The 2016 Icelandic presidential election got overshadowed by the fervor behind Iceland’s win over England in the Euro 2016. Even so, in a country where 90% voter turnout is not unusual, football (soccer) reigns.
While the brief moment of world fame faded a week later when the island nation’s team took a beating by France, the euphoria of even an eighth place win still hovers among the fog, rain, and occasional sunshine.
Winning isn’t everything, I guess, in Iceland. So I jumped at the opportunity to sit down and chat with Andri Snær Magnuson, the author and presidential candidate who garnered more than 14% of the vote and ranked third out of a field of about nine (Guðni Johannesson, an historian won with 39%). When I sat down with Andri, it appears that even at third place, his candidacy accomplished something.
Unlike the United States, the president of Iceland cannot directly administer and create policy—the prime minister has more power. The president serves as a figure head and works to drive strategy and move public opinion.
Andre Snær is perhaps Iceland’s greatest living author. He has garnered numerous literary awards, his books have been published in some 30 languages, and many have been adapted for stage and performance.
I met Andri at Toppstöðin, translated to Power Plant, the last of Iceland’s old coal-fired power plant. He led the charge to convert the classic old industrial monolith into a creative workspace that has served as a sort of incubator for art, design, and other creative businesses. He petitioned Iceland’s government a year or so before the Iceland economic crash of 2008, also asking for funding for the conversion. Shortly after the crash the government handed him the keys, but no money.
The cracked window beside us shined a stream of Iceland’s almost endless summer light on us and one of the coal furnaces. He points to the apparatus and with a dose of endearing Icelandic sarcasm says, this is one of the first emojis—the forged iron shapes create a cartoon-like smiley.
Dressed in an untucked casual button-down blue denim shirt and with warm blue eyes set behind clean rimless glasses, Andri is comfortable with our conversation. He’s obviously done this before.
“I’ve interviewed the Dalai Lama twice,” he explains. Our conversation digs deeper into his views on big business, the environment, and Iceland’s future. His lineage, like most Icelanders goes back to the Vikings. While Iceland is one of the top ten aluminum producers in the world, Andri has been very vocal and active in stopping the development of Iceland’s interior, aluminium smelters, and the building of hydro-electric dams. An Alcoa smelter has been stopped, for the time being.
It’s no wonder Andri is such a passionate environmentalist, his grandparents spent their honeymoon in Europe measuring ice caps. His book “Dreamland: A Self Help Manual to a Frightened Nation” digs deep into the smelter plants affect on Iceland’s ecosystem was the number one best-selling book in Iceland in 2006, received the Icelandic Literary Award, and the Icelandic Bookseller Prize.
In 2008, Andri along with iconic Iceland rockers Björk and Sigur Rós led one of Iceland’s largest protests—nearly 30,000 people—at an outdoor concert just minutes from Toppstöðin. Together, they successfully protested the construction of a dam in the southwestern part of the country.
During our conversation the film crew that followed me throughout my journey across Iceland, filmed and recorded us, often with director Panayioti Yannitsos hovering a camera inches from our faces. Andri never flinches.
Like most Icelanders, he is passionate about nature, ecology, and green and sustainable practices. However, at times some Icelandic people see Andri as a bit of a radical. One farmer I spoke with said, “He is a good writer, I like his books, but he doesn’t have the experience to be president.” Another local innkeeper told me, “We need the aluminum smelters, this brings money to the economy.”
There is controversy as to how much money stays in Iceland due to the foreign interests that run the smelters—and the corruption recently brought to light in the Panama Papers which led to the resignation of former Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson.
In speaking with Andri, I feel he sees this all as a distraction instead of what it should be: an opportunity to push the country—and the government forward and create further awareness and change.
“I see a future where our children in Iceland revere fish in the same way that American kids revere dinosaurs,” he says referring to the history of the people, the land, and the oceans that surround Iceland. His future also includes more controlled tourism which in turn would provide funding for museums that would highlight ancient texts and the rich history of Iceland.
As for Andri’s political ambitions, it’s hard to tell. While his heritage is clearly Nordic and Viking, I do feel he’s a bit of a renaissance man, having written bestselling fiction, nonfiction,and theatre and serving as an activist, entrepreneur, and more. When I asked him what’s next, he nonchalantly shrugs his shoulders and says I don’t know. He clearly has ideas, and in many ways feel that ideas will also find him.
After we bid farewell, he hops on a modest bicycle and pedals away, I feel elated, recharged and excited about Iceland. And I wonder where else could I have the opportunity to meet a presidential candidate and revered author in such a random way—we connected over Twitter. That’s the beauty of travel, and that’s the beauty of being open and curious.
Highlights of our conversation will be in the Iceland episode of our new show “Border to Border” and I’m hoping to include most of the interview in an upcoming WorldRider podcast.