Interview with J. P. Laitinen

J. P. Laitinen answers HLA’s questions:

You have a background in environmental journalism, which brought you several honorary mentions and awards. However, your debut, award-winning novel Fictional takes a completely different turn. How does one leap from environmental issues to a philosophical stream of consciousness revolving around the limits of reality and self?

I really had to make an effort to keep climate change out of the novel. It constantly tried to get in through the back door. But I stayed firm. However, the story does get a political twist when Henry the protagonist finds himself speaking about alternative facts and populism in front of thousands of people in a demonstration.

One of the principal things that the main character Henry Qualia is pondering on the way to the hospital to his long-lost love, are humanly delusions of what reality actually is: we learn to think about the world – and about ourselves – in terms created by others. Would it be wrong to say that, with such vision, the protagonist is trying to point out the absurdity of our current daily life and the active presence of post-truth in it?

Henry builds an all-encompassing theory about how we humans interact with the world around us. He argues that our perceiving is largely based on our own imagination and illusion. According to recent neuroscience and psychology, this is actually true to certain extent. Henry takes this idea to the extreme, nearing philosophical solipsism which is the view that the self is all that can be certainly known to exist. For doing this, he has his own reasons. He wants to escape his own past that he is now forced to confront, on the way to meet Laura in the hospital. He also likes to avoid thinking some more practical inconvenient and bothersome things like money and interacting with other people.  

Henry Qualia finds the solution in a fictional human. How would you explain that solution, in a nutshell? And do you think it is adaptable in real life? Is total escapism invoking fiction… well, healthy?

I’m not sure. The truth is, we all live in the middle of a fiction to a certain extent. We constantly tell ourselves stories about what we are like, for example, and what other people think about us. Right? We create tales about our past, what was done and said to us, and what we used to be like. False memories are a very common phenomena (and a real headache for crime inspectors who interview eye-witnesses). These self-produced, spontaneous stories change through time but we don’t realise it because we always just remember the latest version. Furthermore, our visual and audio perception is largely produced our brain, based on past experiences, not the eyes and ears. So in many ways, humans are fictional beings indeed. Henry takes this further by saying we can consciously produce our own reality and choose its properties. This is actually common practice in NLP, DNRS and other mind control methods. Very useful and healthy indeed. But things get ugly if we concentrate solely on ourselves and forget other people. If you take it too far, egocentrism kills empathy.

One of the side themes in the novel is a certain disappointment, disillusion with the academic world. Personally, this really stuck with me: we tend to think about academics and researchers as the brightest, unquestionable minds of our society. But are they, really? Do you see a need to challenge them?

Not really, but Henry does. He is an outcast in many ways, also professionally. His academic funding ceased because his applications went too wacky at some point. Of course, he thinks the funders are just mental prisoners of the old scientific paradigm while his own research would be a a scientific revolution, a breakthrough into a new paradigm.  

The novel is certainly something very different and rare in the Finnish literary scene. How did the readers take it? And who would you say is the reader of your book?

One reader said she cried. Several have said they couldn’t stop reading until the end. Some are confused by the unreliable narrator technique. Many have asked if certain scenes actually happen in the story or just inside Henry’s head. Although there are some philosophical themes, anyone can read the book. Love and death are both very much there in an old-fashioned storytelling way. So I dare recommend it to any reader of literary fiction.  

What are your plans for the near future? What can the readers expect?
That’s a secret. But I already know climate change is trying to get in again.

Finally, a version of the famous Proust Questionnaire, used by the legendary French journalist Bernard Pivot at the end of every broadcast of his literary television talk show Apostrophes.

What is your favorite word?
Ocean.

What is your least favorite word?
“In the long run” when it’s used in Finnish as an anglicism. Horrible!

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
A kind of energy from within, the kind that makes you enthusiastic.

What turns you off?
All kinds of prejudice and intolerance, especially when used to gain political power. 

What is your favorite curse word?
Lempo. It means devil in Finnish mythology but it has a humorous twist to it. 

What sound or noise do you love?
My teenage son playing Metallica on his electric guitar. And doorbell! You can never know who is there. 

What sound or noise do you hate?
Any noise my phone makes.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Bar pianist.

What profession would you not like to do?
Book-keeping.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
“I told you!”