Interview with Juhani Karila
“Fishing for the Little Pike” (in German “Der Fluch des Hechts“) was reviewed with enthusiasm here at booknerds. In Finland, its home country, the novel already received three awards and this year it was shortlisted for the German award Internationaler Literaturpreis as well. We are therefore happy to have been able to conduct an in-depth interview with the author, Juhani Karila. Special thanks goes to homunculus verlag for making this interview possible.
(Die deutsche Übersetzung des Interviews gibt es hier.)
First, can you briefly introduce yourself?
I’m Juhani Karila, 37 years old. Originally I’m from Lapland, but I’ve been living in Helsinki for about 10 years now. I am educated to be a journalist and I worked as a literary critic for three newspapers. But for the last five years, I’ve mainly been writing my own stuff. I’m trying to learn to say that I’m a professional writer, although it’s sometimes difficult. Especially if I’m asked expectantly what I have written and the people often don’t know any of the titles. To say that I’m a reporter or a journalist is much easier. I also have a spouse and a kid who is 2.5 years old and who keeps me quite busy.
Your novel “Fishing for the Little Pike” is often said to be magical realism. Would you agree with this?
I don’t know. I think such genre names are good for people to talk about books. Although magical realism is a very big umbrella term, so it’s not very accurate.
That is true, magical realism is a very broad term. For me, I think it’s a way to distinguish it a bit from fantasy, because it’s more of a matter-of-fact-style inclusion of magic, with a bigger focus on the real world and day-to-day situations.
In that sense, it fits. When I wrote the book, I thought more about pure fantasy, I didn’t think about magical realism that much. When I was young, I read a lot of David Eddings and Robert Jordan, these old-school fantasy writers, and I wanted the book to have some of those elements. A bunch of people who have different kinds of abilities and then they are going to face this hideous main monster or something. That’s what I wanted to plant into the story. But yes, for me it was very important to have a realistic frame for the story, too. So it turned out to be magical realism and that’s totally fine.
Let’s talk about your mythical creatures for a moment. You said they are inspired by a mix of folklore and beliefs from different countries and that you invented and added most of their traits and looks yourself. Which of the creatures was the most fun for you to write and why?
Well, I have to admit that the Pejooni was really fun to write. Also, many readers have said that the Pejooni is their favorite character. But the Hattara was very fun to write as well. Especially the scene where he goes to the shop and eats everything. Or anything else connected to the Hattara.
What do you imagine Janatuinen and the Pejooni are up to now? Is the Pejooni happy in the south and can he adapt?
Those are questions that I have been thinking about myself, too. People have been asking if I am going to write some kind of sequel to the novel. I have a story in my head and some of that is already on paper but I’m not sure if I’m ever going to write it or publish it. But I have some ideas and because I’m not sure whether I will publish anything or not, I will not reveal anything.
You said you grew up in Eastern Lapland, where the book is set as well. How would you describe life there? Is it very similar to how you describe it in your novel?
I think it’s similar in the atmosphere. Some of the ways people act and speak in the novel have their roots in real life. I have dramatized and exaggerated things a lot, but basically, it is actually like that. Writing about those things was very important to me personally, too. Maybe I have come to an age where one needs to contemplate one’s roots and where he or she comes from. I really wanted to know what kind of product I am, being from there. Because in Helsinki, I feel like I’m not part of these people. I am definitely a product of Lapland. And I really needed to solve that for myself.
And how was your connection to nature influenced by your growing up in Lapland?
I grew up in a very small village and in that remote village, our house was the most remote house. And there was a forest and a swamp at our house, so it’s almost like the house in the book. I really liked fishing and I did long walks in the forests and swamps near the house. I fished a lot with my dad and I have very good childhood memories of that time. So, at that time I spent a lot of my time outdoors, but in the south, I haven’t done that much. I haven’t fished since I moved to the south to study journalism at the university. Nowadays, I don’t have that much time and also the environment here is totally different. The trees are too high, and things look wrong. So here I want to do some other, urban stuff.
As nature and also climate change are prevalent topics in your novel: What is the most important lesson you want people to take away regarding these?
Some of the things in the book are rather vague, but the points regarding climate change are quite obvious. And well, my message is that we are in the middle of the collapse of our biosphere, biodiversity is going down, it’s so obvious – at least it should be to everyone – and I cannot imagine writing anything that isn’t commenting on it in any way. It is such a huge part of our lives. I can see it myself when I visit Lapland. There are fewer birds, fewer insects. Many of the species of birds that were very common when I was a kid have just vanished. My parents still live in the house and I ask them if they have seen these or those kinds of birds and they say they haven’t seen them for a couple of years. The air is more empty than before. If you pay attention to your surroundings, I think everyone could notice the change and I guess this is happening everywhere in the world. I’m just saying: We’re in the middle of it, it’s happening and, yeah, it’s sad. Also, I wanted the monsters in the book to be on the same level as the real animals. They are all the same fauna and they are all doing quite badly.
One last question regarding Lapland. I took Asko and Efraim to be a couple, is that correct? And can you say something about how accepted same-sex or queer relationships are in such remote places in Finland, like where the novel takes place?
Yes, they are a couple. Those areas I come from, the small villages, are quite conservative, I guess. When you listen, for example, to my parents or older people living there – and most of the people who live there tend to be old – they grew up in a different world and they are not adjusted to so many things, we are used to. You can hear that they come from the past and it can be quite tiring. I’ve had some conversations about it, but I think that in this generation if they don’t accept the new attitude right away, they simply do not want to learn, so that’s a bit sad. But it is how it is. I’m not saying it’s a very hostile environment, it’s just that they don’t understand and they are not used to it and when people don’t understand or are not used to it, things can get complicated. But I knew that people around there would read my book, so I really wanted to put that man couple there to show them that it is totally normal. In the book, they are accepted in the community and it’s just like “okay whatever”. I saw it as a way to communicate this to the people.
Let’s talk a bit more about your characters. Which character was the most fun for you to write?
Well, Elina, the main character, she’s quite serious, but it was fun to write her because of how the story turned out and I think I did a good job with her struggle. Even though she is a serious character, I really liked writing her.
And is there a specific reason why Pöllö’s real first name Juhanijänis is so similar to yours?
“Jänis” means “rabbit”. I don’t remember when or where, but someone called me Juhanijänis and it sounded fun, so I just put it there and never changed it, so it’s in the story and it came from my name, but it just sounded fun.
I found it very interesting what you said about Elina being a man in your first draft and that you did not have to rewrite her at all after changing the name. I was wondering if Jousia was intended to be a woman and if that’s the case, did you rewrite him much? Because I can see traits in him that are stereotypically manly.
Yeah, I switched their genders after the first draft. I had written about one hundred pages of the story when I did the change and after that, I wrote Jousia to be a man. Maybe that unconsciously affected how I wrote his character.
Whose worldview do you subscribe to more: Elina’s, who is more pragmatic and stoic, or Jousia’s, who is more idealistic?
I guess more Elina’s, but yeah, people are these mixtures of everything, so I can relate to some parts of them both. They just represent the different ideals for getting drama.
Is there anything you would like to tell people dealing with heavy guilt, similar to Elina?
Yeah, only one piece of advice: Talk, talk, talk! This is what Pöllö is also trying to achieve when they are sitting in the kitchen and he’s like: “Tell me what’s wrong!”, but Elina doesn’t tell him. That’s a very typical way to react. I know that myself, as I have also done my homework and it’s been a struggle for me too. But speaking up is always a good choice. At least almost always.
Is the Finnish concept of sisu important to you or is that more of a stereotype?
I think it’s more the latter. It’s a very common thing when talking about Finns but I guess everybody in the world has sisu and it’s just this nationality brand thing.
Can you say something about when we can anticipate an English translation, as the rights have been sold to English publishers?
Yes, I just got an English draft from the translator to read through and comment on. I don’t know when it’s going to come out, but at least the first version is ready.
What about translations for your short story collections, as they are only available in Finnish right now?
My short stories are quite quirky and absurd, with this Daniel Harms kind of stuff. I think I would have to be a really big writer for an audience abroad to take interest in those short stories. I wrote them in very different styles and they are not that easy to follow, so I really understand that the rights haven’t been sold anywhere. So, I’m waiting for my Philip Roth moment, when everything I write is spreading everywhere [laughs].
You said that playing “The Witcher 3” was an inspiration for the coexistence of your magical creatures and the people. The stories are obviously quite different, but could you imagine your novel being adapted as a game?
Well, I’m very much into video games, so why not? That would be really cool. I have nothing against it. I think, if you were to make a game out of it, there are things you would have to focus on in the story and make it more straightforward. But I don’t know, I’m not a professional game developer. But that would be something.
Can we anticipate a book that is set in wintery Lapland?
Yeah, I have played with the thought and at some point, I would like to write about winter in Lapland, too. The summer is very important in the book, I really wanted to capture the light and the atmosphere of the summer and I would like to do the same for winter. I think I have something to say about it, but I am not sure what the story will be and when I will write it. But it’s good to know or think that I have things to say and things to write. It feels good that I have work to do ahead.
And what are you working on at the moment?
I’m writing this science fiction story and it’s really fun. I didn’t really think about genre while writing “Fishing for the Little Pike”, but now I specifically want to write a science fiction novel. Maybe also in a way, like in this book, that it’s very realistic and down to earth. Nowadays, science fiction is very much about AI and complicated technical vocabulary and I really wanted to make something that’s old-school science fiction. About the people and the things, they do with their hands. The surroundings are the planets and the universe and the big space crafts, but the people are somehow very real. That’s the challenge I’m struggling with right now and it’s really fun and rewarding.
You said Arto Paasilinna was a great inspiration for your writing. Which is your favorite book by him or which one would you recommend the most?
I have to admit, it’s been a while now since I have read Arto Paasilinna. The last time I read something by him I felt that it was very ridiculous, in a bad way, simple and naive. It was a big thing for me when I was young, but now I have grown out of Arto’s world. But in one book [“Heaven Help Us”], God lives in a tower in Bulgaria and goes on vacation, so he hires a normal guy from Finland to replace him and do all the God-stuff for a while. I really loved that and now that I’m talking about it, the idea is really fun and I really enjoyed it when I read it. So I could recommend that one.
Do you have a recommendation for people who want to get into Finnish literature?
I have to think about what has been translated. I really love the style of Rosa Liksom. She’s also living here in Helsinki but she is from Western Lapland. She wrote the novel “Compartment No. 6”, which was just made into a movie that won a prize at the Cannes Film Festival last year. It’s a small, fantastic book about this train trip in Russia, where a young female Finnish student and an older Russian conservative guy sit in the same train cabin and have conversations. It’s a thin book, but it’s really deep and I like it.
Since we talked about magical realism, do you like the genre yourself and if you do, do you have a book recommendation?
Lately, I haven’t read magical realism, but I like magical stuff and monsters. I really loved Marquez’s “One Hundred Years of Solitude”, which I think is the biggest title of the whole genre and this South American type of magical realism, so this is one I really liked.
Lastly, a very short question: What is your favorite thing about writing in one word?
The interview was written by Frederike Gartzky.