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[GUEST POST] Jeff VanderMeer Interviews Johanna Sinisalo

Finnish powerhouse Johanna Sinisalo is a past winner of the James Tiptree Jr. Award for one of my personal favorites, her edgy novel Troll: The Love Story (Not Before Sundown in the UK). But she doesn’t just write novels. In addition to editing The Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy, Sinisalo has written for television and the movies, has won prizes for her short fiction, and been very proactive in the Finnish SF/F scene. Her second novel, Sankarit, was published in Finland in 2003 and updates the national Finnish epic, the Kalevala to the twenty-first century. Sinisalo’s books have been translated into English, Swedish, Japanese, French, Latvian, Czech, German, and Polish, among others.

I had the pleasure of meeting Sinisalo on a recent trip to Finland. As one might expect, she’s rapier-sharp, funny, generous, and has a wonderful sense of humor, with an edge. Her latest novel translated into English, the haunting Birdbrain-just released in the US last month-is typically intelligent and visceral.

As I wrote for Locus Online when including Birdbrain on my top 10 fantasy novels of 2010, “This slow-burn of a novel relates the story of Finns Jyrki and Heidi as they hike through the wilderness of Tasmania and New Zealand. Sinisalo immerses the reader in the physicality of the trek, and the increasing isolation of the hikers. Sections related by a nameless narrator cataloging elements of ‘civilization’ are placed strategically throughout as well…When the fantastical element finally enters the story it’s all the more effective because of the careful way in which Sinisalo has brought the reader to that point. But the larger themes are less about fantasy and more about ecosystems and our place within them.”

Sinisalo was kind enough to take time out from her busy schedule to answer a few questions about Birdbrain and her forthcoming projects…

Jeff VanderMeer: Which came first with regard to Birdbrain, the birds or the characters?

Johanna Sinisalo: Definitely the birds. I have been interested in bird intelligence for long, and one of the basic ideas of the novel came to me in a flash when I visited New Zealand and encountered a kea for the first time. When one reads about the behaviour and social habits of keas, it’s pure sense of wonder.

JV: Heart of Darkness is clearly an influence. What influences on the book might readers be surprised by?

JS: When I was much younger I watched regularly a TV show, popular at the time, called Thirtysomething. There was one episode in which the main couple was having a fight. The fight was shown on screen from both points of views of the participants–how differently they experienced and actually “saw” what happened. In the man’s point of view he was trying to calm down the woman by firmly holding her shoulders, and in the woman’s version he was grabbing and shaking her violently. The woman saw herself arguing reasonably, the man saw her screaming hysterically. I never forgot that episode, and the idea of how subjective a person’s experience is has fascinated me ever since. I tried to write something like that into the novel, how totally differently two persons can see the exactly same situation. Especially when they are in a middle of an unconscious power game.

JV: The novel isn’t set in Finland but seems to reflect Finnish themes, in that the wilderness and rural areas are important elements of some Finnish fiction. What is your personal relationship to the wilderness and environment?

JS: My personal relationship to the wilderness is a very close one. I have spent all my childhood living in the middle of woods, the forest starting from almost from the doorstep. Many Finns say that they love nature and it’s very important to them, but they still do not fully respect it. They love to go to the woods to pick wild berries and mushrooms, but when they encounter a poisonous snake or a bear, they feel threatened, like they had gone to an amusement park and then there are suddenly dangerous murderers lurking behind the merry-go-round. In my opinion, the wild nature is something we should respect as it is, and we should remember we are a part of the ecosystem, not some kind of separate entity outside and above it. Birdbrain is a book dealing with power structures, from the simplest one between two persons, to the biggest of them all, namely between nature and culture.

JV: What was the hardest part of writing the novel?

JS: Walking myself the South Coast Track in Tasmania! Real footwork, you could say. My characters walk the track in opposite direction than I did–I wanted them to walk towards the deeper and deeper wilderness as I, sensibly enough, chose to start from the desolate part and go on towards the more civilized areas. So, when I wrote the book, I had to imagine what the uphill section I had myself hiked would feel to descend, how it might feel to approach some place from the opposite direction et cetera. This method finally led to a situation in which I now have two sets of memories of the South Coast Track, my own and my characters’. It feels sometimes very schizophrenic and disturbing—e.g., I am recalling a memory of crossing the Ironbound Range and the first memories that come to mind are of [my characters] Jyrki and Heidi, not my own ones.

JV: In looking at the Finnish fiction scene, or even just the SF/Fantasy scene in Finland, what kinds of new trends do you see?

JS: Some years ago it seemed that in Finland a book still had to be realistic to be considered as “real” literature. But for some time there have been books with touches of magical realism, horror-laced stories and even some New Weird-style books on bestseller lists and getting important awards. The Finnish SF/F scene is very active and very fresh, as it has been for decades. There has been a strong fantasy vein in the YA market, which is based on Finnish mythology and folklore instead of standard Tolkien rip-offs. We have some good hard SF writers, like Risto Isomäki, who has a strong ecological vein in his works and has some following even outside the SF circles, and J. Pekka Mäkelä, who is an “old-fashioned” SF writer in a good sense, locating his works even on alien planets and in space. The SF/F writer circles and fandom are extremely active in creating new trends to bubble under, like the Realist Fantasy movement or New Pulp.

JV: What new Finnish authors are you most excited about?

JS: There are some young and promising writers who very beautifully dance on the thin line between genre fiction and fine, artful writing, unashamedly picking the best parts from both. Essi Kummu, Siri Kolu, Tiina Raevaara, Miina Supinen, Marko Hautala and Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen come first to mind.

JV: Can you tell us what other projects you’re working on?

JS: Currently I’m scripting an art exhibition. Sounds weird, but it’s a very fun project. The main art museum of my hometown Tampere has its 80th anniversary and they wanted to do something different for the celebratory exhibition. They contacted me and asked if I would like to give it a thought. I got at once very interested in the museum building itself. It is quite old and was a state granary before it was converted to a museum. During the WWII the museum was emptied of art and it functioned as wartime offices for the regulation bureau. I started immediately to think all kinds of alternate, fictional purposes for the building. What if a Russian oligarch had used it as his love nest? What if it was used as an orphanage? What if, in the future, it was ruined and has a reputation as a haunted house? For the exhibition, I’m writing several alternate histories for the house and choosing artwork that reflects those histories for each piece of fiction from the museum collections. The texts and some of the chosen artwork are published as a book which is on sale in the museum.

After finishing the exhibition, I am starting to put finishing touches to my new novel that will be published in September. Its working title is “Of the Blood of Angels”. It’s a near future story in which the bees are disappearing from the world. As many people may already know, there has been a kind of an epidemic already amongst bees, a quite mysterious one, called Colony Collapse Disorder, that empties beehives all around the globe. In my book, a super-CCD is rampant and the world is on the verge of collapse. But that’s not even the main idea, just the background for a story of a man, a beekeeper, who loves his son so much that he is ready to venture somewhere no one has gone before…

World Fantasy Award winner Jeff VanderMeer grew up in the Fiji Islands and has had books published in over 20 countries. His books, including the bestselling City of Saints & Madmen, have made the year’s best lists of The Wall Street Journal, LA Weekly, the Washington Post, the San Francisco Chronicle, and many more. He reviews books for, among others, the New York Times Book Review, the Washington Post Book World, and the Los Angeles Times, as well as being a regular columnist for the Omnivoracious book blog. Current projects include the short story collection The Third Bear, the UK publication of his noir fantasy novel Finch (Atlantic), The Steampunk Bible (Abrams; with S.J. Chambers) and the forthcoming anthologies, co-edited with his wife Ann, The Weird: A Compendium of Strange and Dark Fictions (Atlantic) and The Thackery T. Lambshead Cabinet of Curiosities (HarperCollins). He maintains a blog at and serves as assistant director to the teen SF/F writing camp Shared Worlds.

3 Comments on [GUEST POST] Jeff VanderMeer Interviews Johanna Sinisalo

  1. Great interview. I’ve been wanting to pick this up for awhile now. I never thought I would see the convergence of two things I love – scifi and birds.

    Here’s a video of Caledonian Crows being filmed in New Zealand using tools. The intelligence of these birds is quite amazing.

  2. jay daze // May 14, 2011 at 12:42 am //

    Thanks for the interview! I saw Sinisalo read at the Vancouver Writers Festival and loved Troll, a very creepy modern love story. Can’t wait to read Birdbrain.

  3. I just finished reading Birdbrain, in my cabin deep in the Finnish forests!  Yes, I agree that although the book is set in NZ and Tasmania, it still retains a certain Finnishness – Jyrki is such a Finn. Heidi is more enigmatic, her character is more complex: she changes both physically and mentally when she cuts her long dark hair and manipulates her way out of her corporate PR job! 

    The short sections related by a “nameless narrator” (I thought it was Heidi’s brother) also reminded me that this quiet country with its lakes and forests has an insidious dark side…  while I was reading the book an incident occured in the village near to our cabin.  A couple of youths (poachers) had driven a stolen car into a river (where trout were spawning) and punctured the gas tank and the oil reservoir spilling the contents into the water and contaminating the lake downstream.  This was “revenge” against their recent poaching conviction for illegal fishing. The incident seemed eerily akin to the cutouts in the novel and indeed to the environmental themes in the book.

    There is all the suspense of Deliverance but with some kind of a love story dug in there barely reaching the surface (except possibly at the end) and a lot about human relationships: manipulation, dominance, vulnerability.  I love the fact that there is so much ambiguity and room for interpretation (as Sinisalo explains in the interview).

    I haven’t read Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (and I’m not (yet) an avid SF reader) but I will now.  In the meantime, Birdbrain was my best read this summer!

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