Interview with J.-P. Pulkkinen

The author of the Vantaa crime series, J.P. Pulkkinen answers HLA’s questions.

Crime novel Vantaa Large Blue reminds me the cult TV series The Wire: its multilayered depth, the history and cultural background of the Vantaa city and Finnish urban life in general, deep and contradictory character portrayals… Maybe the reason for it lays in the fact that you have a strong journalist background – just like creators of the show?

For the past ten years I have been doing series of discussions in the radio about TV series. 

One of the reasons for the need of serious and in-depth analysis of television shows was of course David Simon and The Wire. The way Simon’s “journalistic” method and drama were connected in The Wire is something you can’t stop admiring. Obviously it’s a series about work, about different areas in the society and how the decisions on the top of the hierarchy change lives – the real trickle-down effect. I guess my background as a journalist stood up when I started to write Large Blue, which is much more political than my previous books. And of course the deadlines, they are crucial in journalism as in writing a TV series. I created one for myself and Vantaa series.

Vantaa city is almost a separate character itself – and a quite new one in Finnish literature. Why was it so important to you to give this city such a big role? Why do you find Vantaa so interesting?

Vantaa is part of my history and it has changed so much since I was a kid or a teenager there. It’s like there’s someone who is messing with my memory. In places like Helsinki there is a certain stability, but in Vantaa it’s different. And where there is change – or progress, if you like concepts which have biblical connotations – there are people whose lives are in turmoil. It feels natural to write about big themes like greed, hate and love when you have Vantaa as background. I can’t imagine creating that kind of setup in the quarters of old Helsinki where I have been living for 20 years. Besides that, Vantaa is also the gateway to rural Finland as well as abroad because the airport is there. There are bits and pieces of ancient villages and roads leading to a church from the 15th century and then this hypermodern non-place. And nobody’s written about it!

Tell us a little bit more about the characters. A young police officer Liina Vahtera has a quite unusual personal history. Her partner Timo Markkula, on the other hand, seems like the most usual man on earth, beginning to get weary and doubtful about it all himself, constantly questioning the meaning of his life and work. Also his childhood friend Leo, whose true self is not quite clear even when you reach the end of the book: was he, eventually, the “good guy” or the “bad” one. How do you write your characters? Do they have real-life prototypes?

In Large Blue Liina Vahtera is the rookie character, new kid in town, a way to show the reader how the city works and how police work is done there. So, a structural element in the novel as well as Timo, who is a native of Vantaa. Liina’s background, growing up in circus family, provides her with skills which I use more as a possibility than actually making her perform something over the top. For me, she’s untouchable even though she’s vulnerable in her private life. She is my superhero even though there’s nothing “super” in what she’s doing. Born in 1980 she is also part of a certain generation compared to Timo who is 20 years older. Timo is clearly a surrogate of the writer here, the one who (in the next books) doesn’t move much and who has an opinion on everything.

The evolution, the change of the city is not the same for all. In Large Blue Timo is like the frog in the kettle as the water is slowly getting hotter. He’s adapting to his surroundings, he’s been doing that for all his life. He can’t see what’s obvious for a newcomer. Same goes for Leo. Good and bad are relative, we are all lacking morally, but in a changing environment there are moments when you can see clearly what is right and what is wrong. 

Your book also touches a lot of bleeding wounds of Finnish cities – any cities – and its society. What are the most unnerving and concerning phenomena you’ve observed as a journalist and a city-dweller that you try to tackle in your fiction?

Children left alone, using and selling drugs. Young people living without hope, with nothing to build on. Society with no social bonds. Politics selling hate. Life as a constant rush hour. The obsession with fame, especially in the media.

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

Seven books, that’s the big plan. The second book in the Vantaa series, White Crow, is coming out in August. It happens five years after Large Blue, at the time when hate speech and political division is getting heated up. The refugee crisis is just behind the corner. A politician is murdered. The third book in the series is already on the way. It’s called The Child who Slept in the Red Closet and the story concerns a family, separation, success and the children who get all the crap and survive. 

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?
Wheel. Courtesy of my bicycles.

What is your least favorite word?
Whimper. The sound that makes you wish for the end of the world.

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Acceptance. Not just people who accept me but the words, the pictures, the sounds that seem to lead me somewhere, that connect the dots. 

What turns you off?
Repetition, dead ends.

What is your favorite curse word?
Perhana. Another Finnish name for the Devil with a nice connection to water in “hana”, tap.

What sound or noise do you love?
After distressing and insufferable noise – a silence, where the only thing you hear is the drumstick hitting the side of the snare drum, giving you the beat, the pulse, the time.

What sound or noise do you hate?
The noise that doesn’t have a source or duration, like pain.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Musician, a virtuoso bongo player.

What profession would you not like to do?
Cook. The heat, the smoke, the reluctant foodstuff.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
“And there he is!”