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Trial and error?

31 December 2008 | Archives online, Essays, On writing and not writing

If you want to write, you need to do it every day, says the author Monika Fagerholm. Trial and error are necessary for her – and so is not being afraid of getting lost in the woods in the process, because only then can amazing things be found

Writers write and writers write every day. I remember seeing this in one of those inspirational guides on writing I enjoy reading – even if they don’t necessarily help you in pursuing your daily writing as much as you would hope. At the worst, they give you a kind of exhausting energy which just leaves you drained. And yes, turning to these kinds of manuals almost always involves an element of desperation; you don’t need advice when everything is going great. More…

Truths to tell

1 June 2011 | Authors, Interviews

Johanna Holmström. Photo: Irmeli Jung

‘In my writing I try to give as many angles as possible, and my agenda is to show that there’s not just one truth, that there are always several ways of seeing what one perceives at first sight. So I often have more than one main narrator. I constantly aim to question accepted truths. My stories always begin with indignation about something I feel I must write about. Fiction is a way of distancing oneself. After all, books are literary, invented things. When you work on the subject of a literary text it becomes less personal.’

This is how Johanna Holmström (born 1981) describes her approach to writing. Since her first collection of short stories published in 2003 she has produced a book every two years: three short story collections and one novel. Her books have been variously described as imaginative, committed and uncomfortable. Her short story ‘Stormen’ (‘The storm’) is a precisely observed account of a day when everything changes for its young protagonist.


A light shining

28 July 2011 | Essays, Non-fiction

Portrait of the author: Leena Krohn, watercolour by Marjatta Hanhijoki (1998, WSOY)

In many of Leena Krohn’s books metamorphosis and paradox are central. In this article she takes a look at her own history of reading and writing, which to her are ‘the most human of metamorphoses’. Her first book, VihreĂ€ vallankumous (‘The green revolution’, 1970), was for children; what, if anything, makes writing for children different from writing for adults?

Extracts from an essay published in Luovuuden lĂ€hteillĂ€. Lasten- ja nuortenkirjailijat kertovat (‘At the sources of creativity. Writings by authors of books for children and young people’, edited by PĂ€ivi HeikkilĂ€-Halttunen; The Finnish Institute for Children’s Literature & BTJ Kustannus, 2010)

What is writing? What is reading? I can still remember clearly the moment when, at the age of five, I saw signs become meanings. I had just woken up and taken down a book my mother had left on top of the chest of drawers, having read to us from it the previous day. It was Pilvihepo (‘The cloud-horse’) by Edith Unnerstad. I opened the book and as my eyes travelled along the lines, I understood what I saw. It was a second awakening, a moment of sudden realisation. I count that morning as one of the most significant of my life.

Learning to read lights up books. The dumb begin to speak. The dead come to life. The black letters look the same as they did before, and yet the change is thrilling. Reading and writing are among the most human of metamorphoses. More…

Compelled to write

30 June 2000 | Authors, Interviews

Kjell Westö

Photo: Marica RosengÄrd

Kjell Westö (born 1961) is one of a generation of younger, urban Swedish-language writers who are at home in both Swedish and Finnish. An extract from his novel VĂ„dan av att vara Skrake (‘The perils of being Skrake’, Söderströms, 2000), which traces the fortunes of the Helsinki family of Skrake from the 1910s to the present day. Here, Westö is interviewed by his alter ego, the discontented poet Anders Hed, editor of the cultural journal Bokassa (now sadly extinct)

Anders Hed: So, to get us going: do you write any poetry at all nowadays?

Kjell Westö: No. The last poem I wrote comes at the end of the title story in Fallet Bruus (‘The Bruus case’). And that book came out in 1992.

It’s a poem about human face and the search for ‘the Thou’, isn’t it?

Exactly. More…

The coder’s Latin

30 October 2014 | Articles, Non-fiction

Pleasant interface still? Old book bindings ( Merton College library, Oxford, UK). Photo: Wikipedia

Pleasant interface still? Old book bindings (Merton College library, Oxford, UK). Photo: Wikipedia

Writing is arguably brain-control technology, notes our columnist Teemu Manninen. Writing might not be on its way out, at least not quite yet, he thinks, but the printed book might not stay with us for ever. And would that be a happier world?

When the future of literature is discussed, either here in Finland and elsewhere, topics usually revolve around changes in the economics and practicalities of reading, writing, and publishing: how will writers and publishers get paid, and how can readers find more books to read.

What is taken for granted in these instances is that literature itself will continue to be something that exists in a recognisable way – which itself of course implies that writing itself will remain a viable mass medium for the transmission of information over the transcendent, enormous, unfathomable gulfs of space and time, as it has been for thousands of years. More…

New worlds

30 September 1998 | Authors, Interviews

Monika Fagerhom

Photo: Ulla Montan

The heroine of Monika Fagerholm’s novel Diva is a teenage girl. But this is a Lolita with a difference; for this is an intelligent Lolita, with a voice of her own. Silja Hiidenheimo interviews her creator

In Monika Fagerholm’s best-selling book Underbara kvinnor vid vatten (1994, English translation:Wonderful Women by the Water), the sun shines and the women really are wonderful. If there is a certain melancholy about the story, it is born more of longing and the unrealised dream of freedom. And although all those of us who were born in the 1960s thought Monika had stolen precisely our childhood memories of summer, that she had leafed through our photograph albums, the work is, in the melancholy lightness of its narrative, an exception in Finnish realism. While the book forces its readers to empathise so completely that one cannot imagine Monika has invented anything in the whole story, but merely, like a camera, has registered everything just as it happened, an ironic laugh is heard in the book: realism is just as banal as life itself. If one were to summarise the plot of either, one would not be able to repeat it without blushing. More…

Fruits of reading

30 December 1998 | Authors, Interviews

Bo Carpelan

Photo: Promedia

This is an edited version of an interview published in Leva skrivande. Finlandssvenska författare samtalar (‘Living by writing. Finland-Swedish writers in conversation’), edited by Monika Fagerholm (Söderströms, 1998)

Bo Carpelan is one of the most translated of Finnish writers; his novel Axel (1986) attracted international attention when it was published in English translation. Here, in our occasional series of interviews with writers, he is in conversation with fellow poet MÄrten Westö

MĂ„rten Westö: The American writer Paul Auster has said: ‘A young person who wants to be an artist or a writer is above all influenced by art. But a young writer has nothing to say. One has a love of literature, but one can only imitate other writers to begin with. It takes a long time before one finds one’s own way.’ What do you think of that statement?

Bo Carpelan: Of course there’s a lot in what he says. At the same time I am convinced that one must have at least the shadow of one’s own voice from the very outset, otherwise what one writes turns out to be merely plagiarism. But to start with one does probably tend to work in close association with tradition. That was also true of me, but in my own view I didn’t continue – as has often been asserted – in the wake of Finland-Swedish modernism. It is of course quite possible that later on I returned to it, but the basis of my activity was probably the American New Criticism: the large anthologies on criticism and poetry that I read in the 1950s. Those influences have left their clearest traces in the very comprehensive bibliography of my academic work on the Finland-Swedish poet Gunnar Björling. In the last chapter of the dissertation I also tried to draw my own guidelines as to what I mean by poetry: that it is concrete and synthetic. More…

Writing Sinuhe

31 December 1995 | Archives online, Authors, Fiction

Extracts from the novel NeljĂ€ pĂ€ivĂ€nlaskua (‘Four sunsets’, 1949): in this novel about a novel, Mika Waltari gives a fictionalised, humorous and melancholy account of the birth of his most famous novel, the international bestseller, Sinuhe, egyptilĂ€inen (The Egyptian, 1945). His ‘Egyptians’ do not leave him in peace, so he retreats to his summer cabin with his typewriter and faithful dog to write

Critical notes

In offering this work to the public, furnished with the requisite comments, we do so with considerable hesitation, for even the superficial reader will very soon realise that this disguised and sentimental love-story has no educational or morally uplifting intent whatsoever. On the contrary, the thoughts contained within it are often so amoral and perplexing that they are repellent to the enlightened reader. For this reason, the spontaneity of the narrative does not of itself legitimise publication of the work.

Since, however, with the aforementioned reservations, we are offering the work to the public, we do it for entirely other reasons. For this work is, by type, a terrible apotheosis of human selfishness. One must remember that it was written only a couple of months after the first use of the atom bomb for practical purposes, when the world had hardly achieved the so-called ‘cold peace’ after the so-called Second World War. If we remember this background, the author grows, in his unremitting selfishness, into a cautionary example in the reader’s eyes. For he does not, in his book, spare a thought for the sufferings of humanity, but speaks incessantly about his own heart. More…

Head in a cloud

27 May 2011 | Articles, Non-fiction

Thinking, reading, writing, buying… Teemu Manninen explores the new freedoms, literal and poetic, offered by cloud computing, where what you can do is no longer limited by what you happen to have on your computer

High in the sky: cumulus clouds. Photo: Michael Jastremski, Wikimedia

I’m sitting in a rocking chair on the porch of a cottage by a lake. My fingers tap and slide on the surface of a black glass panel, a kind of instrument used in the composing of literature. Each tap equals a letter, a series of taps equals a word, a symphony of taps becomes a paragraph, a paragraph an essay.

The glass panel remembers these letters and words and the writings they become, and knows them by their names, but it could also record anything I see or hear. I could even talk to it and it would understand my commands, as if some nether spirit were captured inside, a magic genie slaved to do my bidding. More…

Breadcrumbs and elephants

27 March 2014 | Essays, On writing and not writing

In this series, Finnish authors ponder the pros and cons of their profession. Alexandra Salmela operates in two languages, her native Slovakian and Finnish, which has become her literary language. Adventure and torture alternate as she attempts to shape reality into writing

I had started to write before I knew how. With fat wax crayons, in big stick-letters, I scratched my stories in old diaries. There were lots of pictures. From the very beginning, I wrote both poetry and prose. At 11 I didn’t finish my great sea-adventure novel, but at 12 I was already writing my memoirs. They, too, somehow remained unfinished.

Writing is
 I wanted to write fun, but in the end I’m not quite sure about that. Writing is adventure and liberation and terribly hard work. Torture of the imagination and the pale copying of real events. Reading is a way to escape reality and at the same time a route to the sources of reality. By writing, you can shape reality in your own image: it’s your own character fault if the result is ugly and depressing.

If I were to write a pink world, it would be so sugary that it would make everyone sick, me and other people. More…

Hearth, home – and writing

30 December 2007 | Archives online, Extracts, Non-fiction

Extracts from Fredrika Runeberg’s Min pennas saga, (‘The story of my pen’, ca. 1869–1877). Introduction by Merete Mazzarella

The joy and happiness I experience at being able to see into [her husband] Runeberg’s soul, at living with him in his heart and his thoughts, belong far too firmly to the mysteries of my soul that I should wish to attempt to express them in words. But of the life that existed around us I should like to try and give an impression of sorts.

We moved to BorgĂ„ in 1837. I was unfamiliar with the town and knew only a little old lady, weak with age, and found myself very lonely indeed, accustomed as I was to living with relatives and a genial circle of friends. I did, however, still have my two eldest sons at home to keep me happy and occupied. More…

Drama queen: on writing, and not writing, plays

14 June 2010 | Articles, Authors

The queen who chose not to rule: Christina of Sweden in the play Queen C (first produced at the Finnish National Theatre in 2003, directed by the author, Laura Ruohonen, with Wanda Dubiel in the role of the Queen). Photo: Leena KlemelÀ

Extracts from ‘Postscript’, published in Kuningatar K ja muita nĂ€ytelmiĂ€ (‘Queen C and other plays’, Otava, 2004)

It’s hard to read plays. I was bitterly disappointed at the age of eight, when I hid in my grandmother’s attic and opened up Romeo and Juliet, a book that seemed to promise lust and appalling acts. But it wasn’t even a real book; it was just talking from beginning to end! Where was the plot, the action, the much talked-about love story?

It’s also hard to write plays. Novels and works of poetry are closed miniature worlds that invite the reader in. A play always serves two masters. It has to be open and porous to allow the actor and the performance to penetrate into it. More…

That’s life

4 March 2011 | Authors, Essays, Non-fiction, On writing and not writing

 In this series Finnish authors ponder their profession. If this is writing, there’s no method in its madness: Markku PÀÀskynen finds he wants to write as life allows, not bend his life to suit his writing

I was born in 1973. I’ve written six novels, and I’m working on my seventh. I’ve written short stories and essays, and translated. That may sound productive, but it isn’t: I can’t stand to sit in front of the computer for more than a couple of hours a day.

My work is elsewhere – in everyday chores: going to the store, taking out the trash, fixing meals, washing dishes, cleaning, playing with the kids. Normal days are full of work and messing around. And my literary work has to fit in with that. I don’t have it in me to write methodically. I do know how to keep deadlines and meet contracts, but the methodicalness is lacking. More…

Take, eat

30 September 1994 | Archives online, Authors, Extracts, Interviews, Non-fiction

Annika Idström interviewed by Tuva Korsström; from BerÀttelsernas Äterkomst (The return of the narratives, Söderströms, 1994), a series of interviews, by Tuva Korsström, with contemporary European writers

Tuva Korsström: If one looks at what you have written, it’s had to do with things that no one talks about: mother-hatred, father-fixation, incest-fantasies; child-abuse and maltreatment of women… In general it’s always the unpleasant and depressing things that are made taboo: all our effort goes into normalising life according to a norm of niceness. Yet all these terrible things are there in our subconscious. You bring them out into the light, and it just can’t be very nice. You talk about what we’ve kept secret. Your method can perhaps be compared to psychoanalysis.

Annika Idström: My most recent book is about love, or rather about the possibility of love. It takes its origin not in an image but in my intensive reading of the Swedish psychoanalyst Jurgen Reeder’s book BegĂ€r och etik (‘Desire and ethics’).

It’s surprising that psychoanalysis wants to stubbornly cling to the simple idea that love is something the subject in a teleological sense ‘matures’ into unless its path of development has been hedged around by too many difficulties and disappointments. It’s surprising that people go in search of a discourse about love’s fundamental or innate harmony, when instead it ought to be obvious that what we call love is in the best case a ‘symptom’, behind which the individual finds himself torn apart by disparate forces.

BegÀr och etik


A view to a kill

31 December 1997 | Archives online, Fiction, Prose

Extracts from the novel Klassikko (‘The classic’, WSOY, 1997). Pete drives an old Toyota Corolla without a thought for the small animals that meet their death under its wheels – or anything else, for that matter. Hotakainen describes the inner life of this environmental hazard with accuracy and precision

Pete sat in his Toyota Corolla destroying the environment. He was not aware of this, but the lifestyle he represented endangered all living things. The car’s exhaust fumes spread into the surroundings, its aged engine sweated oil onto the pavement, and malodorous opinions withered the willowherbs by the roadside. Granted that Pete was an environmental hazard, one must nevertheless ask oneself: how many people does one like him provide with employment? He leaves behind him a trail of despondent girlfriends who require the services of human relations workers, popular songwriters, and social service officials; during his lifetime, he spends tens of thousands of marks in automotive shops and service stations, on spare parts and small cups of coffee; he benefits the food industry by being a carefree purchaser of TV dinners and soft drinks. Pete is the perfect consumer, an apolitical idiot who votes with his wallet, the favorite of every government, even though no one seems interested in putting him to work, least of all himself. Every government, regardless of political power struggles, encourages its people to consume. Pete needs no encouragement, he consumes unconsciously, and one might ask: is there anything that he does consciously, the Greens and left-wingers would like him to? Does Pete make smart long-range decisions? Hardly.