Interview with Juhani Karila

The author of the international bestseller, Fishing for the Little Pike, Juhani Karila answers HLA’s questions .

Your new novel, Fishing for the Little Pike, became quite a sensation already before publishing, when the World French rights were sold. It’s been a while since Finnish literary world has seen anything like your novel. Wild, absurd and humorous plot and style are often being compared to the ones of the legendary Arto Paasilinna. Would you agree with such comparison? Was Paasilinna a deliberate inspiration to your writing, or maybe, someone or something else, completely different?

Arto Paasilinna was a hero of mine when I was a kid so I am flattered by the comparison. I remember reading his best works from the 80s after school, when I was about 11–13 years old, and realizing there are no limits to what you can put in a story. You can take God and place him in a tower in Bulgaria if you like. Paasilinna did that in Heaven Help Us. Things don’t need an explanation. I started utilizing this idea in my school essays and made teachers laugh. I started thinking: maybe I could be a writer?

If asked, how would you yourself describe this novel?

I would like to say it is an entertainment system for the whole family, but it is definitely too dark for children. For me, it’s a blend of genres I love. Fantasy from the 80s and 90s, thriller, romance and comedy. With rare spices. I have recently re-found hunting and fishing literature: rooty, down-to-earth stories with endless descriptions of tree leaves shivering in the wind, rivers flowing, and sitting by a camp fire. I guess people normally find these books boring – I used to hunt rabbits with my dad so I am in the target audience – but if you dig deep enough you find crazy stuff, Daniil Harms level absurdity, especially from the early 1900s. Back then nobody talked about green values or endangered species. Back then people killed everything they encountered in the wild. Luckily things have changed since, but I wanted to adopt some of that straightforward attitude towards nature in my novel.

I also added Cormac McCarthy style dialogue which I greatly admire, cliffhangers from Dan Brown and a bunch of other elements. Basically, I wanted to mix ingredients you do not usually see together. I think the combination turned out quite nice.

The book includes quite a lot of magical, mysterious creatures that come from the Finnish mythology; however, those creatures live among the regular people, occasionally disturbing their everyday life and causing absurd situations, but mostly in harmony with each other. Could you elaborate on how you came up with such a concept? Did it require a lot of background research?

I took inspiration from a brilliant Estonian novel Old Barn aka November by Andrus Kivirähk. You can find a couple of direct nods to it in my book. Old Barn is a wonderful fairytale of a village where witches and strange creatures try to get along with one another. The richness of Estonian folklore presented in the book encouraged me to explore ancient Finnish myths. It was like finding a bottomless treasure chest: funny names, ridiculous beings and strange beliefs. Around that time I was also playing a video game called “Witcher III – The Wild Hunt”. It’s a monster hunting game based on the novels and short stories by Andrzej Sapkowski, a Polish writer. I was really impressed with the way the fantastic beasts were embedded into a realistic depiction of medieval life. That game and those stories were a big influence for me alongside Kivirähk’s novel. And yes, to dig all that up took some time and research. I used what I found the way I wanted, modifying creatures and myths to suit my story. I want to emphasize that my novel is not a precise description of any belief system. It is just a collection of stolen things that I have polished and put out for a show.

On more than one occasion I have claimed, as well as discussed with the Finnish writers, that it seems that those who are born and raised in Lapland often already have a distinctive way of writing; it’s usually the language, its rhythm, as well as a special relation to the nature and its cycles that stand out. Would you agree? Do you think that the fact that you come from Northern Finland has influenced your style some way?

I grew up in the middle of nowhere. We had no neighbours. Rugged surroundings and the way people talk there – the parlance is blunt and yet vivid – definitely affected the way I comprehend the world. The presence of nature and the absence of people are such dominant features of the north that they might be the most important factors shaping northern writers.

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

Next I am going to write a science fantasy novel. It features a lonely table tennis player living in a huge spacecraft far away in a distant galaxy. The inspiration comes from the film Howl’s Moving Castle by Hayao Miyazaki. I’ve already made some sketches and I am really happy with how the story is coming together.

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?
Joutava (Eng. ‘useless’). It sounds nice.

What is your least favorite word? 
Pursuta (Eng. ‘brim over with; be bursting with’ ). I have always hated that word and learned to use it just recently.

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally? 
Powerful books, comics, movies and paintings.

What turns you off? 
Bad food.

What is your favorite curse word? 
Helevetti (Eng., dialectal ‘hell’).

What sound or noise do you love? 
I love the sound of a really strong wind in the aspen tree leaves.

What sound or noise do you hate?
I hate the sound that a dying rabbit makes.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt? 
I would like to be a cartoonist.

What profession would you not like to do? 
I would not like to be a police or a firefighter.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? 
“It’s OK.”