Interview with Pirkko Saisio

The “grand old troublemaker of Finnish fiction”, Pirkko Saisio, answers HLA’s questions.

Your most recent book Prevarications is a mix of many various genres: fiction and metafiction, essay, memoirs, theatre, polemic… It is quite personal, too – the word “confessions” is right there in the title for a reason. Doesn’t it feel rather dangerous to play with the boundaries of autofiction, to write so intimately?

Prevarications is not a first auto-fictional work for me. It doesn’t really feel dangerous; rather, it is a certain way of painting your own portrait, continuously refining and deepening it. The fiction part is mostly overlapping memories – combining them into entities that crystallise a certain reality more precisely than the real life, so to speak. For me, such dramaturgic way embodies observations of sensations, short instances of realisations and their conclusions. And in such cases, memory is unpredictable. Forgetting is a rule, remembering is an exception.

Finnish writer Timo K. Mukka used to say that “love and death are the only things worth writing about; all the others are secondary”. I thought a lot about this sentence while reading your book. It felt that, despite all the humor, absurd situations, true and imaginary events and people, there is always love and certain gloominess somewhere between the lines of those essays – something that comes with life long and passionately lived. Would you agree with Mukka’s thought?

Love and death as the only essential, or at least, one of the most essential themes in art wasn’t probably an invention of Timo K. Mukka. I have read it as Tchekhov’s way of understanding literature – and it isn’t even certain that he invented it, either. I too think that love and death are the most important themes, and when love is experienced at its deepest, death immediately and inevitably becomes present as well. I myself don’t see its presence as a gloomy, sad thing – I have never seen death that way, even as a child. Death illuminates love with its bright light. The presence of death makes the moment of love unique.

You’ve been working in theatre and writing for it most of your life, and dramaturgic structure truly shows in your fiction, too. Was theatrical background also the reason why you began experimenting with metafiction, “talking” directly to your characters or readers?

Usually, my prose develops from one scene to another, and there is always a strong sense of tension in those scenes – at least that is what I pursue. Drama lives off the tension that is created by contradictions – either those between persons, or inside a person, or between a person and the world, i. e. circumstances. In drama, this is inevitable, and because any kind of communal work I have done took place in theatre, it is possible it has travelled from there to my prose (I have graduated from acting studies).

However, meta-levels in Prevarications don’t necessarily have anything to do with theatre. I was interested in writing a book where the reader could follow author’s choices in real time; it is a writing process slit open. Because writing, really, consists of constant choices, doubts, withdrawals and new tries. Writers often say that the characters of books or plays begin to live their own lives in spite of the author. This accurately describes what a writer feels in the moment of creative success. The fact is that writers probably have a much deeper knowledge and intuition when it comes to qualities of their characters than they actually consciously realise. When a writer, for example, tries to make a character act according to the thematics of the book, writer’s own subconscious raise obstacles that don’t let that happen; instead of listening to the author’s wishes, characters choose their own paths. That’s how organic literature is born.

At times, it also seems that Prevarications is an ironic portrayal of artists in general – with all those big feelings, passions, uncertainties, indecisiveness. Do you think that this stereotype of an artist and bohemian life might nowadays be a little exaggerated? That, for instance, especially young people are often trying to be this turbulent mess, because they think it is the only way to create great art?

I am not sure if Prevarications is an ironic portrayal of artists in particular. Perhaps, it is an – partly – ironic portrayal of passion and love. For, if you think about it, falling in love makes everything significant, deeper and clearer. For an outsider, confessions of an enamoured, or simply a presence of a couple who is in love, is just the most boring experience. The passion of the enamoured is not usually targeted at the brilliant qualities of their love object, but at things that might seem trivial for the outsider: a curve of a neck; a way to brush hair from their face; a slight huskiness in their voice; dimples in their cheeks and so on. A passionate account of such things might be met with a hidden yawning by a polite listener – so yes, there is a warm irony in it. But I don’t feel I write stereotypes about artists. Maybe I have written a stereotype about myself. I assure you, it is not even that much exaggerated.

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

At the moment, I am working on a film script – the first draft is done – and on a libretto for the Finnish National Opera.

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?
Pitkänhuiskea (a Finnish adjective to describe someone who is tall and lean – HLA).

What is your least favorite word?
Jaxuhalit (internet talk; an allegedly “cute” word to say someone is sending hugs to help the other person keep going on – HLA) 

What turns you on creatively, spiritually or emotionally?
A collision of two unrelated things. For instance, cedar forests of Lebanon and a line overheard in a tram: “You are such a delicate writing I wipe such people out with a rubber.” Such collisions give birth to musical associations.

What turns you off?
Predictable things and reactions onstage, if I myself am in the audience.

What is your favorite curse word?
Fucking legendaarinen (“fucking legendary”).

What sound or noise do you love?
A woman’s voice – a melodic contralto.

What sound or noise do you hate?
Soundtracks in shops.

What profession other than your own would you like to attempt?
Entomologist’s. Insects are only communal creatures, they don’t live by one. Different types of insects have different ways of surviving, that are clear analogies to the problems and solutions in people’s communities.

What profession would you not like to do?
Being a president would be boring: no real power, only the prestige demanded by voters, and lots of trivial events where you would have to look very interested.

If Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates?
“Finally, you are here; what took you so long?”