eventually reclaiming his life: “It’s heaps funnier than it sounds,” he says.