Pam on the Map [2/2]: Book review

Pam on the Map: Iceland

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Seattle author and travel enthusiast Pam Stucky isn’t interested in pre-packaged sightseeing tours. “I don’t want to see The Best Of a country,” she writes. “I want to see its Soul. I want to see its Heart. I want a deeper relationship that shows me who a country really is.” It’s a philosophy she keeps at the heart of her recent travel memoir, Pam on the Map: Iceland.

Released in October 2013, the book chronicles Stucky’s trip around the Ring Road in July and August 2013, with chapter divisions mirroring the legs of her trip. Starting in Reykjavík, Stucky drove counterclockwise around the island, exploring the south, east, north and west before returning to the city. Her itinerary mostly included typical tourist stops (Góðafoss, Mývatn, Akureyri), but Stucky writes about her trip in a friendly, conversational manner that makes for pleasant reading. She relates her quest for the best hotel blackout curtains; relives the trials and tribulations of searching for Icelandic place names in her GPS; and laments the difficulty of locating gas stations where she could use her American, chip-and-pin-less credit card.

Stucky traveled alone, so there are relatively few other human characters in the book. In fact, the most prominent relationship in the book is that between Stucky and the land itself. From the basalt columns and black-sand beaches of Vík to the striking blue waters of Jökulsárlón, Stucky was struck by Iceland’s beauty: “I look at the Icelandic landscape and feel like I can see back in time… Wild and barren, but yet varied and vivid and burgeoning with possibility.”

Stucky’s writing shows a good sense of humor, even when she encounters difficulties along the (and often caused by the) road. With such a packed itinerary for a ten-day trip, Stucky had a lot of ground to cover, which meant she had plenty of time to identify the two primary challenges of the Ring Road: one, there are too many beautiful sights to behold and not enough places to safely pull off the road and admire them; and two, there is a scarcity of both bathrooms and trees. Besides, she had plenty of white-knuckle moments on some of the country’s windy, narrow roads: “It’s not that driving is any harder here, really, than at home; it’s that the margin for error is so much smaller,” she observes.

Perhaps the most interesting section of the book is when Stucky returns to Reykjavík and spends the day interviewing several Icelanders of note: crime fiction authors Yrsa Sigurðardóttir and Ragnar Jónasson; Akureyri Mayor Eiríkur Björn Björgvinsson, and Reykjavík Mayor Jón Gnarr. The most intriguing subject is Gnarr, who discusses his foray into publishing, his dream alternate career choices, and his views on the necessity of Icelandic optimism. Reflecting on interview day, Stucky writes, “This is the Reykjavík I’m far more interested in: the minds and souls and hearts and ideas of the people who live here; their stories, and the stories of their home.”

Stucky spent less than two weeks in Iceland, but it was more than enough time to glimpse the heart and soul of the country she set out to experience: “As I complete this odd-shaped loop around the island, I can’t help but feel the country is in me now,” she writes.

Pam on the Map: Iceland is available in paperback and ebook formats from Amazon. To connect with the author, visit pamstucky.com, find “Pam Stucky, Author” on Facebook, or follow @pamstucky on Twitter.

Originally published in the Lögberg-Heimskringla, 15 April 2014.

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Pam on the Map [1/2]: A conversation with Pam Stucky

Last time I posted, we were still in the frosty grip of winter.  Today, the sun was shining warm and bright for about the sixth day straight.  Spring has definitely come to the Northwest, and it is a beautiful, hopeful thing.

I know I’ve been terribly neglectful of this blog, but I have been busy busy busy.  One of the many things that keeps me busy is writing for the Lögberg-Heimskringla and managing the paper’s social media.  Last fall, while working on the L-H Twitter page, I connected with a Seattle author named Pam Stucky.  Pam was just about to publish a book based on her summer travels in Iceland a couple months previous.  I sent her a message, introduced myself, and asked if she might be willing to meet up for an interview since we’re both in the Northwest.  She kindly agreed, and we met at a coffee shop near Olympia and had a lovely conversation about Iceland and writing and why the northwest part of the country is always the best.

Below is my writeup of our interview as it appears in the April 15 issue of the Lögberg-Heimskringla.  Sincere thanks to Pam for agreeing to meet with me, for sharing her Iceland experiences with me and with the world, and especially for having a saintly amount of patience as she waited for these articles to be published.

Seattleite puts herself on the map with new travel series

[A conversation with Pam Stucky]

Pam Stucky is a self-declared “author, traveler, backseat philosopher, and a person who is intensely curious about people and the world.” But she never intended to become a travel writer. A Seattle native, Stucky worked in web design, marketing, and fundraising before deciding to pursue writing full time. It was the unexpected death of a coworker that finally spurred her to action. “I didn’t want to leave a ‘what if,'” explained Stucky in an interview last November. So she quit her job, determined that her savings would last about a year, and started writing. In 2010, she completed her first book, Letters from Wishing Rock, a novel about a small island community in Puget Sound. After shopping the book around to traditional publishers and being “very nicely rejected” by a number of agents, Stucky turned to self publishing. It was the right decision, Stucky said, although self publishing is not without its challenges. “Discoverability is the biggest problem,” said Stucky, who currently manages all her own marketing.

The transition from fiction writing to travel writing happened organically. In 2005, while traveling around Ireland by herself, Stucky went to internet cafés and composed long emails detailing her travels for friends and family back home. She eventually adapted those emails, as well as recollections from a family trip to Switzerland, into the first two “retrospective” Pam on the Map installments. But she wanted to plan a trip to a new destination with the specific purpose of adding another volume to the series. Iceland had interested Stucky since she read Pico Ayer’s Falling Off the Map, a collection of essays about lonely, off-the-beaten-path destinations. In early 2012, the timing seemed perfect: Icelandair’s direct flights from Seattle to Reykjavík made the journey easy, and a friend of Stucky’s living in Reykjavík extended an open invitation for friends to visit.

Stucky spent a few months planning her itinerary, less than two weeks traveling the Ring Road, and a mere three months turning her journey into a book. Asked about the quick turnaround time, Stucky said she didn’t want to forget the details of her trip, and she was eager to get the book out by the end of the year. “But it was hard – I wouldn’t recommend it!” she said with a laugh.

In the book and in conversation with Stucky, it’s clear that her interview with Jón Gnarr was a highlight of the trip. Describing Gnarr, Stucky said, “He’s so compassionate. I was struck by his humanity. [He’s] so caring, so very concerned with doing what is right.”

Stucky’s primary complaint about her time in Iceland was the surprising “lack of infrastructure” she encountered around the much-traveled and much-promoted Ring Road. “I do think Iceland needs to focus more on quality than quantity of experience,” said Stucky, voicing concerns over Iceland’s ability to keep up with the ever-increasing flood of tourists.

Stucky knows she still has much to see and do if she ever returns to Iceland. She said she regrets not taking the extra time needed to explore the Westfjords region, and she didn’t get into the Highlands at all. Stucky said her biggest mistake with her itinerary was probably trying to fit too much into a short period of time. “I think people think, ‘[Iceland] is so small, I can do it in X days,'” she said. Next time, Stucky said, she would try focusing on one region at a time. And her number one piece of advice for people visiting Iceland? “It’s important to give yourself time to be surprised.”

Moving forward, Stucky plans to continue with the Pam on the Map series. At the top of her wish list for future installments are Croatia, Australia, and New Zealand. Besides international destinations, Stucky also plans to focus on some places a bit closer to home, such as Wisconsin and Victoria. But no matter how many destinations she visits for the Pam on the Map series, she hopes her writing will continue to give her readers “a sense of appreciation and wonder for all the amazing things in our world.”

This article was originally published in the Lögberg-Heimskringla, 15 April 2014