It could be a record – three Finnish crime fiction authors together at a single event in North America. It was also a lot of fun. I had a chance to meet the authors – Antti Tuomainen, Jari Tervo, and Jarkko Sipila – at my favorite bookstore, Once Upon a Crime, and then used the excuse of delivering a book needed for display purposes to hear the authors speak at FinnFest without actually registering for the event. (There seemed to be quite a lot of registrants, so I didn’t feel too guilty.) I also enjoyed finally meeting Juokko Sipila, publisher of Ice Cold Crime, which is doing a lot to bring translated Finnish literature to American readers.
While it will take me a while yet to post reviews of Tervo’s Among the Saints and Sipila’s latest Helsinki Homicide entry, Darling, I wanted to write about the authors’ appearance before I can’t make out the scribbled notes I took. I won’t be able to review Antti Tuomainen’s next book until it comes out later this year or in 2015, but I will.
One thing that interested me is that, while people often speak of Scandinavian crime fiction as if it’s all somehow similar, these three writers are very different in style. Jarkko Sipila, who works as a television crime reporter in Helsinki in addition to writing 19 crime novels to date, writes in a style that would be familiar to fans of Ed McBain’s 87th precinct series. It’s an ensemble police procedural with an emphasis on representing crime and cops as realistically as possible. Jari Tervo is a huge celebrity in FInland, hosting a talk show that is wildly popular in addition to having published 23 books, three of which are crime stories. The only one to be translated is Among the Saints, just released, Like Sipila’s approach to urban crime, he’s interested in capturing the strange reality of life in northern Finland, through a raucous multi-voiced story about a murder, There are 35 narrators, with the first being the hapless victim, who starts the book with “I was killed the first week of May. It wasn’t even ten o’clock in the morning.” Where Sipila’s reality is gritty, Tervo’s is Rabelaisian. Tuomainen’s novel is about yet another kind of reality – the one we face as our planet’s climate changes. He imagines a world where refugees have fled north, the wealthy have retreated into guarded compounds, and a man tries to figure out where love and poetry belong in a time of chaos.
So, three completely different approaches to crime fiction – but a lovely trio when it came to talking about their writing.
Jari Tervo grew up in Rovaniemi, capital of Finland’s northernmost province and a center for tourists who want to see norther lights and learn about Saami culture. He wants to portray what life in this part of Finland is llike, and among the many voices in Among the Saints, we meet some really goofy characters. I asked how his portrayal of the north is recieved by northerners and he said they love it because they feel it truly captures their experience. He also, speaking at FinnFest, commented that light is a factor – living in darkness in the winter and constant light in summer tends to a certain amount of craziness. Tervo’s publisher has described his style as “Quentin Tarantino meets William Faulkner.” If we borrow zaninesss and a bit crime from Tarantino and the almost ethnographic community ensemble from Faulkner, this makes sense – but Tervo himself settled for “brilliant, yet cheap.” (He’s much funnier than Tarantino or Faulkner.) When he writes, he comes up with the first sentence and the last. “Then all I have to do is write the 300 pages in between.” Rather than have a detailed outline, he likes to see where things go: “writing is discovering.” He also talked about how difficult it is to translate a novel into film because you have to trim so much out. “A novel inhales a huge amount of information,” he said.
Jarkko Sipila’s first name in pronounced “YARK-ko” but when he was a small boy, he lived in Columbus, Ohio while his father attended graduate school at Ohio State. He was used to Americans mispronouncing his name and was quite excited about his fame when ads for Jarkko filters ran on television (since he was used to people calling him “charcoal”). He started to study engineering, but decided “Finland would be better off without bridges designed by me” so instead studied to become a journalist (which is also Tervo’s background). He grew frustrated reading about police in fiction who had floridly dysfunctional personal lives, yet were able to solve crimes singlehandedly with their brilliance. In reality, police officers suffering from alcoholism and traumatic stress wouldn’t be working, they’d be hospitalized. His police officers work as a team under the leadership of Kari Takamäki, a character who he says he has made deliberately a bit unexciting. When I asked about the experience of writing for Finns but having a much wider audience, he said that police have something in common worldwide. They want to catch the bad guys. In a sense that makes the police proedural an easily exported genre. A member of the audience asked whether it was problematic writing about crime in a country where there was so little of it. Sipila pointed out that while Finland has half the crime rate of the U.S., it has twice as many homicides as Sweden and four teimes as many as Norway. One contrast to the U.S., though, is that while gun ownership is quite high in Finland, guns are rarely used in homicides. Knives are a more common weapon. “We like to get in close,” he joked. He also mentioned that crime fiction became popular in Finland in the mid-1990s and he felt it was a response to the recession the country was going through at the time, that people were particularly receptive to the idea of violence having a reason behind it, of justice being served in fiction if not in daily life.
Antti Tuomainen is newer to publishing books (and the other two made a lot out of his having merely published five as opposed to 19 and 23!) Perhaps because his early writing career was in advertising, he came up with a catchy conept for The Healer: since it is a crime story, a romance, and a futurisitic dystopia, you get three books for the price of one! I asked him if he had any theories about why dystopia is suddenly so much a part of our popular culture and he wasn’t sure, other than that the impact of global warming is inescapably evident. He also pointed out that his dystopian novel predates The Hunger Games and all the ensuing imitations, so he was in the distrous future ahead of the pack. Unlike Sipila, who writes an outline, drafts a book in about two months, then does several revisions that take another couple of months, Tuomainen’s stories take longer to come together. “I can write a synopsis,” he said. “I just can’t stick to it.” He discovers things as he goes along, and he also senses when something isn’t right. He described it as being “out of tune,” something that is just discordant in the narrative and has to come out. One of his books was recently optioned for film. When he was asked if he would like to write the script, and he immediately said no. A script requires so many rewrites and so many changes demanded by others that he would find it a frustrating and time-consuming venture. His next book to be translated is titled Dark as My Heart, about a man who wants to find out what happened to his birth mother who disappeared when he was a child. It will be out in the UK from Harvill Secker next year; he told me there may be an ebook version available as soon as October. I look forward to it.
Thanks to Juoko Sipila, FinnFest, and Once Upon a Crime for hosting such an enjoyable encounter with these three fine – and very different – Finnish writers.