I’m delighted to welcome Joel Willans to the blog today – he’s a long time friend of the blog and a writer I’ve admired for a while now. His collection, ‘Spellbound: Stories of Women’s Magic Over Men‘ is out now and I’m very much looking forward to reading it. And its cover’s pretty bloody wonderful, don’t you think?
So, here’s Joel talking about living in Finland and how it’s affected his writing. I’ve also got two copies to give away – simply pop a comment below and I’ll draw the names in a week’s time. Over to Joel…
Northern Exposure: Why Finland is a fiction wonderland
Ask most people outside of Scandinavia what they know about Finland and you’ll get one answer. It’s damn cold. It might not be much, but at least it’s true. There aren’t many places on earth where your eyelashes freeze together and your beard turns into crunchy icicle moss after just five mercury-bashing minutes outside.
Still, despite this chill factor, it’s the place I’ve called home for the last eight or so years, and it’s the place that’s helped me to write my first short story collection, Spellbound: Stories of women’s magic over men. I’m not saying every budding novelist or short story writer should jet over to the Land of a Thousand Lakes (187 thousand to be exact) but it worked for me. Here’s why.
You think winters are long where you are? Try living on the top of the world, where the earth spins at a tilt. The darkness just goes on and on and on. In Helsinki, during the Winter Solstice, the sun rises around 9.30 and calls it a day by about 3pm. For the vast majority of professions this sucks. Going to work in the dark, then getting home in the dark makes you feel like one of the undead.
For writers, however, it’s fantastic. No distractions, no desire to leave the cosy confines of your writing den, no mates tempting you with the offer of lunchtime beers. Rather than wince at the glare from your computer screen, you bask in its rich, chemically induced light and semblance of warmth, and thank it for giving you an excuse to stay indoors.
The way of life
In many ways the Finns are a magical people, and it’s easy to see why they were the inspiration for Tolkien’s elves (my wife even has the pointed ears). For a start, it’s only in the last one hundred and fifty years or so they’ve properly moved out of the forest, and they still seem totally at home chillin’ in the wilderness. This independence has produced the characteristic they’re most proud. Called Sisu, it loosely translates as strength of will or acting rationally in the face of adversity. It’s a bit like having a stiff upper lip in minus twenty-five. Imagine waking up to find your car buried in snow, every single day, and digging it out without so much as a “bloody hell”.
While admirable, it’s not the Finns’ sisu that has most benefited me as a writer, except perhaps in the early days when my stories were still read despite being breathtakingly bad. It’s their incredible honesty. When you read a story to a Finn and they think it’s rubbish, they tell you. It’s impossible for them to do otherwise. It’s probably this characteristic that makes Finland consistently top Transparency International’s list of the least corrupt countries and Finns such fantastic critics.
I’m Suffolk born and bred. For anyone who’s been to East Anglia it’s easy to see why we’re known as tractor boys and carrot crunchers. I’m happy to admit I’ve driven a farm vehicle and eaten root vegetables, quite possibly at the same time. If you read Spellbound, you’ll see my countryside upbringing runs as clearly through its pages as newly ploughed furrow. Turns out, though, I’m not so rustic as I thought.
In Suffolk there are one hundred and ninety two people living in every square kilometer. In Finland there are sixteen. While Suffolk is like a beautiful well-kept garden, Finland, the least densely populated country in the EU, is bear-might-eat-you wilderness. What this means for writers is that you don’t have to go to a craggy fisherman’s cottage in Cornwall or a converted windmill in Cork for some solitude. You just go for a walk.
To write a short story collection about women’s magic over men, you need to like women, and I’m one of their biggest fans. Putting aside the obvious animal instincts, which leave us men so easily enchanted, I really enjoy women’s ways of thinking. In fact, I’m strongly of the opinion the world would be far less screwed up if women were at the helm. Most of the female characters in Spellbound epitomise this philosophy. Simply put, they don’t take any shit.
Many of these female characters are Finnish, and it’s no coincidence they fit so comfortably into these roles. Finland was the second country in the world to give women the vote. It was the first country in the world to simultaneously have a female president and prime minister. And it was the first place I ever saw a women kill a fish with her bare hands. Finnish women are beautifully hardcore and one in particular has been the best critic, muse, editor and fish slaughterer any man could ask for.
Is the end result of all this darkness, honesty, solitude and female company any good? I hope so, but the only way I can truly tell is if you read my book and let me know. Signed, thermally wrapped, copies from the far north can be found right here.
Don’t forget to leave a comment if you’d like to win in with a chance of winning yourselves a copy.