Sunday, November 22, 2015

Meri Stiles: Compassionate Heart, Activist Art

Meri Stiles
Gravity, if you will, has little pull in the prints and drawings of artist Meri Stiles. Whales float overhead. Etheric spirit forms rise from the corporal.  Simply drawn figures with elongated arms and legs shed the weight of the world and fly, reminiscent of Chagall’s evocative work.
    Other paintings showcase unexpected juxtapositions.  Human forms sport heads of birds or boxes. A fish in a pot, transparent as an aquarium, starts to boil on top of a stove.
      Stiles, a psychology professor at Lyndon State College and longtime student of Buddhism, is an accomplished self-taught artist who appreciates, she says, “anything slightly off kilter.”  Her work – both on campus and in the gallery – displays the influence of a rich inner life and a sense of adventure that has taken her all over the United States and to the other side of the globe.
     It also displays her abiding commitment to social activism and commentary. Many of her pieces speak to violence, featuring guns and grenades, and red, wound-like gashes and splotches they leave behind.  The cleanness and precision of the lines of her drawings are often streaked or stained with watercolor, rendering the whole suggestive rather than didactic. The dreamlike landscapes she creates, like the philosophy she embraces, are open to contemplative interpretation.
     Bringing experience as a clinical social worker in an agency as well as a hospital setting to the classroom, Stiles says she considers it “a privilege” to teach in her field. Clearly, though, the world is her classroom.  She’s led students to Guatemala for a service-oriented trip, and recently spent time in Nepal and India on sabbatical.
     Her most recent drawings, paintings, and constructions, many completed after and under the spell of that inspirational sabbatical, are collected in “Attractor,” a show that will run at the Northeast Kingdom Artisan’s Guild in St. Johnsbury from October 7 through November 21.   An artist’s reception is scheduled for Friday, October 16, from 4 to 6 pm.

How did you come to teach at LSC?

I grew up in Saranac Lake, NY, deep in the heart of the Adirondack Mountains. The town frequently registers the coldest temperature in the nation. It’s similar in many ways to the NEK – mountainous, rural, cold, snowy, filled with astounding nature and beauty, and at times desolate and isolating.  I remember quite well the electric color of cold winter days, the hazy summer shades, and bleakness just before spring --  the emotional experience of those memories shows up in some of my artwork now.  And is reignited by the changing seasons here in the NEK.

I left Saranac Lake for college in Buffalo, NY –- I studied at the University of Buffalo and earned a BA in Communication, MSW (Social Work), and then a Ph.D. in Social Welfare/Clinical Social Work.  I lived in Buffalo for 25 years.  I love Buffalo. It has a vibrant arts scene (museums, music, galleries, theater) and many colleges and universities; it’s affordable; the people are friendly; there’s plenty of green space; and it’s a small, fairly clean city.

When I came to interview for the position at the college and drove over Route 2 to Lyndonville, it felt like I was finally coming home again.

Those years after graduation were a time of exploration and growth.

After my undergrad degree I ran a ski shop for about 7 years. While I was doing that I was studying healing arts including shamanism, reflexology, Reiki, and Bioenergetic therapy.  I studied with practitioners of these methods through local colleges and institutes. It was an exciting time because I was interested in so many things and the teachers of all of these disciplines were available to teach! 

During this time I was also drawing a lot and teaching myself how to paint -- although I think that teaching mostly consisted of buying paint, brushes, and canvas – and just painting. For my entire life I’ve enjoyed looking at art and designed objects, and I’ve always been able to figure out how to make things on my own.   I like designing and making anything really – from clothes to jewelry.  I showed a few paintings in a group show while I was in Buffalo.

In 1993 when I was 7 and ½ months along in a pregnancy I ruptured my spleen, which resulted in a near-death experience for both my daughter and I.  We both came through it. Julija was a 4-pound preemie, but she gained ground fast!  It took me about a year to fully recover. 

During this year I met my teacher, Dr. May Bychkov, who taught me meditation techniques to help me in my healing. I studied with him for a few years. This is how I began to meditate as a daily practice.  Although I had been reading about Buddhism and Spiritualism for quite sometime, my meditation practice helped to clarify my spiritual focus on Buddhism. And to clarify my career focus on social work. 


And you turned that clarity and inner, meditation practice into action.

Toward the end of my studies with my teacher I began to volunteer in a cancer hospital as a friendly visitor. After some time I was given permission to teach meditation and use Reiki with patients.  It was amazing to work with people in this role. I met incredible people who taught me about resilience, strength, love, faith, sadness, humor, and gratitude.  I think about these folks a lot. Many lost their battle with cancer.  From time to time when I meet a new person I wonder, might this be the reincarnation of this or that person that I once knew?

I went back to school for a MSW degree because it was the fastest route to becoming a licensed clinician. My plan was to open a private practice combining psychotherapy, meditation, and energy work.  Ha! I hadn’t considered that I might actually like the profession of Social Work.  Once I began to study about social problems and understand the interconnectedness of all phenomena, a new door opened for me. I started thinking about continuing my social work studies and completing the Ph.D. program. 

As I was completing the Ph.D. I worked full-time as a child, adolescent, and family therapist in a community mental health clinic, and later as a medical social worker/therapist in a private psychiatric hospital.  I was also teaching in the MSW program at SUNY Buffalo.  I was raising my daughter, working 3 jobs, and completing a Ph.D. It was a very busy time!  And there was no time for art; however, I kept journals, which are filled with Julija stories, poems, and little drawings.  These drawings show up in my artwork here and there. I like going through the old journals and being surprised at what I find. So much of what’s there I don’t recall at all -- who drew these things?

After I completed my degree, I joined the Psychology and Human Services faculty at Lyndon.  It’s been a full circle, but I have made my way back to teaching meditation (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction MBSR, a popular form of meditation developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn) now to students, faculty, and staff at Lyndon. And I’m back to drawing, painting, and creating stuff. This is the most productive, creatively speaking, I’ve ever been. 

Tell us more about your study of mindfulness and Buddhist teachings.

I’ve read a fair amount on Buddhist psychology, and Buddhist philosophy, over many years. Buffalo had a wonderful esoteric bookstore right near the main UB campus; my office is filled with books from that store. The Himalayan Institute in Buffalo was also a great resource for books on pranayama and yoga.  Many factors came together that allowed me to find Buddhist teachings and my precious teacher, who gave me the gift of meditation.

Since coming to Vermont I’ve studied the Mahayana Buddhist tradition from teachers at the Milarepa Tibetan Buddhist Center in Barnet.  This is the same tradition of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama so I try to hear him speak every chance I get and of course read his books, both mainstream and sacred texts.  To my mind he is the greatest social worker of our time!

This past year while I was on sabbatical I traveled to Nepal and India to learn more about Buddhist philosophy and to research the possibility of organizing trips for Lyndon State students to Nepal. I was able to spend some of that time on a pilgrimage to sacred Buddhist sites and hear the teachings that Buddha gave. 

"Godzilla Househead Totem"

That travel must have been fascinating.

The pilgrimage was led by Venerable Robina Courtin, a Buddhist nun.  It was unbelievable; we stayed and studied at Buddhist monasteries in Kathmandu and Bodh Gaya!

The whole trip was amazing  -- the places, people, sounds, colors, and food of these ancient parts of the world were beyond anything I had imagined.  The combination of religious devotion and psychedelic colors continues to inspire my art and my teaching.  This experience has opened my thinking and perspective on what’s truly important.  It’s made me try to be a more generous person in teaching others and making art.

I think you’ve got a bit of wanderlust.

My dad was a school teacher, so we traveled in the summers -- 5 kids stuffed into a station wagon with the pop-up tow-behind camper.  I’ve been to all the states except Hawaii.

I was fortunate to have made a trip to the southwest last summer. I was presenting at a conference in New Mexico so we decided to drive and explore. I loved the desert and was deeply inspired by the colors, landscape, and dwellings in the southwest.  When I came back I noticed I gravitated toward bright watercolors in my work.  I wasn’t conscious of this until I brought some pieces into the Frame Dames for framing; they noticed a shift in my work.

I brought students to Guatemala for a service learning trip -- that was a lot of fun! A few years ago I presented a paper at a conference in Geneva, Switzerland and took a side trip to Bern to go to the Zentrum Paul Klee – a museum dedicated to Paul Klee’s work. I’ve been fortunate to travel to Australia and all through Europe.  And this year I finally had a dream come true by traveling to Nepal and India! When I travel I try to go to museums and to the areas where artists are. I enjoy seeing all manner of created work!  I’d like to go to Japan to study anything. So we will see if that happens sometime in the future.

How has your Buddhist study influenced your social work and teaching?

The values and principles of social work are completely inline with Buddhist notions of Compassion (Loving kindness), and Emptiness (nothing we observe stands alone; all phenomena is connected to all else and is always changing).  Social workers are trained to gather and analyze data using a systems approach that accounts for all that is impacting a person, family, community, or society.  Social workers often work under challenging and sometimes dangerous circumstances.  They use their knowledge, skills, and resources to empower clients to alleviate their own suffering.  This can only be accomplished with a compassionate heart.

Probably the most important influence Buddhist study and mindfulness meditation has had on my teaching and work with others is practicing equanimity -- or trying to practice it!  This is a steady, conscious realization of the nature of reality as transitory and learning to regard all that happens as equal.  Not grasping at some things and rejecting other things.  Pretty tricky! 

I find if I am present in the moment I at least have a shot at equanimity.  And if I practice equanimity my mind is still.

I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to put a label on your art. Tell us about your work.

As a self-taught artist I’m not familiar with any formal or specific labels for my art style.  My process of art making is simple, I think.  The desire to work on something arises organically, and for me, it feels as though it’s always there.  So I make art everyday. I like to meditate and then organize myself for whatever I’m making and see what arises. I rarely sketch anything out first or have an idea of what the image or construction will be when it’s done.  Occasionally someone will ask me if I can draw something specific for them- and I have done it – so maybe I can work that way, too.  I read something recently written by an art teacher who said you should always have an idea of what you will draw before you begin.  If that’s a criterion for being an artist, I’m probably not one! 

I think my art is energy that arises in me and then ends up on paper, or canvas, or as a constructed object. If I could sing, dance, play an instrument, or act it might just as easily be expressed in that way instead.  The art I make often reflects aspects of life and society that are important me; it makes sense that things I think about the most show up in my work.  Buddhism, mountains, humor, human struggle, isolation, bones (representing impermanence), Zen, and activism all are reoccurring themes.  

Paul Klee, Kiki Smith, Mama Andersson, and Yoshitomo Nara have all influenced my style of art, in terms of the feeling their art invokes in me, as well as the style of the images they make.  When I visited the Zentrum Paul Klee in Bern, it was like a pilgrimage to a holy site! Kiki’s work has a simplicity to it that brings a familiar comfort.  I can feel the bleak isolation of deep winter in Mama’s paintings. I crave that at times.  Nara’s drawings remind me of the struggle of adolescence and the virtue of having a bad attitude. Oh yes!

Kiki is also my inspiration for trying out new techniques; she is fearless in this regard.  Recently I’ve taught myself screen-printing, mono-printing, and block-printing. I love discovering new art tools and then trying to figure out what they can do. I rarely read or watch something about it. I just jump in blindly.

"Who's the new girl?"

Why paint?

Painting allows a lot of color to get on the canvas or paper quickly. Many of my drawings are simple ink drawings on a white background so using paint either on the top and bottom of the image to frame it or to color some part of the work is satisfying.  I like the pop of color in a sea of white.

Since my trip to the southwest last summer I’ve been using watercolor paints in much of my work. The range of color and the flow of color in layers is a mystery. I love the way colors blend, and layers change the richness of the color.  

When I was in Buffalo I was painting large canvases with acrylic and oil, some of those pieces are hanging in the Lyndon’s President’s house.  I’d like to get back to painting on that scale again.  I do enjoy painting slow drying acrylic on glass and making mono-prints.  And I’m excited to use a very large piece of glass I recently acquired. That will get me back to a bigger scale!

I use pencil, Indian ink, drawing ink, and watercolor crayon in much of my work. Most of the pieces have combinations of mediums.

Your Buddhist studies have influenced your artwork as well.

The teachings of Buddhism influence the process of my art as well as the content.  Emptiness, meditation, the Buddha, and impermanence all weave their way into my art.  Two images that show up from time to time include a person’s mind expanding into the vast universe and an all-seeing compassionate Buddha.


Gravity seems to have little effect in many of your paintings.  And the juxtaposition of images can be in some pieces amusing, in others alarming.

I think I’ve always appreciated anything slightly off kilter.  Some of my art is amusing, although there is often some aspect that isn’t nice -- just like a brooding teen.  Recently I made a little watercolor of a man flying by mountains flipping the viewer off. That activism felt right to me. However, it’s not in the upcoming show; I wondered if it was too crude. Would it cause the gallery problems?  I have shown pieces that protested wind farms on Vermont ridges (Turbine Bell-bottom, 2012), and protested China’s illegal occupation of Tibet (Free Tibet, 2014).

As for gravity:  I fly in my dreams all the time -- so many places I’ve seen in my dreams, from flying overhead.  I once had a completely intoxicating dream in which I was on an intricate, colorful flying carpet flying over Istanbul.  Maybe I’ve begun to believe people can fly.  It seems completely normal to me; it didn’t even occur to me that (flying) was something noticed in my images.  Clearly I should talk to more people about my work!  It’s good to hear about how others see the work.

Meri Stiles: “Attractor.” Paintings, drawings, and constructions.  October 7 through November 21 at the Northeast Kingdom Artisans Guild, 430 Railroad Street, St. Johnsbury.  Open from 10:30 am to 5:30 pm, Monday through Saturday.

This interview first appeared in the October 2015 issue of The North Star Monthly.  Check out their site:

Sunday, September 20, 2015

No Armchair Adventurer: Nancy Marie Brown's Passionate Exploration of Iceland's Past

Nancy Marie Brown and her Icelandic horse Gaeska. 
Photo by Jennifer Anne Tucker and Gerald Lang. 

     “I had thought about it once as a way to earn a living,” Nancy Marie Brown writes about her graduate studies of the Icelandic sagas in an essay entitled “Practical Education.”  But as the author of seven books concludes, those studies “turned out to be a way to make a life.”
     That prescient essay appeared in 2002. At the time, Brown was a science writer and editor at Penn State University. The following year would see the publication of her first book, “A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse,” and her move – with her husband, writer Charles Fergus – to the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont.   And with that move began the making of a rewarding life that revolves around their home on Butternut farm, dedication to their craft, and yearly summer trips to her beloved Iceland.
    The renovated farmhouse is open, airy, full of light, and clutter and distraction free, though as one might expect, heavily laden bookcases abound.  Tall windows look over meadows with a gentle roll and the woods beyond. Through those woods run miles of well-maintained trails for hikes and horse rides.
     Nancy Brown, tall and slender, with light brown hair reaching almost to her waist, obviously makes use of those trails regularly.  The care and feeding of four Icelandic horses require an equal discipline and routine.  And certainly, the publication of a book roughly every two years allows little time for leisure or for entertaining at length the concept of “writer’s block.”
     This month St. Martin’s Press will publish Brown’s latest, “Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and the Woman Who Made Them, “ which Pulitzer prize-winning author Geraldine Brooks describes as “a true cornucopia, bursting with revelations . . . by a writer who is as erudite as she is engaging.”  A starred review in Booklist calls it “a delight” and “endlessly fascinating.”
     Brown describes her work – exemplified in earlier books such as “The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman” and “The Abacus and the Cross: The Story of the Pope Who Brought the Light of Science to the Dark Ages” -- as a combination of extremes, of medieval literature and modern archaeology, of myth and fact.  We caught up with the author via email, as she was leading a tour of western Iceland that marries days of horseback riding with evening discussions of the sagas -- a combination one imagines she might find most pleasing of all.

You've had a long interest in Iceland.  How did that come about?

I've often asked myself the same question, and each time the answer wriggles farther back into my past. I used to say it started in college, when I first read one of the medieval Icelandic sagas. Now I trace my interest in Iceland to age four, when a babysitter read me "The Hobbit." Tolkien taught Old Icelandic at Oxford, and much of the magic of his work, I've learned, comes from medieval Iceland. In college I was startled to find Tolkien's names--Bifur, Bafur, Bombor, Nori, Ori, Oin, and even Gandalf--in a work by the thirteenth century Icelandic writer Snorri Sturluson. What was Tolkien’s wizard doing in medieval Iceland? I answered that question in my 2012 book, "Song of the Vikings: Snorri and the Making of Norse Myth."

But long before I myself was a writer inspired by Iceland, I was fascinated with how this little island in the North Atlantic had influenced Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and so many others, from Sir Walter Scott to Jorge Luis Borges to Neil Gaiman. I read every Icelandic saga I could find in translation, then learned the language so I could read them in the original. Finally, in 1986, I traveled to Iceland to see some of the places where the sagas were set. Since then I've visited the country 20 times.

I've made great friends there. I've learned to ride and love the Icelandic horse, two of which I took home with me in 1997. They are the heroes of my book "A Good Horse Has No Color: Searching Iceland for the Perfect Horse," which came out in 2001. In 2005 I had the opportunity to volunteer on an archaeological dig that uncovered a Viking Age longhouse. That adventure appears in my 2007 book, "The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman," which is a nonfiction account of the Viking discovery of the New World from the woman's point of view. The heroine of that story is also the main character in my young adult novel, "The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler," just published in June.

I've grown so much to love Iceland it's almost a joke: I wear Icelandic sweaters, I listen to Icelandic music, I have photos of Iceland on my walls, Icelandic horses in my barn--and recently I bought an Icelandic sheepdog. People ask me when I'll have Icelandic sheep and Icelandic goats and Icelandic chickens on my farm. I'll never say never, but it would make it more difficult to travel to Iceland, as I now do every summer.

Tell us about “Ivory Vikings: The Mystery of the Most Famous Chessmen in the World and The Woman Who Made Them.”

My new book, "Ivory Vikings," is a biography of the Lewis chessmen. Using this famous set of medieval ivory carvings as my touchstone, I explore the 400 years when Norsemen ruled the North Atlantic, starting with the Viking explorations in the 800s and ending with Norway’s loss of its Scottish territories in the 1200s. Along the way, I try to bring from the shadows a medieval woman named Margret the Adroit of Iceland, a talented twelfth-century artist who may have carved the Lewis chessmen; at least I'm convinced she could have.

Discovered in the 1830s on a remote beach on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides off the west coast of Scotland, the Lewis chessmen are amazingly attractive objects. You just want to pick them up. A highpoint of my research was when I got to do just that: I was allowed to take four of them out of their case at the Scottish National Museum and actually hold them in my hands. In the book I call them "Norse netsuke."  Carved out of walrus ivory, each one is an individual, though they follow certain types: The kings are stout and stoic, the queens look aghast, the bishops are moon-faced and mild. The knights are doughty, if a bit ludicrous on their cute, shaggy ponies. The rooks are not castles but mail-shirted Vikings, some going berserk, biting their shields in battle frenzy. Only the pawns are lumps, and there are only a few of them--most have been lost. Altogether, the hoard held almost four full chess sets, about three pounds of ivory treasure.

Experts call the Lewis chessmen the best-known Scottish archaeological find of all time. At the British Museum, where most of them are kept, they are among the most frequently viewed objects. Songs, fantasies, thrillers, and films feature these quirky figurines. They are Harry Potter’s chess set: Before a life-or-death match in the 2001 film "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone," Harry learns wizard’s chess from the Lewis chessmen‚ which come to life, a queen rising from her royal throne to throw it at her opponent. They come to life, likewise, in the 2012 Disney-Pixar film "Brave," in which they teach the feisty princess about war and chaos and ruin.

As the earliest chess sets to include bishops, among the first with queens, and the only ones to include Viking berserks for rooks, the Lewis chessmen are “the most important chess pieces in history,” as the New York Times said in 2010. Yet we know so little about them. Were they meant for the king of Norway? Were they made in Norway or in Iceland? When, and by whom? Where did the ivory come from? And how did they end up in Scotland?

To answer these questions, I draw from medieval Icelandic sagas, modern archaeology, art history, forensics, and the history of board games. I link the Lewis chessmen to the Vikings’ luxury trade in walrus ivory and to a Norwegian king’s fondness for wearing kilts. My goal is to present a vivid history of the 400 years when the sea road connected places we think of as culturally distinct: Norway and Scotland, Ireland and Iceland, Greenland and North America. I want to make people look at the map of the medieval world a little differently--and also to change the way they think about medieval women.

Could you speak to what daily life was like for women during that time?

The lives of medieval women--at least in Iceland--have long fascinated me. The Icelandic sagas are one of the only medieval literatures that actually tell you what ordinary women's lives were like, though even there you sometimes have to read between the lines. In medieval Iceland, women ruled the homestead. In "Ivory Vikings" I mention a woman who managed the bishop's estate so well, one saga says, that "there was enough of everything that was needed, and nothing was lacking at the estate even if a hundred and twenty people arrived, on top of the seventy or eighty in the household itself.” She managed to provide food, clothing, and bedding in a land where everything was made by hand and the only reliable crop was hay.

Women milked the cows and sheep and made butter and cheese. They salted or smoked or pickled the meat, and picked berries and herbs. They sheared the sheep, spun the thread, wove the wool into cloth, and made the clothing. Some women, like Margret the Adroit, carved beautiful things out of bone, wood, and ivory--and she probably also made practical objects, like spoons and combs.

You've also just published a Young Adult Novel.

It's called "The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler," which is a little confusing because it sounds a lot like a previous book of mine.

I told the story of Gudrid--who was born in Iceland in about 985, married in Greenland, gave birth to a son in the New World, took a pilgrimage to Rome, and died on the farm of Glaumbaer in Iceland--in my nonfiction book "The Far Traveler: Voyages of a Viking Woman," which was published in 2007. I thought then that I had written all I could about the Far-Traveler. Her spirit disagreed. As soon as that book came out, I began writing another, a novel, about Gudrid.

For the nonfiction book, I had read all of the historical sources about Gudrid. I carefully traced her travels and interviewed archaeologists and historians who could shed light on her story. I even took part in the archaeological dig. But in spite of all my research--or maybe because of it--the story in the novel turned out to be quite different. Some of the details surprised me. That's the fun of writing fiction, when the story takes control and writes itself through you.

For example, I didn't realize until I was well into writing "The Saga" that Leif Eiriksson--her brother-in-law--was the villain of Gudrid's story. Elsewhere I've argued that Leif shouldn't get all the credit for discovering America. He stopped here once--possibly by mistake--and never came back. Gudrid set sail for the New World twice, with two different husbands, intending to settle. She was the real explorer. I'm supposing that's where I got the idea that Gudrid and Leif were enemies.

With that in mind, other parts of Gudrid's story--parts the sagas left vague--fell into place for me. In my story, Gudrid was betrothed to Leif Eiriksson at her birth. All her life she has hated Leif, even though she’s never met this handsome son of the famous Viking Eirik the Red. She has hated the idea of Leif: the idea that she has to be a good wife to this stranger because of a vow her father swore long ago.

So when a young merchant comes to Iceland and asks for her hand, she prays her father will say yes. He doesn’t. As the story opens, Gudrid decides to defy him, running away to Greenland with her suitor. Her impulsive act ends in shipwreck and, within three years, to the tragic deaths of everyone she loves, including her suitor, her second husband, and even her father, leaving her at the mercy of a vengeful and violent Leif.

But Gudrid never gives up. Plucky, resourceful, and always willing to learn something new, she outwits Leif and at 19 marries the man she loves. Together they set out on the greatest of all Viking adventures: sailing into the west to the fabulous new land called Wine Land. Gudrid explores Wine Land for two years, until she meets the Native American girl who will become her friend and save her life‚ by sending her home.

As we speak, you're leading a tour for America2Iceland.

When I first bought my Icelandic horses, in 1997, I joined the U.S. Icelandic Horse Congress, the official breed organization in the U.S., and volunteered to work on their quarterly magazine, which I still do. Through my association with the USIHC and "The Icelandic Horse Quarterly," I got to know another Icelandic horse enthusiast, Rebecca Bing, who owns the travel company America2Iceland.

Rebecca is a graphic designer and a wonderful photographer, in addition to running the travel company, and made me terribly jealous by posting photographs of her horseback riding tours on Facebook. At one point, rather than just "liking" her beautiful photos, I sent her a comment: "Don't you need a historian on these trips?"

"Let's talk," she wrote back. I was then arranging the book tour for "Song of the Vikings" and had a stop at a bookstore in Asheville, North Carolina, where she lived.

After my reading, we hashed out a plan for a "Song of the Vikings" tour, given that America2Iceland's tours are headquartered just a few miles down the road from Snorri Sturluson's main estate at Reykholt. The tour combines short horseback lessons and trail rides with sightseeing in the western part of Iceland, an area that is especially rich in saga sites. Each year our emphasis is a little different--some years there are more hours in the saddle, other years there are more saga discussions, depending on who signs up. I hope to expand the tour next year to include some places associated with "Ivory Vikings" and "The Far Traveler," as well, though my goal is always to limit the number of hours in a bus and instead get to know a small area more intimately, preferably by horseback.

Photo by Nancy Marie Brown

What makes Icelandic horses so distinctive?

What people notice first about Icelandic horses is that they are so small and cute and fuzzy. But when you ride cross-country in Iceland, they surprise you with how powerful and strong they are, as well as being sure-footed and smooth. Icelandic horses have an extra gait that most American horses lack: it's a kind of running walk called the "tölt." It can be as fast as a canter and so smooth that riders in Icelandic competitions carry a mug of beer--whoever spills the least wins. But it's only when you're out on a horse all day, riding over rugged lava rock, that you appreciate that smooth, fast gait. These horses really cover ground, and the rider doesn't get tired. They are also smart enough not to step into a bog or a patch of quicksand. You can trust them to get you there and back again.

St. Martin's Press will bring out Ivory Vikings this month. Where can we get a copy or hear you read?
I'm reading at Norwich Bookstore in Norwich, VT on Wednesday, September 9 at 7 p.m. Then there's a book launch party at my house, in association with Green Mountain Books in Lyndonville, on Friday evening, September 11; you can contact Kim Crady-Smith at the bookstore (626-5051) for an invitation and directions. On Saturday, September 19, I'll be reading at Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Center, VT at 7 p.m. And on November 1, I'll be at the Stone Church in Chester, VT as part of Misty Valley Books's Vermont Voices series. I'm also speaking on my previous book, "Song of the Vikings" at Hardwick Library on October 25 at 2 p.m. and will add a little teaser about the new book then.

Want to share with readers what’s next?

You can be sure it will have something to do with Iceland and Vikings, but I'm undecided if it will be fiction or nonfiction. Seeing my first novel, "The Saga of Gudrid the Far-Traveler," published this year to good reviews makes me want to tell the story of another exceptional young woman from the sagas--and Ingibjorg Swan's-daughter has been whispering in my ear for quite a while, ever since I wrote about her father, Snorri Sturluson, in "Song of the Vikings." On the other hand, a short section on the valkyries in "Ivory Vikings" has left me with a lot of questions I'd like to answer about the relationship between art and myth and reality when it comes to women warriors like the character Lathgertha in the History Channel's popular "Vikings" TV show. Either way, I'll have a lot of traveling to do. One of my college professors once said I didn't have enough imagination to be a writer. In a way, he's right: I'm not an armchair traveler like Tolkien, who never actually made it to Iceland himself. Instead, I like to see the places I'm inspired by before I try to imagine what life was like there a thousand years ago.