Interview with Johanna Laitila

Johanna Laitila answers HLA’s questions

Lilium regale is certainly a very exceptional debut for many reasons: various timelines, historical and linguistic backgrounds, rich and poetic language, complicated characters. Could you tell us a little about the beginning: how all this was born and laid in one (debut!) novel?

The story started to form against a mosaic of words and memories, historical details, and tales of wartime Lapland I had heard growing up. Initially, I had this visual image in my mind of an old woman lying in bed, not moving, with another woman sitting by the bed, resting her palm on the silent woman’s back. I wanted to find out how they got there, what their story was. There was also a thematic pull toward the intertwined threads of language, body, and sexuality that informed my writing from the beginning.

The plot mainly revolves around Else, a young girl who’s forced to flee the war, and her family; it is also about Else’s experiences meeting unconventional characters, discovering herself and her sexuality. However, it could hardly be called a traditional coming-of-age or coming-out story, nor these discoveries are so black and white: it seems that characters are rather trying to find the form of true love than just experimenting with exciting, sometimes forbidden sensations. Would you agree? And if so, do you think your characters find true love, eventually? 

I have suggested that how the reader views the ending of the story seems to work as a test as to whether they are a romantic or a cynic. Though I obviously have my own take on this, it is open to interpretation whether the characters find fulfilment, and, in fact, whether it is a love story at all. 

Having said that, I am interested in exploring how encounters outside traditional notions of true love, hindered by shame, circumstance or coincidence, can be profoundly transformative, as significant as sharing an entire lifetime with someone. The relationships between women in the novel are, therefore, no doubt beyond experimentation, no matter how you read the ending. In fact, I wanted to look into how the physical and linguistic connections between women, which often are invisible in our culture, can form a continuum parallel to – or indeed as opposed to – biological reproduction. 

The act of storytelling in particular, functions as a means of identity formation outside the limits of dominant social norms. There is an element of privileging the moment to this, and, in this way, storytelling and the bodily ties between women described in the book seek to unsettle the hierarchy between true love and mere experimentation. In stories, as in life, fleeting touches, evanescent words, and emotional blind alleys that lead nowhere, in conventional terms, can be equally valuable and intriguing as happy endings.

There are quite a few exceptional female characters that play big roles in the novel: they’re strong, smart, in some ways – all searching for a way to be free in a very conventional society. How intentional was this idea? Did you have any real-life prototypes for these women?

I did set out to write about characters that are in conflict with the society that they live in. Both established stories about the war and oral family histories exclude sexual minorities and often women, too – not to mention ethnic minorities, people with disabilities or individuals with mental health issues. This creates a distorted view of the past that, in the absence of primary historical sources, can perhaps only be approached through fiction writing and other art forms. I wanted to focus on these silent voices, on stories that exist in the margins. 

While the female characters are, indeed, strong, they are simultaneously complex and flawed. It is, of course, exactly contradictions and weaknesses that make fictional characters – and human beings per se – fascinating and loveable. In each of the characters, there are definitely fragments of actual people. These are purely scattered echoes, though, and none of the main characters has a counterpart in the real world. 

The novel has received a lot of praise for its language: it has its melody, poetry and absolutely enchanting rhythm – even when depicting difficult, sometimes gruesome things. These features can often be spotted in the works of Northern Finnish authors, don’t you think? How much has your native surroundings – Northern Finland – influenced your writing style, sense of language?

The work of other Northern Finnish authors certainly resonates with me, and there is a sense of literary belonging and shared cultural space that I recognise and appreciate. In Lilium regale, my Northern background is most visibly evident in the use of dialect in the dialogue.  Also the immediate, tactile connection to the natural world and a certain melancholia attached to it, the beat of the four seasons present in the rhythm of the novel, as well as the abstract use of language can be seen as elements of a specifically Northern Finnish literary tradition. 

However, I would say that having lived away from my native Northern Finland for the majority of my life thus far has had as much of an influence on my writing as my childhood spent there. This distance, and having reached a point where native had, in part, already become alien, introduced a sense of urgency to my writing and a need for an emotional and linguistic pursuit for origins. To an extent, writing the novel while living in Scotland responded to a longing, it was a process of rediscovery of language and landscape that were far away, yet rooted within me.  

What are your plans for the near future? What can the readers expect?

With my second novel, I will move away from the Second World War period but continue to write in poetic prose with language as its driving force.

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? 

Ruska. The Finnish word for autumn colours.

What is your least favorite word?

Kitarisat. Adenoids.

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? 

Silence and solitude, art and dialogue. 

What turns you off? 

Clutter – be it emotional or physical.

What is your favorite curse word? 

Vittu. Fuck.  

What sound or noise do you love? 

The warm, thick breathing of old libraries.

What sound or noise do you hate? 

The grating of dry soil against a terracotta pot.

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

Lighthouse keeper.

What profession would you not like to do? 

Entomologist.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?

“Who would have thought… well, now that you’re here, my pal Fyodor will pour you a nice, strong cup of coffee to calm those travel nerves and if you’d like to stay the night, Virginia will show you to a room of your own.”