At a quiet corner of the bar at The Stirling Highland Hotel, during Bloody Scotland in September 2014, SHOTS caught up with Kati Hiekkapelto - a Finnish writer and artist - and chatted about her novel THE HUMMINGBIRD, amongst other things …
SJIH: Hi Kati, welcome to Shots! Your first novel ‘The Hummingbird’ has already done very well in Finland and it’s out now in English. How does it feel to be bringing your work to a wider audience?
KH: It’s amazing… that it’s here in front of my eyes. It’s quite a miracle for me as they always said it was very hard to get Finnish books published in English, and this just happened quite easily, I think…
SJIH: Are there not many Finnish authors published in English then?
KH: There are others, but no, not many. There are many more Swedish and Norwegian.
SJIH: Can you tell us a bit about it? Where did you get the idea, what made you want to write this book and tell this particular story?
KH: Actually, it was just a sudden idea that ‘Oh it would be great to write crime fiction’ and then secondly, I realised that I wanted the main character to be a female immigrant and that is how it began. I was sitting on the ferry, I came from work – I live on an island – I got this idea, and then I started to think about it. But back then I didn’t have time to write because I was working, and family and everything, but this was haunting me so badly that I had to figure out how would I do it, so I took a Sabbath year from my work, and then I approached it.
SJIH: So you took a whole year off work. Wow. Did you manage to write and edit it all in this time, or did it take you longer?
KH: It took that year, and of course when I got the publisher we had to work a bit more.
SJIH: I think I would feel too much pressure if I took a year out to write, I’d feel like I wouldn’t be able to do it…
KH: But that was also good, because I realised that this was my only opportunity. In Finland we have these regulations that you can have a Sabbath year every fifth year, so I thought if I can’t do it now then I have to wait five more years until I can do it again, so it was now or never.
SJIH: Anna is a very complex character. You mentioned that you had the idea to make her an immigrant, but her background as well – I found it fascinating because it taught me a lot about a part of the world and culture that I didn’t know anything about. Is it because of your work experience, working with immigrants, that you wanted to give a voice to that kind of person? Or was it just because you found her interesting and you thought that this story would work? How did you develop her?
KH: Actually, first I thought that she would be an Afghan woman because I also know something about the Afghanistan situation and Afghan culture and I wanted a feminist approach to be there too, and the situation for women in Afghanistan is, as we all know, very bad. I even started to write the book with this character then realised that, oh, I don’t know enough about this and I’d have to do so much background work. It was too hard, after all. Then I was thinking about what it should be… I wanted her to be somewhere around 30 years old and I wanted her to speak fluent Finnish, so she must have come to Finland when she was a kid – not too small, but not too old – but perfect enough to remember her own language and learn the new – so she had to be something between like 7 and 10, and then I just realised – ha! The Yugoslavian war was then… and, my ex husband is from there, so it’s very close to me. I’ve lived there, in Serbia, I speak fluent Hungarian. It was so close to me that I didn’t realise it immediately. When I figured out that this was the solution, I was so relieved! This is it, yes… this is how it should be: she is a Hungarian, from Yugoslavia.
SJIH: I read up a bit on your work and I think you did your thesis on racism and immigration. You brought this in, obviously, with the character of Esko (I thought he was horrible, but then realised that actually, he’s not that bad). Was it important for you to use a character like that, to put that message across as well?
KH: Unfortunately we have these kind of men in Finland, these, I would say ‘red neck’ types. It was important to me also because I wanted to somehow challenge my own prejudice because I think that there are also humanist assholes in the world! Not only this kind of men are assholes. Nobody is totally black and white. In every person there are many dimensions, good and bad – that’s why Esko is a very important character for me. In the second book I will go deeper into his mind.
SJIH: I was hoping that. That’s something I mentioned in my review… that there might be more of Esko and Anna as a partnership, maybe? A fractious partnership. It’s making me think of TV programmes with the two of them, really bouncing off each other. So, the Aztecs – I love stuff like that, the history of these things… did you specifically look for something that you could fit in, or was this something that you already knew about and were interested in? It seemed to be used kind of as a metaphor for serial killers, but also a specific motif with the hummingbird…
KH: Ah, that was also just an idea. I was thinking that… the murder makes it look like a serial killer kind of murders, and why and what would the killer do to make the killings look like that… and I just got the idea that there could be some kind of amulet or necklace or something there. I don’t know where it came from!
SJIH: I think like that because when I’m writing things, I try to find things like this… you can spend hours researching…
KH: I hate that research!
SJIH: It just sucks up all your time forever! So the second book is already out in Finland, and then out here next year?
SJIH: Ok, so can you tell us anything about it?
KH: The second book is about illegal immigrants and drugs and immigrant gangs, specifically a gang called ‘Black Cobra’, which is a real gang – they are in Denmark and in Sweden. They are strong, and there has been a real threat that they are spreading to Finland. So this is mainly what it is about. It’s also about going ‘back home’. I was thinking a lot about what is home and how it is different for different people – like for us, we just go home after work and we don’t even think about it. But it’s not like that for many, many people.
SJIH: So obviously Anna and Esko are in the second book, what about Sari and Rauno? Is Anna still working in the same place?
KH: Rauno is not so much in the second book as he is on sick leave after what happened to him. Sari is there – but this is mainly about Esko and Anna.
SJIH: Just to change direction slightly… you have a background in punk… do you write songs? How do you think that helps you with writing prose? Does it translate, or is it completely different?
KH: It’s completely different. It’s more like writing poems, but you know, punk songs are not so difficult poems! I used to write poems when I was a kid, simple poems, and now somehow I feel like I have come back to this childhood poem writing… I write relatively simple words and simple sentences, but they are really strong…
SJIH: Strong messages in small doses? That’s why I was thinking about the similarities with crime writing… Obviously I haven’t heard your lyrics, and as it’s in Finnish I wouldn’t know what you were singing about anyway!
KH: [laughs] Well, we sing about middle-aged women and we think that middle-aged crises are much more inspiring than teenage crises!
SJIH: Definitely! So, we briefly mentioned Scandinavian crime writers… have you been inspired by them to write, or did you just feel that need to write crime? Do you read crime a lot, or is it just something that has come to you? And who do you like to read?
KH: At the moment I don’t read crime fiction at all, since when I started to write The Hummingbird… after that I haven’t read one crime fiction book. I’ve tried, but I just can’t. I don’t know why, but I’m not able to do it, which is sad because I really like them. Maybe one day I can do it again! But yes, I was reading mostly Swedish and Norwegian. Actually, I haven’t read any Finnish crime… or maybe some, but not much.
SJIH: Do you read American writers? Or British? Do you have any favourites or inspirations?
KH: Agatha Christie when I was a child – I read all of hers. Håkan Nesser is one of my favourite Swedish, and Åke Edwardson, and also Steig Laarson, Karin Fossum – from Norway. These are my favourites.
SJIH: What about Jo Nesbo?
KH: Hmm, I like him, but he’s not my favourite.
SJIH: There are so many… it’s nice to have that though – that mixture, so you can learn more about the cultures. Anyway, now for my final question… you might not know the answer yet because maybe you haven’t been asked loads of questions, but what does no one ever ask you that you wish that they would ask you?
KH: I wish that they wouldn’t ask me ‘why are you writing crime fiction’ because everybody asks me that!
SJIH: But it’s really hard not to ask that question!
KH: I really don’t know, I’m sorry! In Finland they are mainly interested in me, and that’s weird for me as I want to write about immigration and how is it to be alien, and nobody ever asks about these things.
SJIH: Well we like both… it’s good to know what made you write the book. But yes, people want to know about you… Nesbo’s like a big star, isn’t he? We don’t really have author ‘stars’ like that here… over here you can just meet everyone in the bar…
SJIH: Thanks Kati, best of luck with The Hummingbird. Looking forward to the next one.
KH: Thank you!
Arcadia Books (15 Sep 2014)