An Interview with Author Heikki Hietala
And, of course, he is a writer, too. With a full-length novel and numerous short stories to his credit, Heikki is no slouch when it comes to producing engaging and emotional work.
I reviewed his novel, Tulagi Hotel here on the blog last year. Have a look and see if it's the sort of thing you think you might enjoy.
And now, without further ado, here's my interview with Heikki Hietala.
First, the obvious question: You're a Finn, writing in English. Does this provide any particular challenges for you? Give us an idea of what those challenges are.
To me the challenge must be sounding real in dialogue. You can work on the descriptive stuff and the storyline quite easily even if you’re not native, but dialogue demands a lot of effort and much listening to natives in movies and on TV.
I also seem to have had a credibility issue – no one took me seriously when I first published Tulagi Hotel, but that looks like it’s been fixed when people read my short stories too. These days I rarely get comments on the language issue.
Prior to this short story collection, you wrote a novel, Tulagi Hotel. Which form do you find more challenging to write – short stories or novels?
That’s hard to say. I started Tulagi as a shot in the dark, not really trying to write a book, but rather to see if I could do it at all. I didn’t pay any attention to form, only function was necessary for me at that stage. I also cheerfully ignored any rules that novel-writing may have, for which I did get some feedback later.
With short stories it is different. Especially in Flash fiction where you only have 500 words to do the situation, persons, plot, and all that; you really need to pay attention to keeping everything down to the absolute minimum. I enjoy that very much, because it adds a level of challenge to the storytelling.
Your narrative style is rather concise – do you think this affects your choice to write more short stories than novels?
I tend to be concise in any case, and I like short stories just as much as I do novels. But the selection between short and long form is unique to writing – if you start building a wardrobe of oak, you usually wind up with a wardrobe, not a desk; but in writing, a story may start off as a novel and get whittled down to a novella or even a long short story.
Do you think writing in Finnish would lead you to writing more expansively?
Not really. I have always admired people who can use few words to say much. In Finnish literature there are many such people, of which little is known globally, but my very favorite author in Finnish is Veikko Huovinen, whose short stories are all-encompassing, compassionate, economical in words, and still very funny. Were I to write in Finnish, I’d pay much attention to this, as it is very easy to ramble on in Finnish and that’s what I totally dislike.
Who (or what) is your favorite character you've written, so far?
That’d have to be Don Wheeler of Tulagi Hotel. He has features of ex-colleagues and some of my friends and I believe I got his character built quite solidly. Don was vital to the book, because Jack is a very timid character and he needed a counterpart who had a certain joie de vivre and a recklessness that Jack could envy.
Some of your readers have suggested that your style of writing is quite nostalgic in tone. Do you agree with that assessment?
Absolutely. I am a member of Year Zero Writers, which is a band of avant-garde authors, and I’ve said my writing is like playing rhythm in their band – I want to be the solid background on which their new-style writing really shines, and I hope to provide a balance that is old-fashioned. I’ve also read a lot of books that are.
Have you found yourself trying to create the same sort of atmosphere in your short stories as you did in Tulagi Hotel? Do you give any thought to that as you write?
Atmosphere depends on the idea of the story, but yes, I do aim for something that is tangible and believable. I think my best efforts in that sense are “The Campsite vol. 1” and “Filtered Light”. Creating an atmosphere is sometimes so easy, and in other stories it takes more effort than the storyline. I work very hard on this, as I myself like to read stories with well-crafted worlds.
Where/When do you do your best writing?
I would like to think the best is yet to come; however, some stories appeared out of nowhere and went from conception to final stage in a day, some (like a Scifi story I am working on now) may take months of see-sawing between “this is how it’ll go” and “no one will believe that for a nanosecond”. The ones that came out clean were usually written just at home, it’s more a question of how complete the story is when I start writing, as I can write in sentence-length snippets if more time is not available at any one time.
Do you plan on writing another novel, or do you think you'll stick to shorter pieces?
I am working on two books, one a mainstream fiction and the other a YA horror story involving 3D design and a haunted hospital. But I also have more than 20K words in shorties that I am working on, so my meager writing time is by default divided between full length and short work. That’s one of the plus sides of writing in my mind, the ability to switch projects merely by switching Word files.
You've created some interesting characters in all of your stories – almost heroic archetypes in some, sensitive everymen in others. How do you go about developing your characters, and how much of yourself do you put into them?
I tend to observe behavior wherever I go, and try to figure out why people act the way they do. They’re the best source of material even if I can’t really know what they are thinking. But when you write almost 200,000 words of what happens to people, you have to use whatever sources are at hand. I’ve also used some of my own features (no, I won’t tell where) and those of my friends, but never to a degree of actually modeling some character on any single person.
Who do you consider your influences in your writing life?
They are many, but let me list Nevil Shute for novel writing, and Roald Dahl, HP Lovecraft, Robert Heinlein, Stanislaw Lem and Arthur C. Clarke for scifi. For my real life and humour attempts, I’d say Veikko Huovinen, the sadly untranslated Finnish master of the form.
What inspired you to write in the first place?
I can’t really say. I just happened to start writing one day and have not looked back - I have got so much out of this rollercoaster ride that I will just keep on working with writing. I am not one of the people who say, “I’ll become an author and I will write a book now” – in fact I do not think you become an author by deciding to become one. You become an author through gradual development and acceptance of your work.
What one lesson have you learned from your experiences in publication that you would like to share with aspiring writers?
That must be the fact that you can only write to please yourself, and any other people that are pleased with your work are a bonus. When you stay true to your own voice, it becomes louder and easier to pick up by readers, and if it doesn’t happen that you land on the bestseller list, at least you did your best and gave yourself a chance to be heard.