Interview with Niina Miettinen

Niina Miettinen answers HLA’s questions about writing and literature.

– For your new novel, Wild Rosemary, you have chosen a very particular background: a multi-layered and complex family story takes place in Eastern Finland in the 1970s. Any particular reason for that?

Eastern Finland is my landscape, I grew up there.

First of all, I always write very associatively. I hold on to memories and visions, and I give the lead to the things that want to become visible. I need to feel a certain tension related to the characters and things. My starting point is often something that I have experienced personally.

The marsh, lake, spruce fence and forested hills – in Wild Rosemary the landscape plays a big role, and it is not just a material setting but it also describes the people, how they talk and act. To depict the setting strongly, I need to know it thoroughly.

– The story involves quite many characters – the three siblings, also Sasa, Katja – all connected by one charming woman, Olga… They all take turns; they all get to become the main character at least for a while. Yet, the plot flows smoothly and captivates its reader till the very last page. How did you come up with the idea for a sort of ‘family saga’? Where did these characters come from to you?

I’m interested in the tensions within family. Siblings may be very different from each other. And quite often a new family member, for example someone’s partner, changes the dynamics within the family and evokes emotion.

Through Hannu, Olga becomes a part of a small community and family that have certain kind of norms and many forbidden things. Olga doesn’t care about the norms, she is free – but restless. Her arrival provokes change in all the siblings.

– The entire book is coloured with a melancholic, even fatal note. As if you were trying to say that people often know – at least subconsciously – what is good for them, which choice is right. Yet, for some reason, they still don’t act accordingly. Is this what you really tried to observe through this novel? Or perhaps, you had other messages?

Unconscious choices – those are the most fascinating ones. Perhaps I wanted to show that relationships are not simple. Or at least that some encounters are so strong that you cannot just ignore them – even if that seemed to be the right way to do it.

I see a lot of warmth and humour between the characters, and I think that for many of them, life will turn out well. Every one of them wants to be seen and accepted, and when that happens, they will flourish – just as one of the siblings, Anja, eventually does.

When I was writing Israel Girl, my grandma passed away, and that affected the novel. When I was writing Wild Rosemary my great-aunt, who was very important to me, passed away. It was comforting that I was able to write and commemorate them as a part of the story.

– The great Finnish cinema director, Aki Kaurismäki, once said that all the serious directors are always exploring the same topics from one film to another. Wild Rosemary is a very different novel comparing to your previous one, Israel Girl, the latter containing exotic backgrounds and adventurous storylines. Still, one can observe some thematic similarities between the two: big hopes and dreams, fear, uncertainty, even running away… What to you are the most important themes that you try to approach through writing?

I don’t think about the topics when I’m writing but I’ve noticed that I always come back to similar themes. I’m interested in the inner conflict, where a person wants something but lacks the courage to reach for it or feels ashamed. I recognise this in myself, too.

Also, the change where the character Hannu sets free from his sexual shame and self-criticism related to his art, is powerful; it is like rebirth.

Symbols inspire me. In both of my novels a bear is the symbol of sexuality. In Wild Rosemary there are many plants and flowers. Even just the plant wild rosemary is a strong symbol for Olga’s personality.

– Which one is harder to write: the first or the second book? Why?

Writing is always hard, and I don’t even think that it should be easy. When I began to write my second novel, I already had a publisher and an editor, who were waiting for my new script. Also, the positive feedback for my first novel encouraged me to write.

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

I also write for theatre and radio drama. Right now, I’m writing a play called Five ways to be free.

I have a topic for my third novel in my mind. The first-person narrator is a man and the plot is set in the 1930s. I’m going to dig into the archives.

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 favourite word?
Valo. Light.

What is your least favourite word?
Marraskuu. November.

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Deadlines. Friendly, supportive words. My landscape. Visual art, poems. Idle moments.

What turns you off?
Feel of shame. When I’m sure that I can’t do anything right.

What is your favourite curse word?
It’s not my favourite, but it always comes first. Vittu. Fuck.

What sound or noise do you love?
Wind blowing through spruce trees.

What sound or noise do you hate?
Nail biting.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Florist. I would like to bind different kinds of bouquets.

What profession would you not like to do?
I couldn’t be a taxi driver. Orientation is not my strength.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
”Well, you didn’t repent then, but I forgive you.”