Wonderbook Interview with Johanna Sinisalo

Johanna Sinisalo was born in Sodankylä in 1958. From 1984 to1997 she worked as a professional designer in advertising, after which she got started as a screenwriter and writer. Among Finland’s most successful SF/Fantasy writers, her novels include the Tiptree Award-winning Troll and Birdbrain, while her short fiction has been reprinted in year’s best anthologies. Her hobbies include astronomy, gastronomy, hiking, literature, and comics.

What role or roles do your nightmares and dreams play in your fiction?

When I learned more about the biological mechanisms of dreaming, somehow the mystery of dreams was gone – like when you learn how to cook and after that you recognize the ingredients and spices and how they are mixed up to create a particular flavour and texture. The food still tastes nice in your mouth, but because you know how the dish is executed, the element of wonder and surprise is lost. Nowadays I tend to be too aware of the ingredients of my dreams to use them as material of fiction.

What’s the process of “cooking” autobiography into fiction for you? Or would you describe it some other way?

Writers have only one reliable source of how to describe the inner feelings of a human being, and it is themselves. All my characters are, in a way, versions of myself. Of course I try to conceal that fact as much as I can.

Sometimes I use some personal experience when building characters and milieus. E.g., in my novel “Troll – A Love Story” the protagonist is a freelance photographer who has an important client in an advertising agency. I have been a keen amateur photographer and also worked in an ad agency so it was very easy to make the situations feel authentic. (I do not always take the easy way out, though – see the next answer.) I think my personal experience plays an important role especially in my novel “Birdbrain”, in which a young couple is hiking in New Zealand and Tasmania. I have completed the same hiking routes as the fictional couple, so I could, in my opinion, describe the process and surroundings quite precisely.

A fun thing is that the imaginary couple did the South Coast Track in Tasmania from east to west, and I did it from the opposite direction, and thus I now have two different memory sets about the hike. If a section of the trek was downhill in the book, it was uphill in real life. Sometimes when I start recalling the journey the “fake” memories come first, and that is a bit disturbing.

What’s your approach to writing your rough draft—what do you need to have figured out in order to commit words to paper?

I’m quite methodical and organized. I need at least a rough outline of the story, some key scenes and the main characters sketched out. Sometimes a working title for the novel or the story helps a lot, too, because it somehow crystallizes what the story is about. The characters must have names – although I may change them during the writing process – and backgrounds. And, of course, I try always to do a thorough background research. (More about that later.)

I know some writers love to just dive in and improvise and see what their imagination next brings forth. I do not think that it is in any sense a “wrong” way, but it’s not the way I like to write. Sketching the story beforehand gives me an opportunity to edit and modify the narrative, find the blind alleys and implausibilities before I start the actual writing process.

How much do your stories change in the telling of them, and do you often wind up someplace very different than you expected?

Writing is like walking in an interesting landscape and meeting forking paths all the time. I have chosen a destination, and I know the way in general, but I also feel free to take another path to it or even change the route altogether if I see something interesting in the horizon. I can always return to the crossroads and take the other way if I meet a blind alley or the views are not what I expected. That takes extra time and effort, but hey, that is what writing is all about!

I rarely change the basic plot dramatically, but sometimes I play with different perspectives: what if the story is told by a bystander and not from the obvious protagonist? How would three different people narrate the exactly same series of events? These experiments greatly help finding where the real essence of the story lies.

What kind of life do your characters have beyond the page? Nabokov used to say the idea of a character coming to life would be as ridiculous as saying a potted plant in the setting had come to life.

It’s a widely known myth that sometimes the characters start to “control” the writing – they are not satisfied with the decisions of the author but stubbornly act just like they want. There is a smidgen of truth in this myth. Sometimes when the written character starts to really emerge and develops a personal history and behavioral patterns and ways to react, I realize this particular character would perhaps not act in a given situation like I have planned, and I have to change the situation, the reaction or the character. And usually I realize the way the character “wants” to do things is the most logical and believable.

I like to sketch my characters a little beyond what the reader will know. I know what they like to eat, how they decorate their homes and what kind of music they like to listen even when I do not use this data in the script at all. I also know this and that about their childhoods and upbringings because these give me tools to motivate the characters and understand their reactions even when the reader does not have this knowledge.

Do you agree that it is part of the writer’s job, in a sense, to inhabit other people’s lives? Are there limits to this, if so?

It would be a serious crime for a writer not to observe the endless versatility of the little weaknesses of humankind and how colourful are the different characters of the people we meet.

Usually other people’s lives include wonderful details and events that no one could invent if he tried. I would never copy someone’s life 1:1 in my fiction, but I am always delighted to find some bits and pieces that make my own characters feel real.

How does the inexplicable inform your fiction?

There is one way of writing weird fiction that I have no skills to produce myself and that’s the dream-like, surrealistic vein. That kind of weird is sometimes extremely charming to read, but if I try to write that way, my brain just screams “highly illogical!” with Spock’s voice. I may have elements in my fiction that sound inexplicable, but there is always logic and hidden rationality beneath them. The logic may, of course, be twisted and fantastic, but it is there.

Again, an example: in the aforementioned novel “Blood of Angels” the protagonist finds a portal to an alternate reality from the attic of a barn. During the story the reader will become aware how some other elements in the story – the mythological characteristics of honey bees and the tragic death of the protagonist’s son – create a version of reality where the portal to The Other Side makes perfect sense. I think that I never write anything fully inexplicable; it’s just a different version of universe – a world with (hopefully) impeccable inner logic, but it just isn’t exactly our world.

On the page, what are the worst ways that a talented writer can self-sabotage or self-betray?

Sometimes writers do not write; they pose. They pretend to write; they assume a role of a writer and just go and fake it. They have strong ideas and preconceptions how one should write to be popular or artistic or topical or fashionable. They write what they think is expected by readers and critics and their friends and relatives and their English teachers, not what they themselves want to write. I also hate when someone says: “I can’t write about that subject because then this or that person would think this and that of me.” A writer, especially a talented writer, should be true to himself. The only way to be a special writer, a unique writer, a writer worth reading and remembering, is to be honest to yourself.

Why do you write?

I remember when I was a kid and had read something very impressive, I thought “gosh, this story made me feel all happy and sad, content and restless at the same time – how the heck it is done?” I started paying attention to literary tools, and when I got a hunch of some tricks of the trade, I thought “well, because books and people behind the books have given me so many wonderful experiences, perhaps one day I could try and give other people experiences, too – just to pay the world back a little.”