Journalist, co-founder of the Iceland Writers Retreat, and First Lady of Iceland Eliza Reid joins Zibby to discuss her book, Secrets of the Sprakkar, and all of the outstanding women who have inspired it. Eliza shares some of the commendable Icelandic policies that have advanced gender equality in the nation, as well as how she approaches her own role as First Lady as a feminist and an immigrant. The two also talk about the process of how this book came to be, what it has been like to tour with a book about gender equality in the United States at this time, and a few funny stories about her husband as a father rather than a president.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Eliza. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” I’m so excited to talk to you. Your book is called Secrets of the Sprakkar. Did I pronounce that right? Sprakkar?

Eliza Reid: Yeah.

Zibby: One Small Island Nation, The Women Who Live There, and How They are Changing the World. You are also the First Lady of Iceland, which is a super cool title to have. Not everybody can get that. Your book is just truly amazing because you’re writing about the topics that all women are thinking and talking and writing about right now here in the US. It’s like, oh, look, the problem’s been solved. It’s great.

Eliza: Maybe that’s a little optimistic, but we’re working on it. We’re doing our best here.

Zibby: You’re lightyears ahead, at least. I have to say that. By the way, you mentioned Dorrit in the book. She’s an old, old, old family friend of ours, of my dad. He’s known Dorrit forever. I have known her since I was twelve or something. That’s funny.

Eliza: Oh, wow. She’s been great to me. For anybody listening, you can know that she was the First Lady of Iceland before I was the First Lady of Iceland, and also foreign-born like I am. I grew up in Canada. She’s been really of a tremendous help to me in terms of giving me advice and everything.

Zibby: I feel like that’s one of the themes of your book in general, is that women are helping women through so much stuff professionally all the time in Iceland. One other thing before I dive into all the exciting things in the book. The Iceland Writers Retreat was my very first podcast sponsor years ago.

Eliza: Yes, that’s right. That’s right.

Zibby: I couldn’t believe it. I was like, you’re the Iceland Writers Retreat person? I couldn’t believe it.

Eliza: We have a lot of connections.

Zibby: Wow. Is that going on even with COVID and all that?

Eliza: It’s still going. We just finished our first in-person event on May the 1st. We recently finished it. It was great to go back in person for the first time in three years. We had a terrific time. We’re already getting started to have it next year in April in Iceland.

Zibby: I want to come. Can I come?

Eliza: Yeah, for sure. That’d be great. It would be great.

Zibby: I want to be a part of it. I literally finished this book, and I told my husband, I was like, “We’re moving to Iceland. I want to move to Iceland.” He was like, “Why don’t we visit it first?”

Eliza: The weather could be okay, but we love books. We love reading here. That’s something new we added for the Writers Retreat this year, is something called the Iceland Readers Retreat. Anybody who maybe doesn’t want to write that much but loves to read books can also come and learn a lot.

Zibby: Maybe we should back up. Could you explain what the Iceland Writers, and now Readers, Retreat is for other people who might want to come? This is a perfect audience for that.

Eliza: Absolutely. The Iceland Writers Retreat is an event that I cofounded with a friend of mine in 2014. We hold it in Reykjavík, Iceland, which is a UNESCO City of Literature. Basically, it’s for anybody who likes to write, and now also likes to read. It’s a mixture of small-group writing workshops with really well-known authors who we bring over from different countries and teach about all kinds of dimensions of writing in small groups. Then we also have literary-themed tours in Iceland. We take people to see all the natural wonders that the country’s known for, but our guide is a writer. We stop and have readings on the way. We have a pub night with local music and authors. It’s really a mix of writing and socialization.

Zibby: I’m very excited. 2023, I’m in.

Eliza: 2023.

Zibby: Exciting. Your book talks about your own journey, which I loved hearing about. Maybe you should start with that because your own experience is so interwoven into the fabric of why the Iceland policies for women, including paid paternal leave, four months of — I was just hearing that Morgan Stanley here in the US is giving dads four months of leave now too, which I found mind-blowing. Your story is that you’re from Canada. You met your husband at this random — you’re both rowers. You did a raffle and kind of nudged your way into his consciousness.

Eliza: Yes. I sort of contrived a date with him. Carpe diem, as they say.

Zibby: Then eventually moved to Iceland. Why don’t you tell it?

Eliza: No problem. The book isn’t a memoir, per se, but there’s definitely a strong memoir angle to it all with my own story sewn in there with the stories of other women. You’re right, I grew up in a small town on a hobby farm, as you say in rural Canada. I went to graduate school at Oxford University in England. That is where I met my Icelandic husband after contriving a date with him, which I talk about in the book. We met. We fell in love. We moved to Iceland in 2003. He is an academic, a history professor by background. We just built a life for ourselves there. We had four kids in just under six years. We lived in this tiny little house. I worked as a freelance journalist and writer and founded the Iceland Writers Retreat. He was a professor of history. We just thought that was kind of our life. Then in 2016, also through all kinds of external events, not least the Panama Papers scandal, my husband was encouraged to run for president of the country. He’d never been in politics before. He’d never run for office. It does help in Iceland that the role of president isn’t a political one. You’re not a member of a political party, so that helps a bit. He ran and he won in the span of about two months. We really went from this tiny, everyday, rather hectic life to being the head-of-state couple in a few months. It was quite a shift. What I try to explore a lot in the book are both these ideas of making the most of unexpected opportunity, because all of a sudden, I was nationally known in Iceland, and also this idea when it comes to gender equality of what it means for one’s identity. I did have this national platform, but it was because of something my husband achieved. All of a sudden, I become less known as Eliza and more known as Guðni’s wife. That was kind of a strange shift as well that I try to explore in the book.

Zibby: There is a new show out here. I think it’s on Amazon Prime Video. I’m not sure. It was produced actually by a guy I went to college with. His name’s Aaron Cooley. It’s called First Wives. It’s amazing. You’ll love it. It’s about three first wives of American presidents. Michelle Pfeiffer, the actress, plays Betty Ford. Have you seen it? Do you know what I’m talking about?

Eliza: I haven’t, but I’ve heard of it.

Zibby: You have heard of it, okay.

Eliza: I’ll have to watch it while I’m here in the States.

Zibby: Yes, you should watch it. It reminds me so much of what you’re saying because Gerald Ford didn’t intend to become president all of a sudden, but Nixon’s extraction demanded it. There’s a scene where she’s at home just being like — she slowly closes her eyes and is like, oh, my gosh, now I’m going to have to do this. She is also saying, wait a minute, this is not — even Eleanor Roosevelt, who has a role in that thing too, is just like, wait, what is my job in the administration? They’re like, you’re the First Lady. She’s like, that is not a job. That is me as a wife. What is my job? It just speaks to your experience as well.

Eliza: Yes, exactly. Plus ça change, as they say sometimes. Same, same, but different. I can definitely relate in some senses, obviously on a much, much smaller scale that Iceland is.

Zibby: Iceland, there’s a famous moment where — what is her name in parliament who nursed?

Eliza: Unnur Brá Konráðsdóttir.

Zibby: Who was famously nursing in parliament. This is such a symbol of how Iceland embraces women. Albeit, that was a shock at the time. She felt it was so natural because, well, my baby has to nurse, and all that. Tell me how Iceland has just gotten it right in terms of what they do. You spell it out really clearly in the book and give many examples and situations from athletics and academics and everything from the way they treat women to systemic ways that they respect women so well. Every time we talk about busy women in the US, everyone’s like, if there was just parental leave, if there was just universal day care, if there was just this, we would all be fine. What is it like?

Eliza: Certainly, these policies are helpful. I spend a lot of time talking about them in the book, these government-led polices which include, obviously, the prenatal care, which is part of the health-care scheme, which is all covered, and generous parental-leave scheme so that both parents — it’s called Use It or Lose It. It means that both parents are entitled to parental leave that is paid for by the state. If one parent doesn’t want to use it, the other parent can’t use it. The idea is to encourage both parents to be involved. That was nine months total when I had my children. It’s now moved up to a year. Various governments and parties are just trying to work to how they can reinforce it. Then after the parental leave is finished, then a really subsidized system of childcare takes over. That is already subsidized, but it’s increasingly subsidized if you’re a single parent, if you’re a student, and even if you have children close together, as my husband and I did. You get these sibling discounts, they’re called. That basically really creates an infrastructure for families that enables them to hopefully choose the size of their family more based on what they want rather than on what they can afford. Also, what I’m trying to do with the book, really, is hopefully inspire people on an individual level. It’s like what you mentioned, this endemic awareness of gender equality. I don’t want to say that it’s perfect, absolutely, but I think we’ve really moved a lot as a society overall past the tipping point of debating if this is an important goal for societies to more how we’re going to get there because we realized that working towards achieving gender equality is not a zero-sum game where one group benefits at the expense of another group. It’s something that benefits people of all genders throughout society. That’s just a good thing. Now we’re trying to work on how we go about doing that.

Zibby: Wow. You have a scene in the book where your husband wants to stop for a banana or something. Will you tell that story?

Eliza: I tease him about this all the time. My husband also has a daughter from his first marriage, so he is a more experienced parent than I am. This was when we had our first child together, our son. He was taking his paternity leave. I was working from home. I was still nursing him. I’d go out and nurse him. Then I’d go back to my office and work. He was getting ready to go out for the day. He said he was going to go with him to the archives, because he’s a historian, and then to a Mommy-and-me kind of club. Then they were going to go for a walk. He had a whole day planned, but all he had with him — he had nothing with him but the baby. He didn’t have a diaper bag. He didn’t have drinks. He didn’t have food. He didn’t have anything. I remember — I couldn’t resist. I know parents have different styles, but I have to say something. I said, “Don’t you want anything?” He said, “Yeah, I’m going to buy a banana at the store on the way.” Still nothing, nothing how to feed the banana to the baby or if there was some diaper mishap or anything. It was just two guys out to see the world. There still kind of is a double standard there because I think as a man, if he went out and there was a diaper disaster that I think all mothers know about, people would’ve thought it was kind of endearing and cute, how he was dealing with it, whereas I think women might have been judged a little more harshly.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. What does this mean for the individual woman? How does the individual mom interpret all of the government support and policies and wake up to motherhood? Do the women of Iceland know that they’re very lucky in contrast? What does it mean? Do they end up becoming more successful? Are there fewer tears on the bathroom floor? How does it drill down to the individual mom?

Eliza: I’m sure there are still tears on the bathroom floor, obviously. My sense, without ever having lived in the US but having lived in Iceland for two decades now, almost, is that there’s probably less judgement as the either/or. If you’re a parent, either you have to be a really successful career woman or a good mother, but it’s very hard to be both. Again, it’s definitely not a paradise in Iceland, but I think that the sense is more that you are not a bad parent if you have a full-time job outside of the home. If anything, there’s more stigma for mothers who choose to stay at home. There’s fewer activities available to them to do with their children. I think people would say, wait, why aren’t you out working? Why would you not do that? There’s certainly no stigma for working outside the home. People just think that that is what you should be doing and the natural thing to be doing. For mothers, I would say that that’s a big dimension. I think we still face this idea of trying to have it all and when the right time is to do things and balancing things. The mental load of remembering the kids’ birthdays and, don’t forget your swimming clothes and don’t forget this or that, the household CEO work in heterosexual relationships in Iceland, that is still disproportionately the woman who takes on those challenges.

Even if the household tasks are more evenly divided, it’s still the woman who tends to be the one who’s remembering to do the shopping list. Even, maybe the man buys the shopping. That’s something we need to work on because that, we know, is a huge amount of unpaid labor and a huge amount of work that’s going into coordinating all of that in the home. There’s an excellent quote in the book from a journalist that I interviewed called Thóra Arnórsdóttir who actually ran for president in 2012 and had her third child while she was campaigning. She said people always said to her, is it really the right time for you? She said that women so often, we have our lives with people telling us, is it the right time for you now? Don’t you want to wait? Are you sure about this? She said we spend our lives thinking, okay, I’ll wait. I’ll wait until I’ve had my kids. I’ll wait until my job is more successful. I’ll wait until this, etc., etc., etc. All of a sudden, you’re really old, and you’ve never done anything you wanted to do because someone else told you it wasn’t the right time. I think that’s a great thing to have in mind for us.

Zibby: Seize the day.

Eliza: Seize the day, exactly.

Zibby: So interesting. Does all of this apply to people who — if you just move into Iceland right now — I can’t really move to Iceland at this moment, but I am tempted.

Eliza: Come and visit us.

Zibby: For women who come into this culture, like you from another country, are they able to adapt quickly to this new paradigm? Do you know what I mean? Does it sink in? Does something external like this really change the fundamental mental stuff of the women and moms in the culture?

Eliza: It’s an interesting thing. Women of foreign origin, it’s something that I explore a lot in the book as well. I think it’s one of the areas where we need to be doing better in Iceland because we have had a huge influx in immigration recently. I feel like as a society, we’re not maximizing the potential of all of these people who come from abroad. We all have different challenges there. Immigrants in all countries generally tend to be better educated than the locally born populations. People aren’t necessarily getting jobs in relation to their field. In Iceland, there’s a whole lot of things that tie together, not just the paradigm or the perception of women, not least, learning the Icelandic language, which is also important. Again, you can’t paint all immigrants with the same brush. One of the issues is being aware of different people’s rights and how we get access to information. We have very strong labor unions in Iceland. It’s important that people of foreign origin know this. We have strict laws, obviously, against domestic violence. It’s important that people know this. Women of foreign origin are disproportionately represented at the women’s shelter, partially because of awareness of laws and stigma and also partially because they don’t have the same social support, other family that they can go to. It’s a big area that I think we need to work on, but it’s certainly something appealing about the country for people who move there. There’s opportunities. One hopes there’s opportunities for people of all genders.

Zibby: You have three sons and a daughter. What do you think it’s like for her? Where do you see her future growing up in a society like this that values women more?

Eliza: She just told me she wants to move to LA and live on the beach and have a small puppy.

Zibby: Oh, okay.

Eliza: She’s never been to LA, but she’s seen pictures of it.

Zibby: I’m here right now. It’s really amazing, I have to say. She can come hang out with me here for the weekend.

Eliza: I was there last weekend. I’m going to say I feel like the weather overall is probably better than it is in Iceland. Hopefully, she’s just growing up, as well like my sons, that she can pursue whatever dreams that she wants to pursue and have the opportunity to live life the way that she wants to live it regardless of her gender. Obviously, we’re very privileged where we are as well. Not everybody has those opportunities. I hope as well that we’re raising her and all of our children to not become complacent, to help to elevate people’s voices, and speak up when they see injustice. I actually think that that’s especially important for my three sons. When we’re talking about gender equality, one of the biggest impediments to achieving it is gender-based violence and sexual assault, which occurs, obviously, in Iceland as well. The vast majority of people who are committing those offenses are men. We need to work a lot so that young men realize that that behavior’s not acceptable. Obviously, I’m biased, but I’m pretty sure my boys, young men won’t be men like that, but I am almost positive that they will encounter the wrong kind of behavior or the wrong kind of dialogue or the so-called locker-room chat in whatever circles they’re in that I won’t be witness to. What I try to teach them is that they need to have the courage to speak up and say that that is not okay. That’s really hard to do when you’re young. It’s really hard to be the person who stands up and says no rather than just stands aside and says, this isn’t my fault because I’m not doing it, even though you’re not actually doing something to combat it. I work really hard trying to teach them. I think that that is something important and challenge for all of us. When we stand by when we see injustice, that’s almost as bad.

Zibby: Wow, I love that. That’s awesome. I love that. You say in the book that there’s an expression in Iceland that everyone has a book in their belly. Did I get that right?

Eliza: Yeah. We all walk with a book in our belly. We all have a story to tell.

Zibby: I love that that is the general belief because I believe that about everybody too, as many people do. Tell me about that and how it’s led you to write this book and how this whole book process was like. Just go from there.

Eliza: The book-writing process — because I run the Iceland Writers Retreat as well and worked as a journalist, people always ask me, what’s the book in your belly? That’s this beautiful phrase, that we all have a story. To be honest, it wasn’t something that I was focused on because I had a lot of other things on my plate. Then when the pandemic hit and everything shifted — we had to cancel the Writers Retreat. There weren’t as many first-lady activities. All of a sudden, you just had time to be imagining things. The idea for the book occurred to me when our former president, who’s the world’s first female president, she turned ninety. It was just occurring to me that everyone in Iceland knows that Iceland’s a leader in gender equality. People outside don’t know. I thought I could paint a portrait of a country. I could kind of write a love story to my adopted homeland using gender equality as the theme and using the stories of all kinds of women. This word Sprakkar that’s in the title means extraordinary women. I thought it might be an interesting and hopefully hopeful and inspirational and fun read for people who want to learn about a new country and read the stories of inspirational women but also everyday women, not the first person to do something or the spokesperson for something else.

I had this idea. I went for lots of long walks to think about it. I was very fortunate. I think for anybody out there who has this idea for the book, it’s very daunting, the process of going from idea to actually publishing a book. I was fortunate. It’s two pragmatic things. One was that my younger brother is a writer, and so I called his agent. I got an agent quickly, which was helpful because I know that that’s a huge hurdle for a lot of times, and because it was a nonfiction book. You can sell nonfiction book proposals without having written the whole book first. It still felt very daunting to have to write sample chapters and full outlines. Then to complete the book, I was contractually obligated. That was really helpful also, to have the motivation to know that it had to go through. I really enjoyed the whole process of thinking of the idea and who I was going to talk to and speaking with them and writing it and editing it. Now I’m in the States promoting it. It’s just been a really, really fun adventure but also an emotional rollercoaster.

Zibby: What does your brother think?

Eliza: My brother thinks it’s great. He writes novels more now, so it’s a completely different style. I think he was happy to share his agent.

Zibby: Nice. I love that. Have you found the reception of this book in the US — has there been something that surprised you about it? What has that been like?

Eliza: I just can’t express how excited and grateful I am because I never thought that I’d be writing a book. Just the fact that I wrote a book seemed, to me, so much. Everything else is just icing on the cake, or as we would say in Iceland, the raisin at the end of the hot dog. I don’t know why we say that. I was supposed to go on this book tour in February. Then with the pandemic, it went virtual. Now I’ve gone here just to meet people who — I can’t believe I read a book. Wrote a book. I can definitely believe I read a book. To meet people who were inspired by it or enjoyed it or laughed out loud when they were reading, I’m just so tickled by it all. The whole thing has been really, really exciting.

Zibby: Does that mean you’re going to perhaps write something else?

Eliza: I would love to. I have to have another idea. I hope it doesn’t take a pandemic to cause me to think of another idea. It would be great. It’s just wonderful. The one thing I’ve discovered, too, is it takes persistence to actually get through it and write the whole book. That’s actually what stops a lot of people. As you say, too, we all have a story in our belly. They’re probably all stories that we all want to hear. A lot of the best stories don’t get told, not because they weren’t published or people didn’t find the right people, which is obviously challenging, but just because they weren’t written down. Persistence is key.

Zibby: I also think some people think their stories have to be so dramatic when sometimes the most personal and intimate stories are the ones that end up helping other people the most. You don’t have to climb Everest to write a good book about your experience in life.

Eliza: No, definitely not.

Zibby: Sometimes little things in life can — anyway.

Eliza: The normal is the most relatable. Not very many of us are going to climb Everest. I’m pretty sure I will never climb Everest.

Zibby: Me too.

Eliza: There’s lots of remarkable in the everyday.

Zibby: Totally agree. Do you have a particular kind of book you like to read or anything you love?

Eliza: I really like nonfiction. I like memoir. I like political stories and political histories. I’m really especially into audiobooks for those nowadays. I also love the crime fiction genre. If I’m sick or something, I get into bed with an Agatha Christie. I reread it. I try to stay up to date on Icelandic fiction, even though I read it in translation still in English, and all kinds of different things. I’d say memoir and crime fiction are my two biggest favorites.

Zibby: Amazing. Eliza, thank you. This has been so interesting. I found your book absolutely fascinating and thought-provoking. You’re awesome. I loved it.

Eliza: Thank you, Zibby. It was great. It was so exciting to be on your show, especially after our early connections with the Iceland Writers Retreat.

Zibby: So funny, oh, my gosh.

Eliza: It was top of my list. Thank you so much for having me.

Zibby: Sorry it took so long.

Eliza: No problem. We’ll see you in Iceland sometime, then.

Zibby: See you in Iceland.

Eliza: That’d be great. Thank you, Zibby. Thanks.

Zibby: Take care. Buh-bye.

Eliza: Bye.



Purchase your copy on Amazon and Bookshop!

Check out the merch on our new Bonfire shop here.

Subscribe to Zibby’s weekly newsletter here.

You can also listen to this episode on:

Apple Podcasts