Mark Illis: Gothenburg and Waters and Harbours in the North

Early start. On my way to Gothenburg to take part in a project on water and harbours. I’m through Duty Free and smelling faintly of an Armani tester. Something medicinal. Sleepwalking a bit. I’ve got two planes to catch and I’m worried I may end up accidentally in Norway. Or Narnia. And I’m trying – sleepily – to think about water and harbours.

Day 1. I meet the other writers on the project. Marjun, novelist, poet and playwright from the Faroe Islands, Bryndís, Icelandic author and folklorist, and Stefan, who’s local and is a children’s book writer and screenwriter. The two administrators, Hedvig and Kristin, who are also writers, are also there, and we later meet Johanna, who is responsible for the film part of our project. That’s seven of us. Guess who’s the only one who can only speak one language? Luckily they’re all lovely and don’t seem to hold it against me.

We go to the House of Emigrants, where we learn about the great Swedish emigration between 1850 and 1930. 25% of the population left. We’re told about it by a pleasingly Swedish-looking guy who gives us lanterns and shows us into the dark, cramped hold of a ship.

Then a meeting to discuss our readings tomorrow night. 50 two minute readings to celebrate the 50th birthday of the writing centre, and only one of those readings will be in English.

Bryndís tells us that construction in Iceland is overseen by an ‘elf-seer’ who will advise whether the elves approve of the building work in question.

We start our work tomorrow. Elves permitting.

l-r Bryndis Bjorgvinsdottir, Mark Illis, Marjun Syderbø Kjelnæs and Stefan Larsson in Gothenburg. We’re standing on a bridge in Gothenburg.

Day 2. Discussion over coffee – everything in Sweden is over coffee – of the project. The others talk about their experience of harbours. I talk about the seaside, rivers and floods. No decisions are reached and to be honest it’s hard to see how this is going to come together as a coherent project. A couple of watery workshops, and then it’s that reading. Seems to go well. I read an extract from my new YA novel The Impossible.

Day 3. Herring for breakfast. More talk, more looking at what we’re individually writing, finding correspondences, overlaps, contrasts. Something might be starting to emerge. A visit to a museum to see how Gothenburg was founded, then a boat trip in the harbour.

Then more writing, exploring, diving deep, seeing what I can find. Turns out Bryndís is a free diver. She can hold her breath for three minutes. Three minutes! At least she says she can. I think I want proof.

Day 4. A long day writing and recording as the piece comes together. Decisions made over shape, languages, cuts and tweaks. There are four writers here with distinct voices, but those voices are interweaving, approaching from different perspectives and arriving somewhere similar. It’s fun, fascinating and productive.

Afternoon tea with the Children’s Book Network of Gothenburg where we talk about our work and our lives and learn about our cultures.

I’m feeling tired, but lucky to be here. And the day began with pancakes and homemade jam which, as everyone knows, is the perfect way to start any day.

Day 5. Morning off. A wander round Gothenburg, down to the harbour, to the market. Then, in the afternoon, final tweaking on the film, introducing spoken chapter titles, shortening here, adding a line there. And then a farewell dinner and an early night due to a five o clock start tomorrow.

It’s been a fantastic experience.