I am a huge fan of Finnish author Antti Tuomainen and his new release, Little Siberia, only confirms to me his status as ‘King of Helsinki Noir’. The translation of Little Siberia by David Hackston is also excellent.
Fargo meets Nietzsche in this atmospheric, darkly funny thriller by the critically acclaimed author of The Man Who Died and Palm Beach Finland. A huge Finnish bestseller, Little Siberia topped both literary and crime charts in 2018, and has gone on to sell rights in 24 countries.
I’m honoured to have been given the opportunity to pose a few questions to the author about his newest dark crime thriller, which is also a hilarious, blacker-than-black comedy about faith and disbelief, love and death, and what to do when bolts from the blue – both literal and figurative – turn your life upside down.
I think Antti’s answers are intelligent, revealing and very helpful to thriller writers as well as readers of Nordic Noir.
The characters in your books are quite unique, but very well drawn. In LITTLE SIBERIA, we have an ex-army pastor who’s now a village priest, a former rally driver with an alcohol problem, a shop and a gym owner, both burdened with their own secrets, plus a seductive woman who runs the all-day bar in the village. All of these characters have great flaws but are also likeable. Can you give us any tips on how to develop such excellent and conflicted characters?
A: Thank you for this question. It is much appreciated. The way I write and tell a story is very much character-based. I always start with a character or several characters – usually at least two. To me, character is the plot. Well, not character only, but character AND her/his problem. That’s my basic building block. Whenever I get a grip on the character and the problem therein, I know I can start writing. But that usually takes a while. To me, it’s important to see the character from all sides. We’re all good and bad, we have our shortcomings and our strengths. No one is all good. (Some people probably are all bad, but they don’t make very interesting fictional characters because they only can do one thing.)
I once heard or read somewhere that we all have a goal or a dream that our better self is striving towards and at the same time we have another self that is doing everything it can to stop us from reaching that. It might be true, and I do think that it also applies very well to creating characters. In addition to the outer conflicts, I want the characters to make their own inner journeys, coming out on either side.
One other aspect of good/interesting characters is that they come alive on page. How they hold a glass, how they talk, how they dress, which way they look when they cross a street. These can mean so much. Elmore Leonard taught me so much about this. He could do all that in a couple of short sentences and you’d go, ‘yeah, I know that guy’.
Q: It feels as if the small village in Northeastern Finland, Hurmevaara, is also one of the characters in your book. The darkness, the cold, the ever-falling snow, the icy treacherous roads and the vast, star-filled sky help and hinder our ecclesiastical hero, Joel, in equal measure. When you are writing, do you plan to make the place so significant in your books, or is it the stark beauty of the Finnish landscape that makes the setting difficult to ignore?
A: I try to make the setting a character in the story. And the setting can be vital: if done well, it can even set the tone for the entire story. And I love a little poetry in the descriptions so I do my best to create settings that are as vivid and strong as possible. This is also something I learned from reading. Two writers that come to mind are Lawrence Block and James Lee Burke. For Block, it’s New York, for Burke it’s New Orleans. They both do it so well.
Q: The plots in all of your books are very intricate. Do you plan the action in detail before you write, or does it develop as you go from scene to scene?
A: It’s a mix of both. I try to plan ahead but I often change my mind. I trust my characters. As I said above, the characters are the plot. I try to let them surprise me as much as possible, but they’re not in charge, of course. Sometimes I know where I’m headed, but don’t know how to get there. Sometimes it’s the other way around. Having said all that, I do always have a rough idea of the story arc in my head. It’s sort of an instinctive, grand-scale idea of how the story goes, and at what point certain things will happen and need to happen.
Q: Your books are translated into several languages. The English translation is written by David Hackston, one of the best Finnish to English translators working at the moment, in my opinion. How much involvement do you have with the translators? Do you meet (online or in-person) and discuss the book, or do you just let them get on with it?
A: I have been very fortunate with translators. I wouldn’t say I have very much involvement. But I do answer questions by email, sometimes meet a translator, sometimes comment a translation. Most languages that I’m translated into I can’t of course read, so I have to trust the translator. But as I said, I have been very fortunate. From what I hear, the translations are by and large wonderful.
Q: Is there going to be a sequel to LITTLE SIBERIA? I certainly would love to read more about Joel the priest and the people of Hurmevaara. If not, can I ask what are you working on at the moment?
A: Thank you so much for saying that. But no, at least not at the moment. I’m now writing something completely new. It’s a book about the truly important things in life: love, death and insurance mathematics. It’s a very black comedy and a crime novel. The book will be published in Finland in September 2020.
Finnish Antti Tuomainen was an award-winning copywriter when he made his literary debut in 2007 as a suspense author. In 2011, Tuomainen’s third novel, The Healer, was awarded the Clue Award for ‘Best Finnish Crime Novel of 2011’ and was shortlisted for the Glass Key Award. Two years later, in 2013, the Finnish press crowned Tuomainen the ‘King of Helsinki Noir’ when Dark as My Heart was published. With a piercing and evocative style, Tuomainen was one of the first to challenge the Scandinavian crime genre formula, and his poignant, dark and hilarious The Man Who Died (2017) became an international bestseller, shortlisting for the Petrona and Last Laugh Awards. Palm Beach Finland (2018) was an immense success, with The Times calling Tuomainen ‘the funniest writer in Europe’.