Interview: Johanna Sinisalo and the Weird

Johanna Sinisalo is a Finnish science fiction and fantasy writer. An important figure in the Finnish science fiction scene since the late 1980s and early ‘90s (winning a rare back-to-back collection of Atorox Awards for short fiction in the genre), she was also the first Finnish science fiction writer to make a mainstream breakthrough by breaking genre barriers. Sinisalo was awarded the Finlandia Prize for literature for her first novel, Ennen päivänlaskua ei voi, later translated for America as Troll: A Love Story. Troll was awarded the James Tiptree Jr. Award in 2004. She was also nominated for a Nebula Award in 2009 for her novelette “Baby Doll.” Her most recently published novel is Birdbrain. I recently interviewed Sinisalo about weird fiction, her writing, and her novel Troll, excerpted elsewhere on this site. - Adam Mills What kinds of weird or strange literature did you encounter growing up? Which writers and stories do you most remember gravitating towards?

Johanna Sinisalo: Perhaps the most influential ones – especially when I was in a very early age – were Tove Jansson’s Moomin books, especially Comet in Moominland, which was a combination of a sci-fi thriller and a quite weird fairy tale that immediately hooked me on Jansson’s books. I recall also that I was impressed by C.S. Lewis’ Narnia books when I was young and innocent enough not to notice the Christian allegory. I was very fascinated by all kinds of stories that included mythological creatures or space travel, and my parents bought me and my sisters kid editions of Kalevala (the Finnish national folklore epic), the Iliad and the Odyssey, the Nibelungenlied and so on. We also had a Bible for Kids, which, in my mind, was in the exactly same category as those aforementioned mythical texts (I have to mention that my parents did not want to give us any Christian education – they knew that we would unavoidably receive that at school – and that is why the biblical stories were for me always just another fascinating, sometimes very weird mythos among all the other folklore epics).

If I’m brutally honest, I have to mention Carl Barks and his classic Donald Duck comics. Barks had an enormous talent of entertaining with the tools of exaggeration, mystery, bizarre characters and unlimited – sometimes very, very weird – imagination. In my honest opinion, Carl Barks was one of the greatest writers of  20th century. I have learned to read leafing through Donald Duck comics, and whenever I encounter some of the old stories I first read when I was four or five, I get goosebumps, because I can still recall the excitement and thrill of the first reading in detail. Which writers or artists are most influential to you? Are there any stories that left a special mark on your own writing?

Sinisalo: When I was about five I encountered the classic Bonestell-Ley book The Conquest of Space,  and I assumed that the wonderful planet art pieces by Bonestell were actually photographs because the artwork was so convincing, I considered as a fact (in that mature age of five) that mankind had visited the Moon, Mars, the moons of Jupiter and the rings of Saturn. I realized at a very early age (because I did read some of the text besides ogling the amazing pictures) that the concept of alien worlds was, in fact, a fact. The Moomin Valley and Narnia  — pooh, I knew that was imagination, but Mars, that was something even the adults admitted was real! The conceptual breakthrough of the idea of existing alien worlds was irreversible. I’m still extremely fascinated by the planets of our solar system (I have even written a short story placed on every planet), but when I matured as a writer I realized that the weirdest and most interesting worlds are just versions of our own milieu; the twisted alternatives of everyday.

When I was in my early teens I liked Bradbury – especially The Illustrated Man and Something Wicked This Way Comes. His poetic prose was something dramatically different from the quite straightforward style of  basic sci-fi and adventure stories. I am not a very big fan of him any more, but Bradbury was the first writer I encountered who seriously experimented with writing style in genre books.  Of course, LeGuin opened my eyes to the fact that genre writing is a powerful tool for social criticism and analysis. I have always read very much all kinds of literature, including world classics – I love Jane Austen as dearly as Franz Kafka.

I am able to name one specific book that really left a deep mark. It is Michel Tournier’s Friday, Or, the Other Island. In the novel the writer rips apart and then reconstructs the modern myth of Robinson Crusoe in a genial way. I had never earlier realized that this kind of writing was… let’s say, possible or allowed. Is there any weird writer or artist you’re particularly fond of that you think gets overlooked?

Sinisalo: Some European classics like Italo Calvino, Heinrich Böll or Gunter Grass are often forgotten when we talk about weird literature. In Finland, we have had a kind of father figure of weird, Juhani Peltonen, who was the domestic author who influenced me perhaps most when I was an aspiring writer. In English you can find a sample of his work in a short story called “The Slave Breeder” in The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy (edited by yours truly). Is there such a thing as “too weird” when it comes to literature and art? What do you think if someone tells you your work is “too weird”?

Sinisalo: I think that my stories are always quite anchored to reality and very few people have said that they are too weird – I like to write stories that give that almost real feel and play with the idea that this particular version of the universe is somewhere very near, just behind the next corner. But as a reader, I rarely encounter anything too weird to read – if I find something unreadable, the problem is usually with the structure, clarity or writing style, not the content itself. I’m not a big fan of the kind of weird that works with dream logic and is more like prose poetry. I prefer plots, but all the rest in the story may well be as bizarre as it gets. What is it about weird fiction that you find most alluring or intriguing as a reader?

Sinisalo: The reader is forced to use their brain. In weird fiction nothing is certain; the laws of real world do not necessarily exist. The reading process is like putting together a puzzle, to try and construct a whole new version of universe from the clues and fragments and rules the writer offers. When the reader is put to work, the immersion into that new world is sometimes much more complete than when the reader experiences only familiar, real-world situations and characters – when you in a way co-create the story in your brain, you commit to it, and that’s fascinating. Of course, I love the way good weird fiction comments upon our contemporary world with allegory, symbolism and subtext. As we all may know, Franz Kafkas “The Metamorphosis” does not merely tell a story about a man who one day wakes up as a giant cockroach – it’s a story about being different, about hating your own body, about feeling unaccepted, even loathed; it’s a story about puberty. What was the spark or catalyst for Troll: A Love Story? Were there any tales or experiences that proved helpful in the conception and drafting of the novel?

Sinisalo: In Finland we still have the wilderness literally on our doorsteps when compared to most of the European countries. One day a stray bear visited the suburbs of my home town, Tampere. (I have to mention that the European brown bears are very, very shy and they very rarely visit people’s courtyards and rummage garbage cans like the black bears do in the U.S.) This poor creature caused a reaction that was almost panic – people were very concerned if the beast would try and catch a juicy toddler for its lunch or viciously attack an innocent jogger.  The local newspaper supported the panic publishing discussions about how these blood-thirsty carnivores just should be shot on sight. I was appalled: had all these people been asleep during their basic biology lessons? Everyone should know that the European brown bears are mostly herbivores and in a hundred years of latest Finnish history, just one human being has been killed by a bear – he accidentally happened to encounter a female bear with two young cubs and the mommy bear naturally defended her offspring. (Some people really should, for example, count the number of traffic accident victims per century, just for comparison.)  I started to think why we are all so alienated from nature, even us Finns, who consider ourselves still to be a people with a very close relationship with the wilderness. No one raised the question which species had actually first came to the territory of the other. I realized that humans think they somehow own nature – we are the overlords who have somehow achieved every right to utilize, pollute and subordinate the whole ecosystem. I wanted to write about that, but I needed a fresh angle.  I decided that to tell the story, I would need a creature, a wild beast, that really could be a threat to humankind – something that would seriously compete with the humans for the same ecological niche.

I played with the idea that I could create such a beast from scratch, but then I got an idea. We do have an applicable creature in our very own folklore – the troll. It’s human-like; all the fairy tales claim it’s intelligent and dexterous, but also cruel and scary. All the Finnish and Scandinavian folkore came to my help as I designed the troll to be an almost-extinct Northern mammal species. Based on real existing myths and fairy tales, I created a fictional evolutionary process, biology and behavioral patterns for this animal.

When I had written quite a big chunk of the first version, I realized that this fictional animal was a symbol of very, very many other aspects of human life besides the conflict between culture and nature. It was a powerful metaphor of otherness in our society, with our relations to those who are different from us, and of course the hidden, wild parts of our souls. And the writing took a serious new turn. How much tension is there in Troll between traditional myth and legend and the modern-day? Was it difficult to find a half-way point between the two?

Sinisalo: It was a very enlightening journey to write this novel, because I dug deep into the folklore and noticed some interesting points. We are, as a species, hierarchical pack animals. And thus we have a tendency to always find out which individuals are in a higher or lower position in the pack. It is very easy to define those people who are different from us to be something less. Something to despise, something to subordinate, something to fear because of their otherness. And because we do not know enough or their way of living, it is very easy to demonize them (just like that poor bear in the suburbs – it’s so easy to assume that a wild beast wants to eat your children, because you do not really know what they actually want to eat).  Every day we seem to encounter otherness that gives us an excuse to consider people as lesser beings – gender-based otherness, class otherness, religious otherness, racial otherness, sexual orientation otherness – you name it.

The idea of trolls among us just orchestrated the idea of otherness perfectly. The ancient Finns had created the troll to be someone who resembles us and competes with us, but, as the fairy tales inform us, it is always something less than us – because it is different. Trolls were also very handy in old times when for example a baby was born with serious birth defects – the child was considered a changeling, a troll cub that the trolls had put to the cradle and stolen the human kid. Then it was legitimate to destroy the “changeling” that would have been a serious burden to the society. Is there anything specific to Finnish culture that could not be properly conveyed by the translation?

Sinisalo: I have used some Finnish texts that every Finn knows almost by the heart and modified them a little to give the impression that the trolls were a known species and they were mentioned in all kinds of literature. For example, there is a “quotation” of a very famous wartime novel, The Unknown Soldier. The soldiers on the front discuss the threat of a Soviet attack and they speculate if the Soviets might use tamed trolls as cannon fodder. The quotation is genuine except for some fabricated lines of the dialogue, and I know that the effect for the Finnish reader is shocking, because almost everyone knows how the discussion should go. Also, the song about Goldwing and Troll is genuine and very well-known; I dare to claim that every Finn has sung it at least once (especially when drunk and moody). These reflections never translate to a foreign audience. Finally, what’s the weirdest story you’ve ever read or heard, and why?

Sinisalo: Sometimes reality is weirder than the weird. About a year ago, I received a very strange phone call. Someone who spoke broken English demanded my e‑mail address. Because the subject was the Troll book, I gave it, assuming someone perhaps wanted to ask for the translation rights.

Soon I received an e‑mail. A Russian person (the Troll book had been recently translated into Russian)  introduced himself to be a “hominologist”. Hominologists are, as I was told, a subdivision of cryptozoologists, and are particularly specialized to research human-like species (Bigfoot, Yeti, and so on). They were convinced that my book is a genuine description of trolls and they demanded that I should give them specific contact details of all the fabricated people that had contacted trolls in my novel. I tried and tried to explain that the book is mostly just a figment of imagination, but it was obvious they did not believe me.

So, if some day I mysteriously disappear, it might have happened that one day on my doorstep there had been standing a couple of Russian thugs with their Kalaschnikovs, telling me that now it is the time to go and see if they can finally squeeze the truth out of me.

2 replies to “Interview: Johanna Sinisalo and the Weird

  1. Pingback: Brain food « Karin Tidbeck

  2. Pingback: Johanna Sinisalo and the Finnish Weird | Vikings, Books, etc.