Metamorphosis Is the Most Permanent Characteristic of Life: An Interview With Leena Krohn
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Julia Johanne Tolo: A big portion of your stories and novels from your productive career is now being released together in your Collected Fiction. How do you think it affects the reader to have everything all together, as opposed to how Finnish readers received your work, by following your career over many years?
Leena Krohn: Jeff and Ann VanderMeer have done an enormous job in editing this opus. Leafing through it, I’ve wondered how, when, and why this L. Krohn has written so very many words. Who has the energy to read them all? I don’t think that I have many readers who have made the effort to read all my books from the past forty years. Of course, this kind of collection quickly gives potential readers an overall picture of a writer’s work, of what the focal point of the writer’s work is, and what the writer is aiming for, if perhaps not achieving.
JJT: This is the largest and most wide-ranging collection of your work published in English, and it will allow you to reach a large audience that you were unavailable to before. How do you think American and English readers will react to your stories? What differences, if any, do you perceive between Finnish and Nordic readers as opposed to American and English readers?
LK: When starting out as a writer, I never even dreamt that my books would one day be translated. Nowadays in Finland, many aspiring writers write in English in the hopes of gaining a wider readership. I don’t believe that a person can write well in a language they haven’t practiced since childhood. One also shouldn’t think about readers, but about what one has to say, if anything. If you don’t have anything to say, even the language of angels won’t help.
As a child and a youngster, I read a great deal of translated literature. English-language writers who were, and are, important to me include Edgar Lee Masters, Edgar Allan Poe, Emily Dickinson, and Thornton Wilder. Being a Finn has not prevented me from understanding and loving world literature. I doubt it would prevent English-speaking readers from finding what I have wanted to say, either. Good readers are the same everywhere. Of my books, Pereat Mundus was for the most part received poorly in Finland. Perhaps it will be easier for English-speaking readers to accept, we shall see.
JJT: I would argue that a lot of your writing explores the human mind and experience through fantastical storylines, and by exploring darker parts of our society: murder, crime, the grotesque, life and death. You also write compellingly about the natural world, and after reading your work, I am always left with the feeling that I have learned something profound about our world and how to live in it. I read that you “put your entire life philosophy” in your book Tainaron, would you care to explain and perhaps say something about how what this philosophy has meant to your writing?
In the afterword to Tainaron, I wrote that the closer one looks at insects, the more it seems that everything that happens in their world has an equivalent in the human world. There are parallel realities living on this star, and their inhabitants are ignorant of one another. Nevertheless, all living creatures are connected by numerous interdependencies. I don’t know that I have an actual philosophy. I am just shocked by the transience and beauty of human and other life. It is wounded by this shock that I write what I write.
JJT: You’ve explored many different genres, poetry, novels, short stories, essays, children’s literature and songs. I’m especially interested to hear how you would compare writing children’s literature to writing for adults?
LK: When writing for children, one writes for everyone who is immature, and adults, too, are immature, each in their own way. I still admire the same writers that I loved as a child: H. C. Andersen, Lewis Carroll and Kenneth Graham. Brevity, clarity and richness, which Andersen praised, are the highest virtues for any writer of prose.
However, when writing for children, one’s work must be even more brief, clear and rich. One must instil the young with joy and hope even when writing about difficult things. To do so is not to lie, but to speak the truest of truths, because without joy and hope, life cannot go on.
JJT: As Jeff VanderMeer writes in his introduction to “Lucilia Illustris,” you often write “mosaic” novels, brief pieces that can be read individually or as a whole. How did you arrive at this style and what do you enjoy about it?
KL: When I was sixteen, I read Harry Martinson’s novella Vägen till Klockrike (The Road), which is made up of chapters, each of which is like a short story. It was a long time before I understood just how powerfully this particular minor masterpiece influenced how I write. Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey and, much later, Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio charmed me with their kaleidoscopic nature. I think that the human brain weaves stories even when sleeping in order to stay healthy and functioning. I often write the stories or “acts” that make up my novels without deciding their order in advance. They become like a deck of cards that can be shuffled and arranged according to different criteria. This stage, in particular, gives me great satisfaction. Sometimes randomness produces the best result.
JJT: Why did you decide to make the narrator of “Lucilia Illustris” a forensic entomologist, as opposed to the many other parts of a forensic investigative team? I am also interested in the theme of metamorphosis and in investigating the natural world, in “Lucilia Illustris” and in much of your other work, both in the sense of what happens in the life of an insect, and in the more general term of transition between life and death. Would you care to comment?
My early interest in the life of ant hills and puddles of rainwater as well as in J. H. Fabre’s essays on insect life were some of the foundations of Tainaron. They also influenced the creation of the narrator of “Lucilia Illustris.” Baudalaire’s fierce poem “Une Charogne,” two lines of which I chose for “Lucilia”’s motto, has followed me, nearly torturing, since my early youth. A long time ago, I also read a very enlightening article in a science magazine about entomology as used in forensic investigation, which was of use when writing “Lucilia.” The story’s entomologist hears the voice of life and continuity even in the humming heat of decay. In her work, she has to think about the nature of time, about laws that hold true in both life and death. I think that metamorphosis is the strongest and most permanent characteristic of life. The imperative power of change, which cannot really be separated from time, gives birth to us and also murders us, taking us from one unknown to another unknown. We ourselves are the instruments and tools of this same power, because we cannot live without changing each other and our surroundings. The only thing we really own is our consciousness. It is the queen who alone directs everything that happens in the hive. When she is gone, we can ask where she went. We will hear no answer.
Translated by J. Robert Tupasela
Leena Krohn (born in 1947 in Helsinki) is a critically acclaimed Finnish author. Her large and varied body of work includes novels, short stories, children’s books, and essays. In her books she deals with topics that include the relationship between imagination and morality, the evolution of synthetic forms of life, and the future of our species.
Krohn has received several prizes for both adult and children’s fiction, including the Finlandia Prize for literature in 1992, the Pro Finlandia Medal of the Order of the Lion of Finland (1997; returned in protest for ethical reasons), and the Aleksis Kivi Fund Award for lifetime achievement in 2013. Her short novel Tainaron: Mail From Another City was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in 2005. Her books have been translated into English, German, Bulgarian, French, Estonian, Hungarian, Japanese, Korean, Latvian, Lithuanian, Norwegian, Polish, Russian, Swedish and Italian. Leena Krohn used digital tools in her literary work well before they became popular in mainstream literary circles.