Guest of Honour speech in Finncon 2016

It’s fantastic to be 42 and a Guest of Honour in Finncon. I went to my first Finncon 16 years ago and had no idea of everything that would happen since then, and in what kind of narrative fantastic worlds I’d be immersed.

It’s surprisingly difficult to compress your own extensive work into one account. I’ve written 10 books together with another person and 5 myself alone, plus an audio play together with a colleague. At the present I’m writing a manuscript for an animation series and a movie, and there are other collaborative efforts in sight.

Background

My career as a writer started as a child, when I played outside with imaginary beings and told stories in my head. I grew up in the countryside, in a farm house surrounded by fields and thick woods. The Finnish woods are no neat groves of trees within tidy distances from each other, they are full of thickets, hillocks, soggy batches of swamps and steep rock walls. For me it was an everyday experience to walk along an old cow track, fetch the cows and help mother in the evening milking. I could admire the big pine trunks in the nearby wood or build a shelter of ferns next to a boulder left by the Ice Age. In winter, when I got home from school, I had a quick meal and donned my skis. I went skiing in the fields and in the woods, admired the stars that came out on the evening sky and imagined the stars were the heroes and heroines of my stories. On my way to school I often bicycled the 5 kilometres in the dusk and sometimes met our village eccentric training his racing horses on the road. I was never afraid of the darkness or of the woods, even though they were full of the creatures of stories.

The most impressive reading experiences in my childhood told about the adventures of the Master Brownie, and the fairy tales of Zacharias Topelius and Raul Roine I read through and through again. I found table-top role playing, the Dungeons and Dragons, then in teenage the computers and with them, the classic games like Times of Lore or the Druid. The Finnish nature, fantastical literature and the world of role playing fed my imagination. Partly it was because my big brother was seven years older, and when he moved off, I spent my youth as an only child. When I finally found science fiction and what we called the black-covered books, the classic science fiction novels that were translated to Finnish in the 1970-80ies, like Stanislav Lem, Ursula K. LeGuin and Isaac Asimov, the story teller in me was getting a good start.

It’s no wonder that nature and the woods are strongly present in my work, or that I always come back to describing village communities, village eccentrics or creatures and events rooted in Finnish mythology. Many of my stories start with a basic image: I see and sense the protagonist in a certain situation. It is often paradoxical and eidetic, like for example an image of a large machine rising up from a swamp where it’s buried and communicating with the protagonist. Or the river of Tuonela – the Underworld – and a shaky ferry passing over it with a grey-clad figure as the ferryman.

My background does not include studies in the Finnish language and literature: instead my background is in natural sciences, for I have graduated in the science of geography. I have specialised in cultural geography, the phenomena of human origin in the environment, and geographical planning, studies of transport networks and locational information systems. As subsidiary subjects I took Fenno-Ugric ethnology and environmental science. With this background, the material relations, causes and consequences, as well as territorial ecology and environmental factors are always reflected in my creation of a fictional world. I have indeed been commended for the depth of nature descriptions.

Short stories

I’ve always written short stories; they’ve been published in magazines and anthologies or in my own collections.

We have in Finland an annual short story competition of science fiction and fantasy organized by the Portti magazine (Portti = The Gate). The main prize is at present 2000 euros and the best stories are published in the magazine. In the 1990ies  I started subscribing to the magazine and dreaming of success in the competition. You could say I studied aesthetics by reading the prize winning texts of other writers and working up to the creation of good stories myself. It took me 5 years to get my first short story printed in the magazine and 10 before I won the competition. The Portti magazine has always been the mental home of my career, that’s where I started writing in earnest and built the basis for my later work. Three of my short stories have received the Atorox-award, which is voted by the fandom to the year’s best science fiction and fantasy short story. Some of the stories have been translated to the Estonian, English and the Check languages.

In my short stories I take the reader from a mythical Finnish swamp landscape to Tuonela, the Underworld, off to space and other planets, or into the pulse of a modern city. Otherness, apartness, the conflict between an individual and society, and women’s position and emancipation are especially interesting to me. Often the societies in my stories restrict individual freedom and diversity of thought, and my characters rebel against the injustice of things.

I’ve written for instance about an Otherling, a being who tries to adapt to the arrival of humans on its planet. The Otherling is used to adjusting and giving way in all issues, but humanity does not understand the meaning or the moral aims of passive resistance. In many ways, a human is but a child compared to a species that has prevailed over all the different conquerors of space.

Tuomikki, the protagonist of the short story ”Tuonenkalma, surmansuitset” / “Corpsecaul, Ghastbridle is a young woman close to adulthood. She decides to save her furry little brother, the wolf-brother, who’s been abandoned on the swamp, regardless of his father who hates wolves and the family tensions the existence of the little brother creates. It seems that there’s more buried in the swamp than the sisters who’ve been born dead. As the wolf-brother grows, the witch powers of Tuomikki emerge: a magic that has always been hidden from men. In the story I used the concept of naisen väki, “woman power”, in the Finnish folklore, the female magic that for instance granted cattle luck in spring time. In my version, the “woman power” is a decidedly more complex and dangerous form of magic than in the original.

Shared projects

During my writing career I’ve always worked together with other writers. People often ask me how it’s possible to write prose together with another person, and whether that leads to quarrels. So far all such projects have been completed through discussion and mutual understanding, and I have indeed used the method where each writer works on the same point of view and they each freely edit what the other has written.

Science fiction short stories I’ve written together with Petri Laine. In our short stories we’ve travelled to strange planets and alternative realities, as well as portrayed Finnish pilot aces in WWII. With Miina Supinen on the other hand I’ve written a romantic thriller, which originally appeared as a serial.

The cooperation with my childhood friend Eija Lappalainen started already when we were children and invented horror and fantasy serials. Together we created a whole world of fantasy and set role plays in it. Our shared background in gaming slowly changed to an aspiration of more ambitious projects. In 1999 the Werner Söderström publishing company organized a young adult fiction writing contest, and we participated with a story of the brother of a youth who committed suicide. “Lokkeja rakastava veli” / “The Brother Who Loved Seagulls” won the contest, and we got a publishing contract. That launched our literary cooperation that has so far produced eight shared novels and a radio play.

Our main work is the trilogy “Routasisarukset”/”Frost Siblings”. It’s situated in the Europe of 2300, the Eurania that suffers from the consequences of an ecological catastrophe and the collapse of societies. In many places technology and progress equal magic. The novels use several protagonists. The main character, Utu, is able to communicate with the old machines of the golden age, and her ability has far-reaching consequences. She and others like her can either lift Eurania and the groups fighting of energy sources to an upturn or drive them all to an endless war. This is a future where humanity has already gone to space and left a part of it behind to cope as well as they can. The Eurania damaged by pollution and climate change needs new heroes and heroines, and these characters with their nano abilities could fill that role – if they first manage to conquer their own demons.

On the basis of this trilogy we are presently planning an animation series and a movie about the era before Eurania, the world of the Frost Siblings. The trilogy has expanded to a transmedial project, including books and games, and the author Carita Forsgren has joined us as a manuscript writer.

In the year 2015 the Blind People’s Radio Play Award was given to the radio play “Ikimaa”/”Forever Land”, that is loosely connected to the world of the Frost Siblings. There the protagonist Elias has just turned 170 years, and wishes to return to his old home land to clarify the problems in his mind. His robot servant Floatchair tries to stop him from finding the truth under his mindblock – because that’s what the robot is programmed to do. In this radio play one man’s utopia is another one’s dystopia. Greed and oppression are the common human failings, instead of sharing resources equally.

My own novels

I’ve published three novels of my own.

“Viivamaalari”/ “The Line Painter”, was a personally very important work, where I freely mixed different genres and genre elements. The protagonist, a middle-aged women looking for work, lives in a strange reality where trees may change place overnight. She starts to follow a woman, Ursula, who is painting a white line on the ground, and discovers that there is something bigger behind Ursula’s task. The broken identity of the protagonist is a kind of kaleidoscope of her world’s history. Does it tell about her shattered mind, or is the reality indeed as peculiar as that?

”Vaskinainen” / “The Brass Woman” is a novel situated in a mythical Finnish world, where the characters travel to Tuonela/The Land of the Dead and try to prevent the apocalypse. The Great Wheel of Tuonela, the machine responsible for the rotation of the dead, has stopped, and the dead remain wandering above ground. The shepherd Niilas and the witch Ulpukka, both rejected by their own people, are the only ones who can save the world. They are each a reluctant hero and heroine, but they manage to persuade The Brass Woman, a creature banned from Tuonela, to join them. Writing this novel I particularly enjoyed combining the different genres of folklore, steampunk and international myths.

“Ilottomien ihmisten kylä” / “The Village of the Joyless” is a young adult novel, ostensibly a story of Finland in the 1950’ies, but building up to the picture of an alternative future world. The protagonist Aalo is a teen-age boy living in a tightly controlled agrarian community. Play and laughter are forbidden, for the villagers think laughing can kill you. A tramp arriving to the village opens up to Aalo the reality on the other side of the wall surrounding the villages. Aalo’s life leads him towards an inevitable rebellion, but he soon has to reflect whether ignorance would have been better than knowledge and the anguish caused by it. With this novel I wished to say something about a curse passed from one generation to the next, the burden of war crimes echoing from father to son, and of how it’s possible on the whole to endure after committing monstrosities.

New projects

At the moment I’m writing urban fantasy: a witchcraft story in two parts, situated in Helsinki and its alternative reality, Hellby, where a young woman discovers her ability to do magic. It’s a strongly intertextual work, and I’ve utilized the classics of science fiction and fantasy in writing it.

I’m also interested in the Finnish woods and people’s mythical relationship to them. In my new still nameless novel a young woman returns to her home region and encounters the woods that the women of her family have used for centuries as the source of their magic. Here I’m combining the Finnish folklore of changelings – children exchanged between the human and goblin worlds –, of the homeless souls haunting swamps, and of wooing the woods to harness its magic for oneself.

To the end

Besides my own literary career I’ve been active in the Finnish science fiction fandom.

For me, fandom has become the family I’ve longed for since my childhood. It was mind-expanding to finally encounter people who had read the same books and been inspired by them, to finally share matters that are significant to me.

It’s always been important to me not just to enjoy or to consume things, but to do something myself, and therefore I’ve tried to be active myself and to activate others. That’s why I’ve ended up in several associations and grounded my own net magazine, plus organized writing camps for writers at my home. Networking has opened up for me new artistic possibilities; for instance the editing of other writers’ stories has trained me as a writer, and many of the persons I’ve met along the way have become close friends. I believe in the principle that since I’ve been helped by other writers in the beginning of my career, it’s only just and proper to pay the debt to persons that come after me.

I live again surrounded by the woods, in a detached house with bats hiding in the attic. When nights start to darken in July, I can observe them flying around the yard and catching mosquitoes. By the roadside an armada of glow-worms are twinkling, and a mist is rising on the river close by. Immediately by the house I can get into the woods, to a network of paths that lead me to a swamp. There, in a watery hollow hides the homeless soul of my next novel, and I can hear the trees whispering the message of foremothers.

In the midst of the peaceful countryside new stories are emerging all the time. They are like the woods: some are germinating shoots, some are small seedlings, some are full grown trees and some are rotten old trunks. I want to write many more stories yet, both stories of familiar, mythical landscapes as well as of strange other realities. Writing will always be a balancing act of time use between the family and everyday life – but on the other hand, in small chinks, one word at a time, has many a story been born before.

Anne Leinonen
(Translation: Liisa Rantalaiho)

Corpsecaul, ghastbridle (translation Robet J. Tupasela) in Finnish Weird 3

The Otherling and Other Stories in Amazon

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