Interview with Anu Kaaja

The author Anu Kaaja, known for her inventive prose, answers HLA’s questions:

Your most recent novel, Katie-Kate has it all: mainstream porn, Cinderella stories, social class and feminist commentary… Also, it takes place in Great Britain – not the most usual setting in the Finnish literature. Can you tell us a little bit about the beginnings: how did you come up with the idea for this book?

I’ve always been interested in how women are portrayed in the media, how it affects people’s everyday lives and how we strive to become those images.

I’ve also been fond of the princess imagery since childhood and have never really gotten over it. Woman’s role in the media has changed a lot recently, but I still feel Disney-brainwashed. And the media loves stories about transformations from plain to beautiful and ”making it” from one class to another. So Cinderella stories are very much alive. And it’s still so much about the looks – nowadays with any gender.    

I chose to write about the British royals because they are famous worldwide, and have become a sort of real-life princess-soap opera, especially for people in countries like Finland, where monarchy doesn’t really have that much of a meaning. And with Netflix’s The Crown people will be seeing the royals as fictional characters even more.  

I did my MA in Screenwriting partly in the UK and lived in Manchester for one semester. This was in the late 00s, the era of Katie Price’s fame, and I think that affected me as well.

It is a rather courageous novel – not the least because it includes so many real-life celebrities – such as Kate Middleton, or Princess Diana – and the actual details from their personal lives. Were you nervous at all about putting it out there, mixing up things like porn, unusual sexual games and a real royal family?

Yes! Very. But I think I needed to use the real material to properly deal with my subject. I’m using their public personas, showing the way the media has written about them and making a collage that gives you perspectives on gender roles, class, the power of images and society in general. 

Of course, I’m a bit uneasy thinking that some of them might read this book. I have to trust that they can see the satire and humour there. Of course, they can also hate me for doing this, and that’s their right. 

Personally, and despite the cruel, ironic narrator’s voice in the book, I wish well for the real life characters – Katie Price and the Royal family – even though I might not agree with everything they represent. 

I’m intrigued about your characters: even though they are often rather caricaturistic – elderly royalist couple waiting outside the hospital for the royal baby to be born; the main character’s turns of destiny; Katie Price’s glamour created by the 21st century’s mass media – I must say, personally, in all of them, I also sensed a layer of deep sadness, loneliness. For instance, the main protagonist’s short calls home, reassuring the parents that everything is fine when the real situation is far from that. What is the most intriguing thing for you about your characters? Why did you choose these people in particular?

I somehow admire people who are able to worship something without criticism. And there are real royal fans that do camp outside the hospital and collect the memorabilia; all that inspired me. However, as you said, my made-up characters are very much caricatures and not based on anyone in particular. 

And yes, the protagonist is a very sad, a sort of empty person. I think there is something relatable in having that kind of phase in your life when you don’t really know what you want and just end up somewhere. And there will always be people who’ll take advantage of that and try to make you into something that suits their ideas. 

I’m also fascinated by the people who dedicate their lives to creating an image that fits a certain kind of aesthetics and womanhood, like both Katie Price and Kate Middleton are doing in their own way – and all their imitators and lookalikes!

This is not the first work for you that has a sort of collage-like structure: for instance, the previous novel Leda also mixed fairytales and myths with real life, fiction and metafiction etc. Could you explain what are the inspirations for such writing style?

Coming from a screenwriting background I think a novel is a place where you do anything. I mean, there are no budget limitations, you can do period drama at the same cost as contemporary fiction and you don’t need to follow so many people’s rules and opinions. Prose is a sort of playground for me. I try to challenge the form and myself in everything I do.

I also think meta-fiction speaks to many people because we are constantly aware of so many different things that contradict each other and, at the same time, we still have the same basic human needs and faults – and it’s hard to navigate in all that.  

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

I’m going to go for something completely different! Although some themes seem to find me even if I change the form and style. But I’m going to take a break from porn at least, that world is only good for you in moderate amounts…

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?
In English? Cocoon! Because of the sound of it. 

What is your least favorite word?
Innovation. The way that it’s used to justify things… terrible. 

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Beautiful interiors and gardens in museums, cafés or old mansions and castles.

What turns you off?
When my boundaries are not respected.

What is your favorite curse word?

What sound or noise do you love?
Cat’s purring.

What sound or noise do you hate?
The sound of neighbours fighting behind the wall. 

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

What profession would you not like to do?
Customer service. It would be exhausting to meet so many people. I like to be surrounded by people in cafes, clubs and cinemas, but not interact with them constantly.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly gates? 
“Welcome, here’s the key to the middle part of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights section! There is a techno club as well. And between those hills there is a private house where you can rest and read.”