Interview with Johanna Sinisalo -- Troll follow up

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Post Fri Aug 07, 2009 2:28 pm

Interview with Johanna Sinisalo -- Troll follow up

Preface wrote:Thanks to the members who submitted questions for the interview with Troll: A Love Story author Johanna Sinisalo. Questions were submitted or suggested by myself (Jason M. Robertson), Allan Rosewarne and Michael Tax. My gratitude to Johanna Sinisalo for agreeing to this interview, and giving us these perceptive and intriguing responses. The interview follows:


Reading Group: After Martes learns Michelangelo has taken in a troll, he berates him by asserting a link between bestiality and pedophilia. The novel slowly seems to reveal a case for troll personhood, undermining the first claim, but the question of pedophilia appears to remain. Both accusations are very charged within the history of the oppression of gay and lesbian people. How might you want readers to approach Michelangelo's pedophilia-tinged transgression within the context of his relationship to Pessi?

Johanna Sinisalo: This is a tough one, because it is something that may be lost in translation. As I had never any idea this particular book was going to be translated into any other language, I did not avoid puns and some other playful things with Finnish language and cultural heritage. In Finnish, the word that means "beast" or "carnivorous animal", is in plural "pedot". And Martes, a wise-ass as he is, asserts indeed a link between "pedot" and "pedophilia". The translation seems to link bestiality with pedophilia with utterly different kind of nuances it had in the original text. - I admit that there may be pedophilic undertones in the relationship (if you want to see them to be there), but this particular comparison was not as straightforward as it seems.

Also, some reviewers have pointed out the idea that Mikael's relationship with Pessi is something that - in our contemporary society - is as unnatural and unthinkable as the homosexual relations were just a couple of decades ago, and could, or even should, be judged in that frame of reference. And in my opinion, that really might be something to reflect.

RG: Finland has an enormously active fan community, with estimates for Finncon attendance this year running as high as 15,000. What sort of appeal do you think Troll has for fans? Is it intended as a text with a special appeal to the fannish community beyond that attention which it might garner in mainstream literary circles?

JS: I was a very active fan of the sf community before this first novel of mine (winning the national sf/f award for short stories quite regularly), but I did not aim the novel for the sf market at all. In every country it has been translated into the local language, it has not been marketed for sf audience, either - it's been always labeled as "contemporary fiction". As the novel won the most prestiged literary award in our country, the Finlandia Prize, in 2000, it really was a some kind of a breakthrough in Finland, where realism has been labeled for the only "right" kind of literature for ages.

RG: [Michael Tax has] met several Finnish science fiction fans at Worldcons, particularly 2005 in Glasgow. All of them raved about your book and promoted it's English translation. English language science fiction writers only seem to care about getting their works translated into other languages, but there is rarely a call for more speculative fiction works original to other languages. This is our loss. Please outline some of the obstacles to procuring an English translation for a Finnish writer of great merit, and how can this situation be changed for the better?

JS: One of the main reasons Finnish literature - being speculative or not - is rarely translated to other languages, is the lack of skilled translators. We have only a handful of real professionals, who grasp the nuances of the language and the cultural background of Finnish history, and there may be a queue of years to have some translation time to be booked! Finnish is a very difficult language to learn thoroughly, and the only way to change it for the better is to somehow enchant skilled people to find the richness and versatility of our language (and the cultural aspects). In my personal opinion, I have got the best results when the translator has been from a bi-lingual family (like my French translator), who has grasped the both languages since childhood.

RG: Many reviews of the new Sasha Baron Cohen film are quite negative, mostly for his depiction of a cliched (uber-)homosexuality. Many of the characters in Troll are homosexual, and many of them make very bad decisions. I feel that your story provides reasons for this; but how careful must one be in writing for minorities, objects of abusive relationships, and dependent personalities? Or is political correctness less important to a writer as long as characterization rings true and elements of plot adequate explanation? And congratulations on winning the 2004 Tiptree award.

JS: I have never thought that the political correctness should be my guide in writing. If you really want to be politically correct, there should never be characters like a bird-brained blonde, a criminal black, a limp-wristed gay or a butch truck-driver lesbian in your fiction. But these kinds of people do, actually, exist, live and breath, in the real world, however. I do not think that the homosexuals in Troll are total cliches. One of them has been married and has had children in a heterosexual relationship, and no one of them is, in my opinion, a caricature. I chose to write of homosexual characters, because the book it is very much about power structures. In a homosexual relationship you may see the shifts and changes in the power play of the characters much more clearly, when there are no gender presuppositions there. -- In fact, I think that Sasha Baron Cohen has done sometimes a magnificent job, impersonating himself as a cliché and thus enticing people to show their own true nature.

RG: Reading the frequent background stories, journal entries, and scientific papers interspersed between alternating first person narratives was a lot of fun. How much research did you have to do to come up with these entries. Are many of them copied from original sources and doctored appropriately, or did you make them all up?

JS: A lot of them are genuine. Let's say that a third of them are genuine, a third genuine but a bit doctored, and a third totally made up. It delights me that no one has ever been able to tell me (in all) which ones are which :-). E.g. the piece of the felines in a zoo that got aroused by a scent of Calvin Klein was genuine - imagine that!

I did an immense amount of research. Our national folklore is very rich and very different compared to e.g. Anglo-Saxon heritage. Did you know, that J.R.R. Tolkien himself derived themes and ideas from the Finnish folklore? Some of my findings helped a lot in building the actual appearance and habits of the troll species. For example, the folk tale that tells that trolls turn into stone when exposed to daylight, possesses a similitude to certain animals who go to catatonic state when threatened.

RG: Finland seems to straddle cultural boundaries, bordering Scandinavian Sweden and Slavic Russia. Outside of the troll mythos explored in Troll, how does this cultural heritage inform Finnish writing?

JS: This is a very interesting question. I have the feel that the Finnish people are somehow an emotional cross-breed between the Swedish (clean-cut, civilized, very Western, cheery, over-democratic, always having a committee deciding over matters) and the Slavic (unpredictable, near-to-the-nature, heavy-drinking, melancholic, a little barbaric, trusting on the strong individuals in community, keeping their own minds). I do not know how this, actually, influences our writing, but it is clear that In Finnish writing the nature/civilization dichotomy seems to play a big part, and war traumas, and the great sympathy for underdogs. I do recommend to all who want to probe the Finnish mindset, to read the "Dedalus Book of Finnish Fantasy", edited by yours truly.

RG: In our book discussion, someone mentioned that another group's [Think Galactic's] interpretation of Troll's story is that "it was all about the pheromones." I [Michael Tax] initially dissented, but on further thought the pheromone device does unite the plot well in explaining any given character's tendency to forego rational thought in favor of chasing their "passions." I wonder what current research might say about pheromones as providing motivation to individual behavior. Or is this purely a clever speculative fiction conceit to tell a great story?

JS: Actually, I do think that a very many ways of our behaviour is from a biological origin, and we just tend to rationalize it. E.g., the pheromone thing is quite well (but not thoroughly) researched. You perhaps know of the experiment, where women in fertile age were seated in an empty movie theater (they were allowed to choose freely their seats), and, after they had left the place, men in fertile age were allowed to freely choose their respective seats. The most popular seats that were chosen were of those women, who were in their most fertile phase. Should I tell more? -- Of course, I exaggerated a bit, like one should in speculative fiction, but there is a solid scientific proof that we do not always know what is driving us.

RG: In Troll erotic love is always found in combination with exploitation and manipulation. In our reading people were divided on the significance of this. One school believes that the behavior is representative of the pheromonal influence; the second, that the novel is a black comedy that exaggerates the way we all use one another; the third, that the novel is a grim and direct indictment of all human relationships founded in erotic love; and further, other readers expressed complete confusion. Is erotic love beyond redemption? Is Troll an indictment against it?

JS: Earlier, I did mention that the book is very much about power structures. Homo sapiens is a hierarchical pack animal. It's in our genes to seek the alpha position in the pack. All the manipulation and using one another is based on that. And, yes - that creates black comedy.

RG: Stepping away from Troll: you've been announced as the writer for the Finnish science fiction film Iron Sky. You have a substantial list of television writing credits as well. How do you feel that your work writing for collaborative and interpretive modes like film and television compares to straightforward literary writing?

JS: I have this analogy which seems to be quite illustrative. Let's say writing a novel or writing a movie (or tv series) script is like building a house. If I'm writing a novel, i go into the woods, take my axe and saw and start falling down the trees. I have a sort of a plan, on a piece of paper, but the house is all of my responsibility. If the roof leaks or if the floor is not level, that's my fault. But the house is mine, all mine, and all its faults (and nice, or, even genial, qualities) are for mine to boast.

To write a script, there is a house to be built, but it's like you were employed to an architectural planning office. There's someone who has ordered a certain kind of a house to be built, and you have to follow these orders. There's a budget and a limit of materials you may use. There's a certain market for the house. There's a big team, and financiers, and producers, who all have an opinion what the house should look like. And, finally, you and your team produce just the blueprints. Not the final house - because after producing the blueprints, there comes in a BIG team, and they do not consult you, with all their different opinions and ideas (directors, actors, music makers, prop people, set designers, editors, you name them), and then they build the house. Sometimes it resembles your original idea, sometimes it's something so distorted you never want to see it again :-).
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Post Fri Aug 07, 2009 6:20 pm

Re: Interview with Johanna Sinisalo -- Troll follow up

Very interesting!
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Post Sun Aug 09, 2009 12:13 pm

Re: Interview with Johanna Sinisalo -- Troll follow up

Great interview!

Although I really dislike the genre of the book (black comedy); I freely admit the auther skillfully accomplished her goals. I loved her responses; which leads me to ask if more than just one pun was lost in translation. For example, I thought some of the scientific papers did not have the sentence complexity or tone I would expect in academic writing. I now suspect this was not missing in the original Finnish.
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Post Thu May 27, 2010 10:47 am

Re: Interview with Johanna Sinisalo -- Troll follow up

SF Signal interviews Johanna Sinisalo.

Written before now
genre of the book (black comedy)
, Troll is WHAT?
Allan Rosewarne
Ahira's Hangar
W/T they are forever

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