Interview with Piia Leino

Dubbed the dystopian visionary of Finnish literature, the award-winning author Piia Leino answers HLA’s questions.

Your second novel, the winner of the EU Prize for Literature as well as Helsinki Metropolitan Library Literature Prize, Heaven raised quite a lot of attention among the Finnish readers. It was praised for the topical issues it handles and credibility when portraying a grim future of our society. Could you tell a little bit more about the beginnings: how did you end up writing a futuristic novel?

I wanted to capture the atmosphere and light of rainy, but still beautiful Helsinki of the future. After some dark winters with a little snow I was worried about climate change. My children loved snow so much and I understood the possibly of their children not being able to make snow castles anymore. I knew from the beginning that Heaven would be a love story and there would be a virtual paradise called Heaven, where people could do things they can’t do in the reality anymore. The plot took shape when I wrote. I started the story all over again many times and it took five years to finish it. Every version was better, but I wanted it to be perfect. I think that nowadays we produce so many things in poor quality that it is luxury to be able to do something excellent. During those years I also worked as a journalist, studied writing and published another novel, a funny reality show parody called Ugly Cashier.

Heaven is often described as dystopian literature. In the recent years, dystopia genre has increased significantly in Finland. In your opinion, why do we need books like that? Is it a form of social message, or perhaps, a personal cry of anguish and worry for the world’s state?

We can’t predict the future because it doesn’t exist yet, so the stories of the future are actually about the society of today. Dystopias can help us to see what we should avoid and cherish, and that there are many potential paths to the future. Maybe dystopias are so popular right now because of the climate change and other environmental problems that had forced us to see that our actions have the consequences that shape the future. In the past we waited for the future to come, but now we realize that we are creating it. Maybe we have grown up.

One of the most powerful aspects of Heaven is depiction of nation-wide apathy: nobody interacts with each other, nobody even looks at each other, no babies are born, even the shortest distances seem wearing, a slightest move requires the most of one’s efforts. Do you feel this sort of apathy prevails nowadays too, in our society?

Partly, yes. Birth rate has collapsed in many countries, also in Finland, and more and more people are living alone. In my story, people spend their time in the virtual paradise Heaven, and many of us spend a lot of time on social media, Netflix and Youtube. One of the messages in my book is that relationships with others are the hardest thing we have to face, but still, the real life is worth all the trouble. Escape is not an answer.

Your debut novel The Ugly Cashier – a satirical portrayal of reality TV and stereotypical images in society – is quite opposite to Heaven in terms of style and mood; however, it still approaches a lot of similar societal issues. What topics are the most important to you personally that you try to tackle through your writing? Would you call yourself a somewhat political writer?

I have studied social sciences and am very interested in how people behave in groups. Ugly Cashier and Heaven represent different genres but I think that they are also similar in some parts. Both of them have an exciting plot and bigger questions under the surface. I love questioning the conventional truths. Ugly Cashier laughs at superficiality of our society and our efforts to cover it up. We say appearance is not important and at the same time, our behaviour tells the opposite. Also in Heaven I tried to find new perspectives. As a journalist I am often quite frustrated by fragmented knowledge. In one news story we mourn weak economic growth and in another we understand that over-consumption is destroying the earth. Social media encourages us to keep things simple because there is no room for complicated truths. In the novel there is more room for complexity and it can make people think outside the conventional boundaries.

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

My next novel, Overtime (Yliaika), will be published next spring. Like Heaven, Overtime is also set in 2050s Helsinki, but it’s a completely different story about death, politics and choices we make. Heaven and Overtime are asking different “what if” questions, just like HBO’s Black Mirror does in every episode. I constantly write or plan new stories and I think it’s a great way to live. It’s also a pleasure to see how your own stories find new audiences. Rights to Heaven have been sold to six countries, and it’s exciting to see what happens next.

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?
Kesäsade (summer rain). It’s impossible to say it without seeing the green and smelling the fresh air.

What is your least favorite word?
Lähtökohtaisesti (hard to translate, quite the same as “in principle”). I hate nonsense. Often the official language means nothing, but people use it so that others don’t notice how little they say.

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
Nature: forests, lakes, light. Beautiful architecture. Poetry, Finnish language.

What turns you off?
Rush, deadlines, conversation culture in Twitter.

What is your favorite curse word?
Vittu (usually translated as “fuck”, but actually means vulva). In the old days people believed that female genitalia had magical powers and it’s interesting that this still is the most popular curse word in Finland.

What sound or noise do you love?
Thunder and almost all other sounds of nature. My singing daughter.

What sound or noise do you hate?
Traffic. TV and radio if I don’t choose to hear them.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Writing teacher, screenwriter, photographer.

What profession would you not like to do?
Any kind of driver.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
“Any questions? I can answer them all.”